Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cuba Pt 2 - La Habana Vieja

Walking the streets of Old Havana, you feel like you have just walked into the past. There is a sort of timeless quality to it. Like you have stumbled upon an old European city that has fallen asleep. The buildings are covered with generations of dust and though the buildings are strong, they show the wear of many years. The once biright colors seem slightly faded. The streets are narrow and uneven. Your feet fall hard on the cobbled stones. Ancient cannons mark the boundaries of the old city and block cars, motorbikes, and bicycles from entering.The breeze is cool but the air is thick.

The buildings may look like they have been sleeping for a hundred years, but the streets are filled with life. From dawn until late into the night the streets are filled with people talking, laughing, and singing. Vendors sell baked goods like fried coconut balls smothered in caramelized sugar. They yell out "Cooooooooco!" and crowds of people swarm to get a taste. Street dogs appear at your feet as if from no where. These pups seem indifferent to both people and each other. They do not beg or bite but merely look up at you with heartbreaking eyes and all you want is to cuddle them. That is until you look closely and see just how dirty they are.

Every morning there is a book market in the Plaza de Armas. The square is packed with tables and shelves of old books and trinkets. Antique camera, military pins, and old coins cover the tables in front of the book shelves. Picture frames feature pre-revolution currency which, as is pointed out by many people, looks surprisingly like the United States currency. The towers of books are filled with histories and biographies of Fidel Castro, Jose Marti, and overwhelmingly, Che Guevara. Occasionally, you can find a book in English like the Constitution of Cuba. The square is wide and fresh air flows in from the Canal de Entrada which lies just beyond a row of buildings. Between the breeze and the shade provided by tall trees in the center of the square, it is easy to peruse the book market for hours and never grow tired.

La Habana Vieja is packed with tiny museums that document much of the history of the city, old automobiles, and military weapons. There are even museums for spices, perfume, and chocolate. There is a museum that features a lighted model of the city with a docent who tells you different facts about the city. In the lobby of this particular museum there are stacks and stacks of old Cuban movie posters from the 1960's. An hour could easily be spent devouring the visual delights from these posters. Graphic designers, feel free to swoon. There are no signs or advertisements for any of these places. They are quite literally, hole-in-the-wall joints. Walking down the street you might see an open door that leads to an art gallery or exhibit. If you aren't one to go poking around, you might never see the wonders that hide in the city.

Between the museums, art galleries, and tourist shops, there are the cafes. Small and unassuming, these place give you the opportunity to really be able to take everything in. The food is simple and delicious. The beer sucks but you don't even care because nothing feels better than going to a cafe for lunch, getting a ham and cheese sandwich, and sipping a Bucanero while you watch people saunter by. Isn't that how you really experience a city? When you just sit and watch? There are caricature artists that come by and for a CUC or two will draw you. Be prepared to be portrayed about fifteen years older than you really are.

Bands of musicians play softly while you eat and its only then that you realize the music you have been hearing, the music that fills the streets, that follows your footsteps is live and coming from these artists. They wander from cafe to cafe, bar to bar playing music and singing songs so beautiful you can't help but stop to listen. The songs they sing seem to be known by everyone around you. Old men hum the tune to themselves while women begin singing along. The women sing as beautifully as the musicians. Young men move to the beat and gently beat the rhythm on their chests and you wonder if the music matches the beating of their hearts.

The Malecon is a stretch of road that runs along the sea into Havana Port. Across the canal you can see la Cabana, the old fort. Back in the old days, soldiers would fire a cannon at 9 pm every night to signal to the people of Havana to extinguish their lights to protect the city from pirate attacks. This ceremony still exists today. Along the Malecon there are hundreds of old Chevrolet cars from the 1950's. Its shocking to see so many American cars, many seemingly in mint condition, lined up to take tourists for a ride. As the sun sets in the west, the clouds and the water are painted in pinks and purples. You stand leaning against the wall, watching the water, and feel the cool ocean breeze on your cheeks.

La Habana Vieja is beautiful and stunning. You are greeted with such sights and sounds, smells and tastes to convince you that you are some place magical and you truly are. But beyond the cannons and the cobblestones and the tourist glam lies a very different Havana...

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