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Without a care in the world
Havana under the clear blue Caribbean skies is poetry of colour

Written by Nargess Shahmanesh
Photographs by Robert Leigh Banks
September 18, 2002
The Iranian

Havana is an unusual place by night. Driving past midnight from the airport towards the old city, all you can see are strange dark figures hovering between old colonial ruins. There are very few streetlights in the Cuban capital. The last communist island is saving where it can, in any way it can. The dim fading pink light, coupled with the crumbling corpse like buildings, gives the grand city an immediate post war visual effect -- perhaps a little spooky to the virgin eye. This is until day breaks.

Under the clear blue Caribbean skies, Havana is an entirely different experience. The Cuban capital is like poetry -- not poetry of words, but that of colour. Havana resembles a film set, it seems staged, unreal. It is a proud city, like an old colonel, who has won many a medals in his youth, but now has been forced into premature retirement. See photos

The main street, Paseo de Mart (Prado), stretches long and wide towards the Atlantic, enclosed on either side by tall, proud trees. Hundreds of magnificent, if crumbling old Spanish colonial buildings face each other on either side, their balconies overlooking the main street. The grand facade of the architecture of power is in comic contrast with the crumbling interior visible from the outside, and the fading pastel coloured paint of the exterior. Time stopped in Havana in 1959, but returned a decade ago.

Against this mad backdrop are the inhabitants of this surreal island. The Cubans. Black, olive, white, mixed, in tight fitting colourful cloths, proudly revealing full flesh. All they seem to be doing is laughing and dancing -- without a care in the world.

One thing is true about Cuba: the sound of music leaps out of every house and every crack in the wall. In one corner an old man in rags dances to the sound of a distance salsa, in another corner a couple of school girls, in mustard coloured mini skirts -- the Havana school uniform -- swing their hips to the Spanish/Caribbean music.

The old city overflows with life, especially on Saturdays. This is a day off for most Cubans and they are out there having fun. Fun in Havana is not that dissimilar to many other capital cities. People stroll down the main shopping street, munching on pizza slices, or licking ice cream while gazing into the new luxury shops, which store a few expensively priced western goods, or using up their few pesos, or dollars in stark Soviet-styled government shopping centres. There is even a shop for washing your dog. And all along in the background is the upbeat sound of the Cuban salsa, and the occasional jazz, or newly found rap.

Off the main street in the old city, like most warm countries, people sit for hours on their doorsteps chatting, gossiping, making croucher shawls and tablecloths for tourists, while listening to the soft sound of music. Inside these neglected buildings people live in small flats, packed with furniture; some even have old television sets, and kitsch ornaments. Peaking through the fading large wooden door of another casa, an old man rests peacefully on a rocking chair. In the courtyard of a neighbouring casa, an amateur boxing school is in session.

With permission (and a $1 bribe) we enter. Young Cuban boys are practicing for the local game. Beyond the gates of another casa is a Saturday school. In the picturesque courtyard, drenched in flowers and delicate draping plants, sit in neat rows fifty-odd mothers and children watching a school play. And on the narrow streets young boys fool around with baseball bats, a game much adored by Fidel, and the game does attracts some 40,000 supporters in Havana.

But then there is another side of Havana. Back in 1982 UNISCO declared La Habana Vieja world heritage site, and has been pouring money into the city. The capital city suffered little during the wars and revolutions of the past 200 years, and the old town is the finest surviving Spanish colonial complex in the Americas. All over town, there are placards on grand buildings under careful construction, with names of European countries such as Belgium, Italy and Spain. In fact much of old Havana has been restored in the last few years.

The newly furbished buildings have largely been made into museums, hotels, hostels and restaurants. Hostel Valencia, for example, sitting in the heart of the old city, could be anywhere in the Andalusia region of Spain in its décor and feel. Rooms overlook a romantic courtyard, plants drape from banisters, and it even has a tapas bar. The main square in the old town has a Venetian feel to it, especially at night. The grand casas of the area have been renovated into more expensive restaurants, which serve food for a Western pallet.

Havana even has a Chinatown: the Barrio Chino. Tucked away in Centro Habana, it is small, and strange. Strange in that it has few if no Chinese in it. This is probably because only 200 or so of the 150,000 of the 19th century Chinese slave labourers remain in the city. Los Tres Chinitos restaurant off the main street in Chinatown, for instance, serves an ensemble of dishes, from vegetable Chow Mein, to Roman lobster. The curvy Cuban waitresses dress in Japanese-styled kimonos. There isn't a single Chinese chef in sight.

There is plenty of art in Havana. Not all good, especially not in the main market on Tacon, near the cathedral. But Casa de Carmen Montilla, in Oficios Street opposite the Iglesia de San Francisco de Asis, houses a mix of contemporary art, as well as a huge ceramic murals by Alfredo Sosabravo, hung in the back of the garden.

There are more interesting treasures to be found a few doors down at Estudio Galeria Los Oficios. Enter the magic garden at the end of the gallery, where the strangely Caribbean sculptures of Nelson Dominguez hide between the wild and exotic landscape. There is a hint of Voodoo in this magical land.

Since the revolution the government has tried to promote different aspects of Cuban culture, including the arts. Art schools, museums and theatre groups where opened all over Cuba. And artists were granted a salary, and a national film industry was established. The result is evident: Cuba has an abundance of fine musicians, artists and performers.

The people of Havana are generally well educated and aware of the world, which has been closed to them for over several generations. "Fidel" (Castro) has done much to return pride and dignity to the people. This is evident in encounters with each Cuban.

It is hard for them, and they have had to make great sacrifices, and are forever being reminded of a world outside which has so much more variety of life to offer. Many leave, still via the horrendous straights of Florida, where their exiled brothers are hungrily waiting to show them the beauties of capitalism. In Cuba they have little to look forward to, as there are no industries, but tourism.

Cuba has changed since Fidel Castro opened the gates to Western tourism. It has become a regular resort for Canadians and Italians, but there are tourists and travellers from all over the world on the island. The bulk of tourism hides on the shores of Varadero, on the north coast, and at other exclusive, all-inclusive tourist resorts, on the Atlantic and Caribbean oceans.

By day, they can be seen in organised tours, walking flag in hand in the main Cuban cities, but at night the cities are mainly occupied with Cubans and the more adventurous travellers.

There is nothing luxurious about the way Cubans live. They are poor, by Western standards, but they are all poor. This is rapidly changing with the new Cuba. It seems that to make it in Cuba nowadays, having contacts within government circles certainly helps.

Cubans get paid the minimum wage -- which should provide them with the basic human needs -- and education and health are free to all. But there is no spare money since the country is being drained by a U.S. embargo, and the ones making the dollars are doing so through the thriving tourist industry. Cuba now has a new growing middle class, born out of this new tourism. And you get the feeling, Cubanas are very at ease with tourism -- it is as if it never went away.

And this is exactly Havana's charm. On the one hand it is one of the oldest remaining colonial cities, a hazy vision into the old Spanish colonial world. On another hand it is a city of memories. Every wall on practically every bar in the old town is covered with photographs of old movie stars, and of its most famous adopted writer, Hemingway.

Hotels such as Sevilla, or Nacional, are practically ghost towns to the seedy world of Al Capone, and his entourage of Mafiosos who had entire floors reserved for their frequent visits to the partying capital of the 40's and 50's. The old Cadillacs and Ford Mustangs, ride with exhaust oozing out of every hole and crack, or sit alone on the dusty sidewalks, polished and shinning.

Walking through the old town at night, you feel like you are walking through the Bronx ghettos in New York City. But then you realise that there are no crack heads or drug addicts on these streets. There is the occasional whiff of marijuana, but no visible drug problem. Fidel allows the drug trade from Columbia to the US to go through his island, but has placed heavy-duty punishment on anyone who dabbles in the trade.

Then there is another side to Cuba, which is the growing sex trade. It is not as obvious as in many of the other Caribbean islands, but it is there, and it is evidently growing with the tourist trade. Nighttime sees young girls emerge arm in arm with old fat Canadians, Germans or sleazy middle-aged Italian punters. But then dollars are increasingly needed to survive on this island.

You get the feeling Havana is ready to burst. Soon Fidel will be gone. The world is waiting in anticipation to see what will become of this once popular island. Cubans are hungry for free trade, they are eager to reunite with the world that left them behind 1959. But they are also keen to hang on to the pride and dignity their parents and grandparents fought and died for in the revolution.

You will see this when you visit the Museo de la Revolucion, but more importantly this is symbolised in the love Cubans have for their adopted Argentinean hero Che Guevara. His picture or a simple 'Viva Che' is scribbled on the most walls, in most towns.

It is not so hard to imagine what will come of Cuba: it is a beautiful island, with an abundance of magnificent beaches, glorious architecture, great music, generous rum cocktails, cheap lobster and lively people. It is a natural tourist magnet, but you can't help hoping it will never loose its pride. See photos

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