I wasn’t prepared for Havana. While Revolution Square is a sensory blight, Old Havana is mostly marvel. And even though it has decayed, and is decaying still, you can nevertheless absorb centuries of Old World wonder. It comes up through the stone in Cathedral Square, and through the dark-with-age rock walls of the nearby monastery. And it hangs in the air of the porticoes and patios of long-gone family mansions.
But Old Havana–colonized by Spaniards as early as 1510 and designated a city in 1592 by Spain’s Prince Philip II and decreed “Key” to the New World–has been forgotten, its fallen walls symbolic of generations of neglect. Only since the USSR’s abandonment, because of its own dismantlement, has Havana been “remembered.” And this, of course, is only because of its “turista peso potential.” You feel conflicted in the knowledge but the pull to see and experience inner Havana leap frogs principle and jump starts the tourist in you.
Walking the narrow “Spanish” streets you will need to navigate the posers. I was completely taken in by the first one I saw. A “classic Cuban,” I thought… dressed in a natty coordinated suit and hat and smoking a cartoon sized cigar. Then, on the next corner was an ancient woman with a caricature scale cigar, and across the street was another creased old man…with a cigar. Take their picture and they’ll ask for a peso. Fair enough. Also, for a peso or two you can have your picture taken with a nubile, olive-skinned girl, clothed in bright layers of saffron and ocher dyed silk…yup, also smoking a cigar the size of a Taber corncob.
On the wharf along the Ave Del Puerto that runs along Old Havana, I tried my few Spanish phrases out on a fish monger, a seller of bait–fingerlings mainly. I had remembered that Che Guevara had a residence across the bay not too distant from the Christ monument and so I pointed, shrugged, and gestured, indicating a question about whether or not what I was pointing to was Guevara’s residencia. Unfortunately all the gentleman understood was my “Che Guevara.” He then dug deep in his front pocket and produced a three peso coin. Not the convertible peso currency I had but a Cuban coin with the likeness of Che stamped on one side. He offered it to me, repeating, “Si, Che, Che, Guevara.” I took the coin and attempted to give him something in return but he was having none of it and waved me off. I tried giving him his coin back and realized that I was insulting him so I gave up, smiled, and stuttered several gracias’. I took out my camera and held it up, he smiled and positioned himself, holding up his swordfish head. I snapped a picture. He waved and so did I as I walked on. In my mind at least, I’d made some kind of an old Havana connection.
(Click on any of the pictures for a larger view)