I hated Havana. I hated the heavy gasoline fumes and the hot July heat that would slap me in the face like a jealous lover. I hated the stench of garbage that leaked through my skin and settled in my blood until I could taste it. “No water today, lady. Maybe tomorrow,” the corner street vendor would tell me. It was a ten minute walk from my hotel to the university where I was taking Spanish courses. A walk through the crumbling, decaying buildings with their rusted wrought-iron balconies and skin-and-bones-cats wandering about like voodoo zombies.
But there was also much to love about Havana as well. The lively squares where craftsmen sold their art and old books about Hemingway who had spent twenty years of his life in Havana. I loved the slow rhythm of the people as if they had all the time in the world. The sayings on their billboards: “The first duty of a man is to be true to himself.” I loved watching the dark Cuban children swimming in the Melacon , walking along the very charming Prado and going for cerveza in the cafe at the Capitolo. Shirtless boys playing their guitars while drinking a can of Cristal beer, and old men drumming to salsa. I loved the architecture which the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier described as “music turned to stone.” Carpentier should know. His own writing is integrated with music as his means of better understanding his Cuban identity.
One day, on our way back home from Habana Viejan we stepped into a state supermarket to see what the locals ate. It was disheartening to face shelf after empty shelf; disheartening to feel the gaze of the few customers on their ration tickets to buy food.
I thought about the super markets back home with their excessive selection of food. Where it was possible to choose from five or six different brands of toilet paper while here one roll was a luxury.
We would have a glass of rum and coke to give us courage to face again the relentless heat for the two block walk to the Nacional, Havana’s top end hotel where for the price of lunch we could linger the afternoon away around the grand hotel pool listening to the waves crashing against the walls of the Melacon and flirt with the young, handsome Cuban waiters who’d bring us mojitos on silver trays and when we’d leave we’d say, ” hasta siempre”, and they’d smile proudly.
Listen to this video to touch the soul of Cuba.