Postcards From Havana

Postcards from Havana

I close my eyes and imagine myself back under the radiant sun, the smell of diesel fuel and rich cigar smoke lingering in the air. A 1950s crimson Chevrolet growls as a Habanero works under the hood, fiddling with the engine.

Havana. Where do I begin?  Spectacular, haunting, edgy, seductive: these are a few words that come to mind, but any and all of these may be poor representations of a city bursting with contradiction. Cuba is impossible to put into words. I left bewildered but also intrigued and eager to return and explore more of the country.

We stayed in a casa particular, a privately owned B & B, called Casa Blanca. Jorge, our host, explained that the government began allowing Cubans to rent out rooms in their homes in 1997, a period of economic crisis. Today, there are thousands of casas particulares scattered around the island. A well-preserved colonial mansion built in the 1920s, Casa Blanca has fifteen foot ceilings, a marble staircase, pristine crown molding, and is furnished with Spanish-influenced antique furniture. 

Staying in a casa particular was a fabulous way to meet locals, and provided us with a much more direct and authentic experience. Jorge welcomed us like family: Mi casa es su casa, he would often say.

We were graciously invited for dinner, had our fair share of rum and cokes (apparently the secret is in adding a hint of crème de menthe to the mixture!) and shared many stories over café con leche on the veranda. When we asked our host about the once spectacular and beautiful house across the street, Jorge explained that the home—now literally a skeleton of its former self—now belongs to the government. The owner fled Cuba to pursue opportunities abroad, and when his son visited the home years later, he was so shocked by the decay he wept.

Postcards from Havana
 

Even while inside their homes, I noticed that Habaneros, or the people of Havana, live their lives as if out in the open. Their doors and windows remain ajar. Squealing children, a few locals arguing over the latest baseball scores or the neighbourhood roosters will likely be your morning alarms. 

 
Postcards from Havana
Postcards from Havana
Postcards from Havana
Postcards from Havana
 

We spent quite a bit of time exploring the old city, Havana vieja. Havana was once known as the Paris of Latin America; the claustrophobic cobblestoned streets, hidden bookshops and bustling corner cafes might just remind you of the Latin Quarter in the French capital. We returned twice to a fittingly named Café Paris to listen to live salsa music over cafés con leche.

 
Postcards from Havana
The city’s walls were painted vibrant turquoise blues or electrifying oranges, and the people were no different, each as warm as the colours of their cityscape.

Taxi drivers never failed to try and find a connection: Mucho mucho frío! (Very very cold!), several commented when we mentioned that we were from Canada. We would laugh, nodding our heads in agreement  sliding around in the backseat as they weaved precariously between cars.

One particular driver, Angel, took great care and drove at a snail’s pace through the lively streets so were weren’t to miss anything. 

The roads and alleyways were always bustling with people, people singing, gesturing or dancing. I don’t move quite as easily as the Cubans. “Your hips just need a little oil,” Jorge joked.

Many Cubans seemed oblivious to the decay around them; while at first I found the rubble shocking, I too quickly became accustomed and not once did I feel unsafe. There is an unusual and moving charm to the faded beauty. 

Postcards from Havana
Postcards from Havana

Many Cubans seemed oblivious to the decay around them; while at first I found the rubble shocking, I too quickly became accustomed and not once did I feel unsafe. There is an unusual and moving charm to the faded beauty. 

Postcards from Havana
Due to the Cuban revolution in 1959 and the subsequent American trade embargo, Cuba has essentially been forgotten in time.

Visiting the island is as if you have been transported back several decades, and yet this isolation from the majority of the outside world has created a resilient and extremely proud nation. Last year, relations between Cuba and the United States were normalized, though the trade embargo is still in effect. This has left Cubans fearful of what the future may bring; most of those we spoke to expressed a desire for change, but also that this change happen on their own terms. 

Toward the end of our trip, we spent an afternoon visiting Finca La Vigía, Ernest Hemingway’s former home on the outskirts of Havana. In his famous novella The Old Man and the Sea (completed in part at this very site), he writes: “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.” At this time in Cuba’s history, this perhaps rings truer than ever.

Postcards from Havana
Postcards from Havana
 

Whenever and wherever I travel it is always the raw, visceral experiences I remember most. I can still picture one taxi driver, Alberto, sharing his chocolate filled cookies with us as we drove along the Malecón, an eight kilometre coastal drive and a popular meeting place for lovers and strangers alike. I recommend taking a stroll along the boardwalk around dusk, just in time to watch the sun vanish from the horizon and cast a shadow over the city forgotten in time. I recall the local fruit market owner’s smile as he watched my sister and I carefully choose our selection of imperfect tomatoes, small green peppers, and ripe Chiquita bananas—not sure how much things cost, we offered our open palms full of change and he simply and genuinely collected what we owed. I smile thinking of the waitress who giggled at my poor Spanish as I ordered the Langosta Veracruz at Doña Juana in Vedado (a must try!).

 
Postcards from Havana

While I can’t capture Havana in its entirety (perhaps no one can), I can offer a little advice. Go while you can—Cuba won’t remain trapped in a time capsule forever. And most importantly, arrive with a thirst for strong mojitos, a little salsa in your step and a mind wide open. Let the magic seduce you. 

Words | Photography by Heather Peat