A week in Havana

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Havana, CubaOld Havana, Habana Vieja, was designed to repel invaders, seawater, and most of all, the sun. Even at high noon, shadows edge the narrow streets, making the city marginally cooler.

By night, though, all of Havana glows with artificial sunlight. Sickly green fluorescent bulbs flicker like a million stars trapped on a million ceilings. The false daylight radiates from windows, filling stuffy rooms with a grim, efficient hue. Me, I’m like my homegirl, Blanche DuBois: I prefer my light warm and aggressively shaded.

So yes, green is the color of Havana: not only the light, but also the trees, the Gulf, the houses. There are pinks, aquas, yellows, and grays, too. The texture of the city is concrete, plaster, and marble, with accents of trash bags, rubble, and refuse.

Like any major city, the sound of Havana is cacophonous at all but the wee-est of wee hours. Cars that predate Jackie Kennedy’s bloodstained, Chanel-knockoff suit roam the streets, their ancient motors roaring almost as loudly as those of the motorcycles beside them. Barkers sell wares from carts, people shout to friends, family, and strangers blocks away. In rare quiet moments, Cuban flags snap in the breeze.

* * * * *

There is a rule in chemistry, a universal law: matter moves from lowest energy to highest entropy. Havana flouts that law, bends it, maybe even breaks it. To my untrained eyes, the city is hot and chaotic, yet everything runs in slow motion, particularly people and progress.

The buildings of Havana are collapsing piece by piece. As a New Orleanian, that’s not particularly strange, but Louisiana houses are organic, made of cypress and pine. Allowing concrete to decay? That’s some next-level neglect. Everything in the city is under (re)construction, but I’m not sure how much has been achieved.

Amid all the hubbub, dogs and cats lie unharmed on slivers of sidewalk and in the centers of streets. In a country like the U.S., they’d be picked up, taken to the pound, mostly euthanized, a few adopted. Here, they’re like feral children, running in packs. They are befriended, maybe even beloved, but rarely owned. They live their lives out of doors, cared for by the community. Somehow, it works. After a week in the city, I haven’t seen a single cat or dog hit by a car.

And the people? The people are friendly, but when you tell them that you’re a tourist–by your words, your accent, your clothes–their friendliness often evolves a purpose. You’re told about a restaurant, a festival, a bar, taken into this shop or that for rum or taxi rides or girls. The hustle never ends. Sometimes it is straightforward, but often, it is duplicitous. “Oh, I love your tattoo. I have a small one on my thigh. Where are you from, amigo?” And eventually, you find yourself in a small room being sold a box of overpriced cigars. The constant threat of ulterior motives erects a border wall between you and them where there was a demilitarized zone before.

* * * * *

She told me her name was Shirley. Well, she looked like a Shirley, anyway.

She followed me home, from the rough, green edge of Vedado, through the wreckage of Centro, all the way to our door in Habana Vieja. She tip-toed along the narrow sidewalks, always making sure to keep my well-nourished calves between her frail frame and the road. She flinched when cars raced by, but she never bolted, as my own dogs would have done off-leash. She knew enough to understand that she’d found an easy mark.

Food is often hard to come by in Havana, at least compared to here in the U.S. Convenience stores are rare, grocery stores rarer still, fast food joints nonexistent. Finding a snack is an ordeal. During our hour together, I looked for something, anything to buy so that Shirley could have a decent meal, but I came up empty-handed. I had to shut the door in her face like a stranger.

As soon as I did, I raced up the four floors of our building and looked down from the balcony, watching her pace in front of the apartment as she made her appeal to others. “Hi!” “Hello there!” “Could I have just a moment of your time?” Every time she disappeared from view, I counted to ten. When she reappeared, I started over. It took a dozen tries before she was gone.

I found her again a few hours later, a few blocks away. Or maybe she found me. She’d made her way to the San Jose Artisans’ Market, a sprawling free-for-all of artwork and tchotchkes for the hundreds of tourists who arrive in Havana each day on cruise ships. She was snuggling up to another guy, another easy mark, a tourist whose family were laughing at him. “Oh, what a sucker you are for a pretty face.”

She left his side, sniffed me, and moved on.

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