The streets of Havana are crumbling into ruin. But our everlasting memory is not one of neglect, but of happy chatty locals for whom the streets are a vital part of life.


It’s the early evening when, for the first time, we bound down the steps, push through a metal door and descend onto the narrow streets of old Havana. Down here the air is thick and humid. It clings to our clothes, to our hands and to our faces. Its stifling closeness envelopes us and draws us into the city.

We make our way along a cobbled street lit only by the muted rays of light escaping from living room windows. Through an open door, a family sits on two thickly padded sofas. Engrossed in a TV show with the volume pumped up, they tuck into large plates of rice. An elderly lady tends to a bubbling pan and a boiling kettle. A simple one floor flat, all the rooms open onto the street, their entire life on display.

Next door, a red and white rotating logo lights up a barber making his last few snips of the day. Three men wait on his stoop, one stands tall while the others sit on wooden boxes. They play dominoes on a rickety table and share stories of the day, a bottle of rum, and a few laughs.

A little further along, a shopkeeper leans through a hole that has been bashed through a wall. His store peers out of a makeshift opening of an old building. A building whose entire top floor has collapsed, whose walls are stained and cracked, whose paintwork is peeling and decayed. But it is just one in a line of slowly crumbling ruins.

Next door a woman carefully hangs her washing from an iron rail that surrounds a balcony whose floor is no longer there. Across the street another building sits on its haunches. The centre sags over an open doorway where two children play. A wooden door loosely swings from a broken hinge.

HAVANA SWINGS TO ITS OWN RHYTHM

Around the corner a five-piece band rocks a narrow pavement. They smile as they play. We join the crowd gathered opposite. Sat on low stools our tiny tables creak under the weight of the generously proportioned mojitos. Some rise to dance, others mouth the words. We sit back, relax and allow it to wash over us.

After a few drinks we rise cautiously and slowly stroll along the street. A vintage Chevrolet approaches, its headlights defying the slowly gathering gloom. It must be well over 30 years old but still pristine. It’s shiny pink and bright. Every inch of metalwork glistens in the dull evening light. As it glides past, the driver puffs on a cigar barely visible beneath his cowboy hat.

We follow the Chevy around the corner and find an old colonial building serving food. A wooden bar with floor to ceiling booze runs all the way down one side with wide open windows and lushly decorated plant pots on the other. Hoping for a bit of breeze, we sit away from the bar and under a lazily rotating ceiling fan. A waiter hands us a laminated menu. It’s scratched and faded and difficult to read. The only thing we recognise is Ropa Vieja, a strangely-named, slow-cooked Cuban classic served with rice. We order “old clothes” and two beers.

As the food arrives, the band begins to play. A sultry air hangs between the notes and a wailing wistfulness harks back to another time. Everything seems to be swaying. The band on the stage, the tourists at the tables, the locals perched in the window. Even the lazy ceiling fan seems to be in time.

SLEEPLESS IN HAVANA

Later that night I am struggling to sleep. Our air conditioning unit blares overhead. It makes more noise than a B52 engine and cools just as effectively. With the air still hot and sticky, I turn it off. The whirring engine slowly dies, but other sounds quickly replace it.

Through the thin walls, the neighbours guff loudly at their blaring TV. A truck grumbles past the window, coughing and belching. A horse and cart clip-clop over the cobbles. The exhaust pipes of Havana’s romantic vintage cars moan through the streets.

A cockerel lives on the roof above us. There’s a constant scratching and pecking until about 4 am when he starts to crow like a thing possessed. His friend across the road joins him. A battle of who can make the most noise begins. They are soon joined by stray cats and dogs, and the chickens that split their time between the yard and the kitchen.

The cacophony is endless. I get out of bed and turn the B52 engine back on – at least it’s a solid drone.

I’ve often thought the loudness of modern life is distracting. In Cuba, it’s the sound of technology coming to a shuddering halt in the 1950s that makes the most noise.

THE OLD AND NEW OF HAVANA

Next day, the closeness of the night has been swept away by a sea breeze. The faded paintwork of old buildings and the bulbous cobbles of the streets of Havana gently shimmer in the morning light. Kids dressed in bright school uniforms weave their way around workers sweeping the alleyways and horse-drawn carts piled with fruit.

We make our way along the laneways and through the squares. Past the baroque churches, the art deco hotels and the crumbling ruins. Past the independent galleries, sparsely stocked shops and tourist markets.

In the park, hundreds are gathered. Some pay ball, others chat to their neighbours. Some laze in the sun. But most check their phones. The internet has recently arrived in Cuba and access is only available in public wi-fi parks using a government sold scratch card. One hour is your limit before you need to join the long queue to buy another one. Wandering the city streets, the lack of access to data is a pleasure and a pain. We can focus on the moment more, but what is happening on Instagram?

Drawn in by a blackboard of tasty offerings we find ourselves sitting on a sturdy wooden bench at a sleek metal table in a modern-looking cafe. Large hipster-style naked bulbs hang from the polished concrete ceiling. Smartly dressed staff whizz about the tables. We order two flat whites. They’re great, but these perfectly textured coffees are at odds with the city crumbling around us.

CASTRO HAS WON AND HE IS EVERYWHERE

We amble to the edge of Havana old town, to the Museum of the Revolution. Appropriately located in an imposing building that used to be the palace of the Cuban Presidents before the revolution, it tells the story of Castro’s rise to power. But the inside is not as grand as the outside. A building site without any building going on, we find the exhibits crammed into just a few rooms.

In the first we are told of the glorious life of the revolutionary hero Che Guevara. In the second, we are invited to study detailed battle plans of the revolution. In the third we are informed about the enduring achievements of Castro’s revolution.

The Museum of the Revolution leaves no doubt as to whose story it is to tell. History is told by the victors and in Cuba, Castro is the victor. His story is of a once subjugated working class people rising up against their colonial masters and bringing freedom, peace and equality to this great nation. The story of the lives he saved, the people he educated and the health system he provided.

That evening, we leave the streets of Havana old town and head west to the leafy suburb of Vedado. Our taxi is a soviet style Lada. The air conditioning doesn’t work. Nor do the windows. We try to find the handle to wind them down but there isn’t one. The driver passes us a wrench which we attach to a nut sticking out of the door. Problem solved.

We are bumping along a wide road that runs by the seafront. On one side a wall protects the town from the crashing Atlantic surf. On the other, once magnificent houses lie in dilapidated ruin. With far-reaching sea views, it should be the finest street in Havana. It’s not.

We turn off the Malecon and rattle through the back lanes until they open out on the broad Plaza de la Revolution. We stare up at the massive soviet style buildings, dwarfed by giant metal structures of Che and Fidel staring back. Are they watching us, or just reminding us who is in control?

NASCENT BEGINNINGS OF MODERNITY

We exit the taxi outside an old cooking oil factory that has been converted into a restaurant. It’s beautifully refurbished. A spiral metal staircase leads up to a room that buzzes with tourists and wealthy locals dining. Another floor up, we arrive at a bar housed in a sleek cylindrical chimney. We order a couple of gin and tonics and take a seat on the metal balcony that wraps around the smokestack.

Out the corner of our eye, back on the street from where we came, we see a long queue snaking round a corner. Being British we have no choice but to join it. There is a hubbub of youthful excitement in the crowd. The doors of Fábrica de Art Cubano are about to open.

Inside we find a warren of passageways linking a myriad of different spaces. There’s an art gallery ranging from soviet style retro to modern art. A performance hall where strange forms of ethereal dancing are being practiced. Across a suspension bridge, a cavernous dance hall pumps to the beats of the local DJ.

We are drawn to a small sound stage where a bewitching voice floats over the sublime skills of a guitarist. The music of the old town may beat to the drum of 60 years ago. But the Havana of Fábrica de Art Cubano is young, cool and taking its place in the modern world.

THE STORY OF THE STREETS OF HAVANA

By the end of our second day, we realise it’s not only what we have seen on the streets of Havana that matters, it’s what we haven’t seen. There are no red and white Coke signs flashing in windows. There are no twin-tailed mermaids of Starbucks hanging over doors. And there are no golden arches of McDonalds. In Havana, the totems of capitalism are nowhere to be seen.

Instead the streets of Havana tell a different story.

Towering murals of Che and Fidel recall a communist revolution they thought would change the world; the old era cars and crumbling buildings tell the story of three decades of benign neglect; and the modern cafes and burgeoning modern art scene tell the story of a city slowly coming to terms with modern times.

But most of all the streets of Havana tell the story of the people who live here.

For local life spills through the open doorways and cracked windows. It spills onto the pavements where they gather, onto the street corners where they play, and onto the parks where they catch up on salacious internet gossip.

A city whose best story is not of politics or consumerism or neglect, but of the people who live here.

WHERE NEXT?

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Cuba was a thoroughly fascinating, at times confusing but always beautiful country to visit. Here’s some more of our Cuba writing you might enjoy.

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