Tough to sum up first impressions at the end of Day 1. Exhausted and sweaty. Sun-burnt. Rain-kissed. Overwhelmed. Underwhelmed. All at the same time. What’s undisputable is that Havana has a distinct feel. A city like no other. And this goes beyond the clichés of the city being without billboards and about the unforgettable visuals of vintage cars. Parts of Havana are like Europe gone wild. Other parts are like USSR gone wild. A true mulatto. So is its architecture – crumbling colonial Spanish facades nestling alongside moderno communistic structures. And so are the people – tough to classify – Caribbean, Latin american or Spanish? The skin colour needs a whole deck of Pantone shade cards – pitch black, lower grades of black, several shades of mulatto brown giving way to a Spanish ‘barely-there’ white and in some rare cases, French white. A true melting pot cooked by imperialism and trade over centuries.
Live music fills the air as you walk around Habana vieja – African drums, Latin-American beats and Mexican voices creating a unique Cuban mix. If you move away from the main squares into the smaller streets, the hum on the street is not touristy. It is authentic. Dressed in bright, tight clothes, Cubans going about their daily business. Unconcerned about the tourists. Eating at their own little MN restaurants. Paying with their own currency. Munching roadside snacks. Moving around in their own buses. A world apart. Unlike most touristy places, where the people are the theatre, here we are the theatre. With no audience. Barring the omnipresent jineteros (hustlers).
Love the confidence of the people. The brighter and tighter the clothes, the better. No one cares about size zero. Size 15 or even 20 shows the same self-esteem. There’s a natural rhythm ( perhaps the African genes at work) that moves everyone. Even as I write this in a cafe sipping my cappuccino, an octogenarian breaks into a dance, showing more elán than most young men. Love this. Wish I could be this natural and expressive!
This is not an easy city to live in. Kind of reminds of Bombay. Neither is it an easy city to travel to. I hate the city at times. Get conned again and again. There is something really irritating about the people in Havana. Really pushy, aggressive and out to cheat you. Habaneros seem to have a hard edge. Am not sure if this is true of all of them. But it is certainly true for the ones in the tourism business. Have never been so angry. Put a curse on the latest conner. Makes me not want to go out. And to want to go back early. But I have to be patient. My romance with Cuba has just about begun. Cuba is a beautiful rose with thorns.
The next day, after a long jetlag-induced sleep, I step out for an early morning walk at the Malecon. Watching the sun rise on the Atlantic with the company of just fishermen and some dead crabs smashed on the pavement, I finally feel at peace with Havana. I understand and accept its beat, its rhythm.