A Few Hours in Havana

Havana is a beautiful city: loud, old, rotting in some parts, opulent in others. And, for Americans, completely off-limits unless you’re a student, Ry Cooder, or willing to risk your government’s wrath. Traveling correspondent Tim Weed describes a recent visit, with memories of ghosts, women, and stylish refrigerators.

i. Ghosts

By way of breaking the ice our host shows me his cassette collection. In Havana you might expect salsa, jazz, or the Buena Vista Social Club, but Eduardo’s taste is pure seventies: The Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Styx. He seems eager to talk—he takes out a map of the U.S. so that we can point out exactly where we live—but it was a long journey and all we want to do is sleep.

‘I look forward to talking more tomorrow,’ I say apologetically, shaking his hand for maybe the fifth time since we arrived an hour before.

In our room there is a battered boom-box, plugged in along with the rotating fan and a dim flickering lamp to a socket that hangs out of the wall on wires attached to a chunk of plaster. The walls are lined with bare wires, held together by electrical tape in a network of tenuous-looking splices. On a scuffed and water-stained wall leans a full-length mirror that might have belonged to an antique cherry-wood wardrobe; otherwise the only decoration is a collection of faded prints of well-known paintings cut out from a magazine or textbook.

At first I have trouble sleeping. The sheets are like sandpaper; the pillow stuffed with desiccated chunks of foam rubber the size of Rubik’s Cubes. Eduardo and María Elena’s apartment is in a subdivided former mansion in the crowded Vedado district; there are probably a few dozen families living within a fifty-foot radius. Nearby a television blasts, competing with a stereo playing loud rap music. People shout to be heard over the din, loud mufflerless trucks rumble by on the street, dogs bark, a mysterious polytonal chittering in the background sounds like a great horde of rats.

Although the background noise is more varied and intense than that of a North American city—the decibel level is roughly comparable to a crowded bus station in the middle of the day—there is something serenely domestic about it, a sense of being nestled in the embrace of an immense human den. The fan stirs up a cool breeze, and outside the slatted-pane window I can see the moon. There is a gentle, soothing magic in the tropical air, and soon I am asleep.

Later a breeze draws the lace curtain over my face and I awake with a start, my heart pounding. Soft moonlight spills in through the window slats. The city is quiet now, but I can’t get back to sleep. That curtain brushing my face. It was a light touch, but charged with portent—like the fingers of a ghost.

Havana is a ripe haunting-ground for ghosts: on balconies and delicate grillwork staircases threadbare laundry ripples in the breeze; wavering voices escape from the Teatro Nacional; the famous finned cars exude both nostalgia and menace; the streets seem poised to explode at any moment into violence or dancing. Decay is carried in the salty air; the buildings need paint. Habaneros are friendly and extremely charming, but their warmth can evaporate suddenly, without warning. You notice furtive glances. There is the unspoken sense that you are being watched; that everyone is being watched.

ii. The Malecón

Havana is a port city built along the horseshoe-shaped coast of a wide bay. The Malecón is a broad seaside promenade that travels the length of the city, from Habana Vieja to Miramar. On the Malecón in the evening the Habaneros loiter and stroll, often carrying old water bottles filled up with beer or clear rum. The sea beyond the wide promenade is as awesome as anywhere, though its shoreline here is lined with Styrofoam and plastic bottles, and the calcareous stone of the reef is sharp with broken glass and grown over with a green scum of slippery algae.

An old fisherman walks by with his weasel-faced sidekick. They are a two-man act: the fisherman has a rolling gait and his gestures are expansive, exaggerated, fox-like, cartoonish; the sidekick is very gaunt and wears an obsequious grin. He carries a crooked bamboo fishing pole in one hand, a dangerous-looking gaff hook mounted on a dowel in the other. The tip of the gaff is protected by a chunk of Styrofoam.

We follow them down the Malecón. It’s a consensual thing: they know we’re watching. The fisherman is obviously drunk, but also oddly spry. With one arm holding the edge he lowers himself down the seawall and drops onto the dead reef. The weasel-faced assistant hands down the gear and the fisherman springs lightly from rock to rock. A showman, he lies down on his back at the edge of the sea, dips his fingers in the water, anoints himself. He crosses his legs and puts one hand behind his head, dramatizing how comfortable he is on the dangerous perch despite being drunk. He springs to his feet and stares out at the ocean, feet planted wide on the rock. He is defiant, brave; captain of his own rummy destiny.

Months earlier, daytime. In an open-fronted coco-taxi among the teeming traffic of new Toyotas and Hyundais, clunky Soviet-era Ladas, and gloriously durable pre-1959 Fords and Chevys, we stop at a traffic light. I catch the eye of an olive-skinned woman standing on a corner. She’s beautiful, aloof, well dressed; I think perhaps she works in a bank or a government ministry. She stares at me for a moment, then puckers her lips and makes a quick sequence of kissing sounds, as if summoning a dog. It takes a few seconds for it to register that I am the dog.

Months later, daytime, same Malecón, but everything has changed. Motorized traffic has been diverted elsewhere, and the wide promenade is a great river of marching pedestrians. The official estimate is 1.5 million demonstrators; that number may be suspect but it’s certainly the largest gathering of human beings I’ve even seen. Black umbrellas dance above the multitudes, along with the banners and miniature Cuban flags that quake like aspen leaves every time a state-owned helicopter passes overhead. The organizing principle of the demonstration is opposition to the longstanding U.S. trade embargo, and fiery anti-imperialist rhetoric is the order of the day—on printed banners, T-shirts, leaflets, in the lyrics of the innocuous-sounding pop music that blares out of loudspeakers up and down the promenade.

Like all demonstrations in Cuba this one is government-organized, but there’s an African jauntiness about the crowd—the cheerful faces, the out-on-the-town camaraderie—that gives the march a festive and subtly subversive feeling. Perhaps this is santería, yoruba, the dancing black umbrellas, the undercurrent of lighthearted yet deadly-serious magic that renders the political rhetoric—however true and justified—weightless, silly, merely atmospheric.

iii. Hemingway’s Pool

Through the open windows Hemingway’s well-stocked bookshelves are just as he left them, for the last time, in November of 1959. His spectacles lie open on a side table; several enormous pairs of shoes hang toe-down in a closet rack. The Finca Vigía was the author’s principal home for two decades: it was where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, Islands in the Stream, and The Old Man and the Sea. It was the departure point and refueling station for his beloved marlin-fishing trips; the base of operations for his grandiose, romantic, and wholly fruitless U-boat hunting patrols during World War Two. On the walls of the house his big game trophies molder, their hides looking a little thin these days, like the hides of the small mongrel-dogs at rest on the sidewalks of Habana Vieja, with their swollen nipples and flies buzzing all around.

Downhill through shaded gardens a walkway leads to the author’s expansive pool. Drained now, it’s a dangerous-looking pit with a steeply slanting bottom leading into the leaf-littered shadows of the deep end.

Something moves in a corner of the shallow end, the wind blowing a leaf perhaps. Only there’s no wind today, so I walk over to get a closer look. The thing is dark russet, about the size of my hand, hairy legs—a tarantula. It’s trying to scramble up the wall and out of the pool, but can’t. I find a stick and poke at it, flip it over. The tarantula struggles to right itself, then gets up on its hind legs and rushes at the stick, obviously enraged by the affront to its spiderly honor. A shiver travels up my spine: did I just mess with Papa’s ghost? I toss the stick aside and continue down the walkway to a roofed pavilion, where the Pilar languishes in permanent dry-dock.

Back in the city, in the neglected opulence of the cemetery, a marble angel falls across the lid of a tomb, breaking off at the abdomen, neck, and shoulders. A worker arranges the rubble into a neat pile where she languishes, her sun-warmed brow a perch for lizards that skitter up from underground through cracks in the marble.

iv. Our Host, Again

Eduardo is a lathe operator, probably in his early forties. Mostly he makes metal replacement parts for industrial machinery and automobiles, parts that cash-strapped Cuba can’t afford to buy from abroad.

Like the majority of Cubans I’ve met—taxi drivers, doctors, tourism workers, muleteers—Eduardo is well educated. His generation tends to pepper its speech with rote party platitudes—they call it ‘The Triumph of the Revolution’ as opposed to just ‘The Revolution’—but that’s an understandable tic; in fact most Cubans display a sophisticated understanding of the world that puts most Americans to shame. Eduardo, for example, seems to know everything, and not only about seventies rock. He knows where Nantucket is and all about its whaling history. He knows about Mesa Verde; Utica, New York; the journeys of Lewis and Clark; Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. He reads voraciously: biographies of Churchill and Lincoln and Stalin, thick histories of the Roman Empire, translated novels by Ken Follett and James Fenimore Cooper, Jane’s Almanac of the ocean-going warships of 1942.

‘What a book that was, compay,’ he says enthusiastically, talking about a history of the great battles of Western history. ‘I had to sell it, unfortunately, but what a book.’

During his compulsory two years in the military Eduardo managed to avoid fighting in Angola, but after his tour of duty was supposedly over he received an ominous telegraph, ordering him to report to a meeting about ‘international’ military service. ‘I never showed up,’ he tells me with a shrug. ‘If they came to my door I was planning to play dumb. I would have told them that my mother—who was very old and sick at the time—must have put the telegram somewhere and forgotten to tell me. But no one ever bothered me about it.’

Eduardo has a lively mind, a beautiful wife, and a beloved four-year-old daughter. He is poor enough that his family sometimes has only bread to eat; occasionally he himself has to skip meals entirely. His daughter, who has some of her father’s hyperactive effusiveness, goes to school a few blocks away, where she learns about science, history, and the Triumph of the Revolution. They live in a walk-up apartment in a subdivided Vedado mansion, their only knife a sharp blade broken off from the handle. They possess but do not own a yellow Norge refrigerator from the1950s with a chrome-lined clock in the middle of the chipped enamel door. Their linoleum floor-tiles are cracked, neighbors occupy every inch of available space on the block, and dogs bark late into night. Yet Eduardo and his family seem happy enough.

Havana’s like that: enigmatic, difficult to nail down. It’s not Moscow, and it’s not Mexico. It’s a city where you can see the moon at night, a unique city—at once poor and very rich—where music, magic and dread waft together in the warm breeze blowing in off the Caribbean.

I meditate on this as we ride to the airport in another taxi, this one an elegant ‘57 Ford. The driver is modest about the car—he’s quick to point out that the engine is from a Toyota, which he prefers because it gets better gas mileage—but I can tell he’s also proud of it. He hears us speaking English and asks where we’re from. The States, I tell him.

‘I thought so. Your accents: I thought I was in a film.’

We drive on in silence, the old Ford with its four-cylinder Japanese engine propelling us slowly along the Malecón. A heavy red sun casts shimmering highlights across Havana Bay as its lower edge dips below the horizon.

‘It’s a shame,’ he says, ‘that our governments can’t get along. I’ve always thought of Cubans and Americans as brothers.’

He goes on to tell an amusing story about the King of Spain, who spent so much money on a fortress overlooking Havana that he was known to peer through a telescope on his west-facing Madrid balcony, hoping to get a glimpse of the grand edifice that was putting such a dent in the royal coffer.

I laugh, reminding myself to shake the man’s hand when I get out of his car.