We walked and walked and walked looking at what Havana is famous for: elegant, neglected, crumbling Spanish colonial buildings. Some are shored up with planks screwed into cross-pieces to form rigid triangles. Some have holes half filled with breeze blocks or glass bricks or mesh. I saw one collapsing from the inside with rubble from what used to be the first floor pouring through the front door onto the street.
A burnt out gap between two houses had been reclaimed and now had play equipment with a mural at the back of clouds on a blue sky. Or was that perhaps an old blue wall being taken over by efflorescence?
Buildings. And people.
Everywhere, people. On balconies gazing out, in doorways chatting, leaning against walls, walking over a wooden parquet pavement. One woman was selling 1930s jewellery for a fortune to people who knew it would be worth an even bigger fortune once all the antique Cuban jewellery has gone. In a tiny park, three were doing a fashion shoot using shoes too big for the model. A woman dressed in Santeria white with beads and chains and swathes of cloth around her head, with claws for fingernails, posed for photographs with her arms round tourists’ shoulders, smiling, briefly. A crowd waited outside a government office in a queue no Brit would recognise, where each new arrival called ‘L’ultimo?’ and waited for the person before them in the queue to identify themselves. Then everyone could relax, stand or sit where they wanted, knowing that their fair turn was assured.
People. Some passed us by, some stared at us, some tried to sell us things, some talked to us. Thus we heard that Amaranto Fernandez, ex of Buena Vista Social Club, perhaps even the ex of Omara Portuondo, was celebrating his 88th birthday by playing piano in a bar just down the road. The entrance was the price of a drink. Each, and one for him. We were thirsty, our feet were tired. A drink and some Buena Vista music? No problem. We drank and we bought his. Outside the wooden grille a gaunt man who was not allowed in, who almost certainly had mental health problems, whirled in the street like the music was made only for him. The guitarist cast him a disapproving eye every now and then, Amaranto Fernandez ignored him and instead insisted on posing for photos with us so we could take some reflected glory home.
It was much later that we saw similar photos all over the internet and learnt that his name doesn’t appear in the list of Buena Vista Social Club musicians. Well, good hustling, good music. Probably a birthday every day. Does it matter? At least the man outside can dance to some live music he doesn’t have to pay for.
I was keen to see the industrial/railway station area that we passed on our way into Havana last night so took myself off to walk in the seedy bit of town. Looking one way, towards the port, everything was blue-like-sky with white-like-clouds, and all the worn out, peeling, fading distress between. The other way were flats made of concrete slabs, thickly streaked with mould from top to bottom, even in bright warm sunshine. Grim, government-built housing.
I walked in the heat on the railway lines then past brightly coloured industrial buildings where guards told me, very politely, not to take pictures. Two lads saw my camera and asked me to take their photos. A lot of people here don’t like their picture being taken and I knew this was a challenge. I was not in the part of town tourists go to. Would I dare? They posed making V-signs. I photographed them. They stuck their tongues out at me. I photographed them. One closed his eyes. I photographed them. They pulled faces. I photographed them. Finally they were bored and wandered off. I hadn’t won but at least I hadn’t lost.
I walked back through poor streets where astonishing art nouveau buildings were falling apart, I took pictures of Santeria talismans hanging from window grilles. Finally, footsore, dusty, I got back to Carmen and Ariel’s where we went up to the terrace for me to rest my feet, where Carmen brought us coffee unrequested and where I sat and thought about complexity.
Some in Extras and others on Flickr
- Olympus E-M5MarkII