Touch down, the Earth is red, the palm trees Jurassic. The police women wear tiny skirts and lacy fishnet floral tights. The terminal smells of stale cigar smoke. The money exchange queue is long and moves slowly, Cuban pesos can not be bought outside the country. Cuba is an island, on its own time, in its own parallel era. The cars outside are incredible, white with tail wings, ruby red, electric blue. Trucks are full with workers returning back home to Havana.
Cuba is alive, Cuba is free, Cuba is restricted, Cuba is controversial, Cuba is poor, Cuba is rich, Cuba is colored, Cuba is history.
The mist sprays up and catches the lovers, musicians, children, tourists and elders who walk slowly along the Malecon. Pelicans land and flutter away. The lighthouse across the sea is majestic, the new town and big hotels blocks of shapes in the distance. Colored clothing hangs across windows. The buildings of El Prado are elegant, majestic, grand. They are also faded, chipped, crumbling and decaying. Rich and brightly colored cars flash past. This is Vintage Chic.
We go to the market by the sea and the railway. We buy many things and then we walk back, back towards the heart. Back streets and side streets, main boulevards and squares. A grid. Houses are open, Che is there and sometimes Jesus. Flowers are for sale, only a few, tomatoes are for sale but also only a few. The people smile, and speak and greet. Where are we from? Happy New Year! Do we like Cuba? They are interested in our answers and then they move on peacefully. No hassle, we are their guests and we are welcome. They are our hosts and we are grateful for their generosity.
People work, many are old. The dogs stagger and must be avoided. The houses loom above our heads, a man offers to show us inside his home, it is dark and very dusty. Closer to the Cathedral we go, the squares get wider, the Cuban flag gets prouder. Leather books are piled high on market stalls, badges and Revolutionary memorabilia change hands. Illiteracy is almost eradicated in Cuba. Flowers bloom and hang over metal gates. It is December. The sun is hot, the court yard where we eat paella and are serenaded by a man with an angel’s voice, is cool.
The Cathedral plaza is lively. Creole women and men with fat cigars walk around. Fortunes are told and with a flash of black and white, drinks and lunch are served. Round the corner, the street is dancing, the red, blue and white flag is swaying, people salsa, a hand grabs my hand and I salsa. La Bodeguita del Medio, mojitos, cohibas, musicians. So many people, such a small space. Mint leaves are torn, limes are squeezed. It all spills out, spills out outside. Squiggles and signatures, faces press against the wooden bars. Now slowly back to Hotel Seville, where the horses pull and strain but the carts seldom move.
Time has stood still. This can’t be, but it was, it was all just an afternoon in Havana.