Havana's Tragic Beauty

Deborah Thompson

Copyright 2002 by Deborah Thompson

Photo of street scene in Havana, Cuba.

This story was written soon after returning from a four day visit to Havana, Cuba, a trip which affected me greatly on an emotional level. To see such a once-beautiful city and such once-proud people living in such conditions was very intense. The following article is only one of a few essays I wrote upon my return.

To visit Havana once means to relinquish one's soul to a haunting experience. I strive still for the proper words to express the emotions aroused by my three day visit. To use the word "tragic" - which my dictionary tells me also means "pitiable" or "pathetic" in my title was a dilemma, as these words depict a world far different from the spirit and colour I saw recently during my three days in Havana. Yet, this great spirit, the colour and sheer essence of Havana cannot be described without acknowledging the real tragedy; the "death, grief, destruction" which has befallen this once proud, thriving city.

My first awesome view of the streets of Havana were through the thick windows of an air-conditioned tour bus, the drama of Cuban life unfolding in a punishing blue-gray haze of leaded gasoline fumes from automobiles destined for the junkyard three decades ago. The airport parking lot mimicked the set of American Graffiti; a parade of antique cars entering and exiting, entire family units from grandparents to squalling babies making the journey to say tearful farewells or greet family and friends bringing valuable supplies.. A 1957 Chevrolet rumbled and belched a noxious cloud as we paused at a stop-light; I counted no less than eight people jammed inside, a rickety roof-rack literally trembling with goods supplied by a family member just in from abroad. A rattling Ford Thunderbird, its remaining tail-light cracked and flickering pulled up beside us, sadly faded after decades of exposure to the hot Cuban sun, a fender here and a panel there replaced with those from other cars, giving it a patchwork quilt look. I exchanged a glance with one of the passengers, but my hesitant smile was met with a gaze of weary hostility, the first of many I would encounter in Havana. And what else could a tourist in Havana expect?

The tour company employees remained behind a glass door which separated them from the passengers, speaking only to each other. We were left to guess at any landmarks which caught our eye. Though I would have appreciated an informative narration, the silence allowed me to absorb the aura of Havana, and bear witness to the sobering reality of life in a communist country suffering the agony of an embargo.

The highway took a wayward route into Havana, past dirty chunks of industrial land, the landscape a melancholy repetition of ramshackle factories with windows of jagged glass and surrounded by rusting fences of corrugated-tin. Almost every fence, bill-board or sign carried communist propaganda, from the banner which I loosely translated to "Patriotism is Humanity" at the airport, to billboards near a schoolyard playground soliciting children to join the "Young Communists of Cuba". Signs screaming "Fidel!" competed with painted messages of "Long Live the Revolution!" and "Pride in Combat!"

As we approached the outskirts of Old Havana, the scenery abruptly changed as the first of the great, old buildings began to appear. The skyline became tiered with spires of massive stone churches and the bleached turrets of fortress strongholds. Gasps of admiration were often punctuated with exclamations of wonder that a society could live in such conditions.

The outskirts of Old Havana crumbled in a maze of derelict buildings, a desolate war zone created not with the deafening rapidity of exploding bombs, but rather the slow, strangulating whisper of words. As I peered into the concrete jungle, I marvelled that some structures were even able to stand. Fallen stones and bricks lay in heaps on sidewalks, the remaining portions of buildings still, unbelievably, housing tenants; their sombre faces staring out over the rubble below . In North America, these buildings would have been declared unsafe and closed to the public. From one seeming bomb-blasted doorway stepped a young man neatly dressed in a suit, carrying a briefcase. And from another came a mother and her child, picking their way through the detritus without missing a step. I realized that the simple act of trying to survive as a Cuban made the perils of a crumbling building laughable. Indeed, as I peered more closely into their depths, I realized that marketplaces existed within their precarious, mossy walls, small stalls set up to sell basic items, for those who had the extra centavos to afford them. I wondered if the mother and daughter were on their way to collect their daily ration of one roll each.

It seemed that on every street corner there were women, and it would appear that prostitution is a way of life for many Cuban women as they fight to survive. With their skin-tight miniskirts or striped Spandex leggings and revealing halter tops they would openly approach and peer into cars. It also seemed common practice for most pedestrians to hitch a ride at any opportunity. Intersections were, in fact, "car stops" for people, when the light turned red they would approach the first car window, even if the car was already full, and speak to the driver. Every single time the driver would tell them to get in, and without any further conversation they would drive off. It seemed like the citizens of Cuba would do whatever they could for their fellow citizens.

It seemed that the streets began to narrow as we entered "La Habana Vieja", the oldest area of Havana. Fantastical architecture appeared at every street corner, marvels of stone and marble dripping with sculptures, ornate cornices and relief work. "Central Park" appeared, a haven of mossy green festooned with towering ceiba trees, fountains, and presided over by the Cuban National Hero of Independence, Jose Marti. The "Inglaterra" Hotel", the oldest hotel in Cuba (1856) looked old, yet well kept, the tiny wrought iron balconies and roof deck lending aristocratic appeal. One's eyes were drawn immediately, however, to its neighbouring building, "Le Gran Teatro de La Habana", a magnificent orgy of intricacy with numerous groups of sculptures and four small castle-like towers topped with magical winged creatures to spark the imagination. Le Gran Teatro, spanning almost an entire block, and large enough to seat two thousand spectators, was awe-inspiring.

As we paused to gape, for there is no other word for what we were doing, we were also overwhelmed by the appearance of the "National Capitol" building, its stone facade magnificently maintained by the Cuban government since 1929. Immense statues flanked the main entry, looming over the few tourists lounging on the steep staircase. One's eyes, however, could not help but wander to the other side of this street, where, in shocking contrast, a tenement building squatted, long, low and crumbling, the wrought iron on the small balconies twisted and crumbling, fluttering laundry punctuating the forlorn appearance.

As unkind as the glare of a hot Cuban sun is to the streets of Havana, bleaching the colour and romance, the advent of twilight brings a kiss of magic to the streets. As street lamps flicker into life, the streets are suddenly imbued with warmth and life, and suddenly the air is vibrating with music. It begins somewhere in the distance - the lonely wail of a saxophone, seeming to float on the warm air. Soon it is joined by a sensuous "habanera" beat, transforming proud, defiant faces with a warmth and passionate love for the music, imbuing the streets with an almost palpable vibrancy Dogs and cats, dormant during the heat of the day, are suddenly everywhere, visiting bustling restaurant patios, hoping for handouts and a scratch behind a tattered ear. Children run and play amongst the strolling crowds, neatly dressed, carefully watched, cautious with smiles for strangers.

As the fiery tempo of a Cuban-Latin rhythm exploded from a building that earlier seemed ravaged and lifeless, we paused to appreciate. From everywhere, a miscellany of melody echoed off peeling, faded walls, until the city of Havana resonated with spirit, and suddenly seemed far from tragic.

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