While researching our trip to Cuba my girlfriend, Alison, placed a call to a friend, Kimberly, as she had visited the island twice in the past year. We both listened intently on speakerphone as she gave us great details about where to go and what to do. Invaluable intel from recent travelers is better than any book on the market.
Towards the end of the conversation Alison asked Kimberly, “You have gone back two times in less than a year, why Cuba?” Kimberly replied, “They speak my first language!” With puzzlement in her voice Alison asked, “Wait, are you saying Spanish is your first language, not English?”
“No, Energy is my First Language!”
And thus, in a nutshell, you have Havana, Cuba. This city is electric. The frenetic and lively vibrational buzz in the air takes a few days of calibration. A pulsating, vivacious and animated carnival of humanity!
“There is plenty of time to sleep after I die” is a famous saying that comes to mind when visiting this city filled with flamboyant, charismatic people. What makes Havana even more terrific is how colorful everything else is too – from the buildings to the foliage to the cars to the music to the street life.
I can’t recall any other city in the world with such a broad spectrum of the color palette so brilliantly displayed in every way possible via all facets of their culture. Around every corner your eye is drawn to a kaleidoscope of bold, soft, weathered, bright, tarnished, gleaming, garish and beautiful hues.
There is nothing shy about the way these folks live, the way they embrace being so entirely interdependent upon one another or the way they wear what they have in their wardrobe with an eclectic mix of style and ‘who cares about style’ attitude.
Cubans rely on music like a great band relies on a fantastic drummer. The drummer keeps the time. The drummer is the pulse of the band. Dare I say, even more so, the drummer is the heartbeat of the band!
Music provides the pulse for all that is Havana. It gives the city its heartbeat. Not only sustains all the residents, but also lifts them on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour basis. Music is ever-present, always on and always kicked up a notch volume wise. And in Havana, when I say always on, I really do mean always on; till 5a.m. in the morning.
People stay up late, hang outside because it’s finally temperate and, in a classic nod to the 80’s, boom boxes abound. Yep, speaker systems of varying sizes draped over shoulders with straps, carried atop shoulders with arms draped over to keep them balanced and high fidelity speakers on wheeled carts with people draped on them tapping a beat.
I was born and, for the most part, raised in Chicago, the eternal home of the Blues. I grew up sneaking into blues clubs way before I was of legal age and spent my formative years hitting the incredible concert scene that streams through the windy city like water through the pipes of your home. I grew up ensconced in a culture defined by and identified with music.
In the same way one can recognize a brother in spirit, I quickly understood the extremely tight ties that bond the Cuban people to their muse. Maybe not so much muse, but more their storyteller! Innately, I felt at home with a group of people whose music so inspired and permeated their souls it directly influenced not just the way they danced but also the way they walked and talked.
Their every movement is infused with the rhythm of salsa, just as every movement of every Chi-town native is imbued with the three-chord blues progression. The way they walk, the inflections and enunciations used in their conversations, the subsequent attitudes they manifest, the way they cook their foods – all aspects of their behavior and lifestyle are inherently tied to Salsa.
Think spicy, sweet and seasoned. Envision charming, endearing and intimate. Conjure festive, jovial and silly. Imagine sultry, fluid and stimulating. Conceive uplifting, reinvigorating and reassuring. Now picture all of these descriptive words imbuing every nuance of every action of every citizen.
An entire city energized by and connected to the same heartbeat. Pretty cool if you ask me, and quite distinctive as cultural norms go!
Walking the streets of Havana is a photographer’s wet dream. The buildings and structures present a cornucopia of interesting angles, viewpoints and perspectives. Because the country has lived in socio-economic prison for over 60 years, the conditions most buildings are in start at rundown and de-evolve from there in a haphazard line of have’s and have not’s to dilapidated at best.
Concrete block buildings dominate the cityscape, with 85% of them having holes in walls, roofs and floors as part of the overall charm offered to the average family dwelling therein. Broken windows appear in virtually every façade, seemingly done not by accident, but so as to provide either a view of the action outside, a laundry hanging spot or simply an air ventilator.
Notwithstanding the fact temperatures can get excessive on this little island, air conditioning was practically non-existent. I think maybe we saw a total of four window units in the entire city. Staying at home is too hot, boring and uncomfortable – let alone drab. Because of this reality, life in Havana happens on the streets.
Outside, Havana is a smorgasbord of non-stop activity, all day and all night. Truly, this city never sleeps, especially if you live near the Malecon, or boardwalk. Sooner or later, everyone ends up out by the water. The Malecon stretches a long way beside the city, providing many miles of waterfront for folks to hang out and enjoy the cool ocean breeze. And hang out they do, for hours upon hours.
Each night we stayed in Havana we would take a walk along the ocean for the people watching. Thousands of people lined the Malecon each night to dance, drink, play, barbeque and laugh – both often and loudly. The residents of this city make the best of it all, and do so together. We saw bottles of rum passed around and shared amongst many, what one person had the others were welcome to until it was all gone.
Tomorrow is another day to figure out whose turn it is to bring the elixir. Today, we share and enjoy what we have collectively.
For most people, me as well, when you land in Havana it’s the cars that immediately grab your attention and steal the show. A classic car collector’s dream display! Basically, you see cars only shown in movies from days long ago. Fantastic steel built vehicles with style and substance, made to last in a way no modern country seems to remember whatsoever.
If you love the heyday of American carmakers, that being the time from 1920-1960, then you will be in car heaven when visiting Havana. Cars with twelve foot long fishtails, curved hoods and trunks, steel bumpers that bend but never break, detailed chrome moldings, vibrant colors and V-8 engines the size of Mini-Cooper’s.
Absolutely fantastic to step back in time and see these cars rolling down the roads. I can only imagine the ingenuity required to keep them all running with no available parts made, let alone allowed to be shipped in. I have a feeling the guys keeping them all together aren’t just mechanics, but artists.