25.01.2013 - 31.01.2013
The cab spits me out onto the narrow pavement and speeds away angrily, just because I dared to make him look for the right address instead of letting him dump me in the right "general" area. I sigh and pick up my new, shiny, untarnished backpack. Taking taxis in the developing country is, despite 20-odd bungyjumps and other adrenaline activities, still the most extreme of experiences.
I am standing on a backstreet of Havanna, in the fading orange late afternoon light, surveying my surroundings, scenes plucked out of a coffe-table book - kids playing games on the pavement, using mandarines as balls; they land by my feet with a wet thump while the cars negotiate the kids and the kids negotiate the rules. I nudge it back to the smallest boy. He looks at me, confused, so I smile, and in reward, am rewarded by the most brilliant smile ever. In London I would have been knifed. At the street corner, a man is selling braids of garlics so white they are almost blue. A young woman stops to talk to him, providing a delicious contrast in her blue dress against the yellow wall. She laughs, loudly, cacklingly, and immediately changes her tone to berate a little girl lagging behind. The old man sitting by his door has pulled his armchair out onto the street to sit in and is quering after my well-being - his face is a wonderful map of deep wrinkles and his clothes tell a story of better times. I tell him I'm fine, just fine, I am, after all, in Havanna.
If there is one word to describe Havanna, it is romantic. The city is like an old cabaret singer, once glamorous, still full of attitude, and having never quite made it, it's now clinging onto its fading beauty and the nostalgia of what could have been. I love cities like this. They look lived-in, almost like all the life that's taken place inside the walls couldn't be contained, and the facades are bursting at the seams. In fact, the peeling paint and missing railings give the city a feel that the next storm from the Caribbean might just make it tumble down like dominoes. No one seems too worried though. A bit of Unesco money goes a long way in Habana Vieja, but I am in Habana Centro, where roads smell a bit more of pee and kids have slightly raggier clothes on.
Soon I make new friends at the hostel and they feel like the best friends I've ever had- definate upside of travelling, this quick bonding. We venture out to old Havanna, walking along the derelict seaside walk, the Malecon, where waves beat the city fortification, old pink and green cadillacs saunter along cos they won't go faster than 40 miles an hour, and hopeful makeshift bands do their buenavistasocialclub -repertoire for tourists in hope for a few cucs. We walk the town, through the four main squares, taking on a church and a plaza after another. The tout-to-tourist ratio is higher here than anywhere I've been, and I get fed up within an hour. We escape onto the rooftop of a grand hotel, watching the sunset-lit view over the town. I make a rookie mistake of ordering a Cuba Libre just for the name, forgetting its only rum and coke; a bit wiser, I follow it with the strongest mojito I've ever had. My new best friends have piña coladas and daiquiries and we swap and change our drinks as the sun disappears behind the posh hotels far way in the Vedado district. Yep, I think I'm going like Cuba.