" Havana is very much like a rose: it has petals, and it has thorns... So it depends on how you grab it, but in the end, it always grabs you..." (The Lost City)
Life here seems simple and slower. Everything operates in slow living mode. Cars – new and mostly relics from the past – alongside cycle-rickshaws, coco-taxis and horse carriages move at a leisurely pace creating a traffic-free city. Colourful cloths lines that decorate every wrought-iron balcony slowly swing on a gentle, almost undetectable warm breeze. Street dogs wander around the narrow cobblestone streets. In the middle of the Plaza Vieja, kids play baseball. Smell of rich coffee and freshly lit cigars engage the senses and awaken the free bohemian spirit. Live music, an essential ingredient to life, comes from every corner and bar; the signature tune of Chan Chan are slowly penetration the air giving rise to nostalgia and joy at the same time.
Out of the rooftop terrace of Ambos Mundos Hotel, home to Hemingway for seven years in the 30s, one can witness the Atlantic's waves crashing slowly against the seawalls while separating the island from the world by water and not only. Colonial buildings, most of them newly renovated (since my last visit, seven years ago), other still timeworn, faded in colour, speak of a past that was much more grandeur and vibrant. Wooden doors are open right out into the street and envelop a slice of life somehow different from what we know.
Life happens on the street here and people are watching. Whether from a vantage point of a doorstep, or a bench, or while waiting in a queue, but mostly from their balconies, people observe the world passing by their eyes. There is no hurry here (Cubans operate in a different time frame from the one we are used to – "Cuban time"). There is just life unfolding the way it is supposed to unfold and readiness of embracing it with an opulent joy. There is a presence of calmness and an absence of time that makes Havana pules with different energy and liveliness. There is this undefined flavour to the city – charisma, romance, beauty, charming classic cars and endless sunshine that makes you forget this is still a country that remains a bastion of communism and central planning, with different economic, social and cultural life. Despite the free education and the universal health care, Cubans face poverty and day-to-day problems – wage levels, double-currency system, shortage of basic goods, lack of transportation, limited access to information and Internet (beneficial to us as tourists), restriction for traveling and assembly, est.
But, there is also a tangible sense of change and hope for transformation impossible to be overlooked this time. "Cuba is changing", "We want change", we were told by the locals we met. In fact, a recent law allows more citizens to run their own businesses, and properties in the historic quarter now available to rent from the state creates a new wave of self-employment. I believe Cuban people deserve better choices: yet, I know from experience that social and economical changes take time and will happen slowly as everything here on this geographical location.
The big challenge, however, would be balancing modernization and preservation of authenticity and richness of Cuban life beyond money and possessions.
The slow pace of life, the captivating colours that burst the artistic souls, the tremendous beauty and charm in things that many would argue to be the opposite, the unspoiled nature and these people who are vibrant, filled with vitality and contagious zest for life, I hope will always stay the same.
Dear friends, Happy New Year!
It gives you an opportunity to fill those fresh 365 days with whatever your hearts desire. May 2015 be the most exciting ever. I feel grateful and blessed for mine starting with this wonderful trip to one of the most fascinating places in the world.