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The wrong side of the street

There’s a danger, if you have too little time in Havana, that you only see one of its many sides, and this will largely depend on where you stay and how far you venture. You could come away wondering why people talk about the decrepit buildings and palpable poverty. Or why they declaim the dirt and squalor in which too many families have to live. Perhaps it might be because your part of town was rather lovely, recently renovated, and looking good.

We were lucky enough to have the time and the inclination to walk the streets of the various neighbourhoods and to see maybe a little more than most who spend the obligatory two days in the city before heading on to the beach resorts.

Our first night, we met up with friends who’d arrived a couple of days before us and stayed in a small hotel, El Encanto, on Calle Perseverancia, near the corner of Virtudes, just below El Barrio Chino (Chinatown) in Centro Habana, a residential neighbourhood between the two main tourist areas. It sits to the right (walking up from the sea) of the grand Prado (Paseo de Marti), a pedestrian, tree-lined walkway reminiscent of Las Ramblas in Barcelona , just a few minutes walk to the Malecón and about 15 minutes from La Habana Viejo (Old Town Havana). It was a great introduction to the city.

The architecture is fascinating.  Stunningly beautiful. Yes, it’s run down, shabby, and faded to some shallow semblance of its former glory, but it’s fab. The colours are still there. Still visible. The streets are alive. Living. Real. People are everywhere. Hanging about on stoops, sitting, watching, talking on their phones. Or queuing to buy food. (I never once saw a clothes shop, other than the likes of Jay Lo and Benetton over in Viejo.) It was a culture shock. I hadn’t expected it to be so ripe. The smells and sounds of India came flooding back. I had to remind myself that, technically, I was in the Caribbean. A first for me. But it was far from what I expected, not that I’m even sure what that was in the first place.

I was shocked at some of the living conditions. I felt the weight of privilege. I felt awkward, uncomfortable, unsure of whether or not I should be taking photos. I thought of the back streets in Naples. The rubble. I thought of the pathless streets of Baku just off the main drag where the real people live. I couldn’t get a grip on where I was.

The random streets signs that even my basic Spanish could see were affirmations of a sort competed with the sometimes disturbing graffiti. Children in uniforms left their barred-windowed classrooms to come out on the street for their morning PE. No matter how wild or weird it all seemed, I felt incredibly safe. Never once, even in the darkest alleyway, did I feel anything approaching fear. And that says something about the Cuban people.

And then at the edge of the ‘hood is the Parque Central, with its posh hotels, rows of classic convertibles, hordes of tourists sipping mojitos, on their phones, desperate for their Facebook fix. Another world completely. Mad. Surreal.

But probably most magnificent of all in this particular part of town is the massive sculpture by Rafael Miranda San Juan, Primavera, part of the exhibition Behind the Wall that ran parallel to the Biennial in 2015. A gift to the city, it sits on the corner of Galiano and Malecón and is truly stunning. A homage to Cuban women, to their strength, and their beauty, the artist asks ‘Why women? Because they are the utmost expression of life.’

A piece of trivia (subject to Google Translate): Instead of hair, she placed butterflies on her head, flowers that were much appreciated by the women of the countryside, for they adorned and perfumed them. They were also used in bridal bouquets, and it is even said that in their thick stems messages were hidden during the wars of independence of the nineteenth century. All these reasons made the butterfly, although native to Asia, declared the national flower of Cuba in 1936.

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