The Secret of Havana
By Adam Morel
A middle aged man with a tattered shirt and bloodshot eyes, giving a bear hug, speaking emphatically in a language his new found friend cannot understand.
A single mother with bright eyes, writing directions in broken English to a neighborhood gathering later in the evening.
A plump, optimistic neighbor serving bread and eggs, fruit and ham, walking gingerly though a buckling hallway without a ceiling, to a table set with pewter and lace.
An old man laughing in the street, refusing to help with directions until the lost soul first “makes friendship” with him as he shows off prized photographs hung carefully on the splattered walls of his collapsing cantina.
An elderly, well-to-do couple, pointing with pride from building to building, watching the reaction of their esteemed guests, eyes misting as they describe the loss of their beloved Fidel.
A busy driver with a tiny American flag hanging from his mirror, lustily sharing his black market successes, talking politics while racing between towns to show off the countryside.
A gangly, weathered farmer nervously clutching a cardboard box in a dilapidated barn, fearfully selling sell clandestine cigars for three pesos each.
A tourist with a make-believe beard and an anxious heart, overwhelmed.
You can read all the books, look at all the photographs and watch all the documentaries. Nothing prepares you for Havana – or reveals its true nature. Yes, the classic automobiles, the majestic colonial architecture and the pulsing music are there, all of it more vibrant, more splendid, more everything, than depicted. And yes, the cobblestone streets and the crumbling asphalt ones too, literally teem, day and night, with life – the local poor, wide-eyed tourists, friendly hustlers, hookers, joyful children, multitudes of dogs and cats, purveyors of bread and goats and cheese and nuts, all that life undulating as one, ribbon-like, down narrow, dusty streets, tree-lined boulevards and along the gulf-soaked sea wall, the furtive, famous Malecon.
But the part of Havana, its essential part, missed in all that preparation, is the rough, sweet touch of the hands of the old woman, the hard, friendly slap across the shoulders of the backstreet rummy, the desperate salesmanship of the new entrepreneur, the baleful, yearning eyes of the beautiful young widow. To learn the secret of Havana, to truly know the iconic, languid, bursting-at-the-seams Havana, you must start in Centro Habana, in the middle of Crespo street, between Trocadero and Colon, on a bright Wednesday afternoon, and look for three men seated at a rickety card table, trapped in an endless game of dominos, sharing a three dollar bottle of rum.
Sitting is hardly the way to describe what the three men are doing, for they are so animated, so flush with movement and chatter, they seem to hover above their chairs, pushing the pieces across the table frantically with one hand, alternately smoking and swilling with the other. The men have been doing this, playing dominoes and drinking and smoking, in the middle of the day, all day, for most of their lives. Yet nothing about the scene feels routine. You get the sense, as you do everywhere you go as you explore the capital of our unlikely neighbor that the men are waiting for something while they play. They’ve waited for fifty years, a lifetime for many of them, and it is as if they sense the waiting is almost over. It’s not just the three men. It’s written across Havana in the lines of the faces of the old people and it reverberates in the rippling personalities of the young.
If Havana is anything in mid-February 2017, it is anxious with a bounce in its step. Walk its neighborhoods from Miramar to Vedado, from Cojimar to Habana Vieja. Stop and look. And listen. Like the cafecito which rivals rum as the most popular libation of residents and visitors alike, you can hear Havana percolating with ambition.
So read the guide books, look at the magnificent photographs and watch the documentaries. And then, go. These days, you can plan it yourself. Be prepared to self-certify before departing the airport that you are going to Cuba for a reason deemed worthy by the U.S. government, whether for an Educational “People to People Exchange,” for Professional Research or any of the other 12 approved categories for travel.
Do your research, pack your bags and keep your senses keen. One day, who knows how many years in the future, Havana will be a different place. Whether that place will be better or worse will be a matter of debate for the Cuban people and for their eager visitors. In the meantime, ponder this: How many places can you go where you can sit on a crumbling sea wall in a colonial city of two million people, smoke a cigar and hear between the crashing waves, the sound of history tiptoeing forward?
A last word of advice. When you climb down from the Malecon, after marveling at the churches, cars and museums, find the old woman, the rummy, the middle-aged driver, the nervous farmer, the laughing children and the old men biding their time on Crespo Street. Spend a little time with them. Don’t worry about the language barrier. Extend your hands and your heart to them. They’ll tell you the secret of Havana with their eyes.
Adam Morel is a New England born, southern-bred trial lawyer, traveler and writer in search of rapture in the routine and the miraculous in the mundane. When he isn’t in the courtroom, you can find him transfixed over a keyboard, capturing what he sees as the essence of the world around us and the regular folks that inhabit it. Adam graduated from the University of Florida with a BS in Telecommunication before earning his law degree from the Cumberland School of Law. Adam is the older brother of Old Town Crier contributing writer and Alexandria resident, Glenn Morel.