Every time I visit Cuba, I am amazed by its glow and the positive mood of its people. Admittedly, since I can speak their language, I can capture the nuances behind their stories, jokes and wit. When I first became interested in photography a few years ago, I was fascinated by the Cuban images from the 20’s; i.e., vintage American cars, smartly dressed people, mansions, dance halls and musicians, specially the musicians.
Havana in particular, as well as other parts of Cuba, gives you the rare opportunity to feel as if you are in a time-travel machine and you are embarking on a tour that effortlessly takes you to a scenery from eighty years ago. The Cubans, as long as you are able to find their cheerful side, are easy to photograph; they lend themselves to the camera cooperatively. Their body expression is part of their genetic print: from childhood, music and body movement become part of their second nature. It is not a cliche: there is something musical and consistent about every Cuban.
A pink or light-blue convertible Chevy Impala drives by and its speakers flood the air with music at pumped-up volume. Sounds are heard from the terraces at Plaza Vieja, where I enjoy sitting in the morning to sip coffee and see the tourists stroll about.
I must recognize that I move about with familiar ease in Old Havana: around its cathedral and between the Tejadillo and Cuba Streets. Even if it is only for the name of its streets, it is worth visiting this neighborhood. Also in the vicinity is San Lazaro, a ruined thoroughfare, yet an extraordinary ambiance.
I like Old Havana because, in fact, this section of town reflects the vision I have of this place in my imagination: a time tunnel and a return to the past. Here, I can recognize meat weighing scales that I have seen in the movies depicting the 20’s, as well as butcher shops that are no longer present in modern cities.
The local residents of this southern part of Old Havana are always ready to engage in conversation. Very few things can be more indulging for a Cuban than a pleasant chat, a few bursts of laughter, and if possible, maybe a shot of rum.
Every time I have the chance, I call on some shoe-mending friends on O’Reilly Street. A curious designation; I must inquire about the origin of this name. These tradesmen work together in a shop that seems to have been exported from an Italian village from the times described in the movie The Godfather I.
In preparation for each visit with my cobbler friends, I often purchase a bottle of rum and a few cola cans. If I will see them by lunch hour, I bring with me some sandwiches for their crew; and in this way, I try to reciprocate their cordial reception. On one occasion, they presented me with a Che-Guevara photo poster they kept hanging on the wall of their shop. I was immensely grateful.
When I am with them, I tell them about foreign travels. They love listening to my stories on distant countries they have never been to and they will hardly ever visit. In return, they bring me up-to-speed of the recent developments in the Cuban society; for instance, the illegal numbers game and the famous “USB package” that carries programs aired by “unlawful” TV chains (any chain other than the official TV stations), and which contents are distributed under the counter. I ask them about the new Cuban policies, but they have no idea. More often than not, it is them who eventually ask me.
On other occasions, I visit San Ignacio Street where I have found the most impressive spiral staircase I have ever seen. Its structure is in an apparently unstable balance, as it supports the weight of climbing tenants. The building, as well as its residents, is rickety. Yet, I love visiting them to share a few words and to take pictures, which is what I like.
Two blocks away, my barber his shop. He does not have much work to do with me. I am bald, and I usually fix on my own the scant hair I have left on my scalp. However, I love talking to him. He pretends he is cutting my hair, while I pretend I believe he is. It is my way to contribute to Havana’s industrial machinery. By the way, for my next trip, I must remember to bring along some shaving blades for him.
My barber collects photographs taken of him by his tourist patrons. He has built an interesting collection.
Curiously enough, San Ignacio is a dilapidated street, as is the case of a large section of the old district; however, the newly restored part of Old Havana starts north of the street in parallel to San Ignacio. The site is a true wonder: elegant stores and designer shops. On the right is one of the area’s most elegant plazas; and on the left, the magnificent Plaza de Armas, adjacent to the port rims.
As I keep walking, I arrive at the Rafael Trejo gym where excellent pugilists are training under the guidance of a coach who, back in the day, was a shining star of Cuba’s international boxing movement. When he has time, in between his training sessions, the coach tells me stories of his trips to Yemen and other countries that were formerly close to the Cuban regime.
There is so much I like about Cuba; so much I like about Havana.