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El Capitolio Nacional

13-17 February 2017. Even arriving in Cuba is different. We wait for an hour in the baggage collection area for our bags to arrive. While we are waiting the conveyor belt spits out dozens, maybe hundreds, of huge plastic-wrapped balls that roll across the floor and gather in a pile. They are maybe two or three feet in diameter and whatever is in them is shrouded in layers and layers of plastic. There appears to be no tags on them, and we conclude they must be part of the mysterious way Cubans manage to import goods into their country.

Our Cuban friend, “Pedro”, tells us that it is forbidden to import cars, but they can import car parts, so entire cars are imported in pieces. They are forbidden to import electric bikes but can import them in pieces from Panama. This seems as good an illustration as any of the bizarre and confounding reality of Cuba today.

After claiming our bags we line up for another hour to buy Cuban tourist currency, CUC’s, and then finally get a taxi to our casa particular in Old Havana. The apartment is up four long flights of stairs in what seems to be a gritty and run-down part of town, until we realise that except for the restored areas it’s all gritty and run-down.

Luckily there are some other people entering the building at the same time and two strong young men carry our bags up for us. In the casa we have an en suite room off the communal dining room where we are served breakfast every morning. Gerardo is our host. His son Erik cooks breakfast. Getting up early to first buy the food, and then cook breakfast for guests at his father’s casa is a second job. As with just about everyone in Cuba, one job is not enough to support even a small family. Breakfast is delicious and sumptuous. Every day we are served a big plate of fruit (banana, guava, papaya, pineapple, mamay) and home-made plain yogurt, followed by eggs any style and big hot crispy rolls and butter, coffee and tea and juice, all for 5 CUC (US$5) each.

At the front of the apartment there is a sitting room, and a window onto the street.

From Don: We walked to the nearby Plaza Viejo, which was buzzing with life and music and many restaurants. The buildings that form the perimeter of the plaza have all been beautifully restored, in sharp contrast to the crumbling apartment buildings beyond the perimeter. We had dinner at one of the restaurants just off the plaza: I had the toughest fish I’ve ever had the misfortune to try to eat: it reminded me of Charlie Chaplin in “The Gold Rush” savoring the sole of his boot. I gave up on the fish after a few mouthfuls as my jaw ached, but my feet continued tapping to the fabulous live music.

Plaza Viejo

Havana dates back to the 16th century. Its strategic location allowed the Spanish a base and safe harbour for their conquest of South America, as well as a place for their treasure-laden galleons to refuel and refit before returning to Spain. It has a long history, surviving pirates, wars, occupation, and revolution. In the early 1800’s when many of the mansions were built, it flourished and became so fashionable it was known as the Paris of the Antilles. Havana still lives and breathes this history, the good and the bad, creating a rich visual and energetic jumble.

The city is insistent in a way that’s hard to describe. The crowded streets, the noise, the dirt, the music, the dancing, the feeling of decay and neglect all contribute to the tapestry. There are beautifully restored buildings from several different eras,

Plaza Viejo

Hotel Los Frailes

Hotel Inglaterra

and there are endless crowded streets crumbling from fifty years of crushing neglect, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

There are leafy green boulevards, parks, and suburbs,

Museo de la Revolucion

and buildings in such a state of disrepair that outer walls have fallen down with fatal results.

There are pockets of beauty

in the same neighbourhood as disintegrating buildings succumbing to the forces of nature with trees and vines growing from the roof and walls.

There is a ruthless poverty that forces the people to be inventive and at times dully resigned, and yet the city somehow survives and thrives with an in-your-face bravado that pulses and pushes at you wherever you go. It’s rarely glamorous (though signs of earlier glamour are everywhere) but it cannot be ignored.

More than in any other city we’ve been to, people live in the many times subdivided mansions of the once wealthy. In Old Havana 85,000 people are squished into a 4.4 square kilometre area. Through open doors to inner courtyards, and from upper balconies, we get a glimpse into the many accommodations created from what were once grand villas.

With the strong support of Fidel Castro, and with the help of overseas funding, the Office of the Historian of the City under the leadership of Eusebio Leal Spengler, has been putting enormous effort into preserving and restoring Old Havana, the core of the original city, and since 1982 a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a slow painstaking process one building at a time that is always hampered by lack of funds. Now that Fidel is gone we wonder what will happen. We ask Pedro how Fidel’s brother Raúl, the current President of Cuba, feels about the restoration project. Pedro’s answer is perhaps a little cryptic. He says simply that Raúl is more interested in the economy.

Currently under restoration is El Capitolio Nacional, built in 1929, long before the revolution, to accommodate the Senate and the House of Representatives. Its dome still dominating the Havana skyline, El Capitolio was inspired by the Capitol building in Washington.

There is a grace that persists no matter the lack of funds for maintenance or restoration. Entire buildings on almost every street

and largely disregarded treasures around every corner

speak of earlier times when beauty was affordable. Despite difficult circumstances the defiant beauty refuses to die.

On another day we explore the church of Our Lady of Mercy (Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Merced) and find again the defiant beauty. The paint may be peeling and faded, but age and poverty cannot erase the soaring elegance of design and the rich golden details.

We walk with Pedro down the broad Paseo de Marti, busy with locals and tourists alike,

passing school girls dancing,

and a wedding party.

At the end of the Paseo we reach the Malecón, a waterfront boulevard that runs along the north coast of the city, where locals gather to chat, walk, fish, and watch the sunset.

Havana is this:

and this:

and this:

and so much more.

Once the grand dame of the Caribbean with hundreds of magnificent buildings spanning several eras, it is now crumbling and dilapidated except for a slow painstaking rehabilitation that is, one by one, bringing some of these glorious old buildings to life again. The city has an unmistakable charm despite the grittiness of everyday life. It’s a worn old lady with an irrepressible heart and the soul of a musician. Cubans are famous for finding a way to deal with the restrictions they face, and their ebullient spirit cannot be suppressed.

Next post: the people, the cars, the food, the music!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2017.