Havana is really a city that is experienced in every which way – sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. If you’re not experiencing it with every piece of yourself, you’re not doing it right.
It’s so alive, constantly moving around you, thrumming through your head, filling your nostrils and ears and eyes, making you wonder if you tried really hard if you could stretch out your hand and touch it, feel the chaos and vibrancy and history for yourself.
I let that thought guide me throughout the week and below I share a snapshot of my experiences in Havana, through each of the senses.
I wake up early and push wide the huge balcony doors, feel the rush of the day’s clatter going on below – already begun, despite the fact that the sun has not yet fully emerged from the night’s sky. Someone is doing a strange whistle – bird-like but bracing in its’ strength and too loud for the softness of the day.
Further down I hear the rumble of the construction they’re doing on a new, fancy hotel at the end of the block and a car horn beeping – probably at a lazy pedestrian who took their time crossing the road.
The water truck passes, the water splish splashing out the top as it hits a rut in the road. It’s old, Russian I’m pretty sure; most of the government vehicles are and their engines tend to rumble loudly as they pass. I have the thought that it could be on purpose so you know they’re there – the government. I shake the conspiracy away; that’s a bit silly, I think…maybe I need more sleep.
The salty air reaches my nostrils before the ocean comes to view, mingling with the multitude of other smells as I make my way towards it. I swear, in this city every couple of steps assault your nose in a new and sometimes confounding way.
Soapy water tossed over a balcony, rotting fruit, animal feces (I skip out of the way just before my foot lands), is that Chinese food? Roasting coffee, a bit of chocolate from the nearby shop, live chickens? Yes definitely live chickens.
I break into a light run and relish the feel of the breeze as it ruffles my hair. I focus on the smell of the sea as it whips through my lungs and for a while all I can smell is it…and me.
Old, ramshackle, rundown, in disrepair, well-loved, over-used. Shiny, renovated, updated, restored, renewed, revitalized. Any of these can be used simultaneously to describe nearly any piece of the Cuban picture at any time and it’s both fascinating and startling.
The cars from the 1940s and 1950s, some of which are barely stitched back together with borrowed parts and ingenuity, and others shining so bright their sparkle blinds you under the hot Havana sun.
The buildings, steeped in a grandeur of bygone days, some left to decay like the grandparent you put in a home and forgot about, and others the wonderful old woman who doesn’t let a day pass without putting on her lipstick and coifing her hair, unprepared to give in to age or disrepair, defying everyone not to see the beauty within.
The sidewalks in disrepair, the meridians with their planted palms and neatly squared cutouts, the streets with holes bigger than a four year old laying down, the sideways signs hanging on for dear life, and the nearly perfect malecón – nothing consistent except for the way it all catches your eye equally.
The air is thick today and heavy with the promise of rain later on but right now nothing moves, there are no clouds, and the humidity sits in your lungs like a balloon, choking you with each deep inhalation.
A man blows a thick ring of cigar smoke out in front of him and it drifts back to me as I follow behind him. I swipe through the dense air with my hand and shake the smoke away but it too moves slowly, lazy through the muddy air.
I touch my skin and wipe the moist from my brow where it lingers despite the fact that I’m moving at a snail’s pace and going nowhere fast.
The rum mingled with raw sugar cane and muddled with hierba buena slides easily down my throat, quenching my thirst and making me crave more. It feels kind of sexy – is that strange?
It might be the heat going to my head or one too many advertisements over the years, but it’s as though each drop of the rum passing over my tongue is separated, felt individually. What is it about this place? I chew absentmindedly on the sugar cane and enjoy the bark-like texture and soft sweetness while I reflect.
I realize rather absently that maybe I don’t care about the why. Maybe all I want is to keep experiencing it.
I lean back in my chair and dip another fried malanga fritter into the little pot of honey, let the flavours combine and consider if maybe, just maybe, I could stay here forever.