The Old Havana of Others

Irina Pino

Tourists in Old Havana. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — I am often invaded by the same feeling described by Ernesto Perez Chang in his recent article for Havana Times (Cuba: On Fences, Walls and Other Demarcations), particularly when I walk around Old Havana, a place in the city frequented by foreign and Cuban tourists, whose cobbled streets and colonial architecture takes us back in time.

Talking a walk around this old and refurbished quarter of the city, where one always seems to find something new, something one missed during a previous stroll among the ancient buildings, is very agreeable experience.

I make a habit of going to the Casa del Chocolate (the old town’s chocolate museum) to savor a hot cup of the liquid aphrodisiac and some cookies. I take my time, trying to prolong the pleasure. When I walk out of the establishment, however, the sense of reigning poverty hits me again.

I see foreigners sitting at restaurants all about, where they enjoy a good meal and a pleasant after-meal chat. Satisfied, they then set out to buy small flasks of natural perfumes at the Casa del perfume (“Perfume Shop”).

You can tell they are not Cuban just by looking at the way the dress: they wear simple but quality clothes. Their heads are covered with light hats. They carry daypacks and small purses, wear comfortable shoes. They are relaxed when they walk.

We, on the other hand, are constantly stressed, full of immediate and anxious plans, beating our heads trying to figure out what we will eat tomorrow or how we’ll manage to pay the bills at the end of the month. These matters torment us and keep us from taking in the wonders of the old town.

There are many stores that sell brand clothing, shoes and other products, which we glance at out of the corner of our eyes, stores we go into only to “have a look.” We content ourselves with the small craft kiosks that decorate every corner, every threshold – even though we don’t buy anything there either, because we don’t need it and, anyways, most of the crafts they sell aren’t exactly cheap either.

We want to enjoy the artworks at museums, grab hold of the city, but the city was taken away from us long ago. We content ourselves with walking, buying the occasional sweet, ice-cream or soft drink.

We want only a small taste of the city, even after we’ve come out of a concert at the San Francisco de Asis convent, even after we’ve enjoyed the works of Cuban painter Servando Cabrera at the Fine Arts Museum. Even if we’ve had a chance to get know the city’s camera obscure, the city remains distant and unreal. We feel like foreigners, strangers in our own land.

2 thoughts on “The Old Havana of Others

  • I have visited Cuba 10x now. And when I stay in Habana I choose to stay at a Casa in the Habana Centro area, in a very rundown part of town near the hospital. I had never actually visited the tourist area that is known as Old Habana till this past summer. And as a photographer I avoided the main tourist areas while looking for the ‘real’ Habana. My only reason for being in that part of town was to have some nice glasses made for myself. Irina I also know how you would feel. For even me as a tourist, albeit not a normal type of tourist. Also felt out of place and poor amongst these other ‘rich’ tourists. For I too would never have been able to afford to go into many of these shops and restaurants. The 80CUC in my pocket might seem as a lot to you, though it is also a lot to me. And it would not have lasted for long in these establishments. So me and my Cuban friend walked for quite a while back towards Habana Centro till I finally said OK I think that we might be able to have a few reasonably priced beers at this place… For I was also a stranger back in that part of town. A nice place to visit, though I wouldn’t want to live there. Though Irina, it is the same in my country for there are also many places that I could never be able to afford to go into. I can only look. In a way it is all relative… and not just in Cuba.

  • I sense that Irina, like many Cubans have a false image of the world. Here in San Francisco, I see similar contrasts between tourists and locals. The whole point of vacations is to relax. The same tourists one sees strolling Calle Obispo in Havana Vieja likely returns to Toronto, or Rome, or Berlin rushing around stressed out and worrying about how to pay the bills, including the last vacation to Havana! Because Cubans generally lack good information about how people really live outside of Cuba, Irina and many Cubans seem to believe that people stroll and take in the sights where they live and work as well. Ojala! The grass is always greener…

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