HAVANA, Cuba — There's an odd, tactile quality to the air in Havana. I realized this the morning after I arrived when I opened a window to take in the view from my seventh floor hotel room, and was engulfed in heavy, warm humidity, even though it was still early in the day. I couldn't put my finger on what felt (and smelled) so different at the time, but I later learned that pollution from an oil refinery in the harbor was largely responsible, though all the vintage Cadillacs and Chevys — no catalytic converters here — tooling around must do their part, too.
I didn't mind the greasy feel to the air, even came to kind of like it. It's what I associated most viscerally about being in Havana and somehow connected it with the lost-in-time quality of the place, which doesn't appear to have changed at all since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The crumbling buildings are strangely elegant from a distance, though once you get up close, it's shocking how badly they have been neglected. Havana is literally falling apart.
But there is a teeming humanity to the place that is invigorating. The lack of skyscrapers and franchise stores is disorienting at first, and then you figure out that's why it feels so interesting to walk around the densely urban jumble, paying attention to people on the street, rather than to tall buildings and commerce.
You can enjoy the same feeling, of course, in sections of walkable U.S. cities like New Orleans or Savannah, Ga., but there's usually a Gap or McDonald's around the corner. In Havana, the urban time clock goes backward. Instead of a futuristic bank tower, you're more likely to see signs of the rural roots of the city, such as horses cantering in a field next to the road into the city from Jose Marti International Airport, interspersed with billboards that read "Revolucion Siempre" or "Todo por la Revolucion."
I was in Havana with a wind quintet from the Florida Orchestra, the first foray of a cultural exchange between the orchestra and Cuba's classical music institutions. Because it was a brief trip over just a couple of days in September and October, virtually all my time was taken up by concerts and other musical events, but I did manage to get out on my own for a stroll through Old Havana one afternoon. I organized my tour around a novel I was reading.
To Have and Have Not is not considered one of Ernest Hemingway's greatest works (Papa himself was dismissive, calling it his worst book), but the story of Harry Morgan, a fishing boat captain who runs contraband between Cuba and Key West, is a heck of a good yarn, though probably better known from the movie, starring Humphrey Bogart and transplanted to Martinique. Hemingway grabs you right from the opening sentences:
"You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings; before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars? Well, we came across the square from the dock to the Pearl of San Francisco Cafe to get coffee and there was only one beggar awake in the square and he was getting a drink out of the fountain."
This sets the scene for a mob killing that Morgan witnesses in the square, which I assumed had to be Plaza de San Francisco or someplace like it, so I set out to walk in that direction. I took in some of the standard sights — such as El Morro Castle, viewed from the famous Malecon on the seafront — but was most struck by what I saw along the narrow cobblestoned streets through residential areas. Most of the buildings were two or three stories high, with laundry drying on ornate wrought-iron balconies. It was a hot afternoon, and panting dogs lay down in the middle of the dusty streets. People were milling around, or hanging out open windows, with the sound of salsa coming from radios inside. I saw quite a few guys wearing New York Yankees caps. A woman swept with a broom made of palm leaves. The effect was picturesque, except that when you peered into these buildings, the living conditions looked awful, with cracked walls, no lights and piles of rubble.
Incidentally, I didn't hear any anti-America remarks during my visit. Cubans were painfully nice, though there was a brief hangup in getting my credentials at the International Press Center, where I paid about $60 for a journalist's license. Because Havana is so poor, at times I felt like a rich American tourist. There was an uncomfortable moment at a flea market where a woman grabbed me by the arm and wouldn't let me go until I looked at the wood spoons and bowls for sale in her booth. Once, as the Florida Orchestra delegation got off its tour bus, a beggar woman shouted at us, "This is a country with problems!"
Plaza de San Francisco is more posh than it was in Hemingway's day, but the fountain where the beggar in To Have and Have Not got a drink of water is still there. Where the fishing docks were is now the Terminal Sierra Maestra, a port for ferry boats and cruise ships. Dominating the plaza is a massive stone structure, the 16th century basilica and monastery of San Francisco de Asis, now a splendid concert hall. When I got there, a large crowd, stylishly dressed — it could have been New York, except that almost everyone was smoking — waited for a performance in a festival of music by Leo Brouwer, probably Cuba's leading living composer. The whole plaza, which features a bar billed as the oldest in Havana, Dos Hermanos, had a musical ambience, from the guitar trio singing Quizas, Quizas, Quizas outside a restaurant to the statue of Chopin. I found a corner cafe and had a cup of Cuban espresso, the best pick-me-up in the world.
On a Saturday morning, I went to a rehearsal of the Cuban National Symphony, which was being held at the Teatro Nacional de Cuba, where the infrastructure was typical of so much I saw in Havana. The theater was in terrible disrepair — missing panels of a glass wall were not even boarded up but remained open to the elements — and the rehearsal had to be cut short because of an electrical power outage. In Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, the second oboe played a solo normally done by English horn, because that instrument was not available. I was told there are only six English horns in the entire country. Yet the orchestra sounded good, led by Daiana Garcia, a demonstrative, talkative conductor. Monica Betancourt, the soloist in the Saint-Saens Violin Concerto No. 3, made up for not having a top-flight violin by playing with lyrical expressiveness.
Across the street from the theater is one of the iconic sites of Havana, the Plaza de la Revolucion, where Fidel Castro has delivered long-winded speeches to crowds of up to 1 million. Pope John Paul II spoke there when he visited Cuba in 1998. It's a vast stretch of asphalt, surrounding a towering memorial to Jose Marti, the George Washington of Cuban independence from Spain. Across the plaza is perhaps the most photographed image in the country, the massive outline of Che Guevara on the side of the Ministry of the Interior.
Politics are central to the experience of traveling to Cuba, and the arts are an integral part of the Revolution, but that was the farthest thing from my mind when I saw the Cuban National Ballet, which performs at the Gran Teatro de la Habana, another wreck of a once-beautiful building, opened in 1915. Even though part of the ballet company was on a tour to Spain, the level of dancing was fantastic, and the repertory was refreshingly contemporary. Each of the five works on the program was by an unfamiliar (to me) choreographer, and the staging was colorfully offbeat, like the man-eating plant represented by undulating dancers in Gustavo Herrera's Dionaea, to music by Villa Lobos. In many ways, the ballet was an apt metaphor for Havana: a vibrant, exotic performance in a dilapidated old palace.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.