When were you last in a city where you could climb up on to the roof of your hotel or hostel, look up, and see a sky full of stars? No clouds, no light pollution and only the sound of children playing on the street, the neighbours laughter and the faint vibrations from the live music sessions happening at a nearby bodega to distract your senses.
What makes Havana truly unique is that you never know what you are going to get. Purposefully getting lost, meandering down wide unpaved streets or narrow alleyways, can lead to the great unknown. As you peek into each doorway, you are never quite sure what you are looking at. A stairway to an apartment block by night, a makeshift souvenir shop by day. The narrowest of doorways can be the greatest of treasures.
You peer inside the next door, as you hear the soft beat of Cuban music, expecting to see a bar. Instead you see a family of 7, sitting back in arm chairs, chatting animatedly while they listen to their favourite tunes. You see a road side barber shop, a man scalping a chicken, a woman preparing dinner, or a seemingly informal bodega where the bar man is tempting you in with the promise of the best Mojito in Havana.
I’ve only been in this electric city for 24 hours but I’ve already fallen in love with the colourful chaos.
The streets are alive with colour. The buildings, the vintage cars which fill the streets, and the animated locals create a rainbow backdrop for your photos, from pastels to hot pink. You can simply cannot take a bad photo here so much so that after a while it’s best to but the camera away and take it all in with your own eyes, a city like no other in a country that was closed off for years.
The lack of internet is a welcome reprieve from my busy life. As you sit down for a drink or quick bite to eat, no one has their head stuck in their phones. Everyone is sitting back, enjoying the live music, chatting to their friends or loved ones, or simple watching the world go by. My friend and I decide to use this time to observe the fashion choices of both locals and passersby. The belly top and tight jean combo is in. As are neon green and pink. We could be back in the nineties, all we are missing is some platform heels. Cruise ship tourists are easy to spot – as are the fashion bloggers in town in search of the perfect spot for a photo shoot.
As we wander down streets and across the smaller squares away from the tourist drag (yes this now exists in Havana, as we always knew it would) you get a better glimpse of the locals and their every day lives. A group of men, including a police man, stand around watching a man clip a chicken. Two women sit on a park bench in traditional dress, smoking Cuban cigars. A group of young guys are playing checkers, bottle of Rum and some shot glasses stacked up on the table beside them. I ask if I can take a photo, they stop their game, don some sunglasses and strike a pose of cheeky smiles.
Getting a drink in Havana is all part of the fun. Every bar is different, but the smaller and quieter the better. While hundreds flock to La Bodeguita del Medio, Ernest Hemingway’s old drinking hole, for live music (if you can hear it over the swarms of camera shutters) and overpriced cocktails, the smaller dive bars nearby will offer you a better deal. Both in drink quality, atmosphere, and with an added personal welcome. Pop a spot at the bar, and listen to the bar mans favourite tips on where to go out later that night. Smile as he asks to take you dancing, and smile even more as he pours you a beautifully strong Cuba Libre…and an extra half shot for good measure!
When you return to your casa, the lack of internet creates a brief moment of awkwardness. That two hour period when you would usually open up your phone or iPad, connect with the social media world or watch your favourite TV shows, is replaced with silence. What are we supposed to do? We end up talking to the owner, to his father, to the other guests. We read a book, look back on the photographs we took, sleep for a while. We listen to the noises out on the street, happy to know we are not alone in this offline world. Happy to hear the sounds and see the sights of a nation not glued to their computers.
My first impression of Havana will stick with me, unchanged, forever. Even if Havana itself will change, and surely it will.