From my 2nd floor balcony with view over the street, music suddenly breaks through the quiet noise of women gossiping in the door ways and children playing in this twilight of a Sunday evening in Centro Habana:
“Ooh… New York… Ooh, New York…”
The tones float through the air and reach my balcony. There is that special smell that follows with humid air. I don’t know if it just happens here but Havana has this special smell. Humidity, and… food? Frijoles con arroz y pollo? Beans with rice and chicken? A Cuban classic.
The balmy air and the blueish tones of Alicia Keys and Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” make me strangely sentimental. I sip from my small glass of rum, and stand leaning over the balcony observing how life goes on here in this part of Havana where most tourists don’t come.
“There’s nothing you can’t do”
From here I can quietly observe everything from a distance. On the opposite corner, there is one of the small government-owned shops that sells coffee, rice, oil etc. I can’t go there. Of course I can’t. I’m a foreigner. I need to go to the more expensive supermarket (also state-owned, of course) a couple of blocks away or buy at the local markets. From time to time, a Cuban friend of mine brings me some cheaper coffee from the shop at the corner. Mostly when the supermarket is out of coffee.
“Now you’re in Neew Yoork”
The apartment is illegally rented. Of course. My salsa teacher’s stepfather’s old mother got sick, and moved out. They saw an opportunity in renting it out to me. Even though I know that they are charging me way above what the place would cost for a Cuban, I’m content. It is still cheaper than the casa particular where I stayed before. This one isn’t authorized by the Cuban state to house foreigners, so I can’t open the door for anybody I don’t know. I don’t have hot water but in the Cuban heat it doesn’t really matter. I don’t have aircon either. Sometimes I wake up at night and take a shower because I can’t stand the humid heat.
“These streets will make you feel brand new”
Centro Habana is not a place where they are used to foreigners, and especially not in this part. It is actually a pity that most tourists only stay in the historic area of La Habana Vieja because it has nothing to do with the life that most Cubans live in Havana. However, maybe it is understandable that most tourists stay away. Most of the other inhabitants in the area stare at me all the time. But I have made friends with the guys at the small fruit and vegetable market on the next corner, so if somebody is too annoying they will shout at him something like “vente a la pinga” (translation not desirable!).
“Big lights will inspire you”
I study the old buildings around me, the street with the broken pavement, and the men sitting by their table in the middle of the street playing domino. When a car every now and then passes by, they hurry but without too much hassle to put the table by the side to make enough room for the car to pass by. But as soon as the car has passed they put the table out on the street again, and continue playing.
“Hear it from New York, New York…“
And suddenly it hits me. Maybe it’s the rum. Maybe it is the humid air. But it hits me. The contrasts. The contrasts between the song, its dreams, and the reality here in the dusty roads of Centro Habana. Here there aren’t any big lights or streets that will make you brand new. Here there is low-hanging weak yellowish lighting and broken pavement. Here there are broken dreams, and surely many things which you can’t do.
“… New York…”
The difference between Havana and New York is striking. The music makes me sad. It used to be a song that filled me with a certain hope. Enthusiasm. Now it just makes me sad. I want those people there on the street to be able to feel the same enthusiasm… but I can’t.
“Hear it from the New York.”
Before I know of it the song has ended. But something stayed. That feeling. That memory. It is over 4 years since I stood on that balcony with a glass of rum in my hand leaning over the balcony to observe life go on in Centro Habana. I stayed for a total of 4 months in Havana studying Spanish at the University of Havana and experienced life in Cuba upfront. But these conflicting feelings of enthusiasm and sadness remained somewhere inside me. This realization of how deep the contrasts between Havana and New York are.
This is a guest post by Rebecca Hoffmann.