An entry into yet another wonderful and architectural square, Plaza San Francisco. This is the second oldest square in Habana. Potted plants provided some greens on the large cobbled stone square surrounded by buildings. On the opposite end is Convento de San Francisco de Asis. Built in the end of the 16th century, it was later altered into the baroque style in 1730. Statues, fountains, the church with a tall bell tower and the impressive basilica gave this square a significant nostalgia of the old colonial world. Across a busy street from the square is the “Terminal Sierra Maestra”, Ferry Terminal.
Near Plaza Vieja, a uniformed museum guard explained a little bit about life here. He earned 25CUC a month and it is quite insufficient to buy anything more than basic necessities. He was quite inquisitive about my cost of travel and living in New Zealand. He suggested that he move to NZ to work and better his life. I did not object but suggested that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side. I quipped that the people here ‘happy’ and seemed to be contended. He agreed. People make do with whatever they get. He reassured to that even though poverty is real for most people, crime rate is very low. It is safe to walk anywhere in Havana after dark. It might sound unreal, I concurred that was my feeling too. Perhaps, it may be that I am not white and blended easily and therefore not targeted! The guard quickly returned to his day job. He is just, only just getting by economically. Crime rate are perhaps low as the punishment for crime is severe. Perhaps, since most Cubans are in the “same boat”, they look out for each other. A sense of community prevailed. I could sense this attribute.
After a long pause and playing with a little kid at the square, I continue my journey on the road of the colonials to Plaza Vieja. This square was once the site of executions, processions, bullfights, and fiestas. The Spanish colonials had brought their traditions to this idyllic Caribbean island. Perhaps I was already tired of walking for the day as I found this plaza not particularly exciting. A few metallic modern artworks occupied some corners of the plaza. The fountain in the middle had ceased operation. One building that caught my sight is the Factoria Plaza Vieja, a restaurant. To quench my thirst, I stopped for a cool sugar cane drink mixed with lime juice. It was heavenly. Sadly, for a country that once produced large quantities, I rarely found any sold on the streets.
On my return to my Casa, I opted to take a new street. The sun set early in the Caribbean. Street vendors tried to get their last sales of the day before heading home. Older people gathered to catch-up on the day’s events. Office workers clutched their handbags with some shopped items in their hands. Time for me get a nice cool shower too. One interesting feature on the streets are the use of old canons at traffic barriers. Just stuck into the street. At the end of the street, the massive white dome of the Capitolio faded into the soft and hazy twilight.
On Prado, I met Alfredo. He offered some Cuban cigars. Apparently, today only, they are at half price and this offer only comes by once a month. A great sales pitch but to his disappointment, I declined. We started talking. The population of Cuba is 11.5 million, and in his exaggerated estimate, about 6 million are police officers. In Havana alone, with a population of 2.5 million, there are about 1 million cops! I found these figures incredible. He continued, there are security cameras on every street, about 100 meters apart. Are they to keep a close watch on the society? Cuba is still a state controlled society. Only then I noticed all the cameras Alfredo mentioned. Fortunately, the Cubans seem not to mind this close public scrutiny. They are friendly, helpful and easy going. What about the lifting of the sanctions I asked. He was happy and expected better things for Cubans.
Across my balcony, I peeped into my neighbour’s apartment. A lady meticulously discarded bad rice from a container. The furnishing was a mix of leather sofa and colonial wooden and wicker furniture. As I walked on the streets, I noticed this furnishings almost everywhere. Stained glass windows and potted plants added some freshness to the fading and peeling exterior. Next door, washing hung on line fluttered in the open. There was hardly any sunlight. The houses that were painted were all pastels. This seem to be the norm around here in Centro Habana. Further down the street, water hoses ran across the street. I know that my Casa had all the basic amenities. Some might not have. People lived in close proximity and tolerated each other. Perhaps there were no options. Neighbours genuinely helped and looked out for each other. A few classic cars were parked on the road. Some had not moved at all. The sun had almost set and night was creeping in.
For dinner, I headed back to Patisseries Francesca. I had been snacking all day and just wanted to have a small dinner. Just coffee and some sweet pastries. There was live music nearby. A full moon brightened the night sky. Unfortunately, the air was intoxicated with fumes from smokers. As I left the cafe, a man invited me to a bar next door. As we talked, he offered “senor, quiero una la chica”, mister, do you want a girl? I suppose, like all other cities, this is the reality of life here.
The Gran Teatro de la Habana was lit up like a Christmas tree. It was fabulous. Open top classic cars invited tourist to take a ride. Yellow taxis lined up along the street for a potential fare. The street was busy.
I walked around Habana Vieja after sunset. It is livelier and with a slight coolness of the air, everything seem pleasant. Calle Obispo’s cobbled path is lined up with numerous cafes, bars and restaurants. Live music between three and six piece bands created an atmospheric environment. Everyone seemed to be into the so-called Buena Vista music. The tunes are catch, a mixture of Son and Salsa. The double base, bongo drums and guitars all made fantastic rhythms. People on the street, especially the Cubans moved and grooved to the music. At the end of one street, slightly weaned out of people, a beautiful young girl sat by herself. I passed her but could not help admiring her beauty in the moonlit night. Later, as I returned to the same place, she was seated on a wooden park chair. A man sat on the next chair. He called me over and offered if I would like to have her for the night. She was young and looked innocent. She did not speak English. Hardly out of school, I thought. It disturbed me. I understand that life is tough here. Survival by any means perhaps. I cannot judge. What is her life all about? I don’t know. With the imminent return of American tourist, I wondered if this low profile ‘profession’ of hers’ would be corrupted.