All cities have a unique trait. An element that sets them apart from the rest. This is not a tourist-friendly attraction to be found in a glossy brochure at a travel agency on the high road of an upmarket gentrified neighbourhood. No, this is a quirk that only becomes obvious once one has spent time living in that city. For instance, for me, after living almost 20 years in London, the salient feature of the British capital is its brain-wrecking, confusing urban grid: myriad winding one-way roads and sudden cul-de-sacs. Whilst many visitors look forward to taking a selfie at Buckingham Palace, I like nothing more than getting lost in London’s unrivalled metropolitan labyrinth, whether walking or cycling.
Havana’s unique trait is, on the other hand, its white sheets. Or rather, used to be.
As a child growing up in the Cuban capital, I became accustomed to the sight of white sheets hanging from balconies, especially on Saturdays when most people did their washing. Their ubiquity even merited a mention in what turned out to be Havana’s unofficial anthem in the early 90s, “Sábanas Blancas” (literally, “White Sheets”, by the singer songwriter Gerardo Alfonso). Thus, it was this childhood-era sight I sought out with a mix of nostalgia and eagerness recently when I went back for a two-week visit. Yet, something had happened in the intervening years since I last had been here. The bedding item had almost disappeared from clotheslines. Replacing it on balconies were either Barcelona or Real Madrid shirts amongst other foreign “invaders”. Forget Camp Nou or the Bernabeu, Spain’s La Liga was being played on the rooftops of Havana, with the likes of Messi and Ronaldo jostling for space amongst torn jeans, off-colour shirts and pocked vests.
I had already been exposed to these newly-formed soccer alliances at the aeroport on arrival. A stifling and humid August spouted its all-enveloping raging fire on my face as we came out of customs reminding me that it had been nineteen years since I had last been exposed to this kind of heat. There, it seemed to say, this is for you, just in case you had forgotten.
I had not. In the same way I had not forgotten the hustle-bustle of Terminal 3 at the José Martí aeroport. The welcome hugs and goodbye kisses: from parents to offspring, from sibling to sibling, from lover to lover. In the middle of this display of human affection the logos of Fly Emirates and Qatar Airways stood out conspicuously.
Driving just after midnight to our hotel in old Havana gave me the chance to experience once more the city’s nocturnal fauna: the late-night revellers for whom any day of the week (it was Thursday-cum-Friday) was party-day, the gay corner on 23rd Avenue and L Street as densely populated as it ever was, the seawall, Malecón, decked with drunkards, wannabe singers howling themselves hoarse, prostitutes and couples waiting for their in-laws to go to bed so that they could get some action. The Havana carnival was supposed to kick off the next evening, which meant that some of the main thoroughfares were closed. The detours I took through poorly-lit, back roads prompted me to keep one eye on the pothole-filled streets and another one up on the never-ending clotheslines, festooned from balcony to balcony with myriad garments. But alas, very few white sheets.
The sunrise caught me looking out of our hotel window at a Havana slowly waking up from its deep sleep. Some of the sounds were the same: horn-tooting, kiss-blowing, name-calling. Some of the sights were also familiar: the water-carrier pulling his heavy burden up a hilly road and spilling the precious liquid in the process, the American car-cum-taxi squeezing more passengers in than a normal vehicle, the peanut vendor weaving his way through the still traffic at a red light, paper cones firmly held in his hand. Up in the distance, like a small symbol of surrender (to whom? To what? To the might of Barça or Real, perhaps?) I spotted a yellowed item of bedding which had probably seen better days. As childhood mementoes go, this was one I savoured in the moment. A keepsake to remind me of Havana’s unique trait: the sight of a white sheet hanging from a balcony.
Photo by the blog author
Photo by the blog author
Next Post; “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 24th September at 6pm (GMT)