Sunday 20 November 2011

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

You’re never quite sure how it starts. This pilgrimage, this rite of passage. One day - or night -, you switch the radio off, look outside your bedroom window and there it is: that vast concrete serpent, stretching for miles on end. The wall that separates the oily blue and the potholed road; that divides the hopeful dreams and the daily grind; that splits the daytime hustlers and the night-time revellers.

On one side we hear the sound of the hiccupping waves slapping against the rocks. On the other, the din of the polluting traffic: cars, lorries, and buses shaped as even-toed two-humped Bactrians. Malecón, we don't come to you, you beckon us over. On your hard, historic wall we take flights of fancy, sing at the top of our voices until we go hoarse, bid friends goodbye and drink ourselves to oblivion.

5th Avenue tunnel at one end. The gaping ecphonesis that spits out the first perpendicular street numbers: O, Calle 18! O Calle 16 (and the famous beauty parlour)! O Calles 14 and 12 (and the pool at the Echevarría Social Club where Beny and I used to splash the lady with the striped bathing suit when diving)! Should I mention you Calle 10 with El Kastillito on the corner, fountain of unforgettable terpsichorean memories?

Malecón, Spanish opening exclamation mark that preambles lines bursting out with vim and salitter. You are the canvas in which we all inhabit. The living, moving 3D Cuban version of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. But instead of a dozen apostles surrounding the “Chosen One” from Galilee, there are hundreds taking turns at being Bartholomew, Thomas or Jude Thaddeus. Or Jesús. Jesús, like The Newly Arrived Emigrante, back from Amsterdam, blond, blue-eyed wife perched up by his side. The guy who made it. The bloke who runs a small electric goods business in the city of bicycles, tulips and cannabis coffeshops. And who has stories to tell, eyes to open, minds to unwind (or wind up). He is the remedy to your old, malfunctioning clock that is in need of quick repair because it can no longer tell if it’s going too fast or too slow. He is the snappy fix that finds you with the midmorning sun warming the hard stone that presses painfully against your buttocks. But discomfort matters not. Here’s your mate, your pal, your yunta, who left for Holland three years ago and now has got a group of followers gathered around him, like in days of yore when people sat around a fire to tell each other stories. Like Peter leaning over to John, ready to let him in on that “little business” to do with Jesús. It’s like the perfect scene for a photo. The photo that will survive all attempts to loosen the hold it will have on us. The al fresco image that no matter how torn and damaged it becomes, will still mesmerise us in years to come.

Snap! Your friend will start talking about the Van Gogh Museum (where you’ll lose your ear if you’re not careful, he quips), the Canal District and the open-air concerts by artists from the Dutch Antilles and Suriname. In the shadow of the Riviera Hotel (where your mate is staying with his silent but smiling wife, and where he woke up about six hours ago and couldn’t get back to sleep. Damn jetlag!), he attempts to pronounce a few words in Dutch and they all come out with a harsh, guttural Caribbean rasp. You’re hanging onto his every word until he decides to go all BB King on you, Havana and Malecón because for him “the thrill is gone/The thrill is gone away/The thrill is gone baby/The thrill is gone away/You know you done me wrong baby/And you'll be sorry someday (…) You know I'm free, free now baby/I'm free from your spell/I'm free, free now/I'm free from your spell/And now that it's over/All I can do is wish you well…” and you think, “free?”, free from what? You can see his point, though. He has just arrived from the city in which lawns are manicured to perfection; where autumn is real autumn, no chin-chin drizzle; where spring blossoms every year in an orgiastic explosion of colour. You watch him and in his eyes you see his scorn at the post-earthquake craters that decorate this hard, long wall. Later on, he will jeer at the long queue at La Piragua pizza parlour where the "siete pesos" will mingle with the "Camilitos", students from medical school and the regular gang from the Faculty of Economics in La Colina. You will all end up at the Maine monument with its mix of colonial history and sexual double-entendre every time you bend over. And all because it was blown up. And your friend, El Emigrante wants to be free of this. Do you ever want to be free of it, of El Malecón? El Malecón, where people strut, stroll, perambulate, but never ever walk? Where at ten o’ clock now, mid-morning, your mate, his (silent, but smiling) wife, your other friends and you are almost throwing a party? No, bro, the thrill ain’t gone, it never will be. But then, again, a few years hence, you yourself will land in Gatwick airport, London.

Snap! The Jose Martí sports centre and the famous track that is nothing but a mountain of rubble and yet runners still insist on doing laps around it. Plus jumping over the hurdles. She’s facing the ocean, the vast open sea; he’s facing inland, the Ladas, Fiats and Volgas going at sixty per hour down Malecón Avenue. She wants out. Like Da Vinci’s creation, sitting in the middle of her own tableau, she fears betrayal. He’s trying to find a philosophical, Marxist and Leninist solution. Her denial, plus his of hers, isn’t that the source of development, of the moving forward, of the next stage, the panacea, en brèf, communism? No, she retorts, the “no” is rotund, round and solid. It’s a “no” with intention. It’s the “no” to machismo, to backwardness, to empty rhetoric and false hopes. Besides… besides? He asks. Besides… she doesn’t answer. The immense blue swallows up her response.

Snap! Afternoon. We’re celebrating. End of college. Year 12 is but a distant memory, never mind the fact that it’s only a few weeks behind us. A couple of hours before, Calle 25 across from the Mariana Grajales monument. The wait. The long wait. Then, the teachers pinning sheet after sheet on the glass with the results of the university entry exams. Who got what? Did you manage to get into medical school? Will you be doing engineering? The names of the faculties ring out endlessly in the suffocating, summer heat: Economía, Periodismo, ISRI, Biología, Derecho, ISPLE. No more Saúl Delgado. From September onwards, it will be only ISPLE. And we, the temporary Chosen Ones (both leading and supporting roles), march down to El Malecón. Calle D all the way, without stopping. There’s hardly any breeze and humidity is in the 90s. We sweat profusely but we fail to notice it. We’re what? Seventeen, eighteen. We steamroller to Malecón. We buy some beer on the way there and sit on the wall, the one to which you made that first pilgrimage all those years ago. The one which, through the hard rocky surface, understands you more than your parents. In silence you confess your problems to it. You hold a conversation with it regardless of the fact that you've both pressed the "mute" button. No need for words. Telepathy is the game. We lie back or sit against the wall on that uneven surface, talk gibberish and see the sun slowly come down.

Snap! You and your girlfriend. In a world of your own. Recently hooked up, seldom separated. There’re not enough hours in the day for you two to be together. You read her poems, she reciprocates. You don’t realise that you’ve gone past Calle K, no, you’re still in your own little world. Mi china, this, papito, that. Let me tickle you here, I will tickle you there. From a passing car, a window is rolled down and a voice calls out: "Suéltala, desgracia'o!", to which your reply is the usual one: "Tu abuela, sapo!". Why involve grandmothers and toads when someone tells you to let go of your girlfriend? Now, you’re caught in the twilight, both the day’s and politics’. You have stopped (innocent, little lambs!), a few hundred yards past Calle L. You don’t hear the voice: iracund, unintelligible, loud, booming towards you. You don’t hear the voice, and you also fail to hear the steps, thundering across the pavement, onto the road, the hand motioning the traffic to stop. The voice (¡Compañero, Compañero, COMPAÑERO!), the heavy boots screaming: Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of transgressors!. By the time the uniformed guard touches your shoulder, turns you around, asks you for your ID card and questions you on your motives to halt your march right there, you have suddenly come to life, or at least, returned to this world. And all the time he’s talking, you’re looking past him at the ominous building, the tall edifice across from which you have stood so many times to protest against the embargo. You have even joined in the shouts of “¡El que no salte es yanqui, el que no salte es yanqui!” jumping like a child high on fizzy drinks. Unbeknownst to you, in the near future some of your closer friends will be queuing up outside this building, down Calzada St. from the small, wee hours in the morning, in search of a dream ninety miles to the north. Now the light of the late afternoon sun bounces off the glass of the offices in the tall building and spreads a silver carpet over the blue sea. You mumble a few words, your girlfriend looks embarrassed and the guard keeps jabbing his finger at you. Leonardo would have loved to paint this scene.

Snap! It’s night. New York never sleeps, they say. El Malecón is always awake, I could retort. Here’s the musician who did his civil engineering degree in Berlin and washed up again in my city because the going got tough after the Wall was knocked down and the “skinheads” didn’t like dark-skinned foreigners. The economics graduate student who works in nearby Cohíba Hotel as a receptionist. The secondary school English teacher who doubles up as a Spanish tutor in her free time. Five dollars per hour is her going rate and she never lacks willing students. The comuñanga who just finished carrying twenty-two buckets of water up to his flat on the seventh floor of the building he shares with his mother, father, sister, sister’s husband, nephew and niece (his sister’s children) in Alamar. There are more, more than ten, certainly more than twelve. For we haven’t congregated here to find out about betrayal. We’ve been betrayed somehow all these years. By a superlative, gigantic political psoriasis that has blighted the skin of an entire nation. And it is here on this avenue against the backdrop of a chamaleonic sea that the scaly patches are more visible. The clandestine pizza vendors who put melted condoms instead of cheese in their products, thus ensuring that their pockets bulk up whilst the local A&E ward is kept busy. The impromptu trio-turned-quartet-turned-quintet-turned-sextet... ad infinitum, that delights tourists with their various versions of La Guantanamera. The "5th Avenue Flowers" (© Silvio Rodriguez Dominguez) who have extended their garden - and their constant pursuit of foreign fairy godfathers (and some mothers) - beyond the tunnel to the west, 23rd Avenue to the south and La Catedral to the east. The "pingueros" and "culeros" (tops and bottoms), part of Havana's underground gay culture, who crawl out at night, forming an almost straight line from the Yara cinema down La Rampa to Malecón. The "bisnero" (hustler) whose voice lowers to a whisper as he approaches your group and offers you "cinco por uno" (in '87), "ciento veinte por uno" (in '94). He is our FTSE, our Stock Exchange, he regulates the valuation of peso vs dollar. This canvas is less like Renaissance and more like Surrealism. No, we don't gather here to learn about deception but because this is our headquarters, our DNA, our hajj, our fifth pillar. We don’t just do it once in our life. We do it regularly. We come to be mesmerised by these waves, which, during hurricane season, resemble giant cobras raising the front of their bodies, ready to strike. We’re Pepe, Yusimí, Antonio, Clara, Mirtica, Sandra, Pedro and many more. Malecón is one step beyond Simon and Garfunkel’s Feeling Groovy; it’s a full-on assault of “Suave, nena, suave, suavecito, nena, eh, eh, eh…”. Malecón, Havana’s own throat coughing up black gold the closer you get to El Morro Castle. We gulp down the homemade rum, chispa’e tren, the cheap booze that someone got from Felipito’s house on Gervasio St. Gervasio, one third of the famous patronymic made famous on the sketch show Alegrías de Sobremesa: Gervasio Escobar y Campanario. But tonight, at around midnight you’re only interested in the Gervasio bit. Someone’s brought a guitar. Silvio, of course, and then, Pablo, the bottle does the rounds, the voices rise, more people join in. A feeble sea breeze offers some succour in this July heat. The guitar changes hands and now we’re going back in time. In the midnight hour we go soft and cheesy, we’re all about José José, Roberto Carlos and Emanuel. We go through the entire songbook they sell for one peso, twenty cents at the Abel Santamaria book shop, on Calle 25. All of a sudden, the melodic sound of the acoustic guitar mixes with the heavy drumming wafting out of one of the houses on the corner of Galiano and Malecón, near the Deauville Hotel. The ritual order of the oru, oru del igbodu and oru del eya aranla keeps the crowd on its feet. Only with the latter is the audience allowed to dance freely. The party spills over onto the pavement, a pavement whose cracks resemble a country road, whose lines crave to be read and to be interpreted. Who knows what life’s got in store for you? At four in the morning, the party across the road is still in full swing, the guitar’s changed hands several times: DJavan, Donato, Mercedes, Santiaguito… The apostles become orishas. No more Judas and Simon, but Oshún and Obbatalá. And behind us, the eternal blue of Yemayá.

Snap! Red eyes, croaky voices, bodies leaning on each other, old relationships reaffirming their love, new relationships breaking new ground, the lonely… still lonely. Slowly, a weak, early morning sun breaks through the flaking, damaged canvas and travels down Malecón east to west, from the Plaza de San Francisco (and the convent), El Templete, the Real Fuerza Castle to Prado Avenue. Early-rising fishermen dot the coastline like pick-up sticks released by a giant hand. It won’t be long before the hard stone is warmed by the generous sun and the revellers go back home and crash on the couch in the lounge after yet another pilgrimage, another journey to the majestic wall, the vast concrete serpent: Malecón.

Fiat lux!

© 2011

Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on Sunday 27th November at 10am (GMT)


  1. Simply brilliant.

  2. Thanks, leaz. It was Havana's birthday last Wednesday 16th Nov, which was also, coincidentally, mine. That's why I feel as if we were joined by the hip.

    I hope I'm not too late in celebrating my city, my culture and my roots.

    Greetings from London.

  3. Such a beautiful essay. It made me nostalgic and I wasn't even there! Thank you for transporting me to Havana, I still feel the salty breeze on my face.

  4. Cinematic, rich in details, evocative in its imagery, stunningly beautiful portraits.
    What a treat for the reader!
    Thank you Cubano!

  5. I waited until I had enough time to read this slowly and a good idea that was because it meant I could savor it. El Malecón is yet another character in this tale; if not, the principal character. You have brought it to life in such detail that I feel as if I had spent a day and night in Havana. As you know, I am an avid fan of these sketches of Havana. Much like Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, they are spellbinding and memorable and unique. And so well written. Thank you.

  6. A thoughtful tribute to your city. I especially liked the line about hiccupping waves. The farther we are from home, the closer it is in our memories.

  7. Thanks a lot for your comments. Indeed, they are sketches. Sometimes I worry that the only people able to understand what I'm on about are Cubans from my generation, but then, again, isn't that what I am? :-)

    Greetings from London.

  8. You should be saving all this for "real" publication or put together a book on demand - I'll bet it will be a best seller. You have certainly taken Zadie's advice for writers to heart and go from strength to strength. I don't know when I've read a better essay. I never lived in Havana but I lived in Trinidad and feel that you've captured the essence of the Caribbean perfectly.

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