By Gaby Rabassa
HAVANA TIMES — Many foreigners long to visit Old Havana and the majority of Cubans do as well. Every year, millions of tourists walk along its cobblestones, enjoying the best attractions, hotels and attractions the city has to offer. This is the Havana we find in guide books, on websites, labelled “exotic, interesting”: a place you have to go to at least once in your life. This is Old Havana, the beautiful Havana.
Founded in 1519 and baptized San Cristobal de La Habana in honor of Havana’s patron saint, the city owes its name to the chief Habaguanex who controlled the area in the years leading up to its colonization. Today, it is our capital and the most populated city in Cuba and the Caribbean islands as it has 2,125,320 inhabitants (2015).
It’s history is as old as its architecture. It has the Capitolio which reflects – even though it’s a great neoclassical building- imperial dominance at the time, a Cathedral, the Malecon, a Theatre which in its early years was considered to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, initally named Tacon, a Lighthouse Fortress, a Square, the Museum of the Revolution, which still displays the wounds it suffered in the revolutionaries’ attack to overthrow Batista and his tyranny.
In 1982, UNESCO named the Historic Center a “World Heritage Site” and recently it was recognized as one of the “New 7 Wonders Cities”.
But my Havana, my old Havana, doesn’t appear in photographs and people only come to this city to discover and show off its losses. My Havana made up of sweat and risks, of noises that don’t only take place in working hours, of faces which wipe away their anguish with a smile. The Havana that puts on a “bembe” (ritual, popular celebration of African descent which is defined by its ritual drumming party) next to the Hotel Inglaterra or that puts up a tin roof, while curious onlookers watch, because there isn’t a window and it doesn’t have enough wood in the “barbecoa” (a small wooden room, built as a second floor in old houses with high ceilings).
My Havana packed with “yumas” (this is a vulgar term used to call foreigners, especially visitors from the US) and “jineteras” (prostitutes), “bicitaxis” (tricycles that act as taxis) as well as “ruteros” (smaller buses which substitute taxis at a much lower price). My Havana of poor and rich kids, private “guaguas” (buses) and “camels” (old chassis fused together which have two humps on the roof imitating a camel pulled by a tractor trailer engine. Of drunk people sitting on the University’s steps or next to the Ceiba Tree in Fraternity Park. Of peoples, of people, of Cubans, of habaneros who spice up daily life with rumba.
The Havana where tree ferns hang from half-collapsed and humid buildings, which never sleeps because tanks need to be filled with drinking water at three in the morning.
My hidden Havana, “chusma” (vulgar people or places), wrinkled, abused, dirty. My dead Havana that has been resuscitated over a thousand times.
My old Havana which under Cuba’s scorching sun, makes me raise my hand hoping that a taxi will stop and in five seconds, makes me develop an existential crisis deep within me, when the “almendron” (US cars from the ‘40 and ‘50s which are what most of our collective taxis are nowadays) driver shouts at me: old Havana?