HAVANA: THE HIDDEN S I DE
Cuba’s colourful capital has a hidden side
If I were ever to make an old-fashioned film noir — with a cynical plot full of intrigue, violence and sudden twists, filmed on dark and menacing streets in misty black and white — I would shoot it in Havana.
My reason for choosing to shoot in black and white might not be immediately apparent to people who know Havana. It is a Caribbean city with yellow and pink and turquoise buildings set against a hot cerulean sky and a sea that is bright blue with a dark cobalt stripe, formed by the Gulf Stream, always present in the distance.
Sometimes, as Americans in particular have observed, the sea off Havana can appear violet when it reflects the sky moments before daybreak. Ernest Hemingway, for whom “violet” would have been too flowery a word, described the Gulf Stream there as “nearly purple”. But Habaneros — the people of Havana — tend to be less poetic about the sea, and the only one I ever found who thought the waters of Havana were violet was the mid-20th-century poet and novelist Jose Lezama Lima, who wrote: “The violet sea longs for the birth of gods,/ For to be born here is an unspeakable feast …”
John Muir, the Scot who became America’s great naturalist and perhaps first environmentalist, went to Cuba in 1868, the same year he first saw and made famous Yosemite. To Muir, Havana was a yellow city: “On one side of the harbour was a city of these yellow plants; on the other, a city of yellow stucco houses, narrowly and confusedly congregated.” The hill on which the Morro Castle guards the opening of the harbour, according to Muir, was covered with yellow weeds.
Similarly, British novelist Anthony Trollope, on his 1859 visit, called Havana “the dingy yellow town”. Contemporary Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutierrez, who consciously avoids lyrical flourishes, made an exception for Havana at sunset, which he called “the beautiful golden city in the dusk”, and it is true that when the sun’s rays burn into the city at an angle almost parallel to the ground, Havana is a golden city.
Federico Garcia Lorca, the great Spanish poet, is beloved in Havana for his boyish charm and because he came to a tragic end (he was shot by Fascists at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War). Tragic endings always play well in Havana. In 1930 he wrote, “Havana has the yellow of Cadiz, the pink of Seville turning carmine [a deep red] and the green of Granada, with the slight phosphorescence of fish.” Were these writers seeing the same city I was seeing? One reason for the difference between these writers’ impressions, at least in the early accounts, and mine, was that they first saw Havana from the sea.
Havana is located on the north coast of Cuba, along the primary shipping lane that runs between North America and Europe, and through the Caribbean to Mexico and South America. It and San Juan, Puerto Rico, which is situated much farther away from North America and Mexico, are the only major Caribbean ports on the Atlantic Ocean. Most Caribbean ports are on the Caribbean side of their respective islands, and ships have to struggle through treacherous between-island passages to get to the Atlantic.
In Cuba, the Spanish did it wrong, first establishing the island’s capital at Santiago on the Caribbean side and only later moving it to Havana on the Atlantic coast. Havana has a perfect harbour, with a long, narrow inlet leading to the long, wide and perfectly sheltered Havana Bay.
That bay and its waterfront in the old part of Havana, now called Habana Vieja, was once the heart of the city, the place where every visitor first disembarked, where huge warehouses of the nation’s ample sugar and tobacco crops were loaded and shipped abroad, where goods entered and were inspected by customs officials.
In To Have and Have Not, Hemingway’s only book set in Havana, published in 1937, the action takes place on the waterfront of Habana Vieja’s eastern side, with docks and warehouses, stevedores and rough bars and cafes. At that time, the waterfront was populated by the poor looking for work, the “street bums” sleeping against the walls, seamen and gangsters and their murderous henchmen.
Tourists visiting the restored colonial sites in Havana Vieja today only have to turn right and walk a block or two to reach this once famous area. But almost no one does. Most tourists have little sense that there is a waterfront and a harbour in the neighbourhood. The bums and the gangsters and most of the seamen are also gone.
Today, people arrive by plane, which offers a completely different view of Havana than arriving by boat. You fly in low over vast, green and well-trimmed farms outside the city. The taxi rides a bumpy road past a few not very tall high-rises, unusual in Havana, including a large state psychiatric clinic, and drab grey buildings, rust-streaked turquoise and rotting pink like birthday cakes left out too long.
In surprisingly little time you are swiftly careening — if you have a younger, healthier taxi — around the curves of the oceanfront road, the Malecon, and into Central Havana, reaching it so quickly it is hard to believe that this is a city of two million people.
From much of the city, the ocean is visible, blue and empty. Seldom is a boat of any kind seen, certainly not recreational boats, but not even fishing boats. This seems unnatural because it is obvious that there are fish out there. The dark streak of the fish-rich Gulf Stream, the great marlin grounds that drew Hemingway, is visible from the shore.
Men and boys stand along the sea wall fishing. Sometimes they float out on an inner tube to access larger catch. The prize is pargo, the large local snapper. But there are many other Caribbean species as well, most reef-feeding fish, and many with folkloric names like pez perro (dogface), goofy-looking bucktoothed creatures.
But nothing is being caught from boats. Even in adjacent Cojimar, Havana’s “fishing village”, there are no boats in sight and the few remaining fishermen are elderly, no longer fishing but loaded with reminiscences, sometimes of fishing with Hemingway. Explanations for this lack of boats range from a fuel shortage to the theory that all working boats have left for Florida.
Since the 1959 Cuban Revolution and the subsequent 1960 US trade embargo, there has been little marine traffic in and out of Havana. Even during the years of Cuba’s
close ties to the Soviet Union, when there were regular shipments arriving from Eastern Europe, there was never enough activity to create the old-time bustle.
In fact, Havana Bay became a dank foul place, and until the mid-1980s, when Cuba got United Nations money to clean up the harbour, a tremendous amount of sewage from rivers and storm drains flowed into its waters. Slaughterhouses, a yeast factory, two alcohol distilleries, a leather tannery and the flaming oil refinery in Regla on the eastern side of the waterfront contributed to the pollution. Three decades of clean-up work in Havana Bay has not increased its usage.
This could be changing. Immediately after then president Barack Obama announced a thawing of relations with Cuba in 2015, American entrepreneurs began laying plans for a boat service to Havana, even though the trade embargo was still in place. But the old harbour and waterfront are not likely to ever again be what they once were.
The truth is that what was once the most perfect harbour in the Caribbean, the one that inspired Havana to be built, is now a bit dated. In the days of smaller ships, the harbour with its deep water and narrow entrance offered a great military advantage, both for defence and offence. An attacker trying to bottle up a fleet could sink a ship at the harbour’s entrance, closing it for entry or exit.
The harbour is still an ideal shelter for sitting out a hurricane, but it is not deep enough for modern shipping, and a larger deepwater harbour is now being built to the west of the city.
But that dense, crowded world of narrow spaces in Habana Vieja is where my film noir could take place. The light there is so hot it is white and that makes the shadows very dark. This tropical city was built to have as much shade as possible, and the narrow streets are mostly dark.
In fact, in Habana Vieja, streets are so narrow that until recent times, awnings were strung across the buildings from one side of the street to the other to keep the street shaded.
But there are other reasons for seeing Havana in black and white.
Because of the US embargo, colour film and processing have not been available, so for many years after the revolution, the country’s leading photographers, such as Raul Corrales and Alberto Korda, have shot in black and white. (A true Habanero, Korda, famous for his black and white portrait of Che Guevara, said that he had become a photographer “to meet women”.)
And yet, and perhaps with the same perversity with which moviegoers find film noir romantic even though they are sad stories of luckless people, Havana for all its smells, sweat, crumbling walls, isolation and difficult history is the most romantic city in the world.
Endless love songs have been written about it. The city always beguiles.
Havana for all its smells, sweat, crumbling walls, isolation and difficult history is the most romantic city in the world
Havana waterfront, top; a street in Cojimar, the city’s ‘fishing village’, above
This is an edited extract from Havana by Mark Kurlansky (Bloomsbury, $36), available now.
The Malecon and Morro Castle, left; Havana cityscape, above