Cuba’s colour­ful cap­i­tal has a hid­den side

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION TRAVEL - Mark Kurlan­sky

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

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