You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings; before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars? Well, we came across the square from the dock to the Pearl of San Francisco Café to get coffee and there was only one beggar awake in the square and he was getting a drink out of the fountain. But when we got inside the café and sat down, there were the three of them waiting for us.
To Have and Have Not, by Ernest Hemingway.
If you start where Hemingway's book did, and then walk in a more or less westerly direction, you will pass through a slice of time, and life, in the city. In their halcyon days of the early 20th century the docks welcomed steamships from around the world and ferries full of automobiles and tourists from Miami and Key West. They are crumbling now, in stark contrast to the sleek cruise ships that tie up to them at the rate of three per week. You would have a much more difficult time than did Harry Morgan in crossing the now frenetically-busy Avenida del Puerto. The Spanish Colonial buildings surrounding Plaza de San Francisco, along with the rest of Habana Vieja, sank into disrepair since Hemingway lived and wrote there, only to be renovated in the 1990's to house and feed the vacationing Canadians and Europeans that fueled Cuba's resurrected tourist industry.
Keep going and the beautiful architecture that the Spaniards left behind begins to become mixed with other styles; fewer sport renovated exteriors and some have collapsed entirely. This is the part of Havana I like best. Ordinary Habaneros live here, many in dark, dirty, overcrowded apartments that were given to them after the 1959 revolution and have been subdivided into even smaller spaces as children grew up and made their own families. Others have more spacious quarters, light, airy, and as clean as any house anywhere in the world.
Some of the residents of these neighborhoods have found the means to buy and renovate adjoining structures into casas particulares. These apartments are my favorite places to stay in Havana, clean, comfortable, affordable, stylishly Cuban, and now even accessible through AirBnB! Instead of the posher, state-owned restaurants in Plaza Vieja, here you will find paladares, or family-owned and operated eateries with better, more authentic, and less-expensive food. Other entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the recent easing of government control to open businesses from their front doors, selling internet and phone access cards, various types of repair services, ham sandwiches, and my favorite, the places where I can buy a tiny cup of strong, sweet Cuban coffee for a peso (about 4 cents) from a kitchen window.
These streets are crowded with people going about their lives from early morning until late in the evening, and life happens in the streets and on the stoops in these neighborhoods. The buildings are very close to the narrow streets, and windows and doors to the ground floor apartments are left open, with only wrought iron grilles separating their residents from people outside. It is easy to catch a glimpse of life inside a Cuban house while walking past, and one often receives a warm wave in response, and sometimes even a chance to chat that results in an invitation to enter.
Habana Vieja is bordered on the west by three busy, gracefully curved streets that run from bay to bay, and that clearly signal a change to another area and a different kind of life. I was walking toward this frontier one evening after dinner when I noticed an unusual street light where Calle Chacón ended at Avenida Bélgica. At first I was drawn solely to the light structure and didn't even notice the taxi parked across the street. When I did, it became part of the composition. Then out of the darkness came the taxista, who occupied himself with cleaning what was probably salt spray from the nearby Malecon. He completed my composition and contributed his own little slice of life in Cuba.