El Paseo del Prado, which translates into something like “Meadow Promenade,” is one of the most beautiful places in Havana. The boulevard was built almost 250 years ago in an undeveloped area just outside of the original city wall, perhaps inspiring its name. Or, since Cuba was a Spanish colony at the time, it may have been named after the famous street in Madrid. In any case, the Prado became the societal epicenter of the colonial city: mansions and important commercial buildings were constructed along its length, and it became fashionable for the wealthy and elite to stroll down its sidewalks or ride in their carriages each afternoon. After Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1902 it was renamed Paseo del Marti in honor of the country's most revered figure, but it is still frequently called by its earlier name, or simply as El Prado.
I decide to take my own stroll on the Prado one hot afternoon. Crossing busy Calle Neptuno that marks its upper end, I pass the first of several bronze lions that guard the wide promenade. Rows of stately trees line each side, their full, low-hanging branches serving both as a shield from the tropical sun overhead and the noise and fumes from the car-choked streets on either side. This sanctuary of sorts is occupied by artists hoping to sell their work to the tourists who venture away from nearby Parque Central, their stands filled with paintings of Che, old American cars, street scenes of La Bodaguita del Medio where Hemingway drank one afternoon, and the occasional abstract or interpretive piece. I stop to watch a Chinese artist and her small child, she looking out for prospective customers while he sits on a stool with pencil and sketch pad, learning his mother's art.
As I walk down the gentle slope and begin to taste the salt air coming up from the Malecón I leave the tourists behind and sense more of a Cuban vibe. A jinatera working the day shift calls softly from a marble bench on one side, hoping to “entertain” me for a little while; I nod in her direction, smile, and politely decline the offer. Further along, two girls have decided that another of the lions is a good place to sit, so I ask them to pose for a picture.
Then I encounter these men. Susceptible to the narrow range of temperatures in which Cubans feel comfortable, they wear long sleeves, sweatshirts and jackets, even though I am warm in a T shirt. They have gathered at what I suspect is “their” bench, at what is probably an appointed hour, to discuss politics, baseball, the problems in their country, the girls walking by, and maybe the jinatera on the opposite side. The uniquely Cuban blend of a tres, abundant percussion instruments, and intertwining vocal harmonies emanating from a boombox accompanies their discussion, along with two bottles of the less expensive vintage of Havana Club rum affordable by ordinary Cubans and a can of Kermato tomato juice.
I have noticed this decidedly un-tropical cocktail being consumed by other Cubans, and so it becomes the beginning of a conversation with them. Being Cubans, which means being generous to a fault, they quickly offer me a glass, which I just as quickly accept. I ask if I can photograph them, and being Cubans they immediately adopt poses: one crossing his arms and staring down his nose at me, another using his ubiquitous cigar as a prop, and the third giving me a thumbs up, which I take as a sign of approval for their new American friend.