The Malecon, Habana

You may recall that I had said that I wanted to post a final set of photographs of Havana’s grand and crumbling esplanade, the Malecon; you may also recall that I’d  said that it might be some time before I got to this, what with the move back to South Africa, finding a house and a car, moving, settling in and so on and so on.

This doesn’t mean I had forgotten: so here, then, is a first set of photographs, taken one mild and mellow evening at the beginning of our stay in Havana, as the sun was going down over the harbour mouth and the twin forts that guard its entrance.

For me, these images have something to say, not only about an evening, a tourist attraction, but something, too, about Cuba. I hope you enjoy them.

– There is a final set of images, still to come, of the Malecon, taken on another day, as we walked from the Vedado end of the 8 kilometre avenue and sea-wall. But that will be for another time.

Dateline Johannesburg

Dateline Johannesburg: Tuesday, 28 February

With Rob arriving tomorrow from Toronto, and moving house on Friday – not to mention my workload – there will be little time over the next week or ten days for photography and blogging. So I thought I should get in early, and schedule a post for Sunday: (almost) my last post of images from Havana.

I have one more series of images in mind, of Havana’s Malecon, the 8 km esplanade that runs from the harbour mouth in Old Havana along the coast to Vedado. And, when I have time, I will set up an Havana portfolio online, in Behance and Adobe Portfolio.

Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy these images – and think of us, as you do so, unpacking and settling into our new home in Jo’burg.

Cars in colour – images from Havana

Sunday in Jo’burg. The weather unsettled. Breezy, cool, the sky laden with clouds. In another ten days, Rob arrives from Toronto. The house has been found, the movers booked, tomorrow I will go look at a car. Piece by piece, the architecture of this new-old phase of our lives is constructed.

To brighten the weekend, here are some more images of Havana’s old cars, this time in colour.

Your weekend post

Your upcoming post this weekend will feature the cars of Havana – cars which are not just cars, but markers and expressions of a society, an economy, a particular history.

This Chevy truck is not a car, obviously – but deserves a place, perhaps, as a kind of precursor or foreword. No matter how glamorous, how retro, the car in Havana – like the truck, the motorcycle with sidecar, the crazy coco-taxi – is a workhorse.

Keep an eye on your inbox.

chevrolet

Sitting in Cape Town, thinking of Havana

So I have come to the end of a week in Cape Town – a round of project inception meetings with officials and academics, dinners out with my 85 year old mother or quiet evenings at home watching The Crown on Netflix, calls on FaceTime to my wife in Toronto, and – stealing a few moments here and there – working on my photos from Havana.

And so it is, I guess, that we inhabit multiple places, multiple eras. Echoes of ‘radical economic transformation,’ from this week’s State of the Nation address, provide a ghostly, sardonic music to accompany the photos – if you want radical economic transformation, try Cuba.

Yet these scenes, and the people in them, ask you to relate, not comment: other people, getting on with their lives, on their own special island.

Habana Vieja: looking in

You visit Havana, you don’t want to be just a nosy outsider, a tactless tourist, a peeping voyeur – and yet, the place is so different, both in the world that you see before you and in the things you can’t see, but know or imagine are there, that your senses stand on tiptoe to peer into stairwells, catch glimpses of interiors when the doors or the windows lean open. So I took a few photos, of doors and stairwells – not too many, just a few – which I thought I would share with you.

They are, if you like, both images and symbols.

The dark side of Havana

Once more to Havana….

So far, I’ve tried not to fall into the trap that the English novelist George Eliot described more than a hundred years ago: seeing other people’s misery as ‘picturesque.’

I’ve described, and shown, the Hotel Inglaterra, posted images of the magnificent Grand Theatre and other architectural triumphs, monuments and renovations, and avoided overt comment on – well, on the dark side of Havana.

By which I mean, not its flawed grandeur, or its magnificent decay, but its political system. In a word: communism.

Because one of the things you can’t help noticing is the drab, dreary, official lexicon of ‘the Revolution.’ Everything in Havana tracks back to the one brief, heroic moment of glory, a moment frozen in time, historical but without history, in the sense that nothing, evidently, appears to have happened in the half-century since then.

The hard-as-nails old men who rule Cuba appear, still, in the public iconography, as long-haired, gorgeous, romantic revolutionaries, uncorrupted and incorruptible, while everything you see – crumbling infrastructure, a quarantined, impoverished but somehow still resilient people – gives the lie to their lies.

Yes, the American embargo has done enormous damage. Yes, the regime has delivered education and health-care. But the regime, let it be said, is the author, also, of Cuba’s misfortune.

Failed economic policies, incompetence, repression – not to mention Cuba’s long alliance with and dependence on the Soviet Union – are visible everywhere in the streets and on the faces that you see in Havana. The tools of dictatorship – the cult of the leaders,  cult of the Revolution, the ideological instruments of the schools and the radio, not to mention the ‘repressive apparatus’ of police and the prisons – are there, too, if you choose to see them.

Here are a few images: the primary school, touchingly – or cynically – named after Camilo Cienfuegos: like Che Guevara, a hero of the Revolution who fell out with the Castros and died – would you believe it? – in mysterious circumstances.

And then you stumble across a simple memorial – on a street corner, lost, almost tender, standing in deep shadow beneath the leaves and branches – to Ethel and Julius  Rosenberg.

 

Havana’s Magnificence

Because it is a popular cliche to see in Havana only what is strange and exotic, ‘a magnificent ruin,’ one task of the visiting photographer – the photographer who is a traveller, not a tourist, a humanitarian, not a voyeur – is to reveal something of that city’s other nature: magnificent restorations, as in the Habana Grand Theatre, Art Deco masterpieces in the form, for example, of the Edificio Bacardi – the Bacardi Building – the intricate, ornate balconies and arches of another era.

With this in mind, here are a few images.

Dateline Havana: Hotel Inglaterra

You stand in the grand lobby – gilded, ornate – waiting for the lift-doors to open. Off to your right, behind the wrought-iron grille, a pair of well-heeled diners sip at their coffee, eyeing the menu, while an unctuous waiter in starched shirt glides by. At any moment the lift will arrive and Bogart will step out, a laughing Bacall or Bergman on his arm….

You don’t go to the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana for its service (we left without eating, even though we were starving) but for the elegance, the ambience, the colours and scent of the corrupt and gorgeous neo-colonialism of pre-revolutionary Havana.

There is Somerset Maugham – or is it Graham Greene? – lounging on the patio. Outside the sun pounds like an iron spike into the pavement, but here, under the awnings, in the high-ceilinged dining room, or on the rooftop, at sundown, you are invited – seduced, inveigled – into a resurrected world of stars and starlets, fish-eyed politicians, sharp-suited mafiosi. Just around the corner – across the square, down a crumbling street – the ruined majesty of Habana Viejo, the old city, waits.

But first you pay homage at the Hotel Inglaterra. You take the lift to the rooftop, and order a caipirinha.