The Beauty of Havana

The Beauty of Havana/ By Mary Serphos 2016

Every cliche is potently alive
Carried through the air
Dusty, thick and primal
Placed back in time
Buildings once ornate now in decay
Hanging on for dear life

The cries in the streets
The hustlers
Wrought iron balconies with distant
Views of old plazas

Diesel fueled sunlight
Strong shadows and
Lives lost

But these resilient souls survive
Doing everything they can to make it
Carrying on through the music
Gathering together
Deep in conversation
The inner and outer beauty of the
Women and men walking the streets
The school children uniformed and ebullient

And then there is the hidden invincible sadness

Night falls
And remains
Until dawn

Voices calling
At every late night hour
2 am
4 am
It doesn’t stop
Domino playing rum-buzzed laughter

Utter madness whizzes by on these frenetic streets
Old noisy trucks that almost don’t fit
Asthmatic 1950’s American cars
Belching streams of black exhaust
Pontiac’s, Chevrolet’s, Russian Lata’s, Fords
Painted in brilliant colors
Tricked out
Blasting Reggaeton

The relics
Old souls
Bubble gum pink Bel Airs,
Shiny red Cadillacs
Reminiscent of the days when
Cocaine snorting
Cuba libre drinking
Cigar smoking
Wealthy North American suited customers
From long ago
Sat on their seats, a woman by their side
En route to the casinos
The days when
A Mafia induced drunken sultry Tropicana night
Lasted well into dawn
The forgotten days that have left their legacy

But the cars with deep soul
Are the ones that are
Shaken not stirred
The ones fixed over and over again on a whim with random parts
Everything is reused
Nothing is wasted

The invisible becomes visible

A brief pause on Calle Obispo and
The action unfolds as a movie script:

Rickshaw bicycle taxis driven by muscular Cuban 20 somethings
Old men reading newspapers on school children’s chairs
Women of every skin color are vibrant, walking through the streets with confidence
Taking care of the men, the children and themselves
The early morning banana vendors
Crews of bright blue uniformed construction workers
Zipping down the narrow streets on their mini-bulldozers
Santeria women clad in white with their open umbrellas to shade the sun

And the Cuban Music
A sensory delight

And the notable giant double bass
Multiple influences
All intermingled in a rich and decadent polyrhythmic beat

The tourists are out and about
Far more groups are crowding out the streets than ever before
Listening intently to their guide
Taking photos
Perusing the few-and-far-between markets
Determined to bring home a box of cigars
A Che Guevara tee shirt
Using a currency different from the locals
It’s the same contrast that exists in most 3rd world locales
A story told again and again
The “have’s” and the “have-nots”

Humid light shines into the narrow corridors and unswept marble staircases
It takes my breath away
The art of decay
The morning sun working its way onto the rooftops
The buildings that seem to hang on by a thread
Crumbling interiors
Destroyed exteriors
Are somehow exquisite in their frail state

But unfortunately this is not the case for the many who inhabit
These sordid buildings
People have to live amongst this dust
Not just the young but the old too, who work their way
The spiral staircases
Conditions that would be completely uninhabitable in the US
Even in the most financially challenged neighborhoods
It’s as if there has been a war
A natural disaster
A city on the verge of complete wreckage

But little by little, Unesco money is having an impact
And things are changing, repair efforts are being done on Cuban time
The men work hard, sweating in the humidity
Carrying heavy bags of concrete on their backs
Limited machinery
Limited tools
These workers
Mostly strong Black men
Their ancestors brought over as slaves,
From Africa
Are the backbone of the
Initiation to make these deplorable conditions livable
Bringing the buildings back to life
Polishing them to their original splendor

This is Havana
The not so glamorous side that is in clear view
The streets
Like an action movie
But unlike in the States, crime seems to be absent
A refreshing notion in a place where even simple items are hard to come by for many

I feel safe walking alone even at night with my camera and cell phone out
Capturing the magic and the dust
The conversations
The marvelous and plentiful Cuban Rhythms
Rumba, Bachata, Salsa
The Buena Vista Social Club-esque performances
Bounce off the walls and tumble down the cobblestone streets
Fill the plazas, and quite incredibly, don’t compete with one another

But for the locals food is scarce and that is the tragedy
There is more than there was during the
“Special Period”
When Cubans were as thin as rails
As I remember
During my first visit in 2001

There was the morning coffee, black and strong
Loaded with sugar
A piece of stale bread, maybe some butter
And one scoop of ice cream per day
Food was rationed to the minimum
Meat and vegetables and even beans were scarce
And new clothes were certainly
Luxury items

Times have changed but money is still limited
Long lines still form at the sidewalk government “cafeterias” and stores
Which are more like kiosks with a few items from a forgotten era

Painful cries of hobbling beings beg for a CUC (1 US Dollar)
Even 25 pesos will suffice, the equivalent of
25 cents in the US, which buys a lot more than you can imagine

When the embargo lifts, the people think joy will come
But there are secrets they don’t know
Life will change
Maybe for the better
Maybe not


An island where community and art are abundant.
Health care and education are “free”

In the airbnb’s where the tourists stay,
In many there is a newfound abundance
Food is more plentiful due to the new privatization laws
That have opened up under
Fidel’s brother, Raul Castro.

On this island
Women wield a power that is evident
So many of them go to University such as the daughter of the owner
Of the house I stayed in.
A business woman at 21 years of age
Who ran the show with her Italian fiancee while her mother was in Mexico.
Her mother, a retired doctor whose mother was an engineer and whose
Father hid in the Sierra Madre Mountains with Che and Fidel.


The magic permeates through the streets even when they are harsh
Overwhelming and frustrating
Dirt, trash, rubble, exhaust, long lines,
And heartbreaking lack of care for the animals

But still, I fell in love – a second time-
With you dear Cuba
An island suspended in time
Miles from Florida and Mexico but so many worlds away
You really are unlike any other place on earth
Partly because The United States has not invaded
Has not yet taken over with it’s chain stores, large companies and obnoxious habits
I beg, “Please stay out but help the Cuban people and go at their pace, respect their Country”
I plead for this to be the case.
The Myriad unique Individuals of Cuba
I see how educated you are
How wise you are
How beautiful you are
How tolerant you are
Thank you Cuba
And to all it’s individuals for
Your hard work,
Your kindness,
Your welcoming nature,
Your beauty and most of all, for your strength and will.

Marin Nomad

As a photographer, writer, psychotherapist and nature lover, I am passionate about living in Marin County, CA. The perfect home base, Fairfax, CA is where I get out daily on the miles and miles of open space and find inspiration and plot my next journey out of Marin into the world. The Marin Nomad site was born in 2014 out of a desire to share some of what I experience here in Marin and during my travels. The world has been through a lot since then, especially recently and there a need more than ever to be out in the natural world. Please see my other sites: Instagram: @maryserphos Photography: Psychotherapy: Inspirational Card Deck:

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