The doors of La Habana Vieja

Posted on Feb 28, 2015 in Travel


I’ve just returned from two weeks in Cuba. What struck me first were the doors. Most are from the colonial period. Huge, double doors, sometimes wide, sometimes narrow, often about 15-feet high. Solid magohany. Sometimes they haven’t been painted in a long, long time. Sometimes the aprons of the walls out front or inside (like those along the staircase in this photo) are covered with the remains of Moorish tiles, the floors in simple but prized Cuban limestone. The front step, a cut paving stone or nothing but the narrow sidewalk, where come evening, no matter how small the space, grandparents, parents or friends will sit and children will play in the street.

Sometimes there’s a business tucked inside: a confectionery, a barbershop, a shoemaker bent over an old black and gold Singer industrial sewing machine, a small produce market with plantains, mangos, guayabas, tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers on offer. A private telephone service with chairs lined up ready for the queue, a motorbike repair shop, a car park. Sometimes there are workers making and pouring cement, a restoration underway. Sometimes the front door opens immediately into the family kitchen or sitting area, the stove in use or the sofa in view. Clotheslines full of sheets, the family laundry in all its colour taking in the breeze from the sea.

A tall front, desk where colonial servants would have received guests, now supports residents waiting for rides, passing the time of day. Often one can glimpse into the courtyards beyond, the fruit and flowering trees, probably a couple hundred years old, and in the shade, women having coffee with their neighbours, families relaxing in the evening. It is not uncommon to find stained-glass windows overlooking these inner gardens, in the style of tropical art nouveau.

Other times one looks into a cavern, empty, yet full of possibility. A grand cast iron staircase winds up towards a second, third, fourth and even fifth floor. Or, like these in the photo, a straight staircase of Italian marble, worn but serviceable still.

“What did you think of Cuba,” my host asked me on my last night in La Habana. “Fue impresionante,” I said, by this time having found the right word to express the weightiest of experiences in Cuban Spanish. Impressive. And this is what I meant: the open door, the space for invention, the re-purposing of the old with the new. Most of all, a country and a people that has done so much with so little and against great odds.

No, Cuba is not a utopia. It has its share of problems. But it also has this: many, many lovely city parks; ambitious reforestation and eco-restoration projects, now world heritage sites; an original music born of contrast that is celebrated everywhere; an innovative health care system; a population of avid readers; and an amazing dearth of homelessness. Oh, I could go on, but for now, Cuba, !Le saludo! I salute you!

And, oh yes, the sign over the grill says, Careful, there’s a dog, with a flair in the calligraphy, that almost puts a smile on Beware of the dog. So Cuban.