Havana swelters. People idle in their doorways or lean into the thin shadows cast by dishevelled balconies. Bicitaxis stagger over the uneven roads, the drivers slick with sweat. Attendants doze at shop counters, the shelves behind them mostly empty.
In Havana Vieja the pavement is streaked with dog shit and the crumbling edifices slump together, shedding dust and flakes of paint. While the buildings are slowly decomposing, the balconies are full of life. People, plants and pets cram into the tiny space formed by twisted, rusting rails. Patchwork laundry sags in the humidity. Baskets are lowered to people in the streets below, offering produce, pesos, or keys to the front door. In the evenings girls lean bored over the railing, flirting and pouting.
The plazas of Havana Vieja have been restored. There is no dog shit, the paint is bright, the railings all parallel, the colonial flourishes repaired. Fountains gurgle, hustlers babble. Tables and umbrellas spill out of cafes and onto the cobblestones. There is new life in the old bones of Havana. Scaffolding covers ornate facades, cranes swing over the red-tiled roofs.
From the stairs of the immense Capitolio, Centro Havana looks like a postcard. Polished vintage cars and beat-up Russian taxis splutter or grunt along the wide, empty roads. Grubby layers of paint peel off colonial plasterwork. A forlorn elegance still lingers over mansions that have become tenements.
On the Malecon no one is staring out to sea and thinking of Florida because the sun is too hot and the glare too bright. People drop off the rocks and into the water. They pack ration-card picnics and the entire family spends the scorching late afternoon climbing in and out of the water. Guys swing their rippling shoulders as they slouch along the wall. Girls swing their hips.
Even in the heat of the afternoon, Havana seethes with energy. Even when it is too humid to move, there is bustle in the streets. There is noise and there is sharp odor and there is life. The city is decaying and the city is rising. It buzzes with creativity and verve. After fifty years of dogmatism, Havana still thrums with culture and history. Havana Vieja has more homages to international artists and thinkers than revolutionary billboards. In a city as old and vivacious as Havana, the revolution is just another worn coat of paint cast over many others.