The multiple and elusive Havana

Guide to get to know the Cuban capital.



Sang to by poets and trovadores as few cities have, its history written and fabled over and over again, Havana arrives at its half millennium of foundation planted on its enchanting and elusive image, impossible to catch on a postcard, evasive from the legends that confirm or refute it, but open to the encounter of its diversity, the discovering experience in its infinite roads.

Whoever wants to venture into the attempt to encounter the diversity of San Cristóbal de La Habana should set aside the superfluous approaches, abandon the pool of tourists, the propaganda in favour and against, the visits to Miramar, El Vedado, Old Havana and Centro Habana, and go to the outskirts, not on a taxi or an almendrón (old American car), but rather on the crowded buses that go to those places that do not appear on the all-inclusive packages.


A possible start of the adventure can be “fighting” to get on a P 11 in front of the Capitol building, an exercise in which you must run from one place to the other along Prado Street, playing tag, that game with which Havana bus drivers have so much fun. It would be a good start to get in tune with the most common, down-to-earth citizen.


Let’s say that you have already boarded the P 11, you’ve even been able to hold on to the tube and you’re still not stumbling along the aisle; let’s also think that you didn’t suffer too much getting on the bus, that your body and belongings are still intact and now you try to relax on the trip, almost happy because you have set out on an unknown and promising journey. But watch out, don’t relax too much, remember the Oricha refrain: “There’s no life for the sleepyheads here.”


Let’s suppose that the P 11 already crossed the tunnel under the bay and passed theentrance to El Morro and La Cabaña fortresses; you’re still standing, which might allow you to look on both sides: to your left you will find, interrupting the sea view, the Camilo Cienfuegos district; to the right, the Naval Hospital and, behind you, a belt of profusely inhabited marginality. In this first experience it is not necessary to get up to there: you run the risk of falling into a black hole outside time.


The P 11 advances along the Monumental Highway and you see to the north the very deteriorated stadium built for the 1991 Pan American Games: its tracks are full of grass where goats are grazing; following is the Pan American Village, born with the same objective, built with voluntary work from Havana residents; in the background, the town of Cojímar; facing the south, to your right, the Guiteras district, built by the mini-brigade workers.


The supreme objective of this trip to the most intricate parts of Havana is to enter the kingdom of the mini-brigades, but to get to know it in all its splendour it is necessary to continue on the P 11 to its final destination: Alamar.


For whoever travels on the Via Blanca on the way to the beaches east of Havana, or beyond, to Matanazas, Alamar is a space barely noticed on your left, between Cojímar and Bacuranao beach; but if you go inside that’s another story and landscape.


Alamar is an extension of the city, whose origins date back to the 1950s, involved in the expansion toward the northeast of the capital, and the construction of the Vía Blanca, the Tunnel of the Bay, the Monumental Highway are part of that; as well as the Santa María del Mar, Balcón de Santa María, Tarará, Celimar, Colinas de Villa Real, El Olimpo, Costa Azul de Alamar, Residencial Alamar, Residencial Bahía Park and ResidencialVíaTúneldistricts.


A few years later, in the 1960s, that 1950s construction project in Alamar received a change of direction. Instead of being a place for the relaxation of the Havana bourgeoisie, the revolutionary government changed “its social object”: it became a place to accommodate the military collaborators, engineers and technicians from the Soviet republics, as well as from several Eastern European countries. However, all of them were popularly called “Russians”.


In the following decade, Alamar was again the centre of another project: it became a giant zone for construction growth, the place where the greatest amount of buildings for multifamily dwellings went up, built with the labour force of the future residents (the mini-brigade members), a process that came to a standstill in the 1990s.


But now you must pay attention, because when the P 11 leaves the Monumental Highway and enters the lands of Alamar, you lose the sense of reality: the bus advances, but to you it seems not because you continue seeing the same building, over and over the same building, the same building, the same building.


Until all of a sudden one floor homes can be seen in the distance: they are “the little houses of the Russians,” in zone 1, where the first manifestations of the black market in the capital appeared, since “the Russian women” sold or bartered with the Cubans the products acquired in the so-called diploshops.


It is still possible to find a “Russian woman” in Alamar. Few of them remain, but their language betrays them; they are women in their sixties born in Kiev, Minsk, or a lost Georgian village which they have not seen again; they are already settled on the island and divorced from the first Cuban husbands, with whom they contributed to the national melting pot some Liudmila, Tatiana, Yuri or Serguey, who are also called “Russians”.


Alamar is inhabited by persons from all the Havana municipalities and from all the country’s provinces, the mini-brigades were an experiment of social engineering: doctors, engineers, blue-collar workers, artists, communist party members, Babalawos, Catholics and Jehovah Witnesses are mixed in the multifamily buildings: 44 families live in one same space, several hundred going to the same market, thousands of them trying to get to their workplace on time, on the other side of the bay.


The buildings constructed by the mini-brigades changed an institution left to us by the colony: the tenement house, which instead of being prolonged horizontally, grew upwards, giving rise to the vertical tenement houses, an entire contribution of the socialist architectural model that proliferated in the 1970s and 1980s.


The neighbours of Alamar were the first to use the creature most mentioned in the capital’s media of the two previous decades, that hybrid of truck, trailer and bus where several hundred passengers crowded in and which the official terminology euphemistically called metrobus, but which popular wisdom called camello (camel), the precise word for naming the noble beasts that crossed the Havana desert.


The current buses called P are a continuation of those mythological means of transportation that so many tourists photograph, but which few venture to take to travel to San Agustín, Alberro, El Calvario, Santiago de las Vegas or Alamar.


Now that you embarked on that adventure, don’t stay mid-way not only of discovering the other (and real) Havana, but rather of starting to understand Cuba: stay for a few weeks in an apartment in Alamar and share the life there with the most humble. It will be a difficult exercise, but necessary for getting to know a 500-year-old city, fabulous and diverse, unreachable from the skin that hides its essences. (2015)


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