Seeing the world, small places as well as great ones, has been my passion for as long as I can remember. My father was a geography teacher, who brought home colorful maps of exotic places that I tacked to my bedroom wall and dreamed of visiting. Travel still fills my daydreams.
A few months ago I was struck by the full extent of my roving, restless nature. I found myself in the Virgin Islands, sitting on a perfect white sand beach looking out at an azure sea amid tropical greenery, and what was I doing?: telling friends about all the other places on six continents that I was desperate to see. The conversation gradually shifted to speculation about what would be the next big place, the 'new Prague,' the shining city where bright young Americans would gather en masse to soak up Old World charm and bohemian energy. It had been Barcelona in the ’80s. Kathmandu in the ’70s. Rome and Tangiers in the ’50s. Paris in the ’20s. Where next? We had our guesses:
Kerala, India; Tallinn, Estonia; Antigua, Guatemala; Ulan Bator, Mongolia; Tripoli, Libya.
But it soon became obvious that we were really talking about the next next big place because it’s a sure bet that the immediately upcoming mecca for hip wayfarers is Havana. Of course! La Habana—the gloriously historical colonial capital, the mob’s tropical prototype for Las Vegas, the sultry hothouse for musical cross-pollination, the viciously reviled (and naively worshipped) ground zero of a revolutionary experiment in social equity and command-control economics. Ha-vana is unquestionably one of the most interesting spots on earth.
I SPENT TWO WEEKS there in 1983 and was enchanted. The gorgeously gracious Spanish architecture, the bustling public squares, the jazz and son and rumba rhythms, the giant Coppelia ice cream garden visited nearly every evening by nearly every Habañero, the whole city ready to dance at the first notes of a horn or guitar, the Caribbean breezes that seem to carry secrets for relaxed, refreshing, romantic living.
Novelist Graham Greene, in his 1958 spy comedy Our Man in Havana (which brilliantly presaged the city’s role as a flashpoint in the Cold War), observed, 'To live in Havana was to live in a factory that turned out human beauty.' Three years earlier, Esquire magazine’s racy correspondent Helen Lawrenson proclaimed it 'the sexiest city in the world.'
'There seems to be something in the air of Havana which has a curious chemical effect on Anglo-Saxons, dissolving their inhibitions and intensifying their libidos,' Lawrenson wrote. 'Tourists, caught there for the first time in its deep, hot undercurrents, think they must be losing their minds.'
The Cuban revolution changed little of that, as far as I could tell. 'Havana is still the bright, bustling carnival that travel agents touted in the ’50s,' I reported to the readers of In These Times. 'Whatever its other triumphs and failures, the Cuban experiment has proved with glittery glory that socialism does not have to be synonymous with guarded, gray grimness.'
Havana somehow seems to unfasten the tight bindings of modern existence. 'It is a place where nothing ever happens according to plan,' Helen Lawrenson observed, 'but anything else can happen and usually does. You never meet anyone you’re supposed to meet; you never get anyplace on time; you never do any of the things you put down on your list as important; you never see what you meant to see; and you don’t give a damn.'
I, too, was delighted by the loose, lively way in which life unfolds there, according to its own fine patterns. This exquisite feeling, experienced most often outside the borders of Americanized frenzy, is what—even more than the maps of my childhood—keeps me dreaming of further travels.
ONLY 90 MILES from Florida but off-limits over four decades, Havana stands as an alluring attraction. Already it’s popular with Europeans and Latin Americans as well as enterprising Yanquis who find a way around the State Department’s travel ban. As soon as Fidel Castro dies or the U.S. trade embargo is lifted, Americans will descend on the Cuban capital like a gold rush.
Reveling in my memories of Havana, I can’t help but panic at the thought of tourists and developers invading from the north. Havana is still Havana because of the Cuban revolution, explains the celebrated urbanist architect Andres Duany. Mexico City, Caracas, Rio, and other once-splendid Latin American capitals have been diminished, he writes in Designer/Builder (Feb. 2001), by thoughtless American-inspired developers who erased these cities’ architectural integrity and Latin soul. That’s quite a statement from the son of Cuba’s first suburban tract developer who whisked young Andres off the island after Castro’s victory.
Communist planners left the city alone in part because they couldn’t muster the money to wreck it. With the help of UNESCO, they preserved the charming Old Havana quarter, but when I was there, plans were on the drawing board for demolishing most of the classic Central Havana district. It was saved, thankfully, by the same economic crisis that transformed Cuba into a world leader in organic farming and bicycle transportation.
Duany worries that the Cuban government—and this will be even more true after Castro exits—is so eager for foreign investment that it welcomes any and all kinds of development into the heart of Havana. He urges Cubans to look past typical Western all-for-the-auto urban planning and take lessons from Paris, Stockholm, and Portland, Oregon, in promoting urban growth that maintains the magic of city life. 'Let us hope that the new Cuban people,' he writes, 'recognize that La Habana is the last great Latin American city.'
And this is a matter of something more than architectural aesthetics. The spirit, the character, even the sexiness of a place depend on the look of its buildings and the feel of its streets. It would be a tragedy if in embracing Havana, we destroyed the very things that attracted us to this lovely city in the first place.
Discuss in Cafe Utnecafe.utne.com