I stepped out onto the balcony just in time to witness a stream of urine spurting down into the street from the balcony opposite. The small boy giggled with delight, his naked brown bottom-half shining in the early morning sun while his father sat behind him smiling at the scene with no word of reproach. The man was dressed in flamboyant red boxing shorts but his physique was not that of a fighter, or if it had been then those days were long past and the shorts were an old memento. Their little balcony was cluttered with plants, chairs and washing: a tiny piece of al fresco space cantilevered out above near traffic-less streets in a part of the city without plazas or green space.
Looking down toward the intersection where Virtitudes crossed Amistad the four corners were a microcosm of Central Havana. The first contained a magnificent 4-storey Baroque building that had seen better days but was still a battered beauty. Every balcony was stacked with bright washing making the most of the sun and breeze and with the ornate tracery of the stone the effect was of an immense galleon under full sail. The second corner was a gaping hole which once a building had filled: coloured walls and fireplaces hung abject above the rubble strewn ground, the outline of faux columns on the exterior wall hinting at what once was. The third corner was a hotch-potch of old and new with ugly concrete block work filling in neo-classical window and door frames: an open yard to one side was crammed with bici-taxis parked up off the street at nights for security – nothing stays on the streets at night save dogs and rubbish. The fourth corner was a conglomeration of mini-enterprise, a ‘casa particular’ in one section, a cafeteria dispensing the ubiquitous ‘cajitas’ from a window, a watch repair workshop set up in a front room and a nail parlour cum ‘Salon de Belleza’ doing a fast trade in high-gloss low-budget glam.
People sat on steps chewing the fat in the free-flowing lisp-free Spanish of the streets. The odd word hung decipherable in the air but the majority were more akin to music than speech “Dimehermanovamono!” There was music booming inside tiny back rooms adding more rhythm to the street jive and the occasional anguished yelping as some hapless mutt was harassed by a pack of territorial teeth. American cars from the 1950s, as big as lounge rooms, picked their way slowly around the tyre-shredding potholes. Growling like the over-fed fuel hungry-beasts they were designed to be, their ancient engines pumping snarling clouds of black smoke from exhausts as big as drain pipes.
Some kids played football in bare feet whilst others sharpened up their pitching and fielding skills. A pack of schoolgirls came archly round a corner, the demureness of their uniforms contrasting with a nascent smouldering sexuality that stopped the sport in the street dead while they ambled knowingly on their way. Old men with oily black skin lolled in doorways with jaws clamped tight on thick cigars. A bottle of Havana Rum was passed around a group of men in vests as they played Dominoes on an old packing crate in the road. A bicycle with a large box on the rear rack spun round a corner as the rider cried ‘El pan”, the doughy white bread rolls sell for next to nothing which is just as well as next-to-nothing is what most people earn. A huge woman hove into view wearing skin tight leopard skin tights and a fluorescent green top stretched to near breaking point over a pair of gargantuan breasts that if unleashed at speed would have taken out half the street.
A delicious waft of fried chicken came up from below only to be overpowered by a blast of foul water drainage and more than a dash of burnt oily exhaust. Add in some hot dusty street, a hint of cheap Cohiba cigar, perfume and fresh washing, some sea air from the nearby Caribbean and a melange of fresh and over ripe fruit and you have the making of the olfactory background to the scene. Beneath me all continued to roll on, some players keeping their places, others rotating around whilst an ever-present stream of new contenders wandered on and of set.