"When that sneaking suspicion comes upon you that Havana can't be all gorgeous colonial architecture and resplendent restored plazas, head to Centro Havana. Wandering the streets hemmed in by crumbling buildings with drying laundry, this is the Havana tourist brochures don't show you." - Conner Gorry, journalist and author of Havana Good Time.
As tempting as it was to spend our last few nights in Havana at a historic hotel such as the Sevilla, the setting for Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana,'' or the Ambos Mundos where Hemingway wrote from an upstairs room, we were drawn to Centro by the idea of dropping into a real-life working class neighborhood.
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As guests at Casa Colonial Yadilis y Joel, a casa particular a few blocks from the Paseo del Prado, a French-designed promenade flanked by 19th century parks and restored hotels and monuments, we woke up to the sound of a man yelling "Pan y montequilla!'' (Bread and butter!) as he wheeled a large blue box down the street. Why run down a flight of 25 stairs when you can put your money in basket, lower it down on a rope from your balcony, and pull up a loaf of fresh bread?
The pink building is Casa Yadilis y Joel, a casa particular in Havana Centro and a regular stop on the bread man's morning route.
The first clue that we'd chosen a neighborhood different from any we'd be in so far was the taxi driver's insistence that he drop us off several blocks away. Our street was flooded for some unexplainable reason.
No, we weren't in Kansas anymore, and it was delightful.
Centro Havana is like a rich man who lost all his money, and is gradually earning it back. Many of the buildings are falling apart. Others, many built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when this part of Havana attracted famous musicians, movie stars and wealthy American tourists, have been beautifully restored. Sitting one night on the terrace of the Hotel Inglaterra, built in 1875, we tried to imagine what the night scene along the Prado was like pre-1959 before Fidel Castro's revolutionary forces evoked the 03C rule: Zero Movies. Zero Shopping. Zero Night Clubs.
The restored Hotel Inglaterra
The scene probably wasn't all that different than it is in 2011. Tourists sip Mojitos on the "Louvre sidewalk,'' as romantics called the terrace bar, breathing a mixture of cigar smoke and exhaust fumes from the old American cars cruising by. A woman in a white halter top sits night after night at the same table, slowing sipping a Coke, waiting for a man in a polo shirt and sandals who will pay her more in a night than a doctor makes in five months.
Joel and Yadilis acquired their 80-year-old building in Centro the way most Cubans acquire homes or apartments that weren't handed down to them from generations past. It's been only recently that the state has allowed Cubans to buy and sell houses. Previously, if you wanted to move, you had to find someone with whom to trade, which is what they did.
They lived next door, a few blocks from the Malecon, in a small, refurbished apartment. An older woman lived in the building they now own, a large walk-up in need of repairs, reachable via 25 very narrow marble stairs. Yadilis, 32, whose grandmother left Cuba for the U.S. after the Revolution, wanted the family to move to the U.S. where her mother and other relatives live. But Joel, 39, thinks they can build a future in Cuba, and convinced her to stay, and open the casa particular. So they traded houses with the woman next door, and spent several years remodeling two rooms for guests. Each has 17-foot-high ceilings, a modern bathroom and air conditioning. They worked hard and sacrificed, but with tourism booming in Cuba, business is good, and they're adding two more rooms upstairs.
Yadilis dreams of the day when she can visit her family in Miami, but so far, the only way the government will give her a visa is if she travels without her two children, ages 9 and 13.
She is a busy woman, involved in her church and things around the house, so we didn't get to chat as much as we would have liked. But when we leave, she kisses us goodbye.
"When are you coming back?'' she asks. "When are you coming to the United States?'' I ask, "with your children?''
She answers with no hesitation.
"It is my dream.''