In the indigo light of early morning, I had Old Havana almost all to myself.
There were a few people on the streets, all security guards or police officers wearing identical uniforms — light blue shirts and navy pants. I couldn’t tell if they’d been patrolling all night or if they were walking to work. They nodded at me politely as I passed, otherwise keeping to themselves.
There were lots of stray animals prowling the side streets, too. I saw six cats circling one garbage can, tenaciously looking for a weak spot before the trash collector came. I passed a few small dogs shaking off their hours of sleep, but none of them trailed after or barked at me. All of the strays were surprisingly tame and well groomed, and I knew that there was no reason to be afraid of them.
In my pre-dawn haze, Cuba still felt like an enigma — but it was impossible to not feel affectionate toward this puzzling, intriguing country.
My feet guided me toward Plaza Vieja, a large square lined with pastel-colored buildings, a place where long lines of tired pigeons stood sentinel along flat rooftops. The sky lightened into a silvery blue, and the birds suddenly dive-bombed the plaza. With their soft coos and flapping wings, they seemed to signal that the day was about to begin.
I chose a street leading out of the square and followed it for a while; then, on a sudden whim, I turned left on Calle Obispo. The morning was growing brighter and more colorful, and the sky looked like an endless sea strewn with streaky pink and blue. More and more people appeared in the streets, greeting me with a friendly “Dia!” on their way to work.
That early in the morning, the shops along Calle Obispo were just empty facades tucked beneath signs and awnings. They were waiting for someone to arrive and turn on the lights and wedge a stopper between the door and its frame. They were waiting for locals and tourists and regular customers and window-shoppers.
On my left, I noticed a massive gray building looming through the trees. It stretched high into the air and extended farther back than I could see, a cracking concrete edifice that contrasted sharply with the soft clouds behind it. The result was jarring, but I was beginning to realize that Havana’s pieces didn’t always fit together neatly. They were jagged and uneven and eclectic, forming a mosaic or a kaleidoscope — not a jigsaw puzzle.
Farther along the street, I reached a fountain that stood near stately buildings. The entire square was shining with the luster of white marble, and hundreds of birds crowded the branches and palm fronds of every tree in the area. They were chirping and twittering and warbling, their voices joining together in a thunderous symphony that almost sounded like clanging metal.
I left Calle Obispo and continued forward, every step taking me closer to the Capitol Building. I reached wide streets that hummed with colorful old cars. I saw suit-clad people emerging from elegant lobbies. Behind the cars and the people, the Capitol Building arose, its huge cupola and grand staircase dominating the entire block.
But as I walked into the streets just behind the Capitol Building, only a few dozen feet away from it, the kaleidoscope image changed again. I saw collapsing buildings, an open-air mechanic shop, a group of people pushing a car onto the street. I saw boarded windows. I saw laundry clipped to clotheslines.
Someone rode past me on a bicycle, zipping toward an apartment or store or school. I turned around slowly and retraced my steps, catching second glimpses of the mosaic pieces I had seen earlier and realizing that they had already changed. I re-emerged in Plaza Vieja and looked again at the large Cuban flag dangling from a lime-green building.
Here was Old Havana in all its piecemeal beauty: vintage American cars, grandiose Baroque buildings, crumbling apartments, rickety Chinese buses. Splashes of color, notes of music, and flashes of culture coming together in one bright, fascinating whole.
The sun had risen, and the sky had calmed into a tranquil blue. People flocked into the streets, each new arrival making the kaleidoscope even more vivid and brilliant than it was before.
It was the beginning of another chaotically beautiful day in Old Havana. And I couldn’t wait for the adventures yet to come.
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Post and photos by Whitney Brown