Havana’s charm is unquestionable. The city exudes history and beauty in the way ancient sites do: as in telling you “imagine what I used to be like”. I used to get annoyed at the tourists’ fascination with the deteriorated, ruined buildings of Habana Vieja, Centro Habana and Vedado neighbourhoods, until I visited Machu Picchu in Peru and I found myself doing just the same.
When visiting the ancient ruins of a fallen empire, a sense of empathy towards a civilization that incomprehensibly fell pray to European greed sets the tone of your observations. You see the buildings, imagining life back then, mentally depicting a rather idyllic world, prosperous and pristine. You even imagine yourself living there as part of that culture, doing your daily farming, worshipping the sun, participating in community activities, or maybe being drafted to wage war with a hostile neighbour (going to war, in those dreams, is no big deal). You even have a family, and you wonder where you’d poo in those times.
Machu Pichu invokes, amongst many other feelings, a sense of pain at the loss of a marvelous cultural creation, mixed with awe and appreciation. The what-if never leaves your mind. While there, your mind constantly reconstructs the ruins. It rebuilds the old life as you visit two sites: a real one on the ground, and a fictional one in your mind. Well, in Havana, you do just the same. It’s exactly like visiting ancient ruins: you spot a building with architectural details…that you must complete in your mind; you notice elegant neo-classic style columns…that you must finish yourself; there’s paint you must apply on a high-ceiling room, and full renovations to implement while you wonder how nice it would have been to live in one of those houses, had they been in better shape.
The astonishing thing is that it’s a huge chunk of the city that offers this unique urban landscape, making it a trait of Havana: destroyed buildings. I used to get very upset at what back then I termed “disaster tourism”. I could not understand why people were so fascinated by buildings where living and sanitary conditions are precarious —buildings that, in fact, fall down from time to time, killing people along the way— until I came to terms with the fact that it’s all about human imagination. Humans love to imagine glorious pasts. It’s a drive that leads us to constantly romanticize the ancient, and Havana offers abundant opportunities to do just that. The architectural beauty of Havana is exuberant. Your camera is taking pictures nonstop throughout the day. There’s so much history and aesthetic beauty to capture… and re-imagine.
The twisted fact here is closely connected with another subject I address on a different blog titled “Why going to Cuba before it changes is nonsensical”. It all comes down to the realization that so much of nowadays Cuba tourism revolves around the appreciation of the island’s past. When you re-enact the architectural glory of Havana’s old buildings, you must return to the times of capitalist and colonial Cuba, when they were all built. That’s where you start to see the intrinsic contradictions between rejecting capitalism and admiring socialism. None of those ancient edification were built after the Revolution. You wish they returned to their architectural glory, but you don’t want Cuba to change.
In conclusion, ancient ruins and Havana appreciation involve a mental process not devoid of contradictions, though interesting and important to exercise, for the simple fact that acknowledging our legacies as human societies can help us understand the past and better deal with the present.