Cuba: Culture Clash

Cuba: Culture Clash

This article appears in Volume 21:
The Islands Issue

through Old Havana on my first day in
, I’m hit by one thing – colour. Every part of the city is saturated. Old
crumbling architecture is painted with vibrant blues, greens,
yellows and pinks. Sunlight bounces off buildings, tomato-red
Cadillacs and the plastic sunglasses of everyone in my peripheral
vision. Meanwhile, groups of tattooed young Cubans walk around with
bronzed skin wearing neon-accented jeans and skirts.

Being in
means opening yourself up to sensory and cultural
overload at every turn. The sheer amount of people socialising on
every stoop and alleyway gives the whole city the feel of a
never-ending block party. Turn one corner and there are people
playing music, turn another and a cyclist is selling fruit out of
his rickshaw. A ten-minute walk will yield children competing in a
football game, old men playing dominoes, well-fed street dogs
napping on the pavement, uniformed schoolchildren playing and women
hanging clothes to dry on their balconies.

This culture clash is reflected in the very bones of the city.
The architecture is Spanish colonial with mid-century American
influences, adorned with luminous signs that were clearly added
pre-embargo and sport names such as “El Floridita Bar” or “Teatro
America”. I stumble across hidden pockets including the
Russian-style ballet school and the Chinatown district, tucked
between old Catholic churches and beautifully ornate 1930s hotels
built for wealthy gamblers of the era.

Old Havana is packed with public artwork, from 17th-century army
general statues to modern sculptures by contemporary artists and
brightly coloured graffiti murals, featuring abstract illustrations
and slowly fading portraits of Che Guevara. The famous vintage cars
are a vivid mixture of Fifties American and Soviet-era Russian that
meld with the kaleidoscopic landscape when driving down narrow
cobblestone streets or along the Malecón on a windy day, where
waves crash over the seawall and into the road.
has a unique way of always adding to its history, yet
never replacing it. Travellers who love the island are concerned
that it will change irreconcilably as the territory is opened up.
Of course it will change – but that’s the beauty of Cuba. It
retains something from every place that touches it, while remaining
uniquely Cuban. And if there’s one thing that I learned from
talking to the Cuban people who I encountered, it’s that they’re
not afraid of change – they’re eager for it.

@marquandphoto |

Discover More
Get on Board: Cuba’s Underground Skating Community