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Story: This article appears in Volume 21: The Islands Issue.

Walking through Old Havana on my first day in Cuba, 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.

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Being in Havana 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.
Cuba 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.

www.marquandphoto.com
@marquandphoto

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