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Habana: A Beautiful Decay



Habana: A Beautiful Decay

Sam Kirk

all photos by sam kirk, copyright 2017.  To request permission to use email

Habana: A Beautiful Decay by Sam Kirk

The sun has just arrived as the brooms begin to scrape against the sidewalks. Splashes of water and soap wind down the  curbs of Habana as the women rise to their doorsteps to clean the polluted combination of dirt, dust, urine and dog poop that collected from the day before. 

The "Panadero" melodically yells his name into the air as he pushes a heavy metal cart stacked with bread loafs through the street. One after another, women shout down their orders as they prepare the bag to drop from their balconies.

A bicycle taxi squeaks through the street, decorated with the vibrant pattern of the Cuban flag, for a short moment, he's the only vehicle in sight.

I'm hanging out on the fourth floor balcony where no one notices me. 

sam kirk habana cuba provoke culture

My girlfriend's chanclas flip flop across the floor as she moves between rooms touching up her hair and make up. Leopard pants and a tank top, today is dance class at the Cuban Cultural Center de Arabe. 

My mind is exploding. Creative stimulation galore. In the two weeks that we've been here, today, I'm excited to be in Cuba! 

"Panadero!" "Panadero!" I sing through the house, mimicking the street vendor,  sharing this moment with Jen. I pack up my sketch book, a reading book and we head out the door. 

The streets fill early in Cuba. A combination of fresh bread, cigarettes and car exhaust fill the air. I'm choosing the first as my focus. 

Sleek lines, fresh locks, and hair rolled in curlers, covered in schnazy handkerchiefs bob through the street in Saturday's hustle  to beat the mid day rush. 

The Cultural Center is quieter than the day before. As Jen heads to class, I zig zag through the streets searching for an internet connection that matches my etesca card. About a mile away, Success! The sound to award this joy is the repeated selection of  wifi choice until the connection syncs, followed by two sets of 12 digit numbers to input. 

Internet is tricky in Cuba! As I wait for the dial up process to connect, I hear a Tony Montana like voice selling newspapers, "Gramma! Gramma! " As his voice grows distant, I imagine the ending scene from Godfather "Say hello to my little friend" and laugh... twisted American Artist imagination. 

A dozen hellos, love you's coupled with business calls and I'm good to go. With an hour to spare, I wander through the blocks of Old Habana, racking up photos in my camera and in my mind. For this trip, photography has become my medium. There's just no way my hands could draw all of the things my mind has captured. 

Throughout Centro and Old Habana, there are pockets of produce in the walls, and I take note of the locations selling onions and bananas, another selling yuca and beets, and a cart with tomatoes and peppers.  One of the best perks growing up barely middle class is we both know how to scramble something amazing together from not much of anything. 

We stayed in 3 homes during our trip. The first place had a scary kitchen so we spent a week in restaurants and bakeries. Our new location (that we arrived at today) is a bit of a upgrade, so we're trying to cook more this last week. A combination of lots of pork, fried food and not so Italian meals has us craving fresh roasted veggies and fruit. 

For two weeks our brains have converted to cash registers, calculating convertible pesos to national pesos with a bit extra for the often overcharge by locals. Prices increase at the sight of us. The sign says $5 but for us it's $8. Before we buy anything, people always ask, where are you from before they give you a price. Sigh. We get it. As American Artists, even we have more than most of the people in Habana. 

In a dark, dusty, dimly lit room are two fingerprint smudged glass counters. They are empty, mostly. Behind them on the wall are small glass bottles with handwritten signs. One reads "$2 MN per lb." for rice. That's $.10 for us. We wait in line and as we give the clerk our order, she stops and moves toward another woman that came in the door. For a moment I thought "oh she wants to serve the locals first, no biggie" but then the woman asks Jen  "Where are you from?" At this point we've learned identifying as American is equal to wearing a sign that says "I'm rich."

A series of exchanges occur and we are out the door, no rice, no food. We dedicated our time in Cuba to Habana because we believe that you need to spend real time with people if you want to understand how they live. We could have hoed around Cuba, but a series of classes and art practice plans kept us in Habana. It was rough, theres no denying that, but well worth it. 

We turn the corner into a produce shop. The tomatoes are a yellowish orange, the pina is smashed but the man in the store is semi- honest. As I pick tomatoes, he slips inappropriate "compliments" to Jen. The ever present sigh and a deep breath combo of our lives never leaves. 

At home, a small saucepan boils two tomatoes. The house begins to smell similar to our home from the onions simmering in the frying pan. Steam slowly rises in a stream above the stove for pasta.

In the bedroom, my girlfriend is reading Shondra Rhimes book, "A Year of Yes". She is nearing the end, where Shondra talks about her HRC speech and her tears begin to fall. 

Her round cheeks turn rosy, her hands partially cover her face and she sobs. 

For over a week, we internally tried to figure out it if was safe for us to be us: a loving, queer couple in public, but a series of unexpected events and constant engagements on the street --for just being women -- left us feeling like maybe not.  No matter where we are, we are rarely just us. Theres this song an dance you must do when traveling while queer -- and brown. Yes, even in Cuba there is racism, but we will talk about that in another post. 

The tears dry up. Sleep eases the soul. A new day has come.


This story is one of several that I wrote during our 18 days in Habana, Cuba. During our time, we had a combination of amazing and painful experiences. All worthy for the eye opening and learning opportunities.

By the last week, we chose to take a risk and held hands --- this was by far our favorite part. Participating in public as a couple was necessary for our happiness. It made us stronger and the unnecessary commentary didn't have much of an effect at all. We learned that Cuba is very much about the connections you have before you arrive -- not monetary connections, just similar walks of live connections. We've learned a thing or two for our next visit.