During the long, suffocating, dark days of the Special Period, there were basically just three things to do in Havana in the evenings: drink that bitter sparkling wine that didn’t even come in a bottle, go with a couple of buddies to cool off in view of the sea by sitting on the Malecón wall, or, when all else failed, go and sit on the Malecón wall and drink that sparkling wine.
That notion of going to the Malecón to kill some time, bad or good, didn’t start then. It dates much farther back. In fact, it is such an ancient notion, that you could say that the desire to sit on the Malecón was a characteristic of Havana residents even before there was a Malecón. That’s why it was invented.
In the early 19th century, plans began for a promenade for that open space of pointy-tipped rock (diente-perro) and sea, and by 1859, the greatest Cuban engineer of the era, Francisco de Albear, was commissioned for the job. He quickly drafted a plan but the Spanish government took so long to fund the project that Albear had enough time to construct the aqueduct bearing his name and which today still constitutes one of the principal sources for supplying water to the city.
It wasn’t until 1901, during the US occupation, that engineers Mr. Mead and Mr. Whitney finally got busy on the project; however, one year later, only a scant 500 meters had been built. It continued to be put together in intermittent spurts and stretches right up to 1959. It was a great wall that drew a line around most of the city and which should be included in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest park bench in the world.
But all that is past history. Today it’s a different story. When I look out my window, I see cruise ships passing, filled with tourists from Yuma-land and I can also see the white-sailed boats going to a fro, and some motorboats speeding like never before. Time flew by and at one time Havana Bay had become so polluted that no seagulls ventured there any more. But people kept on going to the Malecón during the late afternoons for a breath of fresh air, to strum a guitar, to cry the blues and to drink a beer, nevermore that sparkling wine, no matter how typically Cuban it was. Luckily, shipping activities have been relocated to the brand new Special Development Zone and Container Terminal at the Port of Mariel. So practically the only boats you see today in the Havana Harbor are ferries that go to the fishing villages of Regla and Casablanca on the opposite shore and cruise ships. And, yes, the seagulls are flying over the bay again.
Young (and not so young) couples in love, or who haven’t fallen in love just yet, go and sit on the Malecón’s wall to talk about nothing, about life, about their ex’s, to end up kissing under that same nocturnal sky that will witness other couples just like them kissing, that same night, the night before and the night after that. Because the wall is fantastic for that, for beginning new relationships—and also for breaking them up when they run out of steam.
It’s not only couples at the start or the end of their love story, or groups of friends who call that long, white, hard bench their own, night after night. The wall also caters for solitary figures who feel the need, or desire, to be alone; they arrive at sunset, escaping their homes and the heat, telling their wives and kids that they’re going fishing. And you will see them there, hour upon hour, with the most sophisticated fishing equipment, casting their lines into the waters over and over, persistently yet unsuccessfully. But they never give up in their efforts, right up to dawn when they decide it’s to head back home with happy faces and not a single fish. Dawn is also when the folk decked out in running gear show up; some run and some walk along the wall, eager to look better and more eager still to be seen doing it. And then there are those truly solitary souls who have tired of their solitude but haven’t been able to get rid of it. Both men and women, sitting at some spot, their backs to the city, staring at the sea in the face as if they were begging, screaming for a miracle at the top of their lungs, for some man or woman to save them from lives that aren’t going anywhere.
The Malecón is also a mini-mart of knick-knacks, candies, warm, roasted or sugar-coated peanuts; plush toys and flying colored lights going back and forth, to the sky, to infinity and beyond; flower sellers, strolling musicians with maracas, guitars and bongos, playing sons, guarachas, boleros and even congas in sparkling keys being punctuated by the sound of coins striking Bucanero and Cristal beer bottles. And there goes the ubiquitous pink Chevrolet convertible, overflowing with tourists who are taking it all in with envy, wanting more and more.
This wall that borders the northern shore of the city is all that and more. But it provides no protection from the advance of the sea; instead it metamorphoses into an amazing scenario whenever the gigantic waves break against it, rising into the air meters above sea level, white foam spattering the grey pavement and creating salty rivers along the sidewalk. The wall doesn’t define the end of the city but the start of the Island; it defines the city but it doesn’t enclose it because Havana keeps on jumping past the Malecón, it assails it whenever it likes with proclamations, slogans and also with offerings of thanks to Yemayá.
This paper island afloat in a “mare nostrum” that doesn’t besiege us but serves as a gentle bridge for whoever comes and goes: our Malecón becomes the door, wide open and democratic, where Cubans expose themselves to the salty spray and the ebb and flow of destiny. What a tremendous metaphor for the Cuban people in the crash of never-relenting waves and the eternal nature of the rocks facing the sea. Here we are, stuck in the middle of the Gulf Stream, against hell or high water, confronting good weather and bad, always smiling and always happy.
Eloy Castillo, LaHabana.com