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by Ricardo Alberto Pérez

Havana residents live out a large part of their lives on the streets. It’s kind of a reality show out there all the time. Their exuberance animates the city and it translates their uncontrollable zest into a formula for coping with all sorts of difficulties. There is no end of opportunity on the street; you just have to go out and find it.

Cubans are utterly social beings, and Havana residents are no exception. Their delight in spending hours in the street and in other public places starts during childhood. You discover your favorite games and make your first friends there and the street scene provides you with a special kind of freedom. Long after those childish days are over, it’s not unusual to hear an adult say with pride: “Nobody can pull anything over on me. I’ve been on the street ever since I was a kid.” The street is the setting for conversations, for exchanging ideas that can turn into veritable disputes at the drop of a hat, but generally they end up giving way to some useful situations and solutions. Part of the reason is that any dyed-in-the-wool Havana resident always considers himself /herself to be an expert on any topic, capable of having an opinion and providing a philosophical point of view on everything from baseball to outer space and taking detours through politics and history.

The typical denizen of Havana will wake up in the morning, drink his first eye-opening cup of espresso coffee and immediately go out to look for somebody with whom he can comment on the news or merely the state of the weather. You won’t find him lounging around the house for long. The first business on the day’s agenda may be going to the agromercado (the local fruit and vegetable market), to work or to school. In the course of these activities, there is generally plenty of time to exchange ideas or comment on plans with anybody within earshot.

Boulevards are the ideal milieu for a Havana resident: they make them feel like they’re lords and masters of the ample surrounding space. In fact, Havana residents can generally be seen placidly (and exasperatingly) strolling in the middle of any street, singly or in groups, as if it was a promenade specifically designed for the purpose, oblivious of the havoc they are creating for the flow of regular vehicular traffic. Humor plays a large part of street behavior. It is a way to maintain a human perspective on the everyday problems that keep cropping up. Life isn’t easy at the best of times, but with a sense of humor even the worst of situations can be managed, along with a generous dose of patience.

It is interesting to observe that the residents of the city have taken over Havana to such a degree that there is a regular consultation process taking place between the urban population and the Office of the Historian of the City. In its official Master Plan for rebuilding and restoring the Historical Center of Havana, citizens are actually involved in the day to day work and decision-making that affects them and their surroundings.

Summer is definitely the ideal season to watch that sea of people who have exited their homes and mass together in the squares and parks, along the ancient walls, and especially along the Malecón. Partially because of the intense heat, people seek a breath of fresh air, and they take this time to also air their hopes and dreams. Sometimes it becomes an opportunity to set up a domino game in the first available space they find and the atmosphere will be filled with the distinctive clacking of tiles and the jubilation of the players.

We shouldn’t overlook the fact that many Havana residents earn their livelihoods on the streets, selling those constantly needed household articles that often seem to vanish from the stores. Itinerant salesmen and women call out their wares often using some very creative chants to peddle everything from strings of onions to flowers to air fresheners and brooms. Cubans always seem to be snacking and they take advantage of hundreds of curbside sellers of cold drinks, pizza, ice cream and sandwiches. You will never be hungry for long on Havana’s streets.

Lately, the urban landscape has become embellished with frequent artistic displays, all out in the open. Concert bands, living statues, theatrical groups, the stilt-walkers of Gigantería Habana and art shows provide a feast for the eyes and ears. A few days ago a friend commented she was seeing some Havana residents starting to get their hair done on the street in their desire to discover a new way of doing things.

No aspect of life gets ignored on the streets of Havana and it’s well worth it to get out there and not just be a spectator: join in!

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