What's best about any place you find yourself in, if you're lucky enough for it to be so, is the people. The most impressive thing about Havana is also its greatest paradox: the humanity and spirit of its people. They are the soul of Havana. The more time I spend in the city, the more my admiration for these demoralized but quietly defiant people grows.
Life there-haunted and humiliated by poverty and deprivation-is endlessly difficult. Most Cubans live in poverty or just above the poverty line. Dire living conditions, shortages in basic food and other goods, electricity blackouts and water shortages are common. The average monthly state salary is around € 10, far from enough to survive on; one needs € 120- € 150 per month just to subsist in Havana.
Many Cubans are forced into wheeling and dealing in what is now the real economy-the black economy. This is especially true in their interface with tourists: selling art and home-made goods, and recommending tourists to restaurants, accommodation and nightclubs in return for tips.
The devastating and deeply unfavorable economic embargo imposed by the United States on Cuba still stands after 46 years, since relentless criticism by the United Nations. Most trade between the US and Cuba is banned. This has helped to cripple the Cuban economy. Meanwhile, the communist system struggles to cope with hard economic and political realities.
Amid such tragedy, the gentleness and good-humored civility shown by habaneros is strikingly impressive. They struggle hugely, yet with an overarching dignity. They are gracious, charming, spontaneous, engaging, and blessed with a wicked sense of humor. Most impressively, they are unembittered. Theirs is an improbable lightness of being.
Thanks to them, Havana is a capital pulsating with life. The sense of community is tremendous. There is a feeling of togetherness we in the developed world have long since lost in our frazzled individualism. The relative lack of rudeness and aggression in Havana is inspiring. Despite all their difficulties, the vast majority are extremely conscious of how they have behaved.
Everywhere in Havana, the talk is passionate and full of vitality. The smiles broad and slow to leave the lips. You will find harmony among strangers, an easy rapport between people of all ages and backgrounds. There is an energy on the street, a fizz and restless hum, animated voices competing with the cavernous sound of 1950s American car horns, quaintly freeze-framing the city in the 1950s.
Cubans have nothing and have developed a habit of behaving as if they have everything. They put their faith in what is real, and do not miss an opportunity when there's a hint of the good times. In Havana, there is a sense of life in suspended animation. Since the past is irrelevant and the future uncertain, there is nothing else to life but the present. And so life is lived with a peculiar, joyful intensity.
They are experts in finding small mercies to be grateful for, sometimes to an almost absurd degree. There is a Cuban proverb: "If you have a problem and you have the solution, there is no problem; if you have no solution, you can do nothing about it, so there is still no problem." That kind of stoicism, that spectacular lack of self-pity, is a central part of the Cuban character.
"Music lightens the soul," a security man in a casa particular in Havana told me earlier this year. His tone was one of benevolent conspiracy. It was as though he had just found the secret of life itself, and was relishing his discovery.
We in developed countries routinely associate poverty with danger. It's a cultural reflex, based on fact and experience. Havana is poverty-stricken. And yet, for the most part, it's the safest, most chilled out city you could visit-a throwback to quainter, more innocent times.
Despite the immediacy of the city, Havana reveals itself slowly. It is a place of disarming contradictions. In this scruffily elegant colonial metropolis, the paradoxes constantly surprise. This is a large Catholic city, yet extremely liberal; communist, but surprisingly laid-back; politically stunted, but sensual and hedonistic.
Havana has a seductive power-a slowness strangely allied with a desperate urgency. An easy charm. A ready smile that sees to widen in proportion to increasing adversity. And a wonderful blend of tranquility and exuberance. When you wake up in Havana, you regain your faith in humanity's remarkable ability to remain cheerful in the face of extraordinary hardship.
All of a sudden, the world feels fresh again.