Notes from 2017 September 12 — Tuesday — 3 days after Hurricane Irma made landfall in Havana
Two bulldozers face each other, engines running, between the Monte de las Banderas and the front gate of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. One stands still with its shovel leveled and waiting on the ground, as the other approaches with its steel blade scraping debris across the street. Choreographed, they load tonnes of wet sand, metal and wood into a giant dump truck. Large sections of the Cuban monument and the American embassy’s security fence were ripped out of the ground and blown across the Malecón when Hurricane Irma made landfall here four days earlier. In the aftermath of what is said to be the biggest hurricane in Caribbean history, the still gusting winds and crashing waves diffuse the screeching and snapping sounds of the bulldozers’ works.
Other than the three trucks’ lamps, darkness envelops this neighbourhood of Vedado, spotted with posh villas and decrepit tenements. There is no light coming from the embassy or any surrounding buildings. Street lamps are off. Downed power lines lay across roads riddled with storm waters. This densely populated district expects to have no water and no electricity for another week. News here is that 4 out of Havana’s 10 Irma-related fatalities were caused by electrocution, and the remaining 6 died from collapsing buildings or drowning.
Before chancing upon the bulldozer scene we bicycled throughout the severely damaged coastal blocks of Havana Centro and Vedado, westward from Bahía de la Habana to Río Almandares. All along the Calzada (Calle 7ma) we came across food tents, stationed on corners every 2 to 3 blocks. It turns out the government is subsidizing pop-up food tents in blackout areas where state-run and black market markets are still unable to reopen. The pop-ups have limited menus that are dependent upon availability and distribution, as is the case in this country most of the time. In the afternoon we found a tent serving Pan Con Lechon (slider-sized sandwiches with salty pulled pork) for 5 Cuban Peso Nacional. Later we came across a grill loaded with whole chicken legs for 25 Cuban Peso Nacional ($1.04 USD). One chef manned the entire tent, while 15-20 people of all ages waited nearby on ornate colonial iron benches. Cuba does not seem to have many benches, especially in areas where people wait, like bus stops.
Kids play baseball in Parque Trotcha. The lot is strewn with rubble and trees felled by 100+ mph winds. Some ruins have been there for decades. The makeshift infield and outfield are scattered with permanent cement benches. Behind home plate, the backstop is the exterior wall of the ground floor of a 17-story 1960’s socialist block building. The utilitarian wall doubles as a catcher. Three of the 6 fielders have mitts. The 10 year-old ballgirl runs all around with a big smile. The fit pitcher seems to be in his mid-20s. When a batter makes contact the ding of the aluminum bat echoes around the park. Hits and plays are followed by minutes of laughter and arguments. Beyond the right field wall(s) stands one of Havana’s most exclusive and expensive hotels. We rode by the Mehlia Cohiba Hotel at sunset, on our way back to the Malecón. A yellow taxi idles by a group of “Yumas” (slang for Americans a.k.a. Yanquis), who discuss dinner plans in front of the state-owned and operated hotel, where generators keep things running.
Life goes on.