Chronostasis: The phenomenon of witnessing the stopping of a clock
Havana never had a constant color to me. Music tinted with a sepia haze poured out from the saxophones of jazz musicians by the roadside cafe, faded pastels seeped down rooftops unattended for decades and the rum-colored patterns carved on cathedral walls were but coffee stains splashed onto an old picture by the hands of time.
We stayed in Varadero, a bright, touristy kayak-shaped island floating next to the main island of Cuba, a place where young performers in bikinis dance salsa in resorts painted yellow and beach DJs play “Despacito” on loop under a sky of pure blue, creating a tiny, pleasant bubble that hardly reminds foreigners this country is under communist rule.
Varadero did have a constant color: the ocean’s translucent blue that glittered underneath a scorching, seasonless sun. The detour from here to Havana was merely a bonus in a tourist package wrapped in this blue; our feet were allowed only 40 scarce minutes to meet this city’s ground. This trip was never meant to lessen the singular sexy flavor that everybody expected of this tropic land. But Havana never had a singular color.
I had been told that the city would be a “very Insta-friendly, brightly colored place.” But I met Havana as if walking into a fading scene. The sun was already setting when the bus stopped in Old Havana. A soft orange light, no longer glaring, loomed over the entire Plaza de la Revolución. Streets were too narrow, walls were not as bright as I had seen in pictures and there was dust on the closed wooden doors. Everything was too soft and slow and faded — the colors, the voices, the lights, the distant sounds of music playing on the opposite side of the street. A golden haze cast over the aged city when dusk arrived silently, and even the voice of our guide was blurred. In a moment, time slowed down, and then it stopped.
Some say that Cuba is a country forgotten by time. There is New Havana, a place constructed entirely by the hands of the new state, but there is also the Old Havana I walked into, the place where history stood still. Some say that Old Havana was encapsulated in this eternal 1950s vibe; nothing after the communist coup left any trace. Somewhere in the mid-1950s, it underwent the phenomenon of chronostasis: The turning hands of its clock stopped.
As the bus slowly navigated its way down the streets, the city revealed its past glories, step by step and block by block. Behind insipid old and new rectangular buildings, squeezed together tightly were the aged, intricately built and perhaps abandoned mansions peeping out like curious maids behind their veils. Nothing was without age, but everything seemed ageless. Looking at the city at dusk was like watching a motion picture from the past, with film faded but the scenes unfaltering. Crowds rustled through the city, but even brightly blinking street lights seemed distant. There was nothing vibrant in the air, only traces of distant tenderness and, perhaps, a tint of melancholy.
The sunset was too much like a dream. It was hard at this moment to think about the roaring Canadian winds carrying snow and the winter chill back home or even about the beach resorts back in Varadero and their modern Jacuzzis. Wrapped now by the fading day, Havana lost both season and era, and it belonged to nobody but Havana itself.
Later that night, we watched the famous Tropicana dance show after driving through New Havana. Crowds marveled at the twirling dresses and vibrant colors onstage. As I watched mists of smoke float gently from cigar tips across the curtain of night, I couldn’t help but miss the rumbling crowds in the slow dusk of Old Havana. New Havana was too modern and too monumental, with the glowing head of Che Guevara and bright white sculpture of Fidel Castro overlooking the empty plazas, together with all the commerciality and idolatry tightly compressed together.Old Havana was not. It had a personality that could make me believe it stayed unchanged since the last century, something neither politics nor tourism could take away, and I missed it already before I dragged myself back across the deepening night into the bright neon lights of exotic expectations.
There were no lack of symbols and monuments in New Havana. But when I think back about this short detour, there was one object that couldn’t be wiped away from the back of my mind, one that surpassed all political monuments installed by the new government. It was a rectangular building, built perhaps 10 years ago, or 20 or 30 — but none of those mattered — standing alone in the evening winds as the bus glided away from Old Havana’s dusk. It used to have a pale surface, but stains of rain and dirt has crawled all over it. It was quite tall and stood among a new sprout of colorful short huts, gracefully yet silently, like a lonely crane. The city beneath was still rumbling, but it just stood there, a graying structure against a graying sky.
At that moment I thought, “This is Havana. It cannot be taken away.” I remembered earlier that afternoon, under Che Guevara’s sculpture, an old painter stopped me and said, “You’re beautiful.” It was quite lovely, and time seemed to have stopped at that brief, eternal moment filled by tender sunlight, so I forgave him for stealing the line I had prepared for Havana.