Malecón is 'Great Sofa,' but activity is nonstop
Havana's famous seaside promenade the Malecón draws a crowd around the
clock, but it's never the same crowd.
BY WILL WEISSERT
They call it ''The Great Sofa'' because hundreds of Cubans sit here day
and night, year-round. The fabled Malecón seawall, a concrete promenade
separating a jammed six-lane boulevard and an often-angry Atlantic, is
always crowded -- but never with the same crowd.
''It's like New York,'' said Fernando Roldán, a 37-year-old masseur who
was guzzling rum as he lounged on the seawall after midnight one
weekend. ``It never sleeps.''
A typical dawn finds fishermen on the low wall over the waves, casting
into inky blue water glistening with runoff from a refinery that billows
black smoke in the distance.
Children heading to school walk atop the wall, casting shadows as long
as the adults on the adjacent sidewalk. A woman faces the ocean and
crosses herself, mouthing a prayer before hurrying on to work, while a
brigade of street sweepers fans out -- sometimes steering their wooden
brooms around chatty drunks still going from the night before.
U.S. military engineers first began building the Malecón in 1901, paving
over scrub brush while American forces still occupied Cuba following the
Spanish-American War. Today, it stretches four miles from Old Havana
west, past the office of the American mission and the black flags Cuba
flies outside its windows, and on to the Almendares River.
In the late morning one Friday, Luis Alvarez, a 25-year-old culinary
student in a red baseball cap faded almost colorless by the sun, sat
staring into the waves lapping rocks carpeted with algae. Occasionally
he sprang to his feet and paced the wall, throwing bits of bread -- a
lopsided roll he gets daily with his ration card -- into the surf.
Most fisherman use makeshift poles, but Alvarez had nothing but a spool
of fishing line and a naked hook. He said men in wet suits and scuba
masks obtain permits to ply the waters away from shore hunting for
marlin, sometimes spooking smaller tiger fish back into the rocks where
they might be hooked using the bread crumbs.
''It takes hours,'' he said.
Alvarez said he hoped to catch at least two fish because it was his
father's birthday. One he could cook, he explained, and the second would
fetch enough money for a bottle of rum to go with dinner.
''I haven't cooked fish in a long time. I always sell whatever I
catch,'' he said.
Running the length of the Malecón, the low wall over the waves features
the perfect dimensions for sitting -- 2 feet wide by 2 ½ feet tall. Men
walking on or alongside it often shed their shirts, wearing them over
their heads and necks to provide some relief from the blistering sun.
Muscle-bound teenagers sometimes do sit-ups on it, while couples jog by.
Musicians with trombones, trumpets and violins play all day, hoping for
tips from passing tourists.
Far more common, however, are those who strum guitars and sing or recite
poetry for pocket change -- like Ulises Alfonso, a 37-year-old judo
''The traffic in the background, the women walking. It's like a game of
ping pong,'' he said watching ''Coco Taxis,'' or motorcycles enclosed
under egg-shaped yellow roofs, dart around the Studebakers and other
American classics on Malecón's boulevard. Once exceedingly common,
solicitation on the Malecón by hustlers known as ''jineteros,'' or
jockeys, has declined sharply.
By dusk, families can be found swimming among the rocks below the
Malecón. Youngsters scamper up the wall to fling themselves into the waves.
During summer blackouts, thousands flood the seawall after dark and stay
all night. They suck down beers and gulp rum straight from the bottle,
enjoying a breeze from the ocean that the stilled fans and silent air
conditioners in their homes cannot provide.