Sitting quietly in El Museo del Chocolate, sipping a hot chocolate and contemplating how to spend the rest of the day, I notice a hubbub from outside. Waiting staff in black outfits swish out of the door to see what’s happening as crowds begin to gather outside the windows. The German couple on the next table move towards the window speaking hurriedly together.
Speaking neither a lot of Spanish, nor German, I was feeling rather nonplussed. I quickly paid for my drink, much to the annoyance of the waitress, whose morning’s entertainment I had clearly interrupted. Heading outside I looked up, following the gaze of the crowd. Flames, dark orange, red and foreboding, licked and twirled out of the top middle window of a building a few doors down.
Crowds had formed and people were gathering below the building, on the pavements, spilling into and filling the road. The atmosphere was excited; chatter filled the air as onlookers pointed their smartphones and tablets at the spectacle.
“Take picture, take picture!” exclaimed a man next to me, pointing at the camera around my neck. Obviously this was great excitement for a Wednesday morning in early November.
The fascinating thing was not the fire, but people’s reaction to it. It’s hard to imagine inhabitants of other capital cities around the world stopping their day, pulling down the shutters on their restaurant, or taking an impromptu break from work, to watch a fire burn in a property that wasn’t theirs. In Havana, it seemed that I was in the midst of a live television show.
A cacophony of whistles broke the peace, wielded like a weapon by Cuban police, much like Cubans in general whistling through their teeth when they want to express annoyance or warning. Police officers on foot came rushing south along Calle Mercaderes one by one, swatting the viewing public to the side; as soon as they had passed the crowd regrouped, until a couple of police cars came and were soon swallowed by the masses. Fire engines, water trucks, an ambulance, more police – on motorbikes this time – showed up slowly but surely.
While the firefighters busied themselves with preparing their hoses, my breath caught in my throat. For one heart-stopping moment a shape seemed to lean from the window flapping into the open air, like the flailing limbs of a drowning person gesturing for help against their terrible fate; it looked like somebody was trying to escape the blaze through the window. As the fire crew began to pummel the window with gallons of cooling water, it became clear that it was just a singed curtain, caught on the breeze. I exhaled; a long, shuddering breath of relief. There didn’t seem to be anyone inside.
As the flames billowed an elderly lady with sable hair and a navy housecoat came running along the street, her face aghast. Quickly the police took her aside. I don’t know whether she was an occupant of the building, or just a concerned neighbour. I hope that her life wasn’t affected too much by the fire – a comfort surely, that she was still in possession of it.
The firefighters were efficient, and soon the imminent danger was gone. Still, people lingered: passersby, shopkeepers, chefs, waitresses and schoolchildren continued to mill around even after the flames and the immediate excitement were extinguished. Proceedings soon returned to a particularly Cuban rhythm; old men grasped the hands of their police comrades, female officers kissed the cheeks of their acquaintances passing by, and people talked and laughed. As the last fire engine drove across the Plaza Vieja a fireman leaned out of the window, attempting to chat up a passing señorita. Life in Habana Vieja had returned to normal.