By Juan José Valdés, The Geographer at National Geographic, and the Director of Editorial and Research at National Geographic Maps.
Some of the world’s most historic and picturesque cities are instantly identified by their nicknames — The Big Easy, The City of Light, The Windy City, to name a few. Then, there are those cities whose monikers are more closely held. La Ciudad de las Columnas (The City of Columns), the name eminent Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier gave to Havana, is among them.
Just last month (and more than a half century since my parents put me on a plane to escape the tumult of the revolution in 1961), I helped lead a National Geographic Expeditions trip to Cuba. Though I had returned to my homeland once before (on an Expeditions trip about a decade ago), this time I promised myself that I would experience and savor the Havana of now instead of focusing on the La Habana of my past.
Carpentier did the city justice with his choice of words. In Havana, columns abound. But the more I photographed them, the more I began to notice the doors behind the columns. Here was another universe indeed. Shapes, colors, functions each with its own story. Which Spanish marquis had crossed these thresholds? Did Hemingway admire the wooden portals that lure passersby into the cool inner sanctums of these stately homes?
As the days passed, I became increasingly captivated by Havana’s doors. And, despite the promise I had made to myself, I began thinking about the door to my childhood home. Life has been kind to me since I left the island unescorted at 7 years old — one of thousands of Cuban children who make up the so-called “1.5 generation” in the U.S. — but my past still lingers there, unfulfilled.
Was the house still there? Did it look as I remembered it? And so, in wink of eye I hailed a taxi and told the driver, Eduardo, of my quest. When we arrived at #20 Continental, Sevillano, it took me a few moments to recognize it. I walked to the front door, the very one I had run out of countless time as a child, to ask permission to photograph my long-ago home.
After a few knocks, an elderly gentleman opened the door. After I introduced myself and explained my purpose for being there, he graciously beckoned me to come inside — a step I was not yet prepared to take.
As I was backing up to photograph the exterior of the house, I heard the man call out to his neighbor, “There’s a bald man with a white beard at my front door who says he once lived in this house. Do you know who he is?” The next thing I heard was a collective shout from the doorway of the house next door: “Juan José!…Where have you been for the last 50 years?”
Fifty years indeed.
On our flight out back to Washington, D.C., where I have since made my home, I saw the city grow smaller and smaller as we climbed high into the air. I sat there in my seat looking out the window at miles and miles of blue ocean below and thought, Havana might be known as La Ciudad de las Columnas to some, but for me, it will forever be La Ciudad de las Puertas (The City of Doors).