CARDENAS, Cuba - Bicycles and horse-drawn carts outnumber cars on the narrow streets of this faded seaport town. Building facades are a patchwork of their last several paint jobs, chipped here and there and exposing the pink that preceded the blue that peeks out from the newest yellow.
And yet, habitants of the town now famous for a once and, they say, future resident named Elian believe there's no place like home.
"He's got everything here," said Tanya Galvan, 21, a friend of one of Elian Gonzalez' family members. "It's a paradise."
The celebrated 6-year-old returned to Cuba on Wednesday after seven months in the United States as the subject of an international custody battle, but he has yet to return to his hometown. Instead, Elian, his family and a coterie of classmates and teachers are spending a couple of weeks in a plush suburb of Havana about 90 miles west of Cardenas.
Ninety miles is also the distance, northward, to Florida, which was the destination of 14 Cubans who left Cardenas one night in November in a barely seaworthy craft. Fleeing their homeland, they met a sad and all-too-common fate: Eleven of them - Elian's mother, Elizabeth Brotons, among them - drowned.
Elian, the little survivor, was pulled in two directions, by Cuban exiles in Miami, who wanted him to stay in the United States, and the Cuban government in Havana, that fought for his return. Havana, ultimately, won with Elian's return this week, but in this town of about 90,000, they believe only one city can truly claim Elian.
"Of course, he will come back here," Galvan said. "He will have to come here to take a test for the next grade in school. His family is here."
For now, though, Elian's family is staying in the latest of the borrowed digs that have been home ever since they were reunited in April. Kept from the public eye by Cuban security police, they are living in a former mansion in Miramar, a suburb west of Havana that is dotted with similar homes, one-time residences of the wealthy in pre-Castro Cuba.
The seaside home with a swimming pool will also double as a school for Elian and his classmates, and will help the boy "re-adapt" to his life in Cuba, officials said.
The Miramar home, though, is probably more akin to Elian's last two houses in the United States than his divorced parents' residences in Cardenas. Soon after federal agents snatched him from his Miami relatives' home in April, he stayed at a farmhouse in a bucolic setting on the Eastern Shore and then at a large home in Washington's stylish Cleveland Park neighborhood.
Presence of Elian
If Elian has yet to return to Cardenas, his presence is very much there.
At Marcelo Salado Elementary School, the arched entrance features a picture of President Fidel Castro on the left and Elian on the right. Yesterday, visitors couldn't actually get into the school, at least not during the noon hour, when the arrival of several buses full of children caused a major commotion.
On bike and by foot, seemingly the entire town hustled toward the school and packed the surrounding streets to greet the returning schoolchildren, who had been arrayed on the tarmac of Jose Marti airport in Havana to chant, cheer and welcome back their classmate. They were still dressed in the kerchiefed uniforms that they wear as "Young Pioneers," the next generation of revolutionaries.
Although the children were gone only overnight and only to Havana, many of the parents seemed as ecstatic to see them as if the children had been away as long as Elian.
In Cardenas, people seem a little dazed by a metropolis like Havana.
"I have relatives in Havana, and you take all these buses and people push you," Galvan , the family friend, said with a bit of a shudder.
Galvan is house-sitting in an apartment that Elian's grandmother, Raquel Rodriguez, lived in with her husband. Elian and his mother shared the dwelling, which, by Cuban standards, is spacious - two bedrooms, sparkling clean and located above a pharmacy. In the living room, framed baby pictures of Elian and a blurry photo of his mother are overwhelmed by one of the big signs one sees around Cuba showing the boy with a pensive expression and the slogan, "Liberan a Elian."
Nearby is the other home Elian spent his time in, that of his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. No one is home there, but it was freshly painted, as was Elian's school, after the news media began venturing into the town.
Although parts of Cardenas are crumbling, it also has a somewhat prosperous side, courtesy of the boom in good, dollar-paying jobs in nearby Varadero, a stretch of beach resorts. Brotons was a maid in one hotel, and her former husband worked as a cashier at a tourist park.
As a result of the tourist trade, Cardenas seems more consumer-friendly than expected from its fading colonial facades: There is a bustling produce and meat market topped by an elaborate dome, and a number of shops that sell an array of radios, clothes and other goods that rival some neighborhoods in Havana.