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  • CHICLETS

    To qualify for the Person to Person licenses from the US Department of Treasury that allow us to travel to Cuba legally, we spend a significant amount of time with several Cuban photographers. But this is hardly an onerous requirement. Chino, Lacy, Chang, and Raúl are all accomplished and widely-exhibited artists, and we have the pleasure of viewing their work. I had spent a day shooting with Chino and his stepson/translator David on my first trip here; we became friends and it is great to see them again. We are split into small groups, each led by one of our Cuban hosts, and go out looking for photographs.

    I have taken the ferry across Havana Bay to Regla several times, but I have yet to explore its next-door neighbor Casa Blanca. So I go with the group led by Raúl Cañibano to that cinematically-named town. I know from experience that my backpack full of large-format camera gear will be thoroughly inspected by guards stationed at the embarkation point for the ferry, whose job is to prevent another attempt to hijack the boat to Florida. So this time I have left my weapon of choice, otherwise known as a Leatherman Tool, back at the hotel, and I am cleared to sail.

    Upon our arrival in Casa Blanca, I search in vain for Rick's Café Américain, Humphrey Bogart, and to my ever-lasting disappointment, Ingrid Bergman. My consolation prize is a haggard-looking train sitting in front of the station, which I know immediately I will photograph. But it doesn't look like it is going anywhere, so I accompany the group as we begin exploring the town, the streets of which seem to rise to and converge on a road that climbs steeply to the heights above. As we reach the summit we find on one side of the road El Cristo de la Habana, a gigantic sculpture of Jesus that looks down on the town and across the bay, where it is plainly visible from the Malecon in Havana. On the other side of the road is Che Guevara's house, which like everything else Che in this country is revered, but also one where the capitalist tradition of charging admission is honored. I was not able to learn a lot about Che's residency here, but I assume he was given the house to live in after the revolution when he was part of the new government of Cuba. As I work on a composition of the Havana waterfront, I wonder who owned this magnificent view before it became the property of the state, whether Che ever relaxed here with a rum and cigar after a hard day at the office, and reflect on the irony of Che and Jesus as neighbors.

    By the time we descend to the waterfront the nice morning light has become the harsh glare of midday, and we return to Havana for lunch. Deciding that I will come back to photograph the train, I wonder aloud whether it will still be there in the afternoon, whereupon Wil Ferguson bets me $100 that the train has not gone anywhere for a very long time. The inspection process is repeated on the Casa Blanca side, I once again pass, and I then offer each guard one of the Wintergreen Lifesavers that I carry with me for my own enjoyment as well as to give to children that I encounter. A man can draw the unwanted attention of Cuban authorities for many things, but offering candy to children - or ferry guards - is not among them.

    After lunch I wait for the ferry to take me back across the bay. I calculate that this will be my seventh crossing, and I still have no idea how much the fare actually is. One time I held out a 20 Peso Cubano (CUP) bill, which was taken with no offer of change. Another time I gave the fare-taker a coin equivalent to a quarter of a Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and got a disapproving look in return. It occurs to me that 1 CUC usually pays my way aboard, but now my curiosity is aroused and I ask the Cuban woman ahead of me in line what the fare is. She replies that it is 10 centavos CUP, or about 4/10ths of a penny US. She then pays for my fare, since there is apparently one price for Cuban citizens and another higher and more fluid fare for foreigners. I love the dichotomies of this land!

    The second I disembark from the ferry in Casa Blanca I am reminded of one of the canons of photography: the best time to take a photograph is when you see it. The train, which Wil wagered has not moved for ages, is gone. I walk down the tracks toward a gate, where I am waved away by a guard who tells me I may not pass. I am able to learn from him that the train will return within the next half hour, which it does. I talk to two young people from the Netherlands, who tell me that twice each day the old train travels 2 ½ hours from Casa Blanca to Matanzas, stopping at every little town along the way to pick up and drop off passengers.

    I make a couple of pictures of the train and the station, including this one, while the Cuban couple quietly, curiously, impassively watch me work as they wait for the next departure. I learned during my first trip here that the people are as compelling as the places and things that I normally photograph. So today, anyway, it does not bother me that they are in my picture. In fact, I sense that they belong there.

    I pack up my gear, walk back to the the ferry station, and unzip my backpack to once again show its contents to the guards. About halfway through the inspection, one of them recognizes me from my first crossing, and calls out “chiclets,” which I deduce is a relative of the Spanish word for gum, chicle. I break out my stash and am suddenly surrounded by many new friends for whom a Lifesaver is a genuine treat, amazed at how much goodwill a few cents worth of candy can buy.

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