Juan and Odalys' House

    It amuses me that one of the principal streets in Havana takes its name from a Spanish military officer of Irish descent named O´Reilly. Where it intersects with the equally busy but more appropriately named Calle San Ignacio is a perfect place to capitalize on the tourist trade in Habana Vieja.

    Ancient cannons no longer needed to defend the city from pirates have been sunk muzzle-first into the street as traffic bollards to protect pedestrians on this block of San Ignacio from marauding drivers. On one corner is El Bosqecito (the little forest) cafe, an oasis of tropical vines and plants that shade tourists from the tropical sun. Across the street Odalys operates a gift shop and her husband Juan rents rooms on the upper floors. The story of how they came to own this prime piece of real estate goes back many years to the time when the island was a colony of Spain.

    The original part of the building was constructed in 1890, and by the 1930´s it had been expanded to its current footprint and was the location of the Belgian embassy. The main floor was used for the offices of Belgian diplomats. But Juan tells me that in those days it was common for embassies to also house manufacturing facilities, so some of the space was used as laboratories to make medicines. The recipients of these drugs is a mystery, but he thinks there may have been underground connections.

    After Cuba´s 1959 revolution, many embassies such as Belgium´s that had been located in Habana Vieja moved to the newer, less congested and swankier community of Miramar. Odalys´ father, Julio Gonzales, who had lived and worked in the consulate for many years as an accountant and custodian, was allowed to stay in the building. Perhaps taking a cue from the revolution´s penchant for redistributing the properties of those with means to those without, the property was given to Jose, and passed to Odalys in 2004. Little remains to connect the building with its history: a flagpole over the ornate front entrance, a metal plaque inside the door, and a collection of antique labware.

    When Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro agreed to begin normalizing relations between our countries in 2014, Juan and Odalys anticipated a touristic tsunami and began increasing the number of rooms for rent on the upper floors of their building to the present total of eight. In the Cuban tradition of using available resources to their fullest, Juan has made the most of the space. Some of the rooms are part of the original footprint of the building, while others have been added in innovative ways. A recently built mezzanine holds two rooms, a new doorway allows use of a previously inaccessible area, and narrow outdoor stairs lead to two more rooms constructed on the roof. A US building inspector might look askance at some details, but the rooms are clean and comfortable.

    But recent events may portend an end to this capitalist wave. After investing heavily in his property, Juan has learned that the popularity of casas particulares such as his have cut into the profits of state-owned hotels, causing the Cuban government to consider a law that would restrict them to a total of only three rooms. And the Trump administration says it will reverse the eased travel restrictions enacted by Obama to once again make it more difficult for US citizens to come here; apparently their idea is to starve democracy into existence. Ironically, it seems that the US government is pursuing a parallel strategy with that of its communist nemesis to suppress the entrepreneurship that could bring real and lasting change to Cuba.



    USS Maine Monument

    Havana is a city with many memorials to people who have fought for Cuban independence. So it seems perfectly fitting for a monument to be a metaphor for the long and complicated relationship between Cuba and the United States. That memorial stands along the Malecón and honors the 266 US sailors and Marines who died in the explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. Later investigations would conclude that the explosion was caused by a fire in a coal bunker that ignited the ship's ammunition, but at the time Spain, of which Cuba was then a colony, was accused of mining the ship. Whether in retaliation or as pretext mattered little: the US declared war on Spain and quickly defeated her army and naval forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines Islands. Spain ceased to be a colonial power, and the US became one.

    The Cuban people were so grateful to their presumed liberators that they commissioned the monument, a stylized ship’s prow flanked by two cannon salvaged from the battleship, and a pair of Corinthian columns topped by the American eagle. When I tell two friends visiting the island how the memorial came to be in the presence of a young, politically-educated Cuban tour guide, she quickly interrupts me to say “we didn’t learn THAT in school!” I suppose not.

    Sadly, time has been little kinder to the monument than fate was to the ship. A year after it was dedicated in 1925 a hurricane blew the bronze eagle from its perch. My friend David Rodriguez tells me the popular story that the eagle landed feet first, staring north across the Florida Strait toward the United States. It was replaced by one with streamlined wings to resist future hurricanes that lasted much longer but ultimately met an end similar to its predecessor. This eagle was torn from its perch by a group of Cuban revolutionaries in 1961 who saw it as a symbol of American imperialism, a sentiment reflected in an inscription added at the order of Fidel Castro.

    Cubans were plagued with various sorts of US meddling throughout the twentieth century. The Platt Amendment enacted by Congress in 1903 granted conditional independence to Cuba, while retaining veto power over any decision made by the Cuban government that the US disliked. The United States enabled and supported rulers like Fulgencio Batista, whose corruption fomented the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Then, fearing a communist state so close to its borders that it inadvertently had helped create, the US imposed an economic embargo that persists well into the twenty-first century and has made life even more difficult for the Cuban people.

    I visit the monument on a warm Christmas day. As I contemplate its significance and the interconnectedness between our countries that it represents, I notice others around me: a Cuban family chatting as they gaze out onto the gulf stream, a young girl posing for photographs, a man playing soulful notes on his trumpet. For them it appears to be simply a place to gather, to be.

    In 1953 the United States built a new embassy just down the avenue from the monument. In a decidedly Cuban twist of irony, it is directly in the line of fire of one of the Maine's cannon. When I first notice this I think it might be a bad omen until I recall another legend. When the second eagle fell from its perch it was broken, and its wings and body ended up in the Havana City History Museum. Its head came into the custody of the Swiss, who were the caretakers of the US embassy during our diplomatic absence from Cuba. The Swiss returned the head to the US in 2014, and it now hangs in the ambassador's office. According to this legend, good relations between the US and Cuba cannot resume until the eagle's head and body are reunited. Perhaps the cannon is just pointing the way.


    Connecting Cuba

    The technology used to connect this country with the rest of the world has traveled a typically Cuban path: slow, long, winding, and full of roadblocks and detours. But with a government whose existence relies on controlling what its people read and hear, this is unsurprising.

    First there was El Paquete Seminal, or the weekly packet, perhaps the ultimate manifestation of Cuban entrepreneurship. It is operated by young, computer-savvy people called, logically enough, paqueteros, who assemble and organize hundreds of hours of the latest movies, TV programs, and even YouTube videos. The content is loaded onto the hard drives of top-level distributors, who disseminate it through their own networks of distributors. Within a day the content has reached end users throughout the island, who pay around 5 CUC to participate in a scheme that would make an Amway marketer envious.

    I stayed at Hotel Los Frailes in 2013 which had, in theory at least, internet access consisting of one clunky old PC in the lobby. A guest wishing to check email or do some very basic web searching could purchase an access card, enter the login and password codes from the card, and, if both the computer and the internet connection happened to be working that day, one was online. Some hotels even had ¨business centers,¨ meaning several computers in a separate room.

    A couple of years later some hotels were providing wireless connectivity to their guests. They were easy to spot at night by the ethereal glow of smartphone-illuminated Cuban faces gathered outside, purloining the hotel's internet using bootlegged cards. It became such a problem that paying guests had trouble getting online, so police officers routinely rousted these latter day pirates, who no doubt reassembled around the corner at another hotel.

    The hourly cards cost 8 CUC at the hotels, but could be purchased more cheaply in a certain park known as an outlet for clandestine goods and services. As soon as I entered, a young woman offered me her ¨services;¨ I politely declined and said that I was looking for a tarjeta, or a wireless internet card. She directed me with her eyes to a man on a nearby bench, who palmed me a card then signaled that I should pay a woman on another bench 3 CUC.

    The latest and most significant change occurs in December of 2018 when “Weefee,” as it is pronounced here, becomes officially available in parks throughout Havana. I stand in line with some Cubans and a couple of other foreigners to purchase a WiFi card from a blue and white building that has recently been placed here by ETECSA, the state owned telecommunications service. The woman on the other side of the tiny, barred window knows even before I speak in my ¨Cowboy Spanish¨ that I am a foreigner, and asks for my passport. She dutifully types in its number, along with those on the access cards. The government may have made the internet more available, but its interest in who is communicating what to whom has not diminished. For 3 CUC I purchase 3 hours of connectivity.

    I notice a young man standing in the shade of a tree near the ETECSA stand, occasionally making eye contact with people in line. Some of them purchase cards then walk to the man and exchange one for money, while others eschew the line and instead buy cards from him. Later I learn that people can only purchase a limited amount of access each day, so some buy their allotment and sell what they don´t need, while others who want more than the daily limit purchase more. He pays a little more than what ETECSA charges, and sells for a bit more than that to make a profit. I wonder if he once sold bootlegged cards but was forced to change his business model, and once again marvel at the ability of Cubans to follow the motto of the US Marines to “adapt, improvise, and overcome.”

  • Nochebuena; La Habana

    Nochebuena; La Habana

    Christmas Eve; Havana


    In another time, it would not be surprising to read a headline like this in an edition of Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba. Although he was an authoritarian, Fidel Castro wanted to be seen as benevolent to his people, the giver of all things. But Fidel died in 2016.

    It is Christmas Eve 2018, and despite the fact that another large bearded man reputedly travels the globe this night giving toys to children, I assume that Santa is still on the no-fly list here in Cuba. So imagine my surprise as I stand on a corner in Habana Vieja and, “what to my wondering eyes did appear, but”...uh...two bicitaxis tricked-out in the regalia of Spain's Fútbol Club Barcelona and propelled by elf-shirt-clad riders.

    The bicis skid to a stop, Papá Noel leaps out, hands soccer balls to two children that happen to be nearby, jumps back in next to an extraordinarily beautiful Señorita Claus, and down the street they fly. I have just enough time to make a couple of exposures before they are a block away. From personal experience I surmise that this drive-by gifting is done of necessity so that the bicis, elves, Santa and his Señorita are not overrun by other kids who are descending on the scene.

    This Cuban riff on Clement Clarke Moore's classic poem illustrates how much the country is changing. Fidel made Santa persona non grata in 1959, more or less accusing him of being an illegal immigrant from the United States. His reindeer were unwelcome as well. Decorations had to portray traditional Cuban scenes, and “Yankee” Christmas trees were forbidden in lieu of Cuban palms. Castro's Grinch-like decree lasted until just before Pope John Paul II visited the island in 1998.

    When I first began traveling here I noticed very muted acknowledgments of the holidays, mostly limited to small, artificial trees in a corner of people's houses. But as with other things that were once banned, each year the celebrations become more open and festive. Strings of Christmas lights adorn balcony railings. Many of the people whose job is to stand on the street to entice customers into restaurants do so while wearing Santa hats, and the restaurants are decorated in ways that Fidel would not have approved of in 1959. The ubiquitous street bands incorporate a rendition of “Feliz Navidad” into their set lists.

    I enjoy a traditional Christmas Eve gathering for drinks and snacks with some Cuban friends, then have a great dinner at my favorite restaurant. Later I return to my apartment and sit on the rooftop with a glass of rum, listening to the revelry below.

    Christmas Day comes to life a little more lethargically than do most mornings here. The roosters crow more softly than usual. The bakery across the street is open for business but the flow of customers is a little slower today than on others. The holiday seems to have settled back into just another day here in Cuba, perhaps a metaphor for the ebb and flow of change here.

    As I finish writing this story I learn than the US government is changing the conditions of visas for Cubans wishing to visit the US, ostensibly to mirror Cuban visas for US citizens. But an unintended consequence is to make travel more difficult and expensive for the nascent Cuban entrepreneurs who regularly travel to the US to buy many of the supplies they need for their paladares and casas particulares. I think that a more thoughtful and consistent approach to relations between our countries might ferment democracy here, and is the best gift we could give the Cuban people.


    Evening of Saint Lazarus

    I witness a powerful illustration of the syncretization of the Yoruba and Catholic religions at the Pilgrimage of San Lazaro. On the evening of December 17 of every year people who themselves, or who have family that are suffering from various physical or mental afflictions, congregate in the town of Santiago de Las Vegas. Here they fulfill promises that they have made to San Lazaro in hopes that the ailments will be cured.

    The pilgrimage is named after Lazarus, the poor man in the parable recounted in Luke 16:19-31 of the Bible, who begged for food from “a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury.” The beggar was covered in sores that were licked by dogs who came by, and so christianity venerates Lazarus as the patron saint of lepers. In the Yoruba religion, the orisha Babalú-Aye is associated with the healing of diseases such as smallpox and leprosy; he is portrayed wearing burlap clothing with purple adornments, and is accompanied by two dogs. The two are syncretized, and bear the Spanish name San Lazaro.

    Unlike Felipe, a pilgrim I meet in downtown Havana who plans to walk the entire way, I take a cab to the village on the outskirts of the city. Here begins the final leg of the pilgrimage to a church on the grounds of Santuario Nacional de San Lazaro, a former sanctuary for people suffering from leprosy. The illness is rare in Cuba today, so the hospital treats victims of other skin diseases as well. The patients stand behind a fence surrounding the hospital, quietly watching me, an artist named Jose who is my guide tonight, and thousands of other people who have come here to participate in the pilgrimage.

    Some, like me, are here to simply experience the event. For others it seems to be a reason to drink rum, play loud music, and party, much like Carnaval. Residents are meeting their more basic need to earn a living by selling statues of San Lazaro, other Santería objects, souvenirs, and food and drink to the attendees. Others have come to support the pilgrims, who are dressed in the rough sack cloth representing the clothing of Lazarus, trimmed in finer purple fabric like that of the rich man of the parable. Many of the pilgrims are fulfilling their promise to San Lazaro by completing the last few kilometers to the church on their hands and knees, some dragging heavy weights behind them, while others roll themselves over and over down the street. A few wish to endure even more suffering to prove themselves worthy; we stop next to one man lying prostrate in the road where Jose, a devout practitioner of Santería, drips hot wax from his candle onto the back of the man.

    After reaching the church into which hundreds of people have crowded, I see a man sitting on the floor surrounded by candles, his ankle horribly disfigured by a large, deep skin ulcer. I can only bear the heat and the tightly-packed throng for a few minutes before I need to go outside. There, others sit in quiet contemplation in front of candles, some performing Santería rituals.

    Later, I think about my experience this night and realize how fortunate I am. I have good health, a comfortable life, a wonderful family and friends, the ability to travel and experience a wider world, and the freedom to do and think as I like in my country. The pilgrims do not enjoy such luxuries. Instead, their lives are consumed by some kind of overwhelming problem that has compelled them to make their promises to San Lazaro. I feel undeserving, but blessed just the same.


    In “Havana Black,” Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura writes of the fanatical devotion of police lieutenant Mario Conde and his friend Skinny Carlos to their beloved Havana Industriales, the New York Yankees of Cuban professional baseball. I experience the roller coaster emotions of Padura's characters in the grandstands of Estadio Latinoamerica one evening, where I am blessed once again with the good juju of Cuba and learn why the Spanish word for “fan,” fanático, is so appropriate.

    The night is clear and warm; exactly the conditions under which baseball should be played. The home team and their opponent from Sancti Spiritus are having winning seasons and I am told that this will be a good game. It turns out to be a more exciting contest than any writer could invent, as thrilling as watching the injured Kirk Gibson hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning during the 1988 World Series.

    After paying a cuban peso apiece (4 cents US) to enter the stadium, three friends and I find the special section behind home plate that our cabbie tells us is reserved for extranjeros (foreigners). Realizing that the net in front of us will interfere with our photography, we set our sights on another group of seats along the first base line but are stopped by a guard who tells us the section is reserved for journalists. Our cameras and my claim to be writing a book about Cuba either fails in translation or persuasion, and we are refused entry.

    We next find some empty, roped-off seats behind the third base dugout. An ancient guardian tells us these seats are reserved for an Industriales fan club, but we are then approached by another man who says that for 10CUC we can sit in the section with him and his friends. I agree and reach for my wallet, but he quickly waves me off and ushers us to some rickety wooden seats with a premium view of the field. A bit later he asks me to follow him under the grandstands and into a dark, deserted corner that would make me nervous in any other country. But I understand that he is simply collecting his baksheesh away from the eyes of the many police officers who are attending the game, his version of resolver. We watch from our seats and are treated as friends; cursing the umpires and cheering “our” team as enthusiastically as our hosts.

    The game does not begin well for the home team. By the bottom of the fourth inning they are down by a score of 0-6 and have seemingly gone through all of the pitchers on their staff; I wonder if there is a mercy rule in Cuban baseball. Then inning by inning they score a run or two, closing the gap against the Sancti Spiritus team. With one out in the bottom of the ninth, the Industriales have clawed their way back to a 6-6 tie. The visiting pitcher hits a batter to load the bases and spark a stare-down between the two, but before trotting off to first base the batter shakes hands with the pitcher in a remarkable display of sportsmanship in this very competitive game. The next batter hits a soft single into shallow right field to score the winning run, causing the entire Industriales team to storm out of the dugout in a celebration worthy of a World Series game 7.

    Despite the excitement on the field, I am equally entertained by the fans. After every important play, and each time the umpires make one of several bad calls against the Industriales, loud, heated debates ensue, each point punctuated by animated gestures, and I wonder what would happen if these people were not actually on the same side. Life in Cuba is complicated, but for these fans, just as it is for Lt. Condi and Skinny Carlos, baseball is an escape, a brief respite from politics, the economy, and the difficulties of living here.


    Pledge Of Allegiance

    I think that I most enjoy Cuba early in the day, when for a few moments before the sun rises above the horizon Havana is a pastel city. From the roof of my casa I can see soft, warm light reflected from the pockmarked coral walls of the main cathedral, making it look a bit like a birthday cake left too long in the sun. Soon the neighborhood will be alive with uniformed children on their way to school; older kids with groups of their peers, younger ones accompanied by a parent, all seemingly looking forward to a day of learning. The commitment to education exemplified by these students might be the most important and enduring legacy of the Cuban Revolution, and is one of the most interesting stories that I have learned about this fascinating place.

    Before 1959, access to education was very unequal here. Affluent Cubans sent their children to private schools at home and abroad, while children of families of lesser means attended a public school system ill equipped to provide a good education. Schools did not exist in many rural areas, so children living outside of cities often could not attend at all. As a result, many Cubans could not read or write, especially in the countryside where the literacy rate was about 68%. In addition, the disparity in educational opportunities between rich and poor, urban and rural, was symbolic of the class divisions that marked the first half of the twentieth century in Cuba, something that Fidel Castro was determined to eradicate. So with the revolution less than two years old, Castro declared in a speech before the United Nations that 1961 would be the “Year of Education” in his country. He went on to say, “in the next year, our people plan to wage a great battle against illiteracy with the ambitious goal of teaching every last illiterate person to read and write.”

    The plan to enact this lofty goal became known as the Campaña Nacional de Alfabetización en Cuba, the Cuban Literacy Campaign. It would depend heavily upon the participation of citizens, andwas built on two basic socialistic ideas: “if illiterates are to be found among the people, so also are those who can teach literacy,” and “those who know more must teach those who know less.” Following these principles, more than 300,000 literacy workers called alfabetizadores were trained and equipped. Adult volunteers worked primarily in cities, and more remarkably, 100,000 students ranging in age from 10 to 19 years old were sent out into the countryside, where they worked in the fields alongside the campesinos by day, and taught them to read and write at night by the light of a special lantern that would become the symbol of the program. By working with their adult “students” in the fields, a bond of trust was established, as well as a sense of solidarity between learners and teachers.

    Although the goal of 100% literacy within one year was not achieved, the literacy rate throughout Cuba climbed steadily to eventually reach today's level of 99.8%, one of the best in the world. After the campaign ended, the government continued to make education a priority, and a right, of all Cubans. Schools were constructed in rural areas throughout the country to give every child access. Others are found tucked into corners of old buildings, in the plazas popular with tourists, and along busy streets in the built-up urban areas such as Havana.

    One morning I notice a commotion down the street from my casa and see students gathering in front of Simon Rodriguez Primary School. One is responsible for raising the flag to mark the start of the school day while his schoolmates begin singing the country's anthem. As I watch and listen I am reminded of a simpler time in my country, when at the beginning of each day we would stand, place our hands over our hearts, and recite our pledge of allegiance.


    One of my favorite places to listen to music in Cuba bears the ironic name of Cafe Paris. It sits at the intersection of two important streets in Habana Vieja, San Ignacio and Obispo, that are closed to vehicular traffic but crowded with tourists. The proprietors have taken advantage of this happy accident to fill the cobblestone street in front of the cafe with tables and chairs. On pleasant evenings, which is to say most evenings in Havana, this patio is filled with patrons whose money enables the cafe to hire top quality ensembles to entertain them.

    But one evening I find myself being entertained by two elderly women at another table, each with one of the quintessential tourist drinks, a mojito and a daiquiri. The woman drinking the daiquiri is employing a fascinating method of consuming her beverage: keeping her hands in her lap, she bends forward at the waist and aims her mouth at the straw, takes a small sip, then straightens back up. Seconds later she repeats this process, over and over, reminding me of one of those drinking bird toys. Neither woman smiles or seems to be particularly enjoying herself. Daiquiri-sipper's bows to her straw are not in time to the music, causing me to wonder if they even hear it. In any case, I decide they at least don't “get” the music, and maybe not the place.

    Whether lost on these women or not, a great band plays a mixture of salsa music, Buena Vista Social Club hits, and of course, their version of “Guantanamera.” The same cast of Cubans that I see here every night dances at the edge of the seating area, one of whom is a woman with what seems to be the same large cigar clenched in her teeth. With even the slightest encouragement, they descend upon the tables to pose for selfies with the tourists and ask for money before being chased out by the waiters.

    In Viñales I watch a group of children taking salsa lessons and wonder why, since it seems that Cubans are born knowing how to move to the music; it is as natural to them as walking. Salsa music is built around a particular rhythm, called a clave, or key, with a wooden instrument of the same name often heard tapping out this rhythm. Jorge Gomez of the band Moncada says that one one must have the clave inside them, and that when Cuban women walk, it is more like they are dancing. I observe this phenomenon carefully and can confirm that Jorge is correct: Cuban women seem to make an extra little forward movement of their hips with each step they take, giving them a dancing kind of walk. They feel the music, even when they do not hear it.

    Salsa is an escape, however temporary, from the hard reality of life in Cuba. To watch Cubans play or dance is to see them free of the bonds of oppression under which they have lived for five hundred years. It is also a way to make a living. The best bands play in places like Cafe Paris, while those less talented, or perhaps those still earning their “chops,” play on street corners. Some use homemade instruments; all regularly pass a small basket for donations or to sell their latest hit CD. Teaching salsa is a booming business as well. Five American friends and I take a class one day, each of us paying our personal instructor 10CUC per hour, good money here. After two hours, we at least understand the basic steps of salsa dance: “one two three, five six seven,” still echoing in our minds hours later.

    Late in the evening, I lie in the darkness of my little room on the roof of a casa particular. The sun has long set, and the tropical day is slowly cooling. Down the street at Cafe Paris the salsa band plays, percussion instruments and horn clearly audible, the notes of a tres sneaking through from time to time. With windows open on two sides, my room becomes a large speaker, the music a perfect soundtrack to my time here in Cuba.


    The word malecón is Spanish, meaning a breakwater or esplanade. Many Latin American cities such as Lima, Peru, Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico have them. But I suspect that when most people hear the word, especially when it is preceded by a definite article and expressed as a proper noun, they think of the one found in Havana, Cuba.

    Here,“The Malecón” is the name given to the multi-lane road, walkway, and thick concrete seawall that parallel each other beginning in Havana Bay and extending about five miles along the city's waterfront to the mouth of the Almendares River. The United States began building it in 1901 during our occupation of the country, and it was finished by Cuba after it became an independent nation.

    It is meant to protect the city from the Florida Straits, and on calm days it does. But when a hurricane visits the island, or a strong storm crosses the Gulf of Mexico from Texas as one did recently, the waves crash over the seawall, making the otherwise pleasant place dangerous to pedestrians and drivers, and it is closed by the police. I walk to the end of an intersecting street where I am waved away by a motorcycle officer. When I ask if I can stand in Antonio Maceo park across the street to take pictures, he literally draws a line on the ground with his boot, behind which he tells me to stay.

    Although the original purpose of the Malecón was to keep land and water in their respective places, over the years its importance to the commerce of the city has grown. It is an efficient way to travel between Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, and on into the Vedado neighborhood. Cruise ships dock in the bay where it begins, and taxistas in their pink Cadillacs compete for tourists here. Vendors selling tropical drinks and TuKola, the island-produced version of Coca Cola, do a brisk business. Further on in a poorly-lit section, exotically beautiful young women and men offer less reputable services to foreigners who, by chance or design, venture here after dark.

    But by day, the seawall is a place to catch fish. Along its length I see young boys and old men casting lines into the water, some using expensive-looking rods and reels while others simply throw baited hooks by hand, anchoring the free end of their lines with a convenient piece of broken concrete. Some of these pescadores (fishermen) make a living this way. I find one being supervised by his wife as he sorts a nice catch of pargo rojo, the local name for red snapper, likely destined for a local restaurant. After considering what a recent deluge had washed down the storm sewers and into the bay where some of these are caught, I decide against fish for tonight's dinner. But many feed their families this way, and are unable to be as particular as me.

    One afternoon I hear the incessant honking of a car horn and turn to find a girl dressed in a fine gown, sitting atop the rear seat of a classic American convertible. She is celebrating her quinceañera, an important milestone marking the fifteenth birthday of a latina. This is one of the few times that I see Cubans riding in a car purely for pleasure. The adjoining walkway and seawall is a place where Habaneros can go to just relax and enjoy themselves. Entire families from grandparents to small children walk together. Groups of teenaged Cubanos laugh and mug for selfies with their newly-acquired smartphones. Lovers lean into one another atop the seawall and gaze out into the gulf stream. To these people, I think that providing a brief respite from the challenges of living in Cuba is the most vital function of the Malecón.


    El Paseo del Prado, which translates into something like “Meadow Promenade,” is one of the most beautiful places in Havana. The boulevard was built almost 250 years ago in an undeveloped area just outside of the original city wall, perhaps inspiring its name. Or, since Cuba was a Spanish colony at the time, it may have been named after the famous street in Madrid. In any case, the Prado became the societal epicenter of the colonial city: mansions and important commercial buildings were constructed along its length, and it became fashionable for the wealthy and elite to stroll down its sidewalks or ride in their carriages each afternoon. After Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1902 it was renamed Paseo del Marti in honor of the country's most revered figure, but it is still frequently called by its earlier name, or simply as El Prado.

    I decide to take my own stroll on the Prado one hot afternoon. Crossing busy Calle Neptuno that marks its upper end, I pass the first of several bronze lions that guard the wide promenade. Rows of stately trees line each side, their full, low-hanging branches serving both as a shield from the tropical sun overhead and the noise and fumes from the car-choked streets on either side. This sanctuary of sorts is occupied by artists hoping to sell their work to the tourists who venture away from nearby Parque Central, their stands filled with paintings of Che, old American cars, street scenes of La Bodaguita del Medio where Hemingway drank one afternoon, and the occasional abstract or interpretive piece. I stop to watch a Chinese artist and her small child, she looking out for prospective customers while he sits on a stool with pencil and sketch pad, learning his mother's art.

    As I walk down the gentle slope and begin to taste the salt air coming up from the Malecón I leave the tourists behind and sense more of a Cuban vibe. A jinatera working the day shift calls softly from a marble bench on one side, hoping to “entertain” me for a little while; I nod in her direction, smile, and politely decline the offer. Further along, two girls have decided that another of the lions is a good place to sit, so I ask them to pose for a picture.

    Then I encounter these men. Susceptible to the narrow range of temperatures in which Cubans feel comfortable, they wear long sleeves, sweatshirts and jackets, even though I am warm in a T shirt. They have gathered at what I suspect is “their” bench, at what is probably an appointed hour, to discuss politics, baseball, the problems in their country, the girls walking by, and maybe the jinatera on the opposite side. The uniquely Cuban blend of a tres, abundant percussion instruments, and intertwining vocal harmonies emanating from a boombox accompanies their discussion, along with two bottles of the less expensive vintage of Havana Club rum affordable by ordinary Cubans and a can of Kermato tomato juice.

    I have noticed this decidedly un-tropical cocktail being consumed by other Cubans, and so it becomes the beginning of a conversation with them. Being Cubans, which means being generous to a fault, they quickly offer me a glass, which I just as quickly accept. I ask if I can photograph them, and being Cubans they immediately adopt poses: one crossing his arms and staring down his nose at me, another using his ubiquitous cigar as a prop, and the third giving me a thumbs up, which I take as a sign of approval for their new American friend.


    The Look

    Photographers are known to suffer from an affliction called GAS: Gear Acquisition Syndrome. In order to make better photographs, we think we must have the latest, greatest, fastest, smartest, highest-pixel count, sleekest, lightest DSLR with which the evil marketing people at Nikon and Canon are currently tempting us. Old-school film photographers like me are susceptible to a regressive form of GAS. We covet older, bigger, antiquated cameras that others consider obsolete. This is just the first step down a dark path. After all, the “best” camera in the world is useless without an assortment of lenses. One needs a tripod on which to perch this magnificent setup, and there is the never-ending list of accessories, not to mention bags and cases to store it all. Once acquired, gear is never disposed of even when it has been replaced by something “better,” unless money is needed for the next fix.

    But there are things more important than equipment that are needed to make good photographs. They are intrinsic qualities that cannot be ordered from B&H Photo or bid on at eBay, but must be discovered and developed and refined by the photographer. For me, an important quality is curiosity. When I think about photographs I have made that most satisfy me, I realize that wondering helped me find them. What is around the next bend in the trail or on the other side of that fence? How can I isolate my subject from its surroundings, simplify the composition? How would this look at night, or in fog? What if I break that rule?

    It is Saturday morning and Habana Vieja is slowly waking up. Cubans are walking from the local panadería carrying loaves of aromatic, freshly baked bread for breakfast. The tourists have finished their breakfasts in the hotel dining rooms and are beginning to prowl the shops in search of that perfect souvenir of their visit to Cuba. I wander down a street with my camera at the ready and my mind open to the possibilities. The sound of voices coming from the open windows of a building piques my curiosity, so I walk up to the door where I am immediately noticed, invited in, and learn that a class on hair styling is in progress. In one area a man demonstrates on one of the students while the others pay close attention. His mother, who by her demeanor is clearly in charge, gives me a tour and then goes back to braiding the hair of an attractive young woman. La jefa (the boss lady) grants my request to photograph her at work; the younger woman apparently has no say in the matter but seems to have decided that she can at least give me a little attitude. Folding her arms, she sits up a little straighter and stares back into my lens with the same unblinking intensity that it does her. Her gaze conveys that she knows she is pretty, and probably also knows that is the reason I want to make this particular photograph.

    I have never quite gotten accustomed to the directness of Cuban women. Generalizations are dangerous, I know, but it seems that unlike many women in other places who avoid eye contact with men they do not know, Cubanas often look first. And far from being a demure glance, the looks are candid, obvious, inviting, and often accompanied with a smile or greeting. Sometimes the women are jinateras offering a certain kind of “entertainment” to foreign men; others are husband-shopping, or maybe want someone to buy them a nice dinner. But mostly, I think, they are just being Cuban women: confident in their appeal, not ashamed of their appearance, appreciative of the looks that they get. At times I have the impression that not looking back gives offense here. Far be it from me to do that.



    Every country seems to have its own sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations that are woven into its fabric, that say, “you are in this particular place.” I begin experiencing uniquely-Cuban sights as soon as I step outside the arrivals terminal at Jose Marti Airport: the incredible number and variety of classic American cars waiting to transport people into Havana. Instead of commercial advertisements, billboards featuring various revolutionary proclamations and visages of Fidel Castro. Schoolchildren wearing uniform white shirts and colored pants or skirts indicating their grade levels. The iconic image of Che Guevara on every conceivable surface. Cigars. And dominoes.

    I recall playing dominoes as a child, but for most of my life the word has meant a place to buy takeout pizza. In Spanish the singular noun dominó is used; I learn from Professor Elda Stanco Downey at Roanoke Spanish  that it is a play on the verb dominar, to dominate. To Cubans dominó is the equivalent of a video game addiction. It is part of their culture and I see it being played everywhere: on a hot, sunny day on the Paseo del Prado, after dark in a dimly-lit street in Habana Vieja, during a raucous wedding party, outside a store in Santiago de Cuba on the eastern end of the island, and here, in the shade of a tropical tree.

    It is played by adults in this country – usually men – sometimes for hours on end and frequently accompanied by cigars and cheap rum. Working in two-person teams, players lay tiles on the table by matching them to one with an equal number of spots that has already been played, “knocking” on the table to pass if unable to make a play. In some games the first team to use all of their tiles wins, in others a score of the value of tiles played is kept to determine the winning team. At first glance it may seem to be a quiet, passive game, and showing emotion during the game is discouraged in some quarters, since by words or actions a player could show his hand to his partner or to the opposing team. But as are most things in Cuba, here it is done with intensity, passion, and enthusiasm.

    I find a game underway one placid, Saturday afternoon on a residential street just off the busy Avenida de la Independencia. As I approach, the players notice me and my camera and a conversation begins in the usual way:

    CUBAN: De dónde eres? (Where are you from?)

    ME: Los Estados Unidos. (The United States.)

    CUBAN: ¡Me encanta los Estados Unidos! (I love the United States, accompanied by the usual peace or victory sign, I have never been able to figure out which sentiment is being expressed.)

    ME: Bueno, me encanta tu país también. (Well, I love your country also.)

    From there the conversation segues into their cousins who live in Miami. I am granted permission to photograph their game, and chat amiably with three of the players. But the fourth will have nothing to do with me. I do not sense hostility from him, rather that he is simply serious about the game and does not want to be distracted. Head down and cigar firmly clenched in his teeth, he grumbles to his compadres, likely admonishing them in Spanish too rapid for me to understand to stop talking and play. Perhaps to signal his frustration, he passes by rapping the flimsy table so vigorously that the tiles become momentarily airborne. A quiet and passive game indeed!


    The Baseball Game

    Baseball might be the first and most enduring of many bonds that have formed between the United States and Cuba. Born in the US in the middle of the 19th Century, the sport gained popularity during the rest of the century to become our “national pastime.” Cuban students returning from studying in the US, along with American sailors on shore leave in Cuba introduced baseball there. Under Spanish rule at the time, Cubans were expected to be fans of Spain's national sport, bullfighting. But as a subtle act of protest against their colonial masters, Cubans began to favor baseball over bullfighting. The Spanish attempted to ban the sport in Cuba, which only served to increase its popularity. Bullfighting was seen as a metaphor for the Spanish oppression from which Cubans longed to escape, while baseball represented the American values of freedom and democracy to which they aspired.

    During the early 20th century when baseball was still racially segregated in the US, black, white, and mixed-race athletes played as equals on Cuban teams. According to an article in Atlantic Magazine, “many of the greatest interracial games of the era took place in Havana, rather than in Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park...” In 1947 the Brooklyn Dodgers held spring training in Havana to help Jackie Robinson prepare for the upcoming season and break the color barrier in American baseball.

    Perhaps because of its association with freedom from Spanish rule, baseball remained extremely popular in Cuba even as it was being eclipsed by football and other sports in the United States. In addition, Fidel Castro loved the game and was an aspiring, if ultimately unsuccessful, pitcher. Capitalizing on the nationalistic pride in the game, he banned professional baseball in the early days of the Revolution, instituting a league of amateur teams who, as he said, “play for the love of people, not money.” Accordingly, they were paid salaries only slightly higher than the average “wage” of state jobs in Cuba. Poorly paid or not, these players are some of the best in the world: Cuba frequently wins international tournaments, many players who have defected from Cuba are stars in Major League Baseball in the US, and the Cuban National Team has held its own in games against MLB teams.

    Baseball games are being shown on practically every TV set in Havana, and I learn that the Cuban version of the World Series is currently underway. I decide to attend a game, so I walk to Estadio Latinoamerica, home of the beloved Industriales. A security guard tells me there is no game today, but there will be one tomorrow. At least I think that is what he says; when I return the next day I discover that there is no game then either. Maybe its that mañana thing: sometimes the word means tomorrow, other times some unspecified point in the future.

    Several days later I am walking down the Malecón when I notice some kids playing a pick-up game on a tiny patch of grass bounded by busy thoroughfares. First base is a concrete cover on the sidewalk; other bases are similarly improvised. Balls often roll across the street toward the Spanish embassy or fly dangerously close to cars approaching the tunnel to the other side of the bay. Ill-equipped, the teams trade gloves as each takes its turn in the field. They ignore the Yuma with the camera and play with the same emotion and excitement that I remember from my Little League days, although lack of talent doomed my baseball “career” the same way it did Fidel's. But it is El Comandante's words, not his playing ability, that inspire these kids: they play for love, not money.


    The Seeds of Capitalism

    Odin is the head chef at a great restaurant in Habana Vieja called Café Rum Rum. I know him through Steve Anchell, who regularly takes his photography workshop participants there. Odin has a fondness for Steve, and invites him to his house for dinner with his family every time we are there. Steve takes me along as his translator and “wingman.” I treasure these dinners, not only for the great food, but because I feel like a I am a member of this wonderful Cuban family. Unlike many popular restaurants in Cuba, Café Rum Rum is privately owned. Odin's brother Osiris and his partner Carlos started the restaurant four years ago, when President Raul Castro began allowing more private business ownership to bolster the perpetually-lethargic Cuban economy.

    When I first began traveling to Cuba in 2013 we stayed at Hotel Los Frailes. We had dinner at the best-known restaurant in Havana, Paladar La Guarida, with its walls covered by photographs of the rich and famous people from around the world who have eaten there. We went to the Hotel Nacional for mojitos on a lawn bristling with cannons pointed north to defend against the expected invasion from the United States. Some went to the show at the Tropicana nightclub. To travel outside the city we boarded a bus emblazoned with the name Transgaviota, or yellow Cubataxi vans. All of these tourist-oriented “businesses” are in fact owned by the Cuban government, with their revenue going directly to support the military.

    But every afternoon a door from a stairway across the street from the hotel opened, revealing inexpensive jewelry, trinkets, the ubiquitous Che Berets, and other merchandise offered for sale by a young woman. There were a few other such souvenir shops, the usual buskers, and some small, privately-owned paladares scattered about. Each time I returned to Cuba I noticed the growth of this entrepreneurship, growth which fairly exploded after the December 17, 2014 announcement of normalized relations between our countries, and the easing of restrictions on travel to Cuba by US citizens.

    We no longer rent rooms at the state-owned hotel, instead staying in a casa particular, a privately-owned home with individual bedrooms, a large kitchen, and a common area. Our host Juan Miguel and his wife Odalys have an apartment and gift shop on the main floor, with the casa on the floors above. Every morning Juan prepares for his guests a great Cuban breakfast of eggs, fruit, ham, bread, juice, and, of course, Cuban coffee. Business is so good that each time I stay there he is adding another room, the last being little cabinas that have been built on the roof with wood harvested from their family farm out in the country...pure Caribbean!

    In June of 2017 Donald Trump declared in a speech to the cheers of the Cuban diaspora in Miami, “I am cancelling the last administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba.” New rules published late that year fell far short of the rhetoric, of course, but did sow enough confusion to discourage many Americans from traveling to Cuba, and steering most of those who did go toward the larger tour operators. The Cuban businesses who have suffered most from this change in policy represent the seeds of a capitalistic economy: paladares such as Cafe Rum Rum and casas owned by people like Juan Miguel. The antithesis of communism, capitalism had lain dormant for over a half century until the pragmatic Raul Castro permitted a little sun and warmth, allowing it to germinate. Increased tourism from the US gave it the nutrients it needed to flourish. And now, just as the Cuban people are beginning to see capitalism as a path to freedom and democracy, the Republican administration has poured an herbicide on it.


    “To solve a problem, a doubt, a difficulty, decide something or form an idea of what to do.” - RAE

    English is an organic, messy language; any one of us can make up a new word, and if adopted by enough people it becomes part of our lexicon. Consider “bling,” “bromance,” “locavore,” and my personal favorite, one that spellcheck - another made up word - has yet to learn, “Illiterati.” Spanish, on the other hand, uses a much more organized and formal process. Some 300 years ago King Philip of Spain created the Royal Academy of Spanish, or RAE, to “fix the voices and vocabularies of the Castilian language with propriety, elegance, and purity.” In other words, to be the word police.

    But Cubans, being the resourceful people that they are, have reshaped the official definition of the verb resolver to better describe their circumstances. To them it means doing what is necessary to survive. The dissident Cuban journalist Yoany Sanchez says, “we are specialists at finding everything that is censored, prohibited, and rationed.” I learn first hand how resolver works after mentioning to a Cuban friend my failure to find my favorite rum to bring home. He smiles, gives me his phone number, and tells me to call him after 3PM the next day. When I call, he instructs me to meet him in an hour on the veranda of a certain restaurant. Over beer at our clandestine meeting, I give him the agreed-upon price plus 10 CUC for his trouble. Soon, a sketchy-looking guy walks past us and into the restaurant, followed shortly thereafter by my friend. Sketchy-looking guy comes back out a few minutes later, gives me a surreptitious nod, and walks away. My friend then returns with three bottles of the Ron de Santiago that I have been unable to buy anywhere in Havana. I don't know how sketchy-looking guy got the rum, or what his relationship is to my friend, all I know is that they “resolve” my problem of no rum to take home, and theirs of making ends meet. And the adventure makes the best rum on the planet taste even better.

    Alberto and his camera exemplify the Cuban notion of resolver. Most days they can be found in Parque Central, a place frequented by tourists. With the exception of an ancient Kodak lens, the camera and tripod appear to be completely home-made, and to have been repeatedly modified and repaired. He brings his subject into focus by sliding the lens board in and out along steel rods that serve as rails, to which the lensboard is attached with bits of wire. His “focusing loupe” is one half of what I think were once a pair of reading glasses. His exposures are made the way the early photographers did, by removing a (home-made in his case) lens cap and counting seconds.

    His process is even more amazing than his equipment. Having positioned and focused his subject, he reaches inside a cloth sleeve attached to the back of the camera, where completely by feel he replaces the ground glass with a small sheet of photo paper that he is somehow able to obtain from Germany. After making the exposure he develops the paper, again by touch since it cannot yet be exposed to sunlight, in trays of developer and fixer inside the camera. A few minutes later he withdraws the exposed and developed paper with a negative image. He then attaches this negative to a board in front of the lens and rephotographs it on another sheet of paper, repeating the focusing-exposure-development process all over again, this time producing a positive image.


    The resulting picture is of dreadful quality. But the tourists, and in this case me too, happily pay him 3 CUC for the experience, and a unique souvenir of Havana. It humbles me to be in the same profession as Alberto when I consider how much more difficult it is for him to create a photograph, while I use precision made cameras, work in a fully equipped darkroom, and can have all of my supplies delivered to my door whenever I need them.

    For information about traveling to Cuba visit


    The Serenade

    Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life - Berthold Auerbach

    The author of this quote died before the Republic of Cuba was born, and as far as I know he never visited the island. But it crystalizes the importance of music to Cubans. The dust of the place can easily grind a soul down, but music cleanses them so that they can live their lives more happily and joyously and vibrantly than circumstances might otherwise permit.

    Music serves other purposes as well, providing a creative outlet in a place where just surviving can take an enormous amount of work and self expression is not always tolerated; yang to balance the yin of life in Cuba. It is also a means of survival. There are musicians in nearly all of the restaurants and bars frequented by tourists, where they make the rounds to play at every table and present the ubiquitous basket from which self-produced CDs are sold or tips collected. Other performers rove the streets of Habana Vieja to entertain patrons enjoying the tropical night at tables outside those same establishments, while during the day it is not unusual to find a one-man band on a street corner, singing as he simultaneously plays several instruments with both hands and feet.

    But these things do not inspire this man to make music. He plays for love, and he plays for his lover. I encounter them on a blazingly-hot day in Parque Central, a lovely shaded oasis across from the equally beautiful ballet theatre. The park is filled with people, Habaneros enjoying their lunch breaks and mothers watching their children play. A group of men loudly and animatedly discuss the Cuban National Baseball Series currently underway. Entrepreneurs of various stripes work to earn a little of the money in the pockets of the sunburned tourists who pour into the park from the double decker buses parked along Paseo de Martí.

    The couple sit on a bench under a palm tree, oblivious to all that is going on around them. He sings and plays with his heart as well as his voice and fingers; she gazes into his eyes, appreciating every note. I listen and wonder about the connection between them. Are they married and just enjoying a day out together in a special place? Lovers in the midst of a tryst? I will never know. I like to meet, interact with, learn about the subjects of my photographs in order to tell a more complete story. But this time I decide that simply being allowed to observe a few moments in the lives of these people is enough. Perhaps the mystery is the story.

    When he finishes his first serenade the people around them clap in appreciation. Only then does he seem to realize that others have heard his song, and he acknowledges us with a slight nod and smile. As he refocuses his attention on his amor and begins another song, I slip closer, make a few photographs, and move on.


    The Piano Player, Ambos Mundos Hotel

    I am nearing the end of my most productive trip to Cuba. I came here with a specific objective. I am armed with a camera well suited to achieving that goal, and I never leave my apartment without it in my hands, loaded with film, finger in the ready position. I move slowly, stay constantly aware of my surroundings, and respond to people and events that I encounter. The hours and miles of walking that I invest are producing many pictures and stories about which I am excited.

    Today I seem to have hit a wall. I've been working since morning and have exposed some film, though I know it contains nothing interesting. But following the old sports adage I am going to “play until the whistle blows,” so late in the evening I am walking back toward my room, a roll of high speed film in my camera, looking and listening. I hear the sound of a piano and turn to see through the open window of a lounge a man sitting at the keyboard. He has no patrons to entertain but plays anyway, maybe just because he likes to play. Similarly unburdened with clientele the bartender has assumed the quintessential pose of his profession, leaning on the bar and staring disinterestedly into space. I have just enough time to raise the camera to my eye and make one exposure before the bartender decides that he can be bored elsewhere and walks away, weakening the composition. Only then do I notice that I am standing outside the bar of the Hotel Ambos Mundos.

    In the 1930's many artists, writers, and other creatives stayed here, the most famous of whom was Ernest Hemingway who lived in Room 511 for the first seven years of his time in Cuba. Some of Hemingway's work is among my favorite literature, such as The Nick Adams Stories set in another place that I love, Michigan's Upper Peninsula. My wanderlust is partially sated by his stories of Africa, and well, any lover of Cuba must have “The Old Man and the Sea” on their bookshelves.

    I enjoy reading books set in a place where I am at the time, so reading “Islands in the Stream” in Cuba seems a good choice. Like the Nick Adams stories that chronicle a soldier attempting to heal the wounds of war, it is more or less autobiographical. The lasting memory that I have of the book is Hemingway's painfully detailed description of his protagonist, a successful painter named Thomas Hudson, going into Havana after finishing his day's work. Hudson drinks to excess, picks fights with other patrons, and proves himself an unpleasant drinking companion. The book is depressing to me, but it does seem to provide a window into the psyche of the author.

    As I look into that empty bar I envision the place nearly a century earlier; Hemingway loudly and drunkenly holding court at the head of a table filled with other artists and various sycophants and hangers-on. But at least the piano player would have had people for whom to play, and the bartender some customers to keep him occupied.


    Follow the Music

    Photographers are often advised to “follow the light.” It is the quality of light, the ways in which it falls upon certain parts of the composition, that makes a photograph successful. But in a place as sensually rich as Havana I have often found a satisfying photograph by following my other senses, especially the sound of music. The place is filled with it, from Afro-Cuban Jazz in nightclubs, to covers of “Guantanamera” and Buena Vista Social Club hits played by every roving band in the city, to the annoying horns and percussion played by the carnival performers who clog up the streets as they entertain and solicit money from tourists.

    Walking down a street in Habana Vieja one day I hear a single instrument. It is a trumpet, on which a melody is being played slowly, sounding as mournful as the horn of a distant locomotive on a dark, quiet night. I follow the music toward its source, a man named Carlos Confesor Sanchez. He is immaculately dressed in a white suit and hat, two toned patent leather shoes, his tie bearing the likeness of his instrument. He sits on the stoop of a building with a small Cuban flag hung on the door over one shoulder and a US flag over the other, making himself a bridge between our cultures. The moment he notices that I have stopped to listen and watch he becomes as much an actor as a musician. His back straightens, he repositions his legs just so, and his horn goes up at an angle as if playing to heaven, or perhaps for heaven. Since I am concentrating on architecture this trip I am using a large format camera that is too heavy to carry when I am just out wandering as I am today. So I take a few pictures with my digital SLR, leave Carlos a tip, and go on my way.

    The next time I am in Cuba it is to participate in a workshop on Street Photography, recording the lives of people, sometimes in a more formal, portrait-like way, other times surreptitiously as they go about their lives. So on this trip I bring a medium format camera that is more agile and faster to use. I recall having met Carlos and I keep my eyes and ears open, hoping to find and photograph him for the workshop.

    But to my disappointment he is nowhere to be found. I sit at a table outside Cafe Oriente on the busy Plaza de San Francisco to have a glass of rum. Montero is on duty today, as he is on alternating days from before lunch until very late at night. Like many Cubans in the service sector Montero pays attention to his customers, and he knows exactly what brand and vintage of rum I drink. I know that he is attentive to his surroundings as well, so I ask him about Carlos. Montero tells me that he knows Carlos well, they are friends and that he is “around,” but I finish the workshop and return to the US without finding him.

    A few months later I am back in Havana collecting more pictures and stories, determined to include Carlos among them. On my last day there I turn a corner and hear the clear, solo notes of a trumpet and know that my quest has been fulfilled. He sits on another stoop in his perfectly clean white trousers, jacket and hat. I tell him that I have been looking all over for him because I want to photograph him as he makes his art. I show him the picture on my phone, causing him to smile and pull that signature tie out from under his vest. I notice that in the picture he is playing a bright brass trumpet, but his current instrument looks old and dull. He tells me that he was arrested by the police and that when he was released his good horn was not returned to him. But he plays this one just as sweetly as I make his portrait, this time a proper one on black and white film, and I am happy to have been led here by the music.


    In a city so full of life as Havana it seems a bit perverse to visit a cemetery. On the other hand, Necrópolis de Colón, named after the Spanish word for Columbus, is not just any graveyard. It encompasses 140 acres and is one of the largest and most beautiful cemeteries in the Americas, filled with thousands of above-ground tombs, beautiful marble statues, and elaborate mausoleums.

    Many important figures in Cuban history, culture, sports, and politics are buried here. Máximo Gómez, one of the heroes of Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain occupies a prominent place near the main entrance, as does a memorial to 28 firefighters killed in a fire in Havana in 1890. Korda, the photographer who made the iconic image of Che Guevara lies in repose, as well as several musicians from the Buena Vista Social Club. The graves of some of the guerrillas who died during the Cuban Revolution are located here. The US sailors and Marines who were killed in the explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor in 1898 were buried in the Necrópolis before being re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery. The most famous tomb is that of La Milagrosa, a Cuban woman who died in childbirth; when her tomb was opened years later her body had not deteriorated, which was taken as a sign of a miracle, or milagro. Ironically, Christopher Columbus for whom the cemetery is named, does not reside here.

    The light reflecting from the surfaces of all of the marble and concrete intensifies the tropical sun and is almost blinding as I walk through the place on a cloudless Sunday morning. I notice people buying flowers from stands near the entrance to put on the graves of deceased loved ones, and think this ritual might be more interesting to document than simply taking pictures of tombs. But the idea ultimately proves unproductive, so I decide to do something that often leads me to a photograph: I wander aimlessly.

    Tolkien wrote that “not all those who wander are lost,” and I soon find myself approaching a group of people dressed in white and gathered around a tomb. Not wanting to intrude upon their grieving, I stop and watch from a respectful distance until my presence is noticed and acknowledged. They are practitioners of Santería, a syncretism of catholic and west African religions common in Cuba. I learn that they are mourning the passing of Babalawo Oluo Siwagu, a respected priest who had died four days earlier. His daughter is seated nearby as other family members seal his tomb, I think as a ritual.

    With the daughter's permission I make a few photographs and then leave, grateful to have been led here, and allowed to share such an intimate moment with this family and with a part of the culture of Cuba.  


    Love thy Fellow Man

    On the heights above the town of Casa Blanca, across Havana Bay from the city and visible from many places along the waterfront, stands El Cristo de la Habana, or Christ of Havana. It is shorter and not nearly as famous as Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, but it might be a more tenacious symbol of christianity.

    Funds for the creation of the statue were raised by Marta Fernandez de Batista, wife of then-president Fulgencio Batista. It was sculpted in Italy by a Cuban named Jilma Madera from 67 blocks of Carrara marble that were blessed by Pope Pius XII before being shipped to Cuba for installation. The statue was inaugurated on Christmas Eve of 1958 with the Batistas in attendance; one week later they would flee the island as Fidel Castro overthrew the government.

    The statue could have been viewed as a high profile vestige of the Batista regime that the new ruler might have wanted to erase from the City's skyline. And although Castro was raised as a Catholic, the church soon fell out of favor with the new government. Dictators succeed when people have no alternative institutions such as organized religion to turn to, and so for many years all denominations were ostracized. Parochial schools were closed in favor of a state-controlled education system, and professed believers were not allowed to join the Communist party, thus preventing them from getting good jobs. Yet Fidel allowed the statue to remain.

    Next door to Christo is a lovely hacienda-style house with a spectacular view of Havana. It was probably appropriated by the Castro government from its rightful owner, perhaps a wealthy Cuban who opposed the new regime, or an executive of a US company that had been doing business in Cuba. Fidel gave the house to Che Guevara, whose first job after the revolution was supervising the arrest, conviction, and execution of over 150 former officials of the Batista regime. Che later admitted that the guilt of many of those executed was less certain than were their deaths. The executions were often carried out by firing squads at the La Cabaña fortress, conveniently located just down the road from Che's house.

    My synthesis of these facts is that the shadow of Cristo loomed over Che in the mornings as he walked to his car to drive over to La Cabaña to have people killed, which must have annoyed him. Much that annoyed Che came to bad ends, but when he left Cuba in 1965, Jesus still stood on the hill. Throughout the decades of the Castro regime the repression of the Church slowly eased. Pope John Paul visited Cuba in 1998, and posters of that event are still proudly displayed in many places in Havana. The statue was restored in 2013 by Raul Castro's government, and was this time blessed by the archbishop of Havana.


    Portrait of Alberto Vitamina

    Suerte is the Spanish word for luck, which seems to describe the life of Alberto Vitamina. He lives in a comfortable house in the beautiful and fertile Valle de Viñales. The tobacco that he and other farmers grow in this valley is reputed to be the best in all of Cuba, and the government buys it to make the finest cohibas sold in Havana. Since the early 2000's he has been allowed to keep 10% of his crop to roll his own cigars, which he sells to visitors to his farm...and smokes himself, of course.

    We were fortunate to meet Alberto one hot Saturday afternoon. We had traveled to Viñales for the day, stopped at a street fair, then had a delicious lunch at a restaurant just outside of town that serves its own organically grown food. Before heading back to Havana, Steve Anchell directed our taxista down what seemed to be a randomly-chosen road where we noticed Alberto and his large family gathered outside their house. We stopped, our guide Anay talked to them for a bit, and we found ourselves invited in to talk, tour the farm, buy cigars, and get to know these wonderful people. We also took many photographs of Alberto, his family, and his farm, and I feel fortunate to have made this portrait of him.

    We learned that in addition to growing tobacco, Alberto and his family also own a paladar (a restaurant and bar that is another one of the capitalist ventures permitted by Raul Castro as a way of improving his country's economy.) Alberto told us that he hunts wild pigs that feed on acorns in the nearby mountains, which he roasts and serves to visitors at fiestas at his farm. In the most fortunate turn of events of this day, we will be returning for one of Alberto's pig roasts in December.

    While reboarding our taxi for the return trip to Havana the sliding side door fell off the van. One might think that our luck had just run out, but things like this are just a fact of life in Cuba where the inability to replace, maintain, and properly repair equipment is endemic. When these things happen, I say they are “Going Cuban.” We were unable to effect repairs, so I, as Steve's assistant on this trip, was tasked with taking our group to Alberto's paladar for beer and snacks while Steve and Anay rode the now door-less taxi back to town to find another van.

    They were successful in their search, and, fortune still smiling upon us, returned with a much nicer van for our return. It seems the only person in this story who was not lucky was our first driver, who we left behind with his broken van. But, there was that street fair going on in town, so maybe his luck improved as well.


    You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings; before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars? Well, we came across the square from the dock to the Pearl of San Francisco Café to get coffee and there was only one beggar awake in the square and he was getting a drink out of the fountain. But when we got inside the café and sat down, there were the three of them waiting for us.

    • To Have and Have Not, by Ernest Hemingway.

    If you start where Hemingway's book did, and then walk in a more or less westerly direction, you will pass through a slice of time, and life, in the city. In their halcyon days of the early 20th century the docks welcomed steamships from around the world and ferries full of automobiles and tourists from Miami and Key West. They are crumbling now, in stark contrast to the sleek cruise ships that tie up to them at the rate of three per week. You would have a much more difficult time than did Harry Morgan in crossing the now frenetically-busy Avenida del Puerto. The Spanish Colonial buildings surrounding Plaza de San Francisco, along with the rest of Habana Vieja, sank into disrepair since Hemingway lived and wrote there, only to be renovated in the 1990's to house and feed the vacationing Canadians and Europeans that fueled Cuba's resurrected tourist industry.

    Keep going and the beautiful architecture that the Spaniards left behind begins to become mixed with other styles; fewer sport renovated exteriors and some have collapsed entirely. This is the part of Havana I like best. Ordinary Habaneros live here, many in dark, dirty, overcrowded apartments that were given to them after the 1959 revolution and have been subdivided into even smaller spaces as children grew up and made their own families. Others have more spacious quarters, light, airy, and as clean as any house anywhere in the world.

    Some of the residents of these neighborhoods have found the means to buy and renovate adjoining structures into casas particulares. These apartments are my favorite places to stay in Havana, clean, comfortable, affordable, stylishly Cuban, and now even accessible through AirBnB! Instead of the posher, state-owned restaurants in Plaza Vieja, here you will find paladares, or family-owned and operated eateries with better, more authentic, and less-expensive food. Other entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the recent easing of government control to open businesses from their front doors, selling internet and phone access cards, various types of repair services, ham sandwiches, and my favorite, the places where I can buy a tiny cup of strong, sweet Cuban coffee for a peso (about 4 cents) from a kitchen window.

    These streets are crowded with people going about their lives from early morning until late in the evening, and life happens in the streets and on the stoops in these neighborhoods. The buildings are very close to the narrow streets, and windows and doors to the ground floor apartments are left open, with only wrought iron grilles separating their residents from people outside. It is easy to catch a glimpse of life inside a Cuban house while walking past, and one often receives a warm wave in response, and sometimes even a chance to chat that results in an invitation to enter.

    Habana Vieja is bordered on the west by three busy, gracefully curved streets that run from bay to bay, and that clearly signal a change to another area and a different kind of life. I was walking toward this frontier one evening after dinner when I noticed an unusual street light where Calle Chacón ended at Avenida Bélgica. At first I was drawn solely to the light structure and didn't even notice the taxi parked across the street. When I did, it became part of the composition. Then out of the darkness came the taxista, who occupied himself with cleaning what was probably salt spray from the nearby Malecon. He completed my composition and contributed his own little slice of life in Cuba.


    The Painters

    When I first traveled to Cuba, I thought, like many people I suppose, that every building on the island was losing its battle with gravity, that all of the motor vehicles on the streets had been abandoned by US citizens fleeing the 1959 revolution, and that every Cuban spent much of each day searching for enough to eat.

    Those things are partially true, of course. Especially during the so-called “Special Period” after the Soviet Union dissolved and was no longer Cuba's economic patron, food shortages, nightly rolling electrical blackouts, and the lack of other basic necessities were common. Rationing remains a fact of life for many Cubans today. The island is full of vintage Chevrolets, Fords, DeSotos and other Detroit iron left behind in the exodus depicted at the end of one of my favorite movies, Havana, starring Robert Redford and Lina Olin. But I think that there are far too many for all of them to have been left behind in the exodus, and they are accompanied by a large number of Ladas and Moskviches that the Soviets left behind. And while building collapses due to lack of maintenance have been common in Havana for several decades (the latest one killed four people just two days before I wrote this) many, especially in Habana Vieja, have been restored to their former colonial glory and state of safety.

    I now know that Cuba is a much more nuanced and complex place. I would like to think that the hundreds of thousands of tourists who are flocking to the place right now understand this as well, but I doubt it to be so. Most have only a few hours ashore from their cruise ships to take a walking tour through the touristy part of the city, then queue up for a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio where Ernest Hemingway drank one day.

    But even though these tourists get a view of Cuba too superficial to permit them to understand the place well, they are adding value in one way: by spending money on those mojitos, Che berets, and other tourist offerings. Some of that money is allowing the reconstruction of Havana to slowly make its way out of Havana Vieja and into other parts of the city. This photograph is evidence of that revitalization.

    We spent a morning on my most recent trip walking through the Centro Habana area, interacting with and photographing la vida de la calle, or life on the streets: ordinary Habaneros going about their business, the cacophony of poorly-mufflered vehicles, the smell emanating from shops selling ham sandwiches, sensations that the tourists down in Habana Vieja cannot experience.

    As the sun rose higher and the morning grew warmer, we turned north out of Centro toward the malecon, taking refuge under the portico of an office building. From that shady perspective we watched two painters slowly lowering themselves down the side of a building, applying a tropical shade of green to the wall as they descended. A few years ago this activity in this part of the city would not have been seen, so maybe all of those cruise ships do have some redeeming virtues.

  • El Niño Enmascarado

    The Masked Boy

    Cuba continues to surprise me, no matter how many times I travel there. Just this year alone I met a man who had lived in the same small Michigan town that I once did. I was allowed to drive a train on the Hershey Electric Railroad. I experienced the pleasure of having dinner in the home of a wonderful Cuban family. I participated in Cuba's black market. And I stayed in a casa that was also home to a pet crocodile named Alberto.

    While it is now routine for me to see major repairs to an ancient American automobile taking place on a narrow, busy street in Havana, I have to say that this little guy not only surprised but delighted me. As two men worked on the front door of the car, he sat on a stool, oblivious to his surroundings, his face obscured by a home-made mask. My first thought was that he was preparing for Halloween six months hence, but as far as I know, neither that holiday nor the custom of trick or treating is celebrated in Cuba. Perhaps he was pretending to be a luchador, but boxing, not wrestling, is venerated in his country. If he was playing at being a superhero, what was the purpose of the plastic bag?

    In the end, I just enjoyed the uniquely Cuban scene that I had encountered, made a couple of photographs of it, and decided that he was doing what little boys everywhere in the world do when they have the opportunity: he was being a boy. I can think of worse ways to spend a morning.


    When I first began photographing in Cuba five years ago, I had a plan. I was going to use all of the film that I brought to photograph the buildings, vehicles, and other creations of man that had been left to their own devices in a country that lacked the resources it needed to maintain them. It seemed like a good plan, but as Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth Von Moltke said, "no operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy.” The enemy, in my case, was reality. The first photograph that I made portrayed exactly what I thought exemplified Cuba: a building that was slowly but inexorably being reclaimed by the environment due to the inability of its owners to obtain the materials required to keep them up. 

    But about ten minutes later and three blocks from where I made that first exposure, reality demolished my plan as surely as any wrecking ball. I found another building that was not yielding to entropy, but was existing quite nicely, thank you, due to the persistence of its owner, a man named Nivaldo. I felt called to document this other side of Cuba, one that survives, and even prospers, despite a government that centrally plans and controls nearly everything, the sudden withdrawal of support from a patron state (the former USSR), and the embargo imposed by the USA.

    When, many years ago, I decided to make the exploration of entropy a long-term photographic project, I resolved that the influence of man would only be implied, and not depicted, in my pictures. But that day I came to understand that Nivaldo was the difference between a shining, well-preserved example of Spanish Colonial architecture, and one whose glory had long since faded, its balustrade half gone, its stained glass windows broken, its peeling shutters hiding an even greater deterioration within its crumbling walls. Nivaldo was part of the story these two photographs told, and he needed to be included along with his house.

    Similarly, I felt compelled to ask a taxista I met to pose with his wonderfully-maintained 1935 Ford, in stark counterpoint to a now nameless car seemingly abandoned on Brasil Street. Last year I spent an entire day walking the streets of Santiago de Cuba with nothing more than a handheld camera and a pocketful of film, interacting with and photographing the people of Cuba. After four trips to the island I think I finally understand what my friend Steve Anchell has been saying all these years: that it is not Cuba that keeps drawing him back, but the Cuban people.

    Through his company, Anchell Workshops, Steve has been guiding people interested in learning about and photographing Cuba and Cubans for most of this century. This year I was honored when he asked me to assist him with two Havana Street Photography workshops. I felt that there was little new for me to say about entropy, buildings losing their battle with gravity, classic US and Russian automobiles, or “the land that time has forgotten,” to quote currently popular travel websites. So, with no small amount of trepidation, I left my precious Linhof 4x5” camera, heavy tripod, and bulky film holders at home, and instead took a more mobile and and faster medium format rig. I wanted to use the workshops to build upon the work that I started in 2016, engaging with and learning a bit about my subjects, then photographing them in a way that depicted their unique surroundings.

    The workshops began in Plaza Catedral, one of the four important plazas in Habana Vieja, the original and oldest part of the city. Steve assigned the participants to work on “Street Portraiture,” which he describes as “engaging the subject through conversation, eye contact, or other interactions, trying to capture on film the essence as well as the likeness of the person.”

    As I walked around the plaza, I noticed a painter who had set up his easel and was working on a composition of the cathedral on the opposite side. I looked over his shoulder, paid him a compliment, then asked if I could make his portrait. He agreed, and went back to his painting while I made several photographs. This was the first roll of film that I exposed on this trip, and the first to be developed when I returned home. I like the result: it is clear who he is and what he is doing, and I particularly enjoy his furrowed brow as he intensely concentrates on his art. A good start, I think, and I look forward to finding some other satisfying pictures as I develop and print the rest of my film.

  • Dos Caras de Cuba

    Two Faces of Cuba

    I am almost out of things to write about my most recent trip to Cuba. A good thing, too, because I only have one more set of photographs about which I want to write. I love it when synchronicity just happens...

    Cuba has a long tradition of honoring its heroes, beginning with Hatuey, a chief of the Taino tribe, who was the first opponent of Spanish colonialism in the New World in the early 16th century. 400 years later, Antonio Maceo earned hero status for his role in fighting for Cuba's independence from Spain. As one might imagine, many of Cuba's “heroes” such as Camilo Cienfuegos (who I swear is Ansel Adams' doppelganger) participated in the overthrow of the corrupt Batista government. Leonid Brezhnev, ruler of the Soviet Union during a time when Cuba depended heavily on its communist patron state for survival, earned the distinction. Ernest Hemingway, who spent many years living, writing, and drinking rum in Cuba is probably as close to a hero there as any US citizen has ever come. The most recent heroes are the Cuban Five, who were sent to Miami by Fidel Castro to spy on exile groups bent on deposing “El Commandante,” were caught, convicted, and spent years in a US prison before being repatriated on December 17, 2014.

    But the two most venerated heroes in Cuba are Jose Marti and Che Guevara. As I travel around the island I am amazed by the sheer number and variety of memorials to these men. I am also fascinated with the dearth of monuments to the person who has figured most prominently in Cuba: Fidel. There are billboards that picture him accompanied by Che and Hugo Chavez, and his name is attributed to many slogans painted on buildings that extol the virtues of the revolution. But, his other faults aside, he has not infested his country with his likeness as did, for example, Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Instead, I see busts of Marti in public parks and in little shrines that people have set up in front of their houses. I find murals of Che, both as formal, state-sponsored installations and as spontaneously-created folk art on the sides of many buildings. Countless streets, airports, parks, and other public places bear their names. I visit the Plaza de la Revolución and find a gigantic metal sculpture of Che staring across the plaza at a statue of Marti, who sits in the shade of an obelisk nearly as tall as the Washington Monument. I decide to use the eccentricities of my Holga camera to create montages of some of the tributes to Marti and Guevara that I find, and to compare and contrast the two men.

    Jose Marti was born in a Cuba that was still a colony of Spain. He began agitating for his country's independence while still a teenager through poems and essays. He was arrested and convicted of treason for his dissension, sentenced to six years in prison, and was eventually exiled to Spain. He spent the next 24 years as a man without a country, prohibited from returning to Cuba and living in France, Mexico, Central America, and the United States, where he continued to write, speak, and raise money for the cause of Cuban independence. In 1895 Marti returned to Cuba to participate in an armed uprising against Spanish rule, where he was killed in battle after only two weeks back in his native land.

    Marti's most well known poem is entitled Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca, which, along with other verses from Marti, became Cuba's unofficial national anthem, the song Guantanamera.

    Cultivo una rosa blanca,
    En julio como en enero,
    Para el amigo sincero
    Que me da su mano franca.
    Y para el cruel que me arranca
    El corazón con que vivo,
    Cardo ni oruga cultivo:
    Cultivo la rosa blanca.

    I have a white rose to tend
    In July as in January;
    I give it to the true friend
    Who offers his frank hand to me.
    And for the cruel one whose blows
    Break the heart by which I live,
    Thistle nor thorn do I give:
    For him, too, I have a white rose.

    Cubans rightfully consider Jose Marti their premier national hero. He devoted his entire life to and died for a noble cause: independence for his countrymen. Hero status for Che Guevara, on the other hand, is not so clear cut. He was born in Argentina, and trained to be a physician. While still a student he traveled throughout Latin America, witnessed the abject poverty in which many people lived, and used his medical skills in a leper colony in Venezuela. These experiences led him to believe that socialism, attained through armed conflict, was the only way to help poor and exploited people rise from their plight.

    While in Mexico he met Fidel and Raul Castro, and joined their 26th of July Movement aimed at overthrowing the Batista regime in Cuba. Following the success of the revolution, Che became part of the new government, first supervising the executions of suspected enemies of the Castro regime. He later became president of Cuba's national bank and then the country's minister of industry. But Che's vision was for a Latin America unified under a single, socialistic government, and to that end he left Cuba in 1965. He and a small band of fellow revolutionaries were killed in Bolivia in 1967 while attempting to overthrow that country's government. Che may have had noble aspirations in wanting to help impoverished people, but his means of doing so – implementing totalitarian governments that imprisoned, tortured, and killed those who opposed them – does not, in my opinion, meet the test of heroism.

    One cannot, however, deny the iconic status he has attained. In 1960, Cuban photographer Alberto Korda made a candid photograph of Che, wearing his signature black beret and communist star, as he listened to Fidel speak at a memorial service for 136 people killed in a ship explosion in Havana harbor. Korda never published the photograph, but the same year that Che was killed, an Italian publisher named Feltrinelli contacted him, asking for a portrait of the dead guerrilla leader. Korda gave the publisher a print of his image, Feltrinelli printed and sold 1,000 posters, and the image went on to become the most reproduced photograph in history. Korda has never received a centavo for its use.

    As I walk down the streets of Havana, Santiago de Cuba, or any other city on the island, I see countless tiny shops filled to overflowing with Che berets, t-shirts, shopping bags, books, posters, calendars, and anything else upon which the image can be applied. Most are purchased by young foreigners who, I suspect, are oblivious to Guevara's human rights record. But I am always amused that this paragon of communism is the most visible representation of capitalism in Cuba today. What Would Che Think?


    It is Saturday, March 19, 2016 as I finish writing. This week President Obama further eased travel restrictions to Cuba, making it even easier for US citizens to go there legally. And tomorrow he will travel to Cuba himself, the first time a US President has visited the island since the revolution. A couple of days later the Rolling Stones will play a free concert in the country where Fidel Castro once condemned rock music as “deviant.” It is a bittersweet day for me. I am glad for my Cuban friends that the country is becoming more a part of the world, but sad at some of the changes I fear are coming. Perhaps a fitting time for me to end this blog.

  • Cambios en Perspectiva

    Changes in Perspective

    One of my favorite sayings is, “if you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” Sometimes predictability is a good thing, such as when developing film. I use the same developer at a specific temperature for an exact period of time with a set agitation routine that I know will give me good negatives. But photography is an alchemy of science and art, and always photographing the same subjects in the same way with the same equipment can lead to a predictability that is stale and uninteresting. I do favor certain subjects and styles to which I am grounded, but I am intrigued by the uncertainty and adventure that accompanies change, and try to keep myself open to new and different things to photograph, and ways of photographing them, to surprise myself, and hopefully, those who look at my pictures.

    The itinerary of this trip to Cuba is different from the other times I have been here, which is exciting. After a few days in Havana we fly to Santiago de Cuba, which is located on the far eastern end of the island and is the second largest city in the country. We are restricted in the weight of baggage that we can take on the airplane, so carry only what we need for our time away from Havana. Maybe it is the unusual heat and humidity this year, or maybe I am just getting old, but I feel encumbered and inhibited by my large format equipment and decide to leave it behind and just shoot with the Holga camera that I also have with me. I can think of no two things more different than my Linhof Technika 5 camera and a Holga. Upon learning of my decision, Illya graciously offers loan me his beautiful medium format rangefinder camera, which I gratefully accept.

    With nothing more than the camera around my neck and a pocket full of 120 film, I spend a morning walking around Santiago de Cuba with Steve Anchell and several other members of the group, a change from my usual habit of going off on my own. We walk down a side street near the plaza and encounter a woman sitting on the front stoop of a house, and an older woman on a chair in the adjacent window. After exchanging greetings they invite us in and we spend the next half hour or so talking, looking at old pictures, and making new ones.

    It is my observation that Cubans with the means have beautiful, immaculately-kept houses. Those who do not get by as best they can, which is the case with these people. They seem to live in one room of a building that looks to be falling down around them. The middle part of the structure no longer has a roof, and nothing more than an old wood screen to separate the living space from the tropical storms that must pour in and make living here uncomfortable. A sink without running water and some shelves in the uncovered room serves as their kitchen.

    I make a couple of pictures of the abuelita (grandmother) that for technical reasons will never be seen by others, but I am inspired to use the freedom and agility of the camera to deliberately make other photographs with people in them, a definite change for me. I spend the rest of my time in Santiago de Cuba wandering the streets and doing what is often called “street photography.” In Cuba a more appropriate name might be “stoop photography,” since so much of the life of the people here can be seen and photographed at the interface of street and house. I find a woman chatting with a friend at her front door, a man sitting on his front steps accompanied by his little dog,and two children separated from the street by the ubiquitous door grille.

    I encounter three girls sitting on a ledge out of the sun, chat a bit, then ask if I can photograph them. The girl in the middle seems shy and doesn't really want her picture taken, but her amigas pose themselves on either side and support her both emotionally and compositionally, giving me one of those magical pictures that only require the photographer to have the presence of mind to release the shutter. This ends up being one of my favorite pictures from the trip.

    As has happened before, inspiration for a future visit here comes from the present: I want to return with my lighter, more mobile medium format gear, spend time in smaller cities and villages, and continue working on a portfolio of Cuba, with people to go along with the many places and things that I have already photographed here.

  • The Hershey Train

    Twice on this trip we find ourselves marooned at Jose Marti Airport, waiting several hours for an airplane to materialize from, well, thin air. It seems the exponential increase in tourism to Cuba has completely outpaced their ability to house, feed, and transport all of those tourists. I am chatting with some fellow maroonees when the subject of my adventure on the Hershey Train arises. They ask how it was, to which I reply, “it was unreliable, hot, dirty, smelly and noisy, and we shared our car with a bunch of loud drunks and three goats. It was the highlight of my trip!”

    Near the end of World War I when sugar was in short supply, Milton Hershey came to Cuba and purchased a central (a cane plantation, mill and surrounding town) to ensure a steady and economical source of sugar from which to make his chocolate in Pennsylvania. He modernized the mill to process the cane into sugar, and built houses for his workers and the country's first electrically operated train to transport the sugar to Havana for shipment to the United States. Unlike other oligarchs of his era, he was extraordinarily generous to his workers, renting the houses to them at reasonable rates, letting them travel for free on the train, and even allowing those with houses close to the railroad to tap into his electricity. He seems to have genuinely liked his employees, often eating lunch with them, and habitually leaving the cigar that he had been smoking on a windowsill before entering the mill in the knowledge that one of his workers would quickly find and finish smoking it.

    Hershey sold his holdings in Cuba in the 1940's. The mill has long since closed and is slowly losing its battle with gravity, but the town and railroad still exist. One of my objectives on this trip is to ride the train to Hershey and explore what remains there, so I take the ferry across Havana Bay to the station in Casa Blanca, a Jetson-esque structure that reminds me of the main terminal at Jose Marti.

    But instead of a waiting train, I find a sign reading No hay tren hasta nuevo train until further notice. Despite the fact that no tickets can be sold, a lady is dutifully staffing the ticket booth and tells me that “possibly” there will be a train on Thursday or Friday.

    A couple of days later I try again. This time the train is at the station, which I take as a good sign, but instead of selling tickets the lady is busy answering frequent telephone calls. These are apparently coming from the generating station in Hershey, because just before scheduled departure she announces that there is an electrical problem and the train will not run today. Mañana...maybe, goes the island phrase.

    As the time to return to the United States draws near I try one more time, and fellow travelers Illya Kovalek and Susan Fofana-Dura decide to go along. The train is again in front of the station, but this time the agent is in fact selling tickets; 1.40 CUC (the convertible currency used by foreigners, about $1.40 US) buys me a ticket to Hershey. More or less on schedule the train starts up and departs Casa Blanca. We are not yet out of sight of the station when the train suddenly stops, reverses direction, and returns, so that the conductor can retrieve a bicycle that another passenger has left behind. Off we go again, with Graham Nash's great song, Marrakesh Express as the soundtrack running through my mind:

    ...Take the train from Casablanca going south...

    I often comment that Cuba is a good place for travelers to visit, not so much for tourists. The difference is that a traveler adapts to the conditions that he finds, while a tourist expects the place to accommodate itself to him. This distinction is doubly true for the Hershey Train. The seats are made of steel and hard plastic, the cars do not appear to have been cleaned since before the revolution, some windows open while others do not, and there is absolutely no illumination, making for a very dark ride at night. The door in our car only closes halfway, so I stand in the opening as the train pitches and bucks down the tracks. What will happen if I lose my grip and fall off I do not know, but the term “natural selection” comes to mind. A short video I made of the ride can be seen here.

    Despite its unreliability, the train is an important means of travel for ordinary Cubans, and we stop at just about every small town along the way to pick up or drop off passengers. People living near the tracks but between stops stand by the tracks to flag the train down as it approaches. It is economical for them as well: Cubans pay exactly the same fare as foreigners: 1.40, but in Cuban Pesos, instead of CUCs, thereby costing them about 6 cents US. I had read one story online that on one trip a refrigerator sat in the middle of the author's car. The train stopped near a trackside house along the way, where he and others on the train helped move the appliance into the house. They then reboarded the train and it resumed its run.

    About an hour and a half later, and right on schedule, we pull in to the Hershey station. Illya, Susan, and I disembark and begin exploring the town as the train continues its journey east to Matanzas. Finding the ruins of the sugar mill is easy; we could see the smokestack looming over the town as we ascended from a valley where the sugar cane that once fed the mill was grown. I make a couple of exposures of the ruins, amused by a sign that reads, No the imperative form. I have been around many sketchy places in Cuba that are unprotected by signs or fences, so this place must really be dangerous. I heed the warning and do not pass.

    Although the houses have suffered from the neglect that afflicts much of this country, it is easy to see which part of the town that Milton Hershey built, and that it was patterned after his town of the same name in Pennsylvania. Similarly-styled houses on equally-sized lots sit the same distance back from wide, paved streets flanked by concrete sidewalks, something unheard of in other towns of this size here. Mr. Hershey was orderly as well as benevolent.

    While researching this place I had seen photographs of unused locomotives and cars loitering on side tracks, which is what I had really come here to photograph. Logic tells me that I will find them by following the tracks, so I set off, walking a mile or so in the direction the train had gone. My quest is unsuccessful, but near the edge of town someone tells me that I might find them near the car barn. I head that way and begin to see unused cars, but a guard sees me and tells me I must leave. I recall Steve Anchell's advice (if someone tells you not to take a picture of something, just smile, put your camera away, and leave.) In Cuba, forgiveness is NOT easier to obtain than permission, so I leave.

    I also found this documentary called Model Town on YouTube that explores Hershey during its heyday. Near the end of the program, older people who had lived and worked there during that era were given Hershey chocolate bars, which they handled, smelled, and tasted as if they were the most precious thing they had ever possessed. So I brought with me several bags of Hershey's chocolates that I give to people I meet here. Cubans are not used to such treats and always accept them gladly, so I cannot discern whether the connection to their town really means anything to them, or whether they are just grateful to receive some chocolates.

    After meeting up with Illya and Susan at a cantina where we have ham sandwiches and beer, we make our way back to the station to catch the train back to Casa Blanca. The sun has set by the time we depart, and the darkness is punctuated by the lightning flashes from the overhead catenary wires, the loud drunks taking their produce into Havana, the bleating of those goats, ...and Graham...

    ...Ducks and pigs and chickens call...

  • El Arte de la Bandera

    The Art of the Flag

    Down the street from the apartment that I rented for part of my 2014 trip to Cuba was an artist's studio and gallery. The artist had incorporated two Cuban flags into a mural on the front wall, which I photographed early one morning before the neighborhood came fully to life. I was happy with the picture and exhibited it along with several other building facades that, for one reason or another, had also interested me enough to warrant photographing.

    This year I stay a few days in a casa particular, where I have my own bedroom and bath in a privately-owned residence, and which has become my favorite kind of accommodation here. It is about as close as a foreigner can come to living like a Cuban, an experience that is precious to me. A block or so down the street from the casa is a building typical of those in the oldest parts of Havana: a large, three or four story structure once the residence of a single, well-to-do colonial family, subdivided after the revolution into apartments. The entrance to the building is a foyer of sorts, open to the street, and from which a stairway and doors to individual apartments emanate.

    I love looking into these spaces as I walk down the streets. If lit at all, it is usually with a dim florescent fixture that for some reason always reminds me of the greenish-yellow color pictures I have seen of building interiors in the old Soviet Union. My eyes, conditioned by thirty-two years as a firefighter, are often first drawn to a terrifying tangle of electrical wires that grows with each subdivision of the living spaces in the building as the families housed within them multiply over generations.

    Vestiges of the former elegance of this building remain, such as the wrought iron railings and door grilles, and ceramic wall tiles. More recently, this foyer became a canvas for artists: on one wall is an almost cartoonish rendition of the second most portrayed and least funny person in Cuba, Che Guevara. Flowing gracefully around an archway on another side is the Cuban flag, upon which several record albums have been attached. I wonder about the juxtaposition of these elements as I go about photographing this scene. Is it a simple homage to Cuban music, or was the artist making some other statement? I recall the photograph of the gallery that I made last year, happy to have found a mate for it. I also think about other instances of the flag as art, and the ubiquity of flags in general that I see here. How can people whose various governments have made life so difficult since this flag was adopted in 1902 feel such patriotism?

    I find the answer to my question, of course, on the internet, specifically at Wikipedia. Patriotism is defined there as “an emotional attachment to a nation which an individual recognizes as their homeland...viewed in terms of different features relating to one's own nation, including ethnic, cultural, political, or historical aspects.” No one who knows Cubans doubts the love they feel for this place. As hard as life is here, it is their home, their culture, their history. Not so difficult to understand after all.

  • Valle de Viñales

    The Viñales Valley is a unique landscape a little more than 100 miles southwest of Havana. 

    To get there, we leave Habana Vieja where the tourists stay, pass by the Centro Habana area populated with ordinary Cubans, skirt Vedado where better off Cubans reside, then through a tunnel beneath Rio Almendares and into the Miramar district.

    Before Fidel Castro took control of Cuba, the mafia was well on their way to doing the same thing. Tired of being hamstrung by pesky US laws against gambling, prostitution, extortion and murder, mobsters including Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky had decided to make Cuba their own, and the exclusive seaside district of Miramar was where they had taken up residence as they worked on their plan. Among other well-known US citizens such as Frank Sinatra, then-Senator John Kennedy was a guest of these would-be potentates here in Miramar...irónico is the Spanish word comes to my mind. The mafioso were forced to flee following the revolution, and now many foreign embassies are located here. One of these might be the ugliest building on the planet: the Russian embassy reminds me of some sort of hideous concrete spear that has impaled itself into this otherwise pleasant place, and I wonder how the same culture that created the elegant onion domes that crown buildings in their own country could construct something so grotesque. Just before the city gives way to countryside, as cities inevitably do, we pass a fenced compound between the road and the sea. Steve Anchell speculates that Fidel might be living out his remaining days here. I speculate that having ceded power and in failing health, he no longer has to sleep in a different house every night to stay ahead of CIA assassination attempts as he once did.

    We travel west toward Pinar del Rio on Cuba's version of an interstate highway. Unlike limited access freeways in other countries, dirt lanes frequently lead from the road to houses and farms, and cross- roads are common. Adjacent to several of these crossroads are bridges that had been constructed to carry traffic over the highway, but for which approach ramps had not been provided. Monuments to what was to be, I think, and I am heartened to know that US Senators are not the only politicians that can build bridges to nowhere. We leave the highway and take a twisty, hilly, two-lane road that challenges the skill of our driver and eventually arrive in Viñales.

    Valle de Viñales truly is a unique landscape. The valleys are rimmed by strange looking limestone mountains called mogotes, formed when the island rose from the Carribean eons ago. Rumor has it that Steven Spielberg scouted the valley and wanted to film Jurassic Park here; the Cubans agreed but with the economic embargo still in place Washington did not, so it was instead filmed in Costa Rica, Hawaii, the Dominican Republic, and, of course, Hollywood. I could not verify this story elsewhere, so rumor it remains. In any case, it could have been shot here, the landscape certainly looks prehistoric enough. Perhaps Spielberg will get his wish with Jurassic Park III currently under development and commerce with Cuba now more easily arranged.

    Royal Palms share the rich, dark red soil of the valleys with fields of tobacco, banana trees, and other fruits and vegetables. Many of the barns have thatched roofs and some even with walls of thatch, allowing ideal air flow and humidity to properly dry the valley's tobacco crop, said to be the best on the island and used to make the most expensive cigars sold in Cuba. 

    At one time the state took all of the tobacco crop from the valley to produce these cigars, but as economic conditions worsened following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, farmers were allowed to keep and sell 10% of their tobacco, along with other crops grown here. So even though Valle de Viñales may appear prehistoric, it may in fact be a harbinger of the future in Cuba.   

  • Perdido

    Perdido is a Spanish adjective meaning “lost.” Which is what I am when I find this picture. Not lost in the forest with no hope of rescue lost, but walking down a street I've never been on before and not sure where I'm going lost. The kind that consulting the map in my backpack or hailing a taxi for a ride back to Habana Vieja will quickly make me not lost. But where is the adventure in that? When lost I sometimes find a picture that I like.

    We had traveled to a gallery in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana to look at an exhibit of photographs by Chino Arcos, one of the Cuban photographers with whom we interact there. Afterwards small groups form to go shooting, but I know there are some art deco buildings near here, and decide to go off on my own in search of one to photograph. I apparently wander the wrong direction because I see no sign of my quarry, and instead find myself walking down a wide boulevard and around a monument in the middle of a traffic circle. On the other side my eye is drawn to a grove of mature banyan trees with their strange intertwined trunks and tendrils hanging from their branches. Behind the grove is a sandstone ledge that I suppose was exposed when the street was built, and on which someone has carved a mural featuring “Indians” that I take to be representations of the original residents of the island. I am immediately interested and decide to photograph one of the figures.

    The place we now call Cuba had been inhabited by the Arawak people for thousands of years when Christopher Columbus “discovered” it in 1492. It is worth noting that Columbus was lost at the time,believing as he did that he had achieved his stated mission of finding a westward passage to the Indian Ocean. He therefore called the people that he encountered “Indians;” by the time his little mistake was realized, the mis-appellation of all of the first inhabitants of the Americas had stuck. Columbus claimed the land for the Queen of Spain for whom he was working at the time, Spain established a colony there, realized that it was perfect for growing sugar cane, and decided the Arawaks should serve “their” new monarch by working on the plantations. Within a few decades the Arawaks had all but disappeared due to mistreatment and exposure to European diseases such as Smallpox, to which they had no resistance.

    The sun has just worked its way around the ledge and is raking across the surface, creating harsh highlights on one side that descend into deep shadows on the other. Conventional wisdom would be to reduce this contrast during development, or else do significant dodging and burning at the printing stage to make a more balanced picture. But as I work on the composition I wonder about the motivation of the artist who carved the mural, and I am reminded of Minor White's admonition to “not only photograph things for what they are, but for what else they are.” The figure has outstretched arms, is he welcoming some unknown person? He has turned from a place of great brightness into one of darkness, which could represent movement into an unseen, dangerous place. The tendrils of the Banyan tree suggest the imprisonment that awaits him.

    It is not until I am nearly finished printing the photograph in the darkroom that I notice the cross carved into the darkness that the figure faces. I consider how often man has used, and continues to use to this day, religion to justify cruelty to other people, completing my metaphor.

  • ¡Vive Detroit!

    When I became a photographer, I often tried to take pictures that looked like Ansel Adams', or lesser known but great photographers such as my friend Bill Schwab, or that emulated pictures that I saw in galleries or magazines. But as I matured I realized that I needed to find my own photographs. I looked for ways to express familiar subjects from a different perspective. It became so important to me that if I was with a group of photographers I would deliberately go a different direction from the rest, determined to see something the others had not, or at least in a unique way. Happily, I also learned that sometimes a photographer needs to break the rules, which I am compelled to do in making this photograph.

    I am walking along the Malecon with fellow photographer Annie Katz. As we pass this gorgeous taxi particular, the driver, who is sitting on the seawall, asks if we need a ride. I summon my best Spanish to explain that we need to walk to find photographs, and compliment him on his car. He smiles and says, “1956 Chevy!” In my younger days I was a gearhead so I know exactly what this car is, and I am amused by the penchant that Cuban taxistas have for describing the pedigrees of their American cars to people from the United States. I reflect that it is their way of expressing pride in owning and preserving these marvelous machines, built in America and living on here in Cuba. I think it is a bond between our countries that goes back to the time before our governments became enemies and their citizens estranged. I also consider what great cities Detroit and Havana were when this car was built, and the different forms of malaise that each has suffered since. While I spend time thinking this through, Annie begins shooting the car handheld with her digital camera.

    Ordinarily I would consider the picture “hers” and go looking for something else to photograph. But the driver has left his interior light on above the white leather upholstery, and I visualize a black and white photograph that depicts the glow that I see emanating from the car. So I set up my camera and expose two sheets of film. The long exposure required to record a little detail in the shadows allows the lights of passing vehicles to make streaks across the film, and gives the scene the sharply defined high contrast that I enjoy seeing in a photograph made at night.

    In the darkroom my goal is to convey that glow, giving the highlights just enough exposure so that detail in the upholstery is preserved, while keeping the front of the car from disappearing into shadow. It took three sessions in the darkroom but in the end I like the picture and hope that it is different than what Annie saw.

  • Treces

    Three things about this photograph:

    1. It took nearly three years to make.

    2. It required three trips to Cuba.

    3. Three women are responsible for 1 and 2.

    25 March, 2013: Late afternoon, I am wandering around a neighborhood south of Plaza Vieja occupied by ordinary Cubans, when I encounter this mature tree growing out and up the side of a building. I thank the force that guided me here, and begin setting up my camera and composing a picture. As I work, I notice in my peripheral vision three women walking down the street. They are intrigued by my old-fashioned-looking camera and come over to ask about it. As we talk I learn they are French, and when they discover that I am from the United States they want to know how I am able to travel in Cuba. After I explain my camera and legal status to them, they go on their way and I go about making my picture.

    When I return home and develop my film, I am greatly disappointed to see that both of the negatives of the scene are fatally underexposed. This was going to be one of the best pictures from the trip, and was destined to occupy a prominent place in the portfolio I was planning. Since I had followed the routine that I always do to avoid such mistakes, I have no choice but to blame the three women who disturbed my concentration.

    13 December, 2014: To avoid distraction I get up early and return to find the tree and building intact and identical to the way it had been 21 months earlier. I make essentially the same composition, without interruption this time, and leave satisfied that I have my picture.

    When the lights go on and I inspect the film later in my Virginia darkroom, I discover that I have made exactly the same mistake again! I almost never calculate exposures incorrectly, and to do it twice to a picture that I cannot conveniently reshoot; one that was going to be good? Unforgivable! And the worst thing is that this time there were no French people around to blame!

    9 December, 2015: Early morning again. I check, double-check, triple-check my light meter, then give the scene some extra seconds with the shutter open, just to make sure.

    January 2, 2016. While watching the image from a (this time) well-exposed negative come up in the developer, I think about how this scene even came to be. The seed from which the tree sprouted must have landed on the wall decades ago, perhaps during the time of the revolution in 1959. It was close enough to the sidewalk that, as it took root and began to grow, people had to notice it. Why did no one simply reach out and pull it from the wall? As it grew larger and began to damage the wall itself, why did not the occupants of the building remove it before the damage became worse? And as it grew tall enough so that its branches and leaves spread out over the roof, why did no one think that the next hurricane to cross the island was likely to use it as a lever to throw down the wall and perhaps collapse the entire building?

    Steve Anchell says that one aspect of the authoritarian form of government in Cuba is that it has conditioned people not to think for themselves. They have learned through experience to do exactly what they are told to do; no more, no less. Varying from the norm may result in unpleasant reactions from those in power. Perhaps this photograph is a metaphor for what has happened to the country and to its people as a result of that revolution.

  • Portents of Change

    I just returned from my third journey to Cuba. It was great to renew old friendships from previous trips there, as well as to make new friends both Cuban and among the group of photographers from the United States with whom I traveled. While the impressions of the trip are fresh in my mind, I am reflecting with a mixture of emotions on some of the changes that I have seen on the island since I first visited there in 2013. I feel selfishly sad because “my” Cuba, the Cuba that I came to know and love, is becoming more crowded, and therefore less appealing to me. I am fearful to think how Cuba might change if it become a bonafide tourist mecca. But I am also hopeful that if managed well, tourism can improve the economic conditions and personal liberties of the Cuban people.

    Things are changing in Cuba. Whether for better or worse only time will tell. During my first trip there, which happened to be the week preceding Easter, there were a few tourists, mostly Canadians escaping the northern winter. Then a day or two before Good Friday, Habana Vieja (the old, original part of the city) was suddenly filled with Europeans, who, I was told, liked to travel there over the Easter holiday. Back then it was easy to escape the crowds by hopping the ferry across the bay to Casa Blanca or Regla, or by simply walking to the Centro Habana neighborhood where ordinary Cubans live and tourists seldom venture.

    But this year the touristy areas were crowded every day with people speaking German, French, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Spanish-Spanish, British- and Canadian-English, and likely other languages that I did not recognize. It was as if the rest of the world had realized that an army of US tourists were going to invade the island as a result of the eased travel restrictions by the US government, and that it behooved them to visit the place before the “Americans” got there in sufficient force to turn it into Disneyland South. Probably not faulty logic at all.

    My friend Anay, who works for the state-run tourist agency Paradiso, told me that visitors to the island increased from 100,000 to 200,000 this year since the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba was announced in December 2014, and is expected to double again to 400,000 next year. According to a recent article in the New York Times, there are around 65,000 hotel rooms in the entire country right now, so rooms are becoming difficult to book, and construction of new hotels is proceeding at el pace del caracol (a snail's pace.) On past trips we stayed at the Hotel Los Frailes, a small hotel in Habana Vieja. This year some of our previously-reserved rooms were taken from us and given to other groups, so several of us stayed in casas particulares, rooms in privately-owned houses. While I love the experience of living with Cubans in this way, it made logistics more challenging for group leader Steve Anchell.

    While always a busy place, the Malecon is now choked with tour buses, both the tinted-windowed and air-conditioned kind designed to insulate tourists from the noise, dirt, and heat that is Havana, as well as those open top, double-decker vehicles sure to sunburn any fair-skinned visitor. The owners of classic Chevrolet, Ford, and yes, even Rambler taxis particulares have no trouble finding tourists armed with Go Pro cameras and selfie sticks to drive to the Hotel Nacional for mojitos on the lawn. I needed a taxi to take me to a building several miles away that I wanted to photograph. The first driver wanted 10 CUC (approximately $10 USD) for a drive that would have cost half as much last year and would not budge; the second grudgingly accepted a lower fare, suggesting to me that the taxistas are taking advantage of uninformed tourists. The ubiquitous panhandling common in underdeveloped countries seems to have gotten more prevalent and aggressive, and other forms of seedier solicitation...well, I will simply say that I felt like the girl in Jimmy Buffett's song, Fins.

    I have often said that if you want great food and tolerable people, go to France; if you want great people and tolerable food, go to Cuba. Being an island, seafood is plentiful and some of it is good, even excellent. I had a great fish lunch at a restaurant in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana, some really good Shrimp Criolla in Santiago de Cuba, and a truly wonderful meal at an organic farm/restaurant in Viñales. But most of the food is just okay, and the multitudes of tourists are causing waiters to say with increasing frequency, “we are out of that,” when attempting to order from paladar menus. Fortunately for me, I have learned to love the ham sandwiches and guava juice or café cubano that can be purchased from the streetside windows of residences or shops, so I did not have to worry about filling my belly. And, of course, any dearth of good food is more than compensated for by an abundant supply of the planet's finest rum.

    No amount of rum, however, can ease the havoc that exponentially-increasing tourism is wreaking upon the country's air transportation system. Partway through the trip we flew from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. After arriving at Jose Marti airport 3 hours ahead of our scheduled morning departure time as required, we learned the flight was delayed for several hours. Apparently only one of the several Cubana Airlines planes that make daily runs between the two cities was airworthy that day, and it was racing up and down the length of the country in a futile attempt to stay on schedule. Instead of a mid afternoon arrival as planned, we got to our destination very late at night. A repeat performance ensued when it was time to leave Cuba and return to the United States, with the result that nearly everyone in the group who had a connecting flight home spent the night in Miami. It seems that the Cuban government either has not planned for or is unwilling or unable to pay for the additional workers that are required to move thousands more people around their island. As unofficial translator for the group, I was asked by Steve to tell the woman staffing the departure gate whom we had been asking for updates all day that we understood that they were overworked and that we appreciated their efforts. I did my best to convey the message in Spanish, then turned to Steve and said in English, “I hope I said that right.” The woman looked up from her work and said, in English, “you said it perfectly.” Así que va...

    It occurs to me that three phrases that I least like to hear all have the word cruise in them...Tom Cruise, Cruise ship, and Ted Cruz. Okay, I know that Cruz means cross, but it sounds the same. I would rather have dental surgery than ride on a cruise ship; at least you get anesthetized at the dentist. And cruise ships returning to Havana harbor? Yikes! Yet that is just what is happening. We heard that Carnival has applied for permission to call at the Port of Havana in early 2016. In preparation for the arrival of these weapons of mass tourism, some of the pre-revolution steam ship docks have been razed and replaced with floating human highways designed to efficiently disgorge thousands of tourists onto the streets of Havana. And, as we were leaving Havana on our last day in the country, this gargantuan, ugly cruiser was docked further down the harbor.

    People ask me what I like most about Cuba; what draws me back to the island. I usually begin by listing the things that make me smile: the Spanish Colonial and Art Deco architecture, the rum, the classic American cars, the ruins, the tropical air, the rum, even immigration and customs at Jose Marti airport. But all of that is simply icing on the cake. What I really love about Cuba are Cubans. I believe that Cubans are the most gracious, open, warmest, friendliest and happiest people on this planet, in spite of the hardships that they have endured over the past 500 years of Spanish, US, and communist governance.

    I hope that all of these changes bring a better life to the Cuban people. I hope that the increased tourism and business coming to the island will make all Cubans more prosperous. I hope that the greater exposure to free enterprise that is coming to the island will eventually cause Cubans to want a more democratic form of government for themselves. But most of all I hope that these changes do not change the essential spirit of the Cuban people.


    The privations suffered by the Cuban people as a result of the US economic embargo, the collapse of the former Soviet bloc, and the general inefficiency of the communist system is well documented. Not as well known are the effects of that triad on the architecture of Cuba. The Florida-based Sun-Sentinel newspaper reported that after Hurricane Ike crossed the island in 2008, 67 buildings in Havana collapsed either partially or completely. The same article quotes architectural experts as saying that “every three days, there are two partial or total building collapses in Central Havana alone.” Given the inevitability of entropy, I doubt that things have improved over the intervening years.

    A building that has lost its battle with gravity is what I think I have found on an early morning walk through a part of Havana only a few blocks away from the touristy and restored Habana Vieja area. I talk to a resident of the neighborhood who tells me that the building did not fall down of its own accord, but was in such poor condition that it was condemned and is being demolished. I have been in many buildings in Havana that would have been declared unfit for human habitation in the United States yet are still lived in by many people, so I cannot imagine how bad a building must be to suffer the fate of being condemned to demolition here.

    It seems to me that Havana experienced two important architectural periods. The first occurred when Spain colonized the island, constructing many buildings in the Spanish Colonial style exemplified by Habana Vieja. These feature arched windows and doors, columns that support overhangs to shield people from the weather, balconies with wrought iron railings on upper floors, and lots of ornamentation. They surround a large, airy rectangular plaza with two narrow, cobbled streets radiating out at 90 degree angles from each corner, so that the city could grow from these centers in an orderly fashion.

    The other period occurred in the early to mid twentieth century and was in the Art Deco style. This has always been my favorite style of architecture, and finding so many wonderful Art Deco buildings here was the most pleasant surprise of my first trip. I suppose that Havana was experiencing a building boom during the apex of the Art Deco period and took many of its cues from the United States at the time. So the same architectural expression that produced the Chrysler and Empire State buildings in New York, the Fisher Building in Detroit, and pretty much all of South Beach in Miami also influenced the construction of many art deco buildings in Havana, the most famous being the Bacardi Building.

    The subject of my photograph is a far more understated example of Art Deco. Through the ignominy of condemnation and the debris of demolition I can see what this building once was. My eye is drawn to its geometry, to its stubborn resistance to its fate, and to the sparse decorations that remain on the side that has not yet been pushed over into the street. I can only hope that one outcome of the normalization of relations between our countries will be the preservation of buildings like this.


    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.


    December 17, 2014 starts, I imagine, as most other days have for the past half century for the Cuban people. By this time of the month they have used up their monthly ration of rice, beans, oil, and sugar, and are working out how they are going to eat for the rest of the month. The ones fortunate enough to have jobs go to work, many serving the tourists who come here from Europe, Asia, and other places...except, of course, the United States. I begin the day with a few of my traveling companions on a short bus ride from Trinidad, where we are staying for a couple of days, to a nature preserve called Topes de Collantes. We hike about 3 miles to Caburni Falls, past majestic royal palms, numerous examples of the flora and fauna of Cuba, and a rather large termite nest. We stop for lemongrass and basil tea at the dirt-floored and thatched-roof house of a campesino (peasant farmer).

    Then things change.

    When we return to the restaurant at the base of the trail, I notice that the workers are gathered around a television instead of, well, working. But since they have no customers at the moment, I figure they are watching the Cuban incarnation of Doctor Phil. Outside, our tour guide asks me, “conoces los tres heroes?” Being a relatively new student of Spanish, I am excited that I recognize the words conoces (do you know) and tres (3). The context of his question eludes me, however, so he explains that the remaining three members of The Cuban Five, who have been imprisoned in the United States since the late 1990's for spying on anti-regime groups in Miami, have been repatriated.

    Fidel Castro gave a speech after The Five were sentenced, which he ended with the word, “volverán”...they will return. I have noticed posters and billboards all over Cuba with pictures of The Cuban Five and Castro's one-word prediction. I have talked with several Cubans about this issue, and have learned that this is more than just propaganda, that the long prison sentences of The Five is seen as unjust by many.

    I soon learn that as important as the release of these Cubans is, it is only part of the story. Alan Gross, who has been in a Cuban prison for smuggling illegal electronics into the country is released, as is a US spy, and the presidents of both countries make simultaneous announcements that relations between our countries are being normalized after more than a half-century of officially not speaking to one another. Later that day, Donna Conrad, another member of our group, tells me that she walked up behind a group of Cubans watching President Raul Castro on television to ask if it were really true. One of them turned to her and said, “es posible.” When President Obama's image appeared on the screen, he said, almost in a whisper, “es verdad” is true.

    Later that day I am back in Trinidad. With my camera backpack and tripod, I am easy to spot as a tourist. As they often do, curious Cubans ask where I am from. When I say, “los Estados Unidos,” they tell me how happy they are that this barrier between the citizens of our countries is being removed. I find my way into a library and ask if I can photograph this statue that occupies a disused pool in the courtyard. As I work on my composition I notice the sorrowful look on her face, and reflect that she has apparently not yet heard the news.

    The December 18 edition of Granma, the official newspaper of the communist party in Cuba, has a one-word headline: ¡Volvieron!...they have returned...that circles back to validate Fidel's prediction. Below the headline is a picture of the reunited Five (the other two had been released previously after completing their sentences). But most significantly, there are photographs of Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama announcing the news to their respective countries, printed side by side in precisely the same dimensions. I can imagine no stronger symbol of this historic day, so I purchase a copy to take home, carefully protecting it from being damaged. It is my most valued souvenir from Cuba, far more meaningful than any old Che Beret!

    I witness no wild celebrations in the street. I think the Cubans have suffered too long to let their collective guard down that easily. They know that there is a long road ahead of them before they enjoy the freedom and prosperity that people like me sometimes take for granted. But there does seem to be a lightness in their step as they go about their lives; perhaps the hint of a smile that was not there yesterday. As Donna says, tomorrow the Cubans will go back to work, many serving foreign tourists, but they will return with a sense of hope.

  • Oye

    Most visitors experience Cuba as tourists: they stay in one of the nice hotels in Habana Vieja (old Havana) where they spend most of their time, are driven along the Malecon in a pre-revolution Chevrolet, buy Che berets, and eat in the restaurants or paladares that cater to foreigners. Having done that on my first trip here, I want to experience a little more of daily life in Cuba this time. So my friend and tour organizer Steve Anchell recommends an apartment away from the tourist part of Habana Vieja in which I spend the first three nights. The apartment is on the second floor of a building in Calle Emperadoro; it is clean, airy, and adequately furnished. In Havana, most people live in small apartments that were carved from larger living spaces utilized by pre-revolution occupants. Several generations of a family often share the same apartment, and are frequently visited by other family members. Such is the case with my next door neighbors, and I can easily hear their conversations and smell what they are cooking through the thin walls that separate our apartments. This is part of the experience that I hoped for, which for the sake of sleeping seems to run out of steam by 11PM or so each night.

    The best feature of the apartment is the french doors that open onto a balcony overlooking the street. Like many streets in this part of Havana, Calle Emperadoro is very narrow. Cars, and sometimes large trucks, barrel down the street, which is usually congested with parked cars, motor bikes, bicitaxis, and pedestrians. How at least one fatal traffic accident per day does not occur in these streets is beyond me. Directly across the street is a cafetería, which in reality is a window into an apartment in which the owners live and from which they sell food from early in the morning until late evening. Their menu includes Café Cubano, jugo natural (juice) helado (ice cream), and the ubiquitious Cuban ham and cheese sandwiches...a little capitalism in this socialistic paradise. I can buy a sandwich and juice or coffee for about 10 Cuban pesos, approximately 40 cents US!

    Life happens on the stoops and balconies in Havana. My “neighbors” across the narrow street occasionally step onto theirs to see what is happening, to hang some laundry onto the ever-present clotheslines, to talk with one another, or just to catch some fresh air. Like nearly every Cuban that I meet, they are friendly and wave and smile at me.

    On my first trip to Cuba I heard a noise that stopped me dead in my tracks: SSST SSST. I had only heard it in one place before, in the introduction to Jimmy Buffett's “Everybody's Got a Cousin in Miami.” Apparently Cubans use it to attract attention; to hail an aquaintance across the street, to get a bicitaxi to stop, or to induce a pretty girl to turn her head. After realizing it was a real thing, I heard it everywhere. Now, as I sat on “my” balcony listening to life in Calle Emperadoro, I noticed a different sound: the word “oye.” Literally, I believe the word translates as “listen,” or “hear me,” but I also think it equates to the English, “hey!” I hear people on the street below me using it to call to family or friends in upper apartments, and as a way of beginning conversations with others on the street.

    In the mornings I walk a couple of blocks down the street to the house of Luis and Mirtha, who own the apartment in which I am staying. For 5 CUC (the Cuban Convertible Peso used by tourists and roughly equal to a US dollar) am served a big Cuban breakfast: Café Cubano, tropical fruit juice, fresh fruit, eggs, ham, cheese, and a basket of bread. As good as the food is, however, I think that I more enjoy simply sitting at Luis and Mirtha's table and conversing with them and their friends and family, overcoming the limitations of my rudimentary Spanish and their inability to speak very much English.

  • Cuba 2014

    My second journey to Cuba begins as did my first trip there, which I suspect is intended to acclimate the traveler to the phenomenon known as “island time.” My traveling companions and I arrive at Miami International Airport several hours before our scheduled departure, wait in line for the ticketing and baggage check people to do their work, are certified free of any tools of terrorism by TSA, and then wait for at least an hour while the background checks required by the Cuban government are completed.

    We are all apparently deemed acceptable visitors, and board our jet along with Cuban-Americans going to the island to visit relatives, and Cuban-Cubans returning home after seeing family in the USA. I notice that the pilot tippy-toes down the Florida Keys as far as he can, then banks to the left for the almost anticlimactically-short hop across the Florida Straits, where Havana soon appears on the horizon.

    Although I know what is coming this time, I am still delighted by the experience that is Jose Marti Airport: the island-inspired paint job on the main terminal building. Being able to walk across the ramp from the plane in December without the need of a jetway. The officious lines leading to the immigration booths. The female officers in their Soviet-inspired uniforms hemmed short over stockings decidedly un-Soviet like. Explaining my unusual large format camera gear and film holders to the customs people. And finally out into the tropical warmth, the cacophony of noise, and the throng of people awaiting the arrival of friends and family, all overseen by the images of Che, Fidel, and even Hugo Chavez on billboards ringing the parking lot. Although on this trip I will witness the beginning of changes that are coming to Cuba, I am glad that these things remain the same for now.