Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Cuba: A Kaleidoscopic View - Habana

Waitress at el Bar Neptuno: Best mojitos in Habana
Of the all the places I visited in Cuba, it was Habana that stole my heart. It is full of history, music, culture and colorful people. It is so wonderfully photogenic that my camera jumped out of my bag without warning and started clicking away. I have decided to make this entry more of a photo essay because, as the old adage goes: A photo is worth ......... Please forgive the formatting, it is a nightmare to deal with on this site.

The waitress above works at el Bar Neptuno. As we were walking down Calle Neptuno I heard a voice calling: Tenemos los mejores mojitos de todo Habana, y los más baratos también". And the best and cheapest they were. I watched the bartender make mine and deliver it personally to my table. It was so good that I had another!

Add caption

Walking the streets of Habana was full of colorful scenes and unexpected surprises. The old balconies that look down upon the city are dilapidated and alive at the same time. What appear to be condemned buildings have tenants living inside them. And if no one is in sight, the signs of occupancy are obvious.

Cigar lady with flowers
Life is lived outdoors for the most part. Chess games take place on doorsteps and makeshift tables in the street fill the air with the lively clacking of dominoes on wood. As you walk down the streets of Habana vieja, music invites you from the smallest of bars with music worthy of big time venues. It is as if each neighborhood has their own "Buena Vista Social Club" playing a private gig for those passing by.

Alga Marina & Osvaldo

And thanks to my new friends, Alga Marina and Osvaldo, Habana took on a personal touch. They invited us into their home, shared meals with us, and set up some photo shoots for me. They were a window into the true Cuba, the way people live, their joys, their frustrations, their daily lives. I am forever grateful to them for opening their home and their lives to me.

I met people on the street that also opened their lives to me. Doña Graciela Perez Rios, a ninety one year old artist of recycled materials who invited us into her home to share her work. She makes dolls from milk cartons, plastic bottles etc. The photo to the left is a self portrait of herself as a doll at age 80. She seems to have gotten younger! 

Alberto Pays
Alberto Pays is a portrait photographer that works in the Parque Central de Habana with a 1913 box camera. He charges two dollars for a portrait which is developed inside of his box camera. When I asked what I could bring him in return for an interview, he told me photographic paper as it was extremely difficult to find in Habana. I will bring him some when I return next year.

Marta Aguila
And on our way to el Callejon de Hamet to listen to AfroCuban Rumba we ran into Marta Aguila. We struck up a conversation, she invited us into her home, and she shared her life a bit with us. She is a medium of sorts who is very involved in Santería. She also reads cards. She is a beautiful woman who did not hesitate for one moment to open herself to a couple of foreigners walking through her neighborhood. 

Schoolgirls at Rumba High School

Raúl Corrales with Fidel
I am seriously considering going back to Habana for a month next winter to photograph. Thanks to Alga Marina and Osvaldo, I have a wonderful connection in Norma Corrales, daughter of Raúl Corrales, one of Fidel's personal photographer. She has offered me a place to stay in her home in Cojimar, Hemmingway's old hangout. It is a very tempting offer. 

 So let's all hope that Obama's visit to Cuba will bring the two countries back into a  relationship of amistad and that the blockade and other restrictions will be lifted. Let's also hope that Cuba's infrastructure can successfully deal with the enormous influx of American tourism without losing its integrity and charm. I fear this is a real danger. May the good things that came out of the Revolution remain intact, and the change and growth that may follow be in Cuba's best interest.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Cuba: a Kaleidoscopic View: Part 1

Cienfuegos: Revolution Forever

Just before I left for Cuba I received an e-mail from my friend, Alma Flor, who is Cuban. She wrote: "Your trip will be full of surprises of different kinds. I know you will be able to see the many shapes and colors of that kaleidoscope, and ah, the contradictions." She was so right! Kaleidoscopic indeed! I preface anything I write here with the confession that my Cuban eyesight is most likely 20/200. The many shapes, colors, and contradictions that exist there cannot be distinguished clearly in three weeks or even three years. So read what I write here keeping that in mind.

My time in Cuba was spent with my good friends Lena & Lenita, friendships that go back nearly forty years. Our travels took us to Habana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Viñales and back to Habana at the end of our trip. We drank mojitos together, ate lobster and roast pork, and enjoyed each others' company fully. Qué pena that Marie was not with us physically, she would have loved the lobster and the company! But we included her in all we did together.

Our stay in Habana took us to el Museo de la Revolución where I was surprised to learn that three American presidents are officially honored there: Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr, and good old "W". Alongside each dignitary's image was a plaque commemorating their unique contribution to the Revolution. I left proud to be an "American". I sincerely hope that Donald Trump does not get a chance to be added to that wall!

Since it was my friend, Lena's birthday, she treated Lenita and me to an hour long taxi tour of Havana! During our tour, our driver, Hansel, explained why there are so many incredibly preserved old American cars in Cuba. After the Revolution in 1959, an edict was mandated that said there would be no cars newer than 1959 available for purchase on the island. That law was not rescinded until 2011. Thus, fifty five year old vehicles look like they just came off the assembly line thanks to Cuban ingenuity. 

Street Parade - Cienfuegos
Apart from Habana, Cienfuegos was the city I liked best. It was fair less touristy than Trinidad and Viñales. I felt more "invisible" there, more as if I was seeing Cubans living their daily lives normally without the "tourist mania" that Trinidad and Viñales had. It was a city full of culture and a history that was heavily influenced by the French. It is a place I would readily go back to. 

Marisol and her son
Despite the colonial beauty of Trinidad, I could not connect with it, far too much tourism. And since people need money to move forward in life, everyone is trying to get their share of the dollar or euro. I much preferred to walk on the periphery of the city in more removed areas. It was here that Lena and I came across Marisol and her children. She was cleaning rice on a doorstep when we walked past. "Do you have any soap", she asked. I told her I did back at our room and that I would bring it to her the next day, which I did. Marisol is a 38 year old single mother with two children. Her thirteen year old son has leukemia and her eyes were full of tears as she explained the episodes of intense pain that fell over him. She told us his condition was viewed as terminal by the doctors. They lived in a very basic one room house, which she owns. She cleans houses where the tourists stay and earns forty dollars a month. But throughout all of her son's illness, she had not spent one peso on doctors or medication. She was incredibly grateful for that. Is there something that we Americans can learn here about caring for our people? About having access to quality health care no matter what your socio-economic situation is? Or is that "socialism"? Hmmmmm!
Trying out Lena's specs

Our stay in Viñales was restful and uneventful. I was ready to get back to Vedado, the area of Habana where we were staying. I was ready to escape the fluorescent label of "tourist". I had good contacts in Habana for photographing and was ready to start. So I sat back, had a few mojitos and thanked the universe for letting me be there.
Habana will be Part 2 of this blog entry.