Hot. Colorful. And visceral. A country full of contrast and warm, vibrant people. Years later, my experiences in Cuba still resonate with me.
My mother and I went in 2012 as part of an educational tour when it was more difficult for Americans to visit. It still had a magical quality of feeling frozen in time - untouched by consumerism and mass tourism, people lazily going about their day without being glued to their cell phones, 1950s cars driving by in perfect condition. Yet it also felt on the precipice of change. A large part of the tour involved attending talks by artists, politicians, and locals discussing their thoughts on the effects of globalization. As the relations and travel between the US and Cuba continue to ease, the culture will undoubtedly be affected - visit now before their cafecitos are replaced with Starbucks, their traditional architecture torn down for Marriotts. Experience this beautiful country before it changes too much.
Growing up, my knowledge of Cuba was limited - relegated to history class lessons about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the United States embargo, navigating popular culture's conflicting opinions about Fidel Castro's rule. With our country's strict travel restrictions, I had never actually met someone who had been there before so I went in with low expectations and an open, curious mind.
What I found was a country full of beautiful, joyous people and a passion for life - people who would spontaneously burst into dance on the street and laugh late into the night over mojitos and cigars.
At sunset, I loved people-watching and walking along Havana's Malecón, an ocean esplanade that serves as a social hotspot to meet, catch up, or simply relax. The cross-section of personalities is wonderful and varied - on one short block one might encounter a group of men playing jazz trombone, an elderly woman peeling bananas, a man fishing tonight's dinner, a couple in romantic embrace, and a gaggle of girls gossiping away. An older man reminisced to me that when he grew up, the Malecón is where you would meet a girl, only to take her back for a date, kiss for the first time, and officially become boyfriend / girlfriend.
One of the things that Cubans kept telling me was that they were a "surrealist" country filled with dichotomies. The concept behind surrealism stems from the 1900s art movement that juxtaposed incongruous subject matter to create fantastic imagery. They would often point out to me - the beauty and majesty of grand sweeping architecture crumbling under peeling paint. Or the bizarre visual of pristine 1950s American cars set against the backdrop of tropical vegetation. Perhaps the most "surreal" thing for many Cubans was the reality of existing a mere 90 miles from the United States, with whom they share such a complicated history. Cubans refer to the American trade embargo as "the blockade," and many implored us to write our government to have it repealed. I can't imagine what it's like to grow up so close to a country you are unable to visit, giving meaning to the old idiom "so near and yet so far." Our two countries seem to have so many misconceptions about one another, and while it was clear to me that Cubans definitely felt their economy had been deeply affected by the United States embargo, instead of being angry they wanted to break down any ill-will and shower us with warmth and welcome, get Americans to come visit and learn about what their country is really like.
The poverty of Cuba is different from anything I'd experienced during my previous visits to developing countries. Before visiting, I met with another American photographer whose wife and daughter live in Cuba and were unable to come to the US. He told me that people would rarely beg for money because the government provides basic living necessities, but often had no access to things like pencils and paper and I should bring those instead. Indeed, during one of our first days a woman came up to our group signaling for writing utensils. Another misconception is that the food is amazing (Miami's flavorful, authentic fare is one of my favorites.) The country has been operating on ration books for years, and while they can always get staples like chicken, rice, beans, and plantains - on any given day they might not have access to any spices to flavor the food, or fresh vegetables to round out their diet. My understanding is that in recent years, the government is now allowing more privately-run businesses to exist and you can find more varied food options at "paladares" (expensive, family-run restaurants) and select markets. The Guardian has an interesting article HERE, explaining the complicated intersection of the country's agriculture and government, the embargo, and its resulting food shortages.
One of the most striking things about Cuba is their intense appreciation for the arts in its many forms. A large part of the tour was educational / art-focused, so we visited museums, the national ballet, poetry readings, jazz performances, and artists in residence at their painting studios. My highlight of the trip was attending a dance school, where students trained all day - from classical ballet to traditional AfroCuban dance. They were talented and spontaneous, filled with vibrance and joy. Like many children, they also loved hamming it up for my camera - my image of the three seated ballerinas (below right) went on to garner recognition as it won 3rd place in the APA (American Photography Association's) national competition.
A few days into the trip I hit a bit of a slump when a guy I'd been casually seeing back in San Francisco pinged me he was now seeing someone else. I moped around for the better part of a day, failing to appreciate an amazing live jazz performance; I decided I needed some alone-time and split off from the group for a bit. I ended up exploring the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, renowned for its history, elegant design and architecture. Over the years the hotel had welcomed the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, and Winston Churchill. I wandered through the corridors and imagined being transported back to the 1930s heyday of the Rat Pack; I felt it wouldn't have looked or felt much different. I drank a mojito and walked along the rocky coast, sought shade beneath the palm trees and inhaled the salty sea air. I suddenly had a realization - this trip was awesome. *I* was awesome ! At this point, how many Americans were allowed into Cuba, much less hanging out in Sinatra's old haunt sipping mojitos ?
I felt the beauty of the moment, I felt self-worth and confidence, I appreciated my love and curiosity for adventure, and I spent the rest of the trip soaking in the experiences instead of moping over a boy.
In the end, my mother and I did a lot of things while in Cuba - visited the stunning home of artist and sculptor José Fuster, went rum tasting and smoked cigars, visited the mines near Bayamo and the gravestone of Bacardi. I rode in a Chevy Bel Air, watched my mum salsa dance, and drank at Ernest Hermingway's old watering hole, La Bodeguita del Medio.