LaCalle

“El Indio.” A private market in Old Havana sells vegetables and meat when available. Cubans must pay in Cuban Pesos at these markets, and cannot use their government provided ration books. These markets may have meat available at a high price even when the government butcher shops do not.

LaHabana
Martes a Jueves

I was up with the first rooster’s crow. A blanket of light glowed dimly above the horizon, clinging to the statues, structures and palm fronds that were still silhouetted in the early dawn.

From our 6th floor balcony I could see two figures walking down Calle Industria in the direction of the “point,” where people stood in line to crowd into a passing taxi. The rumble of a few antique cars echoed up from the surrounding streets. Lights were on sporadically throughout the city, but most windows were still dark. The rooster crowed again, this time waking up his compañeros who joined him in sounding the alarm. It was 6AM.

This series of images of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) was shot over three days as we traveled in and out Cuba’s capital during our 5-day visit. While this was a spontaneous, spur of the moment trip, it was actually 17 years in the making. I was on my way to Castro’s Cuba in 2003 when relations between the US and Cuba took a(nother) sudden left turn, and George Bush cancelled my travel permission. This time around I was determined to get there and to be as prepared as possible when I did. In the few weeks before we left I read and watched as much as I could about Cuban history, the Cuban Revolution, and current events. I talked to people who had been there. I even reached out to several Cubans (including a prominent photographer) to get their two cents and to make plans so that we would be “in it” when we got there. But it didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter that I speak Spanish, nor that I have visited and lived in other parts of Central and South America. It didn’t matter that could probably have led a guided tour as soon as I got off the plane. No amount of preparation could have readied me for how it felt to actually be in Cuba.  I realized almost immediately that I felt like more of an outsider than I ever have when traveling abroad. Not that I wasn’t welcome, but that I was all kinds of things that would never, ever, be “Cuban.”

This realization, and the subsequently heightened self-awareness of myself as a photographer had a strong influence on my ability to take photos while we were there. There are images that I missed capturing because I hesitated in the moment and now regret not documenting. There were other situations in which I was torn about photographing a subject even while I clicked the shutter. There are still other instances that I chose not to photograph at all because I felt that it would have minimized the existence of the people in them.

I can’t tell how much of what I felt in Havana was real and how much of it was my own imposed (maybe paranoiac?) feelings about being perceived as just another tourist, (and an American one at that) in Cuba. It was hard for me not to feel that way. In a place where there is so much racial and economic disparity, here I come as the privileged, white American whose country can be seen as responsible (at least in part) for the daily struggles of Cuban life. And I have a camera in my hand to take pictures of all of it. Just like one of those daiquiri-drinking, cigar-smoking, cruising around like I own the place tourists (you may sense here that I hold a certain animosity for American tourists in Latin American countries – you would be right).

Now don’t get me wrong, while we were in Cuba we did ride in some crazy cars, Mike smoked Cohibas, and he definitely drank some fruity frozen drinks (don’t worry, its ok because Hemingway drank them too). But I felt in many ways that if I wanted to do something other than “what tourists do in Cuba,” I was disappointing our hosts. If I wanted to see the country like a local I was confusing them, and if I stayed within their expectations of what I should be, I wasn’t being true to myself.  I had a hard time figuring out where that left me.

Thankfully, for the most part we were able to avoid the “made for tourist” areas like the plague. And we were able to spend quality time with the people we met, learning as much as we could about Cuba through their eyes in the short time we had together. This of course meant pushing the limits of Mike’s comfort zone from time to time, and even getting in over my head while trying to go out for ice cream (the most classist experience I have ever had in my life – a long story but a good one). But, even after a slightly scary “Bridget Jones at the airport in Thailand” moment on our way our of the country, it all worked out in the end, and we now have friends in Cuba.

While I’m still struggling with many aspects of our trip to Cuba, I am already looking for a way back. The “coexistence” of history and the present, of repression and expression, of the government and the pueblo, is fascinating. The entrepreneurial nature and courage of many young Cubans is inspiring. The influence of open (albeit restricted) access to the internet is affecting immeasurable change on a daily basis across the island. While 17 years ago I planned to visit a Cuba under Castro, I am very grateful to have known the Cuba that we visited last week. With the way things are going, the “made for tourist Cuba” may always be there, but the Cuba that we encountered, our little piece of Cuba, has already come and gone.

"Angel of the Morning." The statue of an angel stands poised atop one of the domes of El Gran Teatro de La Habana at dawn. Down below there are signs of life as someone has turned on the lights in their apartment.
"Las Alegrías." Light spills into a small bar outside of the tourist area in La Habana Vieja. If the bar sells beer, it may run out during the day. Rum, however, is always available, even when other dietary staples are not.
"A Trabajar." Classic cars are not just for tourists in Cuba. Any car with a license plate beginning with 'P' is a carro particular (privately-owned vehicle) and can be registered as a taxi, as permitted by the government. Cubans who can afford to take a taxi will ride together up to 5 at a time along specific taxi routes in Havana. The alternative is usually the bus, which always seems to be standing room only.
"Camera Shy." This little boy turned away from the camera as soon as he saw me point it at him. It made me instantly think about how I would feel about someone walking up and down our street and taking photographs of my children.
"Morning Sun." A woman walks in the shade down a street in Old Havana. The Cuban expression "anda por la sombra" means "take care/have a good trip." While we were there I heard several Cubans joke about the fact that Cubans walk in the shade and tourists are constantly standing in the sun.
"Eternal Spring." Laundry hangs to dry from a second floor balcony in La Habana Vieja.
"Neighbors." A Cuban residence on the left. A casa particular (the Cuban version of an Air B&B for foreigners) on the right. Americans are generally required to stay in cases particulares if they travel to Cuba as the big hotels are owned by the Cuban government.
"The Ancient Art of Communication." There are far more cellphones than payphone in Havana, but these relics still get plenty of use.
"A Camino." A couple carries their government issued bread rations back from the bakery.
"Debate." Friendly, but intense conversation to start the day between our neighbor and his friend on Old Havana's version of a front porch.
"Morning Meeting." Our neighbor on Calle Industria passionately engaged in conversation with a friend.
"Compañeros." In comparison to other Latin American countries I have visited, Cubans seem to live in relative harmony with the multitude of stray cats and dogs. Here, our neighbor on Calle Industria sits out with a friend and a tiny kitten, half the size of his foot. Later in the day the rest of the feline family would come out to gather in the doorway with more of our neighbor's family and friends.
"Road Work." Street construction in Old Havana seemed to be focused on drainage corridors, most likely in preparation for the upcoming rainy season. While the majority of roads were not newly paved, they were in fairly good condition. Mike remarked several times about the lack of potholes, which he attributed to the infrequency of snowplowing.
Untitled. Boys on their way to school in La Habana Vieja, Cuba.
"Off to School." La Habana Vieja, Cuba
"El Indio." A private market in Old Havana sells vegetables and meat when available. Cubans must pay in Cuban Pesos at these markets, and cannot use their government provided ration books. These markets may have meat available at a high price even when the government butcher shops do not.
"Give me one CUC." A panhandler stopped me on the street and asked to have his picture taking with Mike (in exchange for one CUC, or Cuban Convertible Peso, whose value is pegged to the dollar). While I did take the photos of him sitting in his wheelchair next to an incredibly uncomfortable Mike, I much preferred the images of him by himself as he talked almost completely unintelligibly about losing his leg in an accident.
"Give me one CUC." A panhandler stopped me on the street and asked to have his picture taking with Mike (in exchange for one CUC, or Cuban Convertible Peso, whose value is pegged to the dollar). While I did take the photos of him sitting in his wheelchair next to an incredibly uncomfortable Mike, I much preferred the images of him by himself as he talked almost completely unintelligibly about losing his leg in an accident.
"American Muscle." Chevrolet Bel Air circa 1957, La Habana Vieja, Cuba
"Ché at the Park." Parque Fe del Valle, La Habana Vieja. This park serves as a gathering place for old and young people alike. It is also a public wifi zone where anyone can get on the internet after purchasing a wifi access card.
"Ché el Obispo." Calle Obispo, La Habana Vieja, Cuba
"Churros y Chocolate." A student waits for a churro at a cart located near Calle Obispo, the tourist center of Old Havana.
"Para Refrescarte." Calle Obispo, La Habana Vieja, Cuba
“Thinker.” Salchipizza, Calle Infanta, Havana. The head apprentice of Alberto González, the first Cuban chef to win a Michelin Star. Above his head is the latticework of glass bottles which trap and condense hot air as it enters from the street, making air conditioning necessary. The bakery produces only bread, from whole wheat to gluten-free loaves, and aims to provide nutritious bread to Cubans at an affordable price. The government rationed loaves have become less and less nutritious over time.
"Air Conditioning." This latticework of (mostly) empty glass bottles captures and condenses hot air as it rises into Salchipizza, a bakery owned by Alberto González, the first Cuban chef to win a Michelin Star. Before making his mark on the culinary world, Gonzalez studied chemical engineering.
"VIVA EL 26 DE JULIO." This building, in a state of disrepair like many others in Old Havana, is slated for renovation. The owner plans to create space for a hostel (in Cuba a word meaning a privately run hotel). As with many buildings that go through this transformation, there is the underlying question of what will happen to the Cuban families that currently reside there. It may be too expensive for them to find another space in Old Havana, which would mean moving somewhere outside of the city, and much farther from the places where they work and go to school. It is another example of what the Cubans call the country valuing tourists over its own people. The graffiti on the wall refers to the 26th of July Movement, the name of Fidel Castro's political party. Castro's first attempt to overthrow then dictator Fulgencio Batista took place on July 26, 1953.
"Meat Market." A private butcher has meat to sell on this particular day. Down the street, the government-owned butcher shop was closed because there was nothing available for Cubans looking to obtain meat with their government issued ration books.
"Employee Parking." Fusterlandia, Havana, Cuba
"Viva Cuba."The intricate tile artwork of José Fuster spans an entire neighborhood in Havana, known now as Fusterlandia. Fuster's style is reminiscent of both Picasso and Gaudi, depicting themes of love, the beauty of Cuba and the Cuban Revolution.
"La Granma." Fusterlandia, Havana, Cuba
"Ready for Takeoff." The rainy hood of the 1957 Buick Century we rode in on our last morning in Havana. Eduardo, our driver, is a single father who gave up a career in engineering because he can make more money as a taxi diver.
"Rush Hour." Parque Antonio Maceo, El Malecón, Havana, Cuba
"A Slow Day." Employees at a souvenir stand in Fusterlandia play on their cellphones on a rainy day in Havana. Fusterlandia, a neighborhood embellished by artist José Fuster, gets many fewer tourists on rainy days.
"Vira Lata." In Spanish: perro callejero. In English: stray dog. From what we saw, stray dogs and cats were treated much better than their stray American or vira lata Brazilian counterparts.
"Evening Commute." El Malecón, Havana
"Martes." El Malecón, Havana, Cuba

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