For over 10 years, I had dreamed about visiting Cuba, specifically Havana. This past November, my wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I enthusiastically said, “Cuba!” Direct flights had just started from Tampa and this was a golden opportunity to experience the island I had wanted to visit for so long.
Well, my wife gives the best presents…
Photos first, story second.
I have to start with the cars. They are such an icon of Cuba and I never got tired of them.
If the cars are icons of Havana, the people are its soul. Never have I found such interesting and photogenic people.
I focused my efforts on the people of Havana and the classic cars. As I was going through my photos I found I didn’t take too many images of the sites. This is reason enough to go back, right??
Havana hits you in all your senses!
Its loud! The 50+ year old cars rumble down the road with their diesel engines. Music is everywhere. It’s either being played live or coming out of someone’s home. All day, all night. My ears and attention were in a constant battle of cars vs music!
It has a smell! Mostly diesel fumes from the old American cars. On some streets it smells like garbage or sewage. By the end of the day walking around in the hot sun, I also had a smell!
It is full of color! Havana is more colorful than any place I have traveled. The pastels, the bold, the vivid.
The food! I had read that Cuba is not a culinary destination. I beg to differ. The ropa vieja, the garlic chicken, the beans and rice, the croquetas! I never had a bad meal, although I did my research and picked a few places based on high ratings on Trip Advisor (see below).
Havana has a dilapidated beauty. A unique charm. Old colonial Spanish architecture left to decay under a communist regime. Cuba is probably one of the last remaining places that makes you feel like you have stepped back in time. As tourism increases and money flows in, some areas are being restored to their former glory. It is a double-edged sword; more tourists means less authenticity. More touts, more women dressed in traditional clothes vying for pesos, more tour groups from cruise ships crowding the narrow streets of Old Havana.
I spent most of my time in Old Havana and Central Havana. When I travel to photograph cities, I don’t have an agenda. I just wander. I make sure to try to hit all the sites but am more interested in watching local life unfold before me. My favorite photos are the unexpected events. This is what I did in Cuba.
How did I travel to Cuba?? Under the category “Support of the Cuban People”, one of the twelve authorized categories allowed by the US government. To comply, I stayed at an AirBnB in a private room in an apartment of a local. It was eye-opening as he and I were able to talk openly about life after Castro and what his thoughts were for the future of his country. According to him, things won’t change after Raul steps down. Starbucks and McDonalds won’t be coming anytime soon. The only thing that is coming is more Americans. I had similar conversations with taxi drivers. With regards to Starbucks, only the American tourists would go there because 1) Cuba has such a rich coffee culture that Starbucks would be a step down to the locals and 2) Cubans wouldn’t be able to afford to go to Starbucks.
What I enjoyed most about my four days in Havana was getting lost and exploring the beautiful city. Most of the people I interacted with were kind. And the music. You cannot be in a bad mood while listening to the Afro-Cuban sounds emanating out of every nook and crannie of Havana.
What I found less than appealing were the touts (or jineteros). Everyday I was approached numerous times asking 1) where I was from and 2) if I wanted to buy a cigar. Everyday they told me it was the last day of a national holiday where locals could sell cigars on the street. I had read about the scam prior to arriving so I was on-guard. From what I understand, you are sold dried banana leaves rolled to look like a cigar. Don’t fall for it. Buy cigars at a hotel or ask your AirBnB host. I also found Havana can be dirty at times. Food scraps are left in the streets for the dogs and cats (and watch out for the dog poop). Other garbage piles up and is taken away the next day. The street is the garbage can in some areas.
After four full days in Havana dealing with the heat, the diesel fumes, and the jineteros trying to sell me cigars, I was more than ready to come home to my family. Only after I listened to some Buena Vista Social Club while editing these images, I realized I am ready to go back!!
And finally, a huge thanks to my wife for understanding how important this trip was to me!