Cuba was January’s plan and it came to pass. I spent two weeks with internationally known photographer, Ian Wright, in Cuba, the communist country closest to the western hemisphere. It’s a mere three and a half hours from home and light years from my everyday existence.
My knowledge of Cuba was very limited as I headed out on this adventure. My first recollections of the country dated back to the Cuban Missile Crisis of the late sixties. My Dad was in the Canadian military and we were stationed at CFB Trenton. I was in high school. During the thirteen days that the fate of the western world lay in the hands of the newly elected US President, John F Kennedy, the base was on high alert. Every car entering was stopped. Leave was cancelled.
I know I didn’t really understand how close we came to war in my time, in my country. The cold war was definitely very hot at that moment. I did know that Cuba and its communist regime under the leadership of Fidel Castro was at the heart of the matter and that the young rebel’s connections to the Soviet Union could combust into an inferno that was beyond the control of any of the key players. The news was full of words like the “Bay of Pigs” and “Guantanamo”. These were places in a foreign land that could really have changed my future.
In the end, the Russian missile bases were dismantled and the stand off between the super powers ended peacefully. From that time, my curiosity about Cuba lay dormant.
January is a good time to leave Canada for a place that is warm and has a beat. I stepped off the plane mid-month. It was a sultry evening. I heaved my heavy camera bag onto my back as I pushed the door that separated the immigration desk from security clearance at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. It crossed my mind that it was almost time for a lighter hobby.
I headed off to locate our ground transportation as my traveling companion, Janis, stood in line to change Canadian dollars into CUCs, the local currency. The Cubanacan rep was disappointed when I wouldn’t exchange his Canadian coins for Cuban pesos but at least my broken Spanish and his broken English didn’t result in an international incident and in the end he realized I wasn’t being ornery I just didn’t have any pesos!
Cuba is known for its classic cars. The ones that we only find at antique car rallies or in scrap yards here in Canada. In Cuba, they are a tourist attraction and probably a tourist trap but either way one is immediately taken back in time upon seeing them. Here come the 50’s and the 60’s! The taxi from the airport to the Parque Central was a 50’s something. A Chevy, I think.
Once I climbed inside, I was a kid again. In my head, my little brother was perched on a box that my dad had made out of an orange crate so that he could see. On the far side of the back seat, my older sister had a bow in her hair and wore white socks in black paten leather shoes. She was looking out the window. I had a yellow dress on with smocking on the front. My parents were in the front along with sandwiches for lunch. My mother wore a hat and a green sundress and my father…oops , the taxi swerves around another cab as we move away from the curb and I am brought back to the present by the pull of gravity.
Smoke hangs in the air as we exit the airport and head through canyon-like streets towards the center of Havana about 22 kilometers away. It’s early, around 7:30 pm but the streets are oddly empty and the traffic light. Not until we near the Parque Central Hotel do we leave the broader highways and head into the narrow and busy streets at the core of the city. From my vantage point in the back seat of the cab, it looks like a war zone out there. Memories of images I have seen of Dresden after the bombings during WW11 come to mind. What has happened here? What is happening here? What is going to happen here? My mind begins to race.
Central Havana was declared a World Heritage Site in 1982. Over three days I will haunt these streets. In the company of a collection of British and Canadian photographers I will move up and down Obispo and the Prado, wander through historic squares and past lovers on the Malecon. The place stuns me and mystifies me at the same time.
On my first morning, as dawn breaks and its special light hits the top of the Capitolio, the city wakes. Like all cities, people venture into the streets and the place comes alive. Here the buses move by filled to overflowing and the bicycle taxis and vintage cars vie for fares. The shoeshine man sets up. Shops offering buns and banana chips, open.
Women slosh water on broken concrete steps. Brooms do what brooms do. My mind reels. As I wander and watch, I wonder “Why do humans do this?” What gives them the hope to try again and again? These steps will never be clean! But maybe what I am witnessing is not about product –- producing a clean step or street, but about process –- trying, doing, showing commitment to something. It’s a statement about life, the ongoing endeavor.
I wander. People smile, offer a greeting, or get on with their day. I assume some are off to work but the elderly gather on street corners, and park benches. It is warm and welcoming. The city hums around them. But the sounds of this city range from air brakes on articulated buses to the squeak of an un-oiled wheel on a bicycle cab.
Through doorways framed with once elaborate shutters, the broken remnants of stunning stained glass reflect the first light. Deeper into a second floor apartment I can see a chandelier dancing as the first rays hit it. Old men draw on Cuban cigars and women chat balcony to dilapidated balcony or to someone on the crumbling street below. The monumental state of decay in this city is astounding. Despite efforts to rebuild both the buildings and the people, little progress is evident except in tourist meccas like Plaza Viejo. Here, on a sunny day, tourists come in droves to visit the art gallery, lounge in the open-air restaurants or stay in the new hotel. Other streets open into squares and “catedrals” blessed by Christopher Columbus or named for St Francis of Assisi. I just want to hear these places talk. I want to hear their stories.
But as I walk I try to see how everyday life unfolds for ordinary Cubans today. When Castro’s revolution ousted the government of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, life changed for these people. I keep reading about those times and the political will within the country. It is hard to tell from the literature whether the majority of the ordinary people supported Fidel? Did they know what would happen to them if the revolution was successful? Was the situation that exists on this island what they expected and chose? Americans, who had businesses and idyllic lives left in droves and even some who didn’t, had their property confiscated. Not ever Cuban supported Castro or the life that resulted from the revolution. Cubans, have also fled leaving everything. They have risked their lives as they made the ninety-mile shark infested crossing in open boats and on home made rafts to get to Key West, Florida.
Since the revolution, in Havana, glorious buildings that reflected over five hundred years of history as well as a life style grounded on Spanish traditions, have crumbled. Today, the towering facades provide a backdrop that screams of affluence and prosperity in a bygone age. But, those days are really gone. As I wander, I think, “There isn’t enough time, energy or money to rebuild this place to a new glory.” But I cannot tell if there is a will even if there is not a way. I cannot tell from the smiling faces, the industrious manual labour or the official party line, what is true in this place and what is fiction.
Today, old men sit in doorways. Parents stop to buy children ice cream. People laugh, smile and carry on with their lives. Streets need sweeping. Vegetables need to be purchased. Fast food is sold from less than hygienic carts without any golden arches to announce it is available. Now, a version of all of these things can be seen in Canada, but my senses keep picking up something, something critically different that defies description but that hangs in the air as I walk the streets.
From all appearances, in the core of the city people are materially poor. Inner cities are often like that, I tell myself. Clothes are rumpled on the elderly but the young people sport “Nike” T-shirts and short, short skirts. It’s about flirting here just like it is everywhere. Men play dominoes, woman in Caribbean costumes hustle for the tourist dollar. The odd person takes a slug from a rum bottle and quickly pushes it under a coat. The sweet smell of orange peel permeates the air. A dog, two dogs, a dozen race by. Occasionally someone sits reading the daily issue of the Granme, the voice of the socialist government.
Maybe it is the appearance of openness that I am reacting to. Maybe it’s because it’s warm and breezy here and people are outside. Maybe it’s because there isn’t enough electricity and its dark inside. Maybe it’s because there is high unemployment and because the government claims that the population is entirely literate. I just don’t know. I am constantly discombobulated and repeatedly suffering from major cognitive dissonance. What I am experiencing is moving me but it doesn’t add up.
As the days sink into one another so Havana melts into the countryside and the countryside into the green and red tobacco fields of the Vinales Valley. This is again another reality. Warm, warm people, work the fields and turn their crops over to the government who at some point give some money back to the farmers. I’m thinking it is sort of a reverse tax system. Life is simple here and people pull together to cash in on whatever tourist opportunity presents itself. People look for guests and drop everything to make a dollar or maybe they were not occupied until we came. The whole family pitches in to make a meal for foreigners a gastronomic and financial success.
There are a lot of smiles in Vinales. Whether there are as many frowns, I just don’t know. I heard no raised voices. I saw no unmanageable children. I saw kids being kids with dirty faces and muddy hands. I saw parents beam at their offspring and pamper them as all parents do. But are these same children happy? They looked happy without an ipad or an iphone or even a bicycle. They were relaxed and open. They did not appear to have the headaches and the hang-ups of our bullied children. “Who is lucky?”, I asked myself.
We pass through Havana and spend one more night at the Parques Central before setting out to the east of the city and the five hundred year old town of Trinidad. I know Havana a little now and I am learning to look past the physical decay. I have realized that decay, to some degree, characterizes most inner cities. I spot renewal in alleys and where new buildings are sprouting amongst the shards of stained glass and broken facades. If I really concentrate I see renewal in the way the laborers shift sand by hand to make cement footings for new buildings on the Malecon. It is a different way. The end result will be the same. High-rise buildings are springing from the ashes on the backs of the people who are committing their lives to improving their country. We should all work so hard.
Trinidad is small, old and brighter all over and it’s not just because of the paint. Oranges and yellows add zest to alleyways and blues and turquoises brighten doors that lead I know not where. Streets are cobbled or just dirt. I think the walking is hazardous but the locals seem to take it in their stride. The shady side of the street is busy and midday finds smart people inside or sitting in the barred window wells that allow what breezes there are to enter into living areas unimpeded. The shutters are wide open. Birds enter and exit at will.
As in Havana, there are many bright smiles, friendly faces, accommodating waves and helpful suggestions. Doorways are chatting spots, sitting spots and selling spots. Streets are cleaned with brooms. Garbage is rare in the middle of town. People take pride in what they have and are industrious to the degree possible when opportunity is limited or blocked by the political system.
I heard laughter. I saw friendships forming and dissolving. I heard music and babies crying. All the elements of life are visible on the street for me to see. There is relative wealth and poverty here just like in my hometown. Farmers work endless hours and factory workers take the local transit, in this case a vehicle that looks like a cattle truck, to get to the cane fields.
“Little by little one goes a long way.” So said a quote in my first Spanish textbook. Here in modern Cuba, the road is long and if the day-to-day life is hard, people seem to rise above it. That internal characteristic of the human spirit that allows all of us to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel and to believe that it is not a train but the promised land, is in every smile, kind word and deed.
In my country too much value is placed on things. The people work until they drop to have a better this or that. Relationships suffer and life passes by unattended. At some point everyone realizes that some things are not attainable and we can successfully set our sites on something else if we choose to… something that will satisfy our need.
I think there is a much greater acceptance of the importance of relationship in Cuba. Relationships are free and they are there for each and every person who chooses to have them.
I was a tourist in this country. I came from a place of plenty. I brought much with me to help me understand what was new to me. I need not have. I think to begin to understand Cuba, I only needed to look, to listen and try to see.
In Cuba, in everyday life, people show the importance of people. It was in the smiles and the waves and the sharing and the interactions. People are on the streets so it is there for all to see. The materialistic west is out of balance. In Cuba the world pivots at a different spot allowing people to take precedence over product. Product is to survive. People are to live.
This traveller says. Cuba Libre!
(Note:A photographic journal of the time I spent in Cuba, entitled “El Tejido de la Esperanza”, is available in hard cover and as an ebook at http://www.blurb.ca/user/store/bjnutter )