The keeper of the light house at Havana’s Morro Castle welcomed us, and reached up and grabbed an old crank on the beautifully maintained, antique drive mechanism for the light. I thought he was showing us some history, but through our interpreter instead discovered that in fact, this lighthouse is still manually operated. In 2014.
It’s not like they don’t have electricity which could be used to automate the system; the operator is able to watch TV (they probably get pretty good reception up there) during the five hours that the lighthouse mechanism will rotate after being cranked. He also has a telephone, and even a fan for hot weather:
It’s just that this is Cuba, and that’s just the way things are here, in this beautiful, bizarre place, full of contradictions and surprises, and with a history virtually impenetrable to outsiders on a brief visit like the one I did in January. It's not like what I expected--some sort of totalitarian dystopia--nor was it like other countries I've been to, like the Dominican Republic, where you see extreme poverty alongside great wealth.
Cuba, of course, has been behind an American wall since before I was born (and I turned 50 last year). I've had many friends who traveled there illegally through Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas; it’s apparently not illegal for US citizens to travel there, but it is illegal to spend money without permission from the US Department of the Treasury (and even when you travel legally you can't use a US credit or debit card anywhere in the country). I've long wanted to go there, and as a photographer, when I heard about a photography-based “people to people exchange”, which was licensed by the US Treasury, and taking place when my City Tech classes weren't in session, I jumped at the opportunity.
I went through a company based in western Massachusetts called Common Ground Travel, who navigated the incredibly byzantine bureaucratic maze set up by our government, basing our trip on a license granted to the NYC-based Center for Cuban studies. The trip had been developed with the great photographers Joe Dimaggio and Joanne Kalish and featured time in and around Havana, with a outing to Varadero, the land of all-inclusive resorts and home of a beautiful beach, and also the beautiful Viñales Valley, a UNESCO world heritage site.
There were surprises from the first minutes of the trip. We had to meet at the Miami airport at 4am to have time to check in for our 8am flight. Common Ground’s amazing fixer, Debbie, greeted us there at this heinous hour and navigated for us the four-part check in (first ticket voucher, then passport, then baggage weighing and then baggage payment). While Debbie was working her magic, all around us Cuban Americans waited (under Obama, family travel restrictions have been eased) to check in for the next flight with 100’s of pounds of goods (and, presumably, cash) shrink wrapped into their suitcases. We saw coffee makers, TV’s, clothing, canned goods--you name it. The flight time was less than a ¼ of the length of the check in process, and we flew right over the Florida Keys and Key West (which I had just visited--photos here and here and here).
The Havana airport was like any other fairly modern Caribbean airport I've been to, and once again Debbie worked her magic and navigated us right through the Cuban customs and border protection without incident. We then were met by our excellent Cuban crew: tour guide Ismelys and bus driver Ernesto who worked for a Cuban tour company, which (like most things) was owned by the government (something that's still very hard for an American to wrap his head around). During a pre-trip conference call, they mentioned that we would be riding around on a bus in Cuba, and I thought this would be some old beaten down wreck, but we were surprised instead a comfortable, shiny new Chinese bus, with A/C and everything. Going into the trip, I figured our experience would be tightly controlled, and that our government minders would be telling us what we could do and what we couldn't. Instead, throughout the trip, we were given honest and direct answers, and nothing was ever off limits. We did travel on a specific agenda, but that has more to do with our US license than anything in Cuba.
Riding from the airport was a bit surreal because the area was immaculate but also desolate, with workers cutting the grass with machetes and the only blatant (and to me, hilarious) propaganda billboards we saw on the trip (sorry for not having pictures of that, I was still groggy from the 3am start to the day). After we finally got checked into the hotel (with the 8am flight we were there way, way before normal check in time), I was again surprised, since the Hotel Nacional, while old, was very nice and I even had CNN and the Weather Channel on the TV (others had plumbing problems but my room was very nice).
I rarely spend time in any hotel room, so I immediately headed out to check out the surrounding neighborhood. No one told me where or when I could go, and, beyond standard group trip logistics, this was true through the trip. I moved to New York in 1990 at the peak of the crack/crime wave here, so I have a pretty well-developed sense of street risk, but during my entire time in Cuba, even when wandering, alone, far from the tourist areas, I never once felt threatened or even uneasy. I certainly got some strange looks, and in the tourist areas there are definitely aggressive swindlers and beggars, but I had worse during my last trip to Paris. And the camera I was carrying was worth 20 years of a typical Cuban salary of about $12 a day.
Leaving the hotel grounds, I was immediately struck how the the entire, crumbling infrastructure of Havana is one huge monument to the failures of the socialist economic system. It’s like a much cleaner and more lively Detroit (my Detroit photos here). From here out, I’ll let the pictures do the talking, with a few notes here and there.
The old cars that are shiny and well maintained are for tourists, and they charge a lot more than regular taxis (which are a mixture of old Russian and Chinese cars, and a few Mercedes):
I never turned my phone on in the country, but without weather radar I spotted this storm anvil in the distance:
The sunset with the storm clouds was incredible:
Later, I took the tripod out to the Malecon, the ocean front highway, and got a bit of a distant lightning display--my first thunderstorm in months!
I woke up the next morning way too early so I went back to the Malecon at sunrise (facing east, obviously--Key West is 100 miles to my left):
From a distance this looks like a modern waterfront until you look closer.
I met the group and we headed to the Casablanca area:
Everywhere you look, there are street dogs and cats. With so little money, I don’t think pets are high on the average Cuban's priority list:
Tourism is the number 1 industry in Cuba, so they didn’t seem to mind that we crashed their church service:
Throughout the trip, it was demonstrated to us that in Cuba there is freedom of religious expression; we even had a show demonstrating dances rooted in several different religions. These ladies are at a store for religious articles.
These people were apparently waiting to buy their food rations:
We saw dogs on roofs in several places, I still don’t know why:
We rode a deathtrap of a ferry across the harbor:
Apparently, there were life jackets in the back, but we would have never had a chance if this thing capsized.
The guy to my left has a Led Zeppelin shirt and is holding a semi-nude painting he said he made.
People can afford very little electricity, so the meters are tiny and the wiring would never pass inspection in the States:
The non-tourist busses were often jammed; this passenger was helping the driver merge:
It’s an island with a big harbor, and yet we hardly saw any boats.
I guess the flight risk is too great. Apparently, under Raul Castro things for the Cuban people have improved greatly, and now they are allowed to travel out of the country. But on a $12/month salary, it would take a lifetime to get enough money to take a trip. Tourism is the #1 industry in Cuba, and because of that, everyone wants to work in this industry where they can make tips.
All around Havana we saw many seemingly abandoned construction sites; this one actually seemed to have some work going on:
This was like the worst-stocked bodega in New York , but we were told it’s kind of a typical Cuban store:
This is a wedding hall:
There was a strong north wind for several days:
These were apparently wealthy homes along the Malecon, “abandoned” after the Revolution. Now they are apparently like public housing. Even though the state owns most of the businesses, our tour guide told us that she inherited her house and that under Raul she was now allowed to sell it.
The decay is so prevalent that you don’t even notice it after a while. I only noticed it again after a friend on Facebook commented on one of my photos.
After dinner we went to a (tourist) club:
The driver of this car told our group he paid $26,000 for the car. We assumed he got the money from relatives in the states.
The next morning, we took a run out to Varadero, a town along a beach full of all-inclusive resorts. Along the way, we stopped at an old fort. I checked out the fort and then others in the group wandered across the street to a garden. I headed over after, and I’m glad I did:
We met this man, although I didn't catch his name:
This is his home (and that's JoAnne shooting him, I have my version of the shot here):
It was spotless. He had a couple light bulbs and off to my left, a TV.
The fort had--for Cuba--a pretty nice bathroom. Outside the hotel or tourist restaurants there is rarely a toilet seat, and never toilet paper. I guess both are too expensive.
These are the electrical linemen:
In a town and at the resort we saw young girls getting their sweet 15 “Quinceañera”shots. I guess leopard print is popular.
The coast was beautiful, even on a cloudy day:
We stopped to check out a baseball game and fellow New Yorker John I crashed the game:
That night Debbie took us to a privately-owned restaurant:
Apparently, under Raul Castro, Cubans can now start and own a business, you just have to give 30% to the Government (actually not a bad tax rate by our standards).
I woke up again way too early the next day so I headed out once again to the Malecon:
We visited a synagogue to drop off medical supplies that some of the group had brought down.
Debbie asked some of the Cubans we were working with if they needed anything of the supplies, and while they would never have asked, they really appreciated things like extra shampoos from the hotel, and even aspirin.
We visted the way too touristy and yet beautiful old Havana section:
I wandered away from the main area and found a small factory:
Google translate of the sign says:
bring water to drink
wash hands before eating
keep staff hygiene
the containers should be clean
wash hands with aqua chlorine
In the main square, they were setting up for a concert the next night, and it looked a lot like a US production--in 1985.
And yet they had a brand new forklift:
I've been working in entertainment technology for a long time, but I had never seen these dimmers before:
But from Googling it seems they come from Malta.
It’s not all old cars in Cuba:
We visited a market:
I wandered into this bizarre old building, which is apparently a giant ice cream shop:
I wandered in the back door but when I went out the front there were people waiting in line to get in.
A bike rack: