The United States recently announced an easing of restrictions on travel to Cuba, and I vowed to set foot in Havana before Starbucks did!
In the 1980s, I was a photography student in South Florida, and I became fascinated with Latin America culture. Since I was from suburban Philadelphia, I hadn’t even tasted black beans. In the following years, my photographic adventures led me south to Brazil, Argentina and Peru, and I even studied Spanish in Central America. But Cuba was the elusive country I couldn’t easily visit, until a few weeks ago.
In February, I spent a week exploring Havana and, of course, photographing everything along the way. I’m a wedding photographer, and I hoped to document a typical wedding. However, street photography will always be my first love. And in Havana, the enchanting streets are just chock-full of photographic possibilities.
Havana, the capital, boasts amazing architecture — however, most of it is literally falling to pieces. The buildings and plumbing are in terrible disrepair. The sidewalks are in such poor shape that I gave up my walking clogs, switched to sneakers and still tripped and fell, cracking a camera lens. Two handsome men picked me up and were gone before I could even mumble “gracias.”
I stayed with a family in a bed and breakfast, called a casa particular. I was presented a set of five keys to help me navigate the elaborate maze of doors, iron gates, and locks needed to enter and exit. (My fire escape plan consisted of jumping from our balcony to a neighboring balcony, like Spider-Man.) The family was lovely and knew some English, and the 21-year-old son was a Santería priest. I hired him to secure enough bottled water for the week, since that project would’ve taken me an entire day. And he sprinkled some of his special holy water around my head, too.
For the two weeks before my trip, I refreshed my Spanish and contacted some photographers in Cuba. A professor at the University of Havana asked me to show my images at his private photography school, held in what he called a “garage.” We had a torrent of rain that afternoon, and the students could not attend because the bus system shuts down during the rain. So, we had a cozy bilingual chat with a few students in the professor’s glorious dining room in his upscale home. I never did understand the “garage” reference.
The prevalence of autos from the 1950s in Havana is a cliché familiar to Americans. It’s estimated that 60,000 vintage cars are still in use on the island. The biggest tourist faux pas possible is to slam a car door, which could damage these precious relics. I learned that at the airport when I climbed into my taxi, a 1956 Studebaker. And it’s not just the cars that show off Cuban resourcefulness — disposable lighters are not tossed out but refilled; flan is “baked” in beer cans; and palm fronds are fashioned into brooms.
The most surprising thing about my visit was my feeling of safety. Walking around with my expensive camera gear, I felt more secure than in most of Philadelphia. I hadn’t considered bringing my 13-year-old along for the trip, since I felt it couldn’t possibly be safe enough for my comfort, but Cubans spoke of the U.S. as being a dangerous place to live.
My 56-year-old guide at Havana’s Colon Cemetery gave me a long embrace that brought tears to my eyes. She told me how glad she was that Cubans and Americans could be friends again. I’m already planning another trip to Cuba, and this time I’ll be taking my teenage daughter with me. She needs to get there before Starbucks, too!