A Freelancer in Cuba

I was a Freelancer for 37 years so I have an affinity for individuals independent from traditional work places. In Cuba the source of employment for almost everything has been the state. As government regulations have relaxed, some have been motivated to seize the opportunity to become independent entrepreneurs. A classic style taxi is easily one of the most recognizable independent businesses.

01

I was a Freelancer for 37 years so I have an affinity for individuals independent from traditional work places. In Cuba the source of employment for almost everything has been the state. As government regulations have relaxed, some have been motivated to seize the opportunity to become independent entrepreneurs. A classic style taxi is easily one of the most recognizable independent businesses. Cuba is primarily a cash economy. To ordinary Cubans getting a loan to start a business or even a mortgage to buy a home isn’t possible. Therefore, many are attracted to opportunities associated with the tourist trade that require little or no upfront investment.

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Throughout the world a barbershop is a universal small business. In Vinales, Yissel Ramos opened her shop 1 week before I visited to get my hair trimmed down. At 34, she is a single parent living with her mother, sister & her niece. At the gate outside her 2 chair shop was a sign BarberiaYissel.com.  I asked her about using the Internet & her response was “I don’t have time to stand around in the park on my phone. I have to work.” Access to the Internet in homes is almost non-existent. Plazas with WiFi hot-spots were easy to find. I just looked for people staring into their phones. Since I was totally off the grid my attention was to the people & the place via my viewfinder.

02

Yissel’s work ethic is a trait I witnessed in many Cubans I met. With the ink fresh on her Self-Employed Workers-License, & no shortage of self confidence, I believe she will have a good chance of realizing her dream to visit the Eiffel Tower. The part of her job she enjoys most is helping people change the way they look. That may be a metaphor for her country.

03

In Las Terrazas along the shore of Lake San Juan the unpretentious house with tropical orange shutters caught my eye. Built on a small bluff beside the winding road it has a serene perspective of the natural environment. Louis Borrego Linares is the brother of Polo Montañez who at 40 carved a place for himself into the rich legacy of Cuban poet songwriters. Tragically, Polo of the Mountains died in a car crash only 3 years after his music captured the hearts of his people. Louis recognized an opportunity & turned his brothers home into a Graceland type of museum where the music lives on. It is supported thru sales of memorabilia, CD’s & tips. In a country with many museums & a rich cultural history this may be the 1st commercial enterprise dedicated to a cultural iconic hero.

04

On a long road trip my guide asked to stop so he could order a ham. Ricardo, our driver, knew where to pull over on an open stretch of highway. There were no signs indicating anything special. Obviously not a spot for commerce with tourists, I was hesitant to push for details like his name. Word of mouth & reputation powered this farmers roadside market. His face was perfect for portraiture with the beard, hair & mustache framing the lower 2/3 of his face & the hat accenting the top of his head. The matching color & texture of his eyebrows reinforce his dark eyes. On our return, Lidier picked up 2 hams. I asked why 2? He told me 1 was a surprise gift for his mother who I would meet when we got to Camaguey.

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Anything with wheels can become a taxi with the potential to be a good Freelance gig. Pedal taxis are required to be registered & licensed. Cars are inspected. Since Cuba has zero taxes the owner/operator has no paperwork & keeps all income. Most of the ridership I saw was made up of tourists. However it wasn’t unusual to see locals in vehicles holding 4 or more. I wouldn’t be shocked, or offended, if locals paid less.

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When not being used as a taxi, this car serves as an outlet for fresh food. Without looking hard you can find bikes or carts with racks filled with onions, potatoes, rice, beans, garlic & other fresh goods. Along the side of the highway people stand holding cheese or have their arms draped with the latest harvest. Produce seemed to be the main Cuban to Cuban independent business ventures not intended for tourists.

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Street vendors with their assorted offerings had become commonplace until I saw this guy. I’m not sure how large the market is but since this enterprising individual was the only vendor I saw with a live turkey he might have a monopoly. Even though there is no tax on any business transaction, barter is common & black market exists. I was told in a bar how fueling stations attendants would short fill a request of a government vehicle by a few liters & then sell it to someone at a discounted price. Just like some I worked with that loved to “stick it to the man”, Cubans find ways to bend the rules to their advantage.

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Ingenuity can be inspired by a lack of resources. A successful Freelancer needs to understand that at times you just make it up as you go. A Cuban mechanic fixing a car must deal with the challenges of no spare parts on the shelves, few of the proper tools needed to do the job & no maintenance manuals. Somehow they get it done. Based upon my conversations & observations with workers in Cuba, I’d be honored to work alongside them. I have no doubt they could teach me a thing or two. A cultural exchange I would enjoy doing is introducing Cubans to G-tape.

The content of these postings are based upon my observations, conversations with my guide, interviews with people interpreted by my guide & interactions I had with people I met. Any mistakes are entirely mine with no intention to mislead.

On The Road in Cuba

Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, is about 760 miles from east to west. During my 13 days there I traveled roughly 1000 miles visiting Cienfuegos, Pinar del Rio, Las Terrazas/Vinales, Trinidad & Camaguey observing life outside of Havana. In hindsight, better planning would have reduced those miles. However, road time provided the opportunity to learn a lot from my guide & reflect on what I was experiencing.

cuba-tx-01Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, is about 760 miles from east to west. During my visit I traveled roughly 1000 miles visiting Cienfuegos, Pinar del Rio, Las Terrazas/Vinales, Trinidad & Camaguey observing life outside of Havana. In hindsight, better planning would have reduced those miles. However, road trip provided the opportunity to learn a lot from my guide & reflect on what I was experiencing.

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Prior to the trip I tried to be as open minded as possible about what I wanted to photograph & subjects I wanted to explore. My primary objective was people. I intended to avoid “Classic Cars” since others had already explored that subject & I’m not a car guy. However, I soon realized the variety of transportation Cubans used to get around was an interesting visual part of their society. Bicycles, in many forms, are seen everywhere including the National Highway where cars travel 100km/hr.

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Traveling this 4 lane road I saw horses & oxen pulling carts, trucks loaded with people on their way to work standing in the back, small motorcycles, shinny buses loaded with tour groups & road worn buses picking up patient passengers alongside the road. Their were no billboards or cell towers but an occasional cow would wander onto the pavement.  Hitchhikers used their forefinger, not their thumb. It was a medley of dissonant travelers that seemed to get everybody where they wanted to go.

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A bread vendor peddled over the 500 year old streets of Camaguey shortly after dawn with a load of his wares on the back of his bike. With an operatic flourish he would sing out “Pan Fresco”! Enterprising individuals modified bikes to be rickshaw style taxis while others were engineered with a cart that could hold 6. Some were accessorized with sound systems & led lights. A routine modification was a wooden seat mounted on the frame between the handlebars & driver making a bicycle modified for 2. As a result of old bikes & rough streets there was a flourishing business for shops that specialized in repairing flats.

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The use of Oxen is not limited to farms. These powerful animals pulling carts on the streets of rural Vinales were a common sight loaded with passengers or cargo. The tooting of horns from motorized vehicles alerted the driver they are about to be passed. The sounds of the street were a chorus of bells on bikes, the clip clop of the animal drawn carts & the friendly toots of scooters, motorcycles & cars. Accenting this melody were the numerous greetings people walking on the streets to those that passed by. Only once did I hear a horn being used in anger.

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In the agriculture Vinales Valley tractors, like horses, do double duty on the roads as well as the farm. This image brought to mind the August Wilson play Jitney. One visual that is only in my memory, because I wasn’t fast enough with my camera, was a teenage boy driving a tractor with his arm draped over the shoulder of young girl. That sight inspired a story in my imagination of Prom Night in a rural town where the boys would pick-up their dates with freshly washed tractors wearing immaculate overalls. I never saw a woman driving anything other than a scooter or a bike.

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The concept of ride sharing takes on a whole new meaning on in Cuba. Confidence as well as balance is needed for navigating the uneven routes. Because ancient streets are so narrow, parking is not an option. Bikes, scooters & motorcycles are put into the homes of people who live in the older sections of town. You might think the spectrum of vehicles & pedestrians would be chaos. Only as we were passing thru the outskirts of Havana did I see a fender bender. Somehow, unwritten rules of courtesy keep traffic moving.

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The only boat a Cuban can own is a commercial fishing boat. The state purchase 90% of the catch. Some have motors but most are similar to this style. I had hoped to spend time on the water with a Cuban but learned the government monitors activities with boats very closely. Nobody would risk the source of his livelihood by taking a gringo out for a ride. This was the only time I experienced a situation where I felt empathy for restrictions on the people of this island nation. As someone who loves sailing I am saddened they can’t enjoy the freedom of the wind pushing you across the beautiful Caribbean waves.

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I wasn’t interested in photographing Classic Cars but our day driver in Trinidad took us into The Valley of the Sugar Mills in his Green Machine. I found the story about this car more interesting than the vehicle. Ricardo had been a singer in a nightclub saving tips to buy this 1952 Chevy. In 2002 he paid $1,300 for this car but it needed work. He put in a Toyota diesel engine & transmission. Instead of 3 on the tree it now has 5. He told me that fixing anything & getting parts is always a problem. Recently he was offered $18,000 for his well-worn 65-year-old car. I asked if he had sung any American songs at the club. He replied…Frank & Nat King Cole.

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A one-legged man smiling giving me a thumbs-up salute as he powers his recumbent trike by hand speaks volumes about the spirit & resourcefulness of Cubans.

The content of these postings are based upon my observations, conversations with my guide, interviews with people interpreted by my guide & interactions I had with people I met. Any mistakes are entirely mine with no intention to mislead.