Cuban Casa

As I had hoped, Casa Particulars provided a memorable glimpse into a segment of Cuban society.

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Throughout my travels I stayed in Casa Particulars, which are similar to B&B’s in the US. Staying in private homes gave me a glimpse into lives of Cuban families that could be considered middle class. Villa: Tres Hermanas is the house of 3 sisters near Las Terrazas.

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Anabel & Mario & multiple generations of  family live under 1 roof. He built the home on land owned by his father & not seized after the revolution. He added an apartment on the roof for one daughter. When the room I stayed in wasn’t rented various family members sleep there. His parents cook many of the meals, do laundry & maintaining the chicken & pigs. While sharing small living spaces has challenges it reinforces a common history, provides a support group & creates esprit de corps within families.

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In urban areas those that don’t own a home live in government owned apartments void of character. Many live on meager wages & pensions that can pay the state controlled rent & expenses. Due to a shortage of public housing there are waiting lists to get into these buildings. Although they provide people basic shelter at an affordable price, these buildings exemplify a basic flaw of Communism.

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Just outside the center of Vinales is a street lined with tropical colored Casa Particulars which are licensed by the state. It leads to the Valley of Silence & has quite a bit of local & tourist traffic. The region has many natural attractions making it a popular destination for visitors to Cuba. This influx of travelers allows homeowners in this community to participate in the growing opportunities for small businesses.

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The Caribbean weather has a significant influence on the design of courtyards & terraces as a part of the living space in old & new buildings. Windows & doors are large to allow daylight in. Timber is scarce so concrete is the common building material. Beautiful mosaics are abundant. The architectural style & detail of Spanish plantation homes, which are now mostly museums, are spectacular. However, understanding the inequities of the wealthy owners compared to the slaves/workers dampened my appreciation.

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An initial reaction to some living conditions might resonate poverty. However, the needs of people are simple & often the places they live in reflect that. The humble furnishings are a source of pride for this man whose son & grandson are putting a roof on a home he & his wife own. The most common deficiency I saw in these neighborhoods was inadequate infrastructure. The living conditions are far below the standards we expect. However, Cubans have pride in ownership of their Spartan dwellings.

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The overall consumption of electricity for average Cubans is low. Per capita they use 5% compared to the US. A few homes I stayed in had AC for guests but beyond that & refrigerators they had few electrical appliances. On many levels the services supplied by the government is lacking. But as with many problems, the people innovate a way to get it done. I am not an electrical engineer however; I do believe the tropical sun & low demand could be an opportunity for powering the entire nation with solar power.

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This is the kitchen of my driver Ricardo where he lives with his parents, wife & son. His father is a doctor & his mother is a nurse at the local hospital. His father recently returned after working 2 years in a remote village in Brazil. Volunteering for that position the Cuban government raised his salary. Ricardo’s routine job is a programmer for the government. He works on the side as a driver earning .5 CUC per km. Their home is not luxurious but as a family they earn money outside the structured regulations to raise their standard of living. I asked why refrigerators were a few inches above the floor. Since most Cubans are meticulous about cleaning. The platform keeps the refrigerator dry during the daily moping of the floor.

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In the Valley of Sugar Mills outside of of Trinidad a farmer has a small cozy 4 room home tucked into a shaded grove of trees. It sits a few hundred yards from the former plantation home of wealthy landowners from the 1800’s that is now a museum. The inhumane artifacts of slavery the farmer has uncovered while plowing the fields are displayed on the side of his home including leg irons, metal collars & handcuffs.

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In the urban center of Camagüey, & other cities, the centuries old narrow cobblestone streets have no room for parking. The entry room of many homes also serves as a garage for two wheeled vehicles.

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The openness & light throughout the homes enhanced soft tropical colors. I discovered wooden accents like the corner wall mounts. Those will be added to my wood shop projects.

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All the places I stayed were comfortable, clean & used attractive outdoor areas & rooftops as part of the living space. The aesthetics varied in each city & my experience was unique to each owner’s casa. The breakfasts were enough to get me to dinner although I think the start of my day was a bit early for most hosts. As I had hoped, Casa Particulars provided a memorable glimpse into a segment of Cuban society.

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.

Artists of Cuba & their ART Part 1

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My blog returns to Cuba with focus on art & the artists that produce it. The on-the ground experience of seeing the work of artisans was motivation to connect my camera to my mind. If it catches my eye, attention or ears I explore a little deeper. If it makes me smile or triggers a memory, I want to share it. I hope you enjoy where my eyes take you. My credibility as a critic is thin so explore the links to add you own exposure.

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Music wasn’t a motivator but… First was Herb Albert/The Lonely Bull. Then Santana’s Soul Sacrifice followed by Oye Coma Va by Tito Puente  & Latin tempos became a part of my life. Currently Manhattan Transfer/Soul Food To Go is my favorite driving song. Enjoyment of Latin tempos is a constant in my life. However, music is linear for the ear. I didn’t put effort into shots of musicians. To hear Afro Cuban Music, watch 3 Rivers to Cuba. Done by Chris Mason, her it explores multiple layers of Cuban musical culture.

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The architectural & artisan work of the Spanish Colonial Empire has influence on artists today. From the pallet of colors to the intricate details I saw centuries old examples of design, detail & craftsmanship that made me pause.

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My first night in Cienfuegos we went to Palacio del Valle. I was immediately struck by the blending of architectural influences. Built a century ago by a sugar merchant, the mansion is now a National Monument of Cultural Heritage run by the government.

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This church window is more representative of maintenance & restoration of buildings in Cuba. Usually the dynamic image of stained glass windows is from an interior perspective. From the outside layers of history can be seen. Some ironwork is from colonial times while some is from current artisans.
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Public Art, especially murals, provide character to communities. They also offer backdrops for street photography. The hue & fading of her pants matching the backdrop is worth a 2nd look.
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This is not the iconic image from Abbey Road. A true Beatles fan would know they were walking the other direction & all 4 are in full stride. I didn’t catch that on-site because I was preoccupied with the numerous possibilities I could stage with this backdrop.

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I did not see many statues in my wanderings. This bronze likeness of Cuban Hero Jose Marti reading to a young boy represents many important values of Cuban society.
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I was initially attracted to Martha Jimenez’s paintings because of her subject matter of 3 women in diverse situations. I believe odd numbers work better in visuals arts. At her gallery/studio/classroom in Camaguey I discovered her talents included sculpting & engraving. Her primary subject is women. I noticed a few works with a sewing machine. The gallery director told me it represents women workers around the world.

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I was drawn to the work of Jose D. Gutierrez by the unique texture to his sculpture. Examining the pieces closely I recognized I had never seen whatever he used to make these detailed works of art. I inquired about how they were made. I was told about creating a mold, where the craftsmanship is needed, & then forming goat-skin over it.
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A few artists in Cuba are doing well financially selling to the rest of the world. But, like artists everywhere, Abel Garcia Leon must rely on other skills to live. His studio is in one room of his home & his barbershop is in an adjacent space. His great-great grandfather bought the barber chair in the 1880’s. He has sold his paintings in Europe, Canada & the US. His optimistic dream is to one day to have a showing in NYC.

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In many shops I found the typical colors & themes of paintings targeted at the tourist. While these pieces may not have any deep artistic qualities they are a few steps above the price & quality of mass-produced souvenir trinkets.
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Restrictions on expression after the ‘59 revolution & limited resources had a negative impact. However, art education & subsides increased the population of practicing artists. Some have demonstrated that art is freedom of the mind. Artist Georgeanys Trinidad
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Learning the perspectives of artistically expression opens your soul to emotions of others & yourself. Teaching & mentoring preserves the past but also sows seeds for the future.
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Let me reinforce the fact I have no credibility as an art critic. Part of my motivation for photography was to capture informal shots of people. Naturally portraits on canvas caught my eye. I observed that Cuban artists had a firm grasp on portraiture.
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The number of artists in Camagüey was more than other places I visited. One evening I met Eduardo Rosalez Ruiz in his studio/gallery where the walls were covered with diverse examples of his work. With a typical warm welcoming he told me about his current projects as we shared a drink of rum & honey. Working with materials & subjects of indigenous Taino Cubans he hopes to bring awareness to historical roots.

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“I love Digital. I Hate Digital” has become a mantra of mine. I immediately gave this oil on canvas that title.

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This piece by Lester Campa is my favorite not only because of style & subject but also because of the memory of Dr. Fidel Hernandez Figueroa proudly sharing it. If you go to this wonderful reservoir of talented artists plan on returning with some of their work.

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.

Cuban Churches

In homage to the Christian celebration of Easter & the Resurrection this post contains images I took at Churches in Cuba & share what I learned about Catholicism in this communist country.

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In homage to the Christian celebration of Easter & the Resurrection this post contains images I took at Churches in Cuba & share what I learned about Catholicism in this communist country. I am not Catholic nor do I regularly attend the Protestant church I belong to. However I consider myself a spiritual person respecting the moral guidance of a higher power.  “Do unto others…” is the best guidance I’ve learned.

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To say religion in Cuba history has twists & turns is an understatement. Spaniards colonized the island in alliance with the Pope & shared in the bounty. The Slave Trade, a cornerstone of Cuban economics, became a moral issue the Vatican could no longer condone. Most priests assigned to Cuban churches were from Spain & associated with the monarchy & the elite ruling class. Revolutionaries in the late 1800’s proclaimed the church was not the voice of the common people. Skip ahead to 1959 & the Castro brothers, who had gone to a Jesuit high school, understood nationalism & religion are contradictory. In Communist countries state atheism is promoted.

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With the collapse of the USSR in the 90’s, economic hardships & social changes edged the  government to evolve & declared the nation secular. In ’98 Pope John Paul II visited Cuba followed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. In 2015 Pope Francis made a huge step in moral diplomacy attempting to resolve the divide between Cuba & neighboring United States. Along with Catholicism are dogmas from Afro-Cuban religions that have been preserved & evolved. I did not experience any of those traditions.

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Having survived this turmoil between church & state I found magnificent Catholic Churches in the cities I visited. Usually they were built near colonial designed plazas, which served as a commons in developing towns. From a rooftop in Camaguey I saw the steeples of 7 grand churches. The architecture influence is diverse & the physical conditions vary greatly. But, most structures have been cared for despite withered congregations. Architectural photography isn’t a genre I have much experience or success with. Nonetheless many of these spaces are free of poles & wires to spoil the frame. It’s a rare opportunity to have numerous options to photograph a building.

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I spoke with Father Marco at his parish in Camaguay. He is from Mexico’s International Mercy Congregation. Shortly after his ordination in 2012 he came to Cuba. His multi-faceted perspectives were insightful. We discussed the contrasting ways of the people as well as their deep roots to the church. He remembers being embraced when he arrived & believes Cubans hospitality & respect for manners are what make them so friendly.

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After his 10am Saturday Mass we discussed the continual changes people are experiencing. He feels a trait many Cubans poses is the ability to adapt & they are somewhat open minded about reforms that are coming. In his brief time in Cuba he has seen the government try & do more for people in rural areas. And he has had access to prisons, health institutions & even universities. Father Marco believes these are big steps & opportunities to spread the message that with belief in God all things are possible.

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His love of the Cuban people includes their more casual attire when attending church compared to his native Mexico. He also noted that they hug & kiss instead of just shaking hands like he experienced growing up. Religious life is much more flexible. Father Marco also spoke of how the resilience of the Cuban people was integral in conquering hardships. In some ways I believe Father Marco’s mission to make people happy is made easier because cheerful is part of their being.

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A natural role for any religious leader is preparing followers for what lies ahead. I asked him what his dreams were for the Cuban people. He had three. #1 The government system will realize that people can make more of their own decisions. #2 people who are close to the economic needs & problems should come up with solutions. #3 an emerging need for more religious/human values, which have eroded since the 90’s with more attention to money. He also hopes Cubans abroad do not abandon their history.

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I developed ideas similar to what Father Marco’s dreams are as I was doing research for this trip. I’m not smart enough to understand the best path to make those ideas a reality or if even if I have a deep enough understanding of the problems. What I did observe is that in a society where much rebuilding is needed, churches have a solid foundation & have been maintained suggesting a religious culture with respect for history. In facing the unknowns of the future knowing where you came from has value.

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The future has many contrasting forces Cubans will need to navigate. Since I was totally off the grid during my trip I observed technology nipping at interpersonal interactions along generational lines. I hope they survive the flood of information from the Internet. Emerging changes in Cuban society could lead to self-centered perspectives. My prayers for our neighbors are to not abandon the values that allowed them to collectively survive. Dreams are based on unique blend of our past, personal motivations & hope for the future. I wish for Cuban people the ability to make good decisions.

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.

Humans of Cuba

My goal in Cuba was to meet & photograph people. Not only was it successful, but also I found Cubans to be some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered.

01-copyMy goal in Cuba was to meet & photograph people. Not only was it successful, but also I found Cubans to be some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered. On a tour thru a museum  in Camaguay I saw this young woman sitting beside an open window. Her natural beauty was accented with wonderful Tropical Sunlight. Despite the lack of a common language she easily understood how I wanted her to pose with the fan, the angle of her face & the tilt of her chin. The smile is all hers. No direction was needed.

02 I was observing workers & taking pictures not noticing I was standing beside a mud puddle. As I stepped to the side for a slightly better angle my foot went into the mud. Another group of workers had a great laugh at my mistake & I joined them in laughing at my miscue. One of the young men got a bucket of water for me to clean my foot. Soon we were all sitting around having some Havana Club & connecting with minimal vocabularies & collective pantomime. I learned these 2 were a father & son working to put a roof on the young mans grandparents home. The others were friends who were helping. Soon I was warmly welcomed into the “Familia”.

03My guide & interpreter Lidier was an unbelievable asset. He got me into a rehearsal for the Camaguey Ballet.  Showing respect for their space & work I was given almost unlimited access to incredible dancers. This was my 1st opportunity to capture the strength, beauty, grace & precision of this art. In a short period of time I learned a lot.  Hopefully I will get a chance to capture more ballet images in the future.

03aAlmost everywhere I went I saw piles of stone, sand & lime waiting to be mixed with cement & water for repair or new construction. Even with the proper tools this is hard work. Workers I saw lacked the simple equipment we take for granted. This particular crew only had 1 wheelbarrow so large buckets were used to move the sand. In Cuba where almost everything is built from concrete, strength & determination may be the most valuable tools a worker can depend on.

04The Valley of Sugar Mills outside of Trinidad had Spanish Plantations from the 1800’s in various stages of restoration. Next to one was a simple concrete home & small farm where a husband & wife lived. They showed me their display of slavery artifacts they had uncovered & welcomed me into their modest home. As we were leaving, she took a casual pose leaning against the door frame. The only distraction from her warm smile was the tropical colors of her eyes.

05On the tobacco farm of the Camejo family, Sergio was describing the work necessary to raise plants. One of the farm hands walked over & interrupted saying “When you are the bosses son you just tell others to do the hard work.” Sergio replied he “dreamed someday of having his friends job so he could wander around the fields all day.” The camaraderie & mutual respect they had for each other was evident in the joking banter they engaged in.

06The smile of a young child reaches my heart. Add a head full of curly hair, eyes filled with innocent joy & the results are an image igniting delightful memories in any parent’s soul.

07Wandering thru the old cities offered a different layer to “Street Photography”. The massive open windows & doors revealed environments inside but were an adjunct of street activity. I came across a math tutor working with students after school in a small room with a blackboard a few desks. No calculator in sight. In Cuba, they have universities specifically for teachers & it is considered a noble profession.

08When I approached people I randomly met on the street to take their picture, I made sure I had a smile on my face. In almost every interaction I was rewarded with an amplified expression of delight. Sharing the image I had captured with the people resulted in more than a few hugs.

09For some reason my eye is drawn to people on their phones as a subject to photograph. Many of the plazas in cities are Wi-Fi hot spots where Cubans & tourists go to get on the web. In these beautiful plazas where not that long ago people gathered to socialize with each other I found most with their heads tilted down & eyes glued to digital pacifiers. I’m not sure if this woman is a tourist or a native. Her long lean body in visual harmony with the light post really caught my eye.

10It took a while to get used to the ironwork on the substantial old & weathered wooden doors & windows in these centuries old cities. The craftsmanship is impressive. Residents would sit near the windows & carry on conversations with those passing by or sometimes just say hola.

11The pace of the day is one of the most significant differences I experienced. In a society where there is a need for activities to pass time, Dominoes is a wonderful diversion & a part of the social fabric of the Cuban culture. Few from this mans generation had many options to fill their day. It may also be why the slow game of Baseball is so popular here.

12This is one of the few sour faces I saw. Even with a pout this young man on his way to school brought a smile to my face.