This is my 14th & final…for now…posting about Cuba.

The one word that I would use to describe my experience traveling in Cuba is compelling. As I hoped, the opportunities for photography were everything I expected. My plan was to immerse myself, albeit briefly, with people to gain a perspective & document their way of life. The narrow glance I observed was insightful & rewarding. Somewhat unexpectedly I opened a window to personal introspection that will resonate with me for a long time.

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The one word that I would use to describe my experience traveling in Cuba is compelling. As I hoped, the opportunities for photography were everything I expected. My plan was to immerse myself, albeit briefly, with people to gain a perspective & document their way of life. The narrow glance I observed was insightful & rewarding. Somewhat unexpectedly I opened a window to personal introspection that will resonate with me for a long time.

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My decision to avoid Havana was helpful in minimizing cliché images & experiences. The smaller cities were more open to personal interaction. With few exceptions I easily engaged people with just a smile. In conversations thru my interpreter, politics was seldom a topic. My curiosity eclipsed any preconceived ideas I had about their day-to-day lives.

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I saw typical differences between young & old, city & rural, men & women even professional vs blue collar. What surprised me was a disparity of standards of living. Communism in Cuba is far from the theory Marx had advocated. I didn’t witness anything I would describe as poverty or affluence. However, I saw a comfortable cohabitation between those with more opportunities & a more comfortable way of life than others. I also recognized a discrepancy with access to & use of technology. Most of the digital divide coincided with age.

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Cuba has the natural resources of climate, beaches & tropical waters that attract tourists. Since the mid 90’s non-US tourism has provided a significant percentage of hard currency to the economy. The Cuban government owns most hotels. There are a few International chains but uncertainty has stalled investment. I find it difficult to believe that trinkets, restaurants & service jobs to the tourist industry can provide both a long term & broad based impact on the overall economic well being of the people. This is especially true if the government continues to keep restrictive oversight on commerce.

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The topography of the Cuba is diverse. Their are 9 UNESCO sites, 8 National Parks & 7 Biosphere reserves in this nation roughly the size of PA. I only took time to briefly explore 1 Bio reserve, which was impressive. There are numerous examples or environmental programs including organic & self-sustain farming. I got the impression many of these were out of necessity rather than altruism. However, the one dominant fact is that surrounded by water, it is easy for the government to control access on & off the island.

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The majority of people I interacted with have only known life under Communism. Some challenges they face have roots that go further back than 3 generations since the revolution. The Cuban people are far from illiterate or in ill health. Education & health care have been priorities of the Castro brothers & now economic reform has become a goal of Raul. Change is happening. However, over the past 5-10 years the pace is faster than it has been the precious 4 decades.

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For many Cubans on meager pensions & low paying government jobs their lives are Spartan. Food is rationed at Bodegas at subsidized prices with proportions determined by age & gender. I visited Orlando Zayas, my guides’ grandfather, in his 400 sq foot apartment. The space fronts a busy street & he rents a few square feet to enterprising merchants. He is content & fortunate that family lives close & visit frequently. He enjoys watching baseball & complained that boxers today were nowhere near as good as Joe Louis or Kid Chocolate. Talking about his life he said, “Communism does not work”.

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My primary goal was to photograph individuals & document their lifestyles. Generalizations can be dangerous but I can confidently say I was warmly greeted buy a population that is easygoing, resilient & enjoys life. Lacking commodities we take for granted Cubans make the best out of the situation they are in…even if they have to bend a few rules. Daily life is simpler & slower. Personal interaction is routine. No doubt there are problems but the people I met were upbeat. When I asked what made people so happy I was told, “We laugh at our problems so we have lots to laugh about”.

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I believe an individual’s work ethic is a reflection on their character. I saw many examples of confidence, problem solving, & a resourcefulness to work with what they have without complaining. Although the tempo of work isn’t equivalent to our expectations, Cubans have few distractions & a persistence to get the job done. They are proud of the work they do with their hands & find happiness in their accomplishments not their possessions. I have deep respect for what Cubans have archived with only the basic resources.

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The elements of culture are common. Art, music, literature, religion, food, architecture & fashion are things I observe when I travel. The details of these expressions make people & places unique. I have had very little exposure to Latin American. The rich culture of Cuba was a wonderful new vista. I observed a flair for painting that was cultivated after the revolution when national schools of art were created. In contrast to the many examples of architectural decay, the diverse art was a peak into the bright light of the soul of the people. In a society with few outlets for expression I sensed a passion in their demeanor for artistic freedom.

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Children give us examples of how we can enjoy life & accomplish more when we cooperate with each other. When I observed children I thought about my friend Mark Zinnoni. His mother fled Cuba’s oppression & he wasn’t happy I was going there because he felt it diminished the possibility of freeing Cubans from oppressive Communist rule. I respected his opinion & looked forward to sharing what I saw & experienced when I returned. Unfortunately he passed away before I departed. I like to think he would have enjoyed my perspective of the Cuban people. Amid the hardships there is a joy for life & hope for the future…emotion & optimism that were part of Mark’s character.

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Like most people when I read or hear about a place it is impossible have a deep understanding. Our perspectives, no matter how broad, lack the important element of a personal connection. Although many individuals I only met briefly, they will be a touchstone to my understanding of our neighbors. During my trip I was formed a deeper relationship with my guide Lidear. On my last night there he invited me to his “humble home with his family for a simple dinner.” For me it was an honor & a wonderful epilogue to my trip. As hurricane Irma was striking Cuba it was him and his family that were in my thoughts. I wish nothing but the best for him, his family & the people of Cuba whom I now know just a little bit better. I hope that my blog postings have opened the curtain just a bit to allow you to see the Humans of Cuba.

I would greatly appreciate any feedback or comments on this or any of my postings about Cuba.

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 Farm to Table Restaurant

El Paraiso was as unique a restaurant as I have ever eaten at. It had a Great Location on top of a hill overlooking Vinales, & good food with great service. However, what motivated me to take a trip back in daylight to photograph was the self-sustainability of this thriving organic restaurant.

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I wasn’t motivated to do any kind of Foodie or Traveling Gourmet stories during my trip to Cuba. In my opinion, photographs of food are best done in a studio with controlled lighting & props. When you set the food down in front of me it becomes a meal not a subject. However, El Paraiso was as unique a restaurant as I have ever eaten at. It had a great location on top of a hill overlooking Vinales, good food with great service. What motivated me to take a trip back in daylight to photograph was the self-sustainability of this thriving organic restaurant.

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My guide/translator, Lidear, had taken me there for dinner. The overwhelming quantity of the food they served their guests was something I had never seen. Their were no menus to choose from. Our waiter just started to bring food & it seems like he never stopped. Vegetables, rice, potatoes, salads, chicken, pork & fish. At one point I counted 17 different plates of food on our table. Initially I was upset by the waste until I found out that leftovers were an integral part of the composting. I began to see a bigger picture of how this thriving restaurant was self-sustaining.

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We returned the next afternoon so I could interview one of the managers & take some photos. On the surrounding hillsides of the open & simple structure are terraced gardens. They are designed, maintained & organically farmed with the objective of growing everything the restaurant needs.  I learned not all the waste from the previous meals gets composed. Some is used to feed the livestock.

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Greeting guests & answering questions is Mardin Luis. In his 70’s he has seen the value of how the family owning El Paraiso has influenced & benefited the community. Wilfredo, the father who began the restaurant, told him the best garden to grow is your conscious. On a trip to the United States Mardin learned about Kale & has recommended they explore it as a crop. His dreams for the future are to to continue to work, study & be an example to young people.

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At our dinner, the previous evening, the valley below had few lights. The mountains blended into the dark February night sky so the view offered nothing special. In the late morning of the next day the full picture of this family run enterprise was revealed. The vista of the valley & the unique mogotes was an excellent accent to well kept plots.

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Lunchtime guests are invited to wander the hillside gardens on a mini hike around the grounds. Alongside the vegetable gardens are flowers & bushes attracting insects that help to pollinate. I was tempted to chase after the iconic hummingbird shot or stalk butterflies with my camera. The translation of El Parisio in English is paradise.

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In the tropics, the growing season is basically year round. Seeing plants ready for harvest in a raised garden right beside young sprouting crops was something you don’t seeing living near the 40th parallel. As “farm to table” dining experiences as well as organic food becomes more popular in the US I think the self-sustainability of El Parisio is a noteworthy example.

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Rachel Garcia, one of Wilfords daughters, told me when El Parisio opened they had 6 customers a day. It has grown to serve 300.  To keep things running, 20 family members work in the restaurant or on the farm. Her dream for her daughter is to learn the ability to work hard because that makes everything possible. To make a restaurant successful is one of the most challenging businesses to operate. It is almost as demanding as being a farmer. Combining the operation of a farm & a restaurant while serving primarily tourists in a communist country is not a business plan I would think would succeed.

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She is rightfully proud of her family’s success. She also recognizes El Pariso demonstrates how an ecological focus can bring visitors to other community entrepreneurs. Beyond the success of the thriving restaurant she realizes the work her family has done can inspire others in Cuba as they navigate the new opportunities the government is allowing. If you visit this tropical island don’t miss Vinales. And while you are there visit El Paraiso for lunch so you can enjoy strolling the garden before you dine.

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I asked Rachel if she would pose for a portrait. She agreed but only if I include her soon to be delivered child. Before I departed she shared a photograph of her with of Dr. Jill Biden at the White house. As I glanced up from the photograph & looked at her with surprise in my eyes and a big smile on my face, the pride of her families achievements was written all over her face. All of the people I interviewed while I traveled thru Cuba had overflowing self-confidence. With Rachel her self-assurance filled the restaurant.

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.

Cuba Environment

01Since my primary subject for photography was people, my visit to Las Terrazas & Soroa was more of a drive by-look-see. Traveling back roads reminded me of the valleys & hills of Western PA’s Allegheny Mountains. Since 1985 when UNESCO declared Sierra del Rosario a Biosphere Reserve, this region has become a model of sustainability as well as a laboratory/classroom for environmental education.

02 I had a life moment with Dr. Figueroa, Director of the Biosphere.  When we walked into his office it was obvious who in my group was not Cuban. He got up out of his chair, walked over extending his hand & said Fidel. I shook his had & since he informally only used his 1st name I did the same replying Jay with a smirky smile. His eyes widened as he chuckled saying…Really! We both laughed understanding in Spanish a close sound to J is Che. This 2 shot may never be as iconic as photos of our historic namesakes. But, it is locked to a memory from my trip that will always bring a smile to my face.

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Prior to the ’59 Revolution 11% of Cuba was covered in forest. European settlers cleared trees for cattle grazing & coffee plantations. The assault on the land was ferocious. Photo courtesy Sierra del Rosario Reserva de la Biosfera archive.

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Thanks to the work of peasants, who in the process of replanting the forest, also built what some call “Castro’s Eden.” Since the 70’s over 8 million trees have been planted increasing the forested Cuban land to 28%. This is an amazing success of Reforestation in just 4 decades considering the work was done with the most basic tools. In the middle of this is Las Terrazzos. A small community & very is different from the colonial founded cities where I spent the majority of my time. It is a “tab of butter in a sea of grits” as some of the Chapel Hill Boys would say. Eco-tourism directly accounts for over 250 jobs providing a much-improved standard of living.

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Dr. Fidel Hernandez Figueroa has worked here since 1983. As a young boy he wanted to live in the mountains. At the University he studied to be a Forest Engineer. He got his Masters as an Ecologist then a PhD in Forest Science. I think it is safe to say that he made his dream come true. After he laughed when I asked him what he enjoys doing when he isn’t working, he told me he always is working but still enjoys studying & tries to learn at least 1 new thing every night before he goes to bed.

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His accomplishments & attitude are fueled by passion & hope for the future. Fidel told me even if the pay is low he is spiritually wealthy. He insisted on showing me the portrait done by local artist Lester Campa. Since Fidel & I are close in age, the blending of two iconic personalities from our youth made it a serendipitous connection.

07aIn the forests around Las Terrazass the diversity of birds & plants, many of which are endemic, is an example of how repair can be made to nature. It also demonstrates how quality of life can be improved with a balanced approach to tourism & the environment. If I ever go back to Cuba this is a place I will get to know better. My translation of Sierra del Rosario is… Mountains of Hope.

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I’m vastly under-qualified to describe the tropical floral I saw Cuba other than to say it was diversely beautiful. For a much more detailed information please link to a blog by Emily Kalnicky Diretor of Science Education & Jordyn Melino Exhibit Coordinator from Phipps Conservatory.

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Sustainability & organic farming in Cuba evolved out of necessity. After the collapse of the USSR the supply of chemical pesticides & fertilizer disappeared. The rationing of food & other hardships impacted the entire population in what Cubans refer to as the “Special Period”. Weeding by hand was added to the list of manual chores needed to survive.

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The Vinales Valley on the western end of the mountain range is a UNESCO jewel, & a showcase of how 25 plus years of experience has made Cuba a model for Agricultural Sustainability. The mogotes, described as upside down bowls of ice cream, are unique topographical features that help define this place. They gave me a feeling of being small similar to how Yosemite made me feel. Some of the best tobacco in the world is grown in this fertile province. Even though most other parts of Cuba I drove thru were parched, this valley was lush. Hiking, horseback riding and biking are very common activities for visitors that allow you to get an intimate perspective of the natural environment.

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Nationally, clean energy production is on the rise but without the most technologically advanced tools. There are 300 cooperatives focusing on pig production. Some are also processing bio-mass fuel gas. Residual material from the fermenting of pig poop is used for fertilizing. Getting the most out of available resources is part of the Cuban Culture. This region provides an example of the benefits of sustainable environmental practices.

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.