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.

Motivated Explorer

If you read the last 3 posts about incentives for my Photo Essay in Cuba you will see twists & turns. With departure less than a week away, reflecting on the evolution of my motivation has been clarifying. One year ago at this time I was getting ready for my last remote & retirement. That page of my life has been turned. Now, I am confidently looking forward to first-hand inspiration during a brief immersion into a foreign culture.

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If you read the last 3 posts about incentives for my Photo Essay in Cuba you will see twists & turns. With departure less than a week away, reflecting on the evolution of my motivation has been clarifying. One year ago at this time I was getting ready for my last remote & retirement. That page of my life has been turned. Now, I am confidently looking forward to first-hand inspiration during a brief immersion into a foreign culture.

If any one word describes my trip I guess explorer comes the closest.   Although my actual time there will be short I believe the culture of the Cuban people is worth experiencing & attempting to understand. Even though I haven’t yet set foot there, the research & planning has been an enjoyable & valuable learning process.

What something is can sometimes be defined by what it is NOT.

This trip is NOT a job…nobody is paying me. It is NOT a vacation…recreation & relaxations are not goals. I am NOT part of a group…this is an independent excursion. I am NOT a tourist checking items off a list to say, “Been there-done that”. I am NOT trying to be a time traveler stepping into Doc Brown’s DeLorean to return to the 50’s.

At its core, motivation is a desire to do something. Defining general goals early on was helpful. I knew in retirement I wanted to do more photography. I also looked forward to having time to learn new things. And, after a hiatus from the airport, I wanted to visit new places. This trip targets those ambitions.

My curiosity & research identified potential objectives, which became more specifically defined. What I perceived as obstacles melted into logistical challenges. The preparation fueled my enthusiasm while diluting apprehensions.

Groundwork I did in advance of the trip galvanized my efforts to improve & expand my photography skills. Reading books & watching documentaries about Cuba helped satisfy some of my inquisitiveness. Looking at the work of other photographers made me eager to meet the people of Cuba & glance into their lives. The next step, after I pack, is doing it.

I also have secondary incentives. Going somewhere that has been forbidden for most of my life sparks my sense of adventure. I also like rum and must confess, I’m looking forward to the warmth & longer days near the Tropic of Cancer.

Any sojourn will have a few surprises. These are a few I’ve already encountered.

I am flying with Frequent Flyer miles. Two years ago the only way for most US citizens to get there was illegally departing from another country. This is a example of how things have changed. OBTW my AA million miles status got me first and business class seats. Jay got his upgrade!

Since the embargo was an economic action, the Treasury Department not State Department, authorizes trips to Cuba. FYI tourism/vacation is not an acceptable reason. I am traveling for the dual category of people to people & journalism. My permission slip from the treasury was a form letter.

Removing the embargo will take an Act of Congress. Eisenhower began it by restricting arms in 1958 and later he and Kennedy escalated it to include almost all economic, commercial and financial activity.

There are 2 currencies on the island. The CUC is for foreigners & CUP for citizens. The economic embargo prevents the use of US credit cards. Exchanging US dollars for CUC has a 10% tax. Other currencies do not have that tax.

A woman by the name of Celia Sanchez had a dominant role in the revolution and lived in the mountains with Fidel’s armies. I didn’t expect that in a machismo setting.

One disappointing surprise was that the rum distilleries are located on the Western part of the island, which I will not be visiting.

Almost always a disappointment is Verizon. I was told in December I could get an International Plan for use in Cuba. $40 per 100 min. Surprise Surprise I had been given bad info. The only Cuba plan is $2.99 per min or $300 for 100.   Basically 7 times more expensive than the information I was given about 6 weeks ago. I will just deal with a pre-paid card in Cuba. Verizon consistently has given out bad, or at best, confusing/conflicting/inaccurate information.

While I have confidence in my overall plan I know that once I get there it will be necessary to adjust & to some degree & “make it up as I go along.” Having worked on location doing video production for 40 years I am well prepared for not everything going as planned.

My mantra for retirement has been slower & simpler. Island Time should mesh with that attitude just fine. I look forward to taking advantage of opportunities that unfold right in front of me without being overly concerned with a defined schedule. I also anticipate introspective discoveries on this journey.

Cuban history is filled with numerous transitions. With Raul Castro saying he will step down in February of 2018 & the recent death of Fidel, the 14 months in between the exit of the Castro brothers could be significant. Will the world look on this period of time as the epilogue of the Castro’s rule? Might it be the prelude to a new beginning? Will Fidel’s comment that History will absolve him be true? How will new generations define Cuba Libre?

I can’t help but expect that this is a period of time of yet another significant change in the lives and the history of the Cuban people.

Look for my 1st posting in mid February.

Motivated by Curiosity, Understanding & a Friend

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The previous post about my Cuba Photo Essay explained my shallow knowledge of this nation. In this post I explain how curiosity blended with extraneous experiences, including becoming friends with Mark Zannoni, evolved into a motivation to explore & understand a culture, which is rich in character.

Snippets I read about Cuba revolved around Spain, galleons & the slave trade. It was a cursory foundation of historical knowledge. Their path of independence seemed irrelevant. Roosevelt’s involvement in the Spanish American War veered my attention towards US involvement in other parts of the world.

Growing up in the 60’s I knew Cuba was a communist country & Fidel Castro lead the revolution. With a teenager’s perspective, I knew Cubans risked prison, torture or even death. Freedoms of speech, like those protesting in the US, were not allowed in their country. Because of where I was born, my life was much freer. I couldn’t grasp life under communist rule but yet I was curious about the lives of people on this tropical island.

I had empathy for anybody risking their lives on overcrowded boats to escape tyranny & admired the courage to liberate their lives. Leaving family, homeland & your culture is a hard decision. To risk death is an entirely higher level of determination.

In 1986 I peaked behind the Iron Curtain in Moscow during the Goodwill Games. In many ways my eyes were opened. I learned “Evil Empire” didn’t apply to everyday people. I could tell from the demeanor, posture & expressions of Soviets they had little joy in their lives. I questioned if I had the durability to survive in their society. I recognized that even with hardships in the Soviet Union, it was their home & had been for generations. I wondered if tenacity fueled a pride in their culture & heritage.

After the Berlin Wall came down Communism in Europe was collapsing. Cuba depended on the USSR for 30 years & totalitarian control in Cuba was sure to fall like other Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. But that didn’t happen. Why? From my time in Moscow I knew people living under Communism needed strength. This tenacity must also be part of Cuban society. Had hardships evolved into a determination for survival?

Compassion is one thing but I still lacked understanding.

From the perspective of a Freelancer I appreciated opportunities Cubans couldn’t even dream about. My career allowed me chances to work in a medium built on the foundation of Free-Speech, I worked Independently with clients, & truth be told…cameras & TV equipment are fun tools to make a living with & I enjoyed my trade.

In the 90’s I became friends with Mark Zannoni, a fellow freelancer transplanted from Chicago to Southern Florida. I remember him translating at a restaurant in FTL. Since I’m ignorant in any language except English, I was curious how a kid from Chicago named Zannoni knew Spanish.   He told me his mom escaped from Cuba & he learned it from her. I now had a connection to Cuba.

Over the years I picked up bits of information from him. As with many of Mark’s opinions, he was adamant about complete change of government in his mother’s native land. When he told me an Uncle was part of the Bay of Pigs Invasion I began to understand his emotions. It was personal to him. A perspective I lacked but respected.

In 2008, when Fidel handed over power to his brother Raul I asked Z if he would consider visiting Cuba. As I mentioned, he was adamant…”No! Raul is even more vicious than his brother.” They both must go before he would ever visit his mother’s place of birth. The reality of government oppression was close to him & many others. The community of expat Cubans was a generational stew of emotions.

So all of these things were percolating in my mind. As I approached retirement I wanted to reward myself with a trip. I also knew I wanted to rekindle my enthusiasm for photography. The drastically different way of life in Cuba along with the US’s evolving relationship was the chance to do both.

I want to see & experience to better understand the culture of the people in Cuba.

Just before retirement at Super Bowl 50 I was playing dominoes with Mark. He is the kind of friend you can have a good disagreement with & remain close. I explained my plan of a Photo Essay. His questions revolved around “Your just one person. You can’t change things.” My response was “I want to experience the people & the culture”. He felt I was supporting the Castro’s but was interested in learning about my trip. I don’t know if our conversation distracted him but I won 5 games of dominoes to his none.

In October of last year, at 49 years of age Mark Zannoni passed away. I miss him & grieve for his family & many friends. I’m sure that throughout my trip he will be in my thoughts. Z’s spirit for life motivates me to capture the soul of the Cuban people.

Cuba Photo Essay a Motivational Journey

To begin 2017 my blog will deal with my motivations to photograph people & culture in Cuba. I will post weekly with text instead of twice a month with pictures. My inspiration has evolved & taken some unexpected twists. If you know somebody that might enjoy a creative exploration…please share my blog.

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To begin 2017 my blog will deal with motivations to photograph people & culture in Cuba. I will post weekly with text instead of twice a month with pictures. My inspiration has evolved & taken some unexpected twists. If you know somebody that might enjoy a creative exploration…please share my blog.

All stories have a beginning, middle & an end. This post begins in the middle.

I sit here on 11/26 starting my journal. I’ve been planning for 9 months & departure is 2 months away. A strange time to begin but I awoke to learn Fidel Castro died. I don’t understand why this sparked me to begin. But inspiration doesn’t have an on/off switch.

The seeds of a Cuban Photo Essay began 2 years ago when President Obama restored diplomatic relations. The most logical comment I heard was ”What we had been doing for 50 years wasn’t working. Why not try something different.” I found it intriguing that Pope Francis, originally from Argentina, played a role in easing tensions that existed for most of my life. I also found it reassuring Canada was involved.

My understanding of US Cuba relations was thin even though I enjoy reading about history. Born in 1955 I have zero recollection of the revolution. My knowledge of the Bay of Pigs is because of a memorable name. The missile crisis happened when I was 7 & resulted in air raid drills in elementary school. Years after the assignation of Kennedy I couldn’t make connections to theories of Oswald’s visit the Cuban embassy in Mexico.

As a teenager, the swirl of events around Vietnam, Civil Rights, the riots of 1968, the Generation Gap & assignations of MLK & Bobby Kennedy occupied my developing worldview. These events impacted my life more than anything on a Caribbean island. In youthful ignorance, the iconic image of guerilla fighter Che Guevara was without context of what he represented to older radical baby boomers.

When the TV Docudrama Missiles of October aired & I began to understand the events that took us close to nuclear war. My link between the USSR & Cuba fell into the muddy category of communist & satellite. Very Cold Warish. That program also reinforced my perception of the power of the medium of TV.

My 4 years at Kent State focused on finding a path to my degree & a job. I had exposure to new people & ideas while having a good time. However, connections to history & international events rarely came to mind.

As I began my career in TV production, the host of a show told of trips to Havana when she was younger. “It only cost a quarter each way on a banana boat. We would go there for the weekend & have a great time!”

Around then I went on my 1st Caribbean vacation. Flying to Grand Cayman, I saw a landmass that surprised me. The plane wasn’t a US carrier so it was OK for me to be over  Cuba. OK but strange. I had ignored that Cuba was in route. It was like it didn’t exist.

Santiago in Hemmingway’s Old Man & the Sea was just that…a wonderful old man his boat, the sea & the fish. I humanized him as a man but de-cultured his heritage.

Over the next 2 decades marriage, family & career dominated my life. The topics of my reading were mostly about US & European history. In books I read, little was ever mentioned about Cuba or Latin America. Vacations to the Caribbean were focused on sailing & beaches.

Occasionally events in the news briefly caught my attention.

The Mariel boat-lift resonated as a strange event. Criminals & patients from mental health facilities were exported. The tragedy of Elian Gonzalez evolved as an story more twisted than Shakespeare could write. The conclusion ended with in an iconic image of a federal agent taking a 7 year old child at gunpoint. That image resonates in my mind alongside the May 4th 1970 picture from Kent State of the girl screaming over the body of Jeffrey Miller.

I was further confused about Cuba when Guantanamo Bay became a story-line in the news. Why do we have a military base in a country we have no diplomatic relationships with? HUH!

Living over 1000 miles from Miami with no connections to the people of or expatriates from Cuba, numerous stories of escapes to the US didn’t resonate very deep. I felt empathy about the separation of families. However, I had no perspective of the depth of emotions Cubans in both countries lived with.

Recognizing my ignorance I am motivated to better understand Cuba, its history & the people. Immersing myself in their culture even for a brief period of time I hope to get a better perspective of their lives. I also will attempt to merge the format of Studs Terkel every man interviews with Humans of New York. I will document moments of people’s lives, interview them & write short essays to share on my blog. I want to push my photography & develop a more coherent writing process. I want to be a good neighbor representing the people, of the United States. I am, after all, from Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood.