Cuba by the Sea

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In planning my trip to Cuba I had a wish list of subjects I wanted to photograph. As anybody that knows me will attest, boating is an activity I love. I wanted to experience some time on the water, preferably a sailboat, with a fisherman. In emails with my tour company & guide prior to departure, I realized this was not going to happen because of strict regulations on boats on this tropical island. Even before I departed I got a sense of the governments strict authority on peoples lives. I felt a sense of shear disappointment for Cubans because they couldn’t experience the pleasure of the water as I did.

02
I was able to visit a fishing village near Trinidad along the Rio Guaurabo where it flows into the Caribbean. The marina, where I estimate about 35 boats were moored, was as primitive as any I’ve seen. The long narrow design of all the boats was similar. Those that had motors had small inboard engines. While some had a fresh coat of paint, all of the boats had the rugged & rough appearance of a craft designed for work not pleasure.

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The pallet of vibrant colors could be seen in various stages of faded repair. A few of the larger boats had a permanent top to provide shade but most had no protection from the harsh tropical sun. The still clear waters of the river provided reflections that surrounded the marina.

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As anyone who has owned a boat can verify there is always maintenance that needs to be done. In Cuba, with only basic hand tools to work with, building or repairing is a slow process. My access to the marina was tenuous & I didn’t try to engage with anyone for fear of getting them in trouble. I easily could have spent the day with the men in this harbor. However, I was told “jefe” was coming. It was an inspector from the government checking the status of a boat being repaired. It was time for me to depart.

05
In almost every marina I’ve ever seen there is at least one boat that makes me curious about the failed hopes of the owner. Even still serene waters can consume a person’s dreams. It appears the name of the boat is Fortia, which translates into Strong. Look closely at the reflection on the starboard chain. You can see a link has separated. Soon the persistent power of water will overpower the craft. Water always wins.

06
Dervis Lopez Abram has fished in the Bay of Guaurabo for the past 15 years. In that time he learned many tricks from a mentor who fished these waters his entire life. Trolling with artificial lures on lines, not nets, his catch is Red Snapper, Salt Fish & Tuna. He told me over the past 5 years fewer fish are being caught & he believes it might be due to climate change. The government buys 90% of his catch at prices they determine. He is able to sell or consume the reaming 10%. When his son is not in school Dervis is passing on to him the lessons about fishing he has learned. He is proud of how quickly his only son has learned to catch different kinds of fish.

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The Fara is Dervises boat where he routinely sets out on the sea in early evening and returns at dawn. At 6.4 meters by 2.4 meters it is one of the larger boats I saw in the crude moorings. It is powered by a 12 hp Soviet diesel. He hopes after his son graduates & does his mandatory 2 years in the army he will follow in the tradition of his father. If he does, he will pass the boat on to him giving him a head start in life.

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In hindsight I couldn’t help but to reflect on Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize wining novel The Old Man & The Sea. While Santiago struggled with a big fish, the fishermen in this village contend with much more. Making a living on the water may have a romantic appeal to some. However, for Cubans, the effort to survive as fisherman is a way of life filled with endless challenges beyond those that mother nature presents. In spite of the hardships they hope for a better catch tomorrow.

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.