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.

Cuban Cigars

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The iconic status of Cigars motivated me to visit the tobacco farm of the Cameo family. Sergio was a wonderful host. I was amazed at the young man’s maturity. Generous with his time, he shared his knowledge & a few laughs…but no family secrets. Inside a drying houses the reflected morning sun fueled my attempts to capture some interesting images. This portrait is one of my top 3 favorite shots from my trip.

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Respecting & honoring family are subjects I experienced with other Cubans I came in contact with. While Sergio was giving a tour of his home I wasn’t surprised to hear praise for his father but also respect for his grandparents. He proudly told me about his ancestors that had emigrated from Spain in the mid 1800’s. His family has farmed the land the entire time. This father & son portrait has an interesting generational flip-flop. Benito has on the ball cap & his son wears the traditional headgear.

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I was struck at the size, strength & vibrant color of the tobacco plants. They are cultivated from a seed the size of a pinhead. I learned the first leaves are cut for cigars. The second sets of leaves are for cigarettes. After tobacco leaves are harvested they begin a lengthy process before being rolled into cigars. Some leaves can be aged for 5 years.

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First there is the curing where the leaves turn from green to yellow to orange & finally brown. The next steps are aging & fermentation. I was told different blends of spices, honey & rum are common seasonings. I began to understand the correlation cigars have with wine & craft beer. Recipes, aging & timing all are critical to the final product. Like cuttings from vineyards other farmers value the seeds of tobacco plants. The process is a blend of science, generational expertise & mother natures.

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In hindsight, I’d have been smart to  grab the tripod from the trunk. The sunlight coming thru the door bouncing off of the reddish dirt gave a wonderful quality to the light. Mixed with the aroma of drying tobacco the radiance of the room seemed to have a taste to it. The textures on the leaves was both subtle & dramatic. The limited spectrum of colors was a rich blend of earth tones. My eyes saw things I couldn’t capture with the camera. If I go back, I will have my tripod & do low ISO/f 16/long exposures. Speaking of equipment, the most manageable package of gear was the 7D/18-135 & an OTS bag with 28, 40 & 100mm lenses.  The 400mm stayed in my room.   The 2nd camera around my neck was of little value. Twice I wished I had my 10-22mm I left in Pittsburgh.

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Part of Sergio’s plans for the future is to continue to learn from his father. He understands the importance of his family’s reputation & recognizes he must gain more experience & work hard. The Camejo name has been respected as farmers in the Valley for over a century & a half. The leaves from their farm are recognized for consistent high quality. Rolled cigars are a significant export in the Cuban economy. The government purchases 90% of the leaves at a price set by the government. Sergio believes the possibility of changing relations with the US means more people will be interested in Cuban Tobacco making the future bright for his family’s farm.

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The quality of the final cigar begins with using his fingers to judge the dryness of each leaf. The tools he needed were basic. He had a board across his lap & a machete on his belt, to trim the ends. Once he rolls specific leafs into the layers of the cigar it is wrapped tight using a large unblemished leaf. He then smells the final product, examines the overall rolling before he lights it & tastes it. He also inspects the ash. Four of his 5 senses are used to ensure the high standard his product is recognized for. Consistency & quality go hand in hand in the world of cigars.

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Cockfighting is legal in Cuba but betting, like most gambling, was shut down by after the 1959 Revolution. Although Sergio is only 20 years old his confident poise is evident as he proudly displays his champion fighting rooster. Before we took this picture he took the time to groom/massage his champion. He explained the entire training, diet, conditioning & recovery process. It was a bit like the routine of boxers. As I was listening & taking photos I had my only Hemingway Moment while I was in Cuba.

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The concept of family extends to all that work alongside each other. Workers on the farm bridge the history of families with the Camejo’s which not only is a sign of loyalty but also respect & honesty. I’ve always had high regard for farmers. Working close to the land is tough, dirty, honest work. I learned a lot about cigars & discovered coffee with rum is Patriota & rum with coffee Carajillo. Details can be important. It was a beautiful morning on the farm.

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.