It’s easy to savor the quaintness of a country when it has been a forbidden fruit for so long.
Cuba’s vintage automobiles, revolution graffiti and cigar-puffing characters satisfy the travel itch, but they can upstage reality as they did on my first trip there in 2012. On a return visit in December, I wanted to better understand Cuban life as I traveled deep into the country on a photography expedition/cultural exchange program.
The country’s interior held time-washed neighborhoods of worn turquoise, faded pink and yellows that had seen better days. In Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Baracoa, Holguin, Camaguey, Remedies, Santa Clara and communities, people invited you into their homes or stopped on the sidewalk to ask “American?”
Conversations ended with unanswered questions: “What will happen? Will things change?”
People waiting. That’s what I saw on the streets where they live.
At the same time of my visit, a United States delegation, including California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a longtime advocate for improved Cuba-United States relations, landed in Havana. The delegation returned home on our same flight, and we talked with Lee in the coffee shop at the Havana airport. She was investigating a Cuban diabetes drug that drastically reduces amputations, she said, but there was a happiness lingering around the group that was noticeable.
As soon as I got to Miami, I looked on her website and learned this was her 20th trip to the country. In 2009, she visited both Fidel Castro and Raul Castro. For years, Lee has worked toward the prison release of American Alan Gross and improved relations.
The next day, President Barack Obama announced the release of Gross in a prisoner-swap and new plans to ease restrictions on Cuba.
It feels as if we’ve invited our unpredictable great uncle back to the family reunion because we realize his people shouldn’t be punished for his bad behavior. Still, the last time we hung out, he wrecked the place. Everyone is going to be on edge for a while to see whether we all get along or someone starts throwing things.
“What will happen?” we wonder. “Will things change?”
For the people featured below, I hope things do.
One man’s art
The room where 73-year-old artist Angel Luis turns trash into flowers crumbles around him nearly every day. The words “Peligro Derumbe” scrawled on his studio walls in Santiago de Cuba have nothing to do with artistic expression. They are a warning: “Danger of collapse.”
From a building on the brink of condemnation, Angel works hard to unearth the leftover goodness in things. He tries to focus on the good in life, too. That hole in his roof? At least, it lets in natural light and offers free air conditioning. It’s an attitude found in almost every dilapidated neighborhood. Things are falling apart now, but people have lived through worse.
Every day, Angel scours the streets for abandoned bottles, tarp remnants and scraps of people’s lives. He carves them into daisies or fashions crazy hats or strips the plastic into colorful streamers that dance in the breeze creeping through the broken windows.
Neighbors often drop by to give him cast-offs for his art projects and watch him work. Two women live next door with a rooster, some cats and a guinea pig or two. They like to hear the artist sing as he creates.
Angel lives with his wife across the hall from the makeshift studio in other “peligro de derrumbe” rooms. Most of the time, they sit in the hallway packed with plants and plastic. There is another big hole at that end of the hall. When the sunlight sneaks in, his plastic glows.
Upon request, Angel will sing his favorite song – the one he used to sing as the opening act at the Tropicana club here in Santiago de Cuba.
Now, his broken-down studio is his stage.
Rafael and his wife, Carmelina, live in a world thrown askew by an unpredictable neighbor – the ocean. What Hurricane Sandy didn’t destroy, she rearranged. Coconut trees bend toward the sea, and houses tilt backward. Walking through this pocket of paradise feels more like a carnival fun house.
Living here in Playa Duaba requires agility as 91-year-old Rafael proved when he scaled a tree before his children could stop him from showing off for the visitors.
“Papa, no!” they shouted as he looped a rope around his feet and climbed to the top then slid back down to the laughter of strangers and the groans of his family.
Rafael’s feet and hands curve inward from years of climbing. He boasts the muscles and attitude of a much younger man so keeping Papa out of the trees isn’t easy.
His wife, Carmelina, collects dolls and creates artwork out of driftwood and other flotsam delivered to her doorstep by the ocean. Sometimes, she fashions dolls out of coconut husks or sews them from scraps to sell to the occasional tourist who wanders up their way while visiting the beach. The people who live here help look out for one another, but it’s not always easy to do. Everyone is getting older.
Life isn’t all beautiful beach sunrises and sunsets here. A lifetime of worrying about the next storm can wear you down. Food can be scarce besides fish, coconuts and whatever vegetables you can grow or barter.
If tourism restrictions get lifted even further, beach communities will experience a tidal wave of new visitors. Some people see that as an opportunity. Others will see it as an intrusion.
Cultural exchange comes in many forms, and the best ones often do not involve words.
On another sandy stretch of land near the Bay of Mata, we walked down a long road where people fished, bathed and dipped laundry into a river lined with trees. The day grew warm, and a man asked if we were thirsty. Then he scrambled up a tree and threw down a dozen coconuts for us to crack open and drink.
I spent some time with a man proud of his sow’s newest litter then walked along a dirt path until an elderly man motioned me onto the porch where his grandchildren were playing with a dimpled ping-pong ball bashed on one side.
“English?” I asked, and the old man shook his head and smiled.
I remembered the tennis ball wedged in my bag for just the right occasion when a small gift felt right. I pulled it out and played for awhile with the grandfather and the boy and his sister while their mother chuckled in the shade. She brought me a cup of coffee in a tiny white cup, and I sat for a while enjoying the porch and the kindness it held.
When work is done, Rene likes to sit on the porch of his blue house and sing traditional Cuban songs while his family and neighbors gather around to celebrate a musical cultural that spans generations.
He is teaching his grandchildren the songs of his people. When his granddaughter Samai sings, people smile.
Crossroads in Cuba
It is difficult to capture the essence of a country with just a few photographs. An image is merely a story in progress – life halted for a split second in a digital narration that tacked together might – just might – shed natural light on what life is like there. There are always unanswered questions that time or translation steals, and you spend hours hunched over a computer screen looking for the meaning of them all. My internal monologue goes something like this: “Hate that one. Dislike that one. Where the hell is that one? Why did I take that one? Why am I even here? That one’s OK. I like that one. I need to go back.”
Often I feel like I’ve let down the people who shared their lives with me or my friends and family interested in learning about a country that they might only visit through photographs. Then I relax my self-doubt and remind myself that in the brief seconds that pass between a photographer and the subject, one of life’s greatest cultural exchanges takes place.
And the monologue goes something like this: “I see you, and you see me in this shared moment that we have created.”
“I was one of the first transsexuals,” the older woman said. Once persecuted and often sent to labor camps or jailed, Cuba’s homosexual and transgendered population are living more open lives.
Many credit the advocacy work of Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raul Castro, who led the movement to allow free sex reassignment surgery for transgendered people. In 2014, she created a stir by becoming the first person to cast a “no” vote in Cuban Parliament because she felt a workers’ rights bill didn’t do enough to prevent discrimination against people with HIV or unconventional gender identities.
She is president of the Cuban Multidisciplinary Centre for the Study of Sexuality and Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education.
A woman picks up her Libreta de Amastecimiento, government rations that include daily bread and a monthly distribution of five eggs, 4 lbs. of sugar, 5 lbs. of broken rice, 1⁄2 pound of beans, half a bottle of cooking oil, 4 ounces of coffee, 1 lb. of spaghetti, 1 kilogram of whole milk powder, 1 liter of soy yogurt, and cooking gas.
Families still depend on the ration system although President Raul Castro has denounced its effectiveness as “paternalistic, irrational and unsustainable.”
Cuba government sources report more than $1 billion is spent on the program began in the 1960s. Critics of a plan to end the rations and establish a welfare system believe it will create even more economic hardship on Cuban families.
The average Cuban salary is a mere $20 a month. Most pensioners receive $10.
“We wait in long lines to get food, and the items sell out before you get there,” a woman told me in Baracoa.
Cuba imports 80 percent of its food. According to data from the U.S.-Cuba Trade Council, approximately 20 percent of Cuba’s food imports come from the United States. In 2001, Congress passed an embargo exemption allowing American businesses to sell food and agricultural products to Cuba with certain restrictions.
The most important one: advance cash payment.
“Want some rum?” a man asked. “Even the dogs like it.”
Although wine, beer and other liquors can be found, rum is still the national spirit of choice. For a taste of Cuba’s intriguing love affair with all things rum, check out the Bacardi website: http://www.bacardi.com/us/heritage/our-story
It proves that when it comes to rum, passion overflows.
Licensed U.S. travelers will be able to bring home up to $100 worth of Cuban alcohol and tobacco.
A cowboy walks through his neighborhood in Remedios. Cuba carries a colorful history of cowboy culture although today most, if not all, ranches are owned by the government. Despite thick grasslands and what appeared to be working cattle operations, beef consumption appears scarce – scarce as in seldom on the menu in restaurants or family homes.
Working cowhands reportedly are paid based on weight gain of the cattle assigned to them. Several times, I heard stories of cowboys hauling dead cows to a railroad track to avoid harsh penalties reportedly given to anyone who kills a cow. What happens to all the beef?
“Someone is eating it,” a man told me. “We just don’t know who.”
What Cubans are eating is pork. Many families own pigs, and sometimes house brood sows in their homes as both an income producer and future meat supplier.
In 2010, the United States exported $15.3 million in pork to Cuba but faced tough competition by the European Union and Canada, according to National Hog Farmers Magazine, a decent read if you’re into that kind of thing.
In 2014, pork exports bore less profit, toppling to $1.3 million. We’re still winning the export war in chicken leg quarters, though. We shipped $142 million worth to Cuba in 2015.
The Domino effect
Domino players connect the dots and clack the ivories in what is called Cuba’s second national game falling only to baseball. Often played more like bridge with pairs numbering 0 to 9 most of the time, the one-time parlor game can escalate into a contact sport as fierce rivalries exist in neighborhoods.
Strategy and courage win most games. You need to play smart especially when rum-drinking old men are at the table. A suggestion: Ask the rules before you drink the rum, and be wary of rule-shifting old men. They can be a real game changer.
In many ways the diplomatic moves around the domino tables of Cuba echo what is happening between our two countries. Everyone wants in on the game. Settling on the rules is where things are going to get tricky.