This US Traveler’s Glimpse of Cuba

May 28, 2017 |

Monday morning commute in Trinidad.

 

Photos and text by Dan Segal*

HAVANA TIMES — In March, I visited Cuba for the first time, with a friend.  We both have families and are in the busy peak years of our work lives, so it was hard to pull it off, and equally rewarding to do it.  One of the most enjoyable surprises of the trip was feeling the warm familiarity of the Cuban people.

Here in the US, we’ve heard characterizations of Cuba for many years, so until I visited, all I had were passive presumptions.  Members of my extended family tried to tell me how it would feel in Cuba, and what it would be like–mostly trying to curb my optimism–even though none of them had visited Cuba.

Big sister, little sister.

The whole experience proved positive, which should not be a surprise, but that’s why we travel, to feel common threads of love and humanity, as well as the common burdens of humanity’s weight, that we all share no matter where we live on Earth.

For US citizens to visit Cuba, our travel must fall under one of 12 accepted reasons.  Many US citizens choose the ‘People to People’ category because it seems the most general.  Many times during our visit, the power of this term came to mind because the people of Cuba engaged us in conversations that opened doors of culture, and of the mind. Doors that led to beautiful and intriguing places, and to more doors, some of which we did not open, and I daydream about returning to knock on those.

Even the casual photographer will find Cuba an inexhaustible dream. With an extra camera battery, I still charged twice a day. It would be cliché, and a mistake, to simply focus the lens on the structures and trappings of antiquity, as if juxtaposition is Cuba’s only trait, as if Havana and the entire country is only a museum that highlights time having passed, as if the whole culture is summed up as a time capsule. But then again, it’s impossible to miss that side of Cuba’s personality.

I appreciated the patience of so many Cubans who didn’t seem to mind my camera being out all the time.  Walking the streets for miles and hours, by day and by night, seeking immersion in the whirlwind of nuance and circumstance, and talking with people along the way, the photographer tries to capture dimension, and add depth to every image, beyond the substance of the photo.  A good photo catches facial expression or some recognizable body language that enriches the story and adds meaning in a format that lacks words, such as the ‘Rolling Market’ or ‘Sharing Photos’ images. A good photo should offer more than just the building or the people or the scenery within its borders. I hope some of those added dimensions come through in this sampling of photographs.

Soccer in Plaza Vieja.

A few themes emerged in the scenes I found myself drawn to capture on film.  These themes translated loosely into the folder names I used for organizing over 2,000 photos, including Street Scenes, People, Sports, Agriculture/Work, Transportation (with subheadings of Cars/Trucks, Bicycles, Horses/Wagons).  Horses and wagons were such a vibrant and emblematic feature of the few days we spent in and around the city of Trinidad.

Again, easy to snap cliché photos of horses and wagons, but from behind the lens, it’s so much more than that–it’s the low-angle light on the faces of the riders, or the rainbow of colors in the clothing of the wagon passengers, and the slanting last light of day on their faces as they squint a little against the universal sun. All glimpses of real people thinking real thoughts during real moments of real days.  Apprehension, anxiety, daydreaming, fantasizing…whatever people do while they’re going about their lives.

The four soccer photos show boys picking teams at Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, and pickup games in Trinidad on Calle Cruz Verde and at the school there. The boy standing on the raised concrete sidewalk as his friends played 2 on 2 was announcing the play-by-play action in a high pitched voice, part narrator and part comedian.

The universal beauty of pick-up soccer was easy to see in its pure form, everywhere we saw kids playing soccer, often barefoot boys, no sidelines, no adults or coaches, and none of the expensive accessories that have deflated the joy of youth sports in the US, and turned it into yet another business.

This is not to sound idealistic about what kids or people may lack in Cuba, but the joy of kids playing soccer in the street and on rough fields was anything but idealistic.  It was realistic.  You play with what you have, where you can–a good reset for kids in the US, and I wish the kids I coach here in New York could have seen that.

A mother of one of the boys was sitting nearby, and when I asked her if she minded me taking photos, she said of course not, and asked if I wanted her to take me to the school field around the corner where the older kids were playing.  The other two photos are from that schoolyard.

One photo shows the classic and natural movement of team soccer as all kids are moving in unison while one carries the ball up field, as they all gracefully avoid some concrete pieces half-buried in the field.  If kids in the US played in these conditions, they’d all be better soccer players, again, not to sound idealistic, but as a coach, I see many young kids who are well trained and well outfitted, but lack the innate wisdom that only comes from pick-up soccer in an unstructured environment.

Would it be nice for these kids to have a lush green field to play on?  Maybe. But they all seemed to be doing well and having fun without that.  The last schoolyard photo was more about how the light seemed to elongate the already long forms of the boys who were waiting for next game.  And how the stretching light seemed to stretch the waiting…anyone who has called ‘next game’ on the playground should recognize this scene.

Trinidad, last light

For years I have been photographing plants and ecology for the work I do, but in Cuba, I found myself drawn to taking photos of people. Seeing kids arriving for the school day at Plaza Vieja was both charming and a little sad. I could not help but think of our morning routine at home, which can be stressful and dreary during the long dark months of winter.  I’m sure some kids were worrying about some things, but there was such a pleasant calm and sweetness about the kids we watched as they crossed the square for school, some in pairs, some with parents, some with siblings…fathers handing over lunch money, parents carrying backpacks, kids snacking, gossiping, smiling…

I also found myself taking endless photos of Cuba’s colorful and creative modes of transportation, and its simplest forms of conveyance, not just the luscious old US cars, but the more stoic Russian trucks, as well as the lean perfection of the bicycle, or the timelessness of the horse-drawn wagon.  Father and daughter on horseback on Calle Cruz Verde, that was a Monday morning, another going-to-school photo.

Nice way to get to school–and again, though it might seem idealistic, to me it seems like a bottom-line situation: maybe they don’t own a car, maybe they do, but father and daughter look pretty happy, and close, compared to some of the glum faces I see at the school drive-through here in New York on a Monday morning.  It is hard to generalize, or put a finger squarely on the reason, so I would rather not–but instead, will let a photograph capture a moment, and a moment’s emotion, without the burden of analysis.

The only questions for me after visiting Cuba are when I can get back there, and for how long can I stay…

*Havana Times Guest writer

Click on the thumbnails below to view all the photos in this gallery

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What's your opinion?

  • Bee1936

    Wonderful glimpse. I want the USA to return to full cooperation/friendship with Cuba. The ‘electric wiring’ over streets and sidewalks looks scary. The people are beautiful.

  • IZ

    Great article. Thank you Dan. I visited Cuba for the first time 3 years ago. Have been there 14 times since then… for those same reasons that you described so well in your article..

  • Nick

    Hey Dan,
    Some great photos.
    Wonderful use of light and colour.
    I’m from the UK and Cuba has been a ‘second home’ to me for a good many years now.
    Very interesting to get your first impressions in words and photos.
    It strikes me that you have managed to capture something Cuban and non touristy.
    Smile on my face.
    Thanks.

  • Sky

    Surely it is the contrary to what the author says: it is easy to generalise and to project a subjective ‘analysis’ of the lives of people snapped. Our 13 year old neighbour has a really difficult time getting to his school in Miramar from Centro Habana. He needs leave at 6am to be sure of getting to school on time. It makes for a long day… People might be smiling but depression and anxiety are massive problems in Cuba.

    I understand that the unique experience of going to Cuba, so long forbidden fruit to Americans can make tourists want to record anything and everything. A lot of these photos appear to have been hastily snapped from afar and there is little of the engagement the author talks about. Also For it to really work, street photography needs to be sharp, well composed, insightful, thought provoking and even humorous (though not at the expense of any subject), otherwise as the author recognises, it is easy to snap cliches. And Cuba does not need any more cliches.

  • PapaMurf

    I want to go back. There are so many interesting places to visit. The men are hot. The people are lovely , and unlike some U.S. cities, I feel safe walking around.

  • Dan Segal

    Sky, thanks for your comment. I really don’t mean to sound naive, or to idealize any of the conditions that Cuban people don’t like. I know there are problems in Cuban society, just as in any society–and I know that smiling faces do not mean that everyone is always happy, or that some kids walking to school peacefully mean that all kids do that.

    One thing I have been thinking about since visiting Cuba is that for every thing we have been taught about Cuba in a negative way, as kids growing up in the US or as adults who hear and see things in the media, we have a version of that ‘problem’ in the US, but we usually call it something else. Struggles, poverty, dissent, sadness, frustration, alienation, hopelessness…those things don’t go away with money or the choice of political system…and depression and anxiety seem to be inherent in the modern human condition, even if there is a Cuban version and a US version that might be explained differently, or considered to arise from different causes. I hope it does not come across that my article’s conclusions are simplistic or condescending–I am not saying that smiling faces and colorful clothing = an idyllic country with happy people. But…I was impressed that in spite of problems, so many Cubans we met seemed to be fairly happy people and not obsessed with their own problems–as best we could tell from meeting people. I kept trying to imagine how a Cuban person visiting the US would be treated, and would feel–and I do believe your country scores a lot higher on that one…those are the kind of bottom line measures I was trying to point out.

    I am sure there are many Cubans–and people from any other country that is visited by tourists–who basically want to say “you think it’s so nice here, but you have no idea”. I felt that way in Cuba when people would speak so highly of visiting NY City–I grew up near there, and to me it is crowded, polluted, over-rated, expensive, and in many ways charmless and impersonal. Yes it’s a ‘great’ city, but there’s clearly some relativism at work: I’d rather visit Havana than NYC at this point in my life. I would guess many Cubans would say the same about wanting to visit NYC.

    Some of the photos I took are definitely part of the mobile experience of being in Cuba for a short time and trying to see as much as possible–I wish we could have spent a month in one locale and ‘moved in’ a bit more. Yes many photos are impromptu or spontaneous. I know there is some risk in taking candid photos, that they might seem voyeuristic or hasty, or that they risk the cliche I was pointing out. And I worry about that with many of the photos I take. With my own family at home, I much prefer to take photos without staging them or setting them up–and many of those might lack a bit of composition or appear to lack engagement, but my hope is that they gain something else, which I guess is just that spontaneity. Anyway I appreciate your thoughts and welcome them, and would also welcome a continued conversation with you! Peace,
    Dan

  • Ken Hiebert

    I expect that Cubans who move abroad will miss many aspects of their life in Cuba.
    But, while I cannot claim to be an expert, I think many Cubans are worn down by privation and the daily struggle for the means of life. By no means did all Cubans look happy to me.
    A friend of mine who spent quite a bit of time in Cuba was told that if she got rid of her back pack and looked tired and harried, she could pass for Cuban.

  • Carlyle MacDuff

    Nice photographs Dan which reflect well known tourist spots in Cuba. Glad you enjoyed your visit.
    Because they are tourist hot-spots the restoration of which has been paid for by UNESCO, Habana Vieja and Trinidad display an appearance of semi-prosperity which belies the reality of much of Cuba.
    If for example, you had visited La Lisa in Havana, or Pinar del Rio you would have seen the hard reality of life for the average Cuban.
    The local populations of both Habana Vieja and Trinidad benefit enormously from tourism. Whereas only ten years ago, Trinidad had some 45 Casa Particulars, it now has over 300 and at least a couple of dozen paladars. Four years ago the hotel next door to the Iberostar was in a state of ruin – restored it now charges 180 CUC per night. Only two years ago the price of a Bucanero in a trova was 1 CUC – it is now 2 CUC. The return ticket to Playa d’Ancon was 2 CUC. Now it is 5 CUC. There has in consequence been an economic trickle down effect. The kids playing soccer have a proper ball, the bicycles are modern not the usual incredibly heavy iron ones that were imported from China. But if you go to the Cuba where most Cubans live, the kids playing baseball are using a stone wrapped in cloth as a ball and a rough stick as a bat.
    I am not criticizing your observations Dan, but if you return, do try to get away from the tourist hot-spots and see and record that hard reality of life for the average Cuban.

    • Dan Segal

      Carlyle,
      thanks for your comments. I definitely saw the influence of prosperity that UNESCO’s restorations have brought, and that tourism has subsequently brought to those restored centers. And yes I do realize those may be exceptional. We saw a lot of hard life between locales and at the margins of those locales, but honestly that hardness is what we expected to see, and I did not feel right about posting photos of that hardness as much–lest someone think I was trying to glorify that! I am not sure what it the ‘right’ way for Cuba to manage what seems like imminent growth–and I don’t want to say that prosperity is the answer to all problems, nor do I want to say that stifling tourism or growth is the best way to keep gawkers out of Cuba. I think the answer is in the details–do tourists want to come and have their needs met, and just pay pay pay for services without caring about the people who ‘serve’ them? Or do travelers visit and try to make connections, as can happen in any country? I think the latter is a better situation, and it just depends on how it happens–if people treat each other kindly, if they try to do nice things while visiting, if they are sensitive, etc. If one were to suggest that the only safe way to keep Cuba whole and pure is to keep everyone out, well, that is often what people suggest is part of the problem in the first place…the last thing I would want to see in Cuba is American businesses, or those from any other country, taking up shop there and making money off Cuba. One of the most refreshing and insightful things about visiting Cuba is not seeing all the familiar companies selling stuff–Kentucky Fried Chicken, Benetton, etc. Then the question is how to make sure some of that prosperity reaches people without fundamentally altering the nature of a place.
      As soon as we arrived I realized we were going to be seeing two main centers of population and culture that people wanted us to see, and that was ok, although yes, I realized we were not seeing a lot of the intervening country where that hardness persists. I would rather have spent more time in those places, but that will be for the next time.
      THanks for reading!
      Dan

    • Kennedy Earle Clarke

      Carlyle, the next time I visit the USA, I will take photos of homeless people wandering the streets in the dead of winter, hobbling together around a makeshift fire from card board boxes and searching the garbage bins for food to eat. Why don’t you allow peaceful dogs to lay down peacefully? .

      On my next visit to the USA, I will take photos of the slums in Harlem, in California and the other parts of the USA where people live worse than animals without hope. The USA is no paradise here on Planet Earth? It has more persons imprisoned than on any part of the planet’ it has ton loads of drug addicts. It has people who cannot access decent medical attention. Did you hear what the writer said? Walked up and down any hour of the day or night unmolested. Could this happen in the USA?
      Carlyle I toured Cuba on one of my visits and I was taken all around the place. I could have taken photos of whatever I wanted to take.

      If you are so critical of the country of adoption, why don’t you exit peacefully? You have nothing positive to say about the country and its people and I find it difficult to comprehend how you manage to live and exist under such horrific conditions? Next year when I visit Cuba, I will like to meet you and hold discussions, so that we could send those discussions to Havana Times in Nicaragua to be printed. In your reply to me, could you forward your address to me?

      • Carlyle MacDuff

        As Winston Churchill said Kennedy Earle Clarke, “Go to it”. Go and take photographs of the US and publish them where they are relevant. You may recall that it was I who provided the list of incarceration by different countries. The US is not the only alternative in a world of some 200 nations.
        I challenge you to disclose any criticism that i have made of the people of Cuba or of Cuba as a country.
        My criticisms are of the communist dictatorship and regime of the Castro family. They and their repression are not synonymous with Cuba and the people of Cuba. The country although under communist dictatorship is not a possession of the Communist Party of Cuba but off its people. Similarly the flag of Cuba belongs to the people, not to the communist regime.
        In general you are correct about taking photographs in Cuba – but there are parts where restrictions apply – military and MININT facilities – and try Villa Mariska. But where could you publish your photographs in Cuba?

  • Ken Hiebert

    You make a good point. Spend an hour on a freeway in the US and even in “polite” Canada and you will see plenty of angry and distressed people.

  • Carlyle MacDuff

    I Dan, have visited and walked in over thirty countries. Each has its share of misery. The question is one of degree. Per capita, Alberta Canada has the highest level of oil reserves in the world (in Canada natural resources belong to each province). It is prosperous even during recession. I know a man who has a mental illness, but his rent is paid by the Province of Alberta plus almost $1,000 per month. Once a year he flies to the Maritimes to visit his parents. Yet walking along Jasper Avenue – the main thoroghfare of Edmonton, the provincial capital city, I pass the odd beggar. They are usually quite young and the victims of drug use.
    Yes, horrify is a strong word which I do not use lightly.
    There have been in the past comments in these pages about racism. I would agree that from media reports, racism in the US is even more rife than in Cuba – but that does not excuse Cuba – or the regime’s methods of enhancing that racism which they purport to oppose. The State Police and MININT goons report to MININT – where their boss is Raul Castro’s son.
    Those cities in not only the US but also in Europe that grew following the industrial revolution have as their various industries declined tended to suffer a form of interior rot. Europe has possibly been better at endeavoring to remedy the problems, but not with total success.
    Living most of the time in Cuba as I do, exposes the reality of the consequences of the communist regime.
    I favour increases in tourism. For many Cubans it is painful to observe the apparent wealth of the tourists compared with their own plight. But the more that Cubans come in contact with those from capitalist countries (with all the faults) the sooner they will demand change by the regime. Even the cell phone and minor access to limited Internet is having its effects especially upon the young.
    One of the advantages of being married to a Cuban is becoming a member of “la familia”. I now know all 67 of my wife’s family and am totally accepted by them. So I have daily contact with four generations and consequently
    the opportunity to hear their views and opinions. My mother-in-law is one of those black people who initially benefitted from the revolution, her children had opportunity for education. Three of the four hold professional positions, but the fourth has a higher income – I won’t reveal how.
    The next generation – that of my step-daughter, a lawyer – are almost 100% professionals.
    The fourth generation include my God-daughter now six.
    But for example, when in discussion one day, I happened to mention that in
    the countries where I have lived, accused people are innocent until proven guilty and that the reverse applies in Cuba, my wife remonstrated with me, only to be interrupted by her own daughter, telling her that I was correct.
    Her generation are slowly but surely accumulating knowledge about the capitalist countries, they are far from having the access to information which we enjoy, but the time is ticking! Sorry for warbling on, but Cubans are my family and friends and I hope that perhaps my step-daughter and certainly my God-daughter may know the freedom in their lives which we enjoy!

  • Maria

    Hello All, I am interested in visiting Cuba for volunteer work next year and I am glad to find this “Havana Times” site. I’m from the US and met a Cuban who had been living here for many years (did not follow through on his paper work) and recently made his way back to Cuba [family is there] via Mexico. He was very unhappy with the communist system when he fled in 2000. I am hoping he can find a peaceful way to live there. . . so many restrictions and hardships, it sounds like, and he has been spoiled with easy access to internet, Facebook, etc. here. Are Cubans allowed to come and go more freely now or do you still need special “papers”? Carlylle MacDuff thanks for keeping it real.

    • Carlyle MacDuff

      The Cuban you write about Maria, is not alone, he will still be unhappy with the communist system as it hasn’t changed and indeed, communism doesn’t change. The main difficulty for Cubans in travelling to other countries is in obtaining visas from those countries. That is because so many when they reach another country have defected and sought political asylum. If everybody who would like to leave Cuba could do so, there would be an even greater flood of emigrants. Until a few years ago, Cuba itself would prevent people with passports and visas from leaving by application of the notorious ‘carta blanca’ and even although they have discontinued that, they still prevent some people from leaving.
      The essence of Cuban society is ‘la familia’ and members of families are very close to each other, the soul of the people is music, but then both family and music are free!
      I would encourage you to visit and enjoy both the beauty and people of Cuba – both are unforgettable. I assume that you know how and with whom you intend to volunteer.
      Because I live most of the time in Cuba, I can only speak of the reality. But thank you!

      • Maria

        Thank you so much for your information and obvious intelligence. I am sad for my friend who made a rash decision [I think] to go “visit” Cuba [via Mexico] where his elderly mother lives, along with other family members. Life was not perfect here in the US for him as he had not fully integrated[15 yrs here] but I believe his opportunities were better here. As he had left Cuba without permission [refusing to be part of the military and spending 6 mos in jail] I am thinking that on his return his Cuban documents [original birth certificate] might not be well-received. Do you think if I tried to inquire as to his well-being while visiting Cuba that it might trigger problems for him? Also, if I have the option to stay with an Airbnb host would your recommend that? Thank you!

        • Carlyle MacDuff

          Airbnb is an American outfit that has newly entered the Cuban market and charges for its services, if you book accommodation through them you will pay a higher price – I recently checked and was surprised at their high prices.
          My advice is to go to: http://www.cuba-particular.com
          It is Cuban and operated by a fellow named Raul Fuentes and there is no charge. On the site you will find details of each casa in each town and price per room. Reservation can be made on site and confirmation by e-mail is given. You pay the casa directly when you are there.
          Normal prices are about $US equivalent of $35 per room (accomodate 2 or 3), in Havana and $25 per night in Trinidad, Vinales, Baracoa and elsewhere. Usually the casa is the best place to eat. Breakfast 3 – 4 CUC, supper 8 -10 CUC.
          Unless you have an address, how are you going to contact your friend?

          • Maria

            Thank you I will do so! Will these places be mostly free from the watchful eye of the government or is it necessary to be extremely careful and stay away from any politically charged conversations with a host? I like learning from people about their personal situations/beliefs but do not want any problems!

          • Carlyle MacDuff

            On every block of every village, town and city in Cuba there is a ‘President’ of the CDR (Committee for the Defence of the Revolution) established by Fidel Castro on September 28, 1960 with the declared purpose being:

            “a collective system of revolutionary vigilance so that everybody (ie: the regime) knows who lives on every block, what they do on every block…in what activities they are involved and with whom they meet.”

            The Presidents of the CDR report to the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) and their duties include an annual report upon every single citizen. Those are now on a computer program. The Head of Cuba’s security services both within and outside Cuba (MININT) is General Alejandro Castro Espin, Raul Castro’s son.

            My advice is that when you have had time to assess any particular person, that you confine conversations to one on one, not in a group. Secondly that you do so only when well clear of others. Don’t embarrass Cubans by directly asking them political questions – remember that criticism of the regime by them is a criminal offence for which they can be jailed, just let them talk.

            The CDR when established was tutored by the East German Stasi. These forms of internal spying are based upon a system introduced by Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1935. General Alejandro Castro Espin has received training in Moscow.

            One of the questions which I am asked by young Cubans, is:

            “What is the difference between our political system and yours?”

            My response – only given in one on one conversations – is:

            In Cuba, the government has all the money and gives a little to the people, in our country the people have all the money and give a liitle – which we think is too much – called tax, to the government. If we don’t like the government there is opportunity every four years for the people to change it for a different political party and that happens – the people control.”

            Now I expect Maria that some of the US contributors will respond with abuse, but the US system is peculiar compared with other democratic nations. Clinton had 3 million more votes than Trump(f).

          • Maria

            Thank you for your insight into the Cuban system— it makes me sad to think people must always be afraid someone is listening in to “report” them if they say something that could be labeled “subversive.” Yes, the US system needs some revamping to be sure, but thank goodness every 4 years we can vote someone else in and let the parties argue things out in Congress. No system is perfect but it sounds like no one in Cuba is able to thrive in a purely economic sense? A photo of a young person in a Mercedes seems strangely deceptive– how is that possible on $30/month? I read news reports that some private businesses are now permitted with the profits going to the entrepreneur rather than the govt? That seems like a good sign perhaps. I almost feel defeated before even traveling there — do these volunteer groups actually help people [for example, teaching English to children] or will we be perpetuating a myth? Complicated :/

          • Carlyle MacDuff

            I cannot comment about a photograph of somebody in a Mercedes. I am aware that Fidel was said to have a fleet of them, but my personal observation of Raul has been in BMW’s. on the autopista.

          • Maria

            Hi, my friend has some relatives who are on social media and I think I would be able to track him down that way. I have not attempted to do this as I don’t really use facebook etc . But I think it is a viable option. Just not wanting to trigger any paranoia on his part– he had a LOT of paranoia about government watching/listening/recording. I never knew if it was real or maybe a PTSD issue? :/