Editor’s note: When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, he led the country into an era of Soviet-style one-party communism. The United States retaliated with trade and travel sanctions that have had a lasting impact on the Caribbean country to this day. The Journal’s Celia Raney recently traveled there with a University of New Mexico class taught by Journal photographer Roberto E. Rosales. Raney chronicles her experiences below.
A physician in a Cuban hospital told me while I was suffering a bout of heatstroke that it didn’t matter where I came from, what color my skin was, or how I ended up in the hospital – I would always find a home in Cuba and he would always do his best to help me.
Later that week, cars zipped past our group as we ambled along the side of a highway in the Cuban countryside, clambering over bushes, small trees and broken branches at the edge of the jungle, looking for shade. Our three taxi drivers huddled over the engine of the culprit car, whose battery would give us several more problems before the day was over. We took photos with them and laughed, because, hey, that happens.
In the same week, we danced and feasted with a couple who told us they are treated as a lower class by most tourists, danced with what felt like the entire city of Havana at a carnival, and even got pulled over by local police when they realized our cabdriver’s license had expired – the driver apologized and called another ride before we knew what was going on.
As part of a University of New Mexico street photography class labeled Camera, Culture and Cuba, I jetted off with 16 other travelers to spend 10 days on the island where the only things that flow more freely than the national cerveza are good conversation and the swaying of hips.
We applied for the trip in March, when getting to Cuba seemed pretty feasible. Our flights and stays were booked and approved by the necessary agencies before June 5, so even after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced the Trump administration’s move to reinstate travel restrictions to the country, we knew we were set to go.
Even still, with signed and sealed letters of approval from the university, visas and copies of all our bookings, we were met with trade embargoes, TSA tyrants and an overall air of cluelessness from airport authorities.
Our woes were soon forgotten as the spirit of the island clung to us like the sweat on our backs. The island is intoxicating, and each new encounter brings a new friend.
In “Old” Havana, life spills out onto the streets from every doorway. People call from the street up to the balconies of friends and families, eclectic taxis rumble down narrow roads, butchers hack away at the day’s hog, and each building is a new shade of a color you thought existed only in picture books.
It really is a photographer’s paradise, and it is incredibly overwhelming.
We were encouraged to be patient – don’t run for the shot. The more time that goes into making an image, the more the activities on the street saturate every frame. It was a challenge.
Life in Cuba moves quickly, even though most of the people embrace a laissez-faire lifestyle. Through many attempts to balance patience and decisiveness, amateur street photographers blossomed and each day brought us new confidence and excitement.
Of course, the environment drove most of our fervor. Beautiful pastel green walls are more than staple scenes garnering Instagram likes and hundreds of geotags. If you pause and look through the window of the mint facade, you’ll find a couple selling soda and snacks, and if the heat of the day hasn’t cleaned them out yet, water.
Salty spray and the rolling of the ocean greet the island in swells, but a shortage of potable water meant some families were going without it while we took our seemingly cheap, large, iced bottles for granted. Those who could afford bottled water would line up around corners and race through the rain to grab a case before it was all gone.
One Airbnb we were staying in ran out of water altogether, meaning no showers, no flushing toilets, nada. The outage lasted only a few hours, and though it would have been a nuisance stateside, it almost didn’t matter because it minimized vain distractions and forced us back to the streets, cameras in hand.
It’s hard to create a bad image in Cuba.
Every inch of the environment is teeming with imagery many young artists only dream of capturing. Faces pop against pastel backdrops so starkly that even during a short ride to a local hospital in the back of a taxi they scorch vibrant memories into the back of the brain.
A shot in the rear, a pep talk from the kindest physician I’ve ever encountered, and a quiet ride with star-glazed eyes birthed a bounty of fond memories.
No ailment is too great for the evening calm of the Malecón, where sea meets city and stress is sent away on the crashing waves of the Caribbean.
Couples sit along a wall at the edge of the water and watch the sky erupt with electric shades of Creamsicle orange and cotton candy pink that rival even the best New Mexico sunsets.
After dark, young men walk up and down the sidewalk with stereos, kids run through the street with glow-in-the-dark kites and spinning toys, and families share food and drink while fishing or simply enjoying the cool breeze.
The dissipation of home-based stressors is helped by the absence of a constant barrage of phone notifications. There are no U.S. cellphone towers in Cuba, and few carriers have any sort of roaming options there. But the lack of virtual connection led to the embrace of personal connection. Instead of uploading shots to social media or worrying about keeping up to date with events at home, we were forced to connect with the people we met and the environment we were shooting.
While haphazardly wandering between massive marble mausoleums in El Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, a couple of us stumbled by incredible coincidence across the grave of Ibrahim Ferrer, an original member of the Buena Vista Social Club.
Our professor placed one hand over his heart and the other on the sun-baked marble slab and sighed as tears formed in his eyes. The two shared a drink many years ago in Albuquerque, after the musical group that brought new life to pre-revolutionary Cuban music performed at El Rey Theater.
Everything is more saturated in Cuba: colors, sounds, experiences, personalities, emotions and histories. Some of it is wonderful and fills you with warmth, while other scenes weave confusion into once perfect fantasies.
One of those was that Cuba is a time machine, a land stuck in the ’50s. In many ways it is, but the ravages of time still manage to creep up in cracks and crevices.
Out double doors and across the street from the balcony of an Airbnb in Old Havana stood a massive and marvelous building. Its neoclassical white stone walls had likely been there for at least a century and a half, and it still held a grandiose presence loaned decades ago from gamblers and lawless construction.
Now, the time ticked away on its exterior in major ways. A large crack in the wall directly under carved railing spoke of pressure and age. Gray scale and mold covered the once ivory exterior, and inside the floors looked crooked and weary.
That building was not the only one in a state of disrepair. Old Havana is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but crumbled structures and a need for constant repairs are as much a staple as rice and beans.
Most historic buildings are kept up, and modern hotels hosting mostly European clientele sparkle like it’s opening day, but the rest of the city needs time, money and resources to repair what’s falling apart – all things in scarce supply.
Even our newly formed ideas that the country was constantly brimming with love were challenged. One couple who hosted a few in our group hugged us tightly and shared their love with each of us as we left a cookout at their home. They were so thankful for our little fiesta because most of their guests don’t spend time with them. Most travelers won’t let the couple near their food, won’t socialize with them and in general treat them as though their lives didn’t hold the same value.
We marched down old streets in less than uniform lines and basked in the warmth of the country, but signs of hardship weren’t easy to ignore. Bullet holes left behind by revolutionary soldiers still speckled buildings, and families stood in long lines waiting for water.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Celia Raney at 823-38320, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @Celia_Raney. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.