It had already been a pretty wonderful day.
In the morning I’d met Maria Theresa, a local woman who invited me and my fellow photographers, four complete strangers, into her home. She was kind and sweet and had made a huge impact on all of us.
Hours later, I was sightseeing on my own, walking at my leisure through the streets of Havana letting a mental coin toss direct my exploration.
It was a Sunday afternoon but the city was far from sleepy. Families gathered in the narrow cobblestone streets to chat, children played, men played dominoes, street vendors sold their wares. Everywhere I looked there were people and old vintage cars.
Veiled in the shadow of a doorway, a tiny figure sat, small and shrunken in a rocking chair. She was wearing a bright, threadbare fuscia robe and white socks tucked into torn pink shoes. Her thin legs were bare.
She was looking out at the street with a tired, forlorn expression. From what I could see, she sat at the front of a narrow hallway that ran parallel to the street with a tiny sitting area containing her chair, a small bedside table and a fan. Above her hung a child’s painting (her grandson’s) of a seaside view.
Our eyes connected as I approached and I raised my camera and pointed in her direction. Her face took on a dubious expression; she was obviously baffled by my interest but she nodded. As I drew near I saw that she wasn’t alone.
Inside the door, his back to me against the wall, was an old man, her husband, sitting on low bench with a battered guitar in his hand. He wore thick glasses and flashed a squinty-eyed grin a la Bette Midler that revealed more than one tooth missing. His worn tweed coat gave him a surprisingly stately air though it was challenged by the neon orange baseball cap on his head.
They motioned for me to come in and I took a seat between them on the pavement just inside the door. They didn’t speak a lick of English and my Spanish was used up after Hola but we were able to exchange names—hers was Sophia, his Paolo. Her voice was soft and meek and it made me wonder if she was ill. He was more spirited. Pointing at his guitar, I asked if he would play.
His voice was hoarse at times and his guitar betrayed him with a string horribly out of tune, but he sang as if he were on the world’s grandest stage. I photographed his performance loving the shafts of light that fell on him from the street as he sang. His eyes crinkled behind his glasses and I became fascinated by the way his skin, freckled and crepey, stretched over his fingers as he brushed the strings.
Three songs in he took a break, the nail on his thumb was too long and he wanted to cut it – I figured this out by the way he thrust his thumb in my face and made a scissor gesture with two fingers. He disappeared behind a cloth that separated the hallway from what lay beyond.
Sophia looked at me with sad eyes and I was instantly unsure if I should remain. I sat in a limbo of indecision. She looked at the back of my camera and I guessed that she wanted to see the pictures I took of Paolo. I showed her a few, some moody with faint light and deliberate motion blur (she wasn’t particularly enamored of those), and then a few that I overexposed for the darkness illuminating Paolo as if he were in broad daylight. Those she liked.
For the first time since we met, a faint smile crossed her face and her eyes came to life. I asked if I could take her photo and she sat back in her chair. Paolo returned, picking up his guitar. Before he could begin, Sophia placed her hand on my wrist urging me to pay attention.
I waited, worried that she was going to say something important to me and I wouldn’t understand, but instead she began to sing. Paolo sat dumbfounded. At first her voice was cracked and rough and she had to swallow against a dry throat, but quickly she rallied. Paolo began to accompany her on the guitar, gently rocking back and forth as he played.
From around the corner I heard footsteps running down the hallway. Two teenage girls suddenly appeared out of the darkness. When they saw me they squeaked in shock then jumped out of sight so that only their noses could be seen peeking around the corner. They stared at Sophia in wonder, chattering back and forth in earnest. It didn’t take a translator to figure out that they were gobsmacked to hear her sing. When Sophia finished, she stopped and looked at me.
Reflexively, I started to clap. I felt as if something monumental had just happened and she smiled, a big broad smile that lit up the dark and I swear she’d grown six inches in her chair.
We sat in silence for a moment then Paolo began to play and I they treated me to a duet.
Click here for more photos and stories from my adventure in Cuba
*The images above were taken while an invited guest of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. The writing and sentiment are my own.