Behind Cuba’s Colorful Facades
As part of a group outing, we visited the homes of a couple of families in Central Havana, a neighborhood chock-full of beautiful, majestic structures that at one time were palatial single-family homes. After the revolution in the late 50s and the collapse of the economy in the 1990s, these were crudely subdivided to fit as many as 30 families.
Makeshift, maze-like walls were constructed. Bathrooms and Electricity added haphazardly, and since tools and supplies were (and are) scarce the once extraordinary moldings, marble floors, stained glass windows, and other architectural gems have slowly deteriorated.
Our visits were a valuable reminder that behind the “photogenic” facades people are living in very challenging conditions. Everyday life in Cuba for the majority of citizens is incredibly hard.
The time we spent behind the scenes, so to speak, clarified how important it is to remember that all the happy sunny photos we see online are just a small slice of the population’s reality.
From her third-floor balcony, an old woman named Maria Therésa dropped a pair of keys to Eduardo, our Cuban photographer and guide. She was inviting us into her home. The space in which she lived was teeny tiny and dark except for a single window. Sweet and painfully lonely, our hostess gave us a tour of her apartment and spoke about her family: the daughter in Florida, the son who died. It was lovely and sad, and when we left, she waved to us from her perch smiling from ear to ear.
Cuba Photography: Bejucal
It rained all morning and by the time we parked in Bejucal’s town square, it was soaked.
Rubber-booted locals stomped against the downpour, splashing anyone that dared to walk close by. Cyclists resembling circus performers, balanced their rides with one hand while holding umbrellas in the other. Townspeople congregated in doorways or under awnings waiting for the deluge to break. Unlucky souls who walked without protection trudged through the shower hunched over wearing tight, pinched expressions.
We were on a field trip, and despite being soggy we knew we’d have a good time.
Bejucal is a small municipality 50 miles south of Havana and boasts two claims to fame: it was the terminal station for the country’s first railroad, and actor Andy Garcia (Godfather Three, The Untouchables, Ocean’s 11-13) called it home until he was five.
As you might expect, the town was quieter than the capital’s frenetic pace, and its physical size and population were significantly smaller. The buildings were only one or two stories and far less ornate than Havana—no finely molded ceilings, no remnants of stained glass windows or sweeping staircases. It was the kind of community where everyone grew up knowing each other.
Head down against the assault, I ran from one awning to the next over a period of 2 hours while playing conversational charades with the locals (my Spanish is pathetic), and for those who were game, I made some pictures too.
Cuba Photography: Cojimar
I’d never seen a shark butchered before and I wasn’t particularly sure I wanted to see it then.
A man with cigar-sized digits hacked at its lifeless head with a black blade the length of my forearm. Blood and sea water oozed out of its mouth as he cut into its flesh, pooling on the cracked cement floor in a crimson puddle at the butcher’s feet. They’d caught the fish with a hook already stuck in its jaw and he was doing his darndest to remove it. It took over 20 minutes.
Even in death, the shark was a worthy adversary.
We were at a fishing co-op in Cuba situated along the Cojimar River at the edge of a small town by the same name. Fishermen smoking cigarettes and shooting the shit, watched as one of their own went to town on the shark.
It was late morning and the marina was pretty sleepy by the time we arrived. A man scraped the hull of a ship in dry-dock while others played dominoes. Most of the men had returned from their fishing runs hours before and dozens of vintage wooden boats filled the slips.
It’s said that Cojimar inspired Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, a story about an aging Cuban fisherman who battles with a giant marlin off the coast of Florida. Looking at the bloodied shark head, the story seemed reasonable.
I watched as two men methodically baited six-inch hooks—a quarter inch thick and the length of my hand—in preparation for the next outing. The size of the hooks and the heavy roped wire attached to them were a testament to the sheer power of the big fish they battled.
Did you know that fisherman hunt sharks and swordfish at night? (A little fishing trivia for you should you ever need it.) But not on that evening, a full moon would keep them from going out on the black water. Apparently, the fish are frightened by the moonlight reflecting off the hooks.
As a land lubber, it was hard for me to imagine a shark being frightened of anything, but I took his word for it.
The trip above was prior to President Trump’s recent threats of further restrictions. However, until they are announced, travel by Americans to Cuba has not changed and for trips that have already been planned and money put down, they will be grandfathered into whatever new rules may be instituted and allowed to proceed.
(Full disclosure: I was an invited guest on this trip but the writing and sentiment are completely my own)
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