My mother is Cuban and was forced to leave her country as a child. For her it was reuniting with the nostalgic memories of a happy childhood, the kind that are recreated in film by putting vaseline on the lens. That glow-y, happy, simple feeling of being young and without care. For me this trip meant getting to share something deeply important with my mom, and ticking off number one on my list of places that I want to go and photograph.
Usually I do some research and some plotting out on a map where I want to go. I didn’t do so much of that this time. Going to Cuba didn’t feel real to me since I had been chasing it seriously for almost two years (and dreamt of it even longer). I watched a lot of videos from Kelby Training about street photography, travel photography, and post processing for travel photography. I also watched Scott Kelby’s video about his trip to Cuba. I should have done more research, but in the end everything went smooth and I enjoyed meandering and discovering without knowing what’s around the corner.
Many people don’t realize you can fly to Cuba directly from the states. It’s been that way for a long time, I guess that it’s just assumed that if we have an embargo with Cuba you just can’t go. We all know about assumptions, right? In reality there are flights leaving NYC and Miami direct, but you need more than a ticket. A passport from this country can get you almost anywhere, but not Cuba. You’ll need a special visa for that. There are several different types of visas, of which I’ll do another blog post in the future of their differences and how to obtain them. Simply put, there are ones for cultural experiences, religious purposes, or if you’re a Cuban descendant. We went with the last option.
We flew from EWR to MIA then to Havana. We got into Miami around 11pm and our flight for Cuba was to depart at 8am, unfortunately check in time is 4am. This seems ridiculous until you realize how many items are checked going to Cuba. We’re their closest neighbor, practically a stone throw away (if you can hurdle a stone 90miles that is). The embargo makes importing goods from other countries very expensive for Cuba. Families living here in the states buy goods and then travel south in order to help their relatives still living in Cuba. The most common items I saw were toiletries (more on this later), bedding (sheets, comforters), and televisions. In order to be allowed to bring these gifts in to Cuba these travelers have to pay a 100% tax upon entry. Yes, one hundred percent. $800 TV? Get ready to forfeit another 800 bucks. I’m not certain exactly how they find out how much a TV costs in order to enforce this, but they do.
Boy do I love getting limited sleep on impeccably designed airport chairs and waking up bright eyed and bushy tailed at 3:30am to stand on line. Everyone says I’m a morning person. All of that’s a lie of course, but even my disdain for the morning hours couldn’t keep me from being excited about getting to Cuba. We got on our plane and took off and forty minutes later we touched down. The length of the flight really emphasizes two things about travel to Cuba. First, Cuba is so close but is so different. It’s a gem stuck in time. Second, the airlines basically make prison love to your wallet. I’m flying out of Canada in the future, it’s half the price.
We arrive in beautiful Havana at their major airport, which is small by comparison to most airports. At this juncture I just want to remind you, I’m traveling with my mom and not with a cultural group which typically is hosted by a large organization (like National Geographic). Those groups are usually all photographers and the Cuban equivalent of the TSA expects them. They don’t expect me: individual traveler, from the USA, who’s obviously hispanic but comes off like a slow child cause my spanish is trying, at best. Oh yea, I’m also carrying a backpack full of camera gear and a medium sized tripod attached, immediate red flag. I get stopped at once, nice Cuban guy starts speaking spanish to me. Understanding Spanish is not a problem. It’s the moment after when I stare at a person like a fish looking out of the tank, and there’s an equally intellectual monkey in my brain bashing the gears trying to get my spanish vocabulary to flow. That’s pretty much how it goes when I try to form spanish words. Now, he’s a bit frustrated because he doesn’t speak english and keeps asking me, “what are you going to take pictures of”. What I want to say is, “Cuba, duh”, but I’m sure that would’ve went over grand. After repeating “cars, people, and buildings” he finally lets me on to customs and then the X-ray bag checker.
Nobody blinks an eye at my bag in the Xray checker. I start walking out and I see my friend again, this time with another lady and he’s pointing at me. She comes over and politely asks to Xray my bag again. Twice more. Finally I just ask her if she would like me to open it, she nods. Now she’s pointing at things in my camera bag and asking what it is and what it’s for… in Spanish. I can get by in Spanish with phrases I’ve used before. Usually these are light conversations like, “hi, how are you”, “how do I get to (location)”, “where’s the toilet?” How the hell do I translate, “oh, that’s my compact flash card reader so I can backup my photos on my laptop”? I can hear the monkey frantically piecing the gears together, I think I get out “leador de tarjeta”. Three things wrong here. One, direct translations from one language to another don’t usually work well. Two, “leador” is not a spanish word, dummy. Three, I’m pretty sure “tarjeta” is cards (hooray!) of the birthdays and holiday variety (shit). I get the message across by taking out my memory card from the camera and making the motion of putting it in the reader, like a caveman. She’s good with my charades and lets me pass. Cuba here I come.
We arrive at the home that we will be staying at. My mother and I are exhausted. We nap and awaken again with plenty of day left, but little energy. We find a little place to eat, nothing of note. Then go for a very long walk along the malecon. It’s a long wall separating Cuba from the ocean. At the end of the day when school lets out and the work day is over you will find couples lounging along Havana’s winding barricade. The ocean hits it at certain locations with such fervor that water comes splashing up like a geyser. We had enough on day one, we cabbed it back home and called it a good couple days.
As a side note I’d just like to point out that while they did ask me a lot about what I was going to take photos of, I never got stopped outside of the airport. They were no tougher on me than the TSA in the states. I was actually impressed that they asked all the right questions. How many camera bodies am I carrying? How many lenses? Etc. I’ve been stopped in the states and have only ever had poor run-ins with authorities here. No such problems in Cuba!
My photos are being submitted to the Copyright office tonight, which means you’ll finally be seeing my favorite pics from Cuba. I do like the one above though.