Photo Essay: Final Thoughts on Cuba and Portraits from Havana

by Ekua on October 7, 2010 in captured on memory card,Cuba

It was our last day as a group; we’d all be heading in different directions the next day or the day after. We’d recently been strangers, but now we’d shared an insane and insanely amazing week and a half together. When we got back to the city, the six of us who were left commemorated by wandering through Old Havana without a plan. This was followed by one last crappy dinner and towers (yes, towers) of surprisingly good local brews.

My flight was leaving very early the next morning and I was grateful for the last hours I had in Havana, however few they were. The second time around, everything seemed more familiar, more comfortable. And it was a Friday night so the streets of Old Havana were alive and full.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the average Cuban does not make a big deal about tourists. Sometimes in travel, it’s nice to simply be treated like a regular human being. On my own, I could’ve blended in with the Cubans, but I was surrounded by people who could not. Either way, the treatment was no different. As we walked by people, they’d make eye contact. They might smile or they might not. We walked up to band practices, barbershops, and art studios where people acknowledged our presence by looking up and waving us in. Then they went right back to concentrating on whatever they were doing without caring that a group of tourists was hanging out to watch.

One time, we noticed an open doorway and a hallway full of paintings and thought it was a gallery, but it was really someone’s house. People were gathered in the living room and one of them came to investigate us for a less than minute before returning to the living room and leaving us to look around.

Could you imagine that happening in any other big city in the world? What would you do if people walked into your house like that? Your door wouldn’t even be open like that in the first place, and it likely has more than one lock. Everywhere we went in Cuba, you could walk right into peoples’ homes.

The ability to observe life in Cuba without the bullshit and filters of tourism was a large part of what made it such a fascinating country to visit. At first, Cuba confused me and I resisted, then I succumbed to the confusion. I left with no answers and more questions than I had when I’d arrived. Cuba challenged me to think about the inherent bias I view the world through, the one that was developed by growing up in a place where we’re taught that the way we do things is the way. Even as the forward thinking person I consider myself to be, the bias is hard to shake, but I am becoming more aware of level at which it infiltrates how I view other countries. And each time I let go of part of that bias, the harder it becomes to come home and try to readjust to the stubbornness.

I gave up on coming up with definitive answers about Cuba almost as soon as I’d arrived, but what I did walk away with were observations. Cuba is visually stunning; it’s one of the most beautiful countries I’ve visited so far. I could have loved Cuba based on that alone, but what pushed it into to my favorites list were the wonderful people I encountered there with their calmness, complexity, and surprising openness. Like a microcosm of the larger America-Cuba situation, their doors were open, you just had to have the courage to step through.

I didn’t know until later why this woman and her lovely group of children were gathered around this statue. Apparently, rubbing the beard or index finger of this “Gentleman from Paris” gives you good luck.

Amazingly talented musicians are around every corner in Cuba.

This man saw me taking a picture of the band and invited me to take a picture of him with the band.

It’s hard to see his facial expression in this picture, but the adorable boy in the chair didn’t look too happy about getting his hair cut.

A lot people were gathered around this street performance of Afro-Cuban music and dance and there was also a craft table for kids there. I love when people take culture to the streets and make it accessible.

A man working on some leather art in his studio/gallery.

I loved the way the man, the statue, and the mask lined up.

Boys playing soccer on the cobblestone streets of Old Havana. I never saw anyone playing baseball in Cuba. Aside from a volley ball match I saw on TV, soccer was the only sport I saw people playing there!

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Sunee October 8, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Seems like Cuba will hold a special place in your heart. Think you’ll ever go back?

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Ekua October 11, 2010 at 8:40 pm

Would love to go back. Feel like I barely scratched the surface there, both as far as things to do there and getting to know the country!

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Andi October 8, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Girl, I have tears in my eyes, what a beautifully written post. You’re making me lust over Cuba. I wanta go back so bad. Totally agree that it is visually STUNNING!!!

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Ekua October 11, 2010 at 8:40 pm

Thanks, Andi.

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Lola October 9, 2010 at 7:07 am

Sounds like you had one of those amazingly transformative travel experiences in Cuba. Really nice photos too! Been longing to go to Cuba. Definitely one day.

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Ekua October 11, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Yup, the whole trip was amazing, both Cuba and Mexico… one of my best trips ever. I highly recommend Cuba, it’s a fascinating country!

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jamie October 12, 2010 at 7:48 am

incredibly written post. i love that you got to walk around someones house and they didnt mind at all! great photos too. the soccer game is amazing. cheers, jamie

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Ekua October 13, 2010 at 12:16 am

Thanks so much! Earlier in my trip, there was another time in a different town when I walked into someone’s house on accident thinking it was the house where a couple of my group members were staying. It was the wrong house, but the woman who lived there had the same reaction, she looked at me walking through her house and then went back to whatever she was doing. I’m still shocked about that, looking back!

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conner November 2, 2010 at 9:11 am

Great images, really nice Ekua. Cuba is so photogenic, even mediocre shooters (like me), can click off a few keepers but you have really captured tthe fabric of life in these shots. want to collaborate on the next version of my iapp?

happy travels
Conner

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Ekua November 3, 2010 at 12:04 am

Thanks! I’d love to collaborate, I’ll shoot you an e-mail when I get a chance!

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Angela December 12, 2010 at 2:19 pm

I love your description of Cuba. I was there in July ’10 and had a great time experiencing and exploring Cerro, Vedado, Varadero, and of course Havana! My friend and I started to go with a group here in NYC but after investigating the costs, we decided to do it on our own and saved about $1000. We ran into the group at different intervals, but our trip was more of a discovery of the day to day Cuban life an we saw the “real deal”. In fact, my friend just came back from a 3 1/2 stay and I will be going again in February. As you had mentioned, and if your skin is a certain hue (you know what I mean) you can just blend in and no one bothers you and everyone is forthcoming. Cuba is an exploration of the old, the new, the renovated and the dilapidated. Since it is written that Cuba is near economic collapse, I’m interested to see what is going to happen.

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Arlene January 5, 2011 at 12:24 am

My recent travels in Vietnam brought me home thinking of another destination. And Whoa … your wonderful comments and feel for Cuba has me saving and planning for my next trip. Thank you.

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