As a lot of people I met said, I decided to go to Cuba now, before it changes. National Geographic was already talking about it back in 2012. And it seems to be happening for multiple reasons. From Obama's visit in March 2016 to the installation of a few Wifi spot here and there as well as the augmentation of tourism year by year, the country is entering a new era. I also had an overall feeling observing and talking with local people that they want to level up their living situation and this is normal. I went off to live this experience and bring back images that may one day, disappear.
I got to Havanna around 10pm and quickly went through security, then waited about an hour to exchange money. Meanwhile, I met two girls and we decided to share a cab to downtown. We get to the car and the cab driver jump back afraid! A big frog was relaxing on the yellow automobile. We spent a few minutes laughing at his reaction watching him trying to get the frog to move off the car.
I arrived to the casa located a block away from the Malecón, and somebody was waiting for me with a welcome drink as well as a few recommendations. The next morning I met Bryan, a script writer from Los Angeles, and Chris, former teacher in England. We took breakfast together and then, the movie started. Bryan comes back downstairs telling me he just got robbed 1300$. He got to the casa at the same time as me the night before. He had the money in two different places, and in both, it was gone. I only had two days in Havana so once he talked to the responsible of the house, I decided to start my day.
I first went to book all my transportations for the trip at the Viazul office. Then went back to Old Havana and basically spent my day walking around there. This is a part of town where every building looks new, lots of tourist, restaurants etc. I was surprised because this wasn’t what I was expecting. I realized the next day that this isn’t what I would call the real Havana.
People are nice, but it's all about getting your money out of your pocket. These two women portraits cost me one CUC each, and this funny man 10 CUC because he came up to me and started doing his show, and I didn't have change. I ran right after to the bank to get smaller bills.
I walked on a book market, and it was interesting to see how much control has the government on education. Mostly all the books are related to Fidel Castro political regime and belief. I was surprised to see sometimes American related symbol. From the poster below, to clothes or car freshener with United States flag.
I then walked side to side on the Malecón were you can see these old American cars, again with tourist riding along the water (25 CUC for an hour tour), as well as kids having fun jumping in a darkish water while others are fishing. Gorgeous place to walk at sunset when everybody is out.
It is best to walk at sunset, when everybody is out.
I see one main conflict created by the tourism: money. People make in average an equivalent of 30$ a month. It used to be that everything they pay for is relative to their salary. But now, May (my host in Trinidad) told me she was paying 8$ for shampoo. Clothes (if you find some) are around 25$. There is a huge gap between their salary and the actual cost of living that keep rising. Because of that money level difference, Cuba is the only country in the world to have two currencies. CUP (Peso Cuban) and CUC (Peso Cuban Convertible). 1$ = 1 CUC = ~ 25 CUP. It is becoming harder for locals and a lot of them turn their occupation towards tourism. Casa host or guide, they for sure make more money this way. Viñales, a town with farm and tobacco plantation is financed by tourism. You can pretty much sleep in every house you see and it is all about excursion and visit. Although it is set up this way, you can still have a feeling of the real, but not sure for how long. Because buying new is pretty much impossible, Cubans mastered the art of repairing everything. From cars to clothes, there is a way.
The next day, Bryan had to go again to the police and maybe the embassy. Meanwhile, I decided to go visit the Fuster house. This Cuban artist is known for his public art place in Jaimanitas, were his house as well as ornate murals, decorate the neighborhood.
The next stop was Coppelia, an Ice cream brand created by Fidel Castro to share his love for this dairy. I was mostly interested by the building who can hold about 1'000 people. One of the biggest ice cream salons in the world. Of course there is a line like pretty much everywhere in Cuba. When you arrive, you ask for "l'ultimo" which means the last one. The idea is that you have only one face to remember, the one before you. Therefore you don't need to stand in line but can go seat somewhere. After the first half hour I thought about leaving, but I really wanted to see why people were waiting so long. An old men was in front of me, and when my feet started hurting I thought if he could do it, I could to! Meanwhile, a lady behind me started talking to me in Spanish while filing her nails. Remember, I do not speak Spanish. More women entered the conversation and it started to become intense. I had no clue what they were talking about. A few head nods enrich by a couple of “Sí Sí” and I managed to go through the conversation, although after 45 min, she realized I was lost. About two hours ish later, I finally get to move in and to see the round building. Two levels and an outdoor space. We get directed upstairs, and the space is divided by salon. Inside each salon about thirty tables, four chairs each. You have to fill the tables, so you get to seat with strangers, which I found really social. After waiting for a little more, I finally see the waitress. She gets to the first table and takes their order. She then go back to the other room were they get the plates ready. I am thinking to myself "don't tell me she goes table by table..." Well she does. After a few minutes, she comes out with the first table order, and go take the one at the second table. At this point, it has already been almost three hours. Not speaking Spanish, I couldn't really communicate with the people on my table, so I observed. Finally our turn comes. I see everybody ordering two, three plates and a cake, so I ordered two plates of vanilla ice cream. Each plate is actually an equivalent of three scoops. People eat it really fast. Our order gets here and the couple sitting in front of me takes a plastic bag out and put the little biscuit on top of the ice cream in the bag. They probably save it for home. They also take a coke out, and mix it with the vanilla ice cream. She offered me to try, I politely denied. Trying the Ice Cream for the first time, this is probably the most yucky I ever had... and I have a total of six scoops in front of me. Oh God! I am not even finish with the first plate I am already full. It is extremely sweet, far away from the Italian Gelato. I am really trying to blend in, and the people at my table are looking at me. They are all spooning the plate for the melted rest, making sure everything was gone, meanwhile I really can't eat more of it. I put an act together rubbing my stomach and whispering "mucho, mucho". I think it was believable... Anyhow, I asked the lady at my table how much it is for these two plates and she tells me ten. I get 10 CUC (=10us$) out of my wallet and she tells me ten from the other money. So these 6 scoop of Ice cream actually cost me 0.40 US $. Wow! I appreciated her honesty and therefore paid for the table! I was the only tourist around, because I am probably the only one nuts enough to spend a total of four hours for a not so god ice cream, but what a social experience. What is 40 cents for me, but for them it looks like it may be some kind of luxurious pleasure. A guy even sells plastic bowls outside so people can order more and bring it home. We have to remember to appreciate the little things, because I am not sure I would be able to wait three hours every time I want an Ice cream.
I then walked from Vadedo where Coppelia is located to my Casa. I saw another side of Havana, the more real I guess. As I previously said, Old Havana is really touristy. This part I was in was more true to my expectations. There is life on the streets. Dilapidated building with laundry hanging on the balcony.
I could see a community, like if every block was one house. People have their door and windows open, they are sitting in front of their house or checking out the animation from the second floor, helping each others fixing cars or buying food.
Let's not forget the street games, baseball, soccer or shooting marble and dominoes for the older ones.
The iconic old American cars are everywhere. They are just a great subject to photograph.
But not everybody get the luxury to ride those. Transportation in town is often on a bicycle cab or horse carriage.
To finish Bryan story, the police said to the lady in charge of the casa: either they keep going on with the investigation which may cost them a lot of money and the possibility of closing the house for business, or, they give him the money back...which they did. She felt like the situation was unfair because they still didn't know who did it but were pressured to pay, protecting the tourists and not the local. Although if your business is about being a host, your place need to be secured and have limited access to people. In a country with such different classes, you have to be aware of some risks. This is the same everywhere, with home insurance.
I spent my last night with Chris in Vadedo at La Fabrica de Arte Cubano. What an amazing place! Art exhibits, food, drinks, and live music. Indoor, outdoor, it's a pretty big place were a good night is guaranteed!
Even at night, there are people on the street and I felt save. Never had any problem.
Departure to Viñales! I booked my room through Airbnb in a Cabaña in a farm. In the description, the family sounded really welcoming and I was really excited. I didn't have much indications but to follow a road and ask for Pepe Lluis Cabaña. After a good twenty-five minutes walking, I am in the middle of the field, next to the mountains with an amazing view. I get a warm welcoming, and get offered some fresh from the farm pineapple juice. Something happened with the website and the place got double booked. They arranged me one night a few houses down the road that actually had an amazing view too. I first decided to visit the town (two streets). While walking, a truck filled with bananas caught me up. The man asked me if I was going to Viñales and offered me a ride. He proudly told me he was, from what I understood, the manager of the farmers around. I was pleasantly surprised because not like in Havana were everything is for money, he was just being nice.
You can pretty much sleep in every casa you see. It's a town based on tourism. Gladly by being a little further, I didn't get that feeling. The streets have lots of restaurants, you can book tours, and get wifi. There is also a street market for souvenirs.
People still used phone booth to contact each other. Images like this as well as barber chair on the front porch of the house definitely makes you feel like you went back in time.
Back to the farm, Pepe Llouis shows me his plantation; all the fruits he grows Guava, Pineapple, Bananas etc, as well as his cow and horses.
The family wasn’t speaking English, and I don't speak Spanish, but we managed to understand each other. I asked China (his wife) to organize a horseback riding tour starting at eight am for the following day, which she did.
Pepe Lluis also showed me his tobacco house where the leaves are suspended. He explained me that the tobacco season is between November and February. A plant can hold up to 25 leaves. After the harvest, they spray the leaves with a mix of honey, water and rum to give it a unique flavor. They then dry for forty-five days before being ready to be rolled into cigars! Ninety percent is sold to the government, and the rest is his. He also showed me how he rolls them to create the cigar and offered me to smoke one.
I spent the night at the other casa were I had an amazing home cooked meal with an incredible view. Chicken, rice, beans, salad, chips, plantains and fruits! The meat was seasoned with a lot of lemon and garlic, which was delicious, but let say it; I was happy to sleep alone. Next morning, eggs, fruit, bread, fresh juice, milk, butter, ham, cheese and jam.
Back to the farm, a man was here for me with the horses. We started our day to get to a viewpoint that oversees Viñales. I told him I used to horse back riding, so we started galloping. Catastrophic event happened. My camera felt from the strap I had around my shoulders. After a few minutes of almost having a heart attack, it was working fine. I really must have a good star watching over me. We kept going pretty fast, and the regular tour people do in four hours, we did it in maybe one and a half. So we kept going to a second valley, much more interesting in the mountainside. You can see farmers plowing the fields with the animals, and see some amazing landscape.
We got to a cave and I decided to get in. You have to pay two CUC at the entrance, and are accompanied with people with torch. The cave is dark and really slippery. After walking in about 250 meters in, you get to a lake where you can swim if you want.
Back to the farm, I had an amazing four hours excursion with a really great man who's actually the husband of their daughter. After a nap, Pepe Llouis let me photograph him with my equipment. He is such a warm person, always smiling, generous and proud of sharing his knowledge. From offering me his homemade pineapple juice, showing me every fruit in his farm as well as creating a cigar, he was an amazing host.
I spend the rest of the day in front of the Cabaña on the rocking chair with either China or Pepe Lluis talking. They also cooked me an amazing meal that I got to eat watching the sunset falling behind the mountains.
It was a truly amazing experience with amazing people. I am glad I stayed away from the center and got to live a true local experience.
I woke up at 5 am because the bus for Cienfuegos was at 6:45 am. On my way out Pepe Llouis was up ready to go milk his cow, still in the dark. We walked a little bit together and then said my goodbye.
After a good eight hours on a bumpy road, I made it to Cienfuegos. I got to my casa were Wilfredo welcomed me. We had a good laugh because he was trying to offer me yogurt but he had a hard time with the pronunciation. Even though he speaks really well English, it took me a few try to understand what he was talking about. We had a good talk about multiple subjects. I was wondering if they were any racism between Spanish and African descendants. He said not really, sometimes some jokes, but it's all good. Coming from the United States, a country built by immigration and therefore inhabit by multiple cultures, racism had been and is still an issue. But here in Cuba, people looked mixed and integrated. It kind of shocks me in a good way; it's possible to leave in harmony together.
While talking, he looked extremely tired. I asked him if he slept and he told me he spent the night watching Games of Thrones and The Walking Dead. I found curious he was able to watch these shows in Cuba, but like a lot of other stuff, there are some side markets, and American TV shows is one of them. My host in Havana later on told me you can only get shows the hacker likes because that’s what he downloads.
I lost tracked of time, and realized it was Sunday. I spent the afternoon walking it the city. It was pretty quiet with pretty much everything close.
I saw this girl on the street and got intrigued because I thought she was holding a cigarette. I asked her if I could take a photo. Her friend joined and started posing. It's actually really common to see children holding a pen like if they had a cigarette. Cubans smoke a lot and their children mimic them.
As I previously said, riding a car is pretty luxurious. Horses are still the way to go pretty much everywhere outside Havana. There are two types of carriages: one for tourist where you can get a tour, and the one below where people ride together one depending on the destination.
I wasn't able to book a tour the day before, so early morning on Monday I found a taxi that would take me there (~30 miles) for 35 CUC. This driver had a pretty old car and was driving like a maniac. Between 70 to 90 miles per hours, the car was shaking like crazy. But he was really friendly. It ends up being a good plan because we got there before all the tourists and the buses. He kindly accompanied me in the park. The first waterfall is small but the water is extremely clear. Keep going up through the stairs of hell for such early in the morning and get to the bigger one. I thought the waterfall would have a higher water flow, but I later on learned that the season had been really dry. I had a few photographs in mind and had to swim with my camera. What a stressful moment, but you gotta do what you gotta do. The water felt so good with the heat, while kind of cold for locals. We kept going on the trail with gorgeous views. It was a nice and refreshing experience.
Back to town, time to get the bus for Trinidad. I got there an hour earlier than planned and managed to found the casa, thanks to the offline map app called "maps.me". Prior the trip, I saved on the map all the casas, bus station as well as things to see. It was then easy to move around.
May, my host, was getting ready to come pick me up with my name on a cardboard. Such a nice and warm person. She proudly showed me the two issues of Trinidad magazine, available twice a year. She knew I was a photographer from my profile on Airbnb and told me she knew the photographer of the magazine and asked me if I wanted to meet him. Why not! Can be nice to share passions!
I walked around town at night. The main place is called Plaza Mayor. You can found there stairs were people seat and use the wifi, drink or listen to the live band from La Casa de la Musica playing all day and night.
I get into a restaurant and go on the terraza to sit at a table. Next to me, about ten people speaking french were saying " look she is by herself". I nicely answered that I was speaking French too and they invited me to their table. They already had a few drinks in, singing and dancing with the group playing there. I spent the night talking with the women about social and political situation in France as well as traveling alone...or in group for them. They were telling me how a strange situation they got in here, in Cuba. Between the guide taking them to close places, loosing the bus, only going to touristic places, offering to spend the afternoon at the pool and once at the hotel, no water in the pool. But the best one was their hotel in Trinidad hosted the annual meeting of the transsexual community of Cuba. I guess they felt somehow uncomfortable because it sounded like it was bothering them. It made me realize again how people put fences between each other because of differences. Let’s love each other instead. The world would be such a better place.
I spent the next day walking around this town classified as UNESCO World Heritage Centre. It is filled with tourists, but worth to see.
Every corner you take in Cuba can reveal an image you wouldn't expect. Below, men are using machetes to cut weeds.
Carlos (the photographer) arrived after his day of work. This was such a great meeting. He used to be May’s mother painting teacher back in the days. He used to share his knowledge with a group of students at night, after work. He then showed interest, and started photography. He owns a Canon with cropped sensor, 8 MP and dream about a full frame. He reads magazine and is well aware of every new lens or body out there. He explained me how he loves to observe and photograph anything surrounding him. He works in an art conservatory department up in the mountains and makes about 30$ a month. He often takes photographs of birds or flowers. He is really passionate and I hope I’ll be able to help him one day. He is photographing for the Trinidad magazine and should be proud of it. Carlos is really humble and a smiling human being full of dream. He talked about how much he would love to travel, but feels like he is getting too old, although he is only in his fifties. He hopes for more opportunities for his son, working in a bicycle taxi. I told him he should be positive and don’t limit himself because of his age. The world is moving fast, and I hope he will one day get to travel. (Cuban can travel outside the country only since 2013. We talked for a little about the cost of life and how much of a struggle it could be. The jeans he had on would have cost him 25 CUC, but a friend gave it to him and it was a little too big, so he used his sewing machine to adjust it. Same price for the shoes. A month of salary for one piece of cloth. He told me he wants to print business cards, and he owns an old canon printer. They don’t make the ink cartridge anymore, so he has to fill the ones he has with ink. The problem is, to fill all of them, it is the same price that I would pay here, around 50$. So he is waiting…until he finds a solution. Talking with Carlos really made me realize that huge gap between salary and cost of living, and how it is becoming more and more of an issue. Like a lot of Cubans, he is trying to work now with tourist by giving photography tour in the mountains, and hopefully he’ll be able to make more money and pursue his dreams. He let me take a portrait of him, and although he smiles all the time, he wouldn’t for the picture because he only have a few teeth left in the front. I am thankful to May for making this meeting happen with such an honest and truthful person.
May cooked dinner for me and another man from Germany who stayed at May's case too. We had a great last night, eating “in family” like she said.
Trinidad was the same as Vinales, although these towns are full of tourist, I got the chance to spend time with amazing locals and got to share talks and experiences that I will never forget.