Cuba land of enchantment

Lat: 23° 07' 55" N. Long:82° 21' 51" W

Warning! "Level 3 travel advisory to Cuba, reconsider travel." These blaring words from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consultant Affairs website are short, stark and to the point: "Do not travel." The State Department believes some sonic source has attacked embassy personnel and they say US citizens may be at risk. This warning is just one of several hurdles U.S. travelers face when planning a trip to Cuba.

So why go to Cuba? Well, personally, I'm a photographer who seeks out exciting and unique opportunities, and for everyone else, Anthony Bourdain said it best during his visit to Cuba; “However you feel about the government, however you feel about the last 55 years, there aren’t any places in the world that look like this. I mean, it’s utterly enchanting.”

After President Trump took office, he quickly enacted many of the travel sanctions against Cuba which President Obama had lifted. Now there are 12 categories of authorized travel so just visiting Cuba as a "tourist" is prohibited. I traveled under the category, "Support for the Cuban People," which means I attended scheduled events such as cultural activities and I stayed with Cuban families. Interestingly, on a side note; my expedition mostly avoided tourist areas.

Viva La Revolution

Animated Fidel Castro supporter

Cuba has a long history of conflict and images of their national heroes adorn many streets and homes. Flags and paintings of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara (an Argentine Marxist) are symbolic of the struggles of this island country, and most of the people I met were very proud of their heritage and culture. One example was an elderly woman, wildly waving a machete in the air yelling about how Castro gave her a house after a hurricane destroyed her former countryside home. “I'm a Socialist, not Communist” she kept shouting over and over again! Others I met would limit their opinions about the Government or oppression, which reinforced my belief that one can be proud of their country but not necessarily its Government.

An image of Che Guevara looks over a vendor selling flavored water

Dirty Boots

A tobacco farmer enjoying a freshly rolled cigar

It took several days in the farm town of Vinales for me to shake off the frenziness of Havana. The rugged faces of many tobacco farmers expressed both perseverance and pride of their work. Using oxen and hand plows to work their fields, these simple farmers produce some of the most sought-after tobacco in the world, but most is produced for the Government. Ninety percent of the harvest goes to the state, and the remaining ten percent is left to the farmer. Coffee is another prized commodity grown in Cuba, and many families use these beans for personal consumption. When invited into their modest homes I was often offered coffee. Sometimes the hand-crushed grounds were strained through a sock then served in a tiny wooden or tin cup. Not only was the coffee excellent, but this act of kindness from the economically challenged families was very humbling. In turn, by giving the children packages of store-bought cookies and stickers, then offering the parents a few dollars was our way of returning the hospitality.

A Cuban farmer poses for a photo after a hot morning in his fields
Cuban coffee strained through a sock

El Carboneeros, (the coal workers)

Local farmers delivering Marabou wood to a coal pyre

Near the town of San Cayetano, coal workers toil in harsh conditions. Cubans have been long exporting coal to Europe. Cubans have learned to take the invasive species Marabou tree and create a clean vegetable coal source. The thorny hardwood is chopped down, stacked in a pyre and set to fire. Eucalyptus and African timber are also added, then slowly burned in dirt-covered mounds. The burning process takes about a week to finish, and the fire is tended around the clock. Producing a blue flame without smoke or ash makes the Marabou tree an excellent fuel source, especially for pizza ovens, with Italy being one of the biggest importers.

Coal worker throws dirt on the pyre

The Art of Ballet

Two ballet dancers practice jump moves

Caribbean countries are known for their love of dancing such as the fast-moving and energetic Salsa, Rumba, and Cha-cha-cha. Havana is likewise known for producing some of the best ballet dancers in the world. I had a few hours to spend photographing a pair of dancers in an old Havana mansion. Using natural light spilling in from the windows, these performers moved through different rooms allowing for several unique images and backdrops.

Stunning pose lit by natural light coming in from a large window
Ballerina extended en pointe on a bathtub

Afro-Cuban Priest

An African priest praying towards his wall-alter

Santeria is a combination of Roman Catholicism and the African Yoruba religion. The Santeria priest provides both spiritual and healing with herbs and offerings. I spent time visiting one priest in his house-temple or Casa de Santos (house of saints) where he displayed many objects used for healing. His wall alter included both African deities along with a statue of Mother Mary holding baby Jesus. He explained that priesthood is passed from the parent to the youngest sibling. His mother was a priest, then when he's ready, his youngest daughter will learn how to become a spiritual guide and heal people. While on a small deserted beach, I came across a Santeria ceremony involving the sacrificing of two doves. Once the doves were killed, their blood was poured into the sand, and a prayer was given. Afterward, the bodies of the doves and blood-soaked sand were scooped up and placed into a sack and taken away. Note: I was invited to stay and watch, but could not take any photos.

Religious objects like these are often placed near a door of a home

The Fishermen of Cojimar

A local fisherman holds a fresh jaw of a shark

Cuba is an island surround by the ocean, and it's full of seafood. However, the only fish, the locals eat is caught perhaps by an angler standing on the Malecon or more likely acquired through the black market trade. I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in the fishing village of Cojimar about 20 miles north of Havana, where commercial fish are required to be sold to private restaurants, leaving them much too expensive for most Cubans. Fish is not sold in stores.

The black market thrives in Cuba
The fishing village of Cojimar, Cuba
Fisherman standing on the Malecon in Havana at sunset
A large fish caught by locals on the Malecon. Headed to the black market?

We love Americans

This was a phrase I heard over and over again, and with seeming sincerity. My guide told me that Americans are seen to be happy, inquisitive and non-threatening to the Cubans. Interestingly, Cubans seem to be fixated on American clothes. I frequently saw people dress in flagged designer shirts and dresses, while others wear "Made in America" branded clothing.

A young boy wanted to look in my camera. Cameras are a rare in Cuba and this child had never seen one.

“Support the local Cuban People” is a license to travel to Cuba, but more importantly, it's not just a document - it's a mindset. By staying with the local people, eating at privately owned establishments and finally, chatting it up with the locals, you really show support, and you'd be surprised at what you would learn from them in return.

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Photos by Craig ONeal