Havana, Cuba A Journey Back In Time

A full month after visiting Cuba, I still have trouble answering the question "how was it?". Eye Opening? Perspective changing? Humbling? Yes. An adventure? Absolutely. Easy or Relaxing? Not Really. But I'm so grateful to have had the chance to experience it right now, at what is seemingly an inflection point in its turbulent history. As an American, it reminded me over and over again how lucky I am to live where I do, even if things are far from perfect. As a photographer, capturing the wonderful people and places of Cuba was a dream come true.

"The Revolution Is Invincible"

To understand Cuba -- its culture, environment, and people -- it's important to understand the political history, and especially how the past 70 years has impacted its current state. Even today, Castro's 'Revolution' of 1959 is central to almost everything, and the pro-Revolution and socialist propaganda is pervasive throughout the land. Fidel and Raul are revered - and, at least in public, are considered the reasons for everything 'good' in Cuba. But the alliance to the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War, the resulting U.S. Embargo (remember 'Bay of Pigs' and the Cuban Missile Crisis?), and the economic collapse that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Block in 1991, has hampered growth, development, and prosperity in this socialist country.

"Continuously Defend the Revolution"
Images of Fidel and Raul Castro, along with revolutionist leader Che Guevara, are depicted throughout the land.

Cuban billboards refer to the embargo as a "blockade" and the longest genocide in history -- referring to limitations of medical supplies and equipment imposed by the ban.

Images of Che, Fidel, and the Revolution are everywhere.
The Cuban Flag flies proudly throughout Habana Vieja.
The 'Museo De La Revolucion' is housed in the former Presidential Palace, which Fidel converted to a museum in honor of The Revolution after President and dictator Batista was driven out of Cuba.
Revolution Museum. Photo credit: Lisa Lorenz
Presidential Palace rotunda
The Great Hall 'selfie'.
Fidel, Raul, and Che watch over the Presidential Palace - now the Revolution Museum
Bullets holes riddle the interior of the Palace, and serve as reminders of the multiple coup attempts during Batista's presidency.
The museum's "Cretin's Corner" features caricatures of Batista and U.S. Presidents and their "contributions" to socialism.
The museum features artifacts, airplanes and missiles from the liberation of Cuba, the Bay of Pigs and what leaders refer to as the "so-called October Crisis".
July 26th Movement began Fidel's Revolution.
Museum version: "Turbine from the U2 spy craft ..... shot down while violating Cuban air space on October 27th 1962 during the "so-called" October Crisis". In fact, we were *this close* to nuclear war during this so-called crisis. It wasn't until very recently we understood just how close we came.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba

In the 1930's - 1950's, this hotel served as the epicenter for celebrities, gangsters, and diplomats from the U.S. and around the globe who came to Cuba for the parties, gambling, sun, and entertainment. It was the 'Vegas' of the Caribbean during Batista's regime.

Grand Dining Room
When Castro came into power, all casinos were shut down to help eliminate "all the social problems that gambling brought about".

After the Revolution, the hotel also served the military with a series of underground bunkers, tunnels and artillery meant to protect Cuba from American attacks.

The U.S. Embassy re-opened in 2015 after being closed since 1961.

The U.S. Embassy sits along the 7-mile Malecón (seaside road and esplanade) across from several high-rise apartment buildings. In 2006, the U.S. used the top 2 floors of the building to display large LED signs that promoted a series of anti-socialist, anti-Castro propaganda. Fidel countered this offensive by installing 100+ flagpoles, each with a large black flag. Purportedly raised to honor Cuban citizens lost in a terrorist-led plane crash, they conveniently blocked all U.S. messages from the buildings and streets. When the messaging came down, so did the flags.

Empty Flag Poles outside the Embassy (photo credit: Lisa Lorenz)
Our casa in Habana Vieja (Old Havana). The pile of rubble in front of our door inexplicably grew day by day -- just one of the many mysteries of Cuba.

Culture shock and uncertainty best describes our emotions when we first arrived at Casa Capital, our home for the week in Old Havana. But we quickly grew to appreciate our cozy home, our wonderful hosts Juan Carlos & Diemela, and our home manager Yislevi. The benefits of having locals caring for us, managing money exchanges, hiring taxis, etc. was so valuable in a country that operates so very differently than anywhere we'd been before.

Living Room at Casa Capital (note the view out our window)

The contrast between the restored interior of our casa and the view from our balcony was stark. Sadly, it's representative of much of Havana, as the city struggles to keeps its infrastructure and architecture from further decay.

From our rooftop, a glorious sunrise over Habana Vieja.

The risen sun exposes the neighboring rooftop homes and offers peaks into the lives of their inhabitants.

The purpose of the shark teeth drying next to the shoes remains a mystery.

the places of cuba

There is tremendous diversity in the architectural styles and influences in Havana. Spanish and Colonial styles mix with Greek, Italian, Roman, Russian and more...

Russian Orthodox Cathedral
Revolution Museum at sunset

In much of Havana, these beautiful buildings are the exception, not the norm. Decades of economic hardship, coupled with a limited supply of raw materials, has made it difficult for the government to keep up with the crumbling decay of its housing infrastructure (the government owns almost all property in a socialist society). As the country slowly opens up its city to foreign investors and companies, pockets of rapid development and restoration are appearing. You can begin to see the promise of what is to come, but there is still a long way to go...

Even in decay, you can see the architectural diversity that makes up the city.

The Cars

You can't talk about Cuba without talking about the cars. So MANY classic cars. After a few days, you become a bit desensitized to the fact that you are surrounded by the largest rolling antique car show in the world.

The U.S. was a huge exporter of cars in the 40's and 50's. After the embargo, it became much more difficult to import them, and most new cars available came from the Soviet block -- small, tin-can kinds of cars that don't last. As one of our tour guides put it "if a Cuban can't fix it, it cannot be fixed" -- and fix cars they do! Most of the classic cars you see today have been significantly overhauled, and most have new engines and internal parts which keep them on the road today. The majority of engines are now diesel, which makes them more cost efficient to run, but brings with them an unfortunate amount of diesel exhaust that pollutes the streets of the city.

Photo Credit: Lisa Lorenz

Photo Credit: Lisa Lorenz

Classic cars aren't the only transportation options. Little 3-wheeled "Cocos" are literally everywhere, as are pedicabs. To get an elevated view of the city, a tourist double-decker bus is the way to go.

The faces of cuba

The people of Cuba are wonderful -- gracious, genuine, and friendly, especially to visitors. Tourism is critical to the economy, and it is clear that mistreating their country's guests will not be tolerated (well... beyond minor infractions like adding extras onto restaurant bills and over-paying for cheap cigars - both of which happened to us). In this socialist state, the 'Policia' are ubiquitous, almost always come in pairs, and their presence is felt by everyone. At first unsettling, we soon came to appreciate the added feeling of security they afforded us.

As Americans, we were unsure of how we'd be received by the Cuban people given the history of our turbulent political relationship. Turns out Cubans easily separate those who "run" the countries from those who simply live in them. Their faces would light up when we said we were from Los Estados Unidos. Yes, we bring money, which certainly doesn't hurt (see above on minor infractions). But more importantly, the presence of more Americans in Cuba represents HOPE. Hope that our two countries, that are so close geographically, but so far apart, are coming closer together. Hope for a stronger economy, an end to the embargo, and the ability to finally travel outside their country's border.

Scenes from in and around Havana. You never know when a street dance will pop up, and when it does everyone joins in on the party. Unless you'd rather just sit and enjoy a cigar -- which is pretty common everywhere. (Add'l photo credit: Lisa Lorenz (15, 17) and Doreen Bortel(12)

Cuban Life

Most Cubans work for the government or companies related to the government. The average Cuban makes the equivalent of $30-$40 a month, and in a socialist society there isn't that much difference between what a city maintenance worker makes and what a white collar worker makes, though the working conditions can be very different. School (including college) is free for everyone, as is healthcare, housing is free or very inexpensive, and everyone gets a set amount of (practically) free food via the government's ration program. It seemed that most people had a smart phone (I saw mostly Samsung/Android), but WiFi is hard to come by and often accessed by 'WiFi parks' -- hot spots in local parks where a prepaid card gets you 1-hour of an intermittent-at-best connection. Tourists can also access WiFi in most large hotels, though it costs more and the connections are really no more reliable.

Typical WiFi park in Havana
Government ration store for egg distribution. The monthly list of rationed food includes eggs (~5/month per person), rice, beans, sugar, and limited amounts of chicken or fish.

The economy is evolving, and in my observation, there appears to be a widening gap between those who work in the hospitality and tourism business and those who don't. Raul Castro has loosened the restrictions on self-employment and home ownership, and industrious Cubans are starting their own businesses. In addition to the sanctioned hospitality jobs, there is a huge underground economy -- a network of tour guides, taxi drivers, artists and souvenir resellers -- that often make in a day much more than the average Cuban makes in a month.

Our favorite entrepreneur and his amazing singing pups.
Selling Flowers in the streets (photo: Doreen Bortel)
Fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms
Fortune tellers (photo: Lisa Lorenz)

Favorite Sights In and Around Havana

The 7-mile Malecón is home to colorful buildings, classic cars, and a favorite spot for locals to simply relax and hang out with friends.
Hanging out on the Malecón. In the distance is Castillo de Morro, the 1500's fortress that protected Havana's harbor from pirates, and later, foreign military invasions.
The streets of Habana Vieja
Artists sell their wares and souvenirs on the streets and in small shops in Habana Vieja.
Photographing classic cars on the Malecón (photo: D. Bortel)
Sunset view of Havana from the Castillo Murro across the Havana harbor.

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus cemetery) covers more than 150 acres and has over 800,000 tombs and mausoleums. It is said to be one of the largest cemeteries in the world.

An endless array of impressive sculptures.
The cemetery's beautiful church still does multiple funerals each day.
'Fusterlandia' is the creation of artist Jose Fuster. Fuster's mosaics and art not only cover his compound but the entire neighborhood. Pictures do not do it justice.
Fusterlandia
Fuster's home is fully ensconced in tile and mosaic.
Fuster's Mermaid. (Photo credit: Doreen Bortel)
Just outside the city is the Havana Forest. The lush landscape is used for walks, picnics, and is a favorite spot for Santeria worshipers to practice animal sacrifice. Really.
Doreen with our photo tour guide Damien among the Forest's massive trees.

A visit to Havana would not be complete without a visit to the famous Tropicana -- the original cabaret club that inspired dozens of copy-cats throughout the world. We were warned it was a tourist trap and a bit 'cheesy', but it was quite impressive and more than worth the $85 price of admission. And that admission came with 2 complimentary drinks - which turned out to be a glass of champagne, a small bottle of "real" coke, and a very large, brand new bottle of Havana Club Rum. We needed more Coke.

Quick :30 montage of the Tropicana

Ernest Hemingway famously made Cuba his home for much of his life. And while in Cuba, he made El Floridita (the home of the Daiquiri), and La Bodeguita (the home of the Mojito), his favorite haunts. Both are conveniently located in Habana Vieja, always crowded, and totally worth the wait.

If You go....

It's still not simple to get to Cuba, and it's technically still prohibited to go as a 'tourist'. You need a government issued travel visa and can only go under one of 12 pre-approved reasons. We traveled under "People to People" with a mission of cultural exchange, education, and art (photography). Bring cash for everything (credit cards don't work), and plan to be fairly disconnected from the outside world while you're there (it's actually pretty nice once you get used to it). The country lacks many of the modern conveniences we're accustomed to as spoiled Americans -- you can't Uber, make a reservation on Open Table, or even use tap water to brush your teeth. The food is 'fair-to-good', and in any given restaurant about half the menu items will be unavailable. But prices are super reasonable, you can always get a fresh Mojito or Cuba Libre, and the staff is always welcoming. They are genuinely glad you're there.

Christine, Lisa, and Doreen visited Havana, Cuba on a "People to People" exchange Jan 2-8, 2017.

Disclaimer from the editor: The comments, facts, and stories included are derived from our experiences, information provided by our guides, and supplemental research. While I believe this is to be entirely accurate, exhaustive fact checking did not occur.

Email: Cnkojetin@gmail.com

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Christine Kojetin
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Photos by Christine Neff Kojetin, Lisa Lorenz and Doreen Bortel.

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