Cuba Tripping Travelogue

Spring of 2015, my daughter Nabra, had a big break between her last quarter of university and directing a play in Denver, so we decided to take a major vacation somewhere.  We threw around a bunch of ideas and settled on Peru.  However, when I talked with my Peruvian friends they said two weeks really isn’t enough time.

My wife, Mona, who is Egyptian had always wanted to see Cuba before it normalized relations with the United States.  Cuba’s Castro was very popular in Egypt during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s leadership and the Non-Aligned Movement.  With only a few days to go before our vacation window of opportunity, I scrambled to figure out travel arrangements.  I talked to some friends that had travelled there and got some suggestions. There are few guide books on Cuba available in the US, but I was able to locate one in the Los Angeles library system. It was a pretty basic guide and wasn’t much help when it came to making transportation and lodging arrangements.  In Cuba, US credit cards don’t work.  So you have to bring cash.  US cellphones also don’t work and we needed to be in communication with the US for an important call my daughter had arranged for an over-the-phone interview.   You can’t fly directly to Cuba so we transited through Mexico City.

We had arranged for accommodations in Havana at a Casa Particulare.  These are private homes that are allowed to be rented out to foreigners.  They are much cheaper than hotels which are government owned and where prices are regulated (on the pricey end, unfortunately).

I had brought a professional camera and a wide angle zoom lens but when I travel on vacation, I don’t want to think about taking pictures (but I now bring along one professional camera and lens and a computer, protectively.  Because while vacationing in Sri Lanka, the 2004 tsunami struck and all I had a very rudimentary ‘happy snap’ camera and no computer.)  Initially, we needed to figure out arrangements once we arrived in Havana.  Where to go, how to get there, getting a sim card for the phone and eventually renting a car.  All things that would take a couple of hours in the US.  Cuba is different.  I won’t go into the details but suffice it to say that it took us most of the three initial days in Havana to make arrangements and get on the move.  During this time, I had left the professional camera packed away and was going about town with my new iPhone 6s.  I was taking snaps in the streets.  Shooting panoramas, time lapse and video and having a blast.  The results were fantastic. And it was so convenient and very unobtrusive, so I decided to continue shooting the vacation with the smart phone.

All these pictures in the gallery were taken with the iPhone 6s.

There are limitations, however, when using the iPhone.  For once thing, zooming into the subject does not work. The quality of the image is very poor.  And that is also true if you try and blow-up an iPhone image.  The image starts to pixellate and fall apart.  At night, the quality of available light pictures is quite grainy.  But the joy I had and the ease of carrying it around more than make-up for these short-comings.

We rented a Chinese Geely sedan and headed west towards the tobacco fields of Vinales, one of the main tourist destinations.  The Soviet-built highway stretching the length of Cuba was practically deserted.  Gasoline is expensive, and people are poor so there is not a lot of movement outside of the cities. No advertisements except for a few propaganda billboards proclaiming “Socialisme ou Meurto” (Socialism or Death) and the alway ubiquitous Che Guevara saying “Hasta La Victoria Simpre” (Until Victory, Always).

Cuba is an amazing country.  It is as if time has stopped.  Those 1940ties, 50ties and early 60ties cars you hear about are everywhere.  I would say the classic vintage cars make up half of all the private vehicles in Cuba and they are still out there plying the pot-holed and patched and deteriorating road system.  As I drove, my daughter would do time lapse photography or sometimes I’d just follow behind my wife and daughter shooting them as they strolled through the streets.

Vinales is a small town which is essentially tourist central for the tobacco tourism.  Most of the town’s quaint and colorful houses are rented out to foreigners.  We stayed at a bright pink house facing a corn field and surrounded by mounds/mountains called ‘mogotes’.  My daughter and I took an afternoon horse back ride through villages and the tobacco fields.  We visited a cavern with an underground river (Cueva del Indio).  Having a car gave us the freedom to go where we wanted to, when we wanted to and take back roads to explore places in Cuba that visitors rarely go to.  We did this when we went searching for a beach along the mangrove northern coast.  The roads were rough, sometimes just dirt but the scenes of Cubans going about their daily life were timeless. Even on remote back country roads we came across impressive monuments to Che Guevara.  Almost all town and villages have some sort of tribute to him.

This post is turning into more of a travelogue than photo log.  There is not much to say about taking photos with a smartphone.  I enjoy the surreptitiousness of shooting with a phone.  Nobody thinks you are a professional photographer.  People (however, for those in Cuba, I cannot say this) are often suspicious of photographers and that can inhibit getting candid, non-posed images.  As soon as you raise your DSLR with a sophisticated lens (especially if you have more than one camera) you are marked as a professional shooting for something else other than yourself.

With the smartphone you have no viewfinder so everything you shoot is seen through the back screen.  You see the image as it will appear as if you were to have a framed print.  This adds a different element to shooting.  You literally see only what you will record.  With a camera with a viewfinder when shooting a photo, your eye can scan around the edges of the image to see beyond what you may want to frame.  I find you have to think more to figure out what and how you want to record the scene.  I still prefer photographing with a viewfinder but I am finding the ease and convenience of a back screen very appealing in situations where you want to make a casual snap.  Not everything may be perfectly composed but you can often capture a moment that would have been lost with a conventional camera.

Now back to the Cuba Tripping travelogue/photo log.

After Vinales, we headed back on the National Highway One to the other side of the island.  It was going to be a marathon drive and we headed off early.  We had to get around Havana and that proved a bit more daunting than I had anticipated.  No GPS, so we had to rely on old fashion maps.  Eventually we did make it through Havana though it required a number of stops for directions and eventually picking up a young baseball hopefully hitchhiker who didn’t want to leave the car once we arrived at the place where our paths diverged.  I literally had to get out of the car and get a bit angry before he finally got out (he wanted money and I don’t go in for that type of blackmail).  Cuba is a pretty desperate country (so much poverty like in so many Third World nations) and a traveling Westerner is a means for a possible handout.   He wanted the money to attend a baseball academy.  His reasoning may have been legitimate but I did not like the way he went about demanding a handout.  This was really the only negative encounter with Cubans which is surprisingly refreshing compared to so many other improvised countries I have visited.

We needed to change money (the bank and exchange office in Vinales had not been functioning because of a multiple day electrical outage so we were running low on funds (another reason the hitchhiker was left without a handout).  We skirted the swamps a few miles from the Bay of Pigs (the infamous and disastrous attempt to overthrow Castro in 1961).  Can’t understand who would think landing on a beach in a swamp which essentially has one road in an out was a good idea.

We reached the French architecture inspired colonial city of Cienfuegos on the south coast.  It was super hot and muggy.  I waited for my number to be called at the bank as my wife and daughter explored the town.  Finally, cash infused I went out in search of family and to see the town.  It was an exercise in ‘Speed Tourism’ which is to ‘see the place is a very limited amount of time’.   I blasted through the main square shooting photos as I scurried around checking out sights and trying to find Mona and Nabra.  A huge cruise ship full of Canadians had docked and they swarmed about.  A strange site to finally see so many tourists.

We finally met up (remember we only had one cellphone so no calling to find out where someone is) and needed to get back on the road to our destination that day which was the former pirate hangout of Trinidad.  I always like to try and get to our next destination before sunset.  Another beautiful drive between Cienfuegos and Trinidad especially in the late afternoon.

Trinidad, which is an old colonial city and UNESCO World Heritage site, does not allow vehicular traffic in the center of the town.  A parking attendant who spoke English (a nice surprise) offered to park the car and guide us to our casa particulare.  I’m often suspicious of these people, but my wife who has a great feel for people trusted him (and besides in Cuba there is very little crime from what I have read and could see).  Cuba has an authoritarian regime with informants everywhere and criminals are punished quickly (no long waits for courts, lawyers and judges).

So the next day, Romero (the parking attendant) was waiting for us outside our place and offered to drive us and guide us for a nominal fee (by this time, I was particular concerned with our cash situation. I had thought I had brought enough cash, but rental car costs, sim card acquisition and some expensive restaurant tabs in Havana had me concerned.  No way to get more cash when you are an American).

The three days in Trinidad turned into a real trip with Romero at the wheel.  He turned out to be an aspiring singer-songwriter who had already produced a couple of music videos (here’s one).   He showed us the sites, played and sang his music while driving around.  One day, we spent on the beach.  A friend of his took us out to spearfish our lunch for the day in jellyfish infested waters (they were small and don’t sting but was a weird feeling to be snorkeling through them).  We ended up with an eel, some sort of tropical fish and an octopus.  Not the greatest catch but enough for a sumptuous meal in the company of a territorial giant pelican that would attack you if you got too close.

Trinidad city itself is an absolute wonder for photography.  The colors of the homes, the architecture, the cobblestone streets, the sky, and the people are amazing.  Everywhere I turned there were beautiful pictures to be made.  I am enamored with the panorama feature of the iPhone so did a few of them while there.  In the Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Bandidos, they detail the fight against the anti-Castro revolutionaries that fought against the regime from 1960-65.  There is even a piece of the US U-2 spy plane that was shot down over Cuba.  You must climb the bell tower for a beautiful view and colors of the town, mountains, sky and sea.

Ok, need to move along.  After Trinidad we needed to get back to Havana for one last night before our flight back home.  We left early and climbed up into the coolness of the Sierra del Escambray mountains where revolutionaries including the Yankee Commandante, William Morgan and Che Guevara fought Bastita’s army in the late fifties.  There is a fascinating book about the American revolutionary titled ‘The Yankee Commandante (here is a New Yorker article about him).  Would have liked to spend more time in these mountains which are cool and cloudy and full of waterfalls and exotic birds, but we needed to make up time.  We followed the route into Santa Clara that Che took in the final battle of the Cuban Revolution where he ambushed a troop carrying train and defeated the army on December 28, 1958.  Cuban dictator Bastista fled the country to the Dominican Republic on January 1, 1959.

In Santa Clara, you can visit the actual troop carrying train cars where they were ambushed. The train tracks still run next to the site where containers have bullet holes that are marked and displays inside showing weapons, uniforms and photographs.  There is even the bulldozer that pushed the cars off the tracks.  Again, we were pressed for time, so ‘Speed Tourism’ kicked in again.  15 minutes and we were onto the next destination, the Che Guevara Monument and Mausoleum.  We passed through the town and stopped briefly when we came across a little corner square dedicated to the Beatles…trippy.  The monument to Che is a Soviet style statue depicting Che in a sling (he was wounded after falling off a wall during the fighting in Caibarién) with an immense square in front and a martyrs cemetery in back.  There were plenty of tour buses and the wait to see Che’s crypt underneath the statue was too long for us (needed to get back to Havana to return the rental car and find a place before our early morning flight the next day).

We were becoming accustomed to Cuba.  My daughter and I were managing well with Spanish.  We had become familiar with the lay of the land and felt almost at home.  The next morning we awoke before dawn and headed out to the airport in the pre-dawn darkness.  The city was still asleep but some workers were waiting for buses and a convoy of police vehicles headed out for duty from a police barracks.  It had rained briefly the night before and the streets with shiny from  the few street lights along the port area.  It was a melancholy but happy feeling.

Cuba was a trip.  Tens days exploring, photographing and experiencing such a dynamic and unique place was an adventure of a lifetime.  I hope to go back one day.


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