December 2016

Standing on the sidewalk shortly after we arrived in Havana, we watched the cars going by and realized just how much of the country’s history is reflected in its vehicles.

There are plenty of classic American cars from the 1940s and 1950s — a period when the US supported Fulgencio Batista’s rule over Cuba, even as he became an increasingly corrupt and controlling dictator. Many of the classic cars from that era have been painstakingly repaired and restored to beautiful condition, while others are threadbare, rattling shadows of their former selves.

In the late 1950s, Fidel Castro organized a rebellion to bring about political change in Cuba. With help from Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, and a great deal of fighting throughout the country, Castro’s Cuban Revolution achieved victory in 1959. Once in power, Castro’s party allied itself with the Soviet Union, leading the US to impose economic sanctions on Cuba. That’s why most of the cars we see from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s are simple, sturdy Soviet-made models like the Lada and the Moskvitch.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the Cuban economy suffered and people generally had a tough time scraping by. Things have improved since then, and we see some newer cars, mainly Peugeot and Renault imports. The government charges immense fees for the import and sale of new cars, and as a result, most of the newer cars are government-owned tourist taxis, with a few belonging to wealthy private owners.

Of course, the cars don’t even begin to tell the complete story, but it’s fascinating to see the history of Cuba so obviously imprinted in the traffic on the streets.

We explored Havana in a classic 1950s Ford convertible.

We saw lots of well-preserved classic cars in Havana.

It’s not easy to keep these old cars running!

Fidel Castro’s recent funeral was still in the news when we were there.

We saw Che Guevara’s image all over the place.

Government-run stores sell basic foods at subsidized prices, but often have very few items in stock.

Private sellers offer a much greater variety of foods at the local market.

Some people buy products from the government store and resell them on the street at a profit.

Cuba’s government has permitted freedom of religion since the early 1990s.

The two most popular religions are Catholicism and Santeria, which derives from the Yoruba religion brought by African slaves.

Practitioners of Santeria often wear white, and mix African traditions with Catholicism.

In Havana, we stayed at the private home of wonderful hosts Mali and Hector.

Hector’s mechanic was fixing the brakes and preparing to repaint his Moskvitch car.

Why is Cuba famous for cigars? That’s what we were wondering when we set out for Viñales, a small town set in a scenic valley in western Cuba, surrounded by rocky karst hills and cliffs. The valley is known for growing tobacco using traditional agricultural methods and for its hand-rolled cigars.

On our first day in Viñales, we woke up before dawn and headed to the tobacco fields, hoping to catch a farmer at work. Shortly after the sun came up, we found what we were looking for: a farmer working in a field of young tobacco plants. As we shot photos of this charismatic man in the glow of early light, we asked him about the process that would turn his plants into cigars.

“All of my tobacco is grown organically, then harvested and dried in that drying house over there, for at least three months,” he explained to us. “The government buys 90% of the leaves for a very low price” — to be used in the government-owned factories that produce brand-name cigars. “And I get to keep 10%, for the hand-made cigars that I sell locally.”

The farmer stopped pulling weeds when his wife brought his morning coffee over. As soon as he finished the coffee, he traded the empty cup for a cigarette. With a big smile he said, “In Cuba, three things keep us going: coffee, tobacco, and rum!”

A farmer working in his tobacco field.

The farmer’s wife showed us the drying house, where we learned that the dried tobacco leaves get fermented with the family recipe of honey, lime, rum, and other ingredients. The soft parts of the leaves are then separated from the stiff center, which contains most of the nicotine. “Our cigars aren’t as addictive as the factory ones,” she explained, “because we remove the middle part of the leaf.”

The next day we visited another farmer, who showed us how the tobacco is cut, layered, rolled, and trimmed to make cigars. Then he lit a cigar for each of us to try, and we found that the fermented tobacco’s smoke filled our mouths with a unique, rich, sweet-and-smooth flavor. We are not smokers by any means, but we have to admit it was great to experience the whole process, from farm to cigar.

A tobacco drying house.

The farmer’s wife shows us the dried tobacco leaves and finished cigars.

Due to a shortage of cows in Cuba, only the government is allowed to slaughter them.

Pigs, on the other hand, are plentiful…

…and Cuban pork is absolutely delicious!

We met some real cowboys in Viñales.

This tobacco farmer showed us how cigars are made.

After he rolled a cigar, we both got to smoke it.

We heard lots of great Cuban music.

Che is everywhere!

Trinidad has well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture.

The courtyards of the house where we stayed and the neighboring house.

Cubans are always fixing things! Here, our Trinidad hosts are repairing an iron.

During our trip to Cuba, we made a point of meeting a few local professional photographers. An acquaintance connected us with photographer/videographer Yram, and we spent a fantastic evening with him in Trinidad. We admired each other’s photos, geeked out about photography equipment, discussed current trends, and imagined future ones. We were particularly impressed with what Yram is able to accomplish given his limited access to equipment. For example, he wanted a videography boom arm to achieve smooth camera motion for documentary films. Unable to buy what he wanted, he figured out how to make one from scratch using aluminum tubes, household hardware, and his own tools. We were amazed — and a bit ashamed of how much we spend on gadgets.

One of Yram’s documentaries that we watched was about his friend Carlos, a painter and sculptor who has exhibited all over Cuba, and also in Canada and the US. We were impressed with his work and asked Yram if we could meet him. We spent the next afternoon with Yram and Carlos, in Carlos’ art studio.

Carlos is a talented artist living in Trinidad.

Yram is the fascinating photographer who introduced us to Carlos.

The walls of Carlos’ studio were covered with sculptures of Fidel Castro. We had heard that Castro banned public exhibitions of his image, except those authorized by the government. “All my Fidel sculptures are built out of used materials,” Carlos told us. “Fidel told us to never throw anything away, that everything can be fixed or reused. I think he would approve.”

Carlos revealed other insights: “In this one, Fidel’s beard is made up of empty pill packages. When people are feeling bad in Cuba, they often turn to Fidel, as if he’s the medication that will fix their headaches.” We thought that was clever.

Some of his work is more critical. One of his pieces has a giant mouse trap attached to a door with the Cuban flag painted on it. “The key to the lock is here, attached to the trap,” Carlos explains, “but if you grab it you might get caught in the trap. To me, that sums up what Cuba is all about.”

Carlos’ work is creative, beautiful, and daring. Carlos and Yram are great examples of a recurring theme we saw in Cuba: through ingenuity people can achieve a lot with very little.

Che is immortalized in several statues in the city of Santa Clara, where he led the Cuban revolution to victory in 1959.

Emilio shows us the site of Che’s mausoleum.

Internet access is restricted in Cuba, but lots of people have smart phones.

Antoine, our host in Santa Clara, is a spectacular fashion photographer.

His girlfriend, Saily, made us feel at home and threw a fun New Year’s Eve party.

Pixelicious Planet

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