During the middle of September, I spent a week in Havana, Cuba. Cuba has been on my bucket list for a long time, so I was thrilled when everything fell into place and I was on the plane to Havana. I was prepared to see old cars and crumbling buildings, an era stuck in the 1950’s. What I wasn’t expecting was how warm, friendly, welcoming and happy the Cuban people we met were. It is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I travelled to Cuba on a photography tour put on by Steve Simon. Steve has been to Cuba many times in the past few years, so he knew where to find great locations to photograph. Along with our Cuban guide, Juan Carlos Ocaña, we saw parts of Old Havana that not many tourists venture into. This allowed us to see what life in Havana was really like. We were also fortunate to have along three Cuban photographers, Vladimir, Daymara and Joe, who also gave us photography pointers and helped with translations. To top it off, our group was wonderful! The ten of us hit it off! Thank you Ruth, Jennifer, Tammy, Pat, Clarke, Tom, Norm, Fred and Steve, I hope we can keep in touch. Whenever I have a mojito I will think of you!
Faces of Cuba
The people of Havana are the heart of the city. And although they may be poor economically, they are rich socially. Because it is hot, everyone keeps their doors and windows wide open, and you are welcome to come visit. Neighbours chat over balcony railings. Kids play with hand-made toys in the streets. People gather on their front steps and mingle. People actually talk to each other face-to-face. No cell phones, no texts, no email. This is something we have sadly lost in North America.
Probably the most iconic thing you will see in old Havana are the cars. Many are used as taxis to transport tourists, and are lovingly maintained with spare parts and bright paint. Others seem in disrepair, yet somehow manage to function!
One morning we visited the National Ballet School of Cuba. This school is one of the most prestigious ballet schools in the world. Students ages eight to 18 study ballet up to six hours a day. The school is housed in a beautiful mansion which was once used as a Spanish social club before the revolution. We spent the morning wandering the halls of this incredible building, photographing the students as they rehearsed.
Life on the Balcony
Havana’s balconies are where people go to talk with their neighbours and watch life in the street below. It amazed me that none of these deteriorating balconies collapsed under the weight of water barrels, antennas, bird cages and laundry!
It seemed that where ever we went, it was wash day! Laundry hanging from windows and balconies was a common theme in Old Havana.
Life in the Street
We visited many out-of-the-way locations in Old Havana. It was very interesting to see how people went about their everyday lives, away from the tourists’ eyes. I tried to capture some of those moments: shopping, playing, working, and socializing.
And it Rained!
Unfortunately during my stay in Havana we never got a chance to photograph a sunset on the Malecón. The Malecón is Havana’s 8 km (5 mi) long seawall which runs from Old Havana to the the Vedado neighbourhood. Each afternoon storm clouds would form and we would see several hours of torrential down pours. On the other hand, this made for some wonderful photographic opportunities. It was still very warm, so with my camera covered in a rain sleeve, I set out to capture a few moments in the rain.
The Boxing Arena
Boxing is one of the most popular sports in Cuba, next to baseball. While in Havana we visited a boxing club where many of Cuba’s Olympic champions have trained. We were able to photograph several athletes as they worked out and sparred together. It was amazing how these boxers managed to train in the excessive heat and humidity. It was all I could do to photograph, let alone work out at such a high level!
The Texture of Old Havana
Havana is frozen in time. After the Revolution of 1959, the U.S. embargo hit Cuba hard. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba experienced a major economic downturn. Havana’s historic buildings are crumbling and collapsing. Limited funds and materials for repairs, the humidity, lack of maintenance and the salt air have taken a tole. Luckily as sanctions ease, more foreign and local investment is going into restoring Havana’s once gorgeous mansions and homes. There is a long way to go. But hopefully in the future, Havana will be returned to the grandeur it once was in its heydays of the 1950’s.
Inside Old Havana
I was amazed when I looked inside the open doorways in Old Havana. These dilapidated entries led to people’s homes. Every day Havana experiences building collapses. Corners of balconies crumble to the ground, roofs cave in and cracks open up in walls. Yet people want to stay in their homes. Most Cubans own their own home, and do not want to be relocated to housing projects on the edge of the city. This is where they live.
Havana at Night
Havana seemed to come alive at night. It didn’t matter what day of the week it was. The streets were full of people taking advantage of the cooler temperatures. Somehow the urban decay, so noticeable in the daylight, seemed less pronounced as the lights came on.