Havana Adventure 2001
In November 2001, Frank and I traveled to Havana, Cuba. Our trip resulted mostly from my own curiosity and sense of adventure. For those of you who know Frank, traveling to a communist country would definitely not be high on his agenda, but at this point in our relationship, I think he would have done anything I had asked of him. My imagination was fueled by Ernest Hemingway and movies like I am Cuba, Before Night Falls, and Strawberry and Chocolate. I also had cultivated an absolute love affair with Cuban music after years of listening to Tom Schnabel’s radio show on KCRW.
We had to travel through Cancun, Mexico since the United States has had an active embargo against Cuba since 1960. We stocked up on American dollars—ironically, the main currency in Cuba—and boarded an Aeroflot flight (Russian operated) bound for Havana. Barring the smoke that filled the cabin halfway through the flight, we somehow arrived safely. The courteous customs officer neglected to stamp our U.S. passports and instead issued us a piece of paper which was later collected upon our departure.
Armed with my Canon EOS 1N and 24/1.8, 50/1.4, 85/1.8 lenses, I was determined to document this trip, using a mixture of Tri-X 400, Ektachrome 100, and Kodak Gold 200. In 2001, most photographers, myself included, were still leery of the digital revolution.
We had no hotel reservations, which if you know Frank, could be a catastrophic event. But it was impossible to email or get through to anyone on the telephone before our departure due to U.S. embargo. So we had no other choice but to take our chances. My actor friend, Seymour Cassel, who had been to Cuba several times, had assured me how inexpensive it was, telling me that hotels ran about $50 per night—a gross underestimate! The first hotel we wandered into, the Golden Tulip, wanted $400 per night! We ended up in a small French operated boutique hotel called Conde de Villanueva located in the heart of Havana Viejo for a measly $200 per night—still exceeding out budget by 400%! Long story short, we knew early on that we did not bring enough cash with us and would never last the full two weeks we had planned to stay. As any American who has been to Cuba knows, it is impossible to draw or receive cash in any form once in Cuba. We spent countless hours and hundreds of dollars on the telephone and visiting the Western Union office trying to get our European friends to wire us money without success.
We walked about a mile to save $1 on cab fare (we were on a strict budget) to go to the airport ticket counter and try and change our tickets to leave sooner. While standing in the taxi cue composed of all vintage American vehicles (pre-1960), we encountered a very savvy street hustler named Juan. Frank immediately took a liking to him because Juan was ambitious and charming and no doubt reminded Frank of himself as a young man. Juan tried to negotiate a cab fare for us with several taxis, and Frank ended up inviting him to come along with us for the ride. It is a law in Cuba that all drivers must pick up hitchhikers, so we accumulated more company on this ride than expected. At one point, there were at least 7 of us squeezed into the spacious back seat of a 1957 Chevy. Rapid Spanish firing all around us, Frank and I looked at each other and just laughed.
Well, we never made it to the airport ticket office that day. There was a anti-American demonstration happening, one which all Cuban citizens were “required” to attend. The demonstration was to protest the injustice of the death of some Cubans who had attempted to escape on a raft and had died before reaching Florida. The streets were filled because people were given the day off of work and penalized (so we were told) if they didn’t show up.
Cubans are strictly prohibited from socializing with white tourists. They could be arrested because authorities feared they might try to defect. Because of this Juan was careful to walk a two or three feet behind us so as not to draw attention from the men with machine guns standing on most street corners in the center. Juan took us on a tour of the less travelled parts of the city and told us about his life. He told us that he made $10 per week as an accountant and confessed that most Cubans, himself included, could not wait for Castro to die because they dreamed Cuba would some day finally become part of the United States like Puerto Rico so all their problems would be solved. We treated Juan to more than a few mojitos and shared many laughs, even though it appeared we were suddenly being charged double price for the drinks.
Juan insisted that we come to his home for dinner that night. The building in which he lived had an exquisite view of the state capitol. In a normal economy, that location would have cost a fortune. Unfortunately, there was no running water or electricity, since the building was in a shambles and all the residents were squatting. His wife, eight months pregnant, served us an seven course typical Cuban meal, cooked on a small propane stovetop, while some other male residents lifted weights on the veranda downstairs. Kool and the Gang’s “Fresh” played on a portable boom box in the background. We shared at least two 750 ml bottles of Havana Club Anejo Especial Rum, sipping directly from the bottle, while watching the sunset.
Frank and I both understood, at this moment, even though the trip did not turn out as expected, we could not hope for a better experience—connecting with Juan and his family and having the opportunity to share part of their daily existence in a world so close, yet so distant from ours (about 100 miles from the U.S.). Later, we drunkenly made our way into Havana Viejo to listen to a killer salsa band playing at a corner café. We danced among all ages—toddlers to seniors.
The next morning, we both woke in a rum-induced daze. I searched through my pockets and counted our financial reserves stashed in the hotel safe, quickly coming to the realization that after settling our hotel bill, we would be left with less than $100—that is if we left that day. I told Frank, “don’t worry, we can wash dishes if we have to!” He was clearly in a panic. “Well, as a last resort, one of us can fly back to Mexico, get more money, and come back and pay the hotel bill,” I reasoned. I quickly realized that this did not settle his anxieties.
“I grew up poor and have no desire to repeat the experience,” he warned.
Somehow we made it to the ticket counter and managed to change our flight and left the following day. We boarded the plane to Cancun with less than two U.S. dollars in our pockets. As soon as we hit Mexican soil, Frank made a point to hit as many ATM’s as possible before we even reached the hotel.
We didn’t get to see the Cuban countryside as we had planned. Two of the four boxes of Cuban cigars I had bought for my father were confiscated at Mexican border. But none of that made any difference. Havana was one of the most delightful experiences we could have hoped for. We saw some of the most dire living conditions. I really got the sense that the people felt trapped and oppressed. However, they refused to let their spirit be defeated and continued to engage fully in life—dancing, singing and loving life.
I had a wonderful experience photographing the people of Havana. Many of them loved having their photos taken and even offered to pose for me.
I hope I will have the pleasure to return to Havana some day. It was all I had imagined and much, much more.