I’ve wanted to go to Cuba since I was a little boy. On our family trips to Florida to visit relatives, I’d tag along with my lounge lizard uncle to socialize with his Cuban musician friends. Thanks to my wife indulging my wanderlust and holding the fort down while I made good on a childhood promise to myself—I just returned from an 8-day trip to Havana and several cities in eastern Cuba.
As you may know, if you are an American and want to travel legally to Cuba, it’s not as straightforward as it perhaps should be (and I’ve been keeping tabs on the rules for a few decades now). So a few weeks after a quick discussion with my longtime friend (with whom I’ve recently been reacquainted), Dan Tamarkin, I went with Keith and Amy of Complete Cuba, Dan and four other travelers (most of group was photographically inclined). I’m not a group tour kind of person—I’m barely a person kind of person. But unless you have the time and patience to wade through arcane government protocols (I did not), working through a tour operator familiar with such rules and regulations is the way to go, perhaps especially for your first trip there. Dan, who had already been to Cuba twice with Complete Cuba, had nothing but good things to say. And after having gone myself, I have nothing but good things to say about Complete Cuba as well.
I’ve done a pass through my photographs and a couple hundred of them pull their weight in pixels. That pool will of course be further refined, but here’s a small taste. Two more not shown here (two of my favorites, actually) will be shown at the Rangefinder Gallery in Chicago along with photos from my traveling companions and past Complete Cuba Alums.
I’m not going to try and summarize Cuba in anything but images, nor will I pretend that my photographs capture anything other than the small slice of Cuba I happened to walk through. But here are a few armchair observations:
- I felt completely safe in Cuba, even walking by myself in cities well outside the tourist zones. There is no spot in the United States—in the city or in the country—where I have felt as safe. None. It’s a little hard to believe, actually, just how much of a difference that makes in the way you experience a place. Especially because shortly before I left the States, I found out that my kids, who are in second and sixth grades, have active shooter / lockdown drills at their schools. What I wouldn’t give for my kids to know what it’s like to grow up feeling safe… it seems like those days are behind us in the States.
- Cuban life literally unfolds right in front of you. Walking down a street in a Cuban city is like walking down a hallway in an apartment building in which all the doors are open. Seriously—homes open right onto the sidewalk and most doors and windows are wide open. You can watch people play games, eat dinner, watch TV, fold laundry, laugh and argue. And if I walked slowly or stopped to observe, I’d occasionally be invited inside to join or chat. Try to imagine that happening where you live—someone inviting a complete stranger into their house to hang out.
- For tourists (and perhaps the general population as well, I’m not sure), Internet access is restricted to wi-fi (available in most public squares) that you can get via a prepaid card. It’s a major pain in the ass and as a result, over the course of 8 days I was online for a whopping total of 32 minutes—and it was glorious. Now that I’m back in a place where everyone I know checks their phones every 30 seconds and can’t have a conversation without looping in Google or Siri, it’s painfully obvious that I miss the days of meaningful interaction with people who are fully present. A sign in a Havana restaurant read, “We don’t have wi-fi. Pretend like it’s 1994 and talk with each other.” Indeed.
I’m not naive; Cuba most certainly has a fair share of issues and many aspects of day-to-day life for most Cubans are far more challenging than I can possibly relate to. I neither over-romanticize the place nor the culture nor do I forget how lucky I am to live where and how I live. But I did absolutely fall in love with Cuba and its people and remembered why it’s so important to get out and see the world. With so many places left on this planet for me to explore, it’s pretty rare that I want to go back to any one of them. But I will return to Cuba… I’m already learning Spanish in preparation