As I prepared for my trip to Havana I had this notion that I was going to see Havana before the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba tainted what I felt was a simpler and even happier life. I mean that is what I saw when I typed in “travel to Cuba” to google. Look at those adorable vintage cars and that big blue ocean, what-a-treat!
The thing is when I actually spoke to Cubans I learned that it is not a tropical paradise frozen in time. Cubans want to progress, they want opportunity. I didn’t meet a single Cuban without a story of trying to leave Cuba.
What I Learned Traveling in Cuba
I met a bartender who worked in a tiny bar built inside someone’s backyard courtyard. He was a trained architect who made more money running an illegal bar than he did with his university degree. He told me he switched jobs when his wife left him because he didn’t want to have children yet. He told me about how you can’t find diapers on the shelves or formula and fresh food is scarce. I can understand his hesitation to start a family when life is so hard.
I got the opportunity to ride in the most beautiful vintage cars and some that looked like they were held together with duct tape. Interesting fact, most of the cars we encountered actually had diesel tractor engines in them! The ingenuity of the Cuban people is impressive.
photo by Jonny Wade
One cab driver was actually a trained Gynocologist. He spent most of his youth abroad doing aide work. When he returned he was able to use his service and some back-channeling to get housing just outside of Havana with a little land. His brother in America sent him seeds and he now has his own garden to feed his family. When his father passed he inherited his father’s cab business license. This is the only way to get a license to drive a vintage
It’s difficult to grow food in Cuba. When Fidel Castro started to fall out of favor with the Russian government he tried to win them back by sending them more sugar cane and tobacco. He needed the trade coming from the Russians or Cuba would essentially be cut off economically from the rest of the world. When he ordered all farmers to switch to sugar cane and tobacco crops he didn’t think of the long-term environmental effects this would have on the soil. Once rich and prosperous, Cuba’s environment is now too harsh an environment for growing food. It will take decades to repair. Most Cubans are learning permaculture from environmental aide workers and growing food in the city in raised garden beds atop abandoned buildings.
These guys run a beautiful tattoo shop in Havana. It’s illegal but the officials tend to leave them alone as long as everyone’s being taken care of. The owner and his wife live upstairs and operate the studio below. To get tattoo supplies into Cuba they bring them in small batches from Canada in their carry on suitcases. The owner has permission to travel as part of the country’s arts council. Their space is more than a tattoo studio, they also run an afterschool arts program for the kids in the neighborhood out if it. Their work was amazing and my travel companion Jonny even got a tattoo there!
Seeing poverty at that level was really jarring for me. I had never seen so many people living in buildings that look like they had been hit with a bomb. Although every Cuban is given housing by the government it doesn’t mean its decent housing. I met a man who was living with another family in his apartment because both families had been assigned to the same apartment. They haven’t been able to get it sorted out for over a year. I’ll admit it was hard to look at and I had an even harder time taking photographs in some of these areas.
Overall going to Cuba was a humbling experience. I learned a lot from speaking to Cubans about what it’s really like to live there. It was the first time I left the country specifically to document and learn through my camera. I feel really fortunate to be able to do this and grateful to everyone I spoke to and helped me navigate around the city.