Category Archives: Cuba

Make Your Own Luck

Habana vieja street photography travel cuba havana bike taxi bicitaxi
I feel lucky to have found someone actively repairing a bicitaxi, but it never would have happened if I hadn’t spent 100+ hours walking around Habana Vieja.

In photography, people often dismiss great shots by attributing them to luck or other outside factors. That person just happened to be there at the right time, they have nicer equipment, that shot is easier because the subject itself is so interesting, colorful or rare.  But as Andrea, one of my favorite photography professors, reminds me, photographers make their own luck. Yes, that may be a lucky shot, but you’re not seeing all the other shots that didn’t work out.  You don’t see how many hours they waited in that location for something good to happen in that frame, how much research they did to find the right location, or how much time they invested getting their subjects to trust them and feel comfortable.   You’re also not seeing how much time they spend practicing being creative and getting to know their own equipment, so when the time comes they can see something more interesting than what everyone else is seeing, and capture the image quickly.

Spit trinidad cuba little girl travel street photography
Capturing a little girl in the act of hocking a loogie seems lucky and statistically rare, but the important thing to remember about this image is that I took it when the group was back at the all-inclusive resort, too busy with sun and booze to go out shooting. If you’re not shooting, the likelihood of taking a good image is 0%.

During my two summers in Cuba as a TA to Northeastern University’s photography program, the students with the best collection of images were the ones who created their own luck. They went back to the same locations over and over again, getting to know people and becoming an accepted presence in their midst as opposed to an intruder existing outside the action. They learned the necessary background information to find the potential for great shots, and learned when the variables could possibly line up.  Eventually, this hard work paid off with gorgeous, insightful, authentic views of their subjects in their own environs. Like a musician or actor who is an “overnight success,” luck is just a downplayed misnomer for the reality of their success: hard work and patience.

gay pride havana cuba lgbtq 2013 travel photography parade
I got this image because I chose to march in Havana Pride, not to view it from the sidelines. If you get in the middle of the action, you’re way more likely to come across something amazing. Plus, it’s more fun.

In travel we have a similar opportunity to make our own luck. It’s why I got the large passport, the ten year, multiple-entry visa instead of the single-use one. It’s why I go to travel meet-ups, and include my travel as part of my professional image.  It takes a million small decisions of setting yourself up for success, going the extra mile, and keeping an eye out for opportunity disguised as risk to make your luck.  Of course, not everyone has the privilege to take advantage of these opportunities, and that is nothing to sneeze at.  Nor is it due to any negligence or shortcoming on their part.  I feel strongly about making travel more accessible for all, as well as publicizing cost-effective opportunities.  When I talk about people who don’t make their own luck, I do not refer to people without a realistic ability to take advantage of opportunities.  Rather, I’m speaking about people with the ability to take advantage of opportunities (which other people would kill for)  who choose not to go for it because they’re too tired, it’s too much work, it’s too far out of their comfort zone or they’re too easily distracted.  I’m speaking about people who haven’t prioritized an attainable goal they say they want, and then are surprised when they don’t reach it.

Dominoes Cuba havana cigarette
The way I was able to get this close was that I hung out with these guys for 45 minutes or so, chatting in Spanish, after spending time in the youth center outside of which they were sitting. I only did that because I decided to follow an older couple when they offered to show me the place, which only happened because I actually talk to my subjects in the first place.

People say I’m lucky to have gone to Cuba three times, twice in a work capacity. But those opportunities never would have existed if I didn’t put in the hard work of applying and then making it through the three month Cuba program I did in 2010.  I took a risk of being homesick, unhappy, missing out on everything back home, and losing a precarious relationship in order to go on what I knew would be a strange and challenging adventure.  I didn’t know yet all the ways it could pay off, but that hard work and risk is still making me “lucky” to this day.  I didn’t plan for employers to google me or to win a contest, but since 2009 I’ve been writing online, putting in the time and effort.  I’ve been told I was lucky to win a spot on the Kerala Blog Express, but most of the people who say that could never have even entered the contest, because they have never put in the work of writing a blog and cultivating an online presence. That’s not a bad thing, but the difference between me and the people who didn’t win isn’t just luck, it’s years of hard work.

gay pride cross-dressing tans LGBTQ gay rights havana cuba parade
The only reason I knew there was a Gay Pride Parade happening down the street is that my roommate got up early, saw it, and knew I would want to be there. The lesson from this, other than to shoot and travel with cool people, is that your network not only needs to be strong, but they need to know what you’re looking for. I send him every sports-related tip I can, and in return he bullied me into getting my ass out of bed for an amazing event. Good deal.

Another huge difference is a willingness to take risks.  Most of he people I know who are jealous of my Cuba trips wouldn’t have the guts to go if they were presented with the opportunity, never mind the guts to go on a longer trip when it was an unproven, unknown quantity.  Many people would never have entered a contest because it seemed sketchy or too good to be true.  They wouldn’t have lobbied their contacts for votes, and they wouldn’t have committed to buying a plane ticket to the other side of the planet, still a little unsure if it was all a scam.

If we consistently work hard, take risks and set ourselves up to be able to take advantage of opportunities, we’ll find ourselves stumbling into a whole lot of luck.  So get up early, pound the pavement, separate yourself from the crowd of long lenses, talk to some strangers, and make your luck happen.

Review: Cuba, My Revolution

Image from Vertigo/DC Comics
Image from Vertigo/DC Comics

It seems crazy that I somehow didn’t know there was a graphic novel about Cuba, but alas, that was the case until I saw The Mary Sue’s books section of their fantastic gift guide.  Written by Inverna Lockpez, illustrated by Dean Haspiel, and colored by José Villarrubia, Cuba, My Revolution tells Lockpez’s life story via Sonya, an aspiring artist who is 17 when the story starts on New Year’s Eve in 1958.

After Fidel takes the country that night, her world changes quickly.  She decides to put her love of art on

hold in order to become a doctor, following in her father’s footsteps and fulfilling a pressing need after so many medical professionals jumped ship.  We follow along as she trains with limited equipment, is relied upon too heavily due to personnel shortages, and eventually goes to the front lines of Playa Girón, known

in the US as the Bay of Pigs Invasion.  From there her life takes a turn for the dark and surreal, and it becomes harder for Sonya to see the good in the Revolution, even as she tries to hold on to that hope.  As scarcity becomes more common, private property is seized, behavior is monitored, and it gets harder to leave the island, Sonya tries to reconcile what she and others fought for with the reality of what eventually becomes a communist (or “Marxist-Leninst”) state.  There’s also an interesting look at how both the medical professions an the art world of Cuba evolved in the early days.

The visual aspect of this book is stunning, and the use of panels, background illustrations and occasional surreal or dream elements that emerge over the two demonstrate the many layers of the story, as well as some elements of foreshadowing and occasionally a way of showing the reader what is real and what is a trauma-induced delusion. If graphic novels are not normally your fare, I think  this is a great introduction to the medium.  There are no elements of cartoonishness, superheroes, or the supernatural, as some may associate with comic books and graphic novels.  Instead, the illustrations give a flavor of one of the world’s most visually captivating places.  For a culture (and the story of a person) that so heavily emphasizes visual artistic expression, the medium could only be more perfect if it came with a soundtrack.

This book is a great introduction for those who know very little of Cuba’s history, with lots of easter eggs for those more familiar, like visual references to the Orichas (beyond the very basic amount that is explained for story purposes), a sub-plot involving Célia Sanchez, and a joke that the guerilleros are a popular subject for artwork–“even Camilo.”  There are also small references to bigger topics, like the ending of prostitution (and whether that phrase deserves scare quotes), the freedom to go to the beach, and the misogyny and materialism of the high society of 1950s Havana.

Image from Vertigo/DC Comics
Image from Vertigo/DC Comics

As with all books about Cuba from a personal perspective (and even some that are “academic”) it is an intense story that shows one of the many sides of Cuba’s history.  It’s important to remember that it covers less than a decade within Cuba’s history, and refrains completely from commenting on Cuba’s trajectory since the story’s close.  I recommend that anyone interested in Cuba read as many books from as many different perspectives as they can in order to get the full picture.  That being said, there are so few English-language accounts of what life was like in the years immediately after Fidel came charging down from the Sierra Maestra, as well as how the Revolution was framed and perceived in 1959, and how that changed, making Cuba, My Revolution truly valuable testimony about a defining chain of events from the 20th century.

Perhaps the most intense aspect of this story is that one can clearly feel the pull between, on the one side, Sonia’s ideals and hope for what Fidel can do for her country’s future, and on the other side, the rumors she hears and the poverty, brutality, upheaval, and incompetence that grow harder to ignore.  If she didn’t believe in change and in removing Batista, her account wouldn’t be as powerful.  Unfortunately, so many who criticize Castro’s regime only compare it to a selective version of the United States, as opposed to the reality in Cuba in the decades leading up to the revolution, or even a more accurate portrayal of the US, including our rates of poverty, literacy, high school graduation, HIV/AIDS, violence against women, and of course the civil and human rights violations perpetrated by our government.  Instead, Lockpez and Haspiel contextualize the story well with a brief introduction of Batista’s Cuba, a history lesson that tends to be missing from most American curricula on Cuba.

If you are looking to learn more about the early years of the Cuban Revolution, are interested in seeing what a graphic novel has to offer from a storytelling perspective, or just want to become lost inside of the true story of one young woman’s struggle to reconcile her ideals with reality, then I emphatically recommend this book for you.

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But Things Just Get so Crazy, Living Life Gets Hard to do

In honor of Naman’s birthday, this is something I wrote about him while I was in Cuba earlier this summer. 

Naman in the Dominican Republic in 2011.
Naman in the Dominican Republic in 2011.

It is inconceivable to me how much harder it is to be here after Naman.  I plan for all the times I will miss him in America.  Graduation, awards ceremonies, memorials, fundraisers, whatever.  But Cuba?  I didn’t expect all of Dominican popular music to follow me here, which I suppose was naïve.

I guess I just didn’t count on it.   I didn’t count on him.

I never thought Havana could surprise me again.  Or at least, I thought it would continue to surprise me in the same sort of ways it always has.  But instead Havana had something new in store: memories of something old.  Of someone who will never grow old.

He was never even here, but now I see him all over the streets of Havana.  I think of him more than the residents of the Real World house, more than last year’s Cuba kids, more than all the Cubans I have left behind.  He’s in the music, the conversations with the people.  The boat rides and palm creations and children’s hand stands.  The silly things the students do, the choppy Spanish and the Harry Potter references.  Accio memories.

I suppose in this way, he will never grow old and will never go away.  He will keep traveling the world as I do, as we all do.  He will show up in Ghana and South Africa, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.  He will be there at every Best Buddies race, and every SEI event.  He will be there whenever I hear Prince Royce, eat a cheap taco, or sing karaoke.

No llorare, no llorare.  No, I won’t shed a tear.  Porque sé, que tu estás junto a mí. 

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Since moving from a study abroad participant to a leader of trips abroad, I have had some recalibrating to do.  There is a difference between the risks I’m willing to take myself and those I’m willing to allow my students to take.

This came rushing to the fore last summer when I was walking at night in Havana with the majority of our students, and at least one of the Cubans with us was stopped by the police for walking with white women while black.  It is important to note that this is a significantly worse offense than walking while black, although that’s an issue in Cuba as well.  The reason is not only due to racism and history, but also tourism, industry, and hegemony.  While I find the term “tourism apartheid” a bit strident, there is more than a nugget of truth to it, and the way it plays out in Cuba is that it’s somewhat acceptable if the white woman is visibly into it, but otherwise all young black men are assumed to be harassing your tourist dollars away.  Of course, not once has the policia ever showed up to stop genuine harassment (to my knowledge).  And the component of hegemony: when it comes down to it, some lives are deemed more worthy than others, and white skin and our little blue books protect us.  Somewhere in the 20th century, it became unacceptable for an American to lose their life abroad.  It’s cool at home, especially if they lost their life to a legally purchased gun, or if they are not white and middle class.  But that’s a whole other thing.

But back to the story, and the risks involved.  This was probably during what most people would call my time off, but it was nonetheless immediately obvious to me that I was in charge and it was my job to keep my students safe.  This is because regardless of what time of day or night, my state of mind, whether I’m with friends, coworkers, clients or students, or how undesirable the task may be, when something needs to get done, I see it as just doing my job.  This is because I have a pretty broad definition of my job, which goes beyond the things for which I am paid, things done in a cubicle, or times when I am expected to watch how I dress, speak, or act.  In my mind, my job is to keep everyone safe, and increase justice and knowledge whenever possible.  Literally all of the time, for the entire time I’m alive.  I’m off the hook if I’m sleeping, but if someone wakes me up I’m right back in it.

So this leaves me with some dueling priorities.  Number 1, I need to make sure nothing happens to my students, who are likely best served by calmly walking away from the cops questioning their friend across the street.  Number 2, I know why the cops are talking to their friend, and I know it’s bullshit.  I know we have more pull than they do in this scenario, but I also know that if I (or my students) screw up, we will not face the consequences.  The Cubans will.  And then there’s the guilt.  If these guys had been doing their own thing, without a giant pack of white women to whom they were nothing but polite and friendly, no one would be talking to the cops right now.  Oh and number 3, none of my students have any clue that the cops are questioning him for no good reason, or that they have played any role in all of this, or that they could do serious damage by trying to help.  Or rather, I thought this had occurred to none of them.

I get the high sign from one of the Cubans, and a couple of people (who I didn’t realize were intoxicated) translate my message of “keep walking, wait for me at the end of the street, and don’t cause a fuss,”  into something loosely resembling, “holy shit we got that guy arrested!  and now no one can have fun and everyone should scream!”  Somehow everyone instantly became belligerent and less logical in that moment, but eventually they reluctantly followed instructions.  I’ve written before about this, and about how strange it was the next morning to hear 22 different versions of the same night.  But after they left was the real trouble.

After they left was the real trouble because that’s when those students from before, the ones I didn’t count on understanding precisely what was happening, remained.  And they did what I would have done.  They asked the other Cubans what would fix it, and they did their best to follow through.  It didn’t work, but they’re good people for trying.  Meanwhile, I got to be someone I never imagined being: the callous authority figure, giving them instructions that would protect them but not their friends.  Normally, I would have been the one going over to talk to the cops.  Instead, I was the one with a plan for how to get their US passports here before they could potentially be taken to jail.

Luckily, my students were fine, although those who remained till the end were certainly hurt in an irreparable way, the way that only powerlessly watching complete injustice from a place of informed privilege can make you feel.  The guy who the police brought away in cuffs had to pay an unimaginably high fine for a Cuban salary, but he was a free man the next day.  I was of course fine too, as my students and I never wore cuffs and didn’t have to pay a dime, but I was left wrestling with the idea of choosing the safety of one group of people over justice (and potentially safety) for another.  When it comes down to it, I am responsible for my students.  And I don’t know them as well as I know myself, so there is a greater unpredictability to their risks than mine.  But finally, when I take my risks, I can really only take them when I travel on my own, when I am not endangering anyone but myself.  And therein lies the downside of being in a group: a risk for one becomes a risk for all, whether we mean it to be or not.

So yes, I tell them not to swim  off the malecon, but I also don’t say a word when I know they’re doing it.  I told my kids in Greece they better not go to protests, but I was pissed I missed them myself, and Sarah knew without my asking that the first thing I wanted to see in Cairo, other than her gorgeous face, was Tahrir Square.  I count their heads and make them promise me that they’ll use the buddy system, and I tell them they’re not allowed to scare me like that when they get back to the bus late or have too much to drink.

But sometimes it gets trickier, if you can believe it.

I take cabs and walk alone, I dress how I want to dress.  No, I will not tell my female students they can’t wear a mini-skirt to a club on a Friday night.  First of all, I wouldn’t believe in doing that even if it would help.  But second, I know for a fact it won’t do anything to keep away the cat calls and the groping.  Driving and walking alone is harder.  I think in general, everyone is safer with the buddy system.  But I also know it drove us to insanity in Cairo when for six weeks we were basically never alone.  It’s why I would hide in the lobbies between floors reading, or insist on wandering museums alone.  When I could have my independence, I took it.  There’s also something to the idea that if a guy doesn’t have a buddy, it’s not a huge deal.  If a girl doesn’t have one, whatever happens next is her fault.

I don’t want my students to be alarmist, and I sort of read one the riot act when she claimed last summer that her roommate was not only certain to be raped in Havana’s most crowded, safe, zero-violent-crime neighborhood, but that it would be the roommate’s fault, and how dare that roommate scare her like that.  I hate the pearl clutching and the victim blaming and those who would scare us into never leaving America or our hometowns or our kitchens, but I also count heads compulsively.  I always know where the exits and the cops are.  I waited behind because one of them ran off at night to get his fifteenth sandwich of the day, and everyone going home without telling him was unacceptable.

So I let them hate me for not “stopping” or “letting them stop” their friend from getting arrested.  And I do my best not to get into arguments about the futility and misogyny of dress codes as safety measures.  I want them to know street harassment, sexual assault, political violence, corruption, all of these injustices, they happen all the time.  But that shouldn’t keep them home or moving around in air-conditioned vehicles in knee-length baggy skirts in groups of ten or more.  The world is simultaneously more terrifying and more kind than they’ve ever imagined.  I just don’t know how to tell them that.

‘Ta Luego a la Tarjeta Blanca: The Exit Visa is on its Way Out

Today a pretty amazing thing happened: Raul Castro made good on a promise to abolish the dreaded exit visa, or Tarjeta Blanca.  Cubans will be able to leave (starting “before January 14, 2013” or as I like to call it, January 13) without acquiring an exit visa.  The exit visa was an excellent way for the state to maintain control not only by denying dissidents the right to leave, but also by rewarding demonstrated loyalty to the state and its one and only political party.

Once Cubans have left, they will now be able to stay 24 months instead of 11 without effectively losing Cuban citizenship.  Cubans will also be able to apply for an extension while abroad.  Prior to this change, not returning after 11 months would result in loss of property, loss of the right to return home, and even if a Cuban in this position did manage to get back in, they would be ineligible for the ration card, housing, use of schools, health care, and any other benefits of being Cuban.

That being said, and this being Cuba we’re talking about, I still have some reservations.

Doctors, military and some other professionals will likely still not be able to leave as they are considered valuable “human capital” in Cuba.  This is an effort to prevent brain drain/the Imperialist US from stealing people that Cuba desperately needs.  I get the argument, as every developing country has to fight brain drain.  But in most of the developing world, promising students go abroad for their education.  In Cuba, the state has educated these people for free, and thus feels a bit more entitled to their talents.  Not to mention, lending out their medical professionals is one of the Cuban government’s chief means of achieving diplomatic goals.  Losing that supply would greatly reduce options for trade and other negotiations.  All that being said, I 100% agree with the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights), which includes the right to freedom of movement, and while I understand why Raul and co. want to do this, it is not in keeping with international human rights law.  And for that matter, neither is almost anything about “Camp Justice” or those fun hearings they’re having in semi-secret this week.  I would recommend creating incentives for Cuba’s highly educated population to return, rather than bans on them leaving in the first place and penalties if they deviate from the schedule for a government-sponsored trip.

Another potential problem with the legislation is that there’s no specific mention that the fees will be gone (as pointed out by the NYT), and a normal human would assume that if a visa is no longer necessary, the accompanying fees would also disappear.  But we’re talking about Cuba here, so I wouldn’t be shocked if the cash shortfall is made up in some other asinine charge.  The Guardian estimates the fee to be 150 USD, as does CNN who adds that obtaining the requisite invitation letter from the host country can tack on another 200 USD. Adding to that are the ominously vague “changes” to the legal requirements to obtain a passport as a Cuban that are forthcoming, according to el Granma, the state newspaper of Cuba.

Another concern is that if this works as the Cuban government would like it to, a system of remisas, or remittances, will be strengthened.  Sending money back to Cuba is good for those in the country needing access to everything from food basics like meat to luxury goods like ipads.  But this creates a huge strain on those sending back the remittances, as the standard of living differs greatly in the US, a place where citizenship does not entitle anyone to food, housing, or a college education.

Finally: there is the other side of the equation.  Us.

I absolutely believe that the US is going change its famous Wet Feet, Dry Feet policy.  For those unaware, as soon as Fidel, Raul, Che and Camilo came crashing down from Las Sierra Madres on New Year’s Day 1959, the United States started the Two Wet Feet policy.  This meant that the US would offer legal residency after a year to any Cuban, whether they made landfall, swam to the other side of Guantanmo Bay or were plucked out of the Florida Straits.  During the Special Period (after the Soviet Union fell in 1989 up until very recently), many Cubans took advantage of this.  As a special love note to the US and their open arms, Fidel encouraged the dregs of society to make the journey and allegedly opened the prisons so they could join them.  In 1994, when the US realized this was getting a bit nutty, they compromised (AKA were terrified of the numbers as well as the political implications) with the Two Dry Feet policy, which means that those found in the water go back to Cuba, and those who make it to land can stay.  They US government has also limited entry to 20,000 Cubans a year, and offers a much simpler political asylum process for Cubans (which involves no incarceration.)  This is also around the time when the US bulked up their defenses to Guantanamo.  Not to defend themselves from the Cuban military mind you, but rather to make it more difficult for swimmers to show up with those dry feet of theirs.

While a policy change of that nature would be rough on Cubans, I have long felt the policy was wildly unfair, especially to Caribbean neighbors in Haiti.  As a country we are totally moved by the nation’s plight after the earthquake, but our government remains unmoved in its immigration policy.  And let’s not forget that Haiti was the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere even before the quake.   The US (and the rest of the West) has certainly played a role in that, from day 1 when the world felt so threatened by the “First Black Republic” that we took our sugar interests to Cuba and eventually the Dominican Republic (and Puerto Rico post-1959), right up to turning the other way through Papa Doc, Baby Doc, and a run of corruption, violence and oppression that would make Saddam Hussein blush.

Anyway, my hope is that if the US revokes or significantly alters the Two Dry Feet policy, the world will hold our government to task on this, and it could force the issue of el bloqueo.

What do you think?  Can we trust Raul?  Will the US step up to the plate or get slimey?  and of course, there is the fun guessing game of who will win the US presidential election in November and what they will do about Cuba once they are sworn in.

Oh and hat tip to Kade for catching this first thing today.

The Difference Between Then and Now

So much about this trip, this country and this traveler is exactly as it was two years ago.  I carry much of the same clothing, from my blue and orange dress to my running shoes, tinted pink from Cuba’s clay soil.  I still thrive on books and music, and breaks to watch movies and television in order to feel grounded.  I am constantly surrounded by people, which leads inevitably to crankiness as well as close friendships. 

I cab everywhere now.  In general, this trip is more expensive than the last, although I’m not always paying.  It’s strange to me how rarely the students walk anywhere, and yet how often the complaints of heat and distance come.  And yet, they barely drink their water. 

We have an elevator, which has only broken a handful of times, and even then only for a couple of hours.  We also only live on floors two, three and four, making the trek to the 14th floor penthouse seem unimaginable.  And while we’re on the topic of the penthouse, it couldn’t have been more of a misnomer.  Here the water is hot, there are no ants, and the lights work.  Rooms are only shared by two people, and each has its own bathroom with shower.  But then again, there is no balcony (the biggest crime in my book), and the bed and pillow situation is equally crummy. 

While I have a much higher volume of food, more meat, and much more chicken, I still miss the good homemade touches.  Fresh, homemade jugo de mango, guayava, pina or watermelon used to accompany every breakfast and most dinners.  We also used to have access to a fridge, which meant leftovers were an option.  I also miss black beans on the side, when they’re all soupy. 

This group seems younger, but I think I’m just older.  Mostly 19 or 20, with a couple over 21, they have about the same age spread as my group back in 2010.  Only a couple of them have gone on dates with Cubans, but there are rumblings of various couples within the group, which is common on Dialogues.  Unfortunately, so is breaking up wordlessly as soon as they return home.  We’ll see how that goes.

The biggest difference is that the majority of this group patently does not care about Cuba and does not want to learn about it. That has been hard for me to see.  I want to be a resource, and some ask me questions, seek out Cubans, and do their best to learn as much as they can.  Many, though, didn’t complete the required reading, fall asleep in class and complain when they are expected to do anything other than take photos. 

It’s been difficult for me to watch students drink and sleep their way through Havana, photographing foreigners who they think are Cuban, or Latin tourists who they assume are Cuban.  But for the group that has really dug in, their photos are better, their connections stronger, and conversations more interesting.

Patina o Muerte

wednesday 594Last Wednesday was a good, good day.

Kade is doing his project on recreation in Cuba, so it was only a matter of time before running into the ninos, the skate kids Mi les befriended who were the inspiration for Cuba Skate.  I hung back and searched faces while Kade chatted them up and started taking photos.  At first they seemed suspicious of us, but as soon as one kid saw a picture where he looked good, the entire mood changed.  Suddenly no one was lounging in the shade, sitting on boards or staring lazily at the rollerbladers.  Everybody was up and showing off, doing tricks and mugging for the camera.  As Kade found a few guys who speak English, a familiar lanky Cuban skated up: Yordi.

wednesday 604There was no question it was him.  Oye, Yordi.  He stared at me like I was an alien trying to take his wallet.  Que bola, asere?  Now sure I wasn’t addressing him by accident, he squinted at me for a minute.  The look on his face changed from suspicion to Holy Shit pretty quickly, and I got a big hug and a how’s everything?   Suddenly we were talking plans, and this place feels a bit more normal.  A bit more mine.  He skated around, vogueing for my pictures and flirting for the camera.

Yordi looks so much older.  Head of big blond curls, distinct angular face, still rail thin.  He’s clearly looked up to, and he has even more swagger than before.  I’m sure there are more tattoos, and more skipping school.  It’s amazing to me how skaters have the same swagger, no matter where they are in the world, how much money or supplies they have, or even what they wear.

It’s nice to see somebody from before and not feel like it was all a dream.  Hector remembers me,  but I’m in his photos, he knew I was coming, and I saw him when he spoke on campus.  But I ran into his son and was too timid to say hi, even though I’m pretty sure Gabby knew something was up.  I took a picture of Rueben, and I’m pretty sure neither of us recognized each other.  I haven’t yet worked up the guts to go to the corner of primera y a, or to go up Alex’s front walk.  I expected Faya not to remember me, but that doesn’t make it feel any less weird to keep this place in mental amber and have it not remember me back.

wednesday 572The ninos, after all, were among some of the people I truly trusted and felt comfortable with.  They reminded me of my cousins who skate and are a little older than them.  More importantly, in a city where mostly I am seen as a woman, a tourist, and wealthy person, they made me feel like Delia.

There’s something comforting about finding my own way, chatting people up in Spanish, stopping for snacks whenever I feel like it, and seeing familiar faces that remember me back.

Return Traveling

I never meant to be a return traveler. The allure of more and more exotic passport stamps is pretty strong. Almost as strong as the allure of new and different countries. But at this point, I sit firmly in the category of a return traveler. I went to France in 2006 and returned in 2010. I went to Egpyt for six weeks in 2009 and returned for a long weekend in 2011. I went to Cuba in 2010 for three months and returned in 2012 for a month. I went to the Dominican Republic in 2011 and went back six weeks later. I have been to Canada and most of my domestic travel spots countless times.

It makes sense that I’ve become a return traveler. In many other ways, I am not like the typical traveler, or travel blogger. I prefer my stays to last a month at a minimum. I almost always speak the language. I research the history, culture, and politics heavily and before and during my stay. This is just another way of settling myself deeper into the places I go.

One value is that I get to see the changes. Pre- and post-Revolution Egypt look incredibly different, and I loved seeing how the place and people had changed. The progress in Cuba has been amazing, and I’ll be writing about it more later on. With the Republica Domincana, the two trips were close together but that meant everyone remember me. I had the great experience of keeping my promises and seeing Mata during the rainy season we had heard so much about. France is just a second skin, and getting to know that for sure forever erased any doubts I felt when I first visited in a sleep-deprived 16 year old haze.

If return traveling seems like a waste of time, I think it either means the place doesn’t work for you or you have a very different set of travel priorities than I do.  Maybe someday this will change for me, but for now I couldn’t be happier spending my last traces of un-adult life in Cuba, for the second time.  And I can’t wait to make my way back to Egypt, France, the Dominican and Cuba once more.


I never truly thought before about how disconnected Cubans are.  Perhaps because I was too preoccupied with my own lack of communications.  Or because that narrative is so ingrained that all I learned here last time was about the opposite of stereotypes.  I found out they watch House and Gilmore Girls.  They know America’s music and politics.  These are not people who seem isolated.  But the last few days, we’ve been trying to negotiate phones and internet for the group.  Phones are not going to happen for the leaders of the group.  There’s a lot of legislation about phones, and they end up being cost prohibitive anyway.  90 CUC to set up the line, 20-30 CUC for the phone, and then there’s the minutes!  What Cuban has that kind of money?

Last time I was here I was very lucky with the internet.  We had wifi in our home and at school.  It was slow, but I was able to email and google voice chat every once in a while.  All of that was free and in the two locations we went to most frequently.  This time, we have to pay 10 CUC for an hour’s worth of internet on one of Habana Libre’s computers.  Today we just now figured out how to get the internet on a couple of laptops at the Jose Marti center where we take classes.  It’s a landline, it’s slow, facebook, twitter, Skype and WordPress are all blocked. 

If I were a Cuban with a question, where would I go?  The books sold at the Plaza de Armas are as old as dirt.  Getting to the internet is incredibly expensive for someone on a salary of less than 100 USD a month.  The newspaper here is the state-run Granma, named for the boat that brought Fidel and co. back to Cuba.  education is amazing here, but the textbooks are outdated and everything is rn by the government (sort of sounds like America…).  Often I can’t even find the party line, nevermind well-researched, balanced facts. 

Luckily, Cubans are known for their ingenuity.  I’m rying to learn more, but they have figured out ways of getting blocked television and radio, using proxy sites and SAT phones which are closely monitored here.  I still wish informaton would open up more down here, and I believe it would help Cuba as a whole, inclding the government.   Unfortunatuely, no big conclusions here.  Just a lot of hopes and questions.

Aesthetics and Lectures

There are some beautiful photos coming out of this group. Some, though, don’t look like the Cuba that I know. Not that they’re going to new neighborhoods or meeting new people. Rather, some students are so good with their tools that they can manipulate a country (and a people and even buildings) I know so well into an alien landscape of pure, distilled beauty, often divorced of any social, political or economic reality.

Cuba is just too important to me for that.

I hate that for an American, there is no place to consume valuable, accurate news about Cuba. You can read the nostalgic memoirs of Miami Cubans, dipped in vitriol for Fidel. You can see the photos online of cigars, old cars and the same few Cuban workers dressed in colonial costumes. You can read Yoani Sanchez’s pissed prose, or the blogs of a few dedicated gringos. You can read the old fiction of Hemingway or Graham Greene. But where does an American turn to hear what regular old life is like for the majority of Cubans?

After I came back last time, a couple of my dad’s cousins asked me, while we were doing the MS Walk in Porstmouth, NH, what a couple of guys like them would be doing if they were in and from Cuba. That is the question we need to ask ourselves about foreign countries, instead of reducing everything to sexualized or demonized stereotypes.

I guess if I felt like Cuba was a well-covered topic, I could go for pure aesthetics. In Boston I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I value seeing the glorious within the everyday. But when the glory is artificially manipulated and the vida cotidianna is nowhere to be found in public discourse, it seems more like dishonesty than an aesthetic choice. There are a few journalism majors here, and I’ve enjoyed hearing their perspective on which stories we should be telling with our photos.  While some of the students are design majors, many are not and the combination makes for a lively mixture.

Granted, I don’t think my method is any better. Given the chance, I would accompany all of my photos with novellas explaining the several decades worth of history, culture, politics and economic shenanigans that converge on the theme of my photo. It was pointed out to me that I am allowed one sentence, and any more than that would be a lecture. Um, yes. Can I just do that then? Can I just give everyone lectures and accompany them with a handful of photos?  Luckily, Andrea (one of the professors) is awesome and understood my dilemma right away.  When we get back to the US, everyone is going to put together a final product.  For me, she suggested that I do a book–the photos I take here broken up into thematic chapters with a lot of copy.

On rough days, I feel that photography may just not be the medium for me. This fatwa on words is pretty anathema to everything about my personality. At the very least, I hope when I return to better internet the enhanced photos will make the lectures I post a bit easier to stomach.  But then I have days where if I don’t shoot until the afternoon I get antsy.  And everyone in the class I’m (supposed to be) assisting has been incredibly helpful with their critiques.  I’m certainly enjoying the steep learning curve, and I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by some incredibly talented, kind people from whom I have picked up a lot.