Tag Archives: Havana

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.

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.

Evening in Havana

Aliesha's camera 246After a long day at the beach, watching backflips and swimming to sandbars and eating little cajitas of fried chicken and potato chips for a CUC, we would climb the fourteen floors up to the penthouse.  A shower and a Cuba Light*, dancing along to Otis Redding, the Hold Steady, Lady Gaga or perhaps all three.  We didn’t even fight over who got the shower first, because nobody wanted hot water on those days anyway.

batista weekend 158There’s something wild and liberating about drinking in the shower.  It’s just enough outside the norm, just strange enough.  Like life really could just be fun forever.  And on a sunny day, after a lot of laughs and swimming, it’s the perfect way to wash off the salt and sand.  It’s days like this that made me love the cool showers.  And the precarious genius of Tomatina parking her laptop in the bathroom.

A cajita of the best fried chicken I've ever eaten.
A cajita of the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten.

After a shower its time for the balcony, for reading and writing as the sun slips below the malecon.  There’s a
balcony right off my room, and I usually got it and it’s perfect breeze all to myself.  The advantage of having your own spot is that everyone knows where to find you, and the company was always good when it came.  Somehow writing feels special if it’s from a balcony in Havana.  From there I watched the floods, the fights, the niños skating, the guys rolling up to see which chicas would come out that night.

week 7 and 8 190On these perfect days, these three-day-weekends-every-week days, these relaxing in Havana days, these full and content days, the food was somehow always good.  Rice and beans, meat that didn’t look creepy, or the occasional pizza or even sometimes POLLO NIGHT!  Fresh fruit juice, rolls AND butter-like substitute, and yuca french fries. If there were shortages on those days, I didn’t notice.

batista weekend 122
These are the days that keep me up dreaming of Cuba, that have me re-creating our playlists, and wishing Havana Club wasn’t illegal to import.

*our very own creation, a Cuba Light is rum (usually some clear anejo havana club aka the cheapest good thing) and water and crystal light mix in a dasani water bottle.  for a variation on a hot day, throw it in the freezer and it’s a Cuba Ice.

Where Are All the Women?

Going out at night in Cuba, we were surrounded by men of all ages, a smattering of foreign women (Cuban men in hand!) and really no one else.  Where all the Cuban ladies at?

Some of my friends pointed out that part of why Cuban guys were so forward with us was that our very presence in night life was saying A LOT more than we thought it was.  One of our first nights, we saw one girl out.  She was in Chucks, cut-off shorts and a tank top, but she ruled that place.  She shook her booty like booties have never shaken before or since, except when attached to her.

Along the malecón, you can see couples canoodling everywhere.  They are attached at the hip to their guys, and from what I hear, they spend a great deal of money on their men.  Clothing, absurd silver/gold tooth coverings, and of course food.  What the what?

Is that the only place for young Cuban women in nightlife?  Booty shakers and girlfriends?  Oh Madonna and the Whore, the Two Marys, how I tire of thee and thine eternal truth.

Have people experienced this in other Latin American countries?  Where on earth were all the young women?  Maybe they just knew better and were staying away from all the men, unless they found one worthy of their attention?  Who knows–but it definitely made us gringas stick out even more than we already did.

Jumping Ship

There are many expressions in Cuba, but by far one of the most potent is “Jumping Ship,” and the laden language refers to the act of leaving the island permanently.  Or at least, leaving citizenry.  You see, in the eyes of the Cuban government, either you’re Cuban or you aren’t, and if you go to America without permission or remain outside the country for more than a year and a half without an extension, you have abandoned el Socialismo, y el patria.

The term guzano, or worm, is used to describe those who fled post-Revolution.  And yes, that’s Revolution with a capital R–it always is, in Cuba anyway.

But I don’t think it’s fair to judge all who leave Cuba so harshly.  Many were brought out of the country as children, with virtually no choice in the matter.  And while some of those, like Carlos Eire, refuse to return (at least while Castro’s alive) others, like nuestra Profe (also with a capital P), have gone to great lengths to reconnect with their homelands.

Many Cubans were just looking out for their family.  It’s true: a Revolution is a terrible place to raise a child, capital letter or no.  For many people the age of Cienfuegos, Che and the Brothers Castro, ideals trump all, and maybe they should.  But for many people, there comes a time when family trumps all.

Yes, I’m sure many people slunk away out of greed and anguish at losing what they quite probably acquired at the expense of the masses.  But I think everyone, myself included, should cut some of those who fled (and who choose to flee today) some slack.  More than greed, it was probably just fear.  Fear of a new world, of a government literally run by twenty-somethings and teenagers.  Fear that their children would be taken away (which was a widespread rumour in the early years of the Revolution), and (justified) fear that a foreign power would feel threatened and invade.

These Cubanos, regardless of whether they chose to leave, felt Castro forced their hand and regardless of whether they have chosen to return, something was irrevocanly stolen from them.  I see it in Profe often–out of his own skin in his own homeland.  Several other students have commented on the fervent need he and others like him feel to be as Cuban as they can, to prove that it’s their patria, too.  It must be strange enough being in the white minority, especially when so much of the cultural emphasis is placed on Afro-Cuban culture.

I don’t know that Castro is quite the satan he has been made out to be, or the savior other want him to be.  But I do know that losing one’s family and homeland alters a person forever, and that most people don’t make such decisions lately.  So perhaps some sympathy should be shown toward the heavy hearts that left Cuba.

Jose Marti Airport is the Saddest Place in the World

Airports are a place of great emotion.  Like that scene in Love Actually, there’s an overwhelming amount of love in the hellos and goodbyes.

But Jose Marti is different.

Back in the 1960s, post-Revolution, there was the famous Fish Bowl, shown in the film Memorias de Subdesarollo (Memories of Underdevelopment.)  Those leaving the island had to go through security several hours in advance, leaving them in a glass waiting room, separated from their loved ones for their last precious hours.  For many of these people, that was the last time they ever saw each other alive.

There’s something beautiful about the simplicity of that kind of goodbye, despite its cruelty.  There’s no room for the distraction of words: just smiles, tears, basic sign language and straight emotions, unpolluted by imprecise language.

Fast-forward to 2010.

There is a crush of people waiting just outside the door, all pressing forward to get a glimpse of those they came to pick up.  Neighbors who went away for a cultural or academic reason.  Novios and novias waiting for an athlete to return from yet another trip to a world they may never see themselves.  A father waiting for a daughter he sent to America or Europe when things got rough a few long decades ago.  A grandmother waiting to meet her grown American granddaughter for the first time.

The people saying bon voyage may never be able to leave themselves, may never have left before.

The people leaving may never be able to come back.  If they’re Cubans Jumping Ship, they will have to wait five years before they return.  If they’re Cubano-Americanos, they may have to wait based on American restrictions, although those have been relaxed.  If they’re tourists, students or academics, they have their own restrictions.  And for all of these people, money is a huge issue.

It’s very expensive to go to and from the island.  And you better believe Uncle Sam is paying attention to who’s making that journey and how often.

Everything about Jose Marti Airport in Havana is a reminder of what Cubans and thier loved ones don’t have: mobility, money and options.

The thing about airports is that there are return tickets.  Not always so in the world of Cuba.

Did You Hate it?

Sometimes I feel like this guy.

I’ve been reading the U Michigan group blog, and it always leaves me feeling uneasy.  Some of the entries, like Franny’s, are beautiful and lyrical. But others reflect an intense dislike of all things Cuba, extreme efforts to distance oneself from Cuba.

A partial group shot of Americans lounging on the steps of La Universidad de la Habana

When I was at a reunion for last summer’s Egypt crew, I found myself suddenly on a stage.  I was late (curse you, green

line!) and, as I was suddenly reminded, the only one who had been away for the semester who was back.  Chantalle asked about the Cuba program, and I gave her the practical answer, the kind I wish I had been given by people who went the year before me.  I talked about the realities of hunger and food scarcity, even for privileged Westerners, and the complex nature of friendships and relationships.

During a pause, someone chimed in dryly with a, “wow, sounds like a great place.”

I always feel like I’m balancing, countering myself when I talk about Cuba.  It’s just not cut and dry; there’s no easy answer.  Yes, I often felt like some of the U Mich kids who sought refuge in a western hotel with AC, nice bathrooms, comfy couches and English around every corner. A place where the privilege of my skin color, clothing and passport would allow me to block out the stresses of the Cuban reality.

Hotel Nacional, a lavish place most Cubans can only hope to work.

But I also learned a lot from Cuban values.  The importance

family, in whatever form it may come, and pride in one’s community.  A sense of place, an intense eye for culture, both low and high, and the reality that perhaps those terms are outdated.  To smile more, to relax, to complain less, to accept failure–or at least try.

I am very proud and protective of the places I have been, the cultures I try to know.  I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, and I feel a perhaps self-inflated responsibility to portray everything with as much honesty and dignity as possible, but I find it tough when everything is so conflicting and based on rumour.

So please bear with me, as I try to tell you all the conflicting sides of life there, and how I felt about it.

But Are They Happy?

Since my return, many people have asked me if Cubans are happy.  Some ask without judgment, while others convey that they believe Cubans are silently outraged or depressed, yet others still assume that they live happy, simple, carefree lives.

I have a hard time answering this question.  No, they’re not depressed about being from Cuba.  They’re proud of it, and they’re proud that their country has succeeded, despite America’s best efforts.  They’re proud of Cuba being their own man, so to speak.  They’re proud of the music, artes plasticos, films and athletes that come from their island.

But I don’t want to infantilize them, either.  They’re not living some blissfully ignorant life.  Many people have commented to me flippantly that if only they knew what we have, they would be sad or jealous or want to be Good Capitalists, instead of Good Communists.  But that it isn’t so. They’ve seen House and Grey’s Anatomy and Gilmore Girls.  They have the internet, albeit slow, and American radio.  They are not ignorant of our way of life, yet many of them do not covet it. There are many who do, of course.  Some want to not be discriminated against because of the color of their skin.  Some want to be able to make a decent living.  These are the ones who I think are the most deluded, the ones who are fooling themselves in thinking they can get these things in America.

I think there’s something to be said for sticking around with your family and friends.  Not that I hold anything against the so-called guzanos or those who want to Jump Ship, I just mean that I respect someone who has seen the “streets paved with gold” and had the intelligence to see past the illusion or the heart not to give up their Home for it.

Cubans are happy: they dance, sing, drink and tell stories.  But they’re not ignorant.  They’re not these sad little simpletons who don’t know they’re poor, or this entire island of people too terrified to speak their mind.  Cubans are pretty opinionated, and definitely long-winded.  I think most of them want more from their government, but who doesn’t?  Even Libertarians want something more, it just happens to be that that something more is for their government to exist less.

I think Cubans are optimists.  I think that they choose not to dwell on the bad parts: to tell you about the domino game on the roof, instead of the valuables lost, when the floods come waist high in their houses.  I think they want the revolution to continue in new, ever-changing, ever-evolving forms–not capitalism.  I think communist values are inherently good and worthwhile, and it would be as hard to remove them from Cubans as it would be to ingrain them in Americans.

So try not to think of a country in such simple, blanket terms.  Are Americans happy?  Are Americans any one thing?  Rarely can you say yes, unless that one thing is “complaining” or “individualistic.”  I think many more Cubans are happy than you think, but I don’t believe it’s for any lack of intelligence or awareness.  I think they actively decide to be happy; I think it’s a cultural value the way we value cynicism and sarcasm.

I think happiness is a state of mind and a decision, and that theirs, which is more or less collective, and is a greater measure of their culture than of their government or GDP.

The Off-Season

I’m spending the next five weeks in the Greater Boston area, going between my parents’ house, Brookline, Somerville and NU’s campus.  I actually have a cell phone (what’s that?!), so if you’re in the area hit me up.

After five weeks,I’ll be heading to France for a week and then Benin for three.  There will be a lot more info going up about that trip and those two locations during my “break.”  After I come home I hope to start co-op somewhere, but preferably in Massachusetts. That’s about as much as I can definitively say about my future for now.

During the “off season” I’ll definitely keep blogging, as I did in between Egypt and Cuba.  I usually cover similar topics like current events in the countries I have been to, stories I never got the chance to share in country, and of course more Foto Fridays.  Also, blog is often the best way to know when and where I’ll travel next. 

I’m also going to be covering the process of re-entry into normal life.  Travel doesn’t end when you get off the plane-from unpacking and reflecting to reverse culture shock, there’s a lot that changes when you come home.  Not everyone and everything is just how you left them, and most of all, the traveller changes. 

Have any suggestions for good content?  Any questions?  What do you do with a travel blog when you’re not travelling?

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

…except not really on the fish, since that was pretty disgusting.

Cuba wakes up early and slow, and some mornings so do I.

I went for a walk around our little neighborhood to say goodbye early on Friday, and realized how pretty Cuba is in the morning light. Everyone knows Cuba for the blistering, gorgeous midday sun on the beaches, or the nightlife.  I wonder how many people know Cuba for the bright stars you can see so clearly, even in Havana.  But early morning?  Not many people see that side of Cuba.

This morning was strange and quiet.  No party, no music.  No street musicians, no peanut lady yelling, “Mani! Mani!”

I take the long way around the fountain, but the niños aren’t there; they’re in school.  Alex isn’t around either–he’s probably getting Diyani ready for school, or headed out to work.  I head towards the Residencia, walking down the Malecón.  I’m going to miss this place, with its slow pace and full personality.  I look up at that long view of our edificio and the walk to Habana Vieja, and I become vaguely aware that I’m separating from the Americans soon, too.  I know I’ll be back here someday, but without them it won’t be the–


In my reflective reverie, fell flat on my face in some algae and ocean slime. As I struggled to get up, I slid and fell again, sprawled out on hands and knees.

I laugh at myself, amazed I’m alone in that act.

You just couldn’t let me off easy, could you Havana?

‘ta luego, Cuba.