Cuba Blog - Arcophotos
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Cuba Thru My Lens and My Heart

 8-1-16

       It is a trip that has been decades in the making without me realizing it was so. Having traveled there if only in mind, countless of times as my parents, grandparents and relatives told their stories and memories of this place for decades. It is hard to explain the pull that that country has had on my mind and soul as of late, maybe it is the aging of my parents or maybe that my eyes have/need to see what has caused them so much trouble, so much heartache, so much joy firsthand.

       It is a flood of emotions as talk to my father about my upcoming trip, his emotions go from excitement to painful reflection in seconds; my mother is more guarded and hides her feelings by focusing on my well being while on the island. I have told myself that I will show them only what will bring them smiles, although I am not sure that that is possible. My grandparents passed with the hope that one day they would return to show me where they grew up, where they played, where they lived………..They made me promise never to go back while Castro was in power, time is so short, my mother and father will see their country if only thru my photos and experiences……….

9-3-16

       The process is painfully slow, the flights, the rooms, car rental and drivers… nothing happens as quickly as one is used to. Emails go unanswered for days and weeks meanwhile the day gets nearer as I prepare to walk where my family walked feel the breeze where they felt it and see what they saw…..


Photos, feelings and thoughts from "The Island" soon

 10-14-16     

       The plan has always been to stay in private homes and stay away from the large hotels while in Cuba.I was able to locate and rent rooms in Havana Concolacion del Sur and have yet to secure any B&B in Vinales ,Soroa or Varadero….. None of that matters as sit waiting for the plane , the plane that will take me not 90 miles but many many years into the past as well as into "Their Stories"       

       My boarding pass is for one but there are more than just me making the trip this morning, my grandparents, “Mima, Avio, Mamiotra,Papiotro,Madrina” and of course my parents are all here in spirit and in the stories that they told me time and time again, I can still see their faces ,I can still hear their voices, they will be finally going back to their home……..


       The flight to Cuba was “entertaining” for lack of a better word. There were people of all ages but the majority were young Cuban couples, with a few Americans thrown in the mix. The 20 yo kid with a fresh “fade” haircut ,shirt and pants about 2 sizes to small to where he could barley slide his new iphone 7 into his pants pocket. The woman dressed in all white with colorful necklaces and no concept of how loud she needs to speak when using her headphones, the list is long but I did say entertaining. And there are the “older ones” looking like they made a few dollars while in the US and now headed back to show everyone what the USA is all about, knock off Fila, Adiddass, Micheal Kors you name it and its on this plane, the smell of every perfume ever manufactured fills the cabin like ….. well its hard to describe. Then there is the majority, the ones that travel with memories, with pain with anxiousness, you can tell and it feels sad yet hopefull at the same time. I sit next to a lady who could be either of my grandmothers, she has yet to stop smiling and or praising her family and this great country of ours. When the conversation changes to Cuba, everything changes, not to anger or hate but to the promises of what could have been if……. All those with parents and or grandparents from Cuba have heard the stories, I am listening to them from a lady I met 2 minutes ago yet I feel I’ve known her all my life. The one thing that stands out from the flight here is this, sitting next to me  while waiting to board in Miami was a couple and among their baggage was a bouquet of flowers, this bouquet of flowers was going to fly with us over 100 miles and land in Cuba, this bouquets of flowers was shrink wrapped......  how dire must things be in a country on 90 miles from us that flowers need to be shrink wrapped ........

       I am starting to feel that the reason I am going to Cuba is changing………….


      I land where my family lived........  very difficult to describe the emotions when I read the name of the airport and realized I was where they were....

      The architecture is amazing, in all places it surreal, incredible buildings with even more amazing details surrounded by buildings that defy the laws of gravity as to how they are still standing much less have people living in them.....

      The delays, the flight time, the delays in getting the luggage here, the time to get to my room for the next few days was considerable  I left my home in Miami around 8 am, I settled into my room around 7 pm.....  11 hours to travel 90 miles............. well worth it......


       Tonights sunset from "El Malecon"

      You are awakened not by alarm clocks but by the smell of cuban coffee brewing and conversations being had by people just outside your house. Not a bad way to wake up ........  the short walk to El Malecon to see the waters where my dad and grandfathers fished was filled with good mornings and hellos from the locals, this part of the city comes alive early......  I said I was not going to focus on the cars, I lied, it is impossible to avoid them ................. 

       You are reminded not to fish from RAFTS........

       And the cars......

       Walking is the only way to see this city and meet its incredible people, not the easiest to photograph so Ill leave you with a few of "El Malecon" at sunset....  tomorrow I leave for Pinar del Rio, Concolacion and Vinales.........

       As I drive to this area the “Plaza de Jose Marti’ renamed the “Plaza de la Revolucion” I was immersed in taking in the scenery, smells and ambiance of the area the shear openness between buildings and the size of the buildings, once I stepped out of the car and walked into the square, things changed.. I began walking to where the light was right trying to find the angle that would best showcase not so much the buildings but instead the sky and clouds behind them and then, while looking thru the viewfinder in “photographer mode” I began to realize I was feeling anger. Those that know me know that I am anything but political but when I found myself standing between buildings that are adorned by Guevara, De Cesperes and Jose Marti, I was angry. Maybe anger for what my family and millions of other families went thru for a country that as told by them brought them so many many joys, also continues to bring them so much pain, regardless of the time that has passed.

       I sat on my backpack in the middle of this huge square between three buildings and among hundreds of tourist and I cried…


       A few more from around the city.........

       Today, Sunday October 16th, 2016 I travel even further, both in distance and in time, today I will see the birthplace of my parents. Today I will see some of the places that my grandparents/parents talked so proudly about, the places where they walked, the places where they laughed, the places where they cried…the place they always called HOME. The drive to this “Shangri-La” from Havana is a few kilometers in physical distance but is has taken our family over half a century to return. I am quite sure that the flood of emotions will be overwhelming as they have been these past few days, I am also sure that all of them will be relived once I return and recount these experiences with my Mom and Dad…………….


       The church where my grandmother sang......

       Arriving in Concolacion del Sur was a shock to say the least, I had thought that Havana was at a stand still and I was so wrong, this would be confirmed the following morning.    

        I arrived and was greeted by my mothers friend of 70+ years (Chiqui) her husband Armando and  felt at home before my bags hit the floor. After the tears were dried we sat and talked and talked , I assured them that my mom and dad were well and off we went to find drinking water. I visited the church were my grandmother sang right in from of the park were my parents met and dated, it is the same for the most part as when they were here almost 60 years ago but now they have made it a “Weefee Hotspot” so for 2 CUC per hour you can check your facebook……

       They have live there for more than 70 years and my brother ,sister and I would have most likely been born there if things would have not changed when they did. The row of houses are on the main street going into the town, 2 blocks down is the post office, a few more blocks is the park and church, one more block was the Dr, a small market and the guy that exchanges "Verdes" for the CUC currency thru a few bars on his front porch. Being the main street it was busy back then when my grandparents lived there, bicycles, horse drawn home made "carrettas" and some cars. We had dinner and talked until almost 11, I was/am tired not physically but emotionally, it is painful to see how this part of the world really is. I was serenaded to sleep by conversations that were being had maybe 2 or three houses away, there is no “white noise” here and no air conditioning, so open windows are what carries tonight’s lullaby’s.

       It was still dark when I woke up, threw on some clothes felt for my camera and headed out in search of the sunrise. All of these very modest homes have front porches where back then everyone sat and actually spoke with their neighbors, immediately after the front porch you have a small sidewalk and then the street. As I closed the front door behind me with camera and tripod in hand I took 2 steps stopped and sat down on the stoop, inches from the sidewalk inches from the main street. I saw everything my parents saw 60 years ago, bicycles, car after car, horse drawn home made “carrettas”, and then the trucks… large trucks filled with people, people going to work,kids mothers and father. Children walking to school, parents biking their kids to school, the 1950s playing in front of my eyes as I sat where my mom, dad, grandparents sat so many many years ago, so many many memories ago…………. Saying goodbye to this family, this family who has shared so many memories with my family would be the hardest part of this trip so far. As I  sat in their living room minutes before I was to leave , she began to show me picture after picture of my family and her life long friends, she told me so many stories and spoke about my grandfathers, my eyes water even now as I write this. She cried when she told me what my grandfather “Papiotro” had done during the “change”,she cried as she explained the injustice when he was taken from my grandmother “Mamiotra” and our family…… A few minutes later she spoke of my other grandfather “Avio”, and after a quick story about how jealous my grandmother “Mima” was we laughed between the tears…… It was time, time to say goodbye. She hugged me on the porch where so many of my mother and fathers memories were made for so many years, this would most likely be my only memory of this incredible place. I did not speak much on the way to Vinales that morning, Carlos understood……..


       The road to Varadero 

       

       Vinales……. The first inclination to describe Vinales would be to describe its natural beauty, the rich green landscapes, the mogottes ,birds and overall nature…… I would describe it differently. Its people are its best natural resource. I arrived at my “Casa” and was taken to my room for the night but before that would happen there would be conversation. We (Cusita , her mother and father which have been in Vinales all of their lives) sat under a tree as they filled out the government required paperwork, passports and visas were exchanged, sign here and there paperwork done.

       The house is 2 story solid concrete building with the owners, Boris and Cusita along with their 20 yo son and her parents live downstairs , they have 2 rooms upstairs with a beautiful porch overlooking the treetops and some barrel and tin roofs, the mogottes are 500 feet from me I would be greeted by the local roosters and their serenade at 530 am the next morning. The day here in Vinales was just starting. We drove Cusita a few blocks so she could go to the bank and do a few other things, Carlos would drive me to see the caves and take a boat ride thru the cavern, my day was being planned and I had no idea. Driving back to town we pick up Cusita and she says we are going to lunch with her husband but it would ne be for another hour, I said of course and off we went for a quick beer at a hotel overlooking the Mogottes of Vinales, surreal to say the least. Her husband Boris works for a Private restaurant, I thought to myself this is where we would be eating, I was wrong. We drove for about 30 minutes ,the drive consisted up us getting to know each other and them giving Carlos a hard time for not having air conditioning in his car. We parked at a place called “El Palenque” , in front of me was a mogotte, probably 500+ feet tall with a cavern that goes from one side to another and opens up to a small valley, this is where we would eat. We sat at the bar for a few beers and more questions then we ate, we ate for 2 hours, family style, arroz con chorizo,baked chicken,roasted pork boiled malanga and salad the converstation ,food,scenery and company was spectacular. This restaurant is only for the tourist not because they are not allowed but because they cannot afford even this simple food, the only locals here today are my hosts and the people working there. The bill came in form of handshakes and hugs from even the waitresses, apparently everyone in Cuba knows everyone in Cuba and I was ushered back to the car a bit angry but very gratefull.My day on their accounts was not yet over. On the drive back to drop off my host back at work, I explained that I need a few hours to settle in and recharge not only my camera batteries but also mine, they laughed and told me to be ready by 5, they had a place to show me that had the best sunsets in the world…..

       I came downstairs and they were waiting, Boris had left work early and we were off to find this place where the best sunsets in the world happened but first we would need to pick up their friend Guillermo, a photographer, he spent the next hour explaining what I was doing is wrong and to do this and that, I listened and listened and was feeling more and more thankful every minute, not because Guillermo was critiquing how I shoot but because I am on my way to see the “Best Sunset in the World.”


The "CASA" in Vinales.......

The views from "La Ermita" with a few local libations

The soon to be ranch, where I will be one of the first guest....

THE BEST SUNSET IN THE WORLD as described by my Vinales host

       With backpack and tripod I was out the door and walking the streets of Vinales, no traffic or street lights to help navigate so I tried my best to remember how I arrived at the house. I took a wrong turn and it cost me about 35 minutes but no worries as it was still dark even thought there were many walking the streets for work. I was able to find the right path and soon I found myself on a red dirt road walking away from the town and into farm lands. Most of the small farms are fenced in with overgown bushes and trees so it would be difficult to find a place to shoot, a shot I had framed a hundred times over in my head . I walk into this valley for about a mile where I met Francisco, a kid no more than 21 years old. I saw him as he was coming down a small hill theu a narrow path in the trees , he had one horse by the reins with 3 more following, I asked if the owner would mind if I shot from inside his property, he laughed and said of course not and suddenly the sot that I had framed so many times was right in front of me,now if Mother Nature’s Sun would cooperate. The dirt beneath my fit did no look real, the color could almost be visible in the dark,it might have been the early morning light reflecting off of the mogottes or maybe it was just that, not real. I spent about 45 minutes walking around this small farm and shot what I could, on my way out of farm, I walked thru a gate which has probably been there for hundreds of years and I saw Francisco. We spoke, well he spoke and I listened, he has lived within this small town for all of his life he does not have TVs,laptops or iphones yet he was happy. Francisco asked if I wanted to take a ride on one of his parents horses, everything in me said yes, but regretfully I said no,my time was limited in this town (for now) I did not say goodbye to Francisco, I said “Nos Veremos Prontos” ( We will See Each Other Soon) and I started my walk back to my “Casa”……….. During my walk back to town I saw school children on their way to school, farmers moving their animals from field to field and the few people of this town starting their day. 7 am as I walked close to a small building with a large group of people in line. The building had no sign so I could not figure out what was so important that these people needed to be in line so early on a Wednesday morning. I stopped and listened and realized what it was.

       I stood in line for about 15 minutes, I was 10 people back when the lady behind the counter said “Se acabo el pan” we are out of bread….. The people in front of me quietly walked away, no complaining, no arguing they just walked and rode away on their bikes. I waiting for everyone to leave and chose my words very carefully when I walked up to the counter to speak with the lady in charge. I asked if their would be bread later and she smiled and said “no mijito” there will be no bread until tomorrow. There were a bundles of bread visible from where I stood and I asked her about that, she said that “una libra de pan” is what the locals buy, this bread was for the restaurants. I aksed her if I could buy a few she said yes. The price for the local bread is about 15cents a loaf ,this bread was 1.45cuc……. They do not have plastic or paperbags to help carry the bread back to your home, I did see everyone with their own bags, I bought what I could carry for the family that shared their home with me in Vinales…….


       On this rainy morning in Havana I rode in one of the classic cars and met the man who keeps her running, Ernesto, 48yo and needs no prodding to get him to tell a bit of his story. Initially I spoke to him in English and gave him a few minutes to practice his English as he will soon need it more than ever. The car did not start at first so it gave us a few extra minutes to talk and he did just that all the way to The Hotel Nacional. I asked if I could photograph his car in front of the hotel and he glowed showing his pride for the car (Nina Bonita) that as he described was his life. He made sure to give me his card and asked for me to call him if I needed to go anywhere in Havana, everyone is extremely friendly and ready for the change that has been years in the making.

       I walked into the lobby and was once again moved knowing that my family spent many many wonderful times between these same walls that I now can see and feel, if only they could speak. I sit on the back terrace overlooking a small fountain and beyond it the Ocean with El Malecon below. A am listening to a few conversations around me most in languages I do not understand, german,French,Italian it goes on…. Then there are those I do understand and they speak of the country and its people and their experiences here. A trio begins to sing the Guantanamera and it triggers memories , memories of my father ,grandfather,Tito,Nena and Fernandito Heria fishing under a bridge in the Florida Keys, listening to them sing and tell so many stories of where I am now. The memories are as vivid as if they happened yesterday,I am wondering which of these areas at The Hotel Nacional were where my Mom and Dad sat……….


"Cannon Don't Thunder There's Nothing To Plunder".........

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