Travel photography and shooting people with (or without) permission

February 21, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The following is a post I made to the Flickr group Travel Photography in a discussion about the best country for street photography. One of the members of the group raised the question of when you seek permission to take a stranger’s photograph. Clicking on the thumbnail pictures will take you to larger versions in my Flickr stream.

The permission thing is tricky. Often, if you ask beforehand, people pose rigidly, and it’s difficult to get a natural looking shot. On the other hand, just walking up and snapping a photo of someone can be very rude, and can get you in trouble.

I vary my strategy depending on the culture and situation. If people are engaged in an activity, and if I speak the language, I may ask permission, but tell them to continue doing what they’re doing. They act stiff at first, but I keep shooting, and after a while they ignore me. That’s the strategy I used for this shot of men playing checkers on a street in Havana, Cuba:

Street checkers, Centro Habana

If people are in a public place doing what they are normally doing, I sometimes don’t ask permission, but make my presence known, and refrain from shooting if anyone clearly objects. That’s what I did for this shot in Havana of men in a park arguing about baseball. I wasn’t about to interrupt their heated argument to ask permission, but I didn’t hide the fact that I was taking pictures.

Heated argument

If people are at a bit of a distance and not clearly recognizable, I have no problem sneaking a picture with a long lens as in this shot of construction workers in Havana:

Workmen and shadows

If people are engaged in a fun event like a festival, I have no problem shooting fairly close shots with a long lens and not asking permission, as in this shot at Toronto’s Caribana festival:

Caribana Parade, Toronto (8)

Sometimes I’ll simply ask people to pose and tell them what to do. If they’re engaged in an activity, and not just standing rigidly, it can work, as in this shot of a grape seller in Guatemala:

Grape seller, market, Cobán, Guatemala

If you don’t speak the language, or if you’re at a bit of a distance and there’s noise, “permission” can simply be raising your camera part way, pointing to it, and smiling at the person. If you get a nod, or at least the person doesn’t raise their hand to object, you have permission. That’s how I got this picture of a holy man in India a number of years ago:

Sadhu circuit

I was shooting film then, but today you have an advantage. Showing off the picture to your subject on the LCD screen can often invite further pictures, and even shots of others around who see it!

Photographing in Cuba

February 5, 2011 by · 19 Comments 

When I planned my trip to Cuba, I had very little idea what to expect as to what it’s like doing photography in Cuba. I posted to a couple of Flickr groups asking about photographing in Cuba, and received a few tips and suggestions, but still didn’t really know what to expect. This posting attempts to address some of the questions I had.

First of all, despite its authoritarian style of government, I never had any problem from officials as a foreigner taking pictures. The only time it was ever an issue is when I first arrived at the airport and they scanned my carry-on luggage after I arrived — a new experience. Seeing my camera and collection of lenses and accessories, the people at the scanner asked if I was a “periodista” (journalist). I replied that I was not and that the camera was for personal use. They accepted my explanation with no further issue. Cuba, like many countries, requires that journalists obtain a special visa, so entering with just a tourist card would have been a problem.

Other than that, I had no problems from authorities whatsoever. This contrasts with trips to the United States where I have been hassled, and it seems that to some people photographers are terrorists, pedophiles or worse. And Britain apparently is even worse than the U.S. for official harassment of photographers. I’m not naive, and in the unlikely event that I encountered mass demonstrations in Cuba and photographed them, I would likely encounter problems. But generally, Cuba is much more photo friendly than many other destinations.

I find that in many countries there’s an expectation that foreigners always have cameras and are always taking pictures. This was certainly the case in Cuba, and it can work in your favour as a photographer. At home, people sometimes wonder why you are taking pictures. In places like Cuba, it’s just assumed that that’s what foreigners do.

I also wondered about the safety of walking around with a camera. Here again, I felt much safer than in many other countries of Latin America. You do hear of occasional cases of snatch and grab attacks on tourists in Old Havana, but I never saw anything to suggest concern. I tend to carry the camera with the strap around my neck and shoulder, and with at least one hand on it, and I constantly scan my surroundings for people who might be problems. I saw many tourists carrying their cameras with a lot less care and attention, and though I don’t recommend that, I never saw problems.

Travelling in general, the most dangerous situations are usually when you are completely alone with your attacker, or when you are in a dense crowd (such as on a crowded bus or train) allowing someone to steal without your knowledge. Rarely in Cuba was I in either situation. There are always people around (and very often police), and I didn’t take the city buses. Thieves are less likely to strike when there’s a good mix of people around, but not so many that they can get away undetected or slip into a crowd.

I usually kept my camera in my bag when I was walking at night, but I never felt threatened carrying it during the day, even in some fairly run-down parts of Havana. There are two big advantages to carrying your camera in the open. First, it’s ready when you need it, and you don’t need to fuss around and possibly lose a shot. Secondly, the camera itself attracts attention of people, who will often ask to pose. Several times people saw my camera and suggested shots to me — sometimes because they wanted money, and sometimes not.

As for photographing people, I would say that four different scenarios come into play.

1. Professional tourist models

In tourist areas like Old Havana and Trinidad, there are some Cubans who make a living by posing for pictures for tourists. If you look at Flickr’s Cuban groups, you’ll often see the same human subjects over and over. These are generally people who pose for $1 CUC or less. One old guy in Trinidad even sits on a donkey that has an English sign on its forehead saying: “For rent. Photo 50c”.

Some of these models are great. A favourite of mine (and many other photographers) is Graciela, an old woman in Old Havana with just two loose front teeth, who poses with a big cigar. José Manuel Soto Flores was another colourful character in Old Havana. He had an album of pictures of himself, and had even been in guidebooks. He carried special ID that showed he was allowed to carry out this modeling and be paid in hard currency, and many of the other tourist models had the same credentials.

Some of the models were more contrived, decked out in colourful costumes. Some even had pets such as dogs and cats dressed up with them. I engaged some, with mixed results.

Some were pretty insistent that you only got one frame for your $1. Others let you take several shots. I generally got better results when I chatted with them for a while first, and of course I had to move some into better light.

2. Opportunistic tourist models

These people are not pros, but their aim in posing for you is to get a little hard currency. Sometimes they initiated the exchange with me, asking if I would like to photograph them or their friend. Sometimes, I first noticed them, and asked them to pose. They agreed on condition of payment. Whether you pay or not and how much you pay in these situations is always a judgment call. Some people raise moral issues about photographers encouraging dependence of these people. Generally though, I didn’t mind paying a bit if I got some decent shots from it. Some people were so delighted to earn a bit of money that they were happy to let me keep shooting them after I’d paid them. Sometimes though, people who asked to be photographed for money didn’t interest me, and I turned them down.

3. Photos for photos’ sake

Very often I had encounters with people and took their pictures without money ever being part of the equation. Often these were the most satisfying encounters, as I was able to chat with the people first and develop a bit of a bond. Very often they were delighted simply to see their images on the LCD screen. Usually, these were encounters that I initiated. I sometimes just walked up to people or walked into a shop and asked if I could photograph them doing whatever they were doing. Very often, people agreed. In one shoe repair shop, I photographed the two men working, and then one of them asked to pose with his wife. I promised to mail them copies of the pictures, but that was an offer on my part and not a condition for being photographed. Sometimes people agreed to let me photograph them, even though they didn’t seem enthusiastic. Only rarely did I get an outright rejection.

4. Candid photos

These are photos I took of people in the street without their permission. There are moral issues here, but I feel that generally if you don’t invade someone’s privacy, and they’re just doing something normal on the street, they are fair game. Still, I use some circumspection with these shots. It’s one thing if people are incidental to a street scene and are part of a larger picture. It’s a bit invasive though to pull out a long lens and do a close-up of their face without their knowledge or permission. You often get a more interesting picture if the person isn’t aware of the camera. Sometimes, I would smile and wave to a person after taking a shot of them, to see what kind of reaction I got. In most cases, people would see me with the camera taking general scenes of the street and not really care if they were in the frame or not.

While people are often the most interesting subjects, Cuba has numerous other fascinating subjects, not the least its old classic cars and crumbling old buildings. The American cars of the late 1940s and 1950s are very photogenic with their curves and art deco styling. The point of view and lighting for such shots is always important. For cars, low and close seems to work best.

The strong tropical sunlight is always a challenge. I found that in Cuba I often got my best shots very early or late in the day when the sun was low. The light was often very beautiful at these times, and the pastel colours of the buildings intensified it. In the middle of the day, it was essential to pay attention to light and shadows. With buildings of multi stories in Havana, it was often very easy to find areas of open shade for excellent lighting even in the middle of the day. Trinidad and Viñales had a lot more one-storey buildings, making it more of a challenge. I almost always carried my SB-900 flash with me, and very often when I shot in open sun, I would use a fill flash. This is essential in bright sun when there are strong shadows. I brought my tripod with me, but was less likely to walk around with it. I still managed to get some good sets for HDR photography with hand holding the camera and shooting quick frames in burst mode.

In a two-week trip to just three places, I feel I only scratched the surface of Cuba’s photographic potential. I didn’t try any locations that would have required official permission. And I didn’t try any more extensive shoots of models or other people requiring complex lighting arrangements beyond one flash. There’s a lot more for another trip, and I’m eager to return to Cuba with my camera again.

José Manuel Soto Flores is a professional tourist model in Old Havana. He carries government-issued ID that lets him engage in this business.

These two guys asked for a little change after I took their picture, but they certainly weren’t professional models, and weren’t likely used to being photographed.

In this candid picture of men arguing over baseball in Havana’s Central Park, it would have been out of the question to ask permission first and still have people looking natural. Still, it was obvious to them that I was photographing, and only one man seemed to mind (he covered his face with his hand). I just kept shooting, and tried to avoid getting the man who didn’t want to be photographed. By the time I fired this shot, they seemed oblivious to the fact that I was there, and were completely engrossed in their argument.

Although I took this shot later in the day, and the sky was partially overcast, a fill flash was absolutely necessary. Without it, there would be no detail on the man’s dark face.

Impressions of Cuba

January 30, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

I’ve now been back from Cuba for a couple weeks and have had a bit of time to reflect on what I saw in this unique and fascinating country.

Cuba is like nowhere else I’ve been. I briefly visited Bulgaria and Yugoslavia during the Soviet era, but Cuba in 2011 bears little resemblance to Communist eastern Europe. It is, much more, a Latin American country with its own brand of revolutionary politics superimposed. That too is changing — as Cubans I talked to all emphasized, Cuba is in a period of transition.

In my undergraduate university studies, I concentrated on Latin American politics and history. But my focus was always on Mexico and Central America. Cuba was a country whose history and politics I only covered superficially. And Cuba is very different from its mainland neighbours.

Two factors immediately make Cuba very different from the other Latin American countries I’m familiar with: it has no indigenous population to speak of, and it did not gain independence from Spain at the time of other Latin American countries. Rather, Cuba is largely mixed race African-European, though there’s a surprising number of people who seem to be of pure European or African ancestry. The African influence has had a notable impact on Cuba’s music and art. And Cuba has not had the experience of Mestizaje — the mixing of European and aboriginal cultures — that is at the heart of the culture in Mexico and Central America.

I had several opportunities to chat with Cubans about the transition occurring today. They speak in hushed voices, and there is a certain amount of fear associated with expressing political opinions, but they did seem to speak fairly freely.

The general sense is that change is happening and needs to happen, but there’s some anxiety about what the changes will be. Since the so-called “Special Period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a gradual move to allow more and more private enterprise. Everyone I talked to saw this as a good thing, and something necessary. There’s a general feeling that the revolution is 52 years old, and its ideas have become stale and has led to Cuba’s stagnation.

The problem now is the dual economy of state-controlled low salaries in moneda nacional and private enterprise operating in convertible pesos. It’s causing a great misallocation of resources, and is unsustainable.

Since the Special Period, Cuba has relied more and more on tourism to bring in the needed hard currency. But this has contributed to the distortion. Now, a hotel chambermaid or a prosititute earns far more in a day in hard currency than a doctor, teacher or engineer earns in weeks in moneda nacional. Stores selling in moneda nacional have empty shelves and line-ups for rationed goods. Stores selling in hard currency have imported products on their shelves.

Two of the people I met are good examples. My guide on a hike in Viñales had been a high school teacher, but that’s a job that pays a government wage in moneda nacional. With survival so difficult, he became a tourist guide instead so that at least he makes some tips in convertible pesos.

The casa particular (private home) I stayed at in Viñales is another example. The owner, Dr. Luis Luis, studied for years to become a doctor, and travelled to serve Cuba during the Nicaraguan Contra war and later in Guyana. He is skilled in trauma treatment, anesthesiology, and other emergency medicine. He now teaches medicine. But his medical salary is meagre and in moneda nacionale. By contrast, the family pays its bills with the hard-currency paying tourists who stay at the home. Although owners of casas particulares must pay high taxes to be allowed to operate, a single tourist in a few nights brings in more income than a doctor’s salary.

State-run restaurants have a reputation for surly, bored staff and overcooked inspid food. Small private restaurants called “paladares” have sprung up to offer good food and meet the need of the tourist industry. These changes have been slow to come about, but the general feeling is that Raul Castro has been less dogmatic than his older brother about allowing change to come.

Which brings up an issue I only discussed very carefully with Cubans — Fidel is probably mortal, and unless he has a miraculous improvement in health, his days are probably numbered. So what shape will Cuba take when Fidel departs?

One of the ironies of the Cold War is that Fidel’s longevity as leader can only be thanks to the Americans. For a country that has made such great pretense of wanted to be rid of Fidel and to end Communism in Cuba, America has been the single greatest factor in keeping Fidel in power for more than half a century. The United States has seen 10 presidents since Castro came to power in 1959. There have been various attempts by the Americans to get the Mob to assassinate the Cuban leader, or even to give him substances to make his beard fall out. And yet, he has hung on until only his health led him to relinquish power to his younger brother.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba has been Castro’s best friend. Around Havana today, billboards decry the social costs to Cuba of “el bloqueo.” Typically they point to the cost of several hours of the embargo in terms of medical services or educational supplies for children. The reality is, though, that for years the embargo has served as a convenient excuse for Cuba’s economic difficulties. True, there have been real economic costs to the Cuban economy as a result of the embargo, but for the Castro regime, the embargo has served as a convenient excuse to cover the failings of socialist economics. If not for the external enemy of the U.S. imperialists and their embargo, the Cuban people would have turned against Castro long ago. At the same time, American political isolation of Cuba has left the Castro regime to operate in a giant incubator — free from the kind of ideas that would be brought to Cuba if there were a more free exchange between the two countries. Opponents of the regime have been allowed to leave, as during the Mariel boatlift of 1980, with the result that Castro’s enemies are kept at a safe distance in Miami.

But what will come of Cuba when Fidel dies? Will Raul hang onto power, and gradually reform the system. Or will the be an overwhelming and uncontrollable pressure for rapid change both from inside and out?

One force that I think will play a much stronger role in Cuba in coming years is the Evangelical churches. Evangelicals are a political force in Latin America, nowhere so much as in Guatemala, but in other countries too they are a political threat to the Catholic Church and to secular political forces. In Cuba, the Catholic Church has been weakened by years of revolutionary socialisim, and although many Cubans are Catholics, there is a power vaccuum that Evangelicals will be quick to exploit when Fidel goes.

In geo-political terms, the counterproductive American policies towards Cuba have created an enormous political opening for the Chinese. Chinese presence is noticeable, especially in many of the newer vehicles seen in Cuba. The new buses are all Chinese built. There are Chinese cars. At one point during my trip from Trinidad to Havana, our bus and other traffic in our direction had to pull over to allow an almost endless convoy to pass. The convoy, escorted by police and military, contained dozens and dozens of brand new Chinese-built construction trucks obviously just being delivered. Chinese influence in Cuba is only increasing, and one wonders for the Americans about the wisdom of their policies that are switching a former Soviet satellite on their doorstep for a Chinese one.

It’s hard, of course, to get a clear view in a crystal ball in a short two-week trip to three locations in Cuba, and a few conversations with Cubans. And so, I’ll stop predicting, and instead close with a few more comments about Cuba as a country to visit.

I’m glad I went, and I certainly would go back. Despite the hardship for Cubans, for a visitor it is fascinating to see a country that has not been spoiled by global homogenization and McDonaldsization. It’s a beautiful country with an amazing culture, incredible unspoiled colonial and post-colonial architecture, and friendly people.

It was recommended to me before I went that I be cautious about contacts initiated by Cubans, and that I would get more from contacts I initiated myself. This is certainly true, and in this I am lucky to have a fairly good command of Spanish. Usually when Cubans approached me, they had some agenda whether to try to sell me something, or ask me for something. It was rarely ever too much of a problem, though walking in some areas it could get tiresome to keep saying “no gracias” to offers of cheap cigars or a taxi. Occasionally people came up with various stories as a pretext to ask me for money, and sometimes I got a quick cold shoulder when I refused.

On the other hand, when I initiated contact, I usually found Cubans friendly and willing to talk. Often they were curious about where I came from, and often the conversation was fairly superficial, but they were usually happy to talk if I asked them about their old cars, their business or anything else. For the most part, they seemed like good natured people with a sense of humour, and I never detected that the Cuban people were especially miserable, despite their challenging lives.

Cuba is not as cheap a country to visit as other Latin American countries because of the two-currency system and the artificial state pricing. For many things, such as museums, foreigners are expected to pay in convertible pesos what Cubans pay in national pesos, meaning foreigners pay 24 times as much. Given the difference in our salaries, this isn’t unreasonable, but it does make Cuba a more expensive destination than countries where tourists and locals pay the same price. Of course, Cuba offers many inexpensive package holidays in resorts, but to really see the country, you’ll spend more. Staying in casas particulares reduces the cost, but this is not like other Latin American countries where a reasonably comfortable hotel can cost $10 – $30 depending on the country.

Still, in terms of travel experience, Cuba offers something unique that you won’t find anywhere else. Its political isolation has preserved its unique culture. And its Afro-Latin culture is a fascinating one, mixed with influences from colonial Spain and its long experiment with revolutionary socialism.

The time to visit Cuba is now — before it changes to an uncertain future.

Cuban heroes.

Return to the frozen north

January 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

My flight didn’t actually leave Havana until after 4 p.m., so I was able to spend the morning getting ready and doing a last walk around Centro Habana.

After convincing the hotel to let me stay an hour after checkout, I got a taxi to the airport. This time I checked in two bags so I would have no problems with my “carrion” being too heavy. I converted my remaining convertible pesos back to Canadian dollars, paid the departure tax, and went to wait for the plane at the gate. It was all very smooth.

The flight left on time, and they told us we would be back in Montreal in just three and a half hours, ahead of schedule, due to strong tail winds. So far so good. But then we took off through thick clouds and as we kept climbing higher, we remained in clouds. They kept not turning off the seat belt sign. And then the fun began. We began bumping through some areas of turbulance, and it got stronger and stronger. The pilot came on and told us to stay in our seats as we would be going through some turbulance. We began plunging and heaving from side to side. The teenage girl behind me was screaming. Soon the flight attendants were making their way up and down the aisles collecting full barf bags in both hands. I’ve certainly experienced worse, and I never actually felt sick myself, but it still wasn’t fun.

Worst of all, as it kept up, people couldn’t go to the toilets. At last it calmed enough that there was a line-up of people to go to the washrooms. And they announced that there would not be time to serve the meal. When the plane finally touched down on the icy runway in Dorval, there were cheers and applause.

Customs was easy, and they gave me no hassle over the fact that I had 51 cigars as the store had thrown in an extra beyond my limit of 50. But the icy air outside came as a shock. I had left my winter coat in my car, so only had a light hoodie to keep me warm as I waited for the bus to take me to Park ‘n Fly, and it was somewhat below -20C. It was only about a 10 minute wait, but it seemed like ages, especially as my cold was flaring up.

I got to my car, and it took a while to get it brushed off and for the worn-down battery to grind the engine to a start. The roads were icy and slippery and confusing, and I was tired and cold, and it was dark. I was hungry, having not eaten since breakfast. I began the two-hour drive back to Ottawa. By the time I made it to bed, it was past 1 a.m., but at least I could sleep in my own bed. I would have to be up early to begin work the next day.

Back in Havana

January 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

I was up early Saturday morning to catch the 8:15 a.m. Viazul bus to Havana. Although they told me the night before it was fully booked, they assured me (correctly) that there are almost always cancellations and I would have no trouble getting a seat. The Viazul bus is a hard currency bus taking both foreigners and Cubans. For Cubans only, there is another company, Astro, that sells tickets more cheaply in moneda nacional. Both are modern Chinese built buses — these are not the chicken buses running in old Blue Bird school buses that are common in other Latin American countries.

The ride was pretty smooth after the twisty, mountainous beginning — mostly along the Autopista Nacional, a freeway running through Cuba from Pinar del Rio to Sancti Spiritus where it abruptly stops due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its support to Cuba coming to an abrupt end at the beginning of the 1990s.

Back in Havana, I got a taxi to Hotel Deauville on the Malecon, where I’d stayed before, but this time had to be content with a room with no balcony or Malecon view — just a window looking out at Old Havana and el Capitolio.

I spent the rest of the day Saturday walking around in La Habana Vieja and Centro Habana, picking up a few items — rum and cigars — to take home. I bought the cigars, two boxes of Montecristo 2, at the Partagas Cigar factory, paying the full government price for these, but being assured I was buying the real thing. These are not to smoke myself, but for others at home who enjoy such pleasures. Of course, when I left the factory, I had a number of jineteros tell me I should have bought from them at the “special price.” Jineteros are constantly accosting you in Cuba to buy cigars cheap, but they are almost always counterfeits and low-quality cigars (or worse, banana leaves) with fake labelling. You buy from them at your peril.

I usually found the cigar jineteros backed off as soon as I gave them a polite, firm “no gracias.” One, however, was particularly persistent. So I whispered to him: “Mi tio es Fidel Castro. El me da las Cohibas — gratis.” (My uncle is Fidel Castro. He gives me free Cohibas.) The guy thought that was hilarious, and he walked away laughing.

I bought some Havana Club Añejo 7 años rum to bring back for myself from my shopkeeper friend who thought I look like a young Fidel. But other than that, I didn’t see much to buy to bring back other than a few trashy looking crafts and Che Guevara t-shirts. I did get a book of photos by Korda, the photographer who photographed Fidel and Che and took the famous photo of Che that has become an international icon.

On Sunday, my last full day, I bought another all-day on-off tourist bus ticket and rode the double decker out to Vedado, getting off at the Colon Cemetery.

One think that struck me about Cuba was the relative absence of symbolism about Marx and Lenin. That’s not to say there isn’t the odd place named after them, but for the most part Cuba celebrates Cuban and Latin American heroes rather than the heroes of Communism. There are apparently two statues of Lenin in the Havana area, but both are in out-of-the-way places. Much more popular, however, is a statue to Lennon. That’s right. John Lennon, the Beatle. Originally Castro considered the Beatles a sign of decadent capitalism, but when Lennon started singing against the war in Vietnam and other radical ideas, and when the Beatles became popular among Cubans, Castro did an about face and accepted that John Lennon was actually a revolutionary. So there’s a park in Vedado with a statue of Lennon sitting on a park bench. His round wire-rim glasses kept being stolen, so now there’s a little guy who hangs out in the background, and when tourists appear, he slips a pair of glasses onto Lennon’s nose. Of course, he expects a small tip.

The Colon Cemetery is an enormous area with marble statues and elaborate building-like tombs dedicated to deceased great Cubans, colonial, post-colonial and revolutionary. One of the more popular tombs is easily recognizable because it’s covered in flowers and is almost always being visited by pilgrims. It is said to be that of a mother, who died in childbirth, and her baby. When she was buried, the child was at her feet, but when she was exumed later, she was cradling the child in her arms. Naturally, this was considered a miracle, and pilgrims visit the grave, knock on the tomb with a brass ring, and walk away backwards. For this, they believe, their wishes will be miraculously granted.

From there, I made my way to Callejon de Hamel, the alley celebrating arts and Afro-Cuban culture. Sunday at noon is when rumba concerts begin. The performers were decked out in colourful costumes and the music and drumming were wild and lively, but more than half the people there were tourists. It was very hard to get a clear view of the musicians through the crowds clustered around the performers, but I did manage a few photos. It was worth seeing, even if it had the feel more of a contrived tourist event than of a genuine celebration of the Santeria African religion.

I spent the rest of the day walking around, and took several long strolls down the Malecon, enjoying watching the Sunday evening crowds along it. My trip was coming to an end.

Rumba drummer at Callejon de Hamel.

Fortune teller at Callejon de Hamel.

Marxist-Lennonism: A statue to “revolutionary” Beatle John Lennon in Vedado.

Crumbling buildings along Havana’s Malecon sea wall.

Hanging out on the Malecon at night.

Viñales — the hills in tobacco country

January 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Viñales is set in a valley scattered with tall limestone hills called “mogotes,” that look somewhat like the famous formations at Guilin, China.

The floor of the valley has a red earth well suited for growing tobacco, for which Pinar del Rio province is best known. Throughout the valley you can see palm thatch triangular structures that are the curing barns for the tobacco.

I arrived in Viñales late Tuesday afternoon and had decided to stay the first night at Hotel Los Jazmines, which has the best view of the area overlooking the valley. I hoped to catch the sunrise from the hotel, and then move to a private home in the town the next day when I could start looking earlier.

I took a room in one of the comfortable cabins with a spectacular view. It was late, so I hoped to use the swimming pool the next day, as I haven’t yet had a swim this trip.

One of the problems with Los Jazmines is that it takes large tour groups, so there were hundreds of Germans everywhere, making it hard to get served for dinner. The other problem is that Los Jazmines is 4 km up a hill and out of town, so you are captive.

I set my alarm for 6 a.m., hoping to get up and photograph a spectacular sunrise over the valley. Alas, the temperature dropped and when I got up in the morning it was cloudy with a light spray-like drizzle. I took some shots with a tripod, but the view just didn’t measure up to what I’ve seen in other photos.

The temperature that day was around 15C with howling winds, and all the Cubans complained about the cold. They didn’t agree with me when I suggested it was only “fresco” and not “frio.” Definitely too cool to try the pool, but not an unpleasant break from the hotter weather of my trip to date.

In the early afternoon, I got a taxi to town. The driver said he wants to go to Canada – Montreal – to learn English and French, and showed me he had a Canadian flag hanging behind the mirror. As for so many Cubans through, money is the biggest obstacle.

In town I was besieged by swarms of jineteros offering rooms in private houses. I had decided to try first the Reyes family, who were recommended in Lonely Planet, so brushed off the jineteros. Then an older woman showed me a card for the Reyes family and said she would take me there. She insisted she was not getting a commission that would be charged to my room, but was a friend of the family. It then became clear she was trying to take me in a different direction from the Reyes house, and I pointed that out to her.

She insisted that she is a woman of 70 and wouldn’t try to cheat me, and that the Reyes house was full, so she was taking me to hers. She again pointed to their card and said she was their friend. I insisted on carrying on myself to the Reyes house, and when I told them the story, they just shook their heads – they have no connection with this woman who was using their card to hustle business. Such is the nature of jineterismo in Cuba – they will tell you anything – even that the house has closed and the owner has died – to lure you away from your destination.

As it turned out, they Reyes house was fully booked, but they soon found me a place at the home of a neighbour, Dr. Luis Luis, his wife Elda, and their son, also named Luis. They were friendly, and I stayed there three nights.

They served enormous meals – a dinner of grilled “pargo” (red snapper) my first night, with lots of vegetables and fruits on the side. On my third night, they served me lobster tails, which they euphemistically call “chicken of the sea,” because they aren’t supposed to sell lobster to foreigners. I was often full well before I finished the meals, but always saved a little room at the end for the fruit – papaya, guava, pineapple and watermelon.

On my first day, I did a bit of walking through and around Viñales. Once I slipped in with a tour group who were visiting a tobacco barn to see the tobacco hanging and drying, and watching a man hand roll some cigars.

Thursday was my best day in Viñales. The weather was clear with fluffy clouds, and there was a cool breeze. The Cubans again complained about it being cold, but for me it was very pleasant walking weather.

I had arranged the night before to join a group with a guide on a walk in the National Park. It’s not a national park in the Canadian sense, but it is protected farmland in a gorgeously scenic area.

We walked right from the town along farm paths, and the guide took us to a tobacco farm where we saw tobacco being hand harvested by a few workers, who make about $2 a day depending on how many rows they pick. A woman hand rolled some cigars and had some for sale about about $20 a dozen. I noted the irony that the price was close to a single Cohiba Esplendido.

Some of the buildings had been toppled in one of last year’s hurricanes, and had been rebuilt with corrugated steel roofs. A man was in the process of preparing to replace these with traditional palm thatch, fitting in with the national park status.

After hiking through more farm country, we saw men harvesting yucca. I took a photo of one old yucca harvester with my guide and was surprised to notice he had blue eyes, like some other people in the Viñales area. My guide, however, was completely black.

My guide had been a high school teacher, but as he pointed out, teachers are paid low salaries in moneda nacional. By working as a guide, he does a lot better, after getting tips in convertible pesos. This seems to be part of a pattern in Cuba of people doing a lot better working in tourism than working as professionals.

We came to a steep part of the hike that required climbing a trail up one of the mogotes, using hands to assist. We climbed towards a pass, but before reaching it, we came to a network of caves that we had to go through in the dark, careful of our footing. The caves weren’t long enough that we were ever completely in the dark, but it was dark enough that we had to shuffle feet in baby steps to avoid tripping. On the other side, a concrete stairway led down into the valley.

It was a pleasant walk, a good length at about 6 km, and covered an interesting variety of terrain. The group was a mixed group with a couple of German-speaking Italians, a younger German guy and two French couples. The tour was in English, but the French spoke little English, so I often translated for them.

In the afternoon, I wandered more on my own, visiting a fairytale-like garden run by a couple older sisters. They take donations, and you are free to wander around – looking at the flowers and fruit trees. The gate to their place was decorated with slices of real grapefruits.

After I walked around, one of the old women gave me one of the juiciest sliced grapefruits I ever tasted, along with a couple small bananas.

I rounded out the afternoon by taking the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus that makes a run up and down the roads around Viñales, through the mogotes.

Friday was another cool day of drizzling rain. I seemed to have contracted a cold the other night, but now it hit me full force. So I spent most of Friday in bed, trying to gather strength for my return to Havana on Saturday.

Sunset at Hotel Los Jazmines.

Tobacco farm near Viñales.

Tobacco picker.

This woman hand rolled a cigar as we watched.

Animal power is the main transportation around Viñales.

Hiking into the mogotes.

A yuca picker.

The entrance gate to El Jardin de Caridad is decorated with real fruit slices.

El Jardin de Caridad offers a peaceful walk among colourful tropical plants.

One of the old women who runs El Jardin de Caridad and a table of fruit from the garden.

The landscape around Viñales with its limestone mogote formations in late afternoon.


January 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

I’m sitting in a fairly modern Chinese-built bus at the terminal in Trinidad, waiting to leave for Vinales. Vinales is a small town in Cuba’s western Pinar del Rio province in tobacco country. It’s known for its scenery with tall limestone hills called mogotes, which have been compared to the hills around Guilin, China.

As I sit on the bus and watch passengers checking in their baggage at a little room nearby, it all seems fairly orderly. There is a big difference from bus terminals anywhere else in the Third World – no hawkers selling snacks and refreshments. State control lives on, despite obvious cracks appearing in the socialist system.

Like, when I arrived I had to leave the bus yard crossing a long chain that marked the boundary line beyond which dozens of jineteros weren’t allowed to pass. Once I crossed the chain, I had to run the gauntlet of dozens of people aggressively offering rooms in private homes were trying to get me to take a taxi.

The house of Julio and Rosa Munoz was only a couple blocks away on the edge of the old town, so I knew I could easily walk it. Their house has been compared to a museum and was pictured in the September or October 1999 National Geographic. Built in colonial style, it has tall ceilings, about 4 m or 12 feet high, and is decorated with antique furniture.

Julio is an electronics engineer by profession, but he doesn’t work in the field. Nonetheless his education gave him a very good command of English. Now he runs a bed and breakfast and rehabilitates abused horses. He told me that with government restrictions loosening, he plans to open an equestrian centre. He also does freelance photography, but says it’s impossible to make a living with photography in Cuba. Despite all the family speaking good English, we mostly spoke Spanish as I said I wanted to practice.

Unfortunately, Julio and Rosa went away to Havana during much of the time I was there, so I never got to see his work with horses which I had been hoping to see. Nor did I have much chance to discuss with him photography in Cuba.

I did enjoy of few excellent meals, which included more shrimp and rice and vegetables than I could eat the night I arrived, and excellent breakfast of eggs fruit and real coffee with real milk from separate pots.

Trinidad itself is a colonial city with cobbled streets built with sugar fortunes in the 17th and 18th centuries. As a UNESCO heritage site, much effort has been put into preserving and restoring it. It’s not unlike Antigua in Guatemala and other colonial cities dominated by one-storey buildings with ceramic roofing. The restored part is a relatively small area. This unfortunately means there’s a high concentration of tourists and jineteros in a small area of streets radiating from the central plaza.

I found some of the streets outside the main area, with their crumbling colonial buildings, to be more genuine, and I had more genuine encounters with local people when I walked out in these areas.

I tried to do much of my walking around in the early morning and late afternoon when the light on the pastel buildings was a phenomenal and temperatures cooler. I often found an interesting scene to photograph and then waited to see who (and what) would pass through it.

On Monday, I had hoped to take a trip by an old 1919 steam train to Valle de los Ingenios, the historic area of sugar cultivation and processing. But for the past couple of months the train has been out of service, so I ended up taking a bus tour.

While it afforded an opportunity to see areas that I might not otherwise see, it’s the nature of these tours that they spend much time in places where they can get tourists to spend money (like a ceramics factory) and not enough time at places of interest. The lunch break (included) was long, but it gave me a chance to talk with a Korean high school history teacher and a Dutch couple with whom I shared a table. While waiting for lunch, an old man took us down to show very us tropical fruits growing on his farm including mangoes and avocados, which are out of season, and guavas, which we tasted fresh from the tree. Of course there were also bananas growing, and goats and chickens running around.

I felt a little strange eating chicken for lunch while several chickens pecked around at my feet oblivious to what I was eating.

Street in Trinidad.

Street soccer in a church square.


Street in Trinidad.

Dog’s eye view.

Pork for supper.

Street in Trinidad.

Street in Trinidad.

Boys hanging out.

Street in Trinidad.

Street game.

Ruined church at sunset.

Buildings on Trinidad’s main square.


Two men in Trinidad watching the world go by.


Sugar plantation in Valle do los Ingenios. The gate was put there by some French making a film and is hollow plywood.

Shy boy, Valle do los Ingenios

Street in Trinidad.

Street band, Trinidad.

Around Havana and on to Trinidad

January 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The only way to really get to know Havana is to explore it on foot. I was staying in the area known as Centro Habana, which is more genuinely Cuban than the old colonial quarter nearby, la Habana Vieja, or old Havana. It’s a fairly short walk between the two along the streets of crumbling houses built several stories high, and with laundry hanging from balconies, and often people looking down from those same balconies onto the street below. You have to watch where you step – there are sometimes huge holes and other obstructions in the pavement, and streets are narrow and vehicles hurry by. Old classic cars from the 1940s and 1950s belch clouds of white smoke.

On Thursday, I made more of a point of trying to engage people and when possible take photos. I stopped by a shoe repair shop and talked to two men there and the wife of one of the men as I took several photos of them. They had numerous hand tools spread out over the workbench and were engaged simply in repairs, not making new shoes from scratch. They were friendly, and didn’t ask for anything from me, except I agreed to send them some photos. They had been in business 15 years and it was their own shop – a private business.

I also stopped to take some photos in a barbershop that was literally in an alley with beautiful light filtering down. Again, the men there were friendly, and we chatted briefly.

Old Havana is much more geared to tourists and the colonial buildings have been beautifully restored. There are shops and cafés along the narrow streets, and there are people who make a living posing for pictures for tourists for a peso a shot. Outside the hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway used to stay, was a bearded man dressed like Hemingway pointing to a big cigar in his mouth with Hemingway written on it. I found that just a bit too gimmicky so declined to take a picture, but I did take a couple more shots of Graciela, an old lady with just two front teeth in a big cigar in her mouth.

I made a stop to visit the Havana Club rum museum. There they explain the process and history of sugar harvest and making of rum. There was an elaborate scale model of the sugar refinery, and an explanation of the oak barrels, ironically from the United States. Rum is cured in these. Then they showed the range of Havana Club products – from Anejo Blanco, the white rum used in mixed drinks, to Anejo 7 anos, an aged rum for drinking straight. Finally, they ended the tour with a sample of seven year rum. Afterwards, I went to the bar for another and to sit and watch a group play traditional Cuban acoustic music.

Again in San Francisco Square, I encountered a group of performers on stilts, this time dressed all in white. They paraded through the streets performing for people and I followed for a while taking pictures. Some of them had very tall stilts, and it can’t be easy to walk with those without falling.

Back in Central Park there is a spot where a group of men can always be found arguing fiercely. The argument looks very heated and you might think they will burst out into violence at any moment, if you didn’t know better. No, they are not arguing politics or religion, unless you consider baseball a religion. This spot is known as La Esquina Caliente, the hot corner, and it’s a spot where baseball fans hang out daily to argue the game. I’ve seen passionate hockey fans in Canada, but the level of excitement in these men was like nothing I’d seen before.

I ended the day by walking out to Callejon de Hamel, which is an alley that must be unique. It is a celebration of the art, Afro-Cuban culture, and Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion. Walls and buildings are painted and decorated in wild colours, and old bathtubs are inlaid into walls to form benches or simply as decoration. There were sellers of art and of traditional herbal medicines. Every Sunday rumba music is played there. It’s become a bit touristy, but it’s still worth a visit.

Friday I continued my explorations of Havana, this time taking a taxi through the tunnel to the other side of the inlet where there is an impressive network of castles and fortifications. It was nice to be in wide open spaces with clean air and views across the water of congested Havana. Several rooms in the fortifications were set aside for a museum to Che Guevara, who seems to be the most celebrated hero of the revolution. It featured photos of him and personal items such as his cameras – Che had been a photographer as well as a doctor, Minister of the Interior, and numerous other occupations, aside from revolutionary idol. Another room was set up as a museum of torture showing some of the tools of the trade from the colonial period, and pre-revolutionary period. Apparently the garote is more humane than hanging because it kills its victims more quickly. There were thumbscrews, torture shoes, and other instruments  that didn’t look very comfortable.

Afterwards, I walked to the village of Casablanca, passing a huge statue of Christ that was one of the last monuments built by Batista. From there, there is a rickety old ferry crossing the water to old Havana. They search the bags of passengers getting on, even though there are no searches on buses and other travel. Apparently this is because there was once a hijacking attempt with the ferry by someone unsuccessfully trying to make it to Miami. Frankly, anyone crazy enough to attempt to go to Miami on this rickety old boat with just an open floor should have been allowed to go.

I got up very early Saturday, skipping breakfast, to take a taxi to the bus terminal to go to Trinidad. It was a long trip of over five hours mostly through not very exciting scenery – just flat scrub seen from the side of the Autopista Nacional. Only at the end did this scenery get nicer as we passed through Cienfuegos and took smaller roads through hills and along the Caribbean. The bus was comfortable, and except for the last bit I had two seats to myself. The music they played was schmaltzy and not great, but thankfully they didn’t play kung fu videos as they do in Mexico.

The arrival of the bus in Trinidad is greeted by dozens of persistent jineteros trying to collect a commission by taking tourists to rooms for rent. As I already had a reservation in the colonial home of Julio and Rosa Munoz, I just made a beeline through them repeating over and over “no gracias.” Apparently some are so persistent that they will even tell tourists that the home is closed or the owner is dead as they try to divert them elsewhere. I found the home a few blocks away and was met at the door by Julio, who is a horse whisperer and photographer among other things. Their beautiful home has even been pictured in National Geographic in 1999.

Men working on scaffording in Havana.

Shoe repair men in their shop, Habana Centro.

Barber shop in alley.

Musicians at Havana Club Rum Museum.

Stilt performer, Old Havana.

Santeria musician, Old Havana.

Stilt performer, Old Havana.

La esquina caliente (the Hot Corner) where men have ferocious arguments daily — about baseball.

Callejon de Hamel — an alley of art and Santeria religion.

Callejon de Hamel.

“Every Cuban must know how to shoot — and shoot well.” A street rifle range — while guns have a place in Cuban revolutionary mythology, I do not detect the obsession with guns that one finds in the U.S., for example.

A 1950 Chevy near el Capitolio — this man had the hood up, and he said it was the original engine.

Havana from the Morro castle.

A woman hauls food up to her balcony from the street in a basket on a rope.

Photographing old models

January 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Wednesday was a day to walk around exploring the city centre and Old Havana. I also shot hundreds of photos, of old buildings, some decaying and others restored, as well as old models – cars and people. Some of the old 1950s classic cars have been beautifully restored, but most are in very rough shape and belch dark smoke. One I saw even had a padlock holding the driver’s door shut, and others had similar improvisations. Despite the inefficiency of 1950s (and late 1940s) American cars, this was definitely a period of classic designs, preserved here in this living car museum.

I also tentatively tried photographing some people. In the old city, there are a number of older people who dress up in costume and pose for tourists for a peso. Some travellers object to this, but for  many of these people they are like professional photo models. We don’t have a problem paying people to model in North America, so I don’t begrudge these people trying to earn a little hard currency. Some of the costumes are pretty kitschy, but sometimes that adds to the appeal. And some of them have very expressive and interesting faces.

In some cases I asked strangers to pose, or they invited me, and there was never any discussion of money. In one case a smiling woman motioned me to come quickly for a photo op, and pointed me behind a large transformer-like object where there was a man urinating. As she laughed, I pretended to do paparazzi-style photos of him (I didn’t really take any). The man laughed too, as did some older people on a park bench. I chatted with them, and in the end the older people let me photograph them, and were happy with a look at my LCD screen.

Another time, I bought a drink at a small tienda that mostly dealt in moneda nacional, the almost  worthless currency, but also handled convertible pesos. I paid in convertibles, but got the change in moneda nacional, but the woman there gave me a reasonably fair exchange – not like some Cubans who try to cheat tourists by fooling them by mixing moneda nacional with convertibles. I chatted with her, and she let me photograph her. She was complaining about the cold, but I told her I actually felt hot. It must have been in the low 20s and humid. She had a vague idea of what cold is like because she had once been to the Czech Republic in winter.

Sometimes people see my camera and call me into a shop or business to see and photograph something. They want a bit of money, but the subjects are often interesting. On Tuesday, I photographed a man in a small shop who had an old cash register made in 1922. Today, I photographed some men working on an old classic late 1940s car in the back of a parking garage. They were fixing one of the seats, hammering metal parts.

In the old town, I explored the many streets with restored and beautiful colonial buildings, and large squares, some with trees. I climbed a long stairway to visit the Camara Obscura, an old-style projection camera that projects images live from around Old Havana. It uses ancient camera technology to gather images with a rotating telescopic lens, which projects them into a large saucer-shaped dish in a darkened room, while a guide explains what she’s showing. You can see people and cars in distant parts of the old city moving in real time, and with absolutely no electronics.

In other squares, there were book stalls selling old books and more recent ones mainly on subjects of the revolution, but with a sprinkling of other Cuba-related themes such as Hemingway. The only ones that really interested me were some books of photos by Korda.

In one square, I was taking photos including some of a Chopin statue on a bench, when suddenly some colourfully dressed characters on stilts appeared, dancing and playing music, along with a couple, who were being celebrated. I snapped a number of photos of the activity, as did others, but never figured exactly what was going on. My guess is that it was a couple of newly weds celebrating a birthday because there was some birthday sounding theme music. They all seemed to be having a great time.

I’ve taken to returning for a nap in my air conditioned room during the hottest part of the afternoon. Today, having not slept very well last night, I fell asleep and didn’t wake until near sunset.

Classic cars

Classic cars

Classic Chevy

Couple in park

Men working on seat of classic car

A spontaneous celebration

Professional tourist model

Much photographed tourist model, Graciela

You look like a young Fidel Castro

January 4, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Over my life I’ve been told I look like many different people. Sometimes I’ve been compared with people who don’t look at all like me except for our common red hair. But when the man at the cash in a store down the street told me I look like a young Fidel Castro, it was certainly a first.

I suppose it was intended as a compliment. I told the man I thought el Comandante was a “moreno,” a dark-haired man, but he insisted Fidel has my complexion. Of course Fidel is lighter than many Cubans in this country where the majority is mixed race with a lot of black influence. I think it was the beard that prompted the comparison, though.

I probably looked even more like Fidel when I sat up on my hotel balcony later in the day puffing on a big cigar, a Montecristo 2, the kind recommended by my co-worker Mike. I bought it at the Partagas Cigar Factory, in the city centre, where they have a shop selling all the finest Cuban cigars. Cigars here are not cheap, but evidently they’re a lot cheaper here than outside of Cuba. This one set me back about $8, but it lasted a long time – well over an hour. Smoking a cigar is relaxing, but I question whether the pleasure is worth the money. And my sense of taste and smell must be deadened, because I didn’t experience any of the “nutty” and other flavours that people claim. It just tasted like burning leaves and left me light headed, even though you just savour the smoke in your mouth and don’t inhale.

The Partagas Cigar Factory normally offers tours where you can see the leaves being sorted and hand rolled, but the tours are currently suspended because of the holidays. I don’t know if I’ll be able to take it in later during my stay, but hopefully I’ll be able to see the process somewhere. Cigars are such an important part of Cuba’s identity, whether smoked by such American Mafiosi as Al Capone, who rented an entire floor of the Sevilla Hotel, or by the later revolutionary leaders.

Next to the Partagas Factory, right in the city centre, is el Capitolio, a large domed building that bears a striking resemblance to the Capitol in Washington. It’s a little more weathered looking, and is surrounded by palm trees, but it looks no less elegant. Alas, it too is closed for tours as it is undergoing major renovations.

But I did stroll around it Tuesday admiring the many 1950s classic U.S. cars, most of which now serve as collective taxis. I’ve spotted a few that look a lot like the old 1956 Buick our family owned when I was a kid.

Tuesday was mainly a day to get oriented, and what better way than to hop onto the upper level of an open double decker bus. These run a regular route throughout Havana and are geared to tourists. You pay a $5 fare for a ticket that’s good all day and you can hop on or off as you please. I took the entire route, going along the Malecon and out to Vedado and Miramar, the more modern parts of the city. Vedado offered a glimpse of Plaza de la Revolucion, with its Ministry of Interior building whose outer wall features a giant steel image of Che, taken from the famous Korda photo – probably one of the best known images in the world. Che once worked in that building. We also passed the Colon cemetery, where many famous Cubans are buried, and which features many elaborate monuments. I didn’t stop, but will go back later if there’s time.

Other than that, there was little to inspire me to return to Miramar. It has vast open vacant lots with junk interspersed with luxury hotels, but we saw nothing of interest until we returned to the city centre and waterfront area of Old Havana.

I did some exploring of the city centre on foot, walking along the Prado, a tree-lined boulevard similar to, though not as elegant as the Ramblas in Barcelona. Havana has quite a number of tourists, mostly European, but some apparently Canadian. As a result, many Cubans become jineteros and jineteras, street hustlers, where they can earn much more in convertible hard currency than people like doctors, who are paid in nearly worthless moneda nacional. I am continually harassed to take a taxi or buy cigars – under the pretense that these are top brand cigars at cheap prices, though almost certainly they are fake. Few of the jineteros are too persistent, and most back off if I give them a firm, but polite, “no gracias.”

As the sun set, I photographed people fishing or hanging out along the Malecon with lights appearing along the waterfront. Then I returned to my balcony to finish smoking my cigar.

Ministry of the Interior

El Capitolio

El Prado resembles the Ramblas in Barcelona

Old Havana

The Malecon at sunset

The Malecon after sunset

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Recent Photos

A character in Old Havana Portrait of two men Hand-rolled cigar Singing on the Malecon Weathered buildings, the Malecon, Havana Yuca picker, near Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba Let’s rumba – Callejon de Hamel, Havana, Cuba