Featured Artist: Colin Bent
My childhood years in Jamaica were consumed with the Cuban crisis and our close encounter with possible war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Cuba seemed to bear the brunt and when the Soviet Union collapsed the people of Cuba were left to suffer deprivation and near starvation. Before that, my job had me on the verge of visiting the island just 90 miles away from our shores. When I was told I would not be among those visiting from Jamaica I was disappointed, but I never lost hope that someday I would visit the country with which we had so much commonality.
I had gone on a trip with Doug Henderson, a professional photographer in Oklahoma, and eleven other photographers to Ecuador and this was when my photography took on a more serious tone. The year was 2007 and so ten years later when Doug asked me if I would go on this trip to Cuba, I jumped at it. I had looked at other possibilities but was not too intrigued because I wanted to be with other photographers and led by someone with whom I was more familiar. So, when I finally made my way down the steps of the American Airlines jet in Santa Clara, Cuba it was over forty years in the works. I was finally where I longed to be. We were supposed to spend the first night in Santa Clara, but our flight was cancelled in Tulsa and we were forced to leave the following day. So instead of spending our first night and the next morning in Santa Clara, we drove the four or so hours to Trinidad and spent the first night on the island in this little touristy town on the western side of Cuba.
Cuba has a population of just over 11 million people with a monthly income of about $25. So very little is spent on what is deemed ‘unnecessary’ stuff. The exterior of the buildings lack paint and in most of the outlying towns that we visited, there was hardly any automobile traffic but a lot of horse drawn transportation, bicycles and cycles. As we stepped off the bus in Trinidad, I was apprehensive about our quarters, but once I made my way up the steps into the bed and breakfast, I was shocked. I opened the door to our bedroom and found a spacious, clean, and comfortable bedroom and attached bathroom. We learned that the government of Cuba had tight controls on these tourist locations, with the person running it having to provide detailed information on guests and expenditures, only keeping 10% of the income and giving 90% to the government. Yes, that is correct! The government owns everything, and the people are provided for. Healthcare is free, very good and education is also free to whatever level the citizen desires and is qualified to attain.
The next morning, we toured the town of Trinidad with equipment that no Cuban could afford on their income which made me uneasy to some extent. As my party walked around I went my own way because, in groups like these, I am careful not stay too close and end up taking the same pictures as everyone. No fun in that, at all.
I walked down to the market and met a few vendors who spoke no English at all. My Spanish courses from high school and college helped a little, but it was mostly our smiles and the friendliness of the Cuban people that helped to breech the communication gap. I was surprised at the numbers of tourist visitors in the town and how easily they all flowed and interacted with the Cuban people who seemed to have no compunction with having cameras trained at them.
I got the impression that Cubans are a contented people. As I walked the streets, especially in the capital of Havana, I observed as they communicated with each other, the lack of strife and loud chatter and we could see them from our balcony in their homes late at night or as they clustered on the street corner, their interaction was not what I was used to seeing elsewhere. Yes, I was pleasantly surprised in a lot of ways, because while I was prepared for the buildings with lack of paint and the old cars and primitive mode of transportation, I was taken aback at how orderly the people were and how clean the streets were. There seemed to be two levels of existence, because the places where we ate were comparable to many that are to be found in the US and even though to us the cost was reasonable no one on a $25 per month budget could afford to frequent them.
Our second night was spent in Playa Larga, a place just a few miles down the road from the Bay of Pigs. We stayed right on the water in a very comfortable dwelling. The sunrise gave me a lot of pictorial possibilities. On the way there, we stopped at a scene in Playa Giron where they used the roadway to dry recently harvested beans and rice. Next stop was Vinales, a mountainous area and although we were disappointed that our primary reservations were not successful, our secondary location was much better. Cuba is definitely not a low-grade habitation and Vinales was evidence of the island’s beauty. We stayed two nights, and in my opinion, we could have forgotten about everything and remained in this location. We were on the edge of a valley, the mountains were in the distance and even though it rained, and we did not get to see the sunsets we had heard about, our evenings were well spent by the bar taking in the Cuban rum and their wonderful cigars.
We toured a tobacco plantation and were able to get pictures of the people harvesting the leaves and walked through the barn where the leaves were sorted and hung to dry. Tobacco is big business in Cuba, and no tour is complete without going through the cigar factory. These factories are strictly controlled and we had to leave our cameras on the bus while touring the location. It is quite astounding to watch the manufacturing process and how fast and efficient the workers are. Always under supervision, they work with little or no chatter and I had a chance to reminisce about my own grandmother who worked in the cigar/cigarette factory, Machado Tobacco in Kingston, Jamaica. I could recall how much I loved it when she came by so I could smell her, smell that tobacco essence.
Our final stop was in Havana. They call it La Habana, as in LAHABANA, one word. We had a three night stay here and then back to the US. The first day we had taxis as the bus that met us at the airport and had been our personal transport all along was no longer with us. The Cuban government owns several tour busses and they use them for tourist transportation providing uniformed drivers and guides. These are luxury buses like you would see in any other country and although the roads are not the best the comfort in these buses more than compensates. Ours was a 21 seater and with just 13 of us in our group we were spread out in splendor. Our second day in Havana we had four taxis, 1950’s edition, comfortable and operated by well dressed drivers who spoke no English. Our bus driver spoke no English but he had an English/Spanish app on his phone so the dialogue was good and the tour guide spoke fluent English.
In Havana we walked by the sea, the area called Malecon, and all along the seawall young and old Cubans come out in the evenings to visit and sit on the walls watching the waves crash in. This is an outdoor society and visiting with friends and smoking cigars is a favorite past time. Cubans have two television channels and I am told they both show the same thing. They have very little interaction with the outside world from television but there is some limited availability of internet where groups can be seen in hotspots connecting for usage. What a week it was for me! I had visited the country I had so longed to visit. I loved the people, the food, the cleanliness of the place and the laid back attitude everywhere. My last night was spent in a beautiful restaurant where I had the most delicious lobster and the service of a very attentive young lady who told me she was a photography student about to graduate.
Then it was time to return to the US and as we made our way by taxi to the airport we flowed through the most traffic that we had seen all week. The smoke of the old vehicles was pungent and we had to wait for an old train to cross the roadway as people made their way to the jobs that paid them $25 per month. I enjoyed it immensely, but it was time to get back home. We were without any news for the week and as we made our way in the line to board the United Airlines jet the television was on and the picture of the US president was being shown and I had the biggest “Oh Sh*t” moment of my life. I had literally forgotten, and now it was time to get back to it.