Category Archives: Featured

Cuba 2013 Part 2: Viñales

I don’t smoke.  Won’t smoke.  And even the smell of cigar smoke makes me nauseous.*  But when a very, very nice Cuban farmer in the middle of a field pulls tobacco leaves from his pocket, rolls you a cigar on his pants leg as a welcome gesture and lights it up for you with matches he pulls out of his hat, you should bite your lip a little, accept it graciously, and try not to hurl.

 

This was my second trip to Vinales – a small town west of Havana in the tobacco-growing region of Cuba.  This time I wandered the outskirts of the small town with a new friend, Didi, a member of my photo group who is Cuban-American (more on her story later).  As we wander down a tiny lane and started taking some pictures of the fields and mountains, we see a farmer coming toward us, planting melangas (potato-like root vegetables common in Cuba) one by one.

His clothes are tattered and caked in dirt (an occupational hazard for one hand-planting root vegetables).  His hands were so covered with mud he offers only a fist when I try to shake hands.  My pitiful Spanish-speaking skill let me engage in some superficial “Olas” and “mucho gustos” and very basic introductions.  Didi, on the other hand, is a fluent native Spanish speaker who engages — deeply and sincerely — with everyone we run across.  This farmer (“Marcello”) was no exception; he seemed to love her, despite the generation gap between them.  We take lots of pictures, of course.

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After a few minutes, he pulls from his pocket something I soon recognize as a wad of tobacco leaves, and starts to tear and organize them.  He looks up at me a couple of times during this process, and I realize he is rolling ME a cigar.  Yikes.  The fact that his hands were too dirty to shake my hand does not deter him from using those same hands to make something I’m supposed to put in my mouth.  He’s using his mud-caked pants leg as a rolling table; a neighbor walks up and offers his relatively-clean pants leg, but Marcello declines the assistance.  Sure enough, he finishes up and presents it to me.  My hope that I could graciously accept it and carry it off unlit was dashed immediately:  Marcello produced a box of matches (stored on top of his head inside his straw hat) and struck the first match as he instructed me to bite the end off the cigar.

I thought of Bill Clinton – trying to do what’s expected without actually inhaling.  This was only modestly successful.  It won’t really stay lit without actual puffing, so Marcello takes it and puts it in his mouth and puffs it to a gentle smolder.  Then he gives it back.  I keep faking it.  Thankfully, the cheap, dry tobacco leaves he had (probably scavenged from the edge of a neighbor’s field) were of such poor quality they’re practically odorless and tasteless.  I may as well be smoking elm leaves.  It just smelled like a campfire – smoky and unpleasant, but not nauseating – and tasted like nothing.

We thank him; he hugs Didi; he hugs Didi again.  He goes back to work and we head on down the lane.  I let the cigar go out and then stuck it in my camera bag after we left Marcello.  Then I forgot about it.  So I actually (accidentally!) carried one illegal Cuban cigar (such as it was) through U.S. customs (without declaring it).  Oops.

 

As we continued wandering through the Vinales countryside, we got multiple invitations to come inside the modest homes along the dirt roads and paths.  We were offered seats, food, coffee, and (most importantly) directions back to town.  One thatch-roofed wooden hut was oozing smoke; inside we found three ladies roasting coffee in a small pan over an indoor fire.  The women said they took turns inside the hut because it was so miserable.  It wasn’t clear to me why this had to be done indoors.  It looked like a lot of trouble for a few cups of coffee.

 

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*Honestly, I’d rather smell a fart than cigar smoke.  At least farts are usually unintentional, so they’re obnoxious only on the olfactory level.  Curiously, Cigar smokers seem to think they look very sophisticated with a six-inch-long cylinder in their mouth.  Be warned that if you’re blowing cigar smoke anywhere near me, I’ll be doing all I can to send a retaliatory “fart in your general direction.”

Cuba 2013: May Day! (Primero de Mayo!)

Ordinarily, photographing the Cuban military is prohibited, and just might land you and/or your camera in a Cuban military hoosegow.  But Primero de Mayo (May 1) is Cuba’s version of Labor Day, and there’s a huge parade/march through Revolution Square in Havana with lots of military groups.  Apparently, all bets were off on that no-photography rule during the parade. 

 

Last week, I made my second trip to Cuba.  A happy coincidence of timing put me right in the middle – literally — of the May Day parade.  The whole thing is fully orchestrated, with (according to press reports) about 400 thousand marchers and with Castro’s government handing out the various flags and banners each group of workers will carry.   It is a spectacle.  The crowd paraded right through Revolution Square, past El Presidente Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as leader of Cuba in 2008.

We arrived at dawn – jumping out of our cabs near the back of the parade staging area.  I wandered right into the middle of the crowd of flag-bearing young people, then headed off to see if I could photograph the uniformed military personnel.  Soon the throng started to move while I was in the middle taking some pictures, so  I moved with it.  I wasn’t completely sure if it was still “staging” or if the march had officially begun, because there were almost no spectators.  Then I saw we were approaching Revolution Square, the site of the big Jose Marti Monument (Cuba’s ugly, creepy version of the Washington Monument).  At that point it was clear that I was “in” the parade.  Physically within, at least.  I was in the fat middle of the military marchers as they chanted their way past the Monument, with President Castro looking on from the viewing stand.

Thousands of Cuban soldiers participated.  Cuba has a mandatory military service requirement, so there are lots of 19ish-year-olds (male and female) in some form of “military” service.  You do not get the feeling they are fierce warriors (though surely Cuba has some somewhere).  I got no sense that they were unhappy about being “forced” to be there; nor did I get any sense of deep fervor or passionate ideological support of the regime.  You just got the feeling they were a bunch of strangely-dressed teenagers looking to hook up on a Spring Break in Havana, chanting prescribed political slogans with about the level of intensity and sincerity a casual fan might show for his local college football team.

At one point I was walking backward, taking pictures of a group of 100 or so young soldiers walking along behind me.  They got so preoccupied with following and “posing” for me (lots of flag-waving and thumbs-upping), they failed to hear (or to comply with) their commander’s instruction ordering them to stop.  Happily, he was a good sport — especially when I rushed over to take several shots of him, to make sure he was in on the fun.

Cuba’s economy is very dependent on Venezuela, with whom Cuba has a doctors-for-oil exchange program that supplies Venezuela with semi-indentured Cuban healthcare workers, and supplies Cuba with at least a faint economic heartbeat.  Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez died recently and Cubans seem worried that their support from Venezuela may be in jeopardy.  Thus a major theme of the parade was solidarity with Venezuela.  Signs, large and small, pictured Chavez and labeled him “Our Best Friend” (that’s Communist for “BFF”), which seemed a little odd since he’s dead and all.

Last year when I went to Revolution Square, the military guards barely let me walk around and take pictures at all, so being “allowed” in the middle of the parade as it went past Castro was unexpected to say the least.  I carried two very professional-looking cameras, so they all seemed to assume I was a press photographer (which is ironic, because I spoke to an actual press photographer, and he did not have the same degree of freedom to move through the parade).  At one point, I was asked (in very good English) what newspaper I was with.  I blurted out (truthfully but nonsensically), “Soy de Houston!  Tejas!” — as if I could fluently speak neither English nor Spanish.  I gave a goofy thumbs-up and headed off to get lost in the crowd again.

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I’m one of the last people on earth you’d ever expect to find at – much less “in” — a Communist-organized march extolling the virtues of socialist labor.   But put a camera in my hand and a documentary mission in my head, and I’ll go almost anywhere.  This was one of the craziest experiences of my life – and that’s saying something.

Posts from my spring 2012 trip to Cuba started here and ended here.

Patagonia 2013: Trekking the “W” at Torres del Paine

One of a group of posts from an”autumn” trip to Patagonia. 

 

If you just drive around Torres del Paine National Park in far-southern Chile, you’ll be very impressed.  But you ain’t seen nothin’ unless you’ve hiked deep into the park, where the weather, the trees, the lakes, the peaks — everything — is completely different.  One of the two famous “Treks” around the iconic mountains is called the W; each prong of the W-shaped route probes into one of the valleys of the park.  You start in arid scrub at the edge of the park, go up and down through multiple climate zones and cloud layers, and wind up shivering next to a bright-blue glacier.

It’s a multi-day trek.  We were fortunate enough to get to stay in “refugios” — essentially bunkhouses (with meals!) in the wilderness at the bases of the W — rather than having to camp.  We even met a few new friends along the trail and at the refugios.  All in, it was nearly 30 hours of “trekking” over 4 days, often in rain or wading through creeks and flooded trails.  We got some of the nastiest blisters you’ve ever seen.

The red building (and the one with the rainbow) is the hotel at the far east edge of the W, where the trek began.  The tall granite spires are the actual Torres (towers) del Paine themselves.  The interior shot is at Refugio Cuernos.  The W trek ended at the north end of Lago Grey, near where the Grey Glacier dumps into the lake.  We were able to catch a Glacier boat back to civilization at the end of our trek — saving us several hours of backtracking.  The last shot at the bottom is where we got off that boat.  That’s a real condor circling above near the cliffs.

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Patagonia 2013: Argentina’s Mt. Fitz Roy (“El Chalten”)

Part 2 of a series that started here:  Argentina’s Mt. Fitz Roy (“El Chalten”) wasn’t actually the first stop on my Patagonian adventure, but these are some of my favorite pictures, and (unlike the others) I’ve sorted through them and they’re ready to go.  Much more later.

 

My weeks in Chile and Argentina’s Patagonia region are almost over.  Lots of good pictures – though as always, the perfect image eludes me.  It’s fall here, so the weather is unpredictable and there were lots of gray skies.  The tradeoff is that the leaves are changing, giving us a view of Patagonia most of the ‘summer’ (November – February) tourists never see.  It’s very quiet – the restaurants and the trails are mostly empty.

To get north out of far-southern Chile, you’ve got to go into southwestern Argentina.  Chile is so mountainous there are no Chilean roads that connect its southernmost section with the rest of the country.  Thus as we headed north, we crossed into Argentina for a few days.

The real highlight of the Argentinian section was Mount Fitz Roy (known locally as El Chalten).  Amazingly, you could see El Chalten for over 100 miles as we drove towards it.  All the pictures on this post are of (or around) Mt. Fitz Roy).

 

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The trip into Argentina had other highlights:  A great steak.  Some Argentine wine.  Up-close views of a glacier or two.  Me teaching my friend Mike Short to play craps in a small-town Argentinian casino.   Going 575km between functioning gas stations in a car with a range of 580km (apparently).

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on the throne

This was the photo on the wall. Argentine President Fernandez. Scepter, sash, lace & throne.

Our introduction to Argentina was driving through immigration and customs at a rural border crossing.  Picture a tiny isolated home, with nothing for miles around, and with half-finished concrete construction work on the front porch and sidewalk.  You just park somewhere out front and walk through the yard to go in.  Inside you’re “welcomed” by Sgt Lopez and by a portrait of Argentine President  Cristina Fernandez.  President Fernandez is literally sitting on a throne, holding a scepter and wearing a sash and a lace dress.  She looks like a sixty-year-old prom queen, shot with a her mom’s cheap cameraphone.  Still, the sign says she welcomes us to Argentina – which is nice.

Lopez is more discriminating about who he welcomes and who he doesn’t.  He’s dressed in full military drab – a green wool uniform probably left over from the 40s, complete with a perfectly round but perfectly flat hat that looks like a green tambourine with a black bill.  Makes me want to call him “Generalissimo” and chat him up about the Falklands War.  The hat sits on the desk as he grumbles his way through our paperwork, including a few disgusted “Aye aye ayes.”  He rummages through a desk drawer to find the proper forms for two Americanos crossing the Chile/Argentine border in a rented SUV.  He finds one – just one – and rips apart the duplicating pages so each of us can fill one out.  He seems to want some sort of “carta” (“letter, card, or document”?) that we clearly do not have.  He shakes his head (“AYE aye aye”) and gets over it.

On the other side of the room is the much friendlier customs guy.  His job, apparently, is to write down in big old-fashioned manual ledger books the license number of our car and the passport number of the driver.  There are stacks of these log books; I’m sure they will never be opened again for any purpose whatsoever.  Behind him is the biggest (and perhaps most important) section of the facility:  the ping pong table.  There are probably some very long lonely stretches between cars out here.

Never are we even asked if we had weapons, drugs, passengers, diseased fruits and vegetables, or anything else. (We did not, fyi).

We make it through.  Critically:  At no time during this process did I bust out laughing.  But I wanted to.

 

 

 

 

 

Paris 2012: Eiffel Tower

For a while, it was the tallest manmade structure in the world.  Built in the 1880s by Gustav Eiffel (the bridge-building engineer who had recently built the framework for the Statue of Liberty), the Eiffel Tower was intended as a temporary entryway for the 1889 World’s Fair.  (Apparently World’s Fairs were a big deal back in those days).   The plan was to take it down 20 years later, but by then the radio had been invented, and having a very tall tower for radio antennas came in pretty handy, so it stayed up.  The rest is history — literally.  The French at least cut the elevator cables on the tower before the Germans took over Paris in 1940, so Hitler never got to the top when he visited Paris.

Since it went up in the late 19th Century, the Tower has been visited by about 250 million people — now including my sister Jana Parker, and my niece Caitlin.  I was lucky enough last week to get to take Jana and Caitlin to Paris for a few days of post-Christmas sightseeing.  Here’s the first batch of pictures — all of these are shots of, including, and/or from the Eiffel Tower.  Thanks to Caitlin for some nice, impromptu work as a Parisian model.  More pictures from Paris still to come when I get organized.

 

 

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