Category Archives: Photography

Cuba 2013, Part 3: A Return to Havana

This is the last of my posts from a May 2013 trip to Cuba.  The first was here.  The ten posts (with tons more pictures) from my 2012 trip started here, and ended here.  Most of what you see below are just typical sights on the streets of Havana.  They are not odd, atypical spots.  The rooftop shots are Parc Central,  but regular street scenes you see are what virtually all the streets look like.


After my 2012 trip to Cuba, I had separate posts highlighting the classic cars that roam the streets, the glamorous Tropicana, Cuban “patriotism” and education, a rooftop ritual, Cuban athletics and just everyday life in Havana.   Returning to Havana just a year later, I necessarily saw many of the same sights, as the pictures above reflect.

The most important “new” feature of the trip this time was the opportunity to see some of it through the eyes of a Cuban-American woman– “Didi” — whose family was very involved in the turmoil of the Revolutionary period, and who was visiting Cuba for the first time.

Didi’s parents left Cuba in the early 1970s – escaping first to Spain and then to the United States.  She had an uncle who was a political prisoner of Castro for more than a decade – apparently because he worked for a telephone company.  Her father faced a regime firing squad but was somehow spared at the last minute and sent back to work.  A close family member escaped to Florida on a raft.  An aunt was evacuated by the American CIA and the Catholic Church in the “Peter Pan” project – where parents gave up their children and sent them to the U.S. because they believed (rightly or wrongly) the kids would otherwise be forcibly interned by the Cuban Revolutionary government.  The family friend who was to have been the organist at her parents’ wedding was shot – apparently by government forces — on the church steps a day before the ceremony.

Americans who think all Revolutions are hip and who flippantly don “Che” Guevara T-shirts ought to spend a few minutes with a family like that.

Didi had never been to Cuba, and was on a personal mission to visit her family’s old apartment, her parents’ church, and her father’s school.  Mostly she wanted to see the country that her parents lived in and left – the world that she’d have grown up in had her family not been brave and determined enough to find a way out.  We saw in Havana the three-room concrete-floor apartment where she would likely have grown up.  We saw the kids in the street and the people on the balconies — living the life she most likely would have had to live.  She cried a lot; I tried not to cry along.  I know it was a profound experience for her, because it was deeply moving even for an Oklahoma boy who had no stake or connection to Cuba (except for his new friend Didi).

Didi is now a 30-something pediatric ICU physician, married to a pediatric oncologist.  Her brother is a successful lawyer in a Washington DC firm.  If she’d lived in Cuba, she would have grown up going to a school where she had to stand up every day and pledge allegiance to the Communist regime.  And she’d probably be making about $25 a month, working in whichever government job the regime instructed her to work.


The first shot just above is Didi’s family’s apartment; my ultra-wide-angle lens makes it look bigger than it really was.  The second shot is during the May Day parade (about which I did a prior post).  I was not yet aware of her family’s history when I yelled “come with me” and led her into the midst of a few thousand Cuban military — I can only imagine how crazy that must have felt.  The dark shot at the Tropicana has Didi on the right, with our mutual friend Patricia, who — like me — was privileged to share some of Didi’s quest, on the left.  The other shots are just a couple of strangers she met and embraced (literally) along the way.


A year ago, I wrote a post about the American embargo against Cuba.  The embargo (“El Bloqueo”) continues to be an enormous focus of attention.  My thoughts a year later are, hopefully, clearer and deeper, but ultimately the same:  You can legitimately debate the embargo’s ongoing rationale and effectiveness, but its roots and goals are noble.  More critically, it is not to blame for Cuba’s pitiful situation.  It is not America’s fault that a chaotically organized socialist economy that is based on governmental control and oppression operates very poorly and impoverishes its people.  Policy change is definitely needed – but it will have to start in Havana.

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.


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.




*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.


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: Autumn in April

The last set of pictures from my April 2013 trip to the Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina.  

Mike Short and I had a fine couple of weeks in Patagonia.  We survived the trekking, and got to see some of the most stunning scenery in the world.  We logged almost 2,000 miles on our rental SUV, starting waaaayyy down south, then flying out of Coihaique/Balmaceda.  Even so, we covered only a tiny fraction of Chile (a smaller fraction of South America).

The hero of this trip was Jian Short, Mike’s wife.  Mike’s married with two kids and (along with Shane Merz) founded and runs a pretty-big company, so getting away for two weeks was a pretty impressive feat.   Thanks to Jian and to the team at MRE for holding down the fort(s) while he was gone.  He stocked up on camera equipment, and we spent many hours nerdishly chasing better light, and charting angles and locations where pretty fall leaves might line up with majestic mountains.

This post has the pics that didn’t seem to fit neatly in the specific categories of the other, prior posts.    The tall yellow trees (above) are near Cerro Castillo — at the end of our journey.  Just below is Hotel Lago Pehoe at Torres del Paine.  Below that are some guanacos — they’re everywhere, but these specific ones were standing in front of the mountains at Torres del Paine.  The glacier at bottom is west of El Calafate.


Patagonia 2013: Local flavors of Chile

One of several posts from Patagonia.  The first one is here.  The best pics are here.  The coolest experience was here.  More to come.

Along the roadsides of southern Chile and Argentina, you’ll see smallish “shrines” honoring national folk heroes, favorite or patron saints, and highway fatality victims.  Some of these shrines are tiny, like a birdhouse.  Some are big enough to walk inside.  As cars drive by, they often honk their horns, apparently in honor of the saint, hero or loved one for whom the shrine was built.

The doghouse-sized shrine above is on a tiny turnout from a winding road on the hill above Lag0 Gen. Carerra, near the Chile/Argentina border.  It appears that this one honors a dead “loved one.”  Notice the two candles — burning mid-day on a Tuesday.  The garage-sized shrine below honors San Sebastian, one of Chile’s patron saints.  Notice how many people had left candles!!  The dog seemed to live there (alongside a major highway), in his own guardian shack next to the shrine.  He was friendly when we arrived, but barked when we left without giving him a snack.



It really is true that Chilean men wear berets — especially when they’re working outdoors or with animals.  It’s the Chilean equivalent of a cowboy hat.  Chile was quite “modern” in many respects (we had WIFI everywhere except the actual “wilderness” of a National Park), but even so, you’re likely to encounter a small group of cattle, sheep or horses being herded right down the middle of a major road.  Occasionally there were road signs prohibiting such herding of animals on the highway.


Notwithstanding Chile and Argentina’s famous beef, lamb and wines, Mike Short’s favorite restaurant consisted of two former city buses (sans wheels) stuck next to one another.  Big sandwiches.  My favorite part of La Cocina de Sole (I can’t figure out the translation?) was the moment when its two Chilean proprietor/cooks were in the kitchen singing “Don’t Cry for me Argentina.”  I suspect it means something different to them than it did to me (or to Andrew Lloyd Webber) — they were about 15 miles from the Argentine border.  Mike got the mesa next to the window.