Category Archives: Photography

Cuba (Part 5) Club Tropicana

Another in a seemingly-never-ending series of my pictures from Cuba. 

 

Remember  I-Love-Lucy’s Cuban-born husband Ricky Ricardo?  Ricky’s 1950s New York nightclub, the Tropicana, was named for and patterned after the real and original Tropicana in an upscale part of Havana.  Barry Manilow could tout the fictional Copacabana only as “the hottest spot north of Havana,” because there was nothing hotter than Havana itself.  Back in the 50s, Marlon Brando (in real life and in Guys and Dolls) was whisking his love interest off to Havana for an evening of spicy, glitzy tropical entertainment.  Back then, the Tropicana was the most glamorous nightclub in the most exciting city in the hemisphere.

The Tropicana’s proprietors were promptly “interned” by Castro after he took power, but the Tropicana lives on.  Today the casino is gone and the crowd has more European tourists than chic movie stars, but the show is great and the showgirls still look just like the ones in the pictures from the pre-Revolution heyday.  It’s an icon I wasn’t about to miss.  You can tell by some of the photo angles that my seat was approximately one inch from the edge of the stage.  Which made for some interesting (if sometimes PG13-rated) pictures.

Since I get to control what goes on this site, you won’t be viewing any of the pictures of me dancing with a showgirl near the end of the show.  My crew of travel buddies all ducked and pointed to me when one of the dancers stepped off the stage in search of a dance partner.  Hey, the joke’s on them:  How many Americans can say they’ve danced at the real Tropicana?!?

 

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Skip back to Cuba (Part 4) Kings of Cohiba

Cuba (Part 4) Kings of Cohiba

Number 4 in a series that started here.

 

I don’t smoke.  Not even cigars, and not even cigars when I’m in Cuba.  But of course the Cuban Cohiba is the Holy Grail for cigar lovers, and cigars are among the iconic symbols of Cuba.  Apparently the Cohibas go through a unique (and secret) fermentation process that creates a distinctive taste.  Legend has it that Fidel Castro himself “discovered” the Cohiba blend.  Another legend (though apparently true) is that poisoned or exploding Cohibas were among the dozens of ways the American CIA devised to attempt to assassinate him.  Given all this history and mystique, I was glad we got a chance to see some of Cuba’s rural tobacco country.

These pictures are from the Pinar del Rio province in far western Cuba, in the countryside near Vinales, a couple of hours west of Havana.  The guy in the clean, slick cowboy hat is Marcelo Montesina – described in at least one write-up as the “King of Cohiba.”  He runs one of the few, elite tobacco farms that provide the tobacco leaves used for the real Cohibas.  You won’t have trouble distinguishing him from the less-elegant-looking farmhand pictured standing in a tobacco field outside a thatch-roofed drying house (holding the dried-up tobacco leaf was his idea).  The guy sitting at a table is rolling the leaves into a cigar (mostly for our amusement – real Cohibas are rolled only in government-owned factories in Havana).  The mustached man smoking a cigar is a garlic peddler at a little market in Vinales.   (Continued…)

 

 

We ran across a little festival in the town of Vinales.  It looked about like what you’d see in most any Latin American country (or maybe most anywhere) — simple carnival rides, lots of street food for sale, temporary tattoos (Che Guevara tattoos seemed especially popular), sunglasses, T-shirts.  Nice to see that communism/socialism hadn’t crushed simple traditions like this.  They sold beer out of tank trucks — imagine a 200-gallon water tank as a “keg.”  You needed to bring your own bottle to be filled out of the tank, and there were guys standing around eager to sell you an empty used plastic water or cola bottle if you’d failed to bring your own.

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The pink building is a hotel we passed on the way home.  The inside looked pretty spartan, but the outside made a nice picture just as the sun set.

Cuba (Part 3) Classic Cars

 

Number 3  in a series.  Many more to come.

 

Among the quirky ramifications of the Cuban Revolution and the fifty-year trade embargo by the U.S. is the fact that about the only American cars you’ll see in Cuba are from the 1940s and 50s.  Cubans haven’t been able to buy American cars since about 1960 (and in the socialist/communist system, they’ve scarcely had any money to buy anything else), so they’ve held onto the ones they had.  Those old cars are probably the most visible reminder and metaphor for the fact that Cuba is, in many ways, stuck in 1959.

They’re everywhere.  I don’t mean just one here and one there.   In Havana, most of the private taxis are these old cars, so it’s not unusual to see an area or cabstand with dozens of them.   Mid-day, a 1950s classic barrels down Neptune Street about one every ten seconds.

Some are in great shape; some not so much.  Some belch black smoke every time they start to move.  I had to abandon one cab that just died (and wouldn’t re-start) right in the middle of the road.  It’s a rarity for all the doors, windows and gauges to work.  Still, most are cherished possessions (and in the case of the taxi drivers, family businesses); they’ve been passed down father to son since the pre-Communist days when a ’57 Chevy was among the most advanced technologies on the planet.

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Here’s a decidedly unartistic, unglamorous shot of the taxi that died with me in it — stranded in the middle of the road.  I took this picture with a pocket camera as I abandoned ship and started the walk to my destination.

Cuba (Part 2): Havana Up Close

Part 2 of a series that will last ’til I run out of pictures.  And stories.

Havana is on the northern coast of Cuba.  It’s just about 100 miles from Key West, Florida, but it’s nonetheless a world away. Though the city has plenty of sightseeing stops, really seeing Havana meant seeing how Cuban people live.  Lots of them live in 100-year-old crumbling buildings; half a building may have literally fallen down while the other half houses several families.  Layers of plaster, masonry and bright-colored paints flake and fall away from grand old architecture, leaving the colorful mosaics that are now icons of the urban Cuba landscape.  Few residences have any sort of air conditioning or even glass in the windows, so much of life seems to be spent in open windows and doorways or on balconies and sidewalks.

Most Cubans work for the (socialist) government, or in government-controlled jobs.  Whether they’re doctors, policemen or janitors, their government salary is somewhere around $20 a month.  The consolation (if you can call it that) is that food is distributed (rationed) via a government program referred to as the libreta (Spanish for “booklet,” referring to their monthly ration books that allow the purchase of food for pennies on the dollar).  In residential areas, there are almost no stores or shops, but instead lots of government facilities administering the libreta system.  There’ll be one place distributing eggs, another distributing rice and beans, one with bread, another with fish and chicken, one for beef, and so on.  They’re stark and empty-looking places, usually with a tiny inventory and a bored-looking staff of four or five.  Not exactly the picture of efficiency, but labor is cheap and efficiency surely isn’t a hallmark of socialist systems.

In many ways, Castro had sold Cuba’s soul to the Soviets, who propped Cuba up for 30 years.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did Cuba’s economy.  Since that collapse, the libreta system no longer includes manufactured (non-food) goods, so it is very difficult for most Cubans to get simple things like pens, razors, aspirin, and even soap.  The passengers on my flight into Cuba were primarily Cubans returning from a very rare visit to the U.S., or Cuban-Americans visiting family in Cuba.  Every one of them had “luggage” consisting of huge hay-bail-sized bundles of stuff (clothes and other manufactured items) not available in Cuba.  One man was wearing five felt cowboy hats stacked on top of one another; two others were each carrying four car tires as their checked-baggage.

 

 

 

The street merchants shown below are not part of the libreta system.  (We were told we could not photograph government facilities.)  Along with some small privately-owned restaurants and street vendors of other sorts, there are a handful of pockets of semi-free enterprise, something that is apparently becoming much more common and permissible now that Fidel (Castro) has turned the leadership over to his brother, Raul.

 

Can you believe that great-looking kid (and his orange/gold/white outfit) in the picture at the top of this post!?!  He was playing street baseball with a small crowd of his buddies on the sidewalk of the “Malecon” (Havana’s seawall boulevard) just before sunset.  He was head-and-shoulders taller than the rest.  I barged into the middle of their game and asked the kid if I could take his picture.  He was obviously flattered to be singled out in front of all his buddies, but in every shot other than the one above, he was trying to look tough and/or grabbing his crotch and flashing some kind of rap-singer-looking hand gesture.  I think that’s my favorite picture from the trip, though I’m embarrassed to say I forgot the kid’s name.  

The two boys below (also aspiring baseball players, it appears) were not rushing out of their house to play baseball; they were rushing out to “greet” me, which in this case meant their mugging for the camera and then asking me for a buck.  Each.  

 

Lots more Cuba pictures still to come.

Cuba 2012 (Part 1)

  

Since 1963, it’s been illegal for Americans to visit Cuba.  So when the opportunity came up for me to go (legally!) for a couple of weeks last month, I grabbed my cameras and jumped on a plane to Havana. 

 

In the late 1950s, Havana was a chic tourist destination.   With over a quarter-million U.S. tourists in 1958, it was as popular as – and much more glamorous than – Las Vegas.

Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959.  As the Castro regime expropriated American properties in Cuba and aligned itself more and more with the Soviets, the U.S. started imposing trade restrictions.  By 1961, Castro was showing off Russian tanks and weapons in the streets of Havana.  In 1962 (after securing for himself a good stockpile of those famous Cuban cigars), President Kennedy imposed the initial trade “embargo.”  The restrictions were tightened even more after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963, and trade and travel have been essentially prohibited for the ensuing 50 years by what Cubans call “El Bloqueo” (the blockade).

Recently, the U.S. has relaxed the policies on permits for “purposeful travel” (cultural, educational or religious exchanges) to Cuba.  So I just got back from a couple of weeks on a “cultural” exchange program – part of a group of twelve or so there to interact with the Cuban people and to photograph Cuba for “artistic” and cultural purposes (not for journalistic purposes, because the Cubans woudn’t allow that, and not for tourist purposes, because the Americans don’t allow that) .

About all I was allowed to bring back are pictures — but I’ve got tons of them.  Like 150 gigabytes of them.  Over the next several days, I’ll organize them and hopefully share some of the interesting things I’ve seen and learned in this process.  Here are a handful of previews.  Stay tuned for tons more.