Category Archives: Latin America

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.

 

 

Fiestas Tipicas Nacionales

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“Tipicas” usually means “typical,” but as it’s used in the name of this festival, it means “picturesque; full of local color; traditional;” which is a pretty good description.  The main event is one-third rodeo, one-third Mexican bullfight, and one-third pure chaos.

The cowboy bullriders (montedors) are just T-shirt-clad teenagers, but the whole town packs into the “plaza” to watch.  The grandstands (graderias) are a makeshift wooden circle built in the middle of town just for this event.  Some areas have poles supporting a rusty sheet metal roof; a few parts have a thatched (palm-leaf) roof.   Lots of folks just crawl up under these bleachers (without buying a ticket) and peek out from under people’s feet.  There is absolutely nothing about any of it that would be OSHA-compliant.

Each session starts out like a rodeo bull ride – the worked-up bull storms out of the chute, trying to rid itself of the hombre on its shoulders.  This rarely took more than a couple of seconds.    The difference is that instead of a couple of professional life-saving rodeo “clowns” like a rodeo, here there are maybe 200 locals in the arena (toredos improvisados), eager to chase and be chased by the bull for five to ten minutes following each ride.  A good percentage of the folks down there in harm’s way are tipsy at best (surprise!).  The blue-shirted, rope-slinging lasadores were the “pros” on hand to get the bull out of the plaza when it was time for the next rider.  Though the first few pictures look pretty scary, that guy got up and ran away just fine.  In fact, I don’t think anybody (and certainly none of the bulls) was hurt.  The pictures turned out okay, considering they all had to be taken from my seat on the eighth row behind several poles.

There was a big street festival outside, focused mostly on local foods, drink, dancing and (what else?) marimba playing.  Every street corner had one or two of those huge three-man marimbas (wooden xylophones), which are apparently a big tradition in this town (Santa Cruz, Guanacaste, Costa Rica).  There are two statues in the town square, and one of them is a marimba player, if that tells you anything.  Sometimes a singer or a drummer would join in.  It sure made things festive.  I also had some of the best street-vendor pork-on-a-stick you’ll ever run across.  Best of all, everybody seemed to like having their picture taken, and seemed glad to have outsiders see their traditions.  “Fiestas Tipicas Nacionales”:  I think it also means, “Gringos welcome”  (though there were only a handful of gringos visible in town).  Maybe next year I’ll earn my stripes as a toredo improvisado and let somebody else take the pictures.

Monkey See! (Costa Rica)

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Tourism is Costa Rica’s biggest industry, and much of that tourism focuses on the country’s natural wonders.  Even so, it seems that each of the country’s national parks is manned only by three or four teenagers, and the main roads in and out can be less than inviting.   A couple of friends and I visited two parks last week – one trip involved paying off a guy who had blocked the road, and whose private property you have to cross to get to the national park.  In the other park, the main road had a sign saying that the roads were in such bad condition they suggest you not drive on them at all.  But of course we did.

The rough trips are worth it.  The white-faced monkeys (capuchins) and the waterfalls were in the Rincon de la Viaja National Park in Northwest Costa Rica.  The park is built around a volcano, which is sufficiently active to cause them to prohibit hikers up near the rim.  The “smoke” you see behind that red tree is stinky sulfur-smelling geothermal steam coming out of the ground.

The beach pics here are mostly at Playa Naranjo, which is waaaay down a terrriibbllle dirt road/trail inside Santa Rosa National Park.   The beach is a couple of miles long, and there were maybe a dozen people on it at most on a Saturday afternoon.  We even picked up a hitchhiker there and took him back to town.  He spoke only Spanish so we tried out our espanol on him, with modest success.  The area is also a mecca for hard-core surfers, a dozen or more of whom were sleeping in a little tent camp near the beach.

The dark-faced (howler) monkey was just chilling roadside when I was driving back from a mountain bike trip a few days back.  Though both monkey pictures are of just one monkey, each time they were in a group of 10 or so.

The nice couple in a few of the pictures (together, and separate) are Peter and Jana Thomsen, of Santa Cruz, California, who I met at the language school here.  Peter is a forty-something mountainbiking photographer who came to Costa Rica from the States to try to learn Spanish, so we were able to find a few things to talk about as the three of us drove into the depths of Costa Rica’s priceless national parks.  Peter’s actually a professional photographer (go to www.peterthomsen.com if you want some fabulous wedding photography), but I was able to convince him to push the button on my camera free of charge to get that one purple-shirted picture of me.