Sea and The City: Le Malecon and El Morro

The city is still Havana, of course. My fascination with the Cuban capital continues far beyond my trip there end of last year. As I am going through the pictures I took at Le Malecon, the 8 km of tamed seaside, I see it again: spacious, wild and free. The sea plays such an important role in Havana’s history: the city owns its very existence to it. Grateful, Havana leans towards the sea. The real heart of the city – and it’s center – is here, with its night bars and breakfast cafés, Internet hot spots, parades and magnificent built at scale hotels, reviving the glorious images 30s when Havana was the mafia heaven.

Today Malecon is for everyone: Havana locals come here to sunbathe, swim, fish (birds do as well), play music and kiss on the parapet. Tourists flock for the stunning panoramas of the city (and for a morning run, a notion that remains foreign to most Cubans). I walked all the 8 km of Malecon and that made me feel part of this city, tune to its rhythm and want to stay more.

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Le Malecon pier in Havana, Cuba

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Havana’s Must Dos: Old Town, Classic Cars, El Prado

Most guidebooks, blogs and tour guides advise to carve out two to three days to discover Havana. WRONG. Three days is the sheer minimum to explore its Old Town, Havana Vieja. And maybe to take a ride in a classic car around the city – the entire city, cruising through Miramar with its doll houses of embassies wrapped in fantastic posh forest, pausing at the panoramic spots to take some gorgeous shots, parading through the Revolution Square. That’s what you can do in three days. And Havana is much more than that. Fun fact: the Old Town has never been the actual city center, nor it is now. Intrigued? More on that later, in the post about Malecon.

I was mesmerized by Havana Vieja. To me, it justified the entire trip to Cuba: 10h+ of flying, staying in casas particulares of doubtful quality, struggling to find the food I normally eat (the food part turned out to be not bad at all). I wanted to come back to this part of town again and again, day and night, until I learnt by heart all its curves, its smells, its treasures. The Old City is Havana’s birth place and its raison d’être: its narrow harbour is the only place along the long coasts where the vessels can approach the shores, otherwise protected by reefs. The single city entrance is guarded by nine fortresses (La Fuerza and del Morro being the most famous). The fortifications made Havana at the time the most protected city of the Caribbean, “the key to the New World”. As well as the major trade post and the most lucrative asset of Spain for other empires.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Wish

Looks like Weekly Photo Challenges are the main contribution I manage to make for this blog during this period of my exciting work life, but so it be. Something little often goes a long way, and the pictures I am usually using for these challenges are coming from my trips, – so one more memory knot is one more sip of happiness.

The topic of this week is Wish. Wishes and dreams are very important for me. There were certainly times in my life when wishes and dreams were all that I had. First steps in every of the nine countries I lived, the job searching period in the end of my MBA studies (with my European residence permit expiring), the first time I held a DSLR camera in my hands. Looking back, I don’t think about these experiences as challenging times but as happy moments, when the future I wanted was so crisp in my mind it seemed I could reach out to it and dissolve in this perfect picture. From these experiences I grew to appreciate wishes and dreams of the others.

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One of the reincarnations of Che’s photograph by Alberto Korda: probably, one of the most printed photos of all times

Such as the dream of Che, the Cuban Revolution hero of Argentinian origin, who toured the entire Latam continent, capturing romantically bitter images of his land and promoting his vision of “the new free man”. This “new free man” of Che would be free of any restraints of the government and the state, have access to land,education and medical care regardless of this origin and would possess many other freedoms most extensively captured by Marx and his followers (personally, I am allergic to communism and even socialism, so I won’t go there).

Despite the inclination of my own political views, I can’t help but admire Che’s dream: so passionate, so absolute, so pure. After Che’s meeting with Fidel it became the dream of the Cuban Revolution – and, later, after the regime of Batista had come to an end, – the dream of many other revolutionary movements, in Latin America and beyond, in Congo and Bolivia. And even if the economic success of the Cuban Revolution and the subsequent Castro’s regime poses some questions today, the spiritual leadership of the image that Che painted more than half a century ago remains undisputed.

Such is a power of a wish. Such is a power of a dream.

🙂

Weekly Photo Challenge: The Road Taken

Today’s photo challenge is about The Road Taken. Just as I was reading the description, one thought flashed through my mind: Cuba! This country has won me over – at once and, I have to say, unexpectedly, because I was not looking to coming to the Cuban countryside. At all.

Before my trip, I could understand the fascination of Havana, with its infamous gorgeous buildings in catastrophic conditions, its music and rum. But the countryside? I was not sure what to expect. To get there, we had to literally take the road, driving under the Cuban sun for hours with Juan Carlos, telling us (for hours as well) the history of his country. All we had to do was ask why Fidel and the Revolution had won.

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Vinales Valley in Cuba

Vinales was stunning. And so was the road to it. In fact, being on the road in Cuba is a lot like watching a movie: thrilling, ever-changing, fascinating, evolving. An experience of its own, compared to the joy of discovering the Old Havana.

Fuel is hard to find in Cuba, most gas stations you find are empty. That makes traffic, especially in this part of the island, virtually non existent. All is left is yourself, the sky, your thoughts, detailed history of the Cuban Revolution – and the endless road.

🙂

Havana: Winds of Communism and Love

Havana is a city which is very much alive. Like the other cities that leave their mark on you forever – Paris, New York, London, Moscow, – it is a city of contrasts. Buildings of breathtaking architecture falling apart. People on the street, asking sincerely whether you like their city. Classic designs in brightest colors ever invented, gorgeous antiques in palace-like apartments where rooms are rented at 50 EUR per night. Family details, left for tourists to observe, share and make part of their own story. Pictures on the walls with the owner’s father energetically shaking hands with every political leader of the last century, from Fidel to Nixon. Smiling triumphantly, full of confidence and national pride. Tiny pizza stores, where you as a tourist you can still buy food in local currency (and at local prices), seller helping you out sort out CUCs and pesos. A very honest city. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was right when he said that Havana had been and remained one of the most beautiful cities of Earth.

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Prepared to explore Havana, Cuba on my first morning there: thrilled, untanned, not sure what to expect

You can love Havana or hate it, what you absolutely can’t do is stay indifferent to this city. I had heard many contrasting opinions before I went, from astonishing delight of people comparing it to Paris and Rome, to bitter analogy with St Petersburg of the 1990s, the early days of post-communism in Russia when classic architecture, food supply and confidence in tomorrow were all falling apart.

Communism is still strong in Havana but it doesn’t have this larger than life feeling it had in the Soviet Union I remember. As I wrote in 10 Facts About Cuba You Did Not Know, adherence to communism was more of a forced choice for Cubans and has never been absolute. Love for Cuba, on the other hand, was – and still remains the dominant feeling on the island, in Havana as well. Love for the country was the link between the Cubans and their leader and kept Fidel popular for 64 years (and still popular even after his death). His secret? Even though Castro controlled all of the important decisions in the country’s life, the revolutionary genius made Cubans part of them. For example, once a Mexican president was not sure whether to invite Fidel or not to the event with the other political leaders. In the telephone conversation, which Fidel had recorded and later played on the national television (I love the term, as if Cuba ever had any other television), he told the Cuban President to show up to the earlier part of the reception, quickly eat and then tactfully disappear before the American politicians arrive. Did Fidel do it? Absolutely not. And his country backed him up, every one of them. This national unity is still felt on the streets of Havana.

And at the same time, Havana was the last city that fell for Fidel and his movement of 26th of July. While Cuba was suffering under the endless Batista rule, its capital flourished. Those close to power could always enjoy the perks of the Olympus, and Havana was offering plenty at the time. Generous support of the U.S. to maintain the political power they could control together with more than generous cash flows from the Miami gangsters turning Cuba into the land where all illegal dreams come true, created a privileged class. A class enjoying the wonders of the imperial world, a class building new Havana and effectively shifting the city center towards Malecon with its pompous hotels and casinos. A class nourished by politics, vice and entertainment, dancing the nights away and living the life just 10 min car ride away from the Old City with its colonial good manners, Art Deco and antiques. Havana was a city of contrasts already then.

I let the pictures of Havana speak for this city, each capturing one of the million things that makes it city so magically special. Each telling a part of its story.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Shadow

My life between cities, countries and airports, with 2.5 flights per week on average (my normal life, that is), doesn’t leave me as much time as I would love to have to put my hands on the ton of fantastic shots of Cuba and Mexico. Well, luckily Weekly Photo Challenge is a much more manageable task than filtering through 2400+ shots.

This week’s topic is Shadow. There is a lot, in fact, I can write about shadow: every photographer can. If light is fundamental to a great photo, shadow is something much more elusive and far less controllable – yet sometimes even more important to capture the mood. You can measure the light and its sources in very precise units – but there is no scientific method to control shadow: its depth, color, its light (shadows also have light, what do you think)? Shadows are elusive, too. Shadows have character. They are like cats: you have them here and now, you half-press your shutter button – and off they go before you complete your work. That’s why shadows, to me, are much more magical than the light. I love them, I flirt with them, I constantly chase them with my camera.

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Havana, Cuba kissed by the first rays of light

Here is what I have on my first sunrise in Havana: shadows fill it with sheer magic. They hide the imperfections, help the mystery of the night prevail for yet another moment and set the stage to the first rays of sun. To me, Havana is most beautiful when the sun just rises (or starts setting down).

After all,

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

– Leonard Cohen

Remember?

🙂

Weekly Photo Challenge: Repurpose

First, the theme of this week’s Photo Challenge has caught me off guard. I mean, “Repurpose“?.. But then it has dawn on me: Cuban cars! As I have just wrote in my 10 Facts About Cuba You Did Not Know (And You Should), Cuba is full of gorgeous, colourful, shiny American cars of 1920-50s, brought to the island before the embargo. In fact, many of them hit Cuban ground before their official appearance on the American roads, because their manufactures were using Cuba as a trial driving range before the grand opening at home.

These cars are impeccably maintained – or at least they look so. However, with the embargo in place from 1962, how do you maintain all these classic beauty? You repurpose. Car reparation became a special art in Cuba, the one people are proud of, – and rightly so. Anything goes: spare parts of not affected by embargo Mitsubishi, Toyota and even less compatible oeuvres of Soviet making. In fact, often the only thing left from old American cars is their shiny, seemingly untouched by the time, frame.

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Streets of Havana, Cuba, filled with fully operational cars more than half a century old

The very purpose of these cars has evolved over time as well. From means of transportation (and, without a doubt, demonstration of social prestige of their owners half a century ago) they have evolved to ta lucrative tourism revenue stream. Almost all of these cars are now private taxis. With the official taxi business (embodied by new “cool” air conditioned Chinese and Korean cars) owned 100% by the state, such as almost any business on the island (in fact, even hotels are at least 30% owned by the Ministry of Defense), classic cars is almost a unique private business in Cuba. How cool is that? Investing in beauty (and being creative in maintaining it!) brings dividends over time.

So much about conventional wisdom, uh?

🙂