We found this plastic flamingo with a broken neck in the garden of an old beachside hostel in Cienfuegos. It’s a good metaphor for the country as a whole.
Neither of us had any expectations when we, two pale Danes, decided to take a vacation to Cuba last April. Of course, there’d be the stereotypical imagery: colonial architecture, old men with cigars, American automobiles from the 50s, and salsa dancing. But we wondered what Cuba was really like, especially now that the architects of the revolution are ailing old men who’ve lost their ability to effectively govern what Fidel Castro’s sister once called “an enormous prison surrounded by water.”
It’s been more than 50 years since Castro and his comrades marched into Havana and ousted the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Since then, the tiny island nation has endured a complete trade embargo imposed by the United States that deprives Cuba’s citizens of many things the rest of us take for granted. During our trip, it was unsurprising to observe that Cuba mostly retains an aura of cold-war anachronism. It is out of time, out of tune, and out of step with the modern world.
What we experienced was a unique form of societal deterioration as baffling and beautiful as it is sad. It is a country, adorned with kitschy aesthetics, that lacks even the most ubiquitous modern technology and, in recent times, a place that has been soiled by dubious forms of tourism. In many ways, it feels like a dilapidated theme park desperate for new rides. The upshot is that these peculiar conditions have produced lots of beautiful things to photograph, which we did.
Cubans bowl too, only barefoot, and against a different color scheme than what you’ll find at the average American alley.
We spotted this farmer from afar, gazing at a controlled burn of his fields that got way out of hand as the dry corn crops exploded in a massive cloud of smoke. He wasn’t too happy.
Cubans have been isolated politically, socially, and financially from the rest of the world for decades. As a result, their access to mass communications has always been extremely limited, and the few things they do have access to are heavily censored. It was only two years ago that the government set up an internet infrastructure and allowed people to go online.
Cubans are still nostalgic for an era when American movie stars and gangsters gallivanted through the streets of Havana. Aldo, the barman at our Havana hotel, looked like he stepped out of The Godfather: Part II.
This is Cesar, a retiree from Italy. He visits Havana several times a year to meet Cuban ladies. They become his “girlfriends” and move in with him at whichever casa particular (sort of like a Cuban bed-and-breakfast) he is staying at. Cuba’s sex industry is growing because there is less work than ever for young women.
The Cuban National Zoo is located ten miles from Havana. There were no road signs and we didn’t have a decent map, but after an hour of searching we found it at the end of an unmarked dirt road. It was a desolate and run-down place. Perhaps this clown was attempting to bring a little cheer to the situation. It wasn’t really working.
A Slovakian tourist looked right at home at the Hemingway Marina, just outside Havana. What didn’t look kosher was the 18-year-old girl he was with who was standing outside the frame.
This is Jaimes, who is from Chile. Inexplicably, he asked whether we were doing a project on Nazis. As you can probably guess, he is a huge fan of Che Guevara.
Vladimir is the star of the water ballet that plays every day at the National Aquarium in Havana. He was simultaneously elegant and masculine—a hard thing to pull off in a loincloth.
We visited Cienfuegos, which is about 150 miles from Havana. There, we met this woman, a secretary for a state-run organization of architects and engineers. Her office was small and not very swanky. Despite her modest quarters, she was proud of the organization and was happy to let us photograph her working. And, yes, the mustache is very real and very amazing.
A storefront window in Havana. It can be hard to find toothpaste and soap, but if you want something esoteric like a minibear bike, they have them.
We found this lone American tourist lounging poolside at dusk at the legendary Hotel Habana Riviera, which opened in late 1957. Little has changed since then except that fewer and fewer guests visit each year.
This is Yimi Konclaze, a fairly notable Cuban rapper/DJ who just finished his second album. A friend of ours knows him and asked us to bring Yimi a hard-to-get (in Cuba) cell phone. We visited him in his tiny Havana apartment-cum-studio, where he lives with his mom, sister, and eight-year-old daughter.
This is Reynaldo, a respected entrepreneur who has made ecotourism a profitable business in Cuba. His passion is crocodiles. He owns several stuffed specimens and has a live one in his backyard.
Friday night at the Hotel Habana Riviera. The dance floor was completely empty.
In the rural town of Trinidad this old guy charges tourists 50 cents apiece to take his picture. The rest of the time he sits on his mule, smoking cigars. He told us that he sometimes moves to a different location in town, but most days you can find him right here. Work hasn’t been that profitable lately.
Commercial advertising in Cuba is rare. Few Western companies consider it lucrative because of the extremely limited resources available to the public. Cuban authorities also believe that a country striving for a fair distribution of all available goods has no use for commercial propaganda. Regardless, the Cubans in this Nestlé ad seem to be enjoying their ice cream, especially the guy who looks like Tracy Morgan.