Havana – Cuba and The Impending Winds of Change

two classic cars havana cuba
rusty and faded old sign in havana cuba

Faded elegance sums up the visual aesthetic of Havana

 

Havana – Cuba

When one encounters a new place for the first time, the barrage of new information and stimulus on the brain usually causes it go scrambling to make sense of the situation by comparing it with a mental list of other known destinations. Such was the case for me with Havana, Cuba. As the scenery flashed by outside the window of the taxi from the airport, some of it seemed strangely familiar, whether it resembled a mishmash of other tropical islands I’ve seen before or if it was just the countless images of Cuba portrayed in books and films that I’ve watched, I cannot say for certain.

There are no shortages of stereotypes for Cuba, old American cars, grand buildings that have seen a better era, the weathered grandma puffing away on a great big cigar … yet what the photos often fail to convey is the sense of celebration about the place, a celebration of life itself, of which is often lived out in the streets. Everywhere you go, there’s always the sound of live music around the corner, and everyone seems to be out on the streets, or hanging out of their balconies, trading gossip with neighbours, and just sat in front of their doorways, watching life unfold on the streets. Apart from the slightly annoying habit of taxi touts and jineteros (hustlers trying to sell us everything from cigars, great restaurants to girls, whilst simultaneously attempting to guess our nationality/ethnicity).

‘Konichiwa! Japón? Chino? Corean?’ the would call out to us hopeful of some kind of instant kinship or acknowledgement.

Anyway, jineteros aside, it is easy enough to wander the age-old streets without too much bother.

The Winds of Change

Some of the handsomely dilapidated buildings are so ‘weathered’ that it is a wonder they haven’t already been reduced to a pile of rubble, taking down a couple of neighbouring buildings with it. But somehow, they still remain standing, whilst bearing the scars of decades of neglect. They do however, from a photographer’s perspective, imbue the entire city with a rich layer of texture and a distinct sense of history absent in cities sprouting with glass and steel skyscrapers.

No one seems to ever be in too much of a hurry, and despite the often crumbling buildings they live in, and the obvious fact that life is far from simple, seem content enough.

With Cuban strongman Fidel Castro keeping a tight rein on affairs since the Cuban Revolution, Cuba and Havana is a place where the ripples of time somehow flowed around, like a rock jutting out of a river, impervious to the currents on all sides, unaffected by the change swirling about, even as the rest of the world hurtled towards progress. But in recent years, Fidel’s brother, Raul has taken over and although initially almost imperceptibly, change has started creeping in. With rules loosening around private ownership of mobile phones and computers, and access to the internet (although still arguably prohibitively expensive), even that rock jutting out in the river slowly gets weathered and worn by the constantly running water, likewise, Havana is slowly swaying to the winds of change blowing in the air.

 

two men fixing an old classic car in havana cuba

The decades-old American embargo on the island has meant that spare parts for anything is exceedingly hard to come by, and makeshift fixes and creative ingenuity is needed to keep cars and equipment running.

old classic car being used as a taxi in havana cuba

More than just visual icons of Havana, these old classic cars are a functioning and practical part of everyday life in the city

Cuban flags hanging in the streets of havana

Patriotism and the national sense of identity is strong in Cuba

cubans on the streets of havana

A life lived out in the streets

cubans chatting on the streets of havana

Everywhere we went, people were out chatting with friends and neighbours, a phenomenon I have not observed for a long while in other countries

old buildings with clothes hanging in havana cuba

Due to hard currency shortages, once grand buildings have long since fallen into disrepair and dilapidation

la revolucion graffiti on a wall in havana cuba

The original ideals of La Revolución are increasingly dim in the minds of the younger generation, craving for change

vanilla ice cream stall havana cuba

A common sight – Only one flavour on the menu today

beautiful catholic church in havana cuba

Largely thanks to the secular communist government, the churches of Cuba are largely preserved artefacts, with dwindling practitioners

old man walking past an old building in havana cuba

The winds of change are blowing in Cuba, and soon, the way of life might be unrecognisable

I left my job as an advertising Creative Director in August 2012 to travel Africa and South America for a year with my wife, documenting these beautiful places with my Fuji X-Pro1. View the rest of my RTW adventures on Handcarry Only and follow me on my journey by subscribing/following/bookmarking.

  • baseballmh1012

    Great blog Adrian. You are very fortunate to have visited Cuba. It has been on my bucket list for sometime. In addition to your magnificent photos, I want one at a cigar maker, a baseball game and a public celebration or carnival when I go. Saludos mi amigo!!!

    • http://handcarryonly.com/ Adrian Seah

      Thanks for your kind words! I did visit a cigar making factory, it was wonderfully old school, with rows of workers hand rolling the cigars. Even someone to read them the news and articles over a PA system so they don’t get too bored. But they prohibited any photo taking! It would have made a fantastic series of shots though.

      • baseballmh1012

        Did you buy a cigar? Ha! Can’t wait!!!!!!!!!!
        Mike

        • http://handcarryonly.com/ Adrian Seah

          As a matter of fact, I did! A few! But I don’t smoke so pretty much gave them all away as gifts.

          Its really cool, in the factory, they even had a QC corner where they tested the ‘suckability’ of the cigars being produced, to make sure they’re not to densely or loosely packed, to give just the right amount of pressure when puffing. Intriguing!

  • Frank

    Fantastic photos, you’ve really captured it. A few more photos from our trip there a year ago, you’ll see we photographed some of the same places: http://bbqboy.net/havana-cuba/
    Frank (bbqboy)

    • http://handcarryonly.com/ Adrian Seah

      Hey Frank, lovely photos!

      Like you, I loved the charming decrepitness of Havana. The whole place is just so incredibly photogenic, every corner is a movie set ready to go.

  • http://www.cheapflightstrip.blogspot.in/ cheap flights Trip

    Amazing pictures. interesting article..

    • http://handcarryonly.com/ Adrian Seah

      Thank you! Glad you’re enjoying the photos. Stay tuned, more to come!

  • Jo Carroll

    *sighs* I’m off to Cuba in January – after seeing this i want to go NOW!

    • http://handcarryonly.com/ Adrian Seah

      Haha, bet it can’t come soon enough! Do bring along any old clothes, colour pencils, small bars of soap and any other small luxuries to give away though. They’ll be very gratefully received.

      • Jo Carroll

        Must remember soaps. I often travel with balloons, too – great for playing with kids.

        • http://handcarryonly.com/ Adrian Seah

          Absolutely, anything like that will be considered a treat for the kids. Just be forewarned that once you start playing Santa Claus, you’ll have kids swarming around you! But they’re lovely.

          • Jo Carroll

            I took balloons to Asia, so am used to the Santa reaction – and love it.

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