November 19, 2013

WILD Stories: Havana

I’d only seen old news reels of the place—an appropriately anachronistic introduction to a city where Batistaera cars run amok delivering clouds of black diesel smoke no one seems to mind. I was seduced by the idea of a tropical country like Cuba, in many ways untouched by the world I know. It’s a paradoxical country: gravely underprivileged and yet inherently generous. Food is expensive and hard to find, but the family I stayed with shared their meals. They packed apples for my photographic quests and were proud when I returned sweaty and fatigued. Their home, that of Juan Carlos Alom, a Cuban photographer and my good friend, became my own. I was in Havana.

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My first day there, I met Jacob and his Austrian friend, a tousled guy covered in Cuban flags and Che Guevara tattoos. His name, unfortunately, was not as memorable. They invited me to have a beer. Everyone I met had imposed a fear of strangers on me, well founded, I suppose, considering I was traveling solo. But these guys seemed harmless enough. Cubans, I later found, often offered to show me around, with cocky claims of being the best tour guides in Havana. “Come with me and you will be safe and I will take you to places you’d never discover on your own!” the locals shouted to me daily. Jacob asserted his tour guide skills via cocky proclamations, as well.

Jacob, though, lived up to the pledge. We walked obscure streets, saw the marrow of the expansive city. Still, I took no photographs that first day out. I did take out my camera a couple of times that day, though. The people I intended to take portraits of quite often asked for something in exchange. Money, candy, anything. I asked Jacob to help me explain that I couldn’t offer anything. I don’t pay for portraits. It misses the point, and it stops being interesting to me. People of course, would counter argue on pronouncements of poorness and needs. They’d ask for candy more than anything. Quite literally candy. And since I had none to give, some reactions turned slightly aggressive. The favored attack was saying how easy I had it, a Spanish girl living in New York City, never mind if I’d busted my ass to get where I am or not.

Truth is, most Cubans in my experience are a little averse to working, and rather prefer enjoying the warm Caribbean life. They intend to live in the moment, successfully. A result of their very unique circumstance of course, but also of their great urging power of seduction. Of persuasion. Very very sexual. Very persuasive. This one guy kept asking me to go with him, a few days later. He said “I don’t want to force you,” but then he wouldn’t stop persuading either. There’s something to be said about the refusal to give up until getting what you want. Until you exchange something with them. Whatever it may be. Your time. Sex. Money. A drink.

Other people would call from inside their homes, “Come in, come on in,” genuinely interested about me. They’d expect to hear stories from afar, just as I was interested in knowing about them. I never approached people to take a picture of them. I always approached whoever I was interested in meeting, or let them approach me. And then, after the fact, if it made sense, I would ask for their portrait. I met people that truly wanted to watch over me, look after me. I mean, there’s good people and there’s bad people, same as everywhere else. Cubans though, really have nothing to lose. There’s high unemployment, and not a lot to do in general. So in a way yes, some people might be looking for some distraction upon meeting me, but in general, there’s a colorful purity to the Cuban way.

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The man with the pigmentless hands had been stationed in a military position in Africa. That was his claim, anyway. He followed me around until, at some point, he took a turn and left me to myself.

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The little girls saw I had a camera and began to strike poses. “It’s her birthday,” the eldest said of the youngest. “Can we have candy?” There’s something about candy here, I swear! I was happy to share my apple, or whatever I was carrying.

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These men were fruit sellers, or fruteros. They were uninhibited, and they insisted on buying me coffee.

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There’s almost no advertising in Cuba—at least no formal advertising. There are no 12’ by 24’ signs telling you what to wear, or where to eat, or how to be. There are no iPhones, barely any cell phones, almost no Internet. There is little room for commercial infiltration of the subconscious. And save the food on my plate, offered by gracious hosts, little distraction from human connection.

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The young round man is a mechanic, a trade that deals with all sorts of rare and old automobile mashups. Most cars are composites of older units. People make do with whatever car part they posses. Yet still, frankencar and all, a car is a weapon of seduction. No different from anywhere else, motor vehicles go a long way in the dating scene.

I hadn’t really thought about taking the young man’s portrait until I recognized Winnie the Pooh sitting on his sofa. As most found objects in Cuba, this one seemed oddly out of place. It reminded of the a political rally I’d attended a few days earlier where Raul Castro’s anti-American remarks were set to some distinctly American background music.

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This young man was selling “El Negrón” a drink consisting of rum, sugar, lime, and basil, through a window. He pressed on buying me a drink, and taking me dancing, a benchmark of Cuban culture. Men and women dance much like a rooster courts a chicken. It’s aggressive and dominant. With a hip movement the man indicates something along the lines of I want to impregnate you. The girl, in turn, shakes of her shoulder saying “nice try, but not really.” There’s a lot of sexual tension. It’s beautiful. It’s an art form, really. Charlie Chaplin on the upper right corner was a happy accident I noticed upon developing the film.

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I encountered many people claiming to be Fidel’s offspring. Some were convincing, but most seemed delusional, totally immersed in the myth of the father figure.

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El Cucurucho de Maní, or a paper cone packed with peanuts, sold for a Cuban peso. To put thing in perspective, a doctor, the highest paying profession, makes about $20 a month, 480 Cuban pesos—or 480 Cucuruchos for those with a hefty appetite. Currency in Cuba is a tad confusing because there are two types: the Cuban peso and CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso), equal in value to the dollar. The bills are annoyingly similar, too. Twice I payed with CUC instead of the regular Cuban peso, which means I payed 40 CUC for fruit, or twice the monthly salary of the highest paid profession in the country. The second time I hitched a ride in a crammed Cuban shuttle for 10 CUC. The fruit vendor gave me back my money when I returned. The cab, well, that money was gone. The chubby kid loved his peanuts. I noticed that despite of the really hot weather, people favor fatty foods, and greasy fried things. I saw first world levels of overweight kids.

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This street was overrun by art. In one room, an altar was spotlit in the center and spiritual phrases adorned the walls. Under a staircase, I found artists work, each confronting their own canvas. The place was called El Patio del Egrén, an artists’ commune of sorts. (Or a tourist trap, depending on your stance.) They sold art and CDs. The CD artwork was kitschy and creepy. Could even pass as postmodern or avant garde, though that was doubtfully the intention. This kid claimed, dubiously, to be 18 years old. I gave him a cigarette when his mother approved.

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text by: Monica Lek & Joseph Isho Levinson

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