Seven Nights in Havana

I am not certain what can be said about a magical place other than that one should travel there before it disappears like a mirage in the desert. I felt that way about Havana, Cuba. It might be the lack of American tourists or that it is storm season in the Caribbean, but the air was filled with an electricity that was undeniably Old World. My negatives arrived back today from the lab at Northern Artists, and I slowly began scanning the first few images taken during the past week in Havana, Cuba.

I will admit that Havana was one of those places that I was scared to go; it looked dangerous, I had heard the phrase “never leave your all-inclusive resort” an infinite number of times, and I speak no Spanish beyond cafe negro, por favore. Gracias. But I found a decent-priced fare and decided that V. and I needed a break before school, and that seven nights in Havana should be easy… eventually. What I was not prepared for were the hotel costs and the lack of food. The hotel costs were fine given the difficulty of actually booking a vacation online in a country that does not deal with America or tourists not on a package deal vacation.

We ended up with some groovy digs – Hotel Ambos Mundos, Hotel Florida and NH Parque Central – but they were not without issues and compromises. For instance, we were to stay at Ambos Mundos for three nights, but were told upon check in that they were closed for the next two weeks to repair water mains and we would be moved to the Hotel Florida. At Hotel Florida a typical hotel voucher scam was tried on us, but V. had a copy of our original. Still, I liked the places as they had a lot of character; if Hemingway stayed there, then it could be neither all bad nor very good.

Everyone in North America tells me the food is terrible wherever I am going. I know better and am always able to find some authentic dining revelations everywhere.. until Havana. The food was awful despite my most concerted efforts. The best restaurant in town, La Guarida, was closed forever. Frankly, it has to do with the lack of everything in Cuba due to the American trade embargo. I have never seen so little in the stores for sale. Some days there are fuzzy slippers, the next day it might be children’s toys. Yet, the Cubans push forward with creative genius and perseverance that would shame the big fat cats in Washington.

If there is one symbol of Cuban resolve, then it has to be the classic cars circa 1950-1960 that flood the streets. Not only were these the last reminents of a time when Americans used Havana as a playground to indulge in drink, gambling and prostitution during prohibition, but the Cubans have kept them going without parts since that time. These are not the “classic cars” kept by old men under blankets with 12 kms on the speedometer, but rather they are horses run hard for decades that are more beautiful simply because they are real in a way lost to us.

We took rides along the Malecon shoreline to the Hotel Nacional in a beat up 1954 blue Chevrolet and back in a 1957 bronze-coloured convertible for $6 each way, but it was priceless. The ride to the airport might have poisoned us with leaded gasoline fumes through the floorboards of a 1955 Pontiac, but we survived and felt like gangsters motoring with a rumbling engine.

A bicycle chop shop in the old city - blow torches, vats of grease and kids everywhere.

V. captured quite a few superb images with her digital camera – one shot of two boys jumping off the Malecon pier is just killer –  and she also experimented with her new Diana F+ camera. The Diana is an odd little monster, but the images are very appealing and impossible to replicate with a digital sensor. Like any new camera, I am not sure how many keepers will come through for these first few rolls – I wrecked one roll and ended up with fuzzy shots from Chicago when I first used the Hasselblad, for instance.  I am really impressed with the feel the first few negs appear to give her work. The camera is a little hardcore primitive (no aperture, shutter speed or framing controls…period), but I think it is a brilliant little piece of plastic fantastic that puts the artistic experimentation back into photography. I am looking forward to seeing what she ends up with.

The next few blog entries will contain the photos I took during those seven days with my Hasselblad 501 C/M, a few rolls of film and a lot of walking. Cigars, rum, jazz and tropical storms will come up as topics, but it was the spirit of Cubans that impressed me most, whether it was in their national art museum (that contained my favourite art collection to date) or in the back alleyways


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