“What?!”, I asked Alain, our photography guide for the day, “I thought soccer was the national sport of Cuba.” “Actually,” he replied, “it’s baseball, but flirting is a close second!”

I had hired Alain Gutierrez as a photography guide for a day with strict instructions that we avoid tourist areas and to visit the “real” Havana and see the “real” people. Well, did he ever deliver. Spending the entire day in Central Havana, we visited markets, “rough” areas, and even the restaurant where President Obama had lunch a couple of weeks ago. Alain is a very good street photographer, so I got many tips from him, but I think the biggest tip was to smile and be relaxed when out on the street. He’s also funny and a lot of fun – many jokes today. Some of the areas were quite rough, but we always felt safe, even the next couple of days when Chantal and I wandered about alone.

Havana is very neglected and dirty, and the people are poor. But I saw no signs of real hunger and they were always cheerful and smiling. Also, music everywhere. I think, because of the poor economy and the many available musicians, restaurants and bars can hire bands for almost nothing. Another thing that really struck me was the apartments that are open to the street. People at street level just open up the door or large window for anyone walking by to look in. I was tempted to make photos of these “living rooms” as I walked by, but didn’t, as I think that would be very dis-respectful. People living in higher floor apartments had to climb up narrow, dingy, winding stairways for access. It seems to me that the poor living conditions are the worst problem in the central city.

On the next day, we were in the south section of Habana Vieja (old city), which is also quite rough, when we happened upon a bunch of kids playing in a bike taxi. I no sooner than made a photo, when they all jumped out and swarmed me, asking for money, or whatever. I opened up a package of colored ballpoint pens and started distributing them. Then a couple of mothers came out and helped me. There were 2 left, so each mother took one. Then 2 more women came out, looking for “gifts”. Chantal had a couple of Dollar Store lipsticks, which they were very happy to receive. Finally, a man came out, asking for something for his little daughter, but I had to tell him that there’s nothing left. This happened so quickly, and later I realized that this is the kind of thing that I’ve seen in documentaries of 3rd world countries, but never envisaged happening to me personally. Does this put me in that documentary photographers club now? Maybe, but I was more bothered by the actions of these little kids, who may grow up with their hands always out.

At the end of our trip, we spent a few days at the resort at Playa Jibacoa, I made friends with Henry, who took care of the catamarans, diving masks, kayaks, etc, on the beach. He’s a computer engineer, but makes more money on the beach. He told me that there are many doctors and other professionals working in the tourist industry for the same reason. He says this is because of the lack of foreign investment. Of course, everyone knows about the forthcoming invasion. Henry said that people certainly want the money that will be coming in, but are also wary of other consequences.

Rob, a photography friend of mine, is organizing a trip this summer “to photograph the real Havana before it becomes McVana”. I really believe that I was able to capture this, but I would go back again, Mc or Not!

[Click on any photo for slideshow. Please leave comments at bottom of page.]

Live entertainment everywhere

Mess in front of a national hero

Love in the barrio

Alain and Chantal studying a lime at the market

Typical stairway to an apartment

Kids that swarmed me for stuff, just after I made this photo.