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Cuba - Away She Goes

Cuba

I have been to Cuba 3 times now, for a total of 5 months.  The first time, I studied abroad for the Spring 2009 semester in Cuba, at Casa de las Americas (español).  I returned May-June 2012 and 2013 as a teaching assistant for Northeastern’s short-term faculty-led program on the subject of photography.

While there for a semester, I lived with 7 other students from Northeastern as well as 9 University of Michigan students.  We called our beautiful penthouse in Vedado the Real World House, and it mostly lived up to its name.  We went to classes tailor-made for us at Casa de las Americas.  NU is one of the few universities in the United States that can legally send students to Cuba.  While there, I went to Varadero, Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Matanzas.

As a TA on my most recent trips we lived in Havana, also in the Vedado neighborhood, and went to school at the Centro de Estudias Martíanos, which supports the preservation and discussion of Jose Martí’s work and legacy as a poet, political prisoner, dissident and freedom fighter.  I lived with my students, helped them with translation and finding locations to shoot, advised them on technique and image content, and accompanied the group to Pinar del Río, Viñales, and Trinidad.

One of my compañeros  from the Real World House has since grown an amazing organization called Cuba Skate.  He started it in 2010, and it aims to bring skate supplies to Cuba, as well as build a skate park there and promote cultural exchange between Americans and Cubans.  I am a proud supporter of Cuba Skate, and I suggest you contact Mi les y Lauren if you want to get involved!

NU’s website for the first trip.  NU’s website for the second trip.

The Globe’s The Big Picture did a Havana-centric entry.  I lived in a (gorgeous) apartment overlooking the Malecón, which is shown several times.

Make Your Own Luck

Make Your Own Luck

In photography, people often dismiss great shots by attributing them to luck or other outside factors. That person just happened to be there at the right time, they have nicer equipment, that shot is easier because the subject itself is so interesting, colorful or rare.  But as Andrea, one of my favorite photography professors, reminds me, photographers make their own luck. Yes, that may be a lucky shot, but you’re not seeing all the other shots that didn’t work out.  You don’t see how many hours they waited in that location for something good to happen in that frame, how much research they did to find the right location, or how much time they invested getting their subjects to trust them and feel comfortable.   You’re also not seeing how much time they spend practicing being creative and getting to know their own equipment, so when the time comes they can see something more interesting than what everyone else is seeing, and capture the image quickly. During my two summers in Cuba as a TA to Northeastern University’s photography program, the students with the best collection of images were the ones who created their own luck. They went back to the same locations over and over again, getting to know people and becoming an accepted presence in their midst as opposed to an intruder existing outside the action. They learned the necessary background information to find the potential for great shots, and learned when the variables could possibly line up.  Eventually, this hard work paid off with gorgeous, insightful, authentic views of their subjects in their own environs. Like a... read more
Review: Cuba, My Revolution

Review: Cuba, My Revolution

It seems crazy that I somehow didn’t know there was a graphic novel about Cuba, but alas, that was the case until I saw The Mary Sue’s books section of their fantastic gift guide.  Written by Inverna Lockpez, illustrated by Dean Haspiel, and colored by José Villarrubia, Cuba: My Revolution tells Lockpez’s life story via Sonya, an aspiring artist who is 17 when the story starts on New Year’s Eve in 1958. After Fidel takes the country that night, her world changes quickly.  She decides to put her love of art on hold in order to become a doctor, following in her father’s footsteps and fulfilling a pressing need after so many medical professionals jumped ship.  We follow along as she trains with limited equipment, is relied upon too heavily due to personnel shortages, and eventually goes to the front lines of Playa Girón, known in the US as the Bay of Pigs Invasion.  From there her life takes a turn for the dark and surreal, and it becomes harder for Sonya to see the good in the Revolution, even as she tries to hold on to that hope.  As scarcity becomes more common, private property is seized, behavior is monitored, and it gets harder to leave the island, Sonya tries to reconcile what she and others fought for with the reality of what eventually becomes a communist (or “Marxist-Leninst”) state.  There’s also an interesting look at how both the medical professions an the art world of Cuba evolved in the early days. The visual aspect of this book is stunning, and the use of panels, background illustrations and... read more
But Things Just Get so Crazy, Living Life Gets Hard to do

But Things Just Get so Crazy, Living Life Gets Hard to do

In honor of Naman’s birthday, this is something I wrote about him while I was in Cuba earlier this summer.  It is inconceivable to me how much harder it is to be here after Naman.  I plan for all the times I will miss him in America.  Graduation, awards ceremonies, memorials, fundraisers, whatever.  But Cuba?  I didn’t expect all of Dominican popular music to follow me here, which I suppose was naïve. I guess I just didn’t count on it.   I didn’t count on him. I never thought Havana could surprise me again.  Or at least, I thought it would continue to surprise me in the same sort of ways it always has.  But instead Havana had something new in store: memories of something old.  Of someone who will never grow old. He was never even here, but now I see him all over the streets of Havana.  I think of him more than the residents of the Real World house, more than last year’s Cuba kids, more than all the Cubans I have left behind.  He’s in the music, the conversations with the people.  The boat rides and palm creations and children’s hand stands.  The silly things the students do, the choppy Spanish and the Harry Potter references.  Accio memories. I suppose in this way, he will never grow old and will never go away.  He will keep traveling the world as I do, as we all do.  He will show up in Ghana and South Africa, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.  He will be there at every Best Buddies race, and every SEI event.  He will be... read more

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Since moving from a study abroad participant to a leader of trips abroad, I have had some recalibrating to do.  There is a difference between the risks I’m willing to take myself and those I’m willing to allow my students to take. This came rushing to the fore last summer when I was walking at night in Havana with the majority of our students, and at least one of the Cubans with us was stopped by the police for walking with white women while black.  It is important to note that this is a significantly worse offense than walking while black, although that’s an issue in Cuba as well.  The reason is not only due to racism and history, but also tourism, industry, and hegemony.  While I find the term “tourism apartheid” a bit strident, there is more than a nugget of truth to it, and the way it plays out in Cuba is that it’s somewhat acceptable if the white woman is visibly into it, but otherwise all young black men are assumed to be harassing your tourist dollars away.  Of course, not once has the policia ever showed up to stop genuine harassment (to my knowledge).  And the component of hegemony: when it comes down to it, some lives are deemed more worthy than others, and white skin and our little blue books protect us.  Somewhere in the 20th century, it became unacceptable for an American to lose their life abroad.  It’s cool at home, especially if they lost their life to a legally purchased gun, or if they are not white and middle class.  But that’s... read more

‘Ta Luego a la Tarjeta Blanca: The Exit Visa is on its Way Out

Today a pretty amazing thing happened: Raul Castro made good on a promise to abolish the dreaded exit visa, or Tarjeta Blanca.  Cubans will be able to leave (starting “before January 14, 2013” or as I like to call it, January 13) without acquiring an exit visa.  The exit visa was an excellent way for the state to maintain control not only by denying dissidents the right to leave, but also by rewarding demonstrated loyalty to the state and its one and only political party. Once Cubans have left, they will now be able to stay 24 months instead of 11 without effectively losing Cuban citizenship.  Cubans will also be able to apply for an extension while abroad.  Prior to this change, not returning after 11 months would result in loss of property, loss of the right to return home, and even if a Cuban in this position did manage to get back in, they would be ineligible for the ration card, housing, use of schools, health care, and any other benefits of being Cuban. That being said, and this being Cuba we’re talking about, I still have some reservations. Doctors, military and some other professionals will likely still not be able to leave as they are considered valuable “human capital” in Cuba.  This is an effort to prevent brain drain/the Imperialist US from stealing people that Cuba desperately needs.  I get the argument, as every developing country has to fight brain drain.  But in most of the developing world, promising students go abroad for their education.  In Cuba, the state has educated these people for free, and thus feels a bit more... read more

The Difference Between Then and Now

So much about this trip, this country and this traveler is exactly as it was two years ago.  I carry much of the same clothing, from my blue and orange dress to my running shoes, tinted pink from Cuba’s clay soil.  I still thrive on books and music, and breaks to watch movies and television in order to feel grounded.  I am constantly surrounded by people, which leads inevitably to crankiness as well as close friendships.  I cab everywhere now.  In general, this trip is more expensive than the last, although I’m not always paying.  It’s strange to me how rarely the students walk anywhere, and yet how often the complaints of heat and distance come.  And yet, they barely drink their water.  We have an elevator, which has only broken a handful of times, and even then only for a couple of hours.  We also only live on floors two, three and four, making the trek to the 14th floor penthouse seem unimaginable.  And while we’re on the topic of the penthouse, it couldn’t have been more of a misnomer.  Here the water is hot, there are no ants, and the lights work.  Rooms are only shared by two people, and each has its own bathroom with shower.  But then again, there is no balcony (the biggest crime in my book), and the bed and pillow situation is equally crummy.  While I have a much higher volume of food, more meat, and much more chicken, I still miss the good homemade touches.  Fresh, homemade jugo de mango, guayava, pina or watermelon used to accompany every breakfast and most dinners.  We also used... read more
Patina o Muerte

Patina o Muerte

Last Wednesday was a good, good day. Kade is doing his project on recreation in Cuba, so it was only a matter of time before running into the ninos, the skate kids Mi les befriended who were the inspiration for Cuba Skate.  I hung back and searched faces while Kade chatted them up and started taking photos.  At first they seemed suspicious of us, but as soon as one kid saw a picture where he looked good, the entire mood changed.  Suddenly no one was lounging in the shade, sitting on boards or staring lazily at the rollerbladers.  Everybody was up and showing off, doing tricks and mugging for the camera.  As Kade found a few guys who speak English, a familiar lanky Cuban skated up: Yordi. There was no question it was him.  Oye, Yordi.  He stared at me like I was an alien trying to take his wallet.  Que bola, asere?  Now sure I wasn’t addressing him by accident, he squinted at me for a minute.  The look on his face changed from suspicion to Holy Shit pretty quickly, and I got a big hug and a how’s everything?   Suddenly we were talking plans, and this place feels a bit more normal.  A bit more mine.  He skated around, vogueing for my pictures and flirting for the camera. Yordi looks so much older.  Head of big blond curls, distinct angular face, still rail thin.  He’s clearly looked up to, and he has even more swagger than before.  I’m sure there are more tattoos, and more skipping school.  It’s amazing to me how skaters have the same swagger, no matter where... read more

Return Traveling

I never meant to be a return traveler. The allure of more and more exotic passport stamps is pretty strong. Almost as strong as the allure of new and different countries. But at this point, I sit firmly in the category of a return traveler. I went to France in 2006 and returned in 2010. I went to Egpyt for six weeks in 2009 and returned for a long weekend in 2011. I went to Cuba in 2010 for three months and returned in 2012 for a month. I went to the Dominican Republic in 2011 and went back six weeks later. I have been to Canada and most of my domestic travel spots countless times. It makes sense that I’ve become a return traveler. In many other ways, I am not like the typical traveler, or travel blogger. I prefer my stays to last a month at a minimum. I almost always speak the language. I research the history, culture, and politics heavily and before and during my stay. This is just another way of settling myself deeper into the places I go. One value is that I get to see the changes. Pre- and post-Revolution Egypt look incredibly different, and I loved seeing how the place and people had changed. The progress in Cuba has been amazing, and I’ll be writing about it more later on. With the Republica Domincana, the two trips were close together but that meant everyone remember me. I had the great experience of keeping my promises and seeing Mata during the rainy season we had heard so much about. France is just a second skin,... read more

Incomunicado

I never truly thought before about how disconnected Cubans are.  Perhaps because I was too preoccupied with my own lack of communications.  Or because that narrative is so ingrained that all I learned here last time was about the opposite of stereotypes.  I found out they watch House and Gilmore Girls.  They know America’s music and politics.  These are not people who seem isolated.  But the last few days, we’ve been trying to negotiate phones and internet for the group.  Phones are not going to happen for the leaders of the group.  There’s a lot of legislation about phones, and they end up being cost prohibitive anyway.  90 CUC to set up the line, 20-30 CUC for the phone, and then there’s the minutes!  What Cuban has that kind of money? Last time I was here I was very lucky with the internet.  We had wifi in our home and at school.  It was slow, but I was able to email and google voice chat every once in a while.  All of that was free and in the two locations we went to most frequently.  This time, we have to pay 10 CUC for an hour’s worth of internet on one of Habana Libre’s computers.  Today we just now figured out how to get the internet on a couple of laptops at the Jose Marti center where we take classes.  It’s a landline, it’s slow, facebook, twitter, Skype and WordPress are all blocked.  If I were a Cuban with a question, where would I go?  The books sold at the Plaza de Armas are as old as dirt.  Getting to the internet is incredibly... read more

Aesthetics and Lectures

There are some beautiful photos coming out of this group. Some, though, don’t look like the Cuba that I know. Not that they’re going to new neighborhoods or meeting new people. Rather, some students are so good with their tools that they can manipulate a country (and a people and even buildings) I know so well into an alien landscape of pure, distilled beauty, often divorced of any social, political or economic reality. Cuba is just too important to me for that. I hate that for an American, there is no place to consume valuable, accurate news about Cuba. You can read the nostalgic memoirs of Miami Cubans, dipped in vitriol for Fidel. You can see the photos online of cigars, old cars and the same few Cuban workers dressed in colonial costumes. You can read Yoani Sanchez’s pissed prose, or the blogs of a few dedicated gringos. You can read the old fiction of Hemingway or Graham Greene. But where does an American turn to hear what regular old life is like for the majority of Cubans? After I came back last time, a couple of my dad’s cousins asked me, while we were doing the MS Walk in Porstmouth, NH, what a couple of guys like them would be doing if they were in and from Cuba. That is the question we need to ask ourselves about foreign countries, instead of reducing everything to sexualized or demonized stereotypes. I guess if I felt like Cuba was a well-covered topic, I could go for pure aesthetics. In Boston I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I value seeing... read more

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