On our very first night in Cuba, Mary and I struck out on our own to wonder the streets of Havana. Little did we know what was in store. When traveling, I love to get lost. Getting lost allows you to photograph what happens without any planning. It’s easy to do in Havana, but, as I later learned, pretty much all streets led back to Parque Central, the central square of Havana where our hotel was located.
Immediately, we were on sensory overload as the streets of Havana provide a feast of sights, sounds, smells… of humanity struggling to make ends meet. Havana is a city in flux. The condition of the buildings are somewhere between completely collapsed or getting repaired in preparation for the new economy hopefully brought on by the lifting of the U.S. embargo. The streets are full of rubble. Rubble from crumbling buildings, rubble from the laying of cable, water lines or other forms of infrastructure (all dug and built by hand) and rubble from simply things in ruin. It’s a dusty place.
As we walked, we happened upon a family working together on one of these piles. With a hand made sifter, they were going through the amassed piles of rocks and debris sifting out the sand to make huge and, obviously, heavy sandbags. I later learned that these bags were used to fortify parts of their homes, sold on the black market to create concrete and other things, or saved for later use. With exaggerated pantomime, I asked if I could photograph them. They welcomed me to shoot and showed us what they were doing. As the week wore on, I was struck by how the Cuban people utilized everything they could find to create things they could use. There is no waste in Cuba.
After making a few images, we started off and was immediately met by Lem. Lem asked us, in very good English, if we were hungry and told us we should eat at La Famalie, a palador (Mostly family-run businesses, paladares are fundamentally directed to serve as a counterpart to state-run restaurants for tourists seeking a more vivid interaction with Cuban reality, and looking for homemade Cuban food. – Wikipedia). We told Lem we weren’t hungry and promised to look for it when we were. He gave us a card with his name on it and asked us to give it to the restaurant because if we did, he’d get a quart of cooking oil for the reference. This is common in Havana. You’ll find people in the streets asking you if you want to go to a great restaurant and then escort you there in exchange for some sort of reward from the paladar. It took me a couple of escorts to catch on.
As we continued to wander, we came across an incredible intersection. Beautifully lit by an overhead light, fantastic murals on the decaying walls and a red blanket hanging from a wire perfectly overhead. It was like a movie set perfect for a photograph. All I needed was an actor to enter this stage. We must have hung out for 45 minutes waiting for something to happen, but
it was a slow night. We came back several times, but more on that later. Across from where we were standing was a gallery, El Ojo de Ciclon, with tango lessons in progress. Mary got a great shot of this and we were intrigued. We would return another night, but again, more on that later.
Moving on, we couldn’t find La Famalie so figured we’d just go back to the hotel. As often happens, when we stopped looking, lo and behold, Mary spotted the sign for the paladar. At the door, were two guys. They asked us if we wanted to eat a fantastic meal and we should come up the four flights of stairs to have dinner. I thought they
worked for the restaurant and gave them Lem’s card. We could see that the guy taking us up the initially foreboding stairs was a bit inebriated to say the least. On the third flight, we entered the apartment, where the stairs became lit and less forboding, and climbed two more flights to the rooftop paladar. Our friend sat us down and asked for a Mojito for his efforts. What the hell, it was our first night in Havana so we bought him a drink. After we were seated, he joined us with his mojito. Then, he brings over his girl and has her sit down, a single rose in her hand. He gets up to dance and there she sits, staring blankly at us and saying nothing. Well, talking about awkward! Finally, Mary looks at me with a soundless command “Get rid of her”. I look at them both and said, “Well, adios.” They go the message and, after a long, drunken goodbye, finally left.
Enters Lem. He came over to our table and asked if we gave the restaurant his card. We did. Well, we didn’t. Turns out the guy at the door didn’t actually work for the restaurant and he was there to
scam us out of the card and take credit for our meal instead. We didn’t know! Lem was great but terribly disappointed. I got up, talked to the palador’s owner and told them that Lem gave us the card and that’s why we were there. We had already ordered $50 worth of entrees. They said “We’re sorry, but we need the card”. They would not even consider giving Lem his well-earned quart of cooking oil without the card in spite of my protestations. I said “OK, we’re leaving.” Lem tried to stop us, but I told him that we didn’t want to dine with people who would treat him like that. Grateful for our support, he escorted us to another paladar where we had a lovely meal of overcooked but tasty lobster (fish is always overcooked in Cuba) on a balcony overlooking a small square and Lem got his quart of oil. By the time we had finished our meal, it was almost midnight and we had dawn patrol at 6am. Day one complete. The adventure continues.