This US Traveler’s Glimpse of Cuba

Monday morning commute in Trinidad.


Photos and text by Dan Segal*

HAVANA TIMES — In March, I visited Cuba for the first time, with a friend.  We both have families and are in the busy peak years of our work lives, so it was hard to pull it off, and equally rewarding to do it.  One of the most enjoyable surprises of the trip was feeling the warm familiarity of the Cuban people.

Here in the US, we’ve heard characterizations of Cuba for many years, so until I visited, all I had were passive presumptions.  Members of my extended family tried to tell me how it would feel in Cuba, and what it would be like–mostly trying to curb my optimism–even though none of them had visited Cuba.

Big sister, little sister.

The whole experience proved positive, which should not be a surprise, but that’s why we travel, to feel common threads of love and humanity, as well as the common burdens of humanity’s weight, that we all share no matter where we live on Earth.

For US citizens to visit Cuba, our travel must fall under one of 12 accepted reasons.  Many US citizens choose the ‘People to People’ category because it seems the most general.  Many times during our visit, the power of this term came to mind because the people of Cuba engaged us in conversations that opened doors of culture, and of the mind. Doors that led to beautiful and intriguing places, and to more doors, some of which we did not open, and I daydream about returning to knock on those.

Even the casual photographer will find Cuba an inexhaustible dream. With an extra camera battery, I still charged twice a day. It would be cliché, and a mistake, to simply focus the lens on the structures and trappings of antiquity, as if juxtaposition is Cuba’s only trait, as if Havana and the entire country is only a museum that highlights time having passed, as if the whole culture is summed up as a time capsule. But then again, it’s impossible to miss that side of Cuba’s personality.

I appreciated the patience of so many Cubans who didn’t seem to mind my camera being out all the time.  Walking the streets for miles and hours, by day and by night, seeking immersion in the whirlwind of nuance and circumstance, and talking with people along the way, the photographer tries to capture dimension, and add depth to every image, beyond the substance of the photo.  A good photo catches facial expression or some recognizable body language that enriches the story and adds meaning in a format that lacks words, such as the ‘Rolling Market’ or ‘Sharing Photos’ images. A good photo should offer more than just the building or the people or the scenery within its borders. I hope some of those added dimensions come through in this sampling of photographs.

Soccer in Plaza Vieja.

A few themes emerged in the scenes I found myself drawn to capture on film.  These themes translated loosely into the folder names I used for organizing over 2,000 photos, including Street Scenes, People, Sports, Agriculture/Work, Transportation (with subheadings of Cars/Trucks, Bicycles, Horses/Wagons).  Horses and wagons were such a vibrant and emblematic feature of the few days we spent in and around the city of Trinidad.

Again, easy to snap cliché photos of horses and wagons, but from behind the lens, it’s so much more than that–it’s the low-angle light on the faces of the riders, or the rainbow of colors in the clothing of the wagon passengers, and the slanting last light of day on their faces as they squint a little against the universal sun. All glimpses of real people thinking real thoughts during real moments of real days.  Apprehension, anxiety, daydreaming, fantasizing…whatever people do while they’re going about their lives.

The four soccer photos show boys picking teams at Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, and pickup games in Trinidad on Calle Cruz Verde and at the school there. The boy standing on the raised concrete sidewalk as his friends played 2 on 2 was announcing the play-by-play action in a high pitched voice, part narrator and part comedian.

The universal beauty of pick-up soccer was easy to see in its pure form, everywhere we saw kids playing soccer, often barefoot boys, no sidelines, no adults or coaches, and none of the expensive accessories that have deflated the joy of youth sports in the US, and turned it into yet another business.

This is not to sound idealistic about what kids or people may lack in Cuba, but the joy of kids playing soccer in the street and on rough fields was anything but idealistic.  It was realistic.  You play with what you have, where you can–a good reset for kids in the US, and I wish the kids I coach here in New York could have seen that.

A mother of one of the boys was sitting nearby, and when I asked her if she minded me taking photos, she said of course not, and asked if I wanted her to take me to the school field around the corner where the older kids were playing.  The other two photos are from that schoolyard.

One photo shows the classic and natural movement of team soccer as all kids are moving in unison while one carries the ball up field, as they all gracefully avoid some concrete pieces half-buried in the field.  If kids in the US played in these conditions, they’d all be better soccer players, again, not to sound idealistic, but as a coach, I see many young kids who are well trained and well outfitted, but lack the innate wisdom that only comes from pick-up soccer in an unstructured environment.

Would it be nice for these kids to have a lush green field to play on?  Maybe. But they all seemed to be doing well and having fun without that.  The last schoolyard photo was more about how the light seemed to elongate the already long forms of the boys who were waiting for next game.  And how the stretching light seemed to stretch the waiting…anyone who has called ‘next game’ on the playground should recognize this scene.

Trinidad, last light

For years I have been photographing plants and ecology for the work I do, but in Cuba, I found myself drawn to taking photos of people. Seeing kids arriving for the school day at Plaza Vieja was both charming and a little sad. I could not help but think of our morning routine at home, which can be stressful and dreary during the long dark months of winter.  I’m sure some kids were worrying about some things, but there was such a pleasant calm and sweetness about the kids we watched as they crossed the square for school, some in pairs, some with parents, some with siblings…fathers handing over lunch money, parents carrying backpacks, kids snacking, gossiping, smiling…

I also found myself taking endless photos of Cuba’s colorful and creative modes of transportation, and its simplest forms of conveyance, not just the luscious old US cars, but the more stoic Russian trucks, as well as the lean perfection of the bicycle, or the timelessness of the horse-drawn wagon.  Father and daughter on horseback on Calle Cruz Verde, that was a Monday morning, another going-to-school photo.

Nice way to get to school–and again, though it might seem idealistic, to me it seems like a bottom-line situation: maybe they don’t own a car, maybe they do, but father and daughter look pretty happy, and close, compared to some of the glum faces I see at the school drive-through here in New York on a Monday morning.  It is hard to generalize, or put a finger squarely on the reason, so I would rather not–but instead, will let a photograph capture a moment, and a moment’s emotion, without the burden of analysis.

The only questions for me after visiting Cuba are when I can get back there, and for how long can I stay…

*Havana Times Guest writer

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22 thoughts on “This US Traveler’s Glimpse of Cuba

  • June 11, 2017 at 12:44 am

    I cannot comment about a photograph of somebody in a Mercedes. I am aware that Fidel was said to have a fleet of them, but my personal observation of Raul has been in BMW’s. on the autopista.

  • June 10, 2017 at 1:56 pm

    Thank you for your insight into the Cuban system— it makes me sad to think people must always be afraid someone is listening in to “report” them if they say something that could be labeled “subversive.” Yes, the US system needs some revamping to be sure, but thank goodness every 4 years we can vote someone else in and let the parties argue things out in Congress. No system is perfect but it sounds like no one in Cuba is able to thrive in a purely economic sense? A photo of a young person in a Mercedes seems strangely deceptive– how is that possible on $30/month? I read news reports that some private businesses are now permitted with the profits going to the entrepreneur rather than the govt? That seems like a good sign perhaps. I almost feel defeated before even traveling there — do these volunteer groups actually help people [for example, teaching English to children] or will we be perpetuating a myth? Complicated :/

  • June 7, 2017 at 6:19 pm

    Hi, my friend has some relatives who are on social media and I think I would be able to track him down that way. I have not attempted to do this as I don’t really use facebook etc . But I think it is a viable option. Just not wanting to trigger any paranoia on his part– he had a LOT of paranoia about government watching/listening/recording. I never knew if it was real or maybe a PTSD issue? :/

  • June 7, 2017 at 6:17 pm

    On every block of every village, town and city in Cuba there is a ‘President’ of the CDR (Committee for the Defence of the Revolution) established by Fidel Castro on September 28, 1960 with the declared purpose being:

    “a collective system of revolutionary vigilance so that everybody (ie: the regime) knows who lives on every block, what they do on every block…in what activities they are involved and with whom they meet.”

    The Presidents of the CDR report to the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) and their duties include an annual report upon every single citizen. Those are now on a computer program. The Head of Cuba’s security services both within and outside Cuba (MININT) is General Alejandro Castro Espin, Raul Castro’s son.

    My advice is that when you have had time to assess any particular person, that you confine conversations to one on one, not in a group. Secondly that you do so only when well clear of others. Don’t embarrass Cubans by directly asking them political questions – remember that criticism of the regime by them is a criminal offence for which they can be jailed, just let them talk.

    The CDR when established was tutored by the East German Stasi. These forms of internal spying are based upon a system introduced by Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1935. General Alejandro Castro Espin has received training in Moscow.

    One of the questions which I am asked by young Cubans, is:

    “What is the difference between our political system and yours?”

    My response – only given in one on one conversations – is:

    In Cuba, the government has all the money and gives a little to the people, in our country the people have all the money and give a liitle – which we think is too much – called tax, to the government. If we don’t like the government there is opportunity every four years for the people to change it for a different political party and that happens – the people control.”

    Now I expect Maria that some of the US contributors will respond with abuse, but the US system is peculiar compared with other democratic nations. Clinton had 3 million more votes than Trump(f).

  • June 7, 2017 at 2:42 pm

    Thank you I will do so! Will these places be mostly free from the watchful eye of the government or is it necessary to be extremely careful and stay away from any politically charged conversations with a host? I like learning from people about their personal situations/beliefs but do not want any problems!

  • June 6, 2017 at 7:02 pm

    Airbnb is an American outfit that has newly entered the Cuban market and charges for its services, if you book accommodation through them you will pay a higher price – I recently checked and was surprised at their high prices.
    My advice is to go to:
    It is Cuban and operated by a fellow named Raul Fuentes and there is no charge. On the site you will find details of each casa in each town and price per room. Reservation can be made on site and confirmation by e-mail is given. You pay the casa directly when you are there.
    Normal prices are about $US equivalent of $35 per room (accomodate 2 or 3), in Havana and $25 per night in Trinidad, Vinales, Baracoa and elsewhere. Usually the casa is the best place to eat. Breakfast 3 – 4 CUC, supper 8 -10 CUC.
    Unless you have an address, how are you going to contact your friend?

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