After spending two nights at an outpost near the Algerian border on our madcap trip across Tunisia, we paid a visit to one of the Star Wars sets that still stands out in the desert. The moisture vaporators must have really been doing their job because right as we pulled up, it started raining. It definitely wasn’t the kind of smoking hot, dry day that you’d expect to visit such a place on. And, the sky definitely wasn’t the blue sky I would have hoped for. Still, it was pretty awesome to be standing on one of the sets for Star Wars—even if it was for one of the episodes that I wasn’t too fond of (cough Phantom Menace cough).
If you take a look at the map of the location, you can see that the set is pretty far out from the populated areas of Tunisia. It’s not an easy place to get to. Even this far out, however, there were a few locals who wanted to sell trinkets and bead necklaces for a Dinar or two to the few tourists that make it out here.
I wonder how much longer the set will last. The facades are pretty well built and the weather probably won’t do it in, but the sand dunes are obviously starting to encroach, leaving a few moisture vaporators—made out of plywood, by the way—half buried. I would have investigated more, but the rain turned into a deluge, something the Sahara probably needed but which chased us back on the road to head to our next destination.
My return to the United States after being in Cuba for a week lasted all of 28 hours or so. Just long enough to catch a night of sleep in a Miami hotel before flying to Tunis via Newark and Istanbul. Three flights later—including an overnight layover in Istanbul where Katerina met up with me—we were off the plane and whisked directly away to La Marsa to help our friends Houssem Aoudi and Fatène Ben-Hamza get ready for their wedding.
What’s a typical Tunisian wedding like? I’ve got no idea, really. Houssem and Fatène took a modified approach where they had a civil wedding with official people, family, and friends gathered together in a big hall where the couple were seated facing each other, lots of official sounding stuff was said, and then everyone wished the happy couple well. After the contractual ceremonies were duly done with, we zipped off for a more casual dinner with a smaller group of friends. I’d try to compare that to the typical rehearsal dinner in American weddings, but no. It wasn’t like that either.
True to the newlywed couple’s nature, the next few days weren’t typical either. Instead of privately heading off to a honeymoon the next day, they invited a few friends to pile into a big car with them on an adventure across Tunisia to go visit Roman ruins, Berber villages and cities, and indulge in a Hammam in the middle of nowhere near the Algerian border. It was a totally surprising and unexpected adventure. One that won’t ever be forgotten. More about all of that in the next few posts.
Everyone who goes to Cuba remarks on the cars. It’s easy to. Where else in the world can you go and see so many American automobiles from the 50’s? Of course, the reason why they are there is pure necessity. Cubans kept the cars running far beyond their design life as a matter of practicality. The original engines have been replaced and then replaced again, mostly with diesel engines. Ad-hoc repairs layer on top of improvised parts when the originals wore out. Emissions control is nonexistent. The entire time I was in Havana, my eyes, nose, and throat were complaining about the crud in the atmosphere.
Interestingly enough, while you’ll see Ladas and other Soviet automobiles here and there, you don’t see nearly as many. What you do see in numbers that have seriously increased since I was last there two years ago are the numbers of vehicles made in Asia. All the police cars are Korean-made Kias now. The ancient buses used for public transportation have been replaced with Chinese-made Yutongs. I even saw an Audi and a few Mercedes cars which were obviously owned by some elites. But, at least for now, the 50s American cars still rule the road here, and likely will for at least a few more years.
Going to photograph a place like Cuba is not a simple exercise and it’s full of questions. As an American subject to the rules of the US government’s embargo against Cuba, one of the first questions is how do you get there, legally? There’s a variety of ways, including the person to person cultural exchanges such as the ones organized by Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. You could also go illegally via Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas, but then you’re flying without much of a net. Europeans, of course, don’t have to deal with a prohibition on travel and are there in droves. In fact, my friends in Europe didn’t get what a big deal it was to go until I explained the situation in detail. And then they still look at me funny with a expression that says: “Really? Come on… You must be kidding.”
After simple logistics, however, the questions become nuanced and tend to group around motivation. Why even go? What are you hoping to get out of the experience? What do you hope that the locals will get out of meeting you? Will going support or defend those currently in power and how? Does going somehow increase the problems of the locals or might it actually help in some small way? These are all questions I’ve faced before in my travels—most notably when I went to Myanmar (Burma) over a year ago.
There aren’t simple answers, of course. For some—especially for those in the Cuban American community who are fairly unequivocal in their continued support of the embargo—there is absolutely no excuse for traveling to Cuba. It’s simply seen as encouraging the policies of the Castro regime by supporting them monetarily with the money made at the hotels and restaurants. It’s the same sort of argument that the Burmese opposition used to make in their call for travelers to boycott Myanmar—a stance they’ve since reversed with a new embrace a responsible form of tourism to encourage understanding between people.
Our group had hundreds of small interactions with Cubans during our week. Sometimes, it was a simple exchange of a smile. Many times, it was part of an attempt to sell a taxi ride or a cigar, inevitably starting with a “Hello my friend, where are you from?” but which sometimes evolved into a discussion about current politics or even an occasional personal dissertation of a personal history. More than one of these evolved into a long discussion. The most striking of our interactions to me, however, were the longer term ones we had with the two local Cuban photographers who accompanied us for the week: Ramsés H. Batista and Leysis Quesada.
If there’s the start of a positive entrepreneur class in Cuba—one which builds a life based on creation instead of simply taking advantage of some non-renewable or agricultural resource that can be easily exploited—these two are definitely in it. Ramsés is in the process of opening a studio. Leysis has international exhibitions of her work. Both have made and published photographs documenting day to day life in Cuba. They work within the boundaries of the system—one of the ways they make money is by helping groups like ours—but they’re part of a group of people that is using each expansion of the boundaries to build for their future.
We learned a lot from them, and I’m grateful for what they taught me about Cuban culture and the realities of being a photographer there right now. I’m pretty sure it went both ways, too. Our group was composed of professional photographers and several brilliant technologists. This lead to many great discussions between Cubans and Americans over late night dinners that covered all sorts of topics worthy of continuing discussion.
Of course, emerging entrepreneurs like Ramsés and Leysis are very much a super minority in Cuba. But almost every other Cuban with whom we interacted with was also looking forward to the future in one way or another—the younger generations being the most eager, as you might expect. We saw a surprising number of iPhones and other smart phones in use by Cubans, even though most didn’t seem to be actively online. I snuck a look at as many screens as I could and only one or two had any kind of data connectivity—and those only at GPRS speed. But people are managing to find their way and when data access does become more common place, they’re going to take full advantage of what it can do for them.
The more I travel the world, the more I believe that the most important lesson that comes from it is that the more people interact with each other, the better. Of course, not all of those interactions will be good ones. It’d be beyond naïve to expect that and certainly there’s a dark side to Cuba—just as there is in many countries. But when it’s done constructively, interaction can help tear down barriers and help people on both sides understand each other as humans instead of imagining them as what propaganda could lead you to believe.
Not to get too all philosophical here but, for me, I think one of the things that drives my travel to places like Cuba—and certainly something I became that much more aware of during this trip—is the process of tackling the “Otherness” that still drives much of the fundamentals of how our world operates. I might not be able to do much but showing up, having a few great interactions that hopefully help out a few Cubans as they build towards a different future, and then bringing home and sharing some stories—especially with everyone who sees them here on my blog—is my way of doing at least a little bit. Is it enough? Not hardly. But it’s a start.
There’s a distinct texture to Havana. It’d be easy to say that the city was frozen in time after the revolution and the embargo went into effect, but that’s not exactly the right way to describe it. It wasn’t hermetically sealed in some sort of bubble and perfectly preserved. Instead, it’s been lived in by generations of inhabitants who kept things going as best as they could, adding a coat of paint here or there when possible.
Given the relative disrepair of almost everything, there’s one thing about Cuba that I still find suprising: It’s not a place of squalor. Trash and litter collects in the buildings that have fallen apart too far and are abandonded, but anywhere people live is as tidy as one could expect. Certainly far tidier than anywhere else where people live on so little.
During our pre-trip briefing the night before leaving for Cuba, David Hobby talked a bit about how he was going to approach the week photographically and what he hoped to see in the quick edit of six photos that we all would present at the end of our time in Havana. During his talk, he called me out saying, “Duncan goes to these incredible places and then posts all these beautiful photos that could be post-apocalyptic because they don’t have any people in them.” Then, he issued a challenge directly to me: “I want to see people in your shots this trip.”
Fair enough. He had a point. Loving a good challenge, my response was: “You’re on!”
It wasn’t all that hard, of course, to photograph people in Cuba. Cubans are friendly, and curious. Even the street hustlers wanting to take you to a bar for mojitos or a shop to get a cigar are happy to hang out, talk, and give you their perspective on life if you don’t say yes to their proposition. Sometimes that perspective was polished. Other times, not so much. We heard a lot of raw emotion about things that happened in the past.
Despite the ease with which we could mix with locals, it would have been all to easy to let the prescribed activities we participated in—we travelled on a person-to-person cultural exchange permit from the US Department of State and the Cuban tourist authorities have a vested interest in showing the most polished side of their country—to drive the photographic agenda. If that’d happened, we would all have come home with portfolios of old folks smoking cigars and hanging out in lovingly cared for decaying old houses. We wanted more than that.
So, we took full advantage of our free time outside the prescribed activities. We got up early, braved the hot and humid afternoons when the sun was at its strongest, and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning wandering streets—sometimes in parts of town that we were warned about. “Watch your camera!” was something that Bryan and I heard more than a few times as we wandered through the sketchier areas.
There are many that want to force one kind of narrative or another onto Cuba because of its past, its odd relationship with the USA as a result, and the interesting position it finds itself in right now as it transitions from whatever it was into whatever it becomes. Some of those narratives are fascinating. Others verge on shrill or even extremist. All of them have a place and deserve to be part of the conversation. If you stick too much to the traditional narratives, however, and focus solely on what was or how it came to be, you’ll miss the most important story right now: The transition in Cuba is in full swing.
I can’t begin to communicate how much has changed since I was last there two years ago on a marine science mission. Commerce has really ramped up. A lot of people are taking those small steps from selling a few goods to opening up shops to planning for a future. Every time I told someone that I was there before, they asked if I noticed the changes. How could one not? Even the food was better in quality on average everywhere we went.
Have the Cuban people been through a lot? Very much so. Is it all suddenly great and rosy? Not even close. Things happen or don’t happen on a whim of persons unknown. Major problems, like pervasive street prostitution that is openly ignored by authorities, are easily visible. Will there continue to be problems going forward? Almost certainly. This won’t—and probably can’t—be a perfect process and there will be some big bumps as the gap between haves and have nots inevitably increases. But, almost everyone I met on the trip—certainly everyone I photographed—was participating in that process and looking forward to the future.
Of course, my viewpoint during my time in Cuba isn’t without bias. I was there as an outsider. If we chose, we could have stayed in a relatively insulated bubble drinking mojitos and smoking cigars that cost a month or more of a doctor’s salary—something like $25—while sitting under palm trees. Yes, we had mojitos and smoked a cigar or two, but we also got out and walked five to ten miles a day and saw as much as we could. The people in these photos are representative of who I saw on those walks.