By Meredith Bless
“Viva La Revolucion!” blanketed the heart of the city. Life was different back then. We looked over our shoulder as we walked down the deserted streets. It wasn’t fear of being robbed, but more so, fear of the Policia. Back then we were restricted to only explore specific urban city center streets, but at age 19, those of us seeking the truth behind real life in this forgotten city ventured beyond the .5 mile radius. Outside the restricted area, buildings were crumbling, the streets were empty and quiet, and new friends were arrested for conversing with us. That was 2001, traveling on a student visa into Havana, Cuba.
Fast forward 13 years, the travel embargo on Cuba has been lifted by President Obama, and photographers, Leah Nash and Chris Onstott of NashCo Photo, tour uninhibited on the island. Painted with propaganda, the remnants of an old regime linger as Cubans freely open their doors and invite their closest neighbors to lose themselves in the exotic landscape, culture, and everyday life.
Natural storytellers, NashCO Photo landed in Havana last month and, guided by instinct and opportune moments, chose to document the entrepreneurial Cuban through the eyes of the modern American tourist. Tourism may be defined differently depending on who you are. There's the backpacker satisfied with rustic shelter and enough food to get to the next stop, or the lavish and luxurious spa vacationer, and then the rest of us who fall somewhere in the middle.
"You get exactly out of Cuba what you put into it. You can have the accessible, expensive, theme park version, or you can work a bit harder to get under the surface." - Chris Onstott, photographer
The middle, that’s who I define as ‘modern tourist’. We have a curiosity about life beyond our borders and we aren’t afraid to explore. We appreciate creature comforts but can also ‘rough it’ if need be, to have an unforgettable experience in a foreign land. We possess a desire to learn, and that’s why we travel, even if it’s only once every 5 years. We may not speak a second language, but hope to someday, or at least hope our children will. When times are good or bad, we stow away a little cash for that next vacation, be it white sand beaches, cycling somewhere in South America, an extended visit to the Louvre or, yes, a cultural tour throughout Cuba.
As the viewer, allow yourself the luxury to lose yourself in the photo story below. Perhaps it will be a precursor to that next dream vacation that you will someday undoubtedly fulfill.
Did you have a contact in Cuba to help guide your trip from the beginning?
We reached out to photographers, journalists and gallery owners before we got there and ended up spending the day with several of them when we were there. Really helped gain perspective on the country.
What would you recommend to a friend to do when in Cuba?
Uh, everything? Take a ride in an old classic car around Havana. A long walk down Havana's Malecón in the evening is a must as is the FAC (Fábrica de Arte Cubano) a huge art gallery/dance club/performance space all housed beneath the roof of a former cooking oil plant near the Almendares River in Havana's Vedado neighborhood. Take dance or Spanish lessons. Talk to lots of strangers. Play dominos. Get in trouble.
Where did you stay and how was the hospitality?
We stayed predominantly in Casa particulares, basically the Cuban version of Airbnbs. It is a great way to see how Cubans live. We watched baseball and Cuban soap operas on TV, ate homemade ice cream, woke up to roosters crowing on tobacco farms, watched the sun go down over Havana from a terrace rooftop. Everyone was incredibly warm and friendly and they love Americans.
How did you meet the middle class people who let you photograph them in their homes?
Middle class is a tricky word, and I'm not sure too many Cubans would use it, the country is still Communist after all. I would say that Cubans who interact with tourists (private drivers, the people who ran the BnB's or restaurants (paladares) in their home) had more disposable income than others.
What experience would you say is most memorable as well as eye opening or unexpected?
Watching cockfighting was probably one of the most unexpected or memorable things. There is a long tradition of it in Cuba and a huge source of pride for the owners. Kind of difficult to watch but so fascinating to be a part of the culture.
Other memorable moments involve ending up in the emergency room experiencing free health care first hand. Not a lot of supplies but Leah was fixed up pronto. This is a note to avoid playing baseball barefoot.
Also, riding in a taxi for 3 hours with a Cuban doctor discussing the benefits of communism (and learning that his salary is, $80 a month!).
Getting lost as we rode our bikes into the sunset (because that's where the good light is), photographing everyone we meet.
What would you do differently the next time you visit Cuba?
Learn more Spanish, bring hot sauce. Visit different parts of Cuba. Learn to salsa dance.
Is there anything else you would like to add about the tourism scene in Cuba?
First of all, we did try our best to avoid the tourist scene, not always successfully. If you go to Cuba as a tourist it is very easy to stay on the surface; stay in hotels, eat in tourist restaurants, hang out with foreigners, etc. The government seems to want to encourage this as much as possible, there is even a separate currency. So be aware of that. You get exactly out of Cuba what you put into it. You can have the accessible, expensive, theme park version, or you can work a bit harder to get under the surface. It is a complicated country, one unlike anything we had experienced before. Cuba seems to be the exact opposite of the United States in many ways. They both have their own good and bad. We are an over busy nation of consumers, with anything you want a click away. Many Cubans have very little in terms of luxury goods, but they have time to talk and watch life go by, play sports, and socialize with their neighbors. And that's not even getting into politics!