People fascinate me.
How they look. How they talk. How they smell (well, not all people smell “fascinating”). But people are definitely one of the major things that I observe and analyze while traveling.
Interacting with the local people & discovering how they live life forms an integral part of the travel experience. It didn’t take me too long to realize that the Cuban people were certainly a highlight of the country.
Walking through the streets of Cuba you can see anything: a blonde-haired women with brown eyes, a black man with blue eyes, or a mulatta with light green eyes. Years of interracial mixing have resulted in a rainbow-spectrum of Cubanos.
But it’s not just their physical beauty that “te llama la atención” (gets your attention), it’s also their contagious happiness & resiliently optimistic attitudes, in spite of the everyday Cuban struggle. Keep in mind that most of these peoples’ official monthly salary is between $15-25 USD, meaning they must find some other way to earn money & put food on the table.
I was inspired, so I decided to start a project called Faces of Cuba. I took pictures of various people, and tried to meet most & discover a little bit about them. These people left an impression on me, and I hope through these pictures & brief descriptions you can begin to use your imagination & piece together what they may actually be like as a person, or what type of life they might lead.
Faces of Cuba
This band showed up on the beach with some tropical tunes, and this drummer was by far the coolest cat in the ensemble.
A true Cuban tobacco farmer, Guillermo explained the whole Cuban tobacco process to us. He spends months planting & harvesting the tobacco, then drying & curing the leaves, only to have the government take about 90% of his product to the Cohiba factories in Havana. He hand rolled multiple stogies in front of our eyes, and we were more than happy to take a few off his hands & put some cash directly in his pocket.
I met Ruben in the line at a corner breakfast restaurant & offered to buy him a coffee & a sandwich. In exchange for the 20 cents I spent on him, he gave me 20 minutes of his time, telling me about his life helping physically & mentally challenged children. He loves his job, said he will never retire, & plans to work until the day he dies helping others.
I never talked to him, but given that we were crammed like sardines in the back of old Soviet passenger truck with 50 other people, he must really love that guitar!
Lazaro walked past me on the sidewalk the day of a big Barcelona soccer game. I saw his jersey & asked him where he was going to watch the game. He told me about his friend who had figured out how to illegally pick-up American TV channels with his antenna, and invited me to come with him to his house. It seemed like the entire neighborhood watched the game with us, & every time Barca scored, we all jumped around, hugged each other, ran out into the streets, & screamed our victory cries to anyone who would listen. It was like we had been friends for years.
At first, Ramiro & I didn’t like each other, because when he greeted me with the customary “Where are you from?” (what all Cuban street hustlers say), I told him that he needed to learn some new pickup lines & he took offense. I explained to him that if he could learn some new openers in English, he would set himself apart from the rest of the street hustlers & gain more opportunities with tourists. I taught him some basic phrases. The next day I saw him again, he greeted me with a hug, and guided me all the way through the city to the museum that I was looking for, free of charge. He only asked for a picture of me, so he’d have something to remember me by.
Rodrigo told me that this statue was actually a statue of him. Even though it looks a heck of a lot like him, I’m not sure I believed him. Either way, it made for a good picture.
These 3 women work in a government-run restaurant right outside of a major tourist attraction, so there are always plenty of customers coming to eat. Despite their prime location & government support, they still suffer from what has plagued Cuba for years: shortage of products. If you notice in the background, the menu on the wall only has 3 options listed. In Cuba you don’t complain when there’s nothing more than coffee, juice, & ham sandwiches. You order, pay, & appreciate what you have.
These old fellas sit on the curb, smoke like chimneys all day, & pose for tourists’ pictures. How could you not want a snapshot of these guys? After bumping into them a few times & making some jokes, they gave me a free cigar. We puffed for a while, chatted a bit, then I went on my way.
Christopher was so proud of his dad’s eclectic catches, that he proceeded to pull each & every fish out of his burlap sack, & explain their names to me in Spanish. I can’t remember which fish this was, but it kind of looks like a Christopher fish to me (hehe).
Rafael grabbed my attention when he advertised his friend’s fruit stand by calling his mangos “mangoskies.” He was screaming, “Mangoskies, mangoskies. Ricos y frescos – llevate unos mangoskies hoy!” (Fresh & tasty mangooskies, take some with you today!) I started talking with him, and within a few minutes he was showing me his prized tattoo of the Statue of Liberty holding up the country of Cuba (his interpretation of “freedom for Cuba”). He proudly told me he was going to put his next tattoo on his chest, and it would be of Raul & Fidel Castro with their hands on Cuba, wringing it like a towel to squeeze every last drop out. Then, he passed me his phone number, & told me to call him when I come back to Cuba so I could take a new picture & put it on the internet. The mangoskies were good too.
Rosa was the matriarch figure at the House of Trova in Santiago de Cuba. It didn’t matter who was currently playing live music, if she wanted to sing, she would. She’d stand up, whisper instructions to the current band, and then belt her soul out with the band newly converted into her supporting cast. Emphatic applause always ensued.
After buying a few glasses of guarapo, Danyel, Reneé & María invited me in to see their guarapera (sugar cane juice stand) first hand. They enthusiastically showed me how they make a living, & invited me to hang out & “party” with them all day. If it wasn’t my last day in Havana, I probably would have accepted the offer.
When I bought a cup of coffee from Marta & started talking with her, I could see some loneliness in her eyes. She told me that her only daughter had moved to the United States a few years ago, and she missed her fiercely. The cost of internet in Cuba is expensive, and she didn’t make enough money selling coffee to be able to afford this ability to contact her daughter. She gave me her daughter’s email address, and politely asked me to send her this picture so her daughter could how her mother looks nowadays.
Maybe you remember this little girl from the first photo in this post. After I took that photo, this little girl took my by the hand & dragged me through the entire neighborhood, looking for her grandmother so that I could show her the picture. Once we finally found her, she made me take another picture of them together, then go inside & show both of the pictures to the rest of her family. I would have happily repeated the entire process 5 times.
The Cuban People – Beautiful Inside & Out
A while ago, National Geographic published an article about What Americans Will Look Like in 2050. Well, that’s what Cubans look like, right now.
But Cubans aren’t just physically stunning. Cubans are, despite all the adversities of life in Cuba, some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. Sadly, many foreigners never get to know Cubans because they are intimidated by the directness of jineteros (hustlers) in the street. If they’d only dug a little deeper…
“No es facil” (It’s not easy) is a popular saying you’ll hear Cubans say daily, and it describes life in Cuba perfectly. With limited products due to a trade embargo, limited freedoms due to their government, & virtually no luxuries nor disposable income, it could be easy to think that Cubans would be bitter & resentful people. Instead, I met one joyful & content person after the other.
Traveling through Cuba reminds you to be happy with what you do have & to appreciate the simple things in life. It’s a stark contrast with the dangerous cycle of consumerism which characterizes many other countries.
You don’t need a lot of things to be happy – just look at the Faces of Cuba.
Want to see more of the beautiful Cuban people? Check out Faces of Cuba Part 2!