She didn’t say it out loud, but that’s what I’m sure she thought as she poured my second cup of the morning. I stayed in a B&B two blocks off Obispo Street in Old Havana on my three-night trip to Cuba for Santa Fe College. The housekeeper, who’s also the mother of the owner, doesn’t speak English and I speak even less Spanish. But when I pointed to my mug suggesting another pour, she gave me a look like I was crazy. But how often do I get to sip coffee while eating fresh fruit and a fresh mango smoothie in Cuba? She shrugged her shoulders, pointed to a bottle of water and in very broken English said “This is American Coffee.” Then happily poured me a second cup.
Here’s my view of breakfast each morning.
A post-lunch cup of coffee. Should be noted that Cuban coffee is basically an espresso shot so it’s served in a tiny mug. The trick? Lots of sugar.
View of and from my B&B room.
On Christmas morning I get a text from the VP of the college asking if my passport was up to date because he wanted to send me to Cuba. I learned the hard way a few years ago to always keep my passport up to date. I was assigned to travel with four others from the college, including the president, to document the historic trip. The mission of the trip was the meet with Cuban artists and visit the art school to build a relationship with Santa Fe College. So my photos are a nice mix between Pete Sousa-style photojournalism (not nearly as good of course) and scenes around Havana that struck me as interesting.
Raul Villarreal, Santa Fe College’s Coordinator of Cultural Programs (and a hell of an artist) grew up in Cuba. His father, Rene, grew up playing baseball in the front yard of Ernest Hemingway’s home, the Finca Vigía and would befriend the American writer. He later became the Majordomo (housekeeper) at the Finca Vigía and became known as “Hemingway’s Cuban Son.”
Needless to say, we had an amazing source of Cuban and Hemingway knowledge with us on the trip. We also got an inside look at Hemingway’s home. Tourists are able to walk the grounds of the famous house and look into the windows. We were able to get a personal tour inside the house. We got a close up look at Hemingway’s library. We stood in the bedroom, next to his typewriter where he did a lot of his wiring. We listened to Hemingway’s record player that had last been turned on for the Obamas. We (I) took a selfie in Hemingway’s bathroom mirror. Hemingway weighed himself every day. He recorded the date and weight on his bathroom wall. You can see his final entry before moving back to the States on the bottom left… July 24, 1960. He moved back on the 25th. I’ve been to Canada and the Bahamas, but in those countries I was canoeing on a lake or at a resort surrounded by Americans. So this trip to Cuba was my first time feeling like a tourist and foreigner. I had seen pictures of Cuba, but mostly of Castro and old cars. So I went into the trip with a completely open mind on what I would see, hear or smell. I knew a little bit about the history of the island and why time seemed to stop down there in the 1950’s. What I didn’t know was how much those factors contributed to the beauty of the island. It’s hard to describe so I’ll try to show it.
Do you ever compare cities when you travel? Have you ever been somewhere and said “you know, this place reminds me of Atlanta…” or whatever city. I kept trying to do that in Cuba. I kept trying to make comparisons to other cities I’d visited. But I couldn’t. Havana is so unique that it’s really tough to compare to anywhere else (that I’ve been too at least.)
The closest I could come would be New Orleans. Both are fairly large cities with a strong connection to their culture and the arts. Both cities are welcoming to visitors but not afraid to let you know that you’re not from there. Both have a popular street through a historic part of town filled with shops, bars, hotels and restaurants. The difference? Locals avoid Bourbon Street unless there’s an event. And from what I saw, Obispo Street is shared almost evenly between tourists and locals.
The journalist in me wants so badly to go back and dig deeper into this Country. I only scratched the surface. There are so many stories to tell all across the island. Stories that will be changing quickly now that Americans are able to travel down there. I’d love to go back once a year and document the changes. Document not just the influence of the Americans, but document the proud Cuban people and their culture. Until then, I’ll just enjoy their coffee… and maybe their cigars and rum too.
If you’re around Gainesville on Sunday, April 23, 2017 come out to Oak Hammock for the Pura Cuba art exhibit. Opening reception is from 2:30 – 5. The show runs through July. I’ll have five pieces in the show along side some amazing work from other artists.