Cuba. Las cosa esta dura. 24 hours in Havana.


Cuba. Havana.

Growing up in post Soviet Union space I remember all the songs and movies praising this friendly little island. Cuba in my mind has always seemed to be like children coloring book- bright, happy, fun and full of colors.

I wasn't wrong about it and at the same time I was.

I'm not going to make comments about the regime. I come from the country that overcame it therefore it's hard to fool me by showing the plazas and tank museums. I'm going to show you the back side of one of the greatest cities that I have ever seen which is currently being destroyed by... By what? Politicians? Time? People's minds? Laziness? Fear? Everyone gets to decide for themselves.

This post in not made to hurt anyone's feelings. Havana took a very special place in my heart and if I could change anything to see this place strive and bloom- I would.

***

It's 7 in the morning and the voice in our little cabin is waking us up:

"Welcome to Havana. Disembark and enjoy your day".

It's me and my sister, our first cruise and... Our first trip to the place that we always heard of and always wanted to visit.

Expecting the colors of Havana to sweep us off our feet we run to the balcony for some breakfast and...

Hello there. Is this place really alive?

Black holes instead of windows and no lights in any of them... Is it too early?

Maybe Cuban people wake up later? It's almost 8.

We disembark.

We hired a guide separately form the cruise excursion because we knew that seeing all these touristy places for impressions is nothing but boring. But we also were in the mission.

You might hear a lot of things about Cuba and some of them sound absolutely unrealistic but most of them will be actually true.

We discovered that simple things like feminine products, toilet paper, certain foods, soap or toys are not available to the most people. My sister decided that we need to bring at least one suitcase of the toys for children to give away and our guide was willing to help us. Visiting orphanage was in our plan.

Sunrise and sunset are my two favorite things to photograph. I got both that day.

San Francisco terminal is the place were we got off and were going to meet a guy who was supposed to show us around and take us to places.

San Francisco terminal / Diana Lange photography

Across the street from the terminal there is a plaza that they take really good care of. Everything looks perfectly clean (I saw them washing the street with their bare hands!), glass in the windows is still there, first restaurant is opening the doors and local guides are standing with the signs waiting for their clients to show up and jump straight to one of these vintage cars for the promenade.

Ours wasn't there and we decided to take a little walk by ourselves while he was coming.

Havana, Cuba / Diana Lange Photography

Havana, Cuba / Diana Lange

Havana, Cuba , Tilt Shift / Diana Lange Photography

Kids in exactly the same school uniform were on their way to school, other people were in hurry too (for work?), we were searching for coffee shop to start our day ... No coffee shop ( Hm... did we go wrong way?)

After strolling down a few more blocks we returned to the main plaza to meet our guide.

Havana, Cuba / Diana Lange Photography

Friendly Cuban guy with nearly perfect English offered us to take a little walk among the buildings before we jumped to our car. The landscape was beautiful.

Colors. Architecture is breathtaking... Well... Whatever is left whole after the revolution...

Havana, Cuba / Diana Lange Photography

The Cathedral of The Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception (1777) that Barack Obama visited while his trip to Cuba. / Diana Lange Photography

Suite Plaza Vieja, Havana, Cuba | Diana Lange Photography

Havana, Cuba / Diana Lange Photography

Soon enough pathetic walk become too boring for me because it has reminded me of one of the tours we had to take in school (to learn but to never really ask uncomfortable the questions?) and I decided to move forward with our plan.

-Hey Jaime (The name is changed). You know I'm originally from very similar country. You realize that mine has been thru some similar things in it's history, right?

-Of course.

-Do you mind if I ask you blunt questions? If you are allowed to speak about these things?

-Go ahead.

-Do you have internet? Do you have enough food? Are you allowed to talk about your government? Do you really believe in communism? -. I was popping the questions and his eyes were getting more and more round (Oh well).

-Diana, some of these questions I'm not allowed to answer. But no we don't really have internet (not at home for sure), sometimes my children wake up to no breakfast and yes I do believe in Communism but everyone here is going to tell you the same thing. Because we have to. And I can't talk about the party of our leaders.

That was enough to break the ice between us and to make him feel like he doesn't need to do his typical tour. He could show some brutal reality instead and we felt like he didn't mind.

We decided to go straight to the orphanage to give away the toys so we can enjoy the rest of the tour without thinking about it.

Havana, Cuba / Diana Lange Photography

It took us a while to actually find the place. And when we finally did- they refused to take our donation because we didn't submit some sort of the paper (hello bureaucracy!). The toys were left in our hands and completely ignoring Jaime's "It's my responsibility to keep you safe!" we jumped to the car and headed to the neighborhood that is considered to be one of the most unsafe and poor in Havana.

We got what we asked for.

Old Havana is relatively small so we went back to the area where we began from but...

Oh boy. See the difference yourself.

Havana, Cuba / Diana Lange Photography

Do you see the doorway with the license plates on it? We got invited in because we handed these people's children some toys. The size of the inside was about 50 sq.feet. They had a couch and the cage for... Their child. They kept the kid behind the bars because they basically have no choice and way to watch him when they have customers. I didn't feel comfortable taking pictures inside. In fact I'm strongly against making people's homes an entertainment for the tourists. We've got to see some hallways and outsides of actual apartment buildings and that was enough to depict and give you the impression of how they actually live in the capital of the island (imagine, what's going on in the smaller towns)

Slum of Havana | Diana Lange Photography

Slum of Havana | Diana Lange Photography

Havana, Cuba / Diana Lange Photography

Slum of Havana | Diana Lange Photography

People live in every apartment. And by every I mean ABSOLUTELY EVERY. Each window belongs to the family and someone who is actually living there.

Slum of Havana | Diana Lange Photography

Slum of Havana | Diana Lange Photography

I think that giving away the toys by ourselves was the best idea. First of all we actually knew that every doll will belong to the child and not used for trade or sold. Second thing is that kids were bringing over their friends who also needed a toy and it made our mission way easier. Not even once we had people approaching us and asking for things. Everything we handed out- we offered by ourselves.

We were getting to the inner part of the buildings (yet not the apartments) when we were asking for children. That let me capture some of the very inside of Havana.

Havana, Cuba / Diana Lange Photography

Havana, Cuba / Diana Lange Photography

Havana, Cuba / Diana Lange Photography

Havana, Cuba / Diana Lange Photography

The next photo has a very special story for me. One of the boys at the picture was running by when we handed him a little lego kit. He asked us to come and see his friends. We met two more of his mates and were ready to leave when the voice behind the door stopped us- "Do you have anything for me?" - it was an old lady, supposedly grandma of one of the boys. We had one last Barbie doll left, and of course we handed it to her. She said that she has always dreamt of one but never had it.

Havana, Cuba / Diana Lange Photography

By the recommendation of out guide we visited Fusterlandia, a house of Fuster, Cuban artist who considered himself a follower of Picasso and Gaudi. Besides decorating his own studio he decorated the houses of his neighbors and now this place is a huge attraction for the tourists. We spent about 20 minutes there and then went to shop for some souvenirs. Note, that nothing in Cuba is made in China. Cuban people sell only what's made right there on the island, meaning that if you buy the magnet or a little framed picture- you will actually support Cuba, not some sort of the import.

Fusterlandia | Diana Lange Photography

Fusterlandia | Diana Lange Photography

Fusterlandia | Diana Lange Photography

Fusterlandia | Diana Lange Photography

Fusterlandia | Diana Lange Photography

After Fusterlandia we swinged by Floridita, 200 years old cafe in Havana where we found Jerry Rivas from El Gran Combo jamming with local musicians and Hemingway :)

Across the street from Floridita

Breathtaking Gran Teatro de La Habana | Diana Lange Photography

The building has been closed 2013-2016 for restoration and reopened again at 57th revolution anniversary.

As one of the final tour points with our guide we were brought to the hilltop overlook (where the huge statue of Jesus is located) to see the bay. On the way to that spot we were stopped by some sort of military guards for... I'm not really sure what for but our guide told us that he also has children and we should give him a couple of dolls. Of course, we did.

The last place to visit was the art market near the San-Francisco terminal where we got picked up at the beginning. Cuban people have amazing artistic skills. From dancing and singing to painting and knitting... The most pretentious taste will be satisfied there. Don't forget to negotiate. If you don't - you will be ripped off and won't even notice it. Do not buy rum at this market. The best rum (and the most expensive one) we bought at the government store one block down right from the San Francisco Terminal. Believe me - you will be able to afford the expensive rum in Cuba but you won't be able to bring it back to the US. Our country restricts 1 bottle per person when it comes to alcohol. Too bad. It was the best rum I have ever tried.

Our Lady of Kazan Orthodox Cathedral in Havana | Diana Lange Photography

How interesting communism combines with the religion now. Russian Orthodox Church right by the art market in Havana.

There we said goodbye to our guide and the driver. But one more episode deserves to be described before that part is over.

You most likely not know about it but Cuba has been facing the worst droughts in 100 years. some cities in Cuba only have running water once every five days, and only for a few hours at a time. In conditions of extreme drought, such as the one Cuba is currently facing, every city block is permitted to request one government water truck. However, the trucks are too slow to arrive for many Cubans, who pay illegal water vendors to transport water, by horse carriage, from houses that have running water to houses that do not. (Read full article about water crisis in Cuba here)

When we were at the market our guide tried to buy some water (then we realized he has not had any for past 5 hours that he has been with us under the sun) and he could not because there was no water to buy. We offered him remains of our water and he was refusing until we basically handed him the bottle and made him drink it right there. He had 2 hours bus ride home ahead.

Government water truck in Cuba. The same ones we used in Russia 25 years ago.

After the guided part was over - my sister headed to her private salsa class and I decided to stroll for some more pictures. But first I needed to exchange a little bit more money and grab some fruits from the cruise ship because I knew that locals don't get to eat them often.

As I mentioned before - the sunrise and the sunset are the best hours to shoot for me. The sunset started early and I think I got some magical shots.

Havana, Cuba | Diana Lange Photography

Havana, Cuba | Diana Lange Photography

Havana, Cuba | Diana Lange Photography

Havana, Cuba | Diana Lange Photography

Havana, Cuba | Diana Lange Photography

Havana, Cuba | Diana Lange Photography

Havana, Cuba | Diana Lange Photography

Havana, Cuba | Diana Lange Photography

Havana, Cuba | Diana Lange Photography

Havana, Cuba | Diana Lange Photography

I can't tell you that I felt entirely safe strolling the streets by myself. I did get some whistling at some streets but no one actually approached me. Except for one guy. It turned out that it's kinda normal for Cuban boys to come and offer... Mmm... Sexual experience? To the foreign ladies. I was walking away and he was walking after me and convincing me to buy him until he asked where I was from. I said that originally I'm from Russia. For some reason that has changed everything. His face got pale, he mumbled something, apologized and literally ran away.

Havana, Cuba | Diana Lange Photography

When I was about to return to the main plaza to meet my sister- I spotted an old man who was so weak that he could not even shake maracas he was holding. He was quietly sitting by the church and wasn't even asking for anything. I already gave away all the fruits so I decided to go to the nearest store to buy something so he can eat.

When I found the "grocery store" and walked in I was shocked (why? My mom has been telling me exactly the same stories about her child hood in the USSR but I could not believe it's possible in 2018. Naive me). Imagine a decent size of the store... Entirely empty. One little shelf behind the register with pasta and tomato sauce. Nothing else. And when I mean nothing else it means NOTHING ELSE. No bread. No bottled water. Nothing you can usually see even at third world country store.

The lady behind the register was not happy to see me. I was uncomfortable to take pictures. She thought I don't understand Spanish so she said something like "Damn tourists buy our food though we got nothing"...

...I was so shocked that I silently walked out of the store. Just later I realized that I should have bought a pack of pasta and gave it to her.

A block away I found a little cart with churros. The impression at seller's face was very similar to the lady's at the store but I decided that I should do it anyway. I got two packs of churros and went to find the old man. At this point he was sitting much farther by the back of the church and someone took his place and already was playing music for the tourists. I silently handed him churros and he looked at me like if I was joking. "Picture?" - he asked. I turned and walked away. Where is the ethical edge between people's life and hype? I have no idea. Another pack of churros went to the man with the tumor on his face that was searching for something to eat at the dumpster.

I returned to the terminal and met my sister. We went to grab a cocktail at some restaurant nearby. The place called "Mojito Mojito" was offering a full menu of sandwiches, pasta and meats. Sister had some sort of the meat dish and I just wanted a sandwich. However the entire place was out of bread. I had pasta. Wish tomato sauce of course.

Walking around in the dark we saw a lot of young Cuban girls accompanied by the old white men. We saw elderly laying on the ground by the walls of the restaurants and bars. We saw mother that has sent her children to beg from the tourists. My impression about Havana at night and Havana in the morning is two completely different stories. Seeing the capital of the island in such a poor and critical condition breaks my heart (I can't even imagine what's going at the suburbs then). I'm not here to judge who is guilty that this beautiful place is being destroyed. I'm also not here to preach about the right mindset and etc. It is what it is. But most importantly for me that it's a place where people need help. So if you ever end up going to Cuba- please bring a spare pair of shoes, a book, a piece of soap, a box of tampons, a fruit... Anything. Anything you had out in that place might make someone's life a little better for a day. Even a day counts.

Thanks for reading.

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