February 2008. Four years after my first trip to Cuba I enrolled in the same dance program, with the same teachers, and was soon retracing my old routes on backstreets. I’d been in these neighborhoods dozens of times, yet they were never the same. I wanted it to last—the feeling of going nowhere.
But for the lack of feral dogs little had changed in Havana. The beat-up cars, poverty, and loving nature of the people were the same. I walked for hours, constantly lost, past twilight into darkness where the aroma of garlic and onions clashed with exhaust fumes. The sense of not knowing what might happen next kept the adventure alive. My camera kept me aware.
The bulk of ruin and rubble from the devastating 2005 hurricane season had been cleared from the main arteries. My Spanish hadn’t improved that much so I continued to play charades, bought peanuts in paper cones from vendors, and gave vitamins and toothbrushes to friendly locals. I was never in a hurry, never felt late.
On one ramble, I focused on shooting un carro clasico, American Chevys, Fords, Dodges, Oldsmobiles, and Plymouths from the 1940s and 1950s. Like one giant car show, the vehicles ranged from rusted out to fully restored with pristine paint jobs and gleaming chrome. According to one estimate, there are 60,000 vintage cars in Cuba. Finding parts to keep these beauties running remains a challenge. Many self-taught mechanics use parts from the former Soviet Union. It’s not unusual to find a 1950 Studebaker with a Soviet engine. Others are held together with scraps and household items. Classic car taxis are a cheap transportation option.
I took pictures of a 1952 Buick with its rear end jacked up and a 1957 Chevy in a gas station with its hood raised. A garage door slid up as I passed. Inside, a smiling, toothless woman stood behind a makeshift counter. She made and sold simple cheese sandwiches sprinkled with salt. A swig of home-fermented rum, if you asked. Another way locals could make a few dollars.
As with my first trip, I was on a quest to buy bona fide bongos. A friend of one of my dance teachers brought a pair to class hidden under the flap of his jacket. I paid $50 for the vintage treasure. They were made from Siam oak, set in heavy chrome-plated steal, and have plenty of slap. I kept a similar route every afternoon, wandering with no particular purpose among ordinary people, passing lots subdivided into huertos populares (popular gardens), state-owned land offered to Cubans at no cost as long as it was used to cultivate food.
Late one afternoon, I checked my email on an obsolete PC in Hotel Palco’s business center. My inbox was clogged with messages from family and friends back home. Are you okay? Can you call us? Are there marches? Protests? Riots? What were they were they talking about? A French version of the newspaper Granma International, the official voice of the Cuban government, dated February 24, 2008, lay on the counter. The headline read “Ce n’est pas un adieu.” A full five days had passed since Fidel Castro announced he would not accept another term as president, yet no one had thought to mention it.
That night I met my class at the box office of Casa de la Musical, a nightclub in Habana Central. I followed a friend’s advice and closed my pants’ pockets with safety pins to thwart pickpockets. We pooled funds to pay the cover charge for our dance teachers.
The headliner came on around midnight. It was less of a performance, more an opening of his heart. Few people danced, instead crowding the stage and swaying to the Afro-Cuban rhythms. I set off the following day, walking down the Malecón, the wide roadway that stretches five miles along the north side of Central Havana.
Officially Avenida de Marco, construction of the wall and road began in 1901 during temporary U.S. military rule. There are all kinds of parks, monuments, and interesting buildings on the Malecón. Morro Lighthouse and La Punta fortress rise at the entrance of Havana Bay. These iconic Spanish structures date from the colonial times.
The heat was unusually oppressive. I dodged waves splashing over the concrete wall, soaking cars and pedestrians. Boys in shorts dove into the oil-slick water. Old men perched with crude fishing poles in hand. I found a dry spot and sat listening to a man play the trombone. A Cuban woman came over, shriveled and grandmotherly. She smiled and rested her hand on my shoulder. No language. Just kindness. Then, a second woman walked up, asking in broken English if I knew any movie stars.
I’m now planning my next trip to Havana. So much emotion is wrapped up in the decision. Will any of my Cuban friends be teaching at Escuelas Nacionales de Arte? (Now known as Insituto Superior de Arte or Superior Institute of the Arts). If not, how will I find them?
Here’s what I know: I’ll make new friends who’ll find a reason to sing while they work, a reason to dance in the cobblestone streets, and a reason to smile at an American stranger with a camera.