Moe Zoyari
Moe Zoyari
Two-time winner of POYi photojournalism award.

Cuba: A Culture Encapsulated

By Moe Zoyari

 A salesman is silhouetted in a local market in Havana, Cuba.

A salesman is silhouetted in a local market in Havana, Cuba.

 

My first trip to Cuba happened unexpectedly. I was in Mexico working on a photo project when a friend from San Francisco, who is a great travel companion, asked me if I would go to Cuba with him. In less than a few hours, we decided to get our flight tickets and went to Cuba. At that time, it was banned to travel to Cuba with an American passport. Now at the time of publishing this book, traveling to Cuba is still restricted for Americans and only 12 categories of travelers are authorized to travel to the island.

We went by air, but when we got there, it seemed that we took a time machine back to the past. This was the first time in my life that I truly felt history. It was unbelievable.

 

An entry stamp of Cuba is seen in my American passport.

An animation map shows the flight route of 1327 miles from Chicago to Havana.

 A JetBlue airplane descends to land into Havana, Cuba.

A JetBlue airplane descends to land into Havana, Cuba.

JetBlue airplanes taxi at O’hare airport in Chicago, IL, USA.

Traffic moves on Malecon highway in Havana, Cuba.

Cuba on the first sight

Buildings were begging to be painted. There was no Internet. And you could see vintage American and Russian cars all over Havana. You could see people playing dominoes on the streets and old international news headlines would spread mouth to mouth. A few times, I felt like a fortune teller using my satellite phone knowing what was happening a few days ahead of all Cubans.

Shampoo - like many other regular house items – was a luxury thing to have. Water pressure in the Casa, or the house, we booked was low and It made taking a shower hard. What we paid for one night at that Casa, which was relatively cheap - was equal to the salary of a doctor in Cuba. We paid for about $25 a night for a huge house that used to be a bank.

If something broke down, they knew it would take months for it to be repaired, and that fear of losing valuable things, made them to take care of their belongings better. They did learn to take care of their lives and their communities better, too.

With all these problems, people of Cuba were happy. Truly happy. And seeing this layered culture made me to go back four more times to document the life of Cubans which you can see a glimpse of it in this book.

Clockwise starting at the top left: Portraits of Cuban revolution leaders are seen through an old car in Havana, Cuba. / Cubans do their errands in Havana, Cuba. / A store is seen in Havana, Cuba. / Cubans and tourists talk and smoke in Havana, Cuba.

 A woman hangs bed sheets to dry in Havana, Cuba.

A woman hangs bed sheets to dry in Havana, Cuba.

Havana is a time capsule, teleporting visitors back to the dreamy mystique of the 1950s. In 1961, the United States placed an embargo on Cuban exports, creating el bloqueo, "the blockade." This had large economic implications on Cuba as a whole and severely limited consumer choice. In many cases, stores sell only one or two types of a product, often leaving shelves empty. Even shampoo has become a luxury item. 

We learn about history in schools, but it was only in 2015 when I first visited Cuba, that I truly understood what history meant. Old Russian Lada cars, which were imported to Cuba after the U.S. embargo. Old houses which were begging to be painted. And residents who would try selling you cigars in any occasion just to make a couple of dollars. The sound of live good music from every corner and body of dancers that one could see through a half closed house door. It seemed that I was thrown back 50 years to witness Cuba.

Clockwise starting at the top left: A man sitting in his vintage car backs up into traffic in Havana, Cuba / Marcos, a professional skateboarder jumps in front of a mural of Che Guevara, Argentine revolutionary and guerrilla leader in Havana, Cuba. / Alayo, 61, a Cuban painter poses for a photographer in his studio in Havana, Cuba / Cubans smokes cigarets as they chat at a market in Havana, Cuba. / A man sits in his vintage car in Old Havana, Cuba / Cubans play dominos in Havana, Cuba.

 A Cuban fisherman tries to catch some food, right after the sunset in Havana, Cuba.

A Cuban fisherman tries to catch some food, right after the sunset in Havana, Cuba.

Cigars

 A Cuban farmer smokes a cigar next to his tobacco fields in Vinales valley, Cuba.

A Cuban farmer smokes a cigar next to his tobacco fields in Vinales valley, Cuba.

Getting out of Havana & Going to Vinales

As the Points Guy says: "Everyone who goes to Cuba visits Havana, but not too many take the three-hour taxi or bus ride west of the city to explore Viñales, one of the country’s most beautiful towns, best known for its limestone hills and tobacco farms."

Although sitting with nine other fellow passengers in the back of a small car for three hours was not as pleasant, but walking through Vinales Valley took away the tiredness of all that bumpy road.

 A woman cleans her house in Vinales valley, Cuba.

A woman cleans her house in Vinales valley, Cuba.

Clockwise starting at the top left: A Cuban farmer spends time next to his tobacco fields in Vinales valley, Cuba. / Tobacco fields are seen in Vinales valley, Cuba. / Fresh cigars are seen in a local market in Vinales valley, Cuba. / A man rides his horse in Vinales valley, Cuba.

 Farmers take care of their tobacco fields in Vinales valley, Cuba.

Farmers take care of their tobacco fields in Vinales valley, Cuba.

Reuters: Sales of Cuba’s legendary cigars rose 5 percent last year to $445 million, defying stagnation in the global luxury goods market, manufacturer Habanos S.A. said at the opening of the Caribbean island’s annual cigar festival.

Tourists shop different kind of Cuban cigars in a shop in Havana, Cuba. / Different kind of Cuban cigars are seen in a shop in Havana, Cuba.

Religions

 People dance and sing while they pray in a church in Havana, Cuba.

People dance and sing while they pray in a church in Havana, Cuba.

As an Iranian-American who grow up in a Muslim family - even though I don’t practice - I never thought that I would find a mosque - guarded 24 hours - in the middle of Old Havana, the most expensive part of Havana. There are more than 10,000 people that follow Islam in Cuba which is about 0.01% of Cuban population. 60% of the population is Roman Catholicism, 5% follow Protestantism and more than 24% of Cubans are atheist.

Clockwise starting at the top left: A woman visits a church in Havana, Cuba. / People dance and sing in a church in Havana, Cuba. / People chat after prayer in a mosque in Havana, Cuba. / Two Cubans stand guard in front of a mosque in Havana, Cuba.

 Cubans do their errands near a church in Havana, Cuba.

Cubans do their errands near a church in Havana, Cuba.

Dance & Music

 Cubans drink and dance in Havana, Cuba.

Cubans drink and dance in Havana, Cuba.

Last time I was in Cuba, I was resting on the bed editing my photos at the house we booked, as my travel buddy entered the room. Have you seen this abandon building in the middle of the city? she asked. There are people exercising and dancing in it, she continued. I jumped out of the bed, and headed there.

Not knowing Spanish, complicated the communication at first, but later I found couple of dancers in that dingy building who would speak broken English. I spent the last few days of my stay with them from early morning to late at night documenting their moves. The building was owned by the government and did not have a ceiling. Exercise time would stop if there was rain. Their equipment was basic, old and at times dangerous, but nothing would stop their dedicating of becoming an entertainer.

Cuban athletes exercise in an abandon building owned by the government in Havana, Cuba.

 A Cuban dancer (not shown) exercises in an abandon building owned by the government in Havana, Cuba.

A Cuban dancer (not shown) exercises in an abandon building owned by the government in Havana, Cuba.

 Cubans and tourists dance in Havana, Cuba.

Cubans and tourists dance in Havana, Cuba.

Every you go, there is one thing you wouldn’t miss in Havana: Good live music. Music is a big part of Cuban culture. They scream their pain through music, they celebrate life with dance, and with these they try to forget the sorrow.

Clockwise starting at the top left: A couple walks through an alley in Old Havana, Cuba. / A couple kisses in Havana, Cuba. / Cubans and tourists spend time in a bar in Havana, Cuba. / A couple chat in Havana, Cuba. / A vintage car carries a newly married couple in Havana, Cuba. / Girls rush to swim at the Tropicoco Beach, about 20 miles out of Havana, Cuba. / A rain day on the way to the beach. / Francisco and Grether share a private moment in Havana, Cuba. / Abel Jr. in his USA shirt and Chabely pose for a photographer on a rooftop in Havana, Cuba. / Cubans spend time in a bar in Havana, Cuba.

 Waves crash over the Malecon highway as sun sets in Havana, Cuba.

Waves crash over the Malecon highway as sun sets in Havana, Cuba.

Internet & the new technologies

Cuba Opens Up to the World

The first time I went to Cuba, there were only one or two luxury hotels in Old Havana that would offer internet. It would cost $5 per hour to just surf the web and check e-mail. Now three years after my 2015 visit, almost everywhere you go there is a wireless hot-spot that lets you connect to the world. Many homes have turned to Airbnb and offer free-WiFi as part of the deal. At night bright screens light faces of their owners who search for a bright future through their smartphones.

Clockwise starting at the top left: Cuban youth surf the web alongside of Malecon highway in Havana, Cuba. / Couples gather near a Wi-Fi hotspot to connect to the virtual world in Havana, Cuba. / Students use computers at a school in Havana, Cuba. / Poeple gather near a Wi-Fi hotspot to connect to the virtual world in Havana, Cuba.

Many think that the untouched, unique and intact Cuba might change. They fear that chain restaurants would open soon, and the foreign companies would transfer the island into a shopping mall. But for a society that has been excluded from simple human needs or rights for more than half a century, change is inevitable. Cubans will still dance the save way, music would blast from their balconies and the hope for a free country will always be there, with or without any blockades.

Clockwise starting at the top left: A woman waits in a vintage car in old Havana, Cuba. / A man waits for a local bus in Havana, Cuba. / Sweet potatoes are seen under the pictures of Cuban revolution founders in a local market in Havana, Cuba. / People walk through the street of Old Havana, Cuba. / People walk as traffic moves in Havana, Cuba. / Cubans do their errands in Havana, Cuba.


Photos & multimedia © Moe Zoyari 2018