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 purchased our tickets. That was back in 2015, when US citizens weren’t permitted to travel directly to Cuba. Today, restrictions still exist, but “journalistic activity” is one of 12 valid reasons for Americans to travel to the island.

We flew in a modern aircraft, but when we got landed, it felt like we had taken a time machine back to the past. Vintage American and Russian filled the streets of Havana. There was little internet access. People played dominoes and old international news headlines spread by word of mouth. A few times, I felt like a fortune teller after using my satellite phone because I knew what was happening a few days ahead of them.

 

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

For $25 a night, we rented a huge house that used to be a bank. For us, that was cheap, but it’s what a Cuban doctor earns in a month. Water pressure was weak, making it hard to take a shower. Shampoo, like many other household items, was a luxury.  

Because of this scarcity, Cubans took good care of what they had. If something broke or got lost, they knew it would take months for it to be repaired or replaced. They learned to take good care of their lives and their communities, too.

As a result, the people we met seemed truly happy. Despite having so little, they had so much. This layered culture intrigued me, so I returned four more times to document the life of contemporary Cubans, which you can see a glimpse of 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 1960, the United States placed an embargo on exports to Cuba of everything except food and medicine, and in 1962 el bloqueo, "the blockade,” to cover almost all exports. This had large economic implications for Cuba, severely limiting income and consumer goods.

The results of the embargo are everywhere, from empty store shelves to Russian Lada cars on the streets. Old houses beg to be painted. Residents hawk cigars. But there’s also rhythm. One hears live music in the streets and catches glimpses of dancers through half-closed house doors. .

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

"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,” The Point Guy who is known traveler says.

Traveling along a bumpy road for three hours with nine other passengers in the back of a small car was not pleasant, but walking through Viñales Valley made the journey worthwhile.

 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.

I was startled to find a mosque, guarded around the clock, in the middle of Old Havana, the most expensive part of the city. There are more than 10,000 in Cuba, which is about 0.1% of Cuban population. 60% of the population is Roman Catholic, 5% Protestant, 11% other religions and 24% nonreligious.

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.

The last time I was in Cuba, I was resting when my travel companion burst into the room. “Have you seen the abandoned building in the middle of the city?” she asked. “There are people exercising and dancing in it.”

I jumped up and headed out to find them. A couple of the dancers in that dingy building spoke broken English, and I spent the last few days of our visit with them, from early morning to late afternoon, documenting their moves. The building was owned by the government and had no ceiling, so they would stop if there was rain. Their equipment was basic, old and at times dangerous, but they were determined to become successful entertainers.

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.

Like everywhere in Havana, they danced to good live music. Music is big part of Cuban culture. both try to forget their sorrows.

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 offered internet access. It cost $5 per hour to just surf the web and check e-mail one a slow, dial-up modem. Today, there are wireless hot-spots everywhere. Many homes offer rooms through Airbnb, complete with free wi-fi. At night, bright screens light the faces of their owners as they search for a bright future through their smart phones.

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.

Change is inevitable for Cuba. The untouched, unique and intact Cuba can’t last. Eventually, perhaps, chain restaurants will open on the streets of Havana, and foreign companies will transform the island into a shopping mall. But for now, Cubans struggle with poverty as a result of the ongoing embargo. Still, they dance, music blasts from balconies, and the hope for freedom from poverty and the blockade persist.

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