El Pan

In the quite mornings of Trinidad, Cuba the breadman makes his rounds. There are actually several breadmen. They walk, push home-made carts, or ride bicycles. Their routes criss-cross the narrow cobblestone streets. Their freshly baked breads are different and their calls are unique, but it usually includes one key phrase: “El Pan”.  As clear as a bell you can hear them coming:

“Pan … aaayyyy … paaaannnnn!”

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The Slash

They take one finger, quickly slash it across their throat, and make a clicking sound. The sound is hard to describe, but the meaning is all too clear. Especially when it’s the answer to the question: “where’s your friend ?”

I went looking for two gentlemen I met in 2013. They used to hang out near Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba, smoking cigars, posing for tourists, and laughing at all the money they would earn. Armed with some 4×6 prints I had taken of them, it wasn’t difficult to get directions to where I could find them. It was difficult the first time I got “the slash”.  I was graphically told that one of them had died only a few weeks ago. But, which one ?

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When I found the gentleman, (thanks to Kate’s good eye) he was sitting with some hombres drinking rum and listening to four musicians playing for the tourists. Introductions were easy using the photos  I had brought. He was happy to have the photos and told us he was going to give them to the man’s family. He assured us the family would be very grateful. I accepted the offer of a drink of straight rum. It was as if the moment had transformed into a wake. We were celebrating the memories of a dead friend.

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I saw my friend another time before I left Trinidad. He was sitting in a familiar spot with only his dog. He was still smiling. Maybe it was the rum.

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The Cars

I think everyone likes to see the old American cars in Cuba. They’re fun to photograph and they stir memories in those of us old enough to remember when our grandfather drove a Crown Victoria or any other classic.

As an old shade tree mechanic myself, I can appreciate the constant effort to keep these cars running. The Cubans are resourceful and inventive when it comes to their transportation. After all, there are no “Pep Boys”, “Autozone”, or “Napa” stores on the island. Many gasoline engines have been replaced with four-cylinder diesel engines of Russian origin. I can only imagine the complications of getting all the clutches, transmissions, and associated running gear cobbled together, not to mention the wiring. I’d love to get on the ground and look under some of these old vehicles, but the streets and roads are filthy and damp with all kinds of oozings out of even older buildings. (but that’s another story).

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The Laundry Bill

Our stay in Trinidad, Cuba on this trip was at the Iberostar Hotel in the center of the city.  Easily the fanciest hotel I’ve ever stayed in, (hey, I stay in my backpacking tent when I go to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to photograph ) with attentive staff, doorman, towels folded and twisted into animal shapes, and of course “turn down service”.

When matt and I returned to our room on the first evening we discovered that our beds were turned down, chocolates left on the pillows, and our clothes moved. My toothbrush was moved, my shaving kit was zipped up, and the chairs that we have moved slightly were carefully repositioned.

Our immediate comments went something like this: “What the ….”?  “Where did the blankets go?” “Where’s my toothbrush?” “Did you take my shirt ?” “Do you want my chocolates ?”

After we stopped laughing we agreed that the “No Molestar” sign would go on the door every evening. Subsequently, not to be deterred, the staff would instead leave a long-stemmed red rose on the door. I guess everyone got a rose who did not want the staff in their room at night … phew !

Oh yes, the laundry … I had planned to wash a sink full of clothes in Trinidad anyway and since I was living in a fancy – schmancy hotel, I decided to take advantage of the laundry service. One extra small travel towel, one pair of socks, two tee shirts, and three jockey shorts went into the provided bag and left outside the door. Matt told me later in the day that the maid had taken my clothes and was very happy to have the laundry.

Late the next day the phone in the bathroom rings (yes… in the bathroom) …  “Your laundry is done and I will bring it to your room in five minutes”. Sure enough, the knock on the door came and the smiling maid delivered my clothes. “You pay now” she said three times.

The bill ? … 20.50 CUC plus 1.50 CUC tip.

I got a better value in the “Baby Milk Scam”,  but no fewer laughs.

Flag Waving

When a bus load of American photographers stop in a Havana neighborhood that’s off the beaten path, the word spreads quickly among the Cubans. They come to their doorways with their families and want to interact with us. I’m sure they’re looking for small gifts or money, but they do seem as genuinely interested in us as we are in them.

On our return trip from the Cementerio de Colon we stopped at the “Yankee Stadium” of Havana, a good-sized arena in a quiet  area. At least it was quiet until we arrived. There was a gang of swaggering young men that started to yell and taunt us, but it’s all in their culture. Cuban men routinely ogle and make comments to women. We all ignored them and spread out on a few side streets to meet the people.

As I approached a cross street there was a man in a second story window waving an American flag and yelling. We made eye contact and I communicated for him not to move and that I was going to photograph him. I rushed to my vantage point and he continued his flag waving. Then he called his family to the window and held up his daughter. I called him down to the street to give him a few gifts and what happened next was a moment I’ll never forget. This young man rushed up to me and presented me with a carved wooden plaque. He said it was his gift to me. In a country where everything has value and nothing goes to waste, I was touched. We shook hands, hugged, then he raced back inside to call more of his family to the window to see the Americano.

I have that plaque hanging next to my desk and that moment etched in my memory.

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Cubano o Tourista ?

Cuban or Tourist ? That’s the name of the game. The way it’s played is to leave your luxury hotel in Trinidad, Cuba after sunset and head to the nearby park to enjoy a fine Cuban cigar. The next step is important: Find a bench that’s not crowded with a good view of the foot traffic. Sit down in your best “mind your own business” body language and light up.

 Sooner, rather than later, one friendly Cuban will spot you for a tourist and want to start a conversation. If you’re like me and don’t speak Spanish (shame, shame, shame) conversations develop slowly. Especially when trying to describe the cold and snowy conditions back home. Everything from shivering to shoveling to driving in the snow makes for very animated communication (and lots of laughs).

 Your new Cuban friend will inevitably try to teach you some Spanish. Like “caliente” to describe the weather or “frio” to describe the two beers that you just bought. (it’s impolite to drink in front of a friend).

 Oh, yes … the game. When you get tired of animated communication, you start pointing at passers-by and asking your friend “Cubano o Tourista” ? He will identify each one and soon start pointing and asking you, “Cubano o Tourista” ? He will also tell you when you guess wrong, which happens a lot more with you guessing than with him guessing. If you want to have some real fun, argue with him when he tells you “no un cubano, un turista”. You can tell him that you recognize Cuban shoes (zapatos) when you see them, or use any other single Spanish word that you think you can apply.

 You will both have lots of laughs until the “poh-leez-man” shows up.

When the police get out of their car at the nearest intersection and decide to watch the crowds, the game is over. Your new friend will whisper “poh-leez-man” several times as he gets up off your bench and moves to one of his own. Suddenly your cigar and your beer will not seem so enjoyable. You can wait a few minutes, walk to another bench on the other side of the park, but the moment is lost. The game is over.

Luis – the Poet

One goal I had on this, my second trip to Trinidad, Cuba, was to find people I met the previous year. This was quite easy to accomplish by bringing 4×6 prints with me and showing them to the locals in the general area. Cubans would gather around, all wanting to see the images. They would laugh and if they knew the person in the image they would tell me where to find him or her. Several times I would give the images to the Cubans gathered around and not long after the person I was looking for would find ME. It was a very rewarding experience to see the smiles on the faces of my new “old” friends.

I did have trouble finding Luis, however. Four of us made a mission of it one evening. Hanging out in the Plaza Mayor and being patient paid off. I spotted Luis Taxi delivering four cases of beer to a restaurant. I helped him push his wheelbarrow up a cobblestone street and unload the delivery. I stayed with him and we both walked back downhill to where the others had now gathered.

I should tell you that Luis writes poetry and for Americans he will read a poem about the state in which you live.

Our purpose that evening was to have Luis read his poem about Virginia for a friend that was with us the previous year. We photographed the poem, photographed Luis, and even made a video of the reading. He was truly happy to hear our story.

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