My wife, Niki, and I have been home from Cuba for a week. We’ve been sitting in the comfort of our home, practicing the art of social distancing with each other. This simple, but apparently effective practice, along with washing hands often and for 20 seconds at a time, is thought to be the best way to combat the spread of the dreaded coronavirus.
The virus does not discriminate, striking people of all ages, sex, religion, etc., although the elderly and infirm have a greater chance of being stricken. In the words of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, there “ain’t nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.”
Even though we are both retired, Niki and I have decided to view this as a gift of time. We won’t be able to travel for awhile, but there are many projects in the house, and I have the luxury of taking even more time to work on my photos, learn about new software, experiment with different food recipes, do our taxes, talk more frequently on WhatsApp with my granddaughters. and sink into the recliner while binge watching Netflix and other TV stations.
But before we adjusted to our new way of life, Niki and I spent last week in Cuba. To be honest, Cuba was near the bottom of our bucket lists. I’m not sure why, but perhaps it was because, in spite of the years-long boycott, photos from amateurs and pros alike all looked the same to me. They included the obligatory photos of 1950’s cars and women wearing colorful dress and dancing while smoking their cucumber-size cigars. And, as one who loves primarily landscapes and nature photography, I was leery of spending a whole week doing street photography. But guess what? I surprisingly enjoyed it.
In the case of street photography, however, it is necessary to engage with the people, who happen to be your subjects. I can think of no better way to get to learn about another nation’s culture. Language doesn’t have to be a barrier. Gestures, faces, and smiles are a universal language. There is no better example of this than the Cuban people. They are incredibly friendly and eager to talk to you and have their photographs taken. In spite of their hardships, they are a very happy people, as if they had no worries.
Frankly, if you are a good photographer, you can take good pictures with any kind of equipment, as proven by Niki and her iPhone. In my opinion, the participants in these excursions either make them or break them. A week is a long time to spend with complete strangers. It is the job of the organizer to do his or her best to make sure all of his guests get along with each other. A poorly organized or inept leader can contribute to its success or failure, too.
In our case, our leader, Alain, was as good as it gets. He loves his country (Cuba) and is passionate when passing along his wisdom. He seems to know everybody, as we kept bumping into his friends on the streets. Alain’s success was aided by his charming and equally passionate American wife, Pam. On top of all the cultural events we attended, we dined at Alain’s family’s home, worth the experience of being in Cuba alone. Alain and Pam, along with Cheryl and John, our other intrepid travelers, helped make Niki’s birthday one to remember.
The four of us got along as if we had known each other for years. In addition to these outings, Alain arranged for us to take Rhumba lessons. Fred Astaire I am not! Niki’s favorite was a visit to a one-room school house. Niki was in her element, a retired teacher, who loves little children and being in a classroom. And my favorite was a visit to a local boxing gym, although it was’t much of a gym. It was more like an abandoned, crumbling lot with a fence and some roofing around it. Its walls were painted with pictures of Cuban heroes.
During this entire time, our hearts and minds were on the progress of the coronavirus. There is very little communication with the outside world from Cuba. Residents and visitors often go to one of the town squares to try to get enough reception for a phone call.
Food is even more difficult to obtain for Cubans. They are issued ration cards to obtain staples. Shortages are everywhere. This was evident by the empty shelves we saw through the windows in the government stores we walked by. One morning, for example, we were served bananas, but weren’t served them the rest of the week.
The virus soon was the talk of the towns we visited—Havana and Trinidad. The latter is a UNESCO sight for it’s colorfully-painted walls and cobblestone streets. Rumors ran rampant on the Island. By the time we left, we weren’t sure if we could still leave the island to return to the States. We did make it, but had to cancel two flights and a rental car. The Ft. Lauderdale airport was a madhouse. In addition to all the students going home from spring break, five cruise ships had been cancelled that morning. Would-be passengers were crawling over each other to force their way to the front of the line. We decided we couldn’t stomach that scene, so went back down stairs, where we found a remote desk where a single Southwest employee cheerfully helped us with all our booking. After a 10 hour wait, we made it to our home, sweet home.
Because we were supposed to be away, there was very little food in the house. We ate what we had, then went shopping several days later at Giant, only to find that many of its shelves were empty, especially chicken, eggs, milk and paper goods. We laughed hysterically when we saw a single egg on the shelves. Yet, while this is a seldom-seen occurrence in most of the U.S., it is often a daily reality in Cuba (as well as areas of extreme poverty in the U.S.). We are fortunate that we travel as much as we do. This opens our eyes and gives us a much better understanding of how fortunate we are in the U.S.
As of today, the virus is spreading exponentially. This crisis will pass at some point. Let us pray that it is sooner and not later. In the meantime, please practice social distancing and wash your hands often and vigorously for 20 seconds.