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Havana

31/08/2019



With no big adventure planned for this year, I thought it a great opportunity to look back on another memorable trip. Here is how I got on in Havana last year...

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After a relaxing week spent in Mexico, we landed in Havana brimming with an intoxicating mixture of nervousness and excitement. I had a loose idea of what to expect here, but that was pretty much it. If I am to be completely honest, the true extent of my knowledge was cigars, classic American cars, and communism. Yes, massive stereotypes, but I had not had any real opportunity to properly research the trip and get a more comprehensive understanding, so that's on me.

Our first experience was, of course, our accommodation; a 'homes stay' found on Air B&B which was kind of like a private serviced apartment. The Cuban government has some policy against renting your property to tourists, but if you are receiving guests it's ok, to a degree. There was always a risk that we could be turfed out at any point, but the risk was fairly low and soon forgotten about. We had the small apartment to ourselves, with the mum of the family that owned it popping in to cook breakfast and do a spot of cleaning for us, which made a nice change from other Air B&B's we have stayed in.

The apartment was split over two levels on the top floors of a row of grand, but tired looking building in the suburbs of the city. The family were very proud of it and were very keen to show us pictures of it being featured in one of the many Fast and the Furious films (I'm not up with the franchise, so no idea which one it would be).

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Still a little tired from the traveling, we ventured out into our first day of the city, which was a bit of a struggle, to say the least. Armed with a Lonely Planet guide book, we took to the streets and started exploring, but I couldn't help but feel a little uncomfortable. The guide book had warned of locals scamming tourists, which had me a little on edge, more so than I would normally be feeling in a new city.

Trying to fix a bearing with the pull out map from the guide book, we started to wander taking in the views under an intensely hot sun. The once-grand buildings toward over us with a war-torn appearance, something that I did not expect to see. So much so, that in some places a building has quite literally collapsed into rubble, whilst the building's either side show evidence of people actually living there.

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With my senses being assaulted, I just did not feel like I could relax and find my flow, and I still couldn't find my bearings. It wasn't until the following day that I realized that the map was missing a chunk of the city, exactly where we were staying. Thanks, Lonely Planet, good job.

So the first day was a real test, I just couldn't get entirely comfortable, so it was off to bed in the hope of a better day tomorrow.

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Throwing the guide books caution to the wind, I awoke before dawn of the second day and dragged myself out to shoot the sunrise at a spot identified the day before, determined to make the most of my time there and overcome the ill feelings from the day before.

What a difference a nights sleep can make!

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I set myself up for a shot at the end of the Malecon, capturing the sweeping curve of the rugged coastline with the still morning waters bathed in the early morning light. I composed my shot and waited for my moment, which was amazing. The sky went from blue to golden in a matter of moments, the heat of the new day instantly washing over me the moment the sun peaked over the horizon, the sound of the American classics roaring on the coast road behind me as the city came alive for a new day.

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I had observed some local fishermen sat upon the sea wall using rudimentary fishing tools, making the most of the still waters. I saw a great opportunity to capture this scene in silhouette against the rising sun to add more context to the story of my morning shoot.

Time was getting on now, and the golden hour was nearing its end just as I had an idea for another shot, capture the morning rush hour against the rising sun. I managed to squeeze in a couple of these shots before the time was up, but not enough to satisfy myself. Another dawn raid was now firmly on the agenda.

Walking back to the apartment for a spot of breakfast I realised now that the reason I was unable to get any bearings the day before was that the Lonely Plant map had a strip of the city missing which was the whole area in which we were staying, pretty helpful stuff. Once that was identified navigating the city was pretty easy!

A homemade breakfast on board, and an order of cigars with our host, it was time to head out and do some real exploring. Walking down to old Havana through the streets I was almost overwhelmed by the rustic and shabby beauty of the city. The closest thing I can relate it to is Venice, only instead of canals, you have classic American and Russian cars instead. I walked around buzzing like a kid in a sweet shop!

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My earlier feelings of unease and uncertainty were now well behind me, but I do have some quibbles. Let me just get these out of the way so we can get back to the good bits - as I had been told before going, the food is pretty bad. Not disgusting, and you can find some good spots, but generally speaking a lack of fresh produce doesn't make for some of the finest cuisines in the world. Yes, some people locals will accost you trying to convince you to go to some event (we were often being told of a cigar festival, which actually happened the month before), but you soon get wise to who is genuine and can filter these out with a polite 'no thanks'. Some parts of the city do smell, really bad. The refuse is deposited at big bins at the end of the streets, and when these are full all manner of waste is left on the road beside them, which is then baked intensively in the sun. But that's it, everything else is awesome!

English speaking is fairly limited in Havana, but even so, the people are very friendly and would gesture to you advice such as to not walk under the balconies as someone is likely to throw their washing water down on you unsuspectingly!

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The architecture here is truly magnificent, despite being generally dilapidated. You will see buildings that you wonder how they are even standing and then see someone returning home there! From what I saw of the interior of buildings is that they are perfectly habitable despite the external appearances.

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Cubans are very proud of their cars. After the US imposed a trade embargo on the country in the late '50s, the people there had to make do with what they had. Great American and, to a lesser extent but equally fascinating Russian classic cars from the period are still running around in varying conditions. Many have exceptional body works for their age and are kept going with modern engines under the aging shell.

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The second half of the first full day was spent soaking up the atmosphere, to the point of intoxication. And after nipping into a nice bar for a spot of lunch, and staying to avoid a downpour turned into full-on intoxication! Havana really is the kind of city where you can just lose yourself in its majesty, surrounded by grandiose architecture and incredible cars, in all manner of states of repair! A common sight during my visit was groups of 3 men gathered around the engine bay of one of these cars working and tinkering with the engine. The natives are very proud of their vehicles, and do all the work on them themselves, seems like it's a city full of mechanics!

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After a mediocre dinner at a local restaurant, it was back to the apartment for a well-earned rest, feeling far more satisfied with my day's shooting. It was an easy sleep knowing that I had achieved something and felt more comfortable with this new city, and I was excited to see what a new day would bring.

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Treating myself to a modest lay in, it was a welcomed site when our host arrived to prepare breakfast. This time, bearing a box of cigars I had ordered with her the previous day, a steal compared to the prices we pay in the UK! Today's plan was to head down to the old town and explore the streets a little further than the previous day. Camera packed, it was time to hit the streets once again.

We were staying around a 5min walk West of the main hospital building; fortunately, the layout of the streets is generally very structured, a bit like the streets of New York, with streets and avenues, so navigating was not too difficult. A walk to El Capitolio, the main government building took around 20min, and half an hour to the old town. Taxies are very easy to get, but I find it much more enjoyable to walk the streets and take in local life.

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As a photographer, there is a common ruse to be aware of, which can be easily spotted if you have your wits about you. You'll see plenty of old women sat by the roadside smoking cigars, in fact, Pinterest and Instagram are filled with pictures of these women, but a picture will cost you. How much I do not know, as I don't like to get into all that incase it turns into something more challenging than a straight cash transaction.

The second ruse is a little harder to spot; in the middle of a busy junction near to the main Parliament building was a crazy looking guy wandering around in the middle of the road, a fat cigar in his hand. His bumbling was causing a massive fuss and holding up all the traffic garnering the attention of all in the vicinity. Whether this was an act or real-life remains unclear, but the guy was keen to clock anyone who pointed a camera at him and promptly walked over to see if you had a picture of him and to begin demanding money. I was onto him as soon as he looked at me, so quickly called up my preview and skipped ahead some shots so I could prove to him that I had not been shooting his commotion at all! Right on cue, he broke away from the mess he created and headed straight over to me to check my camera so he could start demanding money from me.

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Now, nicely relaxed and fully aware of my surroundings, I took full advantage of my time with a spot of street photography, trying to capture the essence of the city and the people that make it. The colours of the buildings, cars and street art provide a truly mesmerizing experience. It's only now that small details start to become more obvious, like the older men perching beside the road in slips of shade watching the world go by, or the tired payphones mounted on the side of the buildings being frequently used as mobile phones are not that common.

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With another day's venturing done, we decided to pop up to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, one of the grand towering hotels that adorn the seafront for a drink before dinner. It would have been a reasonable walk which would have been no problem, but just as we were walking up the road the heavens quite literally let go and dumped biblical amounts of rain down onto a grateful city, as it slowly cooled the air. We were not so grateful on the other hand. Reaching for the first taxi that ca along, we climbed on board to escape the downpour. Unfortunately, the first taxi to pass was a Cocotaxi, an open rickshaw type bike, so although we were sheltered from the rain from above, we were not so lucky on the sides.

We arrived at the hotel quite literally drenched on one side! The rain didn't ease up but instead turned into a full-blown thunderstorm, so any thoughts of shooting the hotel and coastline were quickly washed away. So a drink it was, and a dash through the downpour to a covered restaurant in the hotel grounds before getting a cab back to the apartment for our last night there.

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The next morning started in a manner somewhat similar to the first; up with the lark and down to the Malecon, this time to capture the cars against the sunrise. I had the shot I wanted firmly in mind, having seen the opportunity on my first morning, but now I was here it was far more difficult to execute than I had first thought. I would attempt to lock in my focus on the cars in the distance, which was tricky because they were incomplete shadow and didn't have much light on them until they were close to the camera. As they approached quickly, I was having to act fast to frame the car against the sunrise and keep it in focus.

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With a few usable shots on board, there was little time for much more as soon the trip would end as we were due to head out for our last stop of the trip, a couple of nights back in NYC.

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What did I learn from this experience photographically? I opted for shooting on shutter priority instead of full manual, this enabled me to capture street shots that I would otherwise have missed by having the camera determine the aperture size. It has meant that on some shots I have much smaller aperture than I would have maybe preferred, but at least I captured the moment and did not miss it through fiddling with settings.

I made attempts to get up close with my candid street shots and used a lot of shooting from the hip on a wide focal length which still needs perfecting. It's not uncommon for the people of Havana to demand monies for taking their picture, so trying to remain inconspicuous was a constant challenge. All the more reason for me to upgrade to the A7iii with its silent shooting mode!

So Havana, you were amazing. Hopefully, I'll get to return to you someday. A special mention and thanks goes out to my new Friend Juan who was most hospitable providing me with food, drink, and cigars!

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