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Visiting Cuba: A Photo Essay

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Cuba has always loomed large in Michael Nelson’s life. The Saugerties-based photographer was born in Key West and vividly remembers the arrow on the beach that reads: “Havana, Cuba: 90 miles.” Then, his father’s Navy duty included a stint on an aircraft carrier stationed off the Cuban coast during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Later, Nelson’s best friend from his years at the Rochester Institute of Technology was Cuban. “Sitting up late at night in our dorm room, I got to hear many stories of Cuba,” says Nelson, noting that his friend’s family was forced to leave the island in 1959, when Fidel Castro famously seized power. “There was one time when he was eight years old and he actually met Castro at a Boy Scout meeting in Havana. In fact, Castro put his hand on my roomate’s head!”


More: View all of Nelson’s work at www.mikenelsonproductions.com


Nelson has always wanted to see the island nation, but “Cuba was the forbidden country that Americans were not allowed to visit,” he says. “Only a year ago I tried to get permission from the Treasury Department to travel to Cuba but I was rejected.”

cuban car
“It’s almost impossible to take a photograph in Havana without a car in the shot. They are everywhere,” says Nelson. “Most of the cars are vintage ones like this. Don’t quote me, but I believe that the more modern cars would be the Ladas cars, which were brought by the Russians back in the 1970s.”

Then came the historic events of December 2014: President Obama ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with the Communist nation, ending more than 50 years of estrangement between the neighboring countries. “We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” the President said in a televised statement.

As soon as Nelson heard that the travel restriction to Cuba would be lifted, he booked a flight through the Cayman Islands. (There are no direct flights from the United States to Cuba.) “Traveling to Cuba has some obstacles you might not expect,” says Nelson. “For one, there are no ATMs and no credit cards that work with American banks. MasterCard had announced that their cards would function in Cuba starting on March 1, but it didn’t happen. You can’t use travelers checks either, unless they are from Canada, so my pockets were filled with cash.”

cuban national hotel
The Cuban National Hotel was built in the 1920s. “Frank Sinatra had been a part owner,” says Nelson. “It was a big casino area. That was where all of the famous celebrities, musicians, mafia — they all went there. Nowadays, it’s all for tourists; They don’t allow Cubans in, unless of course they work there.”

Finding a place to stay is easy, says Nelson, as long as you aren’t expecting an American-style hotel. “They are all booked and there aren’t enough of them, so I stayed in what are called Casas Particulares. Think of it as a bed and breakfast. A Cuban family opens up their home to you, and you get your own room for $25. They serve you a breakfast of eggs, breads, fruits, juice, and a large pot of coffee for three dollars extra.”

Nelson’s first impression of Cuba? “It was very, very different from what I imagined. I was surprised at how vivid and alive it is. The people — it’s like they have an extra spark plug; they are just jumping with energy and ideas.”

presidential palace museum cuban jazz trumpeter

Left: The former Presidential Palace was first inaugurated in 1920. “Of course it hasn’t been used for that purpose since President Batista was thrown out in 1959. Now it’s a museum. On this particular day a military school was visiting. ” At right: “This guy was playing in a square in old Havana. There are musicians everywhere,” says Nelson. “Although this was the only time that I saw a trumpeter.”

One of Nelson’s more memorable conversations during his 11-day stay was with Rolando Mesa, a professor of Spanish at the University of Havana. “We sat down in an artist cafe over a glass of Canchacara (a rum drink made with honey and lime),” says Nelson. The professor told me: ‘We have no Internet, we don’t know what is going on. We just want to know what is happening in the outside world.’ And of course there are no newspapers, except for the Granma, the Communist party newpaper.”

Reflecting on his long-awaited trip, Nelson says: “Cuba is less of a vacation and more of an exotic adventure. You could stay the whole time at the Cuban National Hotel, travel everywhere only by taxi, eat at the government-sanctioned restaurants, and travel on a tour bus with other international tourists. Or you could wander, like I did, toward the people and their Cuba. It’s all in what you want to see.”

cuban schoolchildren
“Cubans revere their children,” says Nelson. “Education is of the utmost importance to them. Of course, all the schools
are state-run.”

the malecon
The Malecón is a wide esplanade that stretches for five miles along Havana’s northern coast. “It’s where a lot of Cubans go at sunset,” says Nelson. “It’s kind of like Central Park in Manhattan. It’s also the road where the mafia was going to build tons of casinos. They were going to turn it into another Las Vegas — but it never got off the ground of course.”

church music group
At the Church of San Francisco de Assis, built in the late 1500s, musical groups perform every Saturday night. “It’s open to the public,” says Nelson. This popular group is called Camerata de Zernaida Romeu.

trinidad
Nelson took a five-hour bus trip to the city of Trinidad on the southern coast of Cuba. “Apparently, Trinidad is the best preserved Spanish town in all of the Americas,” says Nelson. “It is where all of the sugar cane plantations were in the 1500s. The main section of town, probably 10 by 10 blocks, is very well preserved, but, as in all of Cuba, you can venture just one block away, and everything is crumbling. They say that in Havana, three buildings fall down every day. It’s probably the same in Trinidad.”

View more of Nelson’s photographs in the gallery below. To see all of his work, visit www.mikenelsonproductions.com.

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