Ember Razement ________________________________ The Fine Art Photography of Malcolm Smith




Cuba is a photographers paradise and we can recommend it for a a visit – old cars, weathered textured buildings (due to the economic embargo placed on them by the Yanquis), Latin American and ballet  dance, music and lovely, lovely people
Everyone in Cuba knows about Australia – they are keen sports people who avidly watched the Olympics on TV and knew all about Sydney and kangaroos (we had tags on all our camera bags with a map of Australia on one side and a stall holder saw the one on Liz’s camera bag and called out “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi”!).  Another time I saw (and photographed) kindergarten kids in supervised kangaroo hopping races in old Havana and having a great time!  Baseball is very popular and there is always a group in their Central Park heatedly discussing it.  They claim to be the largest island and have a population of around 14 million and are proud of their performance at the Sydney Olympics.  They have probably the best health and education system in South America and both are free.  Cuba was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and first settlement by Europeans was in 1514

The biggest groups of tourists seem to be Canadians, South Americans (including Mexicans), Germans, Spanish, UK and Europeans.  We also met more than a dozen couples from Australia.  Tourism is their largest foreign money earner having overtaken sugar in the 1990’s.

Youth Dance Group Havana

Youth Dance Group Havana © M.Smith

Liz and I spent most of our time in Cuba in “Old Havana” but also the slightly newer area around the Capitolio (the old capitol) building which is an impressive domed building like that in Washington.  We also did a number of trips out of Havana (two days to Trinidad and one day trips to Veredero, valley of Vinales and Soroa.

On our trips we always got out of bed quite early as the best time of the day for photography is from dawn to 9am (and a similar time at the end of the day) and to do this we needed an alarm clock but we had left our traveling one back in Canberra.  So we went shopping and found only one alarm clock in the five or so shops we tried – the clock was amazing – it had two battery operated clocks on the one stand one digital and one analog each with its own batteries.  The digital was the one with the alarm and had a fairly quiet single beep but also a very loud cock crowing (and which kept crowing until turned off).  Also the digital clock announced the time every hour in Spanish (we think) and said something which Liz said sounded rude when the alarm went off!  Fortunately the walls and doors of our hotel were very thick and  soundproof.

Looking through a window into School room Trinidad Cuba

Through a window into school room
in Trinidad © M.Smith

Cubans are a good looking people with mostly Spanish and African ancestry (over 400,000 Africans were brought in as slaves to run the sugar cane farms) and many of the best looking Cubans were mulatto (mixture of white European and black Africans) tall, elegant, long legs and walked with extremely good posture!  The people were extremely friendly and polite – I was photographing a bullock cart out in the country and it stopped beside me on the road and after about a minute I realized he was waiting for me to finish my photographs before he moved on!

Many Cubans are Catholic – there was a big procession on Palm Sunday ending at the Cathedral (a small block from our hotel) and when the Pope died all flags in Cuba were at half mast and Cubans flocked to the Cathedral for a 7pm service which was also attended by Fidel and a group of his cabinet.  The Cubans looked on the Pope as a friend of Cuba.

Beautiful old Church Havana

There are many beautiful old churches
in Havana © M.Smith

To get to Cuba we had four options

  • Sydney – Honolulu – Vancouver – Toronto – Havana;
  • US – Mexico – Havana;
  • Via South America (rejected as we fly Singapore Airlines/ Star Alliance and this was not one of their routes);
  • Through Europe.

The US have an irrational hatred for Cuba and actively try to stop people going to Cuba so option 2 was discarded and we went for option 1 (then found when the Air Canada plane landed in Honolulu we were herded through US immigration, finger printed and photographed and I was asked by their immigration agent where we were going after Vancouver - I said we were going to Europe and he asked me again if we were going anywhere else and looked me in the eye so I said Cuba – he wanted to know why so I said it was a photographers paradise and he let us through – I believe he knew we were going to Cuba even though he hadn’t seen our tickets).  We spent two days in Vancouver to break the journey.  On our return we flew to Toronto then to Florence for a week then Singapore and Australia.

Lots of texture - No money for paint Havana

Lots of texture - no money
for paint - Havana © M.Smith

As I walked through the streets particularly in Old Havana Cubans would sidle up and try to start a conversation:
          Where you from amigo (amigo=friend)?
          Ah – Sydney, kangaroos, Olympics.  What your name amigo?
Eventually they would get to the point and ask;
          Want to buy cheap Cuban cigars.
These cigars are usually seconds (rejects) but are quite good although they don’t come with the correct export sticker so you could be caught by Cuban Customs when leaving.  I watched (and photographed) some young dancers (about 8 to 14) on several occasions and struck up conversations with those watching.  Twice I was told (eg by an aunt of one of the young dancers) to leave my wife Liz home on my next visit to Cuba and find a nice Cuban girl!

A common scam is to offer for sale Che Guevara three Peso coins for three or four “dollars” (pesos) but there are two currencies in use in Cuba the standard peso (which included the Che Guevara three peso coin and which are used by the ordinary Cubans) and convertible pesos used by tourists (about $A 1.40) and worth twenty five times the standard peso so the true value of the Che Guevara coin is about 15 cents Australian.

The coffee was diabolically strong, usually sold as a half full demi-tasse loaded with a lot of sugar (what I could drink was called American coffee in a normal sized cup and not nearly as strong) but many of the restaurants and cafés didn’t have milk.  The Cubans love sweet things including drinks (I discovered the Pino Collada and haven’t had ones as nice since including one at Raffles in Singapore) and their ice cream is very good and much loved by the Cubans.

Youth near our hotel in Havana

Youth near our hotel
in Havana © M.Smith

There is a range of transport in Cuba which included air and train but there is a wide range of ground transport including:

  • Cars/taxi some modern and a lot of old chevies etc from before the revolution (1959).  Most of the old cars ran very quietly with little oil smoke.
  • There was a “taxi” called a COCO which held two passengers plus a driver which was an open fibre glass shell on a three wheeled motor scooter.
  • Pedal “cabs’ were everywhere and were particularly good in the narrow streets in Old Havana.
  • Horse and buggy were good for tourists to do loops around tourist centres in Havana but larger ones were also seen in country towns as local busses.
  • Bullock carts mainly in the country hauling produce
  • Busses.  The most spectacular was the Camello (Camel) which was an articulated vehicle with a very large truck prime mover and which held 250 people (and they were usually packed in like sardines)
Camello bus passing the Capitolio building Havana

Camello bus passing the Capitolio
building Havana © M.Smith

The earliest buildings dated from the fifteenth century and included churches and forts etc.  Some of the more modern buildings were decorated in Art Deco styles.  We went to a performance of the Cuban National Ballet Company which is a top world class group in the grand theatre which is a beautiful building with statues outside on the walls and is next to the Capitalio (the old capitol building) which is equally spectacular.  Batistas palace is now the Museum of the Revolution which is very interesting and which shows the Cubans have a well developed sense of humor (another example is a saying I saw on the wall of a café “El amore es ciego, los vecinos NO” which translates to “Love is blind, the neighbors NO”).

I am mad about dance and while there we not only saw the Cuban National Ballet company perform (a world class company which I couldn’t photograph), but did go to a restaurant with flamenco dancers and saw both the Tropicana and Parisièn cabaret shows which were very spectacular and colourful and all allowed photography (with a small charge at the cabarets for a camera and slightly larger charge if you wanted to use a video camera).

Caberet Tropicana Havana

Dancers at the Tropicana Caberet Havana © M.Smith

As a practical side note we couldn’t find dental floss anywhere!  Liz had to take tubes of insulin which have to be kept very cool and she used a wonderful new invention called “Freo” bags which have a gel in the outside layer which absorbs water and keeps the contents cool by evaporation.