A Guide To Cuba.

Tuesday, September 8th 2015

As days rolled into weeks, our surreal stay in this surreal country passed in a unique measure of 'Cuba-time', where it became apparent this trip would prove as much about life lessons as it would about creative content. Sequences of uncannily serendipituous moments came to unfold with a frequency so regular we began to expect them, the grand plan of the universe always unveiled just as soon as we quieted our confounded minds long enough to listen. Before leaving, Cuba would reveal as much about itself as it would reveal about ourselves…an experience of peeling back layers, of looking deeper than a beautiful facade, a destination intent on reminding us "nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know".

From our bewildered wonder at the availability of wifi limited to only the largest hotels in the city, to the exclamations of our gentle host, discovering us each morning on our laptops, exactly where he’d left us the night before, shaking his head and smiling at our ‘work, work, work…always working’ experience of Cuba so far, none were as surprised as us (given little choice) how quickly we adjusted to the lack of connectivity. Because keeping an online business ticking from a destination with no access to internet was initially as hilarious a concept, as it was daunting. However freed from the habitual reaching into pockets and handbags, retrieving phones that may or may not have vibrated - refreshing emails and observing interaction on instagram, pinning in spare seconds and liking whatever caught our eye - we soon realised that whether we engaged, watching events unfold in ‘real time’, versus checking-in only a day or so later (when tethered to a wifi source) - the outcome was, for the most part, the same. A realisation as revelatory as it was refreshing.

 And after adjusting to what this would mean for the site (our tiny team needing to make a choice between covering Cuba or maintaining our ‘everyday’ output) we accepted with a kind of resignation that for the next few weeks the balance needed to shift…and in this shift we found a great freedom. With all things ‘incoming’, (emails, text messages, administration, regular life!) quarantined to only a few short windows of occasional connectivity, the remainder of the time, our minds and devices were free to roam and wander, blissfully, creatively, completely offline. After all, we’d flown to what felt like the other end of the earth to experience Cuba, to embrace and enjoy everything waiting to be found…which required us to get out amongst it, to put our screens down, to shoot it, to write about it, to explore, discover and soak it all up…then later, much later, to share it. 

And so we set off on our low-fi adventure of discovery…and what we found were the remarkable people of this country. Struck repeatedly by the random acts of kindness, acts of unwavering trust (of the “thats ok, the bank is closed but come back, pay tomorrow” kind), the generosity of spirit from a society so economically poor but so culturally rich, and an unending, unbelievable patience. We observed beauty hidden in life’s simplest pleasures and rituals - gatherings of family, friends, food and community. With no air-conditioning in sweltering heat, streets shifted gear at sundown when residents would emerge in search of a cool breeze. Roads ruled at this hour by young children playing games unchanged in fifty years, their activities watched over by parents, languidly leaning from balconies or congregating in cool doorways. Three generations under one roof, expressing as much curiosity in us as we showed in them. We mused that in very few cities around the world, so densely populated and so poor, would we feel so safe. Befriending families, being invited into homes to document or take portraits, exchanging addresses in broken english. It occurred to us that Cuba was not only stuck in a time warp of aesthetics and industry, but perhaps more beautifully a time warp of values. Patience was a virtue, kindness a non-negotiable, and trust was extended unquestioningly, perhaps having not yet been broken. 

Unlike cities where the tourist dollar reigns supreme, where you struggle to wander streets without being courted, cajoled, haggled and sometimes harassed for your patronage, from gift shops and restaurants to sight-seeing operators and tour guides, the apparent ambivalence of Havana to the foreign dollar is unbelievably rare, and refreshing. For the most part, the city is free from tourist trinkets, bad tee-shirts and photographic food menus. The ultimate ‘tourist experience’, hailing a big old american car to get home, but even that offers a legitimate mode of transport, and supports a cuban driver who is officially or unofficially operating an actual taxi. However we suspect it won’t remain this way for long. Feeling on the cusp of a cultural ‘before and after’ moment, we remarked almost daily how lucky we felt to have visited when we did. With the embargo lifted, we learned of entire streets being ‘bought’ by Americans and foreigners keen to snap up incredible (albeit dilapidated) buildings, in the heart of the city, knowing that soon, the accessibility and proximity of this country to the USA will change everything. A change that's as inevitable as is (for most Cubans), timely and welcome. We only hope it manages to retain a little of its magic, that in years to come others should be so lucky to feel what we felt wandering these same streets. 

Not unsurprisingly given its political past, (but taking us a little while to realise this is why we found streetscapes here so achingly, so remarkably beautiful), there’s not a scrap of signage or advertising in Cuba. There’s no billboards, no shop frontages, no sponsored umbrellas over cafes, or posters adorning bus stations. Besides hand lettered words in fonts and colours so beautiful they only discreetly denote one corner as a Farmacia and another as the house where you might find chicken, the country is wondrously, completely devoid of advertising. We also observed the way that women here dressed. Moving past our bewilderment at their ability to stay seemingly cool in tight layers of lycra (while we sweated it out in the breeziest of cottons) we marvelled at their body confidence and unselfconscious celebration of the female form. While men adopted a more traditional dress, for women, the uniform was mostly tight, and bright. What we refer to as body-con was favoured here by all shapes and sizes and worn with confidence - proudly, beautifully, unapologetically. And it occurred to us, that perhaps these two things were related. That the lack of advertising, the streets uncluttered by larger than life representations of what ’beautiful’ looks like, had a lot to answer for. 

Similarly, the attitudes of men (perhaps having not been conditioned into accepting a narrower scope of what the feminine ideal is) we found at first disconcerting, then refreshing. Possessing an almost Italian-like appreciation of women, it not being uncommon for men to cross streets or reverse in cars just to tell you how incredibly beautiful they thought you were, such declarations were somehow delivered in a way that left you feeling infinitely flattered rather than infinitely uncomfortable. We would continue on our way, them on theirs, the briefest of exchanges, and both parties leaving with a smile - after which we’d joke to one another, “Cuba….so good for the ego!”. 

Surrounded by hints at what it once must have been, throwbacks to its heyday of decadence and excess, a playground just across the water from America, a city teeming with luxury cars and casinos, theatres and bars, the mind boggles at what life must have felt like in Havana back then. With an extravagance of detail now hidden amidst faded ruin and dilapidated grandeur, the undercurrent of glorious, bygone hedonism is impossible to ignore. The colours, the forms, the profusion of old world elegance, time here passes as a surreal experience surrounded by cars and architecture lingering from an era when form won out over mere function. Wandering the streets at early evening (a photographers dream), we’d bask each night in a kind of ombre glow that descended over the city, the colours of the twilight sky mirroring the chalky pinks and ochres of the buildings themselves. Decorative and ornately decaying, we’d catch glimpses of stairwells paved in intricately patterned tiles, dimly lit passages leading upstairs to the secret lives of families, houses once magnificent but now untouched in seventy years. Ancient cars that move like colourful phantoms, mirage-like, their abundance seems impossibly make believe, were it not for their very real, low rumble, the sound of vintage motors held together under the hood using whichever parts can be scavenged or sourced. Everything about this country captivated, never ceasing to amaze, surprise and welcomingly challenge us.

And so as with any time passed in a foreign place, over the days we began to fall into its rhythm, embracing its idiosyncrasies, and laughing at things that on day one or two would have only frustrated our spoilt selves. We marvelled at the synchronicity of the universe and our how our August Issue - Time seemed to self manifest here, from the moment we set foot on Cuban soil. How normal low-fi began to feel, and the incredible up-side to this…the way post-editorial, we drank and dined with a team of ten, everyone around the table completely lost in conversation and laughter, not a phone in sight (a scene ordinarily consumed with exchanges over instagram and comparisons of images and captions to upload). The initial panic at what non-connectivity would mean for the website, although still tricky, gave way to acceptance as not a world-ending concept. We adopted a philosophical approach of ‘doing what we can, when we can, with what we have’ - after that, enjoying the ride. We came to appreciate the way without technology, our brains felt (unfamiliarly) uncluttered, with infinitely fewer tabs open. Because the glorification of busy holds no value here. Theres no undercurrent of people believing that their immediate tasks at hand, their commute, their jobs are more pressing or more important than anyone else’s. 

In turn, this mirror held up to our behaviour and our attitudes began to rub off and we felt ourselves (and our minds) shifting gear, slowing down, reverting to an unfamiliar feeling of ‘pre-internet’ brain - a concept in the office we often joke about, but never believed we’d again experience, in this lifetime. We began to feel more present, and focussed. While less connected to the outside world, we were undeniably more connected to one another. In a normal week back in the office, each Friday we’d exclaim in shock, bewilderment and mild alarm (at the speed at which the year is slipping past), ‘how, how could it possibly have been a week already since last Friday?!’. Whereas here, we discovered the opposite, recalling a conversation or event, wondering how that could have only been this morning, when it felt as though it occurred days and days ago. We mused over the effects of this difference magnified over a week, a month, a year. How much slower, and richer life must seem at that speed. Musing further, we felt we’d unearthed some kind of secret lottery, because if time is the last true measure of luxury, that slippery thing we all crave most but that money can’t buy, we realised we’d stumbled upon a kind of magic, the key to unlocking a supply of time as rich and vast as you choose. Because it is a choice. Because through switching off, and being truly present, of tuning in to those around you, of not just hearing but really listening, of putting down phones and looking away from screens, reacting less but responding more….if you're disciplined enough to do this…you can create this kind of existence anywhere. 

Arriving home, comparing our before and after brains, sharing stories and anecdotes with friends and family - we each felt grateful, infinitely grateful for the experiences we’d had, and for everything we returned home to. We also felt wary, nervous about slipping back into old habits fast, vowing to remind one another of some experience that would immediately take us back to ‘Cuba time’, a leveller of perspective when we were in danger of reverting into ‘busy mode’. That very modern, first world problem, the fatigue of choice? We realised was actually, only as fatigue inducing as you allow it to be. That feeling a being a bit pulled in all directions? We vowed to narrow our focus, giving energy and attention to only one thing at a time, resisting the urge to multi-task, which in effect is only giving half your attention to anything, the biggest culprit of losing hours and hours without feeling like you’ve actually accomplished anything. And that sense of being forever interrupted? We knew to switch off (literally…turning off our devices) until we’re in a headspace to accept ‘incoming’ communication, freeing ourselves from that mental conflict of juggling all things simultaneously. Kind of simple but kind of game-changing, for us anyway. 

Where We Stayed...

Casa Concordia (Old Havana) - an incredible example of a grand old Cuban residence. On the 5th floor of an apartment building (reached via narrow stairs or an old fashioned central elevator with double wrought iron doors) the tiled floors and marbled glass windows offer a cool sanctuary high above the street. Excellent people watching, views over the city, beautiful hosts, breakfast each morning and ensuite bathrooms for every room. A complete oasis in the heart of Old Havana.

Villa Maria La Gorda (South/West tip of Cuba) -  A quaint little resort right on the sand. Peachy coral buildings, a dive school, a bar and restaurant overlooking the bluest water, an abundance of palms (growing right to the waters edge), a feeling of absolute ‘blue lagoon’ tranquility, the stuff of cast away island dreams. (*note - the resort is remote, and while we were there, we experienced severe water restrictions, which isn’t very romantic, if honeymooning! Best to check before you book).

Hotel National (Havana) - a majestic Havana institution. Originally not part of our itinerary but when the production side of being offline all got a bit tricky with team members flying in an out on different days, we set up camp here making use of their Wifi, their concierge and the ability to access food at unusual hours! A grand old dame, this hotel feels like stepping back in time not to the 1950’s but to an age of Art Deco opulence, infused with tropical details. Our favourite place to unwind over a drink and de-brief on the days events, their enormous outdoor lounges, looking over fountains and lawns dotted with peacocks, a Cuban band playing in the corner, the scent of cigars in the air. 

Where We Ate...

La Guarida, Caribbean / Cuban (Old Havana) - An institution and site of a famous Cuban film, but somehow not touristy in vibe, this incredible building (the location for several of our shoots) retains all the eclectic charm and character from its heyday. Think incredible etched glass windows and antique dining chairs, a marble topped bar and a bowerbird eclecticism of decor, walls decorated with antique posters, religious iconography and all sorts of art. The food is incredible, as are the cocktails. There is also a newly opened rooftop bar with breathtaking views over the city (and a private cigar room), both reached via an breathtaking glass enclosed spiral staircase. Breakfast / Lunch / Dinner - all served by the most beautiful, generous of spirit, gracious staff. 

5 Esquinas Trattoria, Italian (Havana / Portside) - An absolute hidden gem we stumbled across by chance, location scouting for our Women’s editorial, this hole-in-the-wall Italian eatery is tucked down a particularly beautiful part of Old Havana just back from the water, all narrow alleys and paved streets. With tables spilling onto cobblestoned walkways, we dined outside, sipping mojitos and margaritas, ordering hand made pasta, wood fired pizza and freshly caught fish. We celebrated wrapping our first editorial here (shot in the same street) and dined here embarrassingly often, befriending the super accommodating staff. Perfect for an Italian break from the customary Cuban staples of beans, rice and slow cook protein. 

Ivan Chef Justo, Caribbean - (Havana / Portside) - This tiny, discreetly signed little restaurant feels a little like dining in the house of a welcoming friend, with eclectic style and incredible cocktails. Up a narrow stairway, staff greet you warmly, talking you though a long menu (written in Spanish which they translate into English), full of fresh fish, seafood and salad options - a rarity in Cuba! The same owners and chefs also have a newly opened sister restaurant, just around the corner. We drank the best mango daiquiris there, and feasted on Ceviche and perfectly cooked steak.

We Recommend... 

Hiring an old Car - If theres one ‘tourist’ experience to embrace, it’s this one! There’s nothing quite like exploring Havana from a low riding vintage American car. A driver can be booked through any hotel, or directly at various points around the city, with the Cuban drivers themselves, paying per hour, half day or full day. Every driver we engaged with had the patience of a saint, repeatedly stopping and going back (so we could photograph something amazing we’d passed!), helping with bags or waiting patiently while we ran errands. Where we found drivers who spoke a little bit of English, we appreciated the longer car rides and day trips as an opportunity to pick their brains about Havana, Cuba, the changes they’ve observed in their country, their families and way of life - an experience as immersive in the people of Cuba as the cars themselves.

Experiencing the Cigars - If you appreciate a fine cigar (or like us, don’t actually smoke, but appreciate their scent and old-world packaging!) a trip to the cigar shop inside Hotel National is a must. Then take your cigar to the lounge bar outside (a favourite haunt of ours), where you can order a cocktail and listen to live salsa music. Also, if you ask the waiters very nicely, you can order dinner to be taken out here too!

Sunset Cocktails Overlooking the City - The newly opened Terrace Bar on the rooftop of La Guarida offers one of the best vantage points overlooking the pastel colours and sinking sun over Old Havana. Excellent cocktails, a contemporary soundtrack and welcoming cool breezes. We celebrating wrapping our Mens Editorial here, the perfect place to watch the sun go down on a crazy, magic day!

Wandering the Streets of Old Havana  - Explored on foot, the streetscapes of Cuba offer the most incredible textures and slightly concealed details, missed from a car. Ornately patterned tiles, weather patinas revealing ten former colours of paint, marbled entrances and ornate doorways. Our favourite time of day was before 9am or after 5pm, when the light and temperatures are most welcoming. Take a big bottle of water, flat shoes and a camera, allowing yourself to get lost. (*Start at La Guarida for a very pretty part of Old Havana, walking in any direction).

We Soon Discovered…

Currency - there are two types of pesos in Cuba. The ‘National Peso’ and the ‘Convertible Peso’ (occasionally referred to as the dollar when spoken, 25 more valuable than the ‘National Peso’). Depending on where you go and what you’ll do, you’ll need both. Fruit or bottles of water from local Cuban stands or stores will probably only accept the National Peso (local currency) while hotels and most taxis deal in Convertible Pesos.  

Taxis - almost every old american car is a taxi, officially or unofficially. Don’t be alarmed to get into an ‘unmarked’ taxi, it’s how many cubans make a living here and it offers a fun ride, each of them entirely different outside and inside! There are more modern (80’s style cars, marked yellow as official taxis, but we reasoned…when in Cuba!). Agree on a price with the driver before you get in, we never travelled very fare and the far was usually 5 or 10 (convertible) pesos, or 25 to the airport. 

Food & Drinks - Cuba is not a foodie destination. With the embargo it’s impossible to get so many ingredients that we take for granted, even in to the country. Fresh vegetables are a little hard to find (often tinned), however tropical fruit is abundant.  Have a plan in place for breakfast as theres no such thing as cafes. A hotel can be handy here, however if staying at a Casa, hosts will often provide breakfast - eggs, fresh fruit and coffee each morning. However drinks are another story! Its not unusual at a restaurant for the drinks menu to occupy four pages, to one page of food offerings. Stick to rum based drinks, it’s delicious and abundant here. Where it’s not possible to always find something delicious to eat, it is always possible to find something amazing to drink, mojitos served with the efficiency (and price) of a cup of coffee back home! 

Access & Opening Hours - We were occasionally caught short by unforeseen closures of things like banks (located inside the big hotels), or internet access we had counted on using, sometimes inexplicably, with no explanation (A handwritten note simply stating that the bank was “closed”, despite opening hours suggesting it was trading for at least another 5 hours! Or the time the printer wasn’t working to print a code for internet access, so therefore, there was no internet access that day. Such is Cuba! Plan ahead, and always have a supply of both currencies ready. 

Tour Desks - Ordinarily something we would steer clear of, however in Cuba these desks, positioned at both big hotels and the airport act more as a logistical facilitator for whichever activities you would like to arrange, not necessarily part of a bigger group or traditional ‘tour’. They can arrange a driver for you, a day trip by vintage car to the cigar fields or Varadero, any ‘experience’ you’re seeking, eliminating much of the hassle and lost-in-translation nature of attempting to book yourself. 

Photos: Ted Grambeau

 

 

 

 

Maria La Gorda, Cuba.

Monday, August 24th 2015

While the word Cuba conjures many things for many people, admittedly its beaches aren’t often amongst the beautiful immediately recalled images of crumbling houses and incredible cars, so strongly associated with this inimitable country. Seduced by photos found online of pristine sands and azure blue waters, and in search of a picture perfect setting for our third and final editorial of the trip, our initial explorations (a short drive from the city of Havana) proved nothing like we’d expected, or hoped for - but - as was the case with so many moments in this crazy country, they gave way to a grander adventure, infinitely more interesting and beautiful than any original plan. 

Setting off location scouting initially (by vintage car) to the nearest beach of Varadero, took a little longer than expected, or than our research suggested (as was emerging to be the theme of the trip!). Dressed in breezy broderie anglaise we were led through the tiniest of towns and stretches of unbelievably photogenic streets, passing by and mesmerised by individual houses, some so incredible we asked our (eternally patient) driver to please stop, reverse, and go back. 

However while the closest beaches offer an easy day trip from Havana, we found Varadero (a 2 hour drive or so by car) to be a little touristy for our liking. Dotted with international hotels, lounges and umbrellas lining the shore, their presence makes the expanses of admittedly beautiful beach feel slightly unremarkable. Living where we live back home, our perceptions of ‘beautiful beaches’ are admittedly slightly skewed, and for a quick trip, you will absolutely find that holiday checklist of white sand and postcard worthy waters…but for our editorial location, and desire to unearth something a little wilder, beaches that felt a little more untouched and unexpected, Varadero proved not the place for us.

Following some quick research we made our way later that week to Maria La Gorda, a 4 hour journey almost as magical as the destination itself, where we discovered a kind of rural, tropic infused beauty, wildly different from Havana, although just as surreal.  Our pick both for an editorial & holiday location, this 4 hour drive inland & across the island revealed glimpses into the lives of others bursting with unexpected beauty, a sensory feast for the eyes flashing by the window for anyone paying attention along the way…“time stands still best in moments that look suspiciously like ordinary life”.  Validating further what Cuba had been teaching us since we arrived, we came to understand with a deeper conviction that the experiences you don’t prepare for stir your soul the deepest.  

Passing through fields of corn crops and giant banana palms, horse drawn buggies and wooden trucks, their trays piled high with men (on the agricultural equivalent of a daily commute) we drank in the lush landscape dotted with tiny pastel houses, or groupings of petite roadside cottages...each a unique dusky tint, their modest neighbouring boundaries marked by rows of cactus. We contemplated the house proud owners who despite their poverty tended to thoughtfully planted gardens, keeping front steps immaculately swept, the fastidious tidiness in stark visual contrast to the peeling paint and humble state of the dwellings themselves.

We observed dozens of giant barns dotting green paddocks, each incongruously painted the exact same shade of chalky peach trimmed with bright turquoise shutters and doors (later learning from our driver that these are in fact schools). We continued on through stretches of pasture populated with undulating palms, their pale bulbous trunks and swaying sculpturing beauty most arresting when growing en masse, or planted as we sometimes observed, in a linear fashion, lining driveways stretching hundreds of metres to a majestic residence, long since abandoned but rendered (in our eyes) that much more beautiful for the dilapidated state of bygone grandeur.

At Maria La Gorda, our favoured (& final) beach destination, these same palms dot the bright white sands throwing dreamy, cast-away island shadows framing an expanse of water that sparkles with the kind of pale blue clarity that appears suspiciously photoshopped when captured through the lens. The kind of destination that were you not to experience it with your own eyes, you might wonder whether it’s just a bit too perfect to really exist. The water temperature itself our biggest surprise, as warm almost as a bath! While not the same kind of refreshing shock of oceans we’re akin to in the southern hemisphere, we discovered the warm waters of Cuba to be particularly perfect for midnight swims under a bright crescent moon. 

In keeping with our love of low-fi on this trip, the simplicity of the low lying architecture at smaller, more regional outposts we found to be a more authentic beachside experience perhaps than the global consistency of larger hotels closer to Havana. Also, these farther destinations offered a less crowded and more beautiful backdrop, a feeling of discovery at stretches of sand scattered so sparsely with people. In such a setting, we appreciated the humble menu of fresh fish, simple salad and sparkling water - musing that a little like when camping, you notice after a few days spent outdoors enjoying life’s uncomplicated pleasures that the simplest meals seem to taste the most delicious.

For anyone whose perfect honeymoon (or holiday) entails dropping off the grid for several days, swimming, snorkelling and sunning themselves beneath coconut palms, you will find the gentle existence of Cuba’s far flung beaches to be everything you need, and the most beautiful reminder of everything that you don't. 

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Timeworn Textures, Cuba.

Sunday, August 23rd 2015

With unmistakable streetscapes of crumbling facades, colour palettes so heart stoppingly beautiful you feel compelled to stop and photograph every surface, slow trips down particularly amazing streets where surely every house has a story to tell, if only their walls could talk…Wandering Havana (a journey of discovery best explored on foot) can most accurately be described as a surreal sensory overload. A a visual feast of pattern and timeworn patinas, inimitable textures and gloriously faded finishes.

An overwhelming juxtaposition of the bright primary tints of immaculately polished vehicles driving through streets of beautiful dilapidation, all chalky, textured surfaces. The most ornate doorways and decorative architecture (found outside of Marrakesh), darkly lit staircases lined with colourfully patterned tiles, each leading to spaces untouched in years. Balconies you suspect are structurally unsound (but exquisite in their decorative shapes) attached to buildings so quietly majestic, despite their disrepair…a unique Cuban palette and extravagance of detail wherever the gaze wanders and eyes rest. 

Photography: Karissa Fanning & Ted Grambeau

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