John Gifford

is the author of five books, including the story collections Wish You Were Here and The Sharks of Al Jubail, and a forthcoming collection of essays, Where East Meets West. His work has appeared in Arkansas Review, The Atlantic, Southwest Review, The Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He lives in Oklahoma.


A STREET PHOTOGRAPHER’S GUIDE TO HAVANA

Rule 1: For each shutter release, a photo
Rule 2: For each photo, a conversation
Rule 3: For each conversation, a new friend

Rounding the corner, I spot them: two old men perched on the steps of a decaying edificio, one of Havana’s many grand old buildings, which at this hour is resplendent in its advanced age and character. The soft, early morning light is like a beauty cream, concealing the cracks in her façade,
filling the chinks in her slowly crumbling foundation, and bathing her fading, pastel-colored walls in a warm glow. Half an hour from now, the rising tropical sun will render it a different building altogether and force the viejos into the shade, or perhaps indoors.

The scent of freshly baked bread wafts through the streets, while an unseen rooster crows from somewhere nearby, echoing the morning call to rise and shine.

The men pause their conversation and gaze at our small group as we approach. Jorge, our Cuban guide, asks if it’s all right to take their photo, and they give us the thumbs-up. As we raise our cameras, focus our lenses, and click away, voices erupt from behind us. Four teenagers are sitting on the steps of another slowly crumbling building across the street. “Charge them a peso!” one of the boys shouts. The men ignore them and go back to their conversation. We thank them and begin to
move down the street when one of the men calls out. “Why us?” he asks. “What is so special about us?” He’s not being sarcastic. He’s simply curious. This part of Havana doesn’t see many tourists.

“We’re looking for certain lighting conditions,” Jorge says. “Where you’re sitting, the sunlight is falling perfectly and we wanted to get a shot before it changes.” The man nods and we head off down the street.

When we reach the end of the block, I notice a woman on the opposite corner sweeping mop water out of her front door and onto the sidewalk. Holly, one of the other photographers in our group, notices too and she raises her camera. “No,” Jorge says. “Don’t steal the picture. You have to talk to her. Go over there and ask, and then get the photo.”

Though Havana is easily the most photogenic city I’ve visited, I’m learning that the opportunity to talk with Cubans is the most rewarding part of this experience.

We watch as Holly crosses the street and approaches the woman. When she lifts the camera to her eye a moment later, the woman leaning on her broom, posing, a small cheer erupts within our group. “That’s how you do it,” Jorge says. “Most people are happy to allow you to take their picture, but you should ask first.”

I’m elated at the opportunity to be in Cuba. I’ve waited all my adult life to travel to this once-forbidden island, and now that I’m here I find myself pausing to wonder if I’m not dreaming. It really is like stepping back in time. Whether it’s the slower pace of life, or the sense of community I feel on the streets, it seems I’ve been transported back to the 1950s. And for someone who always believed he was born seventy years too late, this is exhilarating.

But I wonder how much longer this unique culture can persist, especially with more and more travelers visiting the city each year. The New York Times reports that the island welcomed 3.5 million visitors in 2015, and the number of Americans who traveled here during this same period jumped seventy-seven percent over the previous year.1 How much longer until residents tire of seeing visitors crowding their streets, cameras in hand, snapping photos? I’ve discussed the issue with many Cubans who’ve told me that they welcome the opportunity to share their city with American travelers, and to learn more about our country. Yet, they also mention an extreme reluctance to see their culture diluted by tourism and by the kind of wholesale and generic development that has degraded so much of the American landscape. This view is certainly understandable and I share their concern. On the other hand, tourism is also giving many of us something we’ve dreamt about for years: the opportunity to get to know our Cuban neighbors.

For now, Cuba is still Cuba, as I hope it always will be. There is no Disney theme park here. No drive-through lanes or fast-food restaurants. As I walk the streets of Havana, I savor this reality while considering the possibilities of everything around me: the city’s tropical landscape…its aging but elegant and eclectic blend of Art Deco and colonial architecture… a woman buying limes from a sidewalk vendor…three men laughing around a banana stall…the panerero on his morning rounds, singing his way through the streets, offering, for one-fifth of a peso—a mere twenty centavos—bread, butter, cheese, freshly made, as a small dog shadows his cart, howling in accompaniment. Though it’s still early, though the streets are still shaded and cool, some of the locals waiting for their morning bread seem to relish the opportunity to visit with one another.

There is a certain camaraderie among Cubans that I seldom detect in the fiercely independent United States, where so much of our lives are spent isolated in homes and offices and automobiles, and plugged into technological worlds in which many of us interact, at best, only digitally. There is a certain patience, compassion, and joie de vivre, despite, or perhaps because of, the hardships they’ve survived together. People often go out of their way to greet one another, first verbally, and then with clasping hands and smiles. And everyone seems to enjoy interacting with friends, family, or neighbors out in the streets. I see it in the mornings at coffee stands and panaderias. I see it in plazas and parks in the afternoons, where children play soccer and men talk baseball. And I see it on the sidewalks every evening: people visiting and laughing with one another. Everywhere I go, I see and feel community out in the open air. I love this.

 

I’m also realizing how much I love Cuban coffee, which is delicious. I appreciate the way in which it’s served here on the Caribbean’s largest island: not out of a paper cup, but in the requisite demi mug, often with saucer, and with plenty of sugar and conversation. In Cuba, coffee is important enough that people stop what they’re doing to enjoy it. And now that residents are permitted to own small businesses, many serve café right out of their homes. As you walk the streets of Havana early of a morning, you see people gathered in the warm glow of open doorways, sipping coffee and chatting, enjoying the feel of the city waking up, the low light, the tranquil, dusty hush of the old, cobbled avenues, savoring one of life’s sweet moments.

At a rural fishing village a few days earlier, I happened upon two men who were sorting bait and preparing their tackle not far from the edge of the sea where they’d spent lifetimes plying their trade, fishing for livelihoods for their families and country. I had only barely said hello when one of the men took up a thermos and metal can, and offered me coffee—sweet, full-bodied Cuban coffee. In enjoying this wonderful beverage, and in talking with the men about their work, I realized I had always dreamt of exactly this scenario. These men made me feel welcome. They talked with me, answered my questions, and treated me like a fellow Cuban even, and I only hope that my enthusiasm for their work, their customs, their country, was apparent, for the experience was something I treasured.

But here I am in Havana two days later, exploring the streets with a camera in hand. Just up ahead, a young boy is walking to school, surrounded by men and women on their way to work, a police officer
standing on the corner, and a stray dog or two. The boy seems consumed with his own sleepy thoughts. If only I could get ahead of him on the street, perhaps I could take his photo. Instead, I remove my backpack and drop the camera inside, telling myself I’ve been in Cuba a long time and I’ve taken more than enough pictures. Then I reach into another pocket and remove a new baseball, which I offer to the boy. First, confusion, and then surprise wash over his young face. For you, I say. A gift.

Smiling, he takes the ball. Muchas gracias, he says, his small fingers finding the laces, feeling serendipity’s tight stitching.

It’s only a baseball. But after decades of divisive government rhetoric and a crippling embargo, which seems to have benefitted no one, I tell myself it’s these simple but kind gestures, and the benevolent spirit they suggest, that count. Whether we find our commonalities in fishing, coffee, baseball, or something else is not as important as the need to find them in the first place, and now is the best opportunity we’ve had in half a century for doing so. I resolve to make the most of it, and at the next coffee stand I sidle up to a group of locals and say good morning.