Roberto

The first time I went to Havana was to attend a one week workshop sponsored by the Maine Photographic Workshops. That week I met Roberto Barrueta who wore all white each day, was multilingual, and had a huge smile. As my wife and I were staying for an additional week, we made a plan to hire him for several days to assist us out and about in Cuba. He was extremely helpful. We met his son Ellington named for Duke Ellington, one of Roberto’s favorite musicians. We visited his home, took pictures of the entire family and had a good time. We found that Roberto was undergoing his year of denial and penitence on his quest to become a Santeria Priest or babalao. This accounted for the white clothing.

The following year I returned to Cuba with two photography acquaintances- Steve and Ira. I had communicated with Roberto and we had agreed on dates,fees,and goals. He asked me to bring a few things, basically the innards of a PC computer. I took that and another box of gifts for others in Cuba. We rented a car and Roberto drove. He fancied himself more of a Cuban Formula 1 driver than a guide! It took most of a day to convince that trip was more important than the destination. He was convinced only when I gave him a camera and he became more interested in making photographs.

The next time I took a group if students to Cuba for a month. We had a blast. Roberto was a big help. Maria was unfortunately a bit sick with hepatitis C, but there were hopes that a sacrificial Santeria ceremony might turn the tide. We attended that, Roberto had been told by his babalao friends that this should be at a place where a fresh water river joined to the ocean. This was due to the fact that Maria’s orisha was Yemaya. He had the perfect spot in mind. The babalao aye he found to officiate was named Ernesto.
mriainrvr04web This is Maria with a flower by the river. She had a “spell” and collapsed into the mouth of the river and was being swept put to sea, fortunately my old Myrtle Beach days as a life guard sprung into action by instinct! Maria was pulled to safety.

The last time I saw Roberto he was depressed and did not feel well. His wife, Maria, had died of Hepatitis C, Ellington was in jail, and Antonio his adopted son had grown up and moved on. He was still actively involved with our workshop group during our stay in Havana but the enthusiasm was gone. I recently tried to contact him as I wanted him to guide several acquaintances of mine who were planning a trip in December. I called several friends in Cuba, none knew what had happened to Roberto. I emailed Steve who had continued to retain Roberto for the many workshops he conducted in Cuba. I heard back last PM that Roberto died of complications of hypertension in late May 2016.

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Derrumbe

Ruins

Derrumbe-ed Building

Spanish. To collapse, as el derrumbe de communismo. The cry “Derrumbe” usually follows the sound of a huge crash. It occurs when a large building collapses. There are many shells of such buildings through out Havana. These are always a good source of fun and excitement. Sort of like those who gather to watch fires or auto accidents I suppose. Not sure why we delight in seeing such bad miserable things, but we do.

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Twelve Years of Cuba

Teen age boys learning the national occupation

Teen age boys learning the national occupation

This a somewhat long essay recounting many of my memories and experiences from visiting Cuba ave twelve years. I thought some might find it interesting, especially since Cuba is in the news these days. I would appreciate any suggestions and criticism that you might have. All feedback positive and negative is appreciated.

Download the free essay here. Twelve Years of Cuba

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Cuba Workshop–Winter 2012

Cuba: Ten Years Later

In March 2000, my wife and I went to Havana, Cuba to participate in a photography workshop sponsored by the Maine Photographic Workshops. We made friends with artists, musicians, photographers, old Revolutionaries, among others. I recall that on Obispo Street there were many closed shops and storefronts were often boarded over. There was little commercial activity. The segregation of tourists and Cubans was still actively enforced. There were “peso” stores and restaurants intended for Cubans. There were other restaurants and shops that used the American dollar as the official currency and were open only to those with dollars.

The next year I became interested in the possibility of conducting student workshops in photography through the International Education Program at ASU. There were three such workshops in 2002-2004. After that politics changed and ASU like most all universities in the United States lost its educational permit for Cuba travel. In the past two years I began to hear from old students asking about Cuba, travel there, and expressing how meaningful an experience the trip to Cuba had been. Most had never seen anything like it, could have never imagined living there for a month, and described it as “life changing.”

Last summer after five years of not seeing my friends in Cuba I got the itch to return. After taking a few soundings of current student interest I decided to prepare and submit a proposal for a trip over the winter break. We would go see how things were, how important the holidays were, and whether or not they were taken as seriously as holidays are taken in our country. It was time to renew ties with Cuba–for me as well as the USA.

Quickly eight photography students signed up for the trip. I sweated out the days as we waited for the visas that are an important aspect of travel being legal and above board. I developed a good relationship with a travel service provider in Miami, and before long we were on our way to Havana.

To list the things that have changed would take a lot of space. The most important change is the change at the top. For whatever reason Raul is more moderate than his brother. He is not a hero as is Fidel, but he is admired and respected as a leader. We traveled at what is regarded as “High Season,” and the city of Havana was full of tourists. I was told in the early 2000s that Cuba was a “destination for the budget minded European tourist.” That has not changed, but there are many more of them. Also one encounters many tour groups from the United States that are there on humanitarian, educational, cultural, and “get to know the Cubans” missions. Shiny, brightly painted buses purchased from China have replaced the old truck tractor pulled buses, the camellos. Obispo Street is a pedestrian mall and every store is open and selling something, even if it remains very inexpensive and often poorly made merchandise. There are many new automobiles competing for space on the road with the restored American cars from the 1950s. A lot of these are available as taxis and tour vehicles. There are many more restaurants. Several new hotels have been built both in Central Havana and up near the old golf course in Miramar where they can be right on the beach. These changes made it more exciting for the students, increased the opportunities for photography, and daily tired them out with exciting work.

One occasionally is told by Cubans that they know that if they work harder, they will make more money. There is a new currency, the convertible peso or “CUC”. There is a ten percent surcharge on American dollars plus the exchange commission that can be steep. The locals still have the peso and the peso economy. And they do work harder. My friend Roberto told me that he makes more money as a guide and translator, but his taxes are higher. He is experiencing the move to a free market economy and is a bit unsure about all of it. The students on the current trip understood a lot of the changes based on old photos we reviewed in pre-trip planning and informational meetings.

Some information gathered during the trip indicates how successful it was and attests to the enthusiasm of the participants. We averaged walking between 4-5 miles per day; the record for two of the students was 14.7 miles in one day! In the first two days the ten participants took over five thousand exposures on their digital cameras. Unfortunately we were all exhausted each night so only the hardiest went out in the evening. I think maybe two went to the Tropicana, five to a jazz club, and we took some evening strolls along the Malecon.

We did catch up with some of our Cuban friends. It was fairly typical-Nelson was in Europe at a conference, Leysis was deep into the third trimester, Tony and Amador were in the Canary Islands, Juan y Margarita weren’t speaking to me, and we had a wonderful Cuban meal prepared by Ramon at his and Rufino’s home. There we made 3 or 4 new friends! You never know when you might need a good internist, a fashionista from Miami, or a movie producer and critic in Havana.

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“Midway Cafe” — La Bodeguita del Medio

The Bodeguita del Medio or “Midway Cafe” is a long time institution in Habana Vieja. It was one of Hemingway’s haunts. It has become a tourist destination and is a stop on the government employed guide’s tour–what most US citizens get. “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita” a famous Hemingway quote, memorialized on a plaque in the bar.

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