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Changing Places: Carole Marie Gentry on Cuba



I did not realize that revisiting a trip I took nine years ago would recall so many memories. Most of my photos were in pre-digital format, so it meant searching for photos in envelopes—bad, disorganized me—and some scan time. It also meant calling my sister in New York to ask her if she could cull her photography archives. The opposite of me; she is organized and immediately opened her beautiful photo album documenting our December 2003 trip to Cuba.

What was it about Cuba that made me fall deeply in love with her? Once I started looking at the photographs, I could not stop writing and my brain has been on hyper-drive. As we examined photographs and memories long ago tucked away, my sister and I have had many conversations about this trip, about Cubans, and about photography. What a time to reminisce about this moment in our lives!

The photographs told the story: the exhilarating and incredible moments, the difficult times (what trip doesn’t have them?), the beauty of the country, and the pulsating resiliency of the Cuban people themselves.

My love of photography was reignited during this trip. Although I had dabbled with photography when I was in high school and during my college years, I had never been a disciplined student of the medium. Not that I am serious now, but I derive great enjoyment spending time with my various cameras taking photos, particularly when I am on holiday.

What stories were the pictures telling me as I shuffled through our collective photographs? Initially, I recalled walking the streets of Havana on our first day. Our minds excited to explore the city and our bodies somewhat foggy and exhausted from jet lag and endless security checks in Miami and again, in Havana.

No matter what street or neighborhood we walked, we came upon block after block of exquisite, yet crumbling Spanish architecture that has been neglected for years almost ready to tumble into the sea. With no agenda in mind, we wandered serendipitously where our feet took us. The vibrant color of the city buildings was beautiful and the scent of sweet, tropical fruits and abundant flora permeated the air. Lively, rhythmic, Afro-Caribbean influenced jazz floated through the streets. The cool, salty sea breeze and the roar of ocean waves lapping up on shore drifted into our ears. It became clear that the combination of these elements and sensations evoke what the Cuban spirit embodies: a vivaciously rich appetite for life and a will to survive, to live life in full color.

Yet, against this dynamic backdrop, we could not ignore the extreme poverty around us. We encountered long queues for bread, fruit, produce and meat, as many shops’ shelves were barren. The poverty we witnessed tugged at our hearts; how could it not? We had packed clothing and gifts to give away, but there were many times we felt self-conscious taking out our cameras fully aware that they cost more than many Cubans’ annual income.

We met our friends Marisol, Berta and her beautiful baby girl in a plaza near our hotel. They would meet us several times during our stay, sometimes walking the entire city to meet us. At that time, cell phones and digital cameras had not proliferated the world, so our friends eagerly asked to have their pictures taken. Having photographs dotting the walls of our homes is not unusual but in places like Cuba, having the tangible evidence of a moment captured on paper is a luxury many people do not have. Having a photographic memory held in your hands is magical as it marks time, an occasion and the people surrounding you in the instant it is snapped. Photographs enable the viewer to float back in time, to re-experience beloved moments—they are visual vacations.

While some travelers consider the Spanish Colonial architecture, the music, the rum, the cigars and glimmering old 1950’s cars as the jewels of Cuba, for me, I would say it is the resiliency of the Cuban spirit that stands out in my mind. While economically deprived, Cuba does not have regrets or feel sorry for itself. Rightfully, Cubans are full of pride in their rich cultural, intellectual and artistic history. Most importantly, they command respect in their ability to survive with a joie de vivre that is remarkably buoyant, creative, beautiful and infectious. My photographs reminded me precisely why I fell in love with Cuba. I can’t wait to return someday!



When she’s not travelling, Carole divides her time between homes in Colorado and New Mexico.  She’s a literary researcher, specialising in American and Native American literature.  Find her blog here.

Changing Places is a guest post series about the power of place to change us.  You can find other stories in the series here.  If you’d like to share your own story, contact me for submission details.

Reader Comments (1)

So great that this place has inspired you so. Love the photos!

June 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVanessa

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