My first foray into both the world outside my own and photography. I went with the intention of meeting my family and cycling through the country, I found more than I expected. Initially I had intended on spending the majority of my time cycling and a minority meeting the family, but the opposite happened. Often in my life I’ve felt rootless. As it turns out I’ve had a family of my own this whole time, they were just a short sea and a wide embargo away.
This trip was my first concerted effort into photography and while in retrospect my photos seem somewhat scattered in subject, it was where I began to lay a foundation of confidence upon which to build this current endeavor.
While there my life took an entirely unexpected turn. I was taking a day off from cycling, drinking and chatting with a very large Italian man and two Cubanos in an open air bar in Santa Clara when an elderly woman sat in the empty seat next to mine. She started a conversation in perfect English (a rare thing in Cuba, Russian being the most likely second language). She was educated, intelligent, eloquent, and full of experience. We talked for some time discussing politics, the state of the revolution (which in her youth she had supported but with age came to resent, particularly with the advent of the “special period”) and modern life in Cuba. This amazing and insightful conversation culminated surprisingly when she asked me for money. It struck me that such a well educated, intellectually present individual would be reduced to begging, when so many young Cubans speaking only rudimentary english were making a decent living in Santa Clara guiding tourists. Here was a woman in fine shape, very articulate, yet unable to support herself.
I asked instead if I could pay her to give me a tour of the city the following day; I decided to stay longer than I had originally intended and seize the opportunity to interact with a piece of the social fabric of Cuba that I’d otherwise be unable to touch.
And so we met the next morning and set out; she led me on a wonderfully informed tour that was enriched by the substance of her incredible experience. We visited the hotel that was the HQ for Batista’s forces after being driven out from Havana and the site of one of the battles that marked the end of the Cuban revolution. We eventually found a place to sit and to discuss history and politics. It was an amazing day.
And still I could not believe that the only option for this wonderfully beautiful human was to seek subsistence through begging; I could not accept it.
So I asked her if she’d let me help her set up a guiding business. She thought it would be impossible, but I insisted and told her that I’d cover the expenses; we might as well try. She agreed, doubtful of any possible success. It’s important to note that the nature of her reality was to think of business as an impossible endeavour; it wasn’t allowed until fairly recently for individuals to own private businesses and so for the majority of her experience in Cuba, this really was not an option.
It took only that day. We had bilingual business cards printed (at a black market printer no less; the state run print shop had been out of ink for the previous 3 months), bought her an entire set of maps and guidebooks, and arranged for an old estranged friend who was in possession of a telephone to take her calls for a commission. The entire business would be based on the same model she was previously using for begging, but instead of asking for money she’d be offering tours.
And throughout the day she allowed me glimpses into her life that was so far removed from what I had experienced in my own or my observations of life in Cuba; to see beneath the surface.
Throughout this process there was a profound change in my understanding of the nature of business. I had previously started a small business to some financial success but great personal dissatisfaction. I’d come to associate the act of business with selfishness and a necessitation of mercantile behavior that I wanted no part in. For this and also the personal discovery that time is all I will ever have, I dissolved it.
However, In applying the skills I had developed in an altruistic way this perception changed; it widened. I decided from this that I wanted to apply my entrepreneurial skills in some charitable way.
The opportunity to do so occurred by coincidence only days after returning to the US…
NOTE: To all whom it may concern: I traveled legally to Cuba on a general license provided by the State Department; I have blood relations less than three generations removed currently living in Cuba.