One of the blog posts I’ve been longing to write up is a reflection on some of the reactions to Fidel Castro passing away when I was in Cuba. Four months later, it seems a long time afterwards to write everything that has happened. But the weeks of editing it took me to go through my photos – hundreds taken just on one day of rallies, and trying to capture all the emotions and find the best moments! There is never an end to photo editing, I know now. It’s been a journey, not just to go to the country but to understand my thoughts and feelings since then. And also to understand where I want to go with writing and photography.
On the 13 November last year, I saw a cheap flight to Havana for the 24th November and – as is normal travel practice to me, and probably wildly infuriating to everyone around me! – booked it on the spur of the moment. I’m going to Cuba!
I arrived late on the 24th November and spent the night dancing salsa until the following morning in UK standards. 25th November I spent exploring the city and the beautiful Malecon, making and meeting friends, listening to music on the side streets and in restaurants – so many people invite me to dance with them that I joke I’ll be a salsa expert by the end of my time there.
Off the plane into the gradually lowering sunset at Varadero. I had just switched my phone on to a work problem back at home, and thought ‘Why have I come here? It’s all falling apart back at home!’ But as soon as I felt the hot sun on my skin, I let go of any of my ‘adult worries’ of work. Traveling alone, I just started talking to people, introducing myself, finding out why they were here. Making mistakes, getting on the wrong bus… all of that!
My first morning in Havana coming across a ‘WIFI’ spot. I was graced with probably the best WiFi I had on that entire time in Cuba, and managed to sort out all work problems, and then put down my laptop, and think… right… where now?!
Then on my second morning in Cuba – 26th November – I wake up to find out Fidel Castro passed away during the night.
What follows is a collection of pictures from those first four days, 26th November until the presidential rally on the 29th November. I find it hard to put into words those days, because for us travelers, for my friends and family asking at home and for readers, it was certainly an experience of sorts, but in a way a bit different from what people have been asking. In the same way that if a photographer came to the UK to capture the emotions of the ‘British people’ if something with a measurably monumental impact happened here – for example, if the Queen passed away – I would feel a bit like an observed creature for my emotional reaction, I don’t want to liken what happened in Cuba to such a thing. As I’ve written about before, what struck me in a country I’ve heard to be described as ‘the only ongoing Communism regime in the world’, the home of classic cars, a totally different lifestyle, somewhere to visit ‘before it all changes and it’s all Westernised’ – is that it was nothing like I inflated in my head from everything I had heard before. Visiting the country made me humanise a country I perceived before as just an ideology. There was a lot I had to learn.
The morning of 26th November
There is a subtle change in the streets when I go out, and many people are talking quietly. It takes a couple of days before I start noticing the main effects of the mourning period – that there is no music or dancing, anywhere. It is still busy, at least in the morning – the tourist destinations like museums are closed, and the banks and the shops have to close in the afternoon, so there’s some frantic people going around trying to sort their affairs before midday. The roads are really quiet. My friends and I visit a cigar factory and they’re told to make any purchases quickly, before they’re forced to close for 9 days. With tourist places closed, we’re told by a hotel doorman to pay a dollar to ‘come to the rooftop of the hotel, it’s the only place in Havana that’s open today’ – the entrepreneurial spirit remains strong, even in the face of adversity!
It’s the same atmosphere on the 27th November, which is a Sunday – the city is still coming to terms with everything, organising rallies and plans that won’t take place until the beginning of the week, so we go to a quiet Malecon for most of the day.
I don’t see the ‘normal’ Malecon’ until a week and a half later – there are none of the romantic lovers or groups of musicians I’ve been told to expect. Hardly any people here, it’s just us and the sea.
We join the rallies today, and where the city has been quiet for a long weekend, suddenly everyone is here. The queues to ‘see’ Fidel Castro, a room with pictures of him alongside his cremated remains, take me ten or fifteen minutes to briskly walk to the end of it just to see the length of it. Large yellow buses are pulling up full of employees from closed factories and work places, who are being brought to the Revolution Square. In the distance, I can see school groups in their neat uniforms walking to the square. There’s many groups of young people there . There is such a mixed atmosphere – tired crowds resting under the trees to escape a very hot sun – people my age taking photos on cell phones or otherwise part of the rallying groups supporting Fidel. One newspaper stands is waiting for the papers for the day, with people patiently waiting for hours until long gone midday for the first papers to come into print.
The streets are full of yellow buses from all across the city and the whole of Cuba. Some, I find out, are coming all the way from Santiago de Cuba. After the presidential rally at 11 PM the next day, we walk past the same buses, filling up to take them back there.
The day suddenly becomes livelier, alive with colours, chanting and flag waving!
The end of the queue at the Revolution Square. Above is a long standing billboard: “The revolution is invincible”.
Today is the presidential rally, with thousands of Cubans coming to watch presidents from around the world paying their acknowledgements to Fidel Castro.
It’s a long day for me. I arrive early afternoon to be near the front of everything taking place. Although I’ve brought litres of water, it’s not enough, and I’m exhausted by the early evening, before it’s even started. I feel like a wilting flower compared to the strength of the Cuban people around me, who are able to stay standing the entire time, without food or water, applauding throughout.
Early arrivals hide from the strength of the sun in the only place they can – in the shade of a pole.
The crowds are just so great here, that I struggle to stand at this point, starting to feel unwell! But it’s difficult to sit or stand and there are just great amounts of people coming and going, trying to get to the front and trying to get back because there’s too many people at the front.
The speeches are a real mix. I don’t understand them all, but from what I can gather from basic Spanish, and from the ones that are spoken by English leaders, Cuba and Fidel Castro are of course held in high regard. It sounds like a mix of reverence and propangada, with the Americans described as tyrants of imperialism. People are getting tired by several speeches in but when Raul Castro comes on the stage, all of the people are shouting and applauding, and all the traces of tiredness disappears.