What was your experience in Cuba like, Adria?
Everyone is talking about Cuba and wanting to go to Cuba, but many people don’t quite understand how to travel there. What I have learned after just having gone to Cuba is that it can indeed be a tricky place to travel. When I arrived, I nearly forgot that it’s a communist country. The little things I could easily overlook became bizarre when I really started to pay attention.
The first big thing I came across that was surprising and interesting was that even finding a bottle of water to purchase isn’t easy. I had been out for a long time, probably three or four hours, and it was hot. I was thirsty and wanted to buy a bottle of water, but there were no corner stores or small shops that sold it. It took me an hour of walking around to find a place and when I did, I waited in line for about 30 minutes.
The other thing I noticed was that there is no media. There are no corner stores, bookstores, magazines, or newspapers—nothing that isn’t produced by the government. I imagine the government is not interested in people having access to it, and the Cuban people don’t have the money to buy media-related things.
There are also no ATMs in Cuba and credit cards aren’t used, so you will have to bring enough U.S. dollars for your entire trip.
Hardly any windows at street level in Cuba have glass; it’s common to see bars and shutters that close firmly. Everyone’s doors and windows are always open, so when you’re walking down the street, you can just look directly into everyone’s homes and you get a clear taste of exactly how people are living.
Another interesting thing is that Cuba’s literacy rate ranks among the highest in the world. Basic medical and healthcare is 100 percent provided for. But the average salary is $40 a month regardless if you’re a doctor, a lawyer, or a bus driver, or if you’re 20 years old and making Cuban ham sandwiches in a restaurant—everyone makes the same amount of money.
It’s fascinating to observe and it made me appreciate certain aspects of our lives and our government in the U.S. that many people are critical of.
The main job that Cubans get that is outside of the government control is that of a taxi driver. Taxi drivers get a license from the government to have their car be a taxi. They get paid cash, primarily from tourists. A taxi ride from the airport to Old Havana is about $25, versus $40 for a standard monthly salary. The number of taxi drivers that are educated doctors, lawyers, accountants, and engineers is incredible, simply because they can make so much more money driving a taxi.
The majority of the people who travel to Cuba rent rooms in people’s houses. It’s like Airbnb, but the Cubans were renting rooms well before Airbnb became popular. Many people don’t have telephones or Internet, so the main way to find places to stay is to knock on doors as you go around. Everyone has a little symbol on the outside of his or her doors, which looks like a little blue anchor.
If you do want to stay in a hotel in Cuba, you could check out the H10 Hotels in Havana or Varadero.
What I noticed while traveling in Cuba is that people change their minds quickly. For instance, you could have a room set up, but perhaps the guest that was supposed to leave decides to stay longer. If that happens, you’re out of luck. Or maybe someone the host likes or knows better shows up, and they give “your” room to them instead. You really have to be ready and willing to just go with whatever comes up.
From this short trip, I’ve connected with two people I can trust so that the next time I go I can stay with them easily. Having the connections is part of what makes travel in Cuba rich and interesting, and it’s amazing to have even just a little support when traveling there.
Are Cubans friendly towards tourists?
Everyone I came across was very friendly and quite a few of them speak English. They’re not used to seeing many Americans, so they got excited to speak with me. I was there one week before Obama visited, so everyone was talking about that. The U.S. is the biggest thing in their news right now, and there I was, an American walking in their streets.
But it’s a little curious—my friend Hillary told me this would happen, and at first it sounded weird to me: Cubans might invite you to do things, but they will never have money to pay for anything.
No one begs on the streets, but there is hardly anyone you talk to who, upon realizing you’re an American, doesn’t ask you for money. You really have to think about how you feel about giving people money, and choose how you want to deal with it. A lot of people bring gifts for the people they meet, like soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, pens, and paper.
I always just try to be genuine and to connect with the people on a human level. Every once in a while, there will just be something about that person’s energy or their eyes, something that I can feel in them, and I feel moved to give them the change in my pocket. But most of the time I tried to avoid it.
Why do you think it’s important for people to travel to Cuba now, despite the difficulties they might face?
I think what most Americans feel, and what I feel, is that Cuba is getting ready to change. We have a feeling that it’s kind of untouched, and it hasn’t changed. In that way it feels a bit like a time capsule. It’s fascinating to go and experience that.
I don’t feel that there are all that many places left in the world that are still this particular way. I’ve traveled all over the world, and I haven’t been to many places where there’s not a 7/11 and a rack of magazines. That doesn’t exist in Cuba.
Do the Cuban people want change?
My friend Hillary was having a conversation with a Cuban friend one time, and she asked him what his dreams are.
His response to her was, “I’m Cuban. We don’t dream.”
She asked him what his wildest dream would be. The biggest thing that he could imagine was to get his passport and be able to leave the country to see something else in the world.
There’s little concept of dreaming, culturally. There has never been anything introduced in the Cuban psyche to want things to be different than they are. If we think back to immigrants who came to America, their dreams were simply to have a roof over their heads and raise a family. This is similar to the ethos that the Cubans are living in. It’s a whole different way of thinking and the idea of movement, freedom, and seeing the world is a newer thing.
There’s a positive flip side to this, which I recognized and admired: Cubans live in the present. They are present in their lives, right where they are, no matter what.
As Americans, we are so wired. Our entire country was based on the idea of coming here and developing it to be able to have freedom and to be able to create what we wanted. I think that has created a society of people that are constantly looking for something else, something more, and nothing is ever good enough. Sometimes we get it in our minds that people should want change, or that people should want to be “like us”. But Cubans have a kindness and brightness in their eyes and spirit that’s so genuine, despite not changing or seeking change as many of us in the U.S. do.
One of the things that I really notice is that when I’m traveling, I’m more present. I am present to what is in front of me and to what I’m experiencing. There is something in me where I almost feel like I need that sense of newness. I was so aware of watching it change as I was in Cuba for just 10 days.
I believe that being present is valuable, that it’s one of the keys in the big picture of life. I also notice I’m not as present at home and I take things around me for granted. See, I’ve seen everything around me at home a thousand times, whereas when I’m traveling, everything is new and I focus on exactly where I am in each moment.
How did photography allow you to see Cuba differently?
As a photographer, I feel that I see a lot of the specific details. I see little nuances of daily life and of people. I like watching people–how they interact, how they move, how their expressions change. I feel like photography sort of sucks me into seeing minute details.
I noticed that all the falling-down buildings had white marble staircases and beautiful iron work, and the walls used to be hand-painted. The floors were made of old, concrete, painted floor tiles, that then change on every floor and in every room. They were all multi-colored, with geometric or floral patterns.
On this last trip, the barbers got my attention–big time. Cubans hair and grooming culture is so detailed, more specifically for men more than women. Their haircuts have lower shaved sections with designs etched into the hair, often with a longer piece, gelled, coming down, with jagged edges, and manicured eyebrows, arched high, plucked and shaved. Their arms and chests are shaved. It was a huge contrast to see these young men so image aware.
I always have this little phrase in the back of my mind: “the new normal.” I love it when you go somewhere and the new normals are not in place yet.
The way I take pictures has changed significantly in the last four or five years. I shoot 100 percent with my iPhone, so I’m technically an iPhoneographer.
When I am shooting with my iPhone, I find that I am more present, and feel more connected to what is going on around me. It’s a spontaneous experience: I feel more freedom, and there is so little weight. For me, less is more. I choose to trade the controls and sophistication for simplicity and freedom.
When I am taking a picture I feel what I see and the internal satisfaction is immense. I see a sense of balance in the frame and then I feel that sense of balance in my body. I like to imagine that the viewer can feel this as well. I experience a visual joy, I feel it in my entire being and I am happy. My photography is truly a meditation that allows me to connect with my surroundings and then share what it is that I see and experience.
Adria Ellis is an artist, a photographer, and a creator. She loves to document and share what she sees. She spent years in school learning to use a 4 X 5 camera, process film, print in the dark room, and produce technically perfect images. In the last four years, her creative process has morphed into something so much more enjoyable and simple, more pleasing to her senses. She has transitioned to shooting with her iPhone. She loves the simplicity and the accessibility. She shoots more than ever, and finds that her images carry a new sense of freedom and depth. The shift has resulted in an immense body of work. She loves shooting landscapes, the ocean, fruit, flowers, people are her daily comings and goings. For the moment she has an unsatiated need for love and travel. In the last year, she has been to Cuba, India, Russia, Mexico, Canada, and all over the U.S. Southeast Asia is scheduled for April 2016!