What I learned from the people of Havana Cuba

By September 23, 2013Fujifilm X-Pro1, RTW, Travel
two sisters red car havana cuba
A perfect father, daughter and dog moment cuba

A perfect father, daughter and dog moment


People of Havana

You would think that all the years of international isolation, economic sanctions and general hardship would have exacted a devastating toll on the people on the island of Cuba. That they would be angry, hostile and bitter with Americans and the outside world in general, seen as more or less responsible for making life harder than it already is, severely limited purchasing choices for everyday items and inflated prices.

You could not be further from the truth.

Cubans are an extremely hardy bunch, and a people determined to make the proverbial lemon aid from the over abundance of lemons being hurled at them. The seem to be to be determined to enjoy life, and make do with what they have. In the absence of a proliferation of mobile phones and first world gadgets, the art of conversation is still very much alive in Cuba. Everywhere you look, instead of people intently staring away at their mobile devices, as is common in so much of the rest of the world, people linger, make eye contact, and talk. A lot.

Neighbours talking to neighbours, vendors talking to customers, fathers talking to sons, sons talking to uncles, brothers talking to sisters. In short, everyone was talking to everyone else, even to us.

Hailing from a country where kids text each other from across the table, I cannot tell you how refreshing this is. Despite our barely functional Spanish language ability, it was still highly fulfilling being a part of so many conversations with so many Cubanos. It shed light on how they live their lives (as best as they can with limited resources), what they thought of the rest of the world (come and see beautiful Cuba!) and their vision of Cuba to come (changes, albeit poco un poco).

The state seems to provide enough for a basic level of life, but never enough for any extravagances. Little luxuries are bought from the fruits of private enterprise, be it in the way the annoying jineteros (street hustlers) do it, hawking cigars, restaurants and girls for a commission, or by being involved in some other way in the tourism industry.

We gave away whatever we could from our limited long-term travel possessions, small bars of soap liberated from hotels prior, clothes that could do without, pens and pencils for kids, even medication from our travel medical kit. All were received with much gratitude. I only regret not being able to give more. If I could only transport the contents of our pre-RTW life (in numerous boxes at my Mom’s in Singapore), I could have given away three-quarters of it and not missed any of it. It seemed absurd that I should own so much stuff, most of which I never use anyway.

I come away from this trip more resolved than ever before not to fill my life with stuff, and to always prioritise direct human contact over a more impersonal forms of interaction. Only time will tell how successful I am in this regard, with the all pervasive culture of social media and smartphones ruling most of our lives. It was a reaffirmation of the fact that you really don’t need much to be happy in this life, certainly not roomful of stuff in boxes that you can barely remember anyway.

I love the Cuban attitude towards life, one of taking each day as it comes, not sweating the small stuff, and determination to enjoy life, come what may.

Three boys in the neighbourhood with their makeshift tricycle

Three boys in the neighbourhood with their makeshift tricycle


Two friends sat chatting on the Malecon at sunset

Two friends sat chatting on the Malecon at sunset

man with white beard and big cigar havana cuba

He punched his fists the moment he saw me with the camera, something tells me he’s not new to this

topless cuban man balcony sunset havana cuba

He was hanging clothes to dry on an abandoned second floor of a building when I asked him for a photo. He promptly walked to the balcony, struck the pose and I clicked the shutter.

A man resting next to the statue of famous Spanish dancer Antony Gades in la Plaza de la Cathedral, Havana Cuba

A man resting next to the statue of famous Spanish dancer Antony Gades in la Plaza de la Cathedral, Havana Cuba


I left my job as an advertising Creative Director in August 2012 to travel Africa and South America for a year with my wife, documenting these beautiful places with my Fuji X-Pro1. View the rest of my RTW adventures on Handcarry Only and follow me on my journey by subscribing/following/bookmarking.

  • interesting photography..

  • Adrian – beautiful insights on life in Cuba and I share your sentiments, less is more! After working now for almost a year in the slums of Nairobi I have met some of the happiest people in my life and they live with much less the many others. It is not about how much you accumulate in life but what you DO with your life to improve those around you.

    On another note I am loving the vsco stuff as well. Curious as to which presets you used with this collection. I can see some variation in grain, contrast and fading – but can’t tell if this is primarily set 2 or 3. My favorite image is of the gentleman on the balcony – it is a beautiful natural light portrait that looks like it is at ~ f/1.4, with gorgeous bokeh and lines that draw your eye well into the image. Then the subtle palate of pastel coloring from the fading sun hits home. VSCO gives that nice organic feel. One of your best!

    Heading on holiday this weekend to zanzibar… Nairobi has been a bit stressful this past weekend and looking forward to getting out of the city. Safe travels ~ Jeff

    • Hi Jeff,

      I came back from the trip, looked at my stuff in boxes and felt so guilty about accumulating so much stuff. I wish I could teleport it to Cuba and Zimbabwe where I visited and where people had so little. Although to be honest, I question of it would actually make their lives better. I now resolve to accumulate less! Only have what I really need.

      Yep, you’re right about the portrait of the gentleman, its with the brilliant 35mm at f1.4. As for VSCO, I normally either leave the grain settings at default or tone it down a bit. I’m always wary of over ‘instagramming’ my images.


  • Turner Barr

    Great photos, but great site design too. Really well thought out. I am jealous.

    • Thanks for the vote of confidence Turner! Handcarry Only has only recently (in the last couple of months) migrated over to WordPress, hence the new site layout and look. I’m pretty new to this WordPress thing as well but its a lot more flexible than Tumblr from whence I came.

  • Jennifer Dombrowski

    Great insights on Cuba. It’s a place high on my bucket list, but still not the easiest for us Americans to go to.

    • Hi Jennifer, agreed, but then again, I saw so many Americans there. Mostly they come either via Canada or Mexico, just an additional flight I suppose. And the Cubans don’t mind either, I didn’t detect any animosity whatsoever. Money is any currency smells as sweet I suppose!

  • Hakan Lindgren

    Your Cuban photos are among the best from your world trip (I’ve been reading your site since before you started your trip). Would you like to show some more from Cuba? I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like to see them!

    • Hi Hakan, thanks so much for your kind words! I’ve got a whole series of posts from Cuba lined up, we spent nearly a month there travelling around and the place is a photographic heaven, everything and everyone is so amazingly photographic. Stay tuned!

      • Hakan Lindgren