Ethel shares keen insights into the many worlds which reside within Cuba. She reflects on the country's art, cultural hotspots, reclamation of AfroCuban ancestry— and even explains how people survive without Wi-Fi!
I’m Ethel Tawe, a 22 year old visual artist pursuing studies in International Human Rights and Development, while living between London, United Kingdom and The Hague, Netherlands. Travel has been a part of my upbringing; I moved countries 5 times by the start of my college career. I am most interested in traveling to trace cultural interconnectivity, break social barriers, and conduct creative research.
How does photography influence the way you travel and see the world around you?
As an artist, I am always looking for inspirational content and when traveling gets fast-paced, photography allows me to capture these moments for later reference. I also use photography as a means of journaling and visually reliving experiences.
What sparked your interest to travel to Cuba? Which cities did you visit?
Cuba is a place I romanticized as an ideal fusion of many of my passions and interests: art, food, culture, Spanish, dance, and a politically conscious society. While Cuba is all these things, the reality of life there is much more than that as you come to find out. I stayed mostly in Havana and Viñales town, both extremely different and highly recommended.
What has been your favorite approach to photography while there? Did you generally strike up a conversation with your subjects or just candidly capture the moment? How did people react to being photographed?
I took a combined approach to photography in Cuba. As a painter, I am particularly interested in composition, often stressing on alignment and waiting on the perfect moment especially when my OCD kicks in. However, on my many random solo walks around Havana I began to find that beauty was really just flashing by in so many ways. A more spontaneous approach was developed and the colorful palette and picturesque nature of the country made some shooting days seem effortless.
How did you plan for your trip? How did you navigate between each city?
Planning a trip to Cuba has been one of my most challenging travel tasks so far. Limited internet access makes communication with hosts and booking services quite difficult. It can also be difficult to navigate your way through the country. You are forced to take alternative approaches which is also a great part of the ‘time-capsule’ experience. I learned to listen, trust my judgements and not fully rely on google maps or what the internet said was correct. I arranged rendezvous the old fashion way, setting a time to meet at a landmark and hoping the other person would show up. When my bus broke down for an hour on the way to the countryside, passengers collectively helped each other and some found shared rides which felt like an old school Uber arrangement. It was the little things. Although I’ve taken several years of Spanish courses, I took a pocket dictionary around with me for trickier times. If you don’t already know Spanish, I highly recommend learning at least the basics to be able to make more out of your interactions.
Did you have any expectations or preconceived notions about the culture you would be exposed to? How did they differ from the way the culture actually was?
A significant percentage of the Cuban population is partly of African descent. This particularly drew me to the country in my curiosity to understand how they relate to their heritage. To my pleasant surprise, AfroCuban culture is among the most vibrant and celebrated in Cuba. While race issues are certainly present, it was amazing to see the coexistence of people of all colors. In fact, blackness seemed to be celebrated here; this to me was so significant to witness outside of Africa. I visited Regla and Guanabacoa which host significant AfroCuban sites. They were both fascinating to explore as I discovered links to my own African heritage. Santería, meaning ‘worship of the saints’, is a widely practiced Afro-American religion of the Caribbean which fuses indigenous African and Roman Catholic beliefs. It was developed by enslaved Yoruba people in Cuba who were banned from practicing their religious customs and in turn syncretized their Orishas with Catholic saints in order to preserve their belief system.
What foods did you eat? Did you have any favorite/unfavorable culinary experiences? What kinds of people did you encounter?
I took on an approach of not questioning too much when in Cuba and found that it allowed me to truly experience things as they came. Although this was quite hard, especially with language barriers, I think Cuba is actually quite a great place to try this out. Look closely at the different types of art you come across, take some time to listen to live music on the streets, people watch, eat strange foods, take the infamous ferry ride, talk to the stranger in a queue, buy the cigars from the dodgy alley, because why not? The safety in Cuba allowed me to be quite comfortable and experimental.
I came to find out however, that Cuban food outside of Cuba is generally better than the local cuisine. Nevertheless, there is an abundance of eateries, watering holes and cafes to choose from. From guava tarts and rum, ropa viejas and yucca drinks, a full three course will always have an exciting item. The Casa Particular experience came with the unmatchable advantage for me: home cooking. Some of the best meals I had in Cuba where the ones cooked by my hosts in real Cuban fashion. If you have the chance, do not turn down a home-cooked meal with a Cuban family. The portions are often much nicer and better priced that at the restaurants.
The authentic tobacco tour in the Viñales Valley where I also tried rum made from guava was a major highlight. Famous for their lavish cigar collections and some of the finest rum in the region, Cubans certainly know how to unwind and enjoy themselves, as well as show you a good time.
How did this trip differ from trips you’ve taken in the past? What surprised you most about your experience?
A significant part of the trip was spent solo. I also opted to live in “Casa Particulares” which are home stays run by locals. In Viñales, my host did not speak a word of English which made for interesting dinners and sometimes unfortunate miscommunication. One of my anticipated challenges was internet/WIFI connectivity in Cuba. Contacting loved ones back home, checking emails and social media which we often take for granted, can become a calculated and concentrated part of the day when you get the chance to connect. Mobile data is almost unavailable due to extremely high costs, and WIFI is limited, censored, and fairly expensive. Wifi hotspots are literally one of the most fascinating things to observe as a millennial (see my Cuba Travelogue for more).
What recommendations can you share for future travelers also interested in exploring the region (places to go/see, things to do, foods/restaurants to try. etc)?
On a short trip, I highly recommend taking a masterclass or lesson in an art or creative skill that interests you. Whether it is Rhumba drumming lessons or a rum masterclass at a bar in the trendy district of Vedado, this experience can allow you to explore first hand while interacting with new people. While classes can get quite pricey, they are often worth the crash course. For those on a budget, consider visiting public artist studios or interacting with musicians and creatives in the field—they would likely lead to underground spots, private events, and further friendly connections. For a full breakdown of all of my favourite restaurants, museums + sites, nightlife spots, and more, you can access the Cuba Travelogue on my website. Some of my favourite spots include Havana Blues, KingBar, Fabrica De Arte Cubano, Art Pub, La Guarida, Museo de La Revolucion, and more.
How can travelers contribute to Cuba while visiting the country?
It is important to note that the socio-political situation in Cuba is quite tense and has always been. I encountered many locals who were dissatisfied with their living conditions but also extremely passionate about their culture and building their country. While some take an aggressive ‘by-any-means-necessary’ approach and are ready to exploit tourists (even young students like me), it took me a while to reflect and realize that it is not ill-intentioned. Many Cuban service workers are extremely underpaid and struggle to make ends meet from welfare alone. You can choose to tip them well, buy from local artisans, shop at the markets and kiosks, stay in a Casa Particular, and consciously choose or ask the locals how their business is structured. Many are willing to share, for example, that significant percentages of profits from tobacco or leather goods for example must go back to the government.
What would you like people to know about your experience within the regions that is little known?
Cuba was quite mysterious to me before I got the chance to visit, and is still quite mysterious to me after. There is an endless amount to learn from the country and its unique history, climate, and culture is something that is uniquely experienced. Having an extremely diverse population, Cuba is quite comfortable to adapt to, especially as a black woman. While Havana is a must-see, take some time to leave the city and visit another town, village or key. Santiago de Cuba is often bypassed due to its far proximity but if you have the chance I believe it would have just as much to offer, although I did not make it that far. I am hoping to return to Cuba mostly to be able to spend some time there, it is the largest AfroCuban cultural hub in the country.
Travel has a tendency to look very glamorous, though that is not always the case. What types of challenges have you had during your travels and how did you overcome them?
The experience that caught me most off-guard in Cuba was access to some basic food items. I was shocked to find out that the government often has shortages of products like eggs, milk and water. This is sometimes due to rationing of food. When choosing to stay in a self-catered Casa, be aware that there are no traditional ‘supermarkets’ in Cuba. Most food stock is bought in ‘Mercados’ (street/farmers markets), while several government run shops will sell imported and national packages products. I enjoyed going to the local street markets although it may not be for everyone. Either way, be cautious of what products may be running out and always ask around. It could be wise to stock up on items you tend to use a lot incase you don’t find it there the next day, which often occurred!
What is your favorite/funniest memory from your trip? Is there a particular moment you would relive given the opportunity?
The rollercoaster experience of Cuba is one that I would relive a million times. While I particularly loved interacting with the locals and learning about their views and aspirations, the foreigners I met in Havana were equally as interesting and from such diverse backgrounds. I was blessed to meet a lovely couple, Djoye and Prentice who I ended up spending several days with. Like many travelers I met, they were extremely open, welcoming and hospitable. We came to find out we had traveled to several of the same places and even knew a few people in common. It is important to keep an open mind and trust your instincts; I never would have thought half way across the world I would meet people whom I now see as life-long friends! Besides the meaningful interactions, another of my fondest memories of all was my visit to Cayo Jutias, a small key (island) in Pinar Del Rio province. It was a much needed self-care session; there is absolutely nothing as therapeutic as watching the crystal clear Caribbean sea at its calmest.
Which is your favorite picture you captured during the trip?
I was walking through what seemed to be a small garden which I later realized might have been a small cemetery. I spotted this plant which immediately took me back to my childhood in Cameroon, it also happens to bear the colors of our national flag. Birds of Paradise are my favourite plant often featured in my paintings. While taking a photo of just the flower, this little green creature popped out of nowhere and struck a pose that mimicked one of the flower pods. It disappeared in under 5 seconds but I felt so lucky to have seen nature imitate, resonate and demonstrate its playfulness to me in this way. I can’t help but smile when I look at this picture and remember the moment.
What’s next for you? Do you have any final words of advice?
I am returning to London soon for my Masters degree, with hopes of carrying out some social research particularly in Africa. My trip to Cuba was part of my gap year of diverse learning experiences, learning to let go, grow and realign my identity as an African in the diaspora. I plan to keep travelling though many trips will likely not be heavily or formally documented, except those with research objectives like Cuba. My advice is especially for black female solo travelers: take the leap and enjoy all that it brings. Even with numerous forces against you and your integrity being questioned, stay focused on the bigger picture. Try to find a bit of yourself in the people you encounter on the way. It is all part of your growth.
Images courtesy of Ethel Tawe