Mandy walks us through Cuba in pictures, observing a side that surpasses the usual aphorisms of a city frozen in time. She sees the defiant spirit of its citizens, deep-seated in the present as they outwit a broken system, while remembering to celebrate life.
Words and Photography by Mandy Sham
The story of today’s Cuba is written along the Malecón of legend—a place for teenage romance, divers late at night, and families enjoying the cooler, lightly salted air on a sundown stroll. It’s written in the laundry billowing from windows. In long lines for rationed eggs and government bread. In tobacco fields and amid the brush of coffee trees.
Wherever you go, Cuba’s beating heart is unmistakable. Walk through the streets of Havana, and it will meet you there—pulsing through the streets of children playing stickball in sandals and ambulatory vendors selling fruits. Salsa music and cigarette smoke spills over balconies above; the history of each building is revealed bare in chipped paint and Baroque arches.
“My most favourite experiences are embedded in the long frenzy of conversations—kept alive with the ample flow of a Cuban cafecito.”
It is a disservice to say Cuba is nothing more than this romantic ideal. We often speak of it, and Havana in particular, as a place frozen in time. I’ve found, though, that most Cubans are deep-seated in the present—enterprising by virtue of history, and hardship. Outwitting the system because the system doesn’t work—like running a secret side hustle outside their government jobs. That won’t stop them from lining up at a famed ice cream store for a solid hour under the Caribbean sun—nor does it detract from the immense generosity of their time.
There’s a beautiful irony to it all; the fact that a place so universally recognized for its facades is truly represented behind closed doors. My most favourite experiences are embedded in the long frenzy of conversations—kept alive with the ample flow of a Cuban cafecito, or in one instance, by mangoes falling from the backyard tree (which the staff and I peeled and ate together, between giggles, in the late hours of the evening).
“So much here is so intricately tied to place—impossible to separate from the island’s temperament and sense of self.”
Travellers who make it to the island truly reap what they sow. It could mean half a dozen friendships formed by mutual curiosity. Or it’s the former decadence and decay that so many people talk about, brought down to earth by waiters with impeccable dancing feet—or the rupture of reggaeton, cascading from one street to the next. Cuba is especially generous if you wander far enough.
Wandering is how I spent most of my time—a roam through the residential neighbourhoods of Havana, and along the quiet streets of Santa Clara. Through the valley farmland where goats and horses out-populate local farming families. Along white sand beaches, where heat hangs in the air and the water is impossibly blue. So much here is so intricately tied to place—impossible to separate from the island’s temperament and sense of self. There is nowhere like Havana; the nation’s history courses through its veins, and indeed, is written on its walls.
Cuba is a beautiful country, and there’s no denying that. It’s a place where that extra corner is always worth turning, because what you’ll encounter on the other side is something you won’t expect. It’s a place to dream and write about, long after you leave, knowing there’s always a return.