The first time you walk around Havana, you might be surprised to come across these really, really authentic looking characters who just scream “Colonial Cuba.” Like the old women wearing Aunt Jemima do-rags and chomping on foot-long cigars.
“Damn,” you think. “I’ve got to get a picture of them.”
And so, being the politically correct American tourist you are, you go up to one of them and say, “Puede I tomar su foto, con su permiso?” And she nods and smiles and so you take a few quick snaps and thank them. At which point they hold out their hands, palms up.
Just like Disneyland, Havana is full of colorful characters that you’ll want to take photos of. Unlike Disneyland, these people expect to be paid. In fact, if you look closely, you’ll usually see some piece of laminated I.D. attached to a lanyard around their neck, identifying them as some sort of “official Havana-character-to-be-photographed.”
Which means that they’re licensed by the state and so the tips you give them—a convertible peso or two—are shared with Fidel and Raul. Who says the Castro bros hate capitalism? (Did you know that Forbes magazine placed Fidel in 7th place on their list of “Fortunes of Kings, Queens, and Dictators” with an estimated wealth of about $900 million?)
The first time I encountered this, I gave a huge tip to one of these old colonial mamas and was rewarded with a perfectly placed kiss on the cheek. Which left lipstick. Which she then suggested I might want to photograph as well. For another peso or two.
One afternoon when I was standing outside a café next to the Baroque Catedral de San Cristóbal, listening to a very good jazz band, an extremely reedy hipster sidled up to me, be-bopping along to the music. He wore a black fedora and bow tie, and a filtered cigarette dangled from his lips. I took his picture and then he opened up the old valise he was carrying, which was full of coins, and I dropped one in as if it were a wishing well.
Hey, everyone’s got to make a living, right? And it’s harder in Havana than most places, so I don’t begrudge these odd Cuban Disney characters their gig. It beats begging (which really pisses Fidel off; hard to get a cut, no doubt, from panhandlers).
The only time it’s ever bothered me was when I came across a santería priestess with an altar for Changó, the king of the orishas, or santería gods, outside a Catholic church. She too was posing for photos. Which just isn’t right on so many levels (including that it is very bad voodoo to take photos of real santeros or babalawos. I don’t know if it’s supposed to steal their souls or whatever but you’re just not supposed to do it).
So I had to be very careful when I snuck a quick photo of her. I hope Obbatalá, the hermaphrodite orisha who is the protector of the head, didn’t get pissed off.
But my favorite photo of a Cuban Disney character is this shot of an old guy wearing an Old Navy t-shirt and smoking a pipe. He’s the same guy that’s on the cover of the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba. Only difference is that they Photoshopped him so that the star on his beret is red (you know, in case we didn’t get that Cuba is communist) and they made the plain door behind him green.
I like my shot better.
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