The Cuban Jungle in a ’55 Chevy

Chevy Bel Air Column ChangeAbout a year ago I was in Old Havana, Cuba. I had been shooting with professional photographer Ramses Batista for several days in when it occurred to me we should take a trip out of the city into the jungle in one of the old American 50s cars that still do service as taxis in that city.  Over a beer we discussed this and Ramses, who is something of a fixer, knew a driver with an immaculate ’55 Chevy Bel Air.  He suggested we took this out to Soroa, where there is a picturesque waterfall.  En route we would stop at a former coffee plantation and later take in an abandoned villa out in the jungle.  The next day our driver, Joe, pulled up outside my hotel with his gleaming wheels. It was immaculate and had been modified to hot-rod specification complete with a chrome skull on the end of the column change.

I declared it perfect. We set out and drove to abandoned coffee plantation.  We parked the gleaming Chevy and set off on foot.  Vulcher like birds circled above us as we took in the views of the valleys below us.  As we walked I could hear the sound of distant drums and enquired where they might be coming from.  Ramses pointed out some buildings far below us ‘It’s a kind of community’ he said.  Voodoo, I thought, unreasonably.  To be fair, my overactive imagination had been fueled by a couple on incidents during the trip.

The first had been a few day’s previously on a quest to shoot angels at Havana’s fine old cemetery (Cemetario de Colon).  On the way out the boot of the car was searched by the man at the gate.  ‘What is he looking for?’ I asked Ramses.  ‘Human bones’ he replied. ‘There are old religions in Cuba, and some need special ingredients like animal blood and human bones.  He’s just checking we didn’t take bones with us.’  A little bit of web research introduced me to read about Palo Monte, one of the darker of Cuba’s syncretic religions which uses these ingredients to enlist the help of deceased ancestors.  The second was when I saw a tethered goat in the street in Old Havana.  When I commented on it Ramses told me it was most likely a sacrificial animal.  Given these two recent experiences I suppose it wasn’t entirely surprising the distant sound of drums in the jungle prompted me to think of voodoo.

As we walked Ramses pointed out some jungle fruit and explained how to eat it without ingesting any germs from the outer shell.  I was skeptical but it proved to be delicious.  Returning to the car we drove on towards Soroa and parked up near a jungle restaurant.  The scene, was pretty bleak; a man sat in the remains of a house near an abandoned ’50s car.  Walking away from us were two men wearing filthy vests and carrying machetes.  ‘Don’t point your camera at anyone unless I tell you it’s OK’ said Ramses.  I nodded, feeling that this was an entirely reasonable request.  Lunch was better than I expected, and after we had eaten we walked down a flight of twisting stone steps to see the waterfall. I had to bring tripod with me, so I couldn’t blur the water the way I like to, but it was still very picturesque. We journeyed on to the abandoned villa, which looked to be of relatively recent construction, though it was quickly falling into disrepair. The entrance proved to be a good spot to shoot the Chevy, though the cloud cover was becoming an unfavourably uniform white by that time of the afternoon.

Our last stop was a bar, a place so remote I was surprised it would ever attract custom.  There was a little podium near the bar with the holy trinity of Cuban cocktails on it: the Mojito; the Daiquiri and the Cuba Libre.  Given the heat and humidity we opted for cold beers, which were very welcome.  We returned late in afternoon and followed our normal ritual of a review of my shots over another beer with a commentary from Ramses, which I always found helpful.

Cuba is an incredibly vibrant country, but when I visited I did feel an almost post-apocalyptic vibe about the place.  Scarity has created a culture of ingenious and almost endless recycling, particularly with vehicles, that, with the benefit of replacement engines and transmission, go on almost indefinately.  Things are changing now in Cuba, and hopefully for the better, but I am keen to get back before it loses that extraordinary look that is the result of all that ingenious recycling.

The Streets of Old Havana

Che Mural, CubaOld Havana is everything it is reputed to be and more.  Travelling to the city from the airport on back roads, it felt like I had travelled into an era 50 years on from the apocalypse – with everything in a state of decay and recycling a major part of life.  Old Havana, with its faded and crumbling colonial architecture and many ’50s American cars, is more of the same, and the feeling of being somewhere utterly different is reinforced by the suffocating heat, the noise and the slightly intimidating street life.

I spent five days with Ramses Batista – www.ramseshb.com, a professional Cuban photographer.  We shot mainly on the streets of the city, but also drove around other parts of Havana and out to Cojimar and Soroa in Pinar del Rio.  Ramses was a wonderful tutor and compañero and I was really happy with the shots I brought back with me.   We spent a lot of time setting up street shots – something Ramses excels at.  One of my favourites is shown here – Ramses told me about the Che mural, which was just around the corner from my hotel, the excellent Saratoga, and we flagged down a suitable vehicle for the shot – which shows the driver walking back to his car.   I’ve used a lot of contrast and brought out as much of the structure of the road, building and car as I could.  The mono conversion plugin Silver Effex allows the placement of selective control points, which can be used like spot lights, so I lit the wheels and the pillar slightly as as they were a little too dark without a bit of extra lighting.  As to what the white substance on the road is, I have no idea, but it all adds to the tone and texture.

I’ll describe one anecdote from the trip that highlights how different Cuba is: Ramses and I went out to Colon cemetery to shoot Angels (entities which are well represented on this site at the angels gallery).   As we drove towards the gates on our way out a security guard stopped us and searched the boot.  I asked Ramses why this was necessary  and he told me that the guard was searching for human bones, which are much prized for use in ceremonies in some of the syncretic religions of Cuba…

My Nikon D600 was reliable but suffers from a sensor that is astonishingly sensitive to moisture and dirt, so I spent a lot of time cleaning up spots from the images whilst editing them.  I also took a trip over to my friends at T4 Cameras in Witney for yet another sensor clean.  I was in similarly poor shape as I managed to put my back out travelling in the jungle in some rather dilapidated car seats (I felt we had to take a 50s car for the trip) and I picked up a nasty bug from the same locale – but it was most definitely worth it.  I want to go back and see the rest of the island as soon as I can.