Infinitely complex and visually mesmerizing Cuba.  Since 2010, I’ve photographed the changes…the Entrepreneurs – Cuentapropistas.  Animal welfare.  Preservation.  And a growing restlessness and inequality.

Cuba’s Entrepreneurs – Cuentapropistas

Cuba’s Entrepreneurs – Cuentapropistas

Between 2010 – 2013, in an effort to relieve some of the Cuban economy’s struggles, Raul Castro approved over 200 private sector jobs.  These self-employed entrepreneurs, or cuentapropistas, now number almost 500,000 and are learning to do business quickly despite many challenges like limited access to supplies, and lack of wholesale pricing.

Photographed over 7 visits from December 2010 – March 2015.

View this in slideshow to see captions for each photo.  Start slideshow by clicking on the first photo.

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Animal Welfare in Cuba: Aniplant Cares for and Protects Dogs and Cats

Animal welfare in Cuba is a daunting challenge.  On my recent trip to Cuba, I had the honor of meeting Nora Garcia Pérez, the founder of Aniplant, an animal care and protection organization in Havana.  Nora has dedicated the past 28 years of her life to the animals of Cuba:  from big ventures like founding Aniplant and promoting animal welfare on Cuban radio and TV, to smaller efforts like traveling around Havana in a little yellow Fiat with the passenger seat removed to make room for two street dogs who sleep in the car every night.

Aniplant, or Asociación Cubana para la Protección de Animales y Plantas, is located in Centro Havana, not far from the University and only steps from the beautiful Malecón sea wall.   Aniplant seeks to eliminate the suffering of Cuban animals through sterilization campaigns to reduce the number of strays, public education to promote the need for good veterinary care and animal health, facilitation of dog/cat adoptions, and hands-on intervention in cases of animal abuse.  

If you’re a dog lover and have ever been to Cuba–or to any third world country for that matter–you know the helpless heartache of seeing painfully thin and sick animals on the streets.  And while Cuba is a highly educated, healthy and empathetic population, their lack of resources is a tremendous problem.  Often, people simply do not have the means to properly care for animals.  That means that many dogs/cats go without spaying/neutering, resulting in unwanted animals roaming the streets in search of food and shelter.  The Cuban government collects strays from city streets, and almost all of those dogs/cats are immediately euthanized by poisoning or electrocution.  Aniplant’s main mission is to reduce the number of strays by providing as many spay/neuters as possible.  They have performed nearly 5,000 sterilizations each year since 2012 and are currently trying to expand operations throughout Havana and all of Cuba.   Like everything related to Cuba, it is complicated.  While Aniplant is the only animal protection organization permitted to function in Cuba, there are ministries and permissions to deal with and there are the obstacles of getting medical supplies and donations around the U.S. embargo.

The Aniplant location at 128 Principe is home to 19 dogs:  16 adoptable ones and 3 waiting to be on their way to homes in the UK and the USA.  The dogs have the run of the back areas of Aniplant–the kitchen, a play area outside and a little room just off the courtyard.  There are employees at Aniplant who work to train and socialize the dogs, and to prepare their meals of rice and meat.  A veterinarian and vet tech are also on staff for routine procedures and emergency care.  And every Friday, hundreds of pounds of meat for dog food are delivered to Aniplant to be sold to the community for fundraising.  The place is immaculate, colorful, lively and upbeat–the receptionist sings on occasion and offers tiny cups of strong coffee to those waiting patiently for services.  Dog and cat owners chat with each other and hold their pets close in the tiled lobby.  Potential adopters check in at reception and discuss the adoption application process.  And every now and then, the dogs break into barks or whines as a visitor makes their way back through the courtyard.

I spent several days at Aniplant, photographing and videotaping and will have a short multimedia piece to share with you soon.   In the meantime, if you are moved by this story, please consider a small donation to the Aniplant Project.   Considering that veterinarians in Cuba make only about $250 a year, any amount of money donated will go a long way to helping the animals.   Donate to Aniplant.    Nora’s wish list also includes a truck or large van to take the Aniplant spay/neuter clinic on the road and a small animal ventilator.  If you, or anyone you know can help with those items, please contact me.

Aniplant lobby
The reception area of Aniplant, located at 128 Principe near Hospital in Centro Havana.
Veterinarian, Edgar Llorente Llano, cleans dog teeth
Aniplant veterinarian, Edgar Llorente Llano, cleans the teeth of a sedated Beagle in Havana, Cuba.
cat awaits surgery at Aniplant
A cat has been sedated and cleaned by the veterinary technician and awaits surgery at Aniplant.  Havana, Cuba.
Training a dog at Aniplant to walk on a leash
Aniplant houses 19 dogs currently up for adoption. These dogs get training–like leash walking and basic commands–from the trainers on staff at Aniplant, in Havana, Cuba.
Disposable surgical gloves washed and drying in a window
Disposable surgical gloves are washed and dried for re-use at Aniplant. Medical supplies are precious and nothing is wasted.  Havana, Cuba.
Potential adopters visit Aniplant dogs
The dogs at Aniplant are available for adoption. Guests are allowed to visit with the dogs and encouraged to apply for an adoption.  Havana, Cuba.
Dog rests in a built-in space in Aniplant kitchen
Aniplant moved into their space about 5 years ago. Renovations included building cave-like spaces for the dogs in the kitchen. Havana, Cuba.
Man carries a dog in for veterinary care
A man brings a Husky in to the Aniplant lobby for veterinary care. Aniplant is open 6 days a week for veterinary services, workshops and the sale of fresh meat for animal food.  Havana, Cuba.
Dog in a bathtub at Aniplant
This sweet face was always the first to greet me…and anyone else at Aniplant.  Havana, Cuba.
Dog in shopping cart awaits care at Aniplant
This dog had been hit by a car and was carried into Aniplant in a shopping cart for follow up care.  Havana, Cuba.
Cuba Aniplant Veterinarian, Edgar Llorente Llano, checks his messages
Aniplant Veterinarian, Edgar Llorente Llano, checks his messages while waiting for the clinic to open in Havana Cuba.
Nora Garcia Pérez with Carol Fletcher
Founder of Aniplant, Nora Garcia Pérez (left), and Carol Fletcher following our interview.  Havana, Cuba 3/13/15.
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Rescued Dogs of Havana Cuba: Sheltered by Museums

As many of you know, I’m a dog lover and have an on-going project documenting the work of people who rescue dogs.  And I love Cuba.   I love walking in Havana, photographing the elegant decay and witnessing the extraordinary changes happening there.  I love meeting the people, getting to know their hopes and worries, and always admiring their persistence, creativity and resourcefulness.   So this month, I decided to overlay these passions and dig a little deeper into the stories of the rescued dogs of Havana, Cuba and those sheltered by museums.

Street dogs are commonly seen in Havana, picking through the trash or teetering down the sidewalks.  It is heartbreaking and frustrating.  But in a country where food can be hard to come by for people, perhaps it is not unusual or unexpected.   One thing that has surprised me is that many museums in Old Havana have taken on the role of sheltering dogs.

On my first trip to Cuba I saw a fat little dog wearing a business card and sleeping near Fototeca in Plaza Vieja.  On subsequent trips, I saw more of these dogs with business cards…in front of other museums, in front of Havana’s University, and wandering around the old plazas…dogs who generally looked healthy and happy.  So, on this trip, I went looking for these card-carrying dogs to find out more about their lives and the people who care for them.

These are the five dogs of Museo de la Orfebrería (Museum of Metal/Silver Work), a quiet courtyard museum on Obispo near Plaza de Armas.  They are cared for by Margarita Garcia and Odalys Valdéz, who work at the museum as guides and security.  The dogs spend their days napping in the shade of the courtyard, or lazing on the sunny bricks in front of the museum.  During the day, they greet visitors politely–without fanfare or dogged attention.  And they keep Margarita and Odalys company during their 6 day shifts working 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.  In return, Margarita and Odalys feed them and keep fresh water on hand.  The dogs are sheltered in the museum– partially in the role of protecting the museum from thieves–but most definitely to save the dogs from a hard street life.

After noticing a few strays outside who seemed to pace by regularly–as if looking in…one more time…for an opening, for an invitation, I asked Margarita if there were ever more than five here.  “No.  Only five.  We cannot feed or have more.  But these five?  Good for them.”  And good for Margarita and Odalys and all the guides who care for these precious little souls.

Entrance to Havana's Museo de la Orfebrería
Margarita Garcia stands at the entrance to Havana’s Museo de la Orfebrería, where she works and cares for the museum’s five rescued dogs.
Aparicio wears an identification card
Dogs under the care of Cuba’s museums wear cards identifying them. The cards have the dog’s name, where he/she lives and that he/she has been sterilized. These cards are intended to protect the dogs from being picked up by Havana’s dog-catchers.
Odalys and Margarita
Odalys and Margarita stand in the doorway of the Museum while dogs sleep in the background.
Dogs in the Courtyard
The five dogs have full access to the museum’s courtyard.
Preparing the meal
In a back room of the museum, Margarita prepares a meal of rice and a few bites of chicken for the dogs.
Dinner for Five Dogs
Margarita sets out a meal of rice and a little chicken for the dogs in the courtyard of the museum.
Sleeping Dog
Canelito enjoys cat-napping in the courtyard.
Vladimir at the front door of the Museo de la Orfebrería
Vladimir’s favorite place is at the door, greeting the many tourists walking past on Obispo near Plaza de Armas.
Odalys and Dogs
Guide Odalys enjoys passing the hours with the dogs.
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Cuba’s Charisma : Why I go

Why do you keep returning to Cuba?

During the last 3 years I’ve been asked that question thousands of times and in a hundred different ways:  What is the appeal of Cuba?  What do you see in it?  What do you do there?  Why this absorption, this obsession?  Truth is, I’m not sure I really know why I go.  I just know that I have to return.

Exhaust from an old car for sale in Havana Cuba
In a series of sweeping economic changes, cars can now be bought and sold in Cuba. Many of these relics run on handmade parts, rigged and cajoled and smoking through the streets of Havana.

Before I went the first time, I read Carlos Eire’s “Waiting for Snow in Havana” and was enthralled by his description of Havana’s radiance… the turquoise water, the light, the sunsets.  But one part of his childhood description stuck with me–and came rushing back almost word-for-word the first night I arrived in Cuba–the part where he describes the car nearly tipping over as his dad drives through the crashing waves along the Malecón:   “That was the beauty of it, and the horror.  So much freedom, so little freedom.  Freedom to be reckless, but no genuine freedom from woe.  Plenty of thrills, and an overabundance of risks, large and small.  But so little margin for error, and so few safety nets.”

So, what does that have to do with why do I go?  Why have I been six times in the last 3 years?  Why do I already want to return?

Cuba seems to call to me…beckoning things that I’ve forgotten, lost or restrained.  Adventure.  Audacity.  Creativity.  Purpose.  There, I feel an openness and confidence that seems compounded and exquisite.

I’ve tried to explain why I go to Cuba with photos, and with stories of what I’ve seen and done there.   It’s hard to define, to draw a picture that helps a curious person understand…How can I explain the light of the sun and the shade, or the smell of the humidity, or the raw elegance in the decay.  How do I explain hearing in my Cuban friends’ stories the vast hope and repeated frustrations as Cuba’s many reforms zig, zag and snowball?   How can I explain how my skin tingles from partaking in the random little bits of risk in Cuba, or from seeing the creative resourcefulness of their fixes for things broken or not available?

Maybe I can never really explain my enchantment with Cuba because I don’t yet understand it well enough myself.  Or maybe because I don’t understand myself…what draws me to these raw edges.  The pattern is not yet revealed.  I do know that I will keep on going back…witnessing the changes–both in Cuba and in me.

Obelisk overlooking Havana
An obelisk’s shadow marks time in Havana.


Elegance decays
Marble steps fall away, wood decays, keyholes give out…and Havana goes elegantly on.


Overgrown Anfiteatro in Parque Lenin
A Cuban friend reminds me often that, without people, Cuba would return to the jungle in only a few years. This amphitheater in Parque Lenin is proof. What was once a clear pond surrounding the stage is now covered with algae, and tall grass grows around the stone seating.


Stitches repair this concrete cover
Stitches keep this concrete cover together on a rooftop in Havana.


Beams prop up this old building behind el Capitolio in Havana
This 5 story building behind the Capitolio used to be a hotel. Now it’s home to 50-60 families. The door and elevator are boarded up, the bannisters are missing in places, the stairs are becoming detached. We went in and carefully made our way to the top floor, talking our way into an apartment crammed full of trinkets. Another place was burned and empty. These families await relocation to a safer living space. And likely this prime real estate will again become a posh hotel or apartment building once el Capitolio’s renovations are complete and the parliament moves in across the street.


Fumigation on Calle 23 Havana
Early one morning, I saw smoke traveling down Calle 23 in Vedado. Fumigation trucks (and airplanes) keep Havana mosquitos in check.  About a minute later, I could smell the pesticide in my room.


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Time and time again

Time and time again, I miss Cuba.  Really miss it, with an ache, with a feeling that I should be there right now, among the raw beauty, the surprising quirks, and the magnificent people with such life and humor and hope.   Some people would say “time stands still in Cuba”.  It does not.  It moves at a speed and in directions all it’s own.  There’s no explaining that with logic or words.  Nor even with photos.  I was sleepless there, trying to pin down all the little moments, the tiny things that remind me, “you’re in a special special place in time…remember everything!”

Already…already…I wait to return. a peso taxi, Havana, Cuba
In a peso taxi, Havana, Cuba


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Cuba on my mind

I’ve had Cuba on my mind a lot lately.  Such a beautiful, colorful, extraordinary place.   I spent some time today walking through my photos.  Here are a few that spoke to me this afternoon…  I was in a mood to edit them in black and white…what do you think?

Dog passes graffiti and scaffolding
Dog passes a graffitied construction wall and scaffolding – Havana Cuba
Lean on me - Cuba
Lean on me – Building supports to buttress and prevent collapse, Central Havana Cuba
Dancing in Havana
Dancing in a new bar in Habana Vieja
New local bar, Central Havana
Another new bar in Central Havana
Caged bird on the street of tiled row houses - La Habana
Caged bird on the street of tiled row houses – Havana
Nightfall on a backstreet in Havana
Boys play at nightfall on a Havana street
Fishing the blackwater of Havana's river
Fishing in the blackwater of Havana’s river
Backstage at a fashion show - Havana Cuba
Backstage at a fashion show – Havana Cuba
Big black glasses in a red car
Laundry hung on a roofless building - Havana
Laundry on a roofless building – Havana
Baby sandwich - Havana Cuba
Baby Sandwich – Havana Cuba
Skateboarding on Avenue G - Havana Cuba
Skateboarding on Avenue G – Havana
dog in a sweater - Havana
December…dog in a sweater – Havana
Vedado at Dawn
Vedado at dawn – Havana 
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“Moscow to Havana”: travel reverie

Flight to Havana, Cuba
Boarding a flight to Havana in December 2010.

Moscow to Havana!   The news hummed with “where is Edward Snowden?” this week.  He arrived in Russia from Hong Kong.  He supposedly bought a ticket Moscow to Havana, then never made the flight.  Maybe he is making his way incognito to Ecuador?  Or Venezuela?  Or will he live for awhile in the Moscow airport, perpetually in transit?  Whatever happens, these news nuggets launch me into travel reverie–thoughts of airports, of getting on planes,  of all the great spy movies where they skip seamlessly country-to-country.  I love travel…the tickets, and passport stamps, and visas…I get chill-bumps just imagining holding a plane ticket that reads  SVO – HAV.  I amuse myself with a vague thought of traveling one day from a Russian winter’s deep snow to a sultry Cuban night in the streets of Havana.  I have this dream that one day, I will go.  I will sell everything and go.  For a year, for two, maybe three.  Travel light.  Take my time.  Get to know the cities.  See the countrysides.  Meet the people. Stay long enough to recognize the accents, the light, the patterns of life…like how to order an espresso like a local in a Roman cafe, or where to find the right peso taxi line in Havana.   These thoughts make me tremble with anticipation.  There’s just something about travel.  The essence of life.

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Rainy season Cuba

Rainy season Cuba

Cuba Rain - taking cover and waiting
Waiting for the rain to pass
Cuba - the rocker and the spring rain
The rocking chair invites me to sit, to listen as the spring rain hits the tin roof, to breath deep of the fresh air and watch the dirt wash away.
Cuba, thatched roof home on the knoll
The house on the hill
Girls Walking in Cuba in the rain with umbrellas
They walked without haste in the rain.
Cuba - Trees and rain
Trees and rain, and the little house
Waiting in the Cuban rain
Waiting, waiting, waiting
Laundry day in Cuba
Laundry drying on the line, in the rain.


Around this time last year, I was traveling in Cuba.  On the road across the length of the island.  Such an exceptional place, and even more so when saturated in spring rain. These images washed over me like a dream.  Looking at the photos now, I’m reminded of the fresh smell of that warm Caribbean air.  I remember the feel of the humidity, the breeze, the sound of the rain, and the low rumble of thunder rolling.  The season was changing.  I was changing.  What is it about Cuba that draws us out, that lifts life, calls it to the surface?

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Pre-Cuba: Packing and meeting the group in Cancun

Pre-Cuba // Packing:  December 8, 2010

Packing for a trip to Cuba is a careful endeavor. There are the gifts to take, and the necessities, and the cameras and lenses, and of course, the clothes. But there’s a weight restriction of 66 lbs total…no more than 22 lbs carry-on. I’ve spent the last couple of days piling up the things to go, weighing, reweighing and then making hard choices of what stays and what goes.

Packing the camera gear for Cuba
Packing the camera gear for Cuba

In my bag:
A bag of Snickers and a bag of M&Ms (intended as gifts, but a constant temptation…)
Box of Tylenol (gift)
2 boxes of Band-Aids (gift)
10 tealights (gift)
10 bars of little soaps (gift)
10 Hot Wheels (gift)
20 Little Pet Shop figures (gift, they are the cutest little things!)
10 peanut snack bars (para me, between meals)
1 pack of shortbread cookies (para me)
3 pills for diarrhea (just in case…)
$1,500 cash
ATM and credit card (for Mexico…U.S. issued cards won’t work in Cuba)
Nikon D700
50mm f/1.4
20mm f/2.8
105mm f 2.8
24-70mm f 2.8
Holga + 7 rolls of film
Sony Cybershot for video
10 memory cards
2 extra Nikon batteries
MacBook Pro
A mile of chargers and cords
Hopefully the right adaptors
Blackberry and charger for Mexico (our cellphones won’t work in Cuba)
2 pairs of jeans
2 pairs of travel pants
1 pair of linen pants
tennis shoes
Finn comfort clogs
Teva sandals
10 tops (combination of long/short sleeve)
rain jacket (pockets are stuffed to reduce the carry-on bag weight)
undergarments + socks
shampoo, conditioner, lotion, toothbrush/paste/floss, deodorant
Brush, hairties
Trip insurance paperwork
Medical insurance paperwork
Journal, pens
Moon handbook to Cuba
Spanish cards

The carry-on camera bag alone weighs 25 lbs, not the 22 requested (so I’ll be stuffing some things in my pockets :) The big bag is at 38 lbs. 66 total is the limit.

Oh…and it’s 12 degrees in Chicago.

Pre-Cuba // Meeting the group in Cancun, Mexico:  December 9, 2010

The American flight landed early yesterday…just after skimming low over the most beautiful seafoam-turquoise-ink colored waters you can imagine.

Flying into Cancun
Flying into Cancun

Immigration–baggage claim (mine was one of the first out!)–customs and out into the throngs of people touting time-shares, rides, tours…They’ll do just about anything to stop you.  “We must check your voucher here please”, “Here we are, waiting for you!”, “Ride to the hotel?”, “Welcome to Mexico.  Let me help you”,  “Do you know where you are staying?”…blah, blah, blah.

You walk–quickly, confidently, and with a smile, past the obstacles–a bit like a video game, going around them when they step directly in front of you.  Once past the hurdles, the doors automatically open–there’s a mariachi band in black playing the Frito Bandito song, a bar, and another herd of drivers holding signs with everyone’s name.  And it’s warm, humid, a smell of that air that can only be hot climates near the sea.

Reid from Santa Fe Photo Workshops was waiting by the Marriott Shuttle spot–guarding someone’s luggage and greeting us.  He dolled out my $230 pesos with instructions to take the airport shuttle from Terminal 3 to Terminal 2 and get my Cuban Tourist Visa from a lady in white next to the Air Cubana counter there.  That was the “normal” terminal–not full of tourists.  Starbucks, regular lines of regular people doing regular airport things.

The lady at the counter spoke to me in Spanish–but I understood she was asking if I had pesos–I replied “Si, pesos.”  She had on wedge heels–how long would she stand there today I wondered?  She was filling out visa forms pulled from her purse–and sitting alongside her rubbermaid of peppers for lunch.  Visa done.  Easy peazy.

Turista Visa para Republica de Cuba
Turista Visa para Republica de Cuba

Met Angelina and Larry back at the shuttle area and we piled in for the short drive to the hotel.  Checked in (room 449 for me, $149/night) and met back in the lobby for quesadillas and margaritas.  Conversation about “our photography”–what do you shoot, what do you do with photography, what camera did you bring?  Lenses?  And the same concerns about weight and bag limitations.

Back to the room for a bit of a nap and some reorganizing of stuff.  Down to the lobby again around 7 to meet the folks returning from Cuba… talked to a couple of ladies and Dinah & Barry; heard about rice and beans, exchanged $40 U.S. for $40 C.U.C.   They were still in awe.  We watched their photo slideshow of their week–stunning.  The light, the faces, the eyes, the decay…  One lady described it as very European, but not–it’s decayed, dirty, neglected.  3rd world.  She said she couldn’t even describe the feeling she had on the first day–the depth of culture shock.  I can’t wait!  Shaking with anticipation.

Talked to Nancy–someone I met in 2008 at Nevada Wier’s workshop in Santa Fe.  We think we’re roommates on this journey–and made a pact to get up early, stay up late, and go to the Tropicana :)

So now, it’s 8:15a–I slept good, I’ve made my second pot of coffee in my room, had breakfast downstairs, had a shower, and have repacked yet again…moving chocolates to my carry-on for snacks and for gifts, loading up my pockets so that the raincoat weighs about 10lbs–relieving the carry-on.  Crowded House’s “Always Take the Weather” came on the iPod shuffle–good advice!  I’ve called home…and sit ready.  I can feel my heart beating in my skin.  CUBA!

We will meet downstairs at 9a for an orientation.  And head out to the airport at 10:30 to deal with check-in and the cultural visas (that came in last night).  Flight is at 2:35p.

Stepping on to my first flight to Cuba.
Stepping on to my first flight to Cuba.


As I am moving old TravelPod entries over to my blog almost 7 years later, I came across this first trip to Cuba, and the entries that abruptly stop before I even get on the plane. Of course, now I know.  Now, after 7 trips to beautiful Cuba, I know how shocking those first days are. Now I know that packing is indeed a careful endeavor.  You’d better pack anything you might need, because you are not likely to find it there if you’ve forgotten it. “It’s not like I’m packing for Cuba,” has become a standard “don’t worry” statement when I pack now for all other trips.  I also know now that these flights TO Cuba are the heaviest flights ever.  Seriously, it’s a wonder that the planes can leave the ground.  Coming back, without all the gifts, the bags are less than a third full, but the memory cards are bursting.  :)

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