Normalized relations between the United States and Cuba will eventually make it easier for regular Americans to travel to the island country. But some limited, conditional travel has already been possible.
Dick Caldwell and Gloria Matyszyk took full advantage.
The married Treasure Island couple visited the island country in October 2013 as part of a "people to people" culture exchange tour hosted by Tarpon Springs-based Carlson Maritime Travel. They came back with hundreds of stunning photographs that capture the essence of the island country.
Caldwell, a Tampa attorney, said he had wanted to visit Cuba since he was in high school in the 1950s and had a friend whose brother decided to live in Cuba after serving in the Navy.
"My friend would go there to visit his brother, and he'd come back raving about the country and how beautiful it was, how nice the people were and how easy it was to get around," Caldwell said. "I found out 55 some-odd years later that everything he said still holds true."
Caldwell and Matyszyk, a hospital consultant and photographer, have exhibited their Cuba photographs at the St. Petersburg Opera Co. and the Icot Center in Clearwater. Their work was also featured in a slide show at a forum called "Cuba: Embargo or not?" held in June at the Poynter Institute. There, an expert panel debated whether the U.S. embargo against Cuba should be kept in place until the Cuban government commits to human rights reform.
Both Caldwell and Matyszyk are members of the board of the St. Petersburg opera, and Caldwell is on the board of the Florida Orchestra, which has an ongoing cultural exchange with Cuba's major musical and cultural institutions.
Through that connection, the couple brought reeds for wind instruments, strings for violins, composition paper and other gifts to Cuban Music Director Enrique Pérez Mesa's musicians.
"If you're a musician in Cuba and you need an E string, you go to the store, and if they don't have an E that day, you're out an E. So you buy what you can then barter and trade. You might need an E, and your buddy's got three E's, but needs a D. So you trade and make it work," Matyszyk explained.
Among the couple's impressions on their 8-day trip to Cuba.
- The remarkable photographic scenery. "The thing that struck me was the light down there was so intense," Caldwell said. "It’s not that much further south than here. So why it would make a major difference, ... The street scenes there with the old buildings with different colors, the textures, the different architecture, made for fascinating photography."
- All the 1950s American cars, which aren't always so American on the inside. "They might look like a 1950s American Ford or Chevy, but they might be a Volvo or whatever inside," Matyszyk said. "Of they fabricate them," Caldwell added. "Cuban mechanics are the best in the world to keep those things running."
- A visit to a Havana cigar factory. "I was thrilled to find out they still make cigars exactly the same way they did in Tampa 100 years ago," Caldwell said. "They have tables in groups of four or five, and cigar makers sit there at their little desks and cut tobacco leaves and roll them up. And the lector up on a platform reads the newspaper (aloud). Now it's with a microphone, but 100 years ago you had to have a nice loud voice and project."
- The relative safety of the streets, which Caldwell contrasted with a trip he took to Syria in 1995 as part of one of the first tourist groups from the West. "You could walk down the street there in Syria and almost feel the fear and oppression," he said. "It was a total totalitarian dictatorship. We encountered none of that in Havana. We had no restrictions on where we could go or who we could talk to. Of course, we exercised common sense."
Here's a sampling of the photos Caldwell and Matyszyk took:
Signs like this appear in and around Havana and were erected by the Cuban government after the revolution, which ended in 1959. They promote defense of socialism. Commercial wall advertising is not allowed. (Dick Caldwell)
This monument with unusual artwork stands outside the National Theater of Cuba. (Dick Caldwell)
These unflattering caricatures are located on the Museum of the Revolution, the former Presidential Palace, in Old Havana. The "Corner of the fools" includes pre-Revolution Cuban president and dictator Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar and former U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. (Dick Caldwell)
This shows part of the famed Morro Castle in Havana. The Castilllo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro is a fortress that guarded the entrance to Havana Bay. It was built in 1589 in response to raids on Havana Harbor. (Gloria Matyszyk)
A violist performs with the Cuban National Orchestra. No flash was allowed, of course; hence the dark photograph. (Dick Caldwell)
A woman living in a residence above a business hangs her laundry to dry from a veranda. Note the dangling electrical wiring - a common sight around Havana. (Gloria Matyszyk)
The El Capitolio, currently under renovation, was the seat of Cuban government until after the Revolution. It's now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. (Dick Caldwell)
Cuba may only be 110 miles off the coast of Florida, but it has very un-Florida-like topography, including five mountains over 5,000 feet in elevation in the southeast and these limestone cliffs in Viñales. (Dick Caldwell)
Cuba has a long history of organic farming. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it again became a necessity because of the unavailability of fertilizer. Farmers plant marigolds around the perimeter of their fields to keep the bugs away. Agriculturists from around the world travel to Cuba to study the country's organic farming techniques. (Gloria Matyszyk)
This shows a colorful array of 1950s-style American cars parked on a downtown Havana street - most of these are actual taxis. Cubans have somehow been able to maintain these museum pieces being hit by a U.S. embargo in 1960. Over the last couple of years, Cuba has also become home to a small but growing number of new Asian vehicles. (Gloria Matyszyk)
Entertainers perform in the Tropicana Club, a world-renowned cabaret and club in Havana. In the 1950s TV series "I Love Lucy," the character Ricky Ricardo, played by Cuban-born Desi Arnaz, was a singer and band leader in New York's fictional Tropicana nightclub. (Gloria Matyszyk)
Motorcycles are also a popular mode of transportation in Cuba. This appears to be a Russian motorcycle and sidecar. (Gloria Matyszyk)
Musicians perform during lunch at an open-air Santeria-influenced restaurant near Viñales. Santeria is an Afro-Caribbean religion based on the beliefs of the Yoruba people of Nigeria with some Roman Catholic elements added. (Dick Caldwell) .
Tobacco hangs for curing in a barn. Cubans cure their tobacco with solar heat rather than flues that feed in heat from external fire boxes. (Dick Caldwell)
Few Cubans enjoy the advantages of modern agriculture. Here in a rural area between Havana and Viñales, a farmer works his oxen to smooth out his field after the rainy season. (Dick Caldwell)
A girl or young woman sits on the seawall along the Malecón, a Havana road similar to Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa. The Malecón stretches five miles from the mouth of Havana Harbor and through two neighborhoods. The seawall is a popular place for locals to hang out. (Dick Caldwell)
Havana became strikingly colorful after the revolution. Part of the reason is cultural and part of it is the limited access to paint. Proprietors often will use whatever color paint they have available at a given time. (Dick Caldwell)
Scaffolding surrounds a building that was being renovated until funds apparently ran out. The renovation has taken so long vines have grown over the scaffolding. (Dick Caldwell)
Open farmers' markets like this one are for Cubans with money. Meat and fish in some markets are not always refrigerated, and beef is not available. Most Cubans use their government-issued ration cards to obtain groceries. (Gloria Matyszyk)
This final photo shows a picturesque side street in Old Havana. (Gloria Matyszyk)