History of a Journey in Postcards Santiago B. Olmo

In Spain, the journey to Cuba is steeped in connotations of exile and emigration. It is also a journey of reunion with distant kin, with the tale of the Spanish-American War of 1898 and with graves in the cemetery. The journey to Cuba held out the promise of work and getting rich, a possibility of escape from the impoverished reality of Spain. After the revolution, the journey to Cuba represented the experience of a Spanish-language socialism in the tropics. Once the wall came down, during the “special period” the journey to Cuba became a vision of socialism as an exotic last redoubt, an immersion in a politico-economic anomaly and a return to the past. Cuba is also, quite simply, a confirmation of the need for socialism: the journey is a way of supporting the memory of that ideology, reliving an experience of resistance. Yet for the vast majority of tourists, that journey leads to the exoticism of poverty where sexuality comes easily.

This journey has become a rite of passage with a return ticket.

My journey to Cuba involved an initiation process and went through several preliminary stages that constituted a journey in themselves. Each of those stages brought me one step closer; it was a way of penetrating, slowly and from afar, to the heart of the island. At first the instruments of my initiation were the map, historical legends and symbols, then flavours and later reading. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Let us begin with the flag.

In the repertoire of Cuban symbolic imagery, the flag has been (and is) just as important as the island’s silhouette on a map. This is patently obvious in the revolutionary propaganda posters that line the roads, but also in the work of artists, in graphic design and on book covers.

In other Latin American countries, the map as a silhouette of the territory has established a cartography of identity, but in Cuba map and flag have been entwined to form a tautology. Perhaps this is owing to its island geography, with a border of clearly-defined contours which neither the state nor history have the power to shift.

In any case, my first direct contact with Cuba came through its flag, the Cuban flag. It happened in the early 1960s, when I went to a stadium for the first time in my life. Madrid was hosting an Ibero-American athletics tournament, and my Aunt Carmen, who had been a great athlete in her day, took me to the opening ceremonies. The stadium spread out before me like a grand image of the world: the stands packed with onlookers, a huge green field glimmering in the bright afternoon light, and an echo effect that amplified applause, cheers and music. On that day, I recall with perfect clarity that, after the contests or parades had ended, when the band was no longer playing national anthems or rousing marches, an enormous box appeared near our seating area filled with flags of all the participating countries. Someone began passing them out, and I picked a flag with blue stripes and a white star on a red triangular field flush with the side where the pole should go. It was small but made of fabric, like the real flags that flew on flagpoles.

When I got home, I began to investigate where that flag came from. On the world map in the encyclopaedia, Carmen showed me the outline of the island and spoke to me of the Caribbean, of Columbus’s voyages and of the Spanish-American War. I didn’t understand all that much, but I felt that I had chosen well and that Cuba was a mysterious, fascinating country. With great care, I folded and stored the flag among my treasures.

I believe that experience with the flag marked the beginning of my interest in maps.

The flag led to a drawing of the island’s sea-bounded outline, but from there, from the map, I began to discover images of Varadero, royal palms, the harbour of Havana with the Capitol Dome in the background, the bay of Santiago, tobacco and sugar cane plantations and inland bohíos (round huts). At first the images were the black-and-white photogravures in the encyclopaedia, and colour or perhaps tinted postcards. Those were the years when Luis Aguilés’s nostalgic tune “Cuando salí de Cuba” filled the airwaves.

Flavour was provided by the idea of bread.

After my discovery of the flag and map, at least 10 years passed before I resumed my journey to Cuba.

It was the early 1970s, and once again Aunt Carmen was my facilitator. She was planning to travel to Miami, with a short layover in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and she decided to take me along. One of the most decisive experiences (on that mental journey to Cuba) was arriving in San Juan: as I stepped out of the aircraft, a moist tongue of torrid air wrapped around me, oozing humidity and triggering a sudden wave of perspiration that plastered my clothes to my body. The early afternoon light also pierced my retina like a fiery sword. Squinting granted only a partial reprieve. On the way into the city, the light took over the air as evening fell, and then the wind blew and a quick shower of rain fell while the sun continued to shine. This was the tropics: another world, where the body is strung a different way, tied to the light and air.

To my surprise, I recognised the Cuban flag I had chosen at the stadium in different colours: the Puerto Rican flag was like Cuba’s, but with red stripes and a five-point star on a blue triangle. Actually, both are versions of the flag of the United States.

Puerto Rico was like a foretaste of Cuba: similar flag, parallel history, identical climate. We didn’t go to Cuba that time, but we were close.

Miami was very different. To me it looked like a city that had been created for leisure and tourism, but over time had lost its appeal and begun to slide downhill into terribly outdated decrepitude. The city centre was a soulless conglomeration of neglected buildings and deserted streets, while Miami Beach’s famous hotel-lined seafront, dotted with a few Art Deco buildings, presented such a forlornly dilapidated appearance that it reminded me of a film set about to be torn down. The stench of decay was everywhere, except in the light and savoury sea breeze.

Only the luxury and ostentation of the exclusive mansions on Biscayne Bay’s artificial islands seemed to keep the city’s lifeblood pumping. The glory days of the 1980s and the famous TV series Miami Vice had not yet arrived.

Miami was still little more a declining provincial town and long-established holiday destination for retired couples. Yet it was cram-packed with Cubans. Carmen briefly and hastily explained that this was because they were exiles, because there had been a revolution in Cuba and a lot of people had left the country. Why? Because they didn’t agree with it. I thought it would be best to learn more about the matter by talking to people and, above all, reading… And Spanish was spoken in every shop, cafe and bar. In a way, I felt quite at home. In truth, that band of Cuban exiles gave the insipid city a much-needed dash of colour and character, relieving the monotony of an urban landscape filled with elderly groups and couples who seemed to have been hired as extras to play the part of tourists in a movie. Those old folks had decided not to age and disguised themselves as young people: the women tried to turn back the clock by overdoing their makeup and showing an inappropriate or perhaps even indecent amount of cleavage, while the men wore baseball caps or printed shirts.

In the shop windows, over the counters in bars and at many restaurants I saw Cuban flags waving, blue stripes and white star on that red triangle. For me it was an anchor, something that allowed me to fit in and feel that I somehow belonged to the group, because that flag had been a familiar companion from childhood.

For breakfast on the first day, we entered a bar waving a small Cuban flag and ordered two ham and cheese sandwiches. Switching over to Spanish, the waitress asked us casually, as if we were in the know, as if we knew that the bread was a password for some unknown club, “On Cuban bread?” Before Carmen could open her mouth, I hastened to reply, “Yes, of course.”

Disappointment was served with our order, because the famous “Cuban bread” we had seen advertised at nearly every bar, cafe and restaurant turned out to be nothing but a lightly toasted version of a typical Spanish bakery loaf, with the soft texture of a bun.

My reward came with the discovery of patacones [fried plantain] and ropa vieja [shredded meat dish]. When I tasted ripe plantain, I had the impression that the boundaries between sweet and salty tastes had blurred in my mouth. As I sampled the flavours of its cuisine, I began to comprehend that Cuba had much more in common with Spain than I had imagined possible after the events of 1898.

While Carmen insisted on dining at a Spanish restaurant called La Cibeles in downtown Miami, I tried to convince her to go to any of the Cuban restaurants in the beach district.

Suddenly it dawned on me that this, too, was a journey to Cuba, and I was struck by the thought that there is an element of ubiquity with countries, and that the physical territory isn’t always essential: perhaps the most important things are the ways people relate, the flavours or the accent. Yes, perhaps that is true. But there was something missing. Even so, that was my first journey to Cuba.

Between the tale of the city of columns and the city of hotels.

Some years later, back in Madrid, a school chum introduced me to Alejo Carpentier—in his books, of course. And Cuba began to flow for me through the images of Havana that jumped out from the pages of El siglo de las luces (published in English as Explosion in a Cathedral). Cuba evolved into a shadow of Havana and the city grew to gargantuan proportions, emerging as the great heroic and historic metropole of the Caribbean. There was a link between past and present: the story began in Havana, in the peaceful interior of a spacious home with a courtyard and columns, and it ended in Madrid, when the heroine becomes lost in the tumult of anti-French rioters on 2 May.

The songs of the new trova style, Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés gradually opened my eyes to Cuban poetry, and salsa music gave me a different perception of my own body. Cuba began to unfold in the distance, slowly, as an extraordinarily intricate, motley, baroque tale: in a word, tropical. For years I dreamt of travelling to Cuba, but when it finally began to happen on a fairly frequent basis, for several years I barely set foot outside Havana.

More than Cuba, I travelled to Havana.

There was something about the city that made me its eternal captive: some nameless combination of decadence, the nostalgia that every visual system stuck in the past inevitably inspires, and the magnificence that emanates from virtually all ruins. Yet Havana as a city is very much alive and constantly reinventing itself. Each time I travelled to Havana, I got the impression that I was arriving in a different city.

Anything is possible within the impossibilities of Havana.

I detected some hints of Miami in the island, though it would be more accurate to say that I realised how strongly Cuba and all things Cuban had shaped Miami.

In Havana, the stale flavour of 1970s Miami was transformed into the unmitigated dilapidation of a city abandoned to its own fate and the spontaneous initiative of its inhabitants, another “sad” effect of the tropics.

The burden of history, non-existent in Miami, weighs heavily on Havana, and the perceptive visitor senses that the city is suffocating, going into shock and collapsing.

It revives in a certain literary tension which perhaps is easier to read and understand from without than from within. The dynamics of the here and now are diluted and dilated.

Only from an outside perspective can one enjoy the vague and ultimately sad magical socialism that is so pervasive in Havana as well as in the island’s heartland. In Havana I learned that I definitely did not like the “Cuban bread” of Miami, and that this kind of bread doesn’t even exist outside Miami. I realised that the Cuban cuisine available in Madrid was far superior to anything I might find in Havana. In Havana, I understood that flight is a recourse that surpasses the boundaries of the literary realm. I understood that this city with its metropolitan airs had been cast in the peculiar, fading light of a nostalgic postcard image for years by foreign photographers, and that this history was much more than a hypothetical photographic tragedy.

Although I have always been excessively passionate about postcards, ever since I became acquainted with Havana and its nooks and crannies (and postcards), I am inevitably struck by a feeling of weariness or tedium whenever I receive one of those “melancholy photos” disguised as a black-and-white postcard, preferably of a 1950s automobile. The decrepitude of the Centro, Cerro or Vedado districts may convey the magnitude of a tragedy, but they do not portray the atmosphere of a nostalgic longing.

Tall buildings from the 1950s form a circle of daring silhouettes along the seaside roadway of the Malecón. Deterioration is accelerated in the tropics, but dilapidation alone does not make the ruins of modernity beautiful.

I am Cuba, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, is an epic film about the Cuban revolution that narrates the struggle of Havana students against Batista’s political police as well as the vicissitudes of guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra. Shot in 1963 with cinematography by Urusevsky, the film reflects a modern, brand-new Havana whose buildings seem to have come straight from the pages of an architecture journal.

When I met Beatriz Ruibal and we spoke of Cuba, we talked about photography, about the difficulty of observing a landscape so polluted by predetermined images, about the perverse mechanics of postcards and the nostalgic photographing of decrepitude as a false extension of the poetic.

When she began to sort through her travel photos for this book, together we returned to the idea of the postcard. It is treated as the photographic concept of an impulse somewhere between temptation and the fracture of the personal gaze. The postcard is a photographic perversion, but it is also a fantastic analytical tool. A book on travel and photography must set aside some room for postcards, because ultimately they have shaped part of our photographic sensibility.

As I rummaged through my mementos of various journeys to Cuba, I only came across two postcards, one of which was entitled (of course!) “Opposite the Malecón”. Both cards bear postage stamps, although they were never written.

The Malecón is a cross between the steps of the Seville cathedral, which Cervantes identified as the gathering place of rogues, a “bonfire of the vanities” and a “graveyard by the sea”, but it is also the ocean boulevard that is given the best use on a day-to-day basis.

Among the images captured by Beatriz Ruibal, there are several that explore Havana’s Malecón and others dedicated to the island’s main west-east motorway known as the Central Road or “Carretera Central”, taken as the title of her journey, which underscore her determination to adopt a horizontal perspective as if documenting an itinerary in motion. However, the personal vision of a journey is probably best reflected in some of her in-between images, the ones that delve into the ordinary routines and problems of daily life, marked by a rapport of intimacy. The narrative pace is set by ordinary people rather than the picturesque types Beatriz Ruibal encountered along the way. Situations like a visit to a country school or an encounter with a group of Ukrainian children affected by the Chernobyl disaster who travelled to Cuba to receive curative treatment become episodes that add a layer of reflection and concurrence to the journey, making it more than the mere expression of a gaze drawn to that which it finds different or surprising. The diversity of subjects reflects Ruibal’s stylistic flexibility, which allows her to depart from the idea of reportage and focus our attention on a visuality of impulses and on an experience of encounters with a reality made of people. These images propose a visual journey that unfolds in an easy, natural flow, as the reflection of a personal experience.

Cuba is much more than the architecture and nightlife of Havana.

For that reason, I was delighted to stumble across a CD entitled Maravillas de Mali, featuring songs (guarachas, sones, sones montuno, guajiras, etc.) performed by a band of Malian musicians who studied in Havana with the aim of rediscovering Cuba’s African musical roots. This was after Mali declared independence, in 1964 (the same year I got my Cuban flag in Madrid), and those performers ended up introducing Cuban music in Africa. In Mali, not only did this band make history, but it also invented a new kind of dance that subtly blended elements of African and Afro-Caribbean culture: a Cuban rhythm with a very unique twist. In my mind, that confirmed the existence of a Cuban universe present in every corner of the globe.

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