To travel or not to travel to Cuba, holidaying in the sun-soaked Caribbean island has always been contentious. Taking a trip to Communist-run Cuba can seem challenging, thanks to the tension with its frenemy America, the beacon of democracy.
Of late, the American government has again issued a travel warning. This time, it’s too dangerous to visit because of “health attacks” on American embassy workers in Havana, Cuba’s capital. Then, there’s Donald Trump. The US president re-imposed restrictions on its citizens’ travel to Cuba, backpedalling on Obama-era efforts to thaw relations.
The old-world charm of Cuba may become history as influences from the outside world trickle in.
Ironically, politics is also the reason why Cuba is still on many a travellers’ bucket lists. The restrictions – be it on trade or travel – has turned Cuba into an intriguing time-capsule. The colourful classic cars lining the streets are a tourist attraction as well as a reminder of United States’ trade embargo bent on crumbling community revolutionary Fidel Castro’s regime.
Modern day cars are already finding their way onto roads with the ban on car imports lifted. The old-world charm of Cuba may become history as influences from the outside world trickle in. Think more access to the still-scarce commodity of the internet, and welcoming foreign investments with open arms. Last year, the Cuban government reportedly inked US$2 billion worth of deals with foreign investors largely in the energy and tourism sectors.
These are reforms to stimulate the stagnating economy under the leadership of president Raúl Castro, who took over the reins from older brother Fidel in 2008 and is set to step down in April 2018.
So, before commercialisation takes over Cuba at high speed, book yourself on a trip to the Caribbean island.
Who is the photographer?
Photographer Alan Lim ticked Cuba off his bucket list almost a decade ago, spending five days in its capital Havana and Trinidad, an old town in central Cuba.
“It has always fascinated me, these countries like Cuba and North Korea, which are closed off to the outside world,” says Lim, who runs creative house Eleven Photography.
Cuba was part of his itinerary of some 10 countries, when he satisfied his wanderlust after leaving Singapore’s flagship newspaper The Straits Times. During his 12-year stint at the paper, he shot the portraits of political heavyweights such as Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin and Lee Hsien Loong.
The seasoned photographer speaks to Keyyes, recounting how he captured the sights of a Cuba trapped in a time warp for over 50 years.
This cigar-chewing, bearded elder may look vaguely familiar to you. He was the cover guy of a Lonely Planet guide on Cuba. Or you might just think he looks like Fidel. “He has made himself a tourist icon,” says Lim. “He sat there on the curb, pointed to his Lonely Planet guide next to him and then pointed to himself. His cigar and beard reminded me of Fidel. I have a photo taken with him holding the book.” He bears another symbol of the island’s conflicted history, a black beret with an embroidered red star. It was the choice of headgear of Che Guevara, Fidel’s sidekick in the revolution.
Setting foot in Havana, the first thing that struck him was the sight of a rolling car museum on the roads. “The old American cars are iconic of Cuba. They stopped importing goods from America, things have remained as old as back then,” says Lim.
Looking out of a window in a cafe in Havana, Lim spotted some men chilling by the sidewalk on a hot summer’s day. Walking by was a woman in a skimpy attire, dressed to beat the sweltering heat. Instinctively, Lim raised his camera to his eye. He clicked on the shutter button the moment all eyes turned to the woman. He says: “It was a humorous moment. They reacted exactly as I expected. It was pure instinct, they did not need to coordinate.”
Cuban’s carefree spirit rubbed off the photographer as he watched teens jump into the cool waters by the Malecon, the seaside promenade along Havana Harbour. Lim says: “They make very little money, an average of USD 25 a month. It doesn’t matter if you are in retail or a doctor. They adopt a c’est la vie attitude and find joy with whatever they have. That’s how I live my life too.”
Watching kids mucking around with a football in a Havana neighbourhood, he was tempted to join in the fun. “Whenever the ball rolled over, I would showcase a samba move, but of course I would fail to kick the ball,” says Lim. Instead, he hung around the sides to capture them in action. The result: a dynamic image of a boy in mid-air in the midst of chasing after the ball. The photo’s concept reflects the realities of life in Cuba, he says: “The movement shows how life goes on even when the economy is at a standstill.”
He calls this subject a “retired” wonder woman. The superhero association came about when he saw the curvaceous woman folding a Cuba flag as if closing shop for the day. He says: “She is wearing something really tight, which reminds me a superhero’s outfit. White, red and blue are the colours of the Cuban flag. They are also typical superhero colours found on Superman and Wonder Woman.”
Not to be mistaken for the dual-island state Trinidad and Tobago, this Trinidad is a well-preserved Spanish settlement in Central Cuba. Declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1988, the old colonial town is famed for its brightly painted houses along its cobblestone streets. Surrounded by the spectrum of shades, Lim decided to play with colours in his shot. He says: “I was walking along the streets when I spotted a lady carrying a blue umbrella. The sun lit the umbrella up like a lantern. I wanted the blue umbrella to be against a blue background. Just so happened, a man in a blue shirt walked past too.”