The old writer draws a picture from a stained folder in the musty wooden cabinet and contemplates the image of her younger, more beautiful self, many years ago, sitting next to Fidel Castro. We draw closer to her, a collective gasp of astonishment escaping us all. We can see the resemblances in her face, her eyes. These two women- the one in the photo and the one holding the photo- are the same person, separated only by half a century’s time. Together, they constitute one of Cuba’s most important writers, a witness to massive upheavals and an unmatched chronicler of history.
Marta Rojas, a Cuban journalist and Revolutionary heroine who exudes an inexplicable brightness of spirit, smiles youthfully as she flips through the pictures of her past life: here she is again with Castro, testifying at a table in the early months of the Revolution, her shapely, wine-dark face in the picture lowered down to speak into a microphone before her; here she is on that picture hung up on the wall, standing there in the black and white photo taken when she traveled to Vietnam to cover the war as a correspondent.
When people ask me, knowing that I’ve been there twice in the past year, what I think about the prospect for change in Cuba, I’m always struck with the sense that there’s a premade answer they want me to respond with.
Yes! They’re expecting me to say. The pressures for democratic reform are pushing to a tipping point! That as clandestine groups plot revolution in dimly lit alleyways and garages, flag-waving masses of disgruntled citizens will soon pour into the streets demanding change, and that as corrupt government bullets ring out in retaliation, Cuba will become the next bloody iteration of Venezuela or Libya or Syria; that heavily romanticized rebels (perhaps even with the aid of a glorious NATO bombing campaign spearheaded by the United States) will fight on with gathering strength in the mountains, in the plains, and in the streets, finally deposing those communist dicks in Havana in a fiery show of cinematic, democratic glory.
The camera is gone. The images are missing. Now, after having my school-rented Nikon mysteriously stolen not even two weeks after returning from Cuba, the only way I can recreate the time I spent on that slender Caribbean island is to rely solely upon my memory.
For the two weeks I traversed the Cuban countryside, my Nikon was slung as preciously over my shoulder as a revolutionary would carry his rifle. At every possible moment, I lifted my camera from my side and carefully sought out shots like a soldier setting the crosshairs on the enemy. With my lens, I endlessly sought to reinterpret that feverish tropical dreamscape, trying to divine meaning out of the passing of the Earth around me. By the end of the trip, my efforts had yielded an enormous pictorial catalogue of my journey.
It was my second time traveling in Cuba. The first time I went I had gone with two friends, on our own, and we had stayed in around Havana, whiling the bulk of our week there wandering the labyrinthine tanglework of broken backstreets that are as emblematic of that city as the Eiffel tower is of Paris. And though I was exhilarated by the first trip- by the adventure of exploring a new land where I could practice my pent-up Spanish language skills- I was not in love. The second trip, however, was different.