Photo Essay: The two sides of Havana, Cuba

Today’s guest writer is Tracy Zhang, a 21-year-old travel photographer based in Vancouver, Canada.

When Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights opened at the theater near my house, the 14 year-old me begged my mother to go watch it with my friends. She refused.

Swept away by the passion between Katey and Javier and fueled by a sense of teenage rebellion, when I finally did watch the film on TV a year later I was determined to visit the Cuban capital one day.

Seven years later, I stepped off a plane in Cuba, anxious for the colonial architecture, opulent history, and exotic culture that the island had to offer. But when my taxi pulled up in front of the National Capitol building in Havana, I knew I had encountered something else altogether.

The affluent days of colonial power had long passed and the country’s depth of poverty oozed through the crumbling walls. Frequently, locals walked by me, whispering as they passed to ask if I was interested in buying cigars or rum. Once, a man asked me if I could give him soap from my hotel.

But despite the poverty, I felt a sense of energy – a liveliness long suppressed by the Cuban government. More than anything, I felt a happiness and joy. As I roamed the streets of Havana, music, dancing, and laughter filled the streets. Children played in the park after school; taxis drove by with the melodic sway of Caribbean music echoing out the window.

Eventually I did find the culture, history, and architecture that I was looking for. But it was this contrast of poverty and liveliness – the tug and pull between living through meager financial means and embracing life with opulent joy- that stood out the most in my mind.

Old Havana Cuba Street Scene 1

The buildings may be in dire need of a paint job but the clothes, hung over balconies everywhere in Cuba, add a splash of color to Havana.

Old Havana Cuba Street Scene 2

A man on a motorcycle stops in front of me in a narrow alley. A large Cuban flag hangs in the background, reminding me of the patriotic slogans I had seen painted on the side of the buildings.

Old Havana Cuba Street Scene 3

Havana’s Chinatown is one of the oldest and largest Chinatowns in Latin American. More than 150,000 Chinese people immigrated to the island as contract workers in the 1850s. However, most of them fled to the United States when the country’s political situation changed in 1959. As I walked around the area, I was the only person of visible Chinese descent.

Old Havana Cuba Street Scene 4

A work yard filled with trains is open for tourists. The National Capitol can be seen in the background.

Old Havana Cuba Street Scene 5

A girl hangs laundry out of an old building whose walls and doors have long faded in color. It’s not difficult to imagine what the building might have looked like in its former glory days.

Old Havana Cuba Street Scene 6

A group of girls in uniform walks home after school.

Old Havana Cuba Street Scene 7

Although this building suffered a roof fire, residents still manage to live inside the structure.

Old Havana Cuba Street Scene 8

The National Capitol, named and modeled after the United States Capitol in Washington, was built in 1929. It is one of the few buildings in Havana that is not completely worn out and abandoned.

Old Havana Cuba Street Scene 9

In Cathedral Square, a Roman Catholic Cathedral is one of the main attractions of Havana.

Old Havana Cuba Street Scene 10

Two girls walk home carrying their Hannah Montana backpacks. Although the Cuba-US embargo is still in effect, American goods still find their way into the lives of Cubans, mainly through presents sent from relatives living in Florida.

Old Havana Cuba Street Scene 11

A grandfather holds a child as he converses with a neighbor from his balcony.

Old Havana Cuba Street Scene 12

The Artisans’ Market in Cuba is another popular tourist attraction in Havana. Here, the paintings capture Cuba’s vibrant past. The deep colors and free-form strokes convey a richness of Cuban life, beyond money and possession.

Old Havana Cuba Street Scene 13

An old bus is parked on the side of the street. The public transportation system is a major problem in Cuba – buses are always full and never on time. Locals often resort to hitchhiking instead.

Old Havana Cuba Street Scene 14

As I drove away from the city, I stopped to take one final look at the Havana. From the distance, the country’s economic situation is hidden beyond the beautiful facades of city’s skyline.

About the Writer

Guest writer Tracy Zhang

Tracy Zhang is an adventurous travel photographer who loves to capture the natural beauty of her destinations.

At age 21, Tracy has already lived on three continents and traveled to 25 countries, but she still finds time to relax in her quiet suburban home in Vancouver, British Columbia.

To see the world through Tracy’s lens, make sure to check out her blog, Just In Time Travels. You can also follow her adventures on Twitter at @tracyzhangphoto.

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About Guest Writer

This guest post was written by a Downtown Traveler contributor. If you are interested in writing for us, visit the "contacts" page.