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|| News Item: Posted 2008-07-29

Sports Shooter Destination: Time Travel- Visiting Cuba
Robert Caplin's trip to Cuba changed him.

By Robert Caplin

Photo by Robert Caplin

Photo by Robert Caplin

Young dancers practice their moves behind Cuba's capital building in Havana.
I grew up in a small town in Ohio and have always known I wanted to travel - to meet new people, experience new cultures, to see the world. When I did travel, whether it was to another city, state, or country, I knew I wanted to do it again… and again. During college I was able to travel outside the United States a few times, which truly opened my eyes to the amazing adventures that await me. Now I'm trying to make my dream of travel a reality.

Although my most recent trip to Havana, Cuba was only 90 miles from the coast of America, I've never felt farther from home. When I'm an old man, I'm confident Cuba will have been one of the most amazing trips I've taken. Not just for the foreign experience, but it's a time of change there. I'm certain within the next decade, the Cuba of today will be drastically different… and Cuba hasn't been different for nearly 50 years.

Since I've posted my photos of Cuba, I've received numerous emails with questions ranging from… who was I shooting for, what gear I took, where did I stay, do I speak Spanish, what was it like, and most of all "How Did You Get There?" I hope this short article briefly touches on all of those topics.

I first decided on Cuba for a number of reasons; culture, people, color, light, but what intrigued me the most was the near half-century of embargo placed on the island by the United States. The mere fact that I was told I can't legally travel there without the possibility of heavy fine by my government, made me want to go there even more.

I suppose one of the first thoughts that go through many people's mind when thinking about Cuba (Havana in particular) would be the old-fashioned American muscle cars, which I can certainly attest to - they were everywhere. But what I didn't expect to see was that the majority of those beautiful antique automobiles weren't just antiques, they were aged antiques…along with nearly everything else in the city - from cars, to equipment, the government, leadership, and infrastructure. The city is stuck in a time warp from the 1950s, but the wear and tear is definitely showing - from crumbling apartment buildings to a dictatorship that is near its end.

It's really hard to describe the feeling of being in Cuba. Though the country is aesthetically beautiful, it's hard not to notice the degradation too. The wear and tear on Havana, the capital city, is immediately evident. It's a socialist society and it seems that most the people I met are living on the bare minimum to survive, especially where I spent my time.

Photo by Robert Caplin

Photo by Robert Caplin

An old American classic drives past El Teatro America Building in Central Havana.
For three weeks I stayed in Central Havana, what I would consider the slum of Cuba. I'm told that it used to be the main attraction, "the real capital", but that's hardly the case now. Children play, some in just their underwear, in the filthy urban streets covered in litter, dirt, animal feces, and oil that have been dripping from those fancy, old American classics. Adults and children alike shamelessly beg, sometimes demand, any non-Cuban gringo for money, clothes, sunglasses… anything.

Overall, the experience there is very pleasant; the sense of family unity is great, as most live with their entire family. Because of their lack of communication devices, a Cuban's neighborhood is the majority of their social network. Most people tend to hang outside their homes or in their doorways listening to music blaring from surrounding homes. They watch the stickball game in the street and people-watch as their friends and neighbors walk by. For the most part, the average Cuban home that I visited is rather small and usually a tight squeeze as they tend to be shared with a number of family members.

My original plan to visit the forbidden nation of Cuba was to just sneak in, but when I heard rumors of potential fines upwards of $50,000, I thought I'd peruse a legal route. I've gotten many emails asking how I got to Cuba, as it's in a US-embargoed country. One way to get in is under a journalist visa, which was my first attempt, but because I wasn't going while directly on an assignment from a publication, the US government told me that a journalist visa wouldn't work - but I could apply for a "professional research" license, and I did so.

The government office to contact about legally traveling to Cuba is actually in the Treasury Department and is called the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). You must send a travel affidavit (Click here to download: along with your reason for going. I sent in the affidavit along with a letter explaining that I am a freelance photographer, a letter from an editor that vouched for me, and a copy of my press pass. A few days later I received a phone call from a pleasant lady at the OFAC informing me that I could get in through the "professional research" license and a few days later she emailed me a PDF license. (Office of Foreign Assets Control _Licensing Division, Cuba _U.S. Department of the Treasury _Tel 202.622.5790 _Fax 202.622.0447)

After that was settled, I decided to travel through Cancun, Mexico so not to raise suspicion of the Cuban government by being the only non-Cuban walking off a plane from Miami. I wasn't trying to deceive the government about my intentions of travel, I just preferred they not know I am a journalist by occupation. Like I said, I really went for myself, to have an amazing life experience, and I did. I just took pictures along the way.

Photo by Robert Caplin

Photo by Robert Caplin

Barber Shop, Central Havana
The first night I stayed at a "Casa Particular", a bed-and-breakfast run through the government out of a Cuban's home ( But the next day I checked into an inexpensive hotel because I thought it would be more secure for my gear. In hindsight, I think I would have preferred a casa, because living with a family is more conducive to learning the language and finding out tips / information you might not elsewhere.

I decided to also travel light in Cuba and brought only a Canon 5D, a few lightweight, prime lenses all of which I carried in an extra small Domke shoulder bag. I didn't bother bringing a flash… it would only ruin the already beautiful light. I kept my laptop and external hard drive in the safe at my hotel room.

As it turned out, I spent the majority of my time just wandering aimlessly through the streets of Cuba trying to capture the amazing light behind each turn. The best part was that I didn't speak a lick of Spanish, so I was completely in my own world, taking in the amazing culture, the people, color, tastes, and smells… (mostly unpleasant smells like exhaust from 50-year old cars cruising down the street burning unrefined, Venezuelan petroleum)… but there's something special about the odor, something distinctly…. Cuban.

When I arrived back home to New York, I found myself culture-shocked for the first time in my life. My trip and the people of Cuba changed me - while it was a truly amazing and memorable experience for me, it has made me profoundly grateful that I have the liberties to do anything I want with my life.

I hope to someday visit the island again and when I do, I believe I'll find what I experienced in May 2008 to be a relic of the past.

(Robert Caplin is a freelance photographer based in New York City. You can view his work at his member page:

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