After talking to Chef David Guas this week I was inspired to write about my last adventure to Cuba four years ago. I had been to Cuba two times before, but this trip turned out to be one of my favorite travel experiences ever and a true once in a lifetime experience.
It all started four years ago in March 2016. I had decided after a lot of thought to finally quit my full time engineering job and start my own consulting company as I approached a birthday milestone. As I finished up my last weeks of work I heard that there was going to be a free Rolling Stones concert in Havana. I love Cuba and The Rolling Stones so I wanted to be there.
President Obama was visiting the country and many of the travel restrictions that had always made visiting Cuba difficult for Americans were being relaxed under a new agreement with the country. I had spoken to two music photographer friends (Erika Goldring and Gary Miller) who were considering traveling down for the concert and we decided to all go separately and meet in Havana.
One week before the show I decided to do it. In the past I had visited the country legally with “people to people” or journalist visas but it usually takes a few weeks to get a visa. I had also only flown from the US to Havana. Many people do not know that there are daily flights from several US cities to Havana. This time around I had to work fast to obtain an expedited visa from a travel broker in Miami and I also quickly learned that there were no flights with seats available for my needed dates of travel leaving from the US.. I decided to fly through Mexico City where there are direct flights to Havana after I obtained my visa.
My next challenge was finding a place to stay after I had a plane ticket and a visa. This proved to be the hardest challenge of all. I knew from past experience that there are very few hotels in Havana and they were all booked for the show. I had to search online and found out you could book AirBnB in the city. It was a fairly new process and most of the listings are done from the US with family members so you can pay with credit card legally. I tried many listings and was too late. I finally found a house and was confirmed. I was so nervous because this didn’t happen until two days before I was leaving and I had no idea really if it was going to be as advertised upon arrival.
I left the US on Wednesday March 23 and flew to Mexico City. I decided not to venture out alone in the city so I booked the Hilton hotel for one night inside the airport. I was set to fly to Cuba the next morning on Thursday. The show was scheduled for Friday so I planned plenty of time in case something went wrong. My hotel was great and I started to finally feel like this trip was going to be ok.
My flight was on time and I landed in Havana mid day on Thursday. I wanted to exchange money but the lines were super long at the airport exchange. I knew I could exchange money at a hotel I had used during a previous trip so I went out to find a taxi. I found someone who spoke some English and his name was Georgio. I immediately had a good feeling about this guy.
Most Cubans are amazing and kind people but Georgio turned out to be an absolute lifesaver for this entire trip. I asked him to take me to my AirBnB but asked if I could also pay him to take me to the money exchange at the hotel and he said yes. He was able to help me facilitate the money exchange and then he also took me to get a few supplies for the house.
I love Diet Coke and in Cuba they don’t have Coke they have their own version of cola called TuKola so he took me to a store to stock up on it and water. As we were driving I asked him if he would be willing to drive me and my two friends around for the weekend and explained what we wanted to do for the concert. I offered to pay him and he happily agreed. I also found out that my cell phone worked upon arrival, which I did not expect. Verizon happened to be one of the first companies to do business with the country. It was a huge win because we could now communicate with Georgio.
Obviously we wanted to photograph this show but when we reached out to the PR team in the US we were told there was no way to manage press in Cuba. When we decided to go we had no idea whether we would be able to shoot or not but we had come to terms that even if we couldn’t take pictures it would be a once in a lifetime experience to enjoy. We had also reached out to a local photographer named Alain Gutiérrez and he had agreed to meet us for dinner to discuss how to shoot at the show.
My friend Erika decided to come over and stay with me at my AirBnB because it was in a great central location only two blocks from F.A.C. the Cuban Arts Center. This also made me feel more secure not staying by myself. The house turned out to be exactly as pictured and the owners stayed a few blocks away with family. It was perfect. They even came every morning and prepared breakfast for us before we woke up. Georgio picked us up and we picked up Gary before joining Alain for dinner and doing a little sightseeing around the capital building.
We determined after talking to Alain that people would probably not be sleeping outside the gates all night like they do in the US. After dinner and mojitos, we drove and scoped out the venue and then decided that we would go back to wait at the gate at 8 am. The concert was a free show put on by the band at the Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana sports complex. That evening we also found a meeting point to meet Georgio after the show about a mile outside the venue. We knew it would be very crowded so we wanted a place where the car could get to after the show.
Georgio dropped us off at sports complex at 8 AM and we were able to sit right by the gate. We took water, snacks and all of our camera gear including step stools. I even had a backup step stool in case one broke. I honestly could not believe everything that fell in place for this to happen. Even the weather cooperated with an overcast day to make the wait manageable a hot day.
The show was scheduled to start at 9 PM so we knew we had a long tough day ahead of waiting. We also noticed that there was no security at the site. It was definitely going to be a free for all unlike anything we had ever seen. We made friends with people from all over the world while waiting for this show.
We learned that at 2 PM they were going to open 10 gates at one time. We knew at that point we were going to have to run to get a spot near the stage to shoot. We made a game plan of where we would meet based on stage direction if we got separated. When 2 PM came everyone stormed the area and we had to run as fast as we could carrying all the gear and supplies to get to our meeting spot. We wanted to be somewhat buried in the crowd in case they were looking for photographers. Turns out no one cared in the end. After we ran to our meeting place we found each other and had the perfect spot for shooting. We just needed to wait 7 more hours. At this point I started to believe it was actually going to happen.
We made the best of the wait and a Rolling Stones documentary played on big screens before the show. I learned just how much the band has to prepare for the tour and how Mick stays in much better shape than I ever will be. The crowd was super calm and friendly considering that there was only 10 porta potties for 500,000 people. I learned many years ago working in Asia the art of dehydrating myself just enough not to have to use the restroom and not getting sick. I had also paid a store to let me use the restroom while we waited on the street so I was prepared for the long haul. I couldn’t believe how nice the crowd was. There was literally one drunk person in the crowd and he was removed.
The band took the stage around 9 PM and played 18 songs for over 2 hours to the biggest outdoor crowd ever assembled in Havana. It was historic and we were able to photograph the whole show from our spot in the crowd. After the show we walked to the meeting point and the traffic and crowd was insane. I was so tired and worried that Georgio wouldn’t be able to get close to pick us up and all the phone circuits were busy because of the crowd.
We only waited about 15 minutes at the station and Georgio came walking up to pick us up. It was so great and we were home by midnight. Gary was leaving early on Saturday to go back home and he was very nice and volunteered to take my memory card of images back to the US to send to my editor so the photos could run. Erika and I stayed until Monday sightseeing and attending a show at F.A.C. and then we returned back to the US.
This was a trip where everything had to fall into place for it to work out and it turned out to be a crazy ride where we got to be part of history as the Stones played their first time in Cuba. My photo ran in Rolling Stone a few weeks later which seemed like the perfect ending to the trip. The band recorded their trip and the live show and it turned into the documentary The Rolling Stones: Havana Moon.