Cuba has long been described as “so near yet so far” by those who wished to visit the country, or return home for a visit. While U.S. residents have been able to visit under various special permissions, getting one could be arduous. With the beginning of normalization of relations begun earlier this year, however, the wish is becoming a reality for many people.
Daryl Hawk of Wilton found the experience “exhilarating.” A photographer, travel writer, lecturer, explorer and self-described unconventional traveler — the name he gave to radio and television programs he has produced — he regularly travels to and documents remote parts of the world.
Arriving last April, Hawk was one of the first Americans able to travel the country as he wished, accompanied only by a Cuban driver in a 1953 Chevy (which broke down just once) on a 2½-week, 2,700-mile circumnavigation of the island. He found the journey to be everything he hoped, and more.
“When I arrived at the Havana airport, it was one of the most exhilarating days of my life,” he recalled. “The tropical light and vivid colors were amazing, the architecture was stunning wherever you go. The Cuban people grabbed my heart; they were very welcoming, outgoing and vivacious, always smiling, showing sincerity. If you showed an interest in them or something they are doing, they responded. But there was also sense of underlying frustration. They are very poor in a lot of ways, but they are also concerned about the future of their country with more normalization with the United States.
“Being in Cuba was like being lost in time,” he continued, “not only all of the old cars and buildings, but a slower pace and lack of much modern technology. I wanted to document as much as I could before things start to change as more US tourists come.”
Working from dusk to dawn, “following the light,” Hawk shot some 6,000 images of the people, the landscape, the architecture, 250 of which have been distilled into his most recent photo book, Into the Heart of Cuba.
During his time in Cuba, Hawk said he felt safe. Traveling both urban and rural areas, “I didn’t see any homelessness or people in bad health; it is a country that looks after its people. They have little violent crime — the people are not allowed to carry guns or knives — although there is petty theft. I felt very relaxed and confident walking around.”
“I expected the trip to be challenging, and it was — I had to fly in via Mexico City — but no real issues. I didn’t know anyone there and barely speak Spanish. The key was to secure a driver and guide; that’s very important. Fortunately I have a good friend in Wilton who became my advisor on things like what to say and do and not do, and gave me a name and contact number of a driver. He didn’t speak much English, but we managed to communicate.
“I had good karma the whole trip, and felt I made friends as I traveled. I am still in email contact with some of the people I met.” For accommodations, they primarily stayed in casa particulars — people’s homes, a Cuban equivalent to Airbnb.
Hawk’s style is to heavily research an area before traveling to it, then totally immerse himself in its culture. “I love engaging with people and I don’t travel with technology. When shooting people, I always ask for permission, which is generally granted. Most people are flattered that you think there is something about them worthy of taking their picture, and digital cameras let you show them the results.”
He travels with an itinerary, “but you have to allow for flexibility. I generally get into a flow and groove, inspired by what I see.”
A 20-year member of the Explorers Club, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and member of the Professional Photographers Association, as well as the Appalachian Mountain Club, where he generally gives an annual talk about his recent travels to the local chapter, Hawk aims to document remote places: “I like to tell stories with my camera.” Photographing landscapes, architecture, wildlife and people in their day-to-day life, Hawk said he “fell in love with the notion of preserving time.”
When documenting a place, “I feel like I am on a mission, to see and tell the stories about these magical places. I try to use my photography and writing as tools to shed light on a place, help convince people of the reasons we need to protect and preserve our wild places and underlying cultures.”
Extremely curious by nature, he said National Geographic planted a lot of seeds “I’ve been reading it nonstop for 50 years, but travel is in my DNA; I grew up in a family of world travelers.”
Like many people, he is concerned how the growing influx of US tourists will impact the island, its look, its people and its way of life.
“While Europeans have been vacationing in Cuba for years, they tend to gravitate toward Havana and the beaches; Americans want to go all over the place. I am concerned what might happen then the floodgates get opened and things start to Americanize. The infrastructure is not prepared for an onslaught of tourists; the roads are not in good shape and some just end. There are few accommodations outside of urban areas. If tourism is developed responsibly, however, the concepts of capitalism gets into the hands of the warm, entrepreneurial people, it will take off in a way that benefits everyone.”
In his travels, Hawk says, “The support of my wife Heidi is imperative; I couldn’t do the trips without it. She looks after our business, too.” The couple operates a full-service photo studio (hawkphotography.com), taking portraits, family photos, etc., on their property, as well as performing onsite photography of weddings and other special events.
More photos of Hawk’s trip to Cuba, and other journeys, can be viewed at his travel website hawkphotography.net and queries on Into the Heart of Cuba or his four other photo books can be made through the website or 230-834-9595.