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Cultural Construct: Travel photos from Cuba
by Stephanie Munson and Bruce M. Tharp

Material culture fans, below are some travel pics from our May 2004 trip to that lovely island of communist intransigence, Cuba. Be ye careful though, citizens of America, trying to visit this Caribbean beauty yourself as Señor Bush has recently amped up the penalties for traveling there—$10,000 per person. And don't think that you can't get caught flying through Canada and Mexico either, as post 9/11 customs officials are casting a finer net; the days of being waved across the border sporting a Che beret, chomping on a fat cigar, and stinking of 10-year-old rum are sadly long past.

Braving the massive anti-American/Bush demonstration over increased trade embargo restrictions (envisioned by many as a November election campaign tactic to appease ex-patriot Miami-Cubans in a bid to win the important state of Florida) only a day before landing, our two-week voyage took us to bustling Havana and to bucolic coastal towns and inland farming villages.

Difficulties of travel, oppressive humidity, and dreadfully bland local fare aside (national finances make non-essentials like spices a rarity), the country is fascinating. Seemingly bifurcated, life in Havana is rife with cosmopolitan energy of a dense populous, perpetually refurbished 50's automobiles, tourists, tourist hustlers, baseball fever, and random acts of salsa (the dance, not the condiment—though we would have killed for the latter to mix in with our typical meals of rice and beans). The feeling in Havana is peculiarly desperate as there is a sense that communism and Castro have failed, and nearly all are voraciously seeking an angle for greater disposable income and "western" goods.

This is in stark contrast to the countryside and non-tourist costal towns where communism has given farmers a stake in their own land, and there is less knowledge of how better off so much of the rest of the world is. Here locals are proud of their country and the definite merits of communism. True anti-American sentiment runs higher and despite their lesser means, rural folk seem happier with their lot in life.

Cubans with no "additional" money from tourists or from expatriate family in the US make about $10 per month. On the flip side, Castro guarantees their housing, schooling, and healthcare. Many of these photos reflect the difficult economic state of the country, which obviously affects material life.

We did not intend on taking photos for a published piece; the following are just shots from our time there that were of some interest to us. These images capture some of the essence of Cuba/Cuban life, and although some may fall into multiple categories, the following photo-essay is organized under the following themes: Cuban Vernacular, Mobility, Decay, Murals, and Cuban Life.

Cuban Vernacular
Click to enlarge





Moblity 2





Cuban Life

FOR MORE INFO: Check out the September/October 2004 issue of ID magazine for an interesting article about an industrial design school in Havana: The School of Hard Knocks (“At Havana's industrial design institute students make the most of scant resources”).

Stephanie Munson is an Assistant Professor of Industrial Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She holds an MID from the Rhode Island School of Design and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan.

Bruce M. Tharp is currently a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Chicago and works for Haworth's thinktank, the Ideation Group, helping to bridge the gap between research and design solutions. In addition to an MA in Anthropology, he holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Bucknell University and an MID from Pratt Institute.

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