It is 7 a.m. when I begin to stroll the streets. I have my camera over my shoulder and sketchbook tucked under my arm. I’m wide awake and a bit wired from a fuerte cuban coffee.
The morning light is delightfully intense — streaming down the middle of the road, filtering everything it touches with a golden hue. As I make my way into the central plaza, I’m joined by school children and their parents as they hustle them off to school.
“Mira mira,” I hear one yell to the other, getting the attention of the women ahead of me. I keep going, slowly discovering the city one block at a time. Again I hear, “mira, mira, linda,” and this time it’s directed toward me.
They now have my attention as I wonder what “mira mira” means and why he just called me Linda when my name is Jennifer. I quickly look up both words in a Spanish Phrasebook and find that “mirar” means “to look” and “linda” means “beautiful.”
This lost-in-translation moment led me to the adventure I was hoping for. “Mira” was the intention behind my month-long trip to Cuba and “linda” was the perfect word to describe the experience.
Like a modern day flaneur (urban explorer), I hit the streets to observe, explore, and create with no particular destination in mind, documenting my process along the way. I went with the flow of Cuban life and let the moment take me to where I was meant to go and to whom I was meant to meet.
Completely smitten and inspired from the beginning, I quickly fell in love with Cuba’s raw beauty, contrasts, and complexities. It had all of the variables an artist seeks to play with — colour, light, movement, and textures. I didn’t have to go searching for inspiration because it was everywhere, enveloping me when I allowed it to. Like a spectator in an audience, it was merely my job to stay alert enough to receive it.
This act of awareness, of staying alert, became a central theme for me while traveling. I assumed the role of flâneur, taking time to stroll, observe, and explore in the urban spaces.
Charles Baudelaire wrote about this act of observation in “The Painter of Modern Life” — “For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world.”
As an artist and wellness educator, I learned early on that without the act of observing, there is no foundation to work from. If you hadn’t taken the time to appreciate what was in front of you, it was like skipping chapters in the book and only reading the last page.
Traveling in Cuba for a month gave me the chance to fully immerse in the daily culture and, over time, I settled into a natural flow that let me be the silent observer.. The streets were always alive with people, and both the interiors and exteriors revealed rich layers of history and stories. It seemed easier to capture portraits as the people were warm, engaging, and less preoccupied with their busy lives. From these observations, I was able to develop some tips and tricks to to share with my fellow flaneurs.
Stay alert, observe and look, then look again. Pay attention to your surroundings and take in all the details of the place you’re experiencing. Look up and down, look deeper at the layers of an urban environment. A lot is always happening, especially on the streets of Cuba.
Make time in your itinerary to get lost in a city. Step outside the plan, and you may be pleasantly surprised by where it leads you. Don’t worry if you’re going the right way and practice the act of exploring. Over-planning can lead to too many expectations and, sometimes, disappointment.
LOSE THE EXPECTATIONS
The definition of explore is “to travel in or through (an unfamiliar country or area) in order to learn about or familiarize oneself with it.” So do just that. If you are going to explore, fully embrace the country for what it is, not what you’ve heard about it. Leave your expectations at home and pack only your open mind.
Cuba is the perfect place to experiment with your camera and create a variety of compelling creative content. Try new things and refine old techniques. There are no rules to creating, so try panning, slow and fast shutter speeds, night photography, both intimate and candid portraits, or pick a theme. Cuba has some inspiration for everyone.
CHANGE YOUR PERSPECTIVE
Step back, look up and around. Get low, go high, walk forward and backward. Do the creative dance that makes other people look at you funny.. Capture your subject at different angles and also head on. Take on the perspective of a bird, dog, ant, or fly on the wall.
GET UP EARLY AND STAY UP LATE
Throw your routines out the window. You’re traveling, so get up earlier than you usually do and go to bed later than you normally would. Take the time to see a city in every light. Waking up before everyone else gives you the chance to experience a side of Cuba others might miss. Photographing Cubans heading off to work and school and hearing the bread man sing songs are things to catch and savour as memories. Sure you’ll be a bit sleepy, but it’s nothing a shot of cuban coffee can’t fix.
SAY HOLA AMIGO
Be open to connecting with the locals. This may require you to learn a few phrases in the local language. As I learned on my first day, simple phrases can keep you from getting lost in translation. Know when to be open, but also know when to respect people’s privacy and give them space. Recognize that you are a tourist in someone else’s country and life. Ask to take photos. Be polite. Smile.
Learn about the country you’re in. Don’t get caught being naive about the history, traditions, politics, or culture. Knowing a little can go a long way, and can keep you from trouble, or can help you get out of sticky situations.
BRING THE ESSENTIALS
There are four essential items for any flaneur.
First, the bag that holds your gear. I go with the undercover photographer look and choose a simple, slightly rough-around-the-edges cotton bag with lots of pockets and compartments. I don’t want you to know I’m a photographer until you do.
Second, a good pair of shoes is crucial. I would prefer to go barefoot, but I always make sure I have a worn-in pair of comfortable walking shoes in my bag.
Third, the perfects scarf can save the day and be accessory at the same time. It can be used as a beach towel, skirt, shirt, or protection from the sun. Not to mention that if you wait to purchase a piece of fabric from local artisans, you’ll have a souvenir when you return home.
Finally, a good sombrero is a must.