As Cuba’s shroud of intrigue slowly unveils itself to the democratic world, much is to be discovered from a place seemingly stopped in time.
American automobile classics like the Chevrolet Bel Air and Ford Fairlane reign the streets. Crumbling buildings reveal a myriad of structural components. Wall murals convey images of iconic cartoons like “The Flintstones” alongside the Argentine Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
For Mike Tauber ‘15, known around Farragut as Mikey, he was fortunate enough this past spring to explore this island which is untouched by modern capitalism, before the corporate footprint takes effect. Travelling with a group of approximately 40 students from American University for a scholars program called “Cuba: Water From Ridge to Reef,” the St. Petersburg-native spent 10 days documenting the agricultural and re-usable habits of the country.
“The trip let me experience a place with no pretense, in a way different than how a textbook would illustrate,” said Tauber, who is studying film at American. “The people are incredibly friendly, open and genuine. It gave me a wonderful perspective on many facets of their way of life.”
During the exploration back and forth from Havana to the farms, Tauber and his peers often had moments to converse and interact with locals, gaining a newfound perspective on life.
In one of those moments, while walking in Havana, Tauber, a budding filmmaker, snapped an iPad photo of a street mural that eventually became one of the select few to be chosen for “Experience Cuba!” — a multi-faceted exhibition at the St. Petersburg Museum of History anchored by world-renowned photographer Clyde Butcher’s collection called “Cuba, The Natural Beauty.”
Hanging on one of the walls inside the museum, Tauber’s piece, entitled “Street Art in Havana,” showcases an abstract montage of painted musicians on a wall while locals dressed in long and short pants walk the dirt-covered roadway in Havana.
“There was an interesting juxtaposition between these dilapidated streets and murals on crumbling walls with people dressed in modern clothes imported from certain European countries,” Tauber said. “When I saw the street, I immediately snapped a photo. I just took one. It’s like I wanted to capture the scene but also let it be.”
The exhibit is open until September 30, 2016.
Learning the Land
The scholars program was divided into two sections: one studied government and politics, the other group studied environment.
Tauber was in a group of 15 students that examined the agricultural system as well as the condition of marine life.
Cuba is known throughout the world for its “agro-ecology,” a farming system that does not use pesticides but uses nitrogen, flowers, insects, and intensive planting to simulate modern industrial farming. In layman’s terms, the Cubans have figured out a way to farm organically better than most cultures.
“We interviewed a number of different people to gain knowledge of their resourcefulness,” said Tauber. “It’s apparent when you go from place to place. You see it in action.”
Using drip-irrigation, Cuban farmers contain necessary water in giant basins for future use, as described by Tauber.
“They also use old cans and buckets to drip water over top of crops in a gradual manner,” said Tauber. “It demonstrates how innovative they have become out of necessity.”
In addition, Tauber’s group studied marine life by snorkeling in “waters as clear as day.”
“It was remarkable to see how clear the water was and to realize once the country is open up to the world, how it could drastically change,” said Tauber.
Like A Rock Star
Because American visitors are so few and far between, the university group was “treated like rock stars from the time we arrived to the time we left.”
“When we walked out to the main lobby area of the airport, we were in an enclosed area and hundreds of people were staring at us and taking photos from beyond the glass,” said Tauber. “Once we exited, people began offering us free stuff, from hats to cigars to coffee. There was one espresso shot I took that felt like it had as much caffeine in it as five or six cups of coffee in the States.”
Tauber used the Spanish he learned in Cesar Robalino’s classes while at Farragut, but to his surprise, the grammar was much too proper.
“All the locals kept telling me to relax,” joked Tauber. “Robalino was a stickler for grammar so I was using it the correct way but the locals use more slang than usual. They kept telling me I was being ‘too proper.’ They just wanted me to be like them.”
Tauber, though, did appreciate the soccer skills inherited during his time on the Farragut team coached by Robalino.
“There was a massive dried-up fountain near a museum in Havana,” recalled Tauber. “There were about 20 kids all playing soccer, doing all kinds of tricks. I immediately told our group to wait. I mean, how often am I going to get a chance to do this, right? I started playing soccer with them. It was so much fun. A kid, about 14-years-old was teaching me a trick, flipped the ball to his shoulder, so smooth with the ball.”
Soon, Tauber had organized a game, using the circular wall to play a type of “indoor soccer” with some shoes as goals.
“Before you know it, musicians showed up and started playing music. A fruit stand appeared. People were hanging on the edges cheering, interacting with our group. It was an incredible celebration of life.”
To show his appreciation, after the 30 minutes of “futbol,” Tauber gave the kids copies of compact discs with American music on them. In return, they exchanged gifts of local candy.
“It was definitely the highlight of the trip.”