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I don’t know these gents that I photographed. But they say everything about why I went to Cuba.

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When life becomes too frictionless, and we glide along without struggle, it becomes neutered and sterile. We don’t feel joy in the things we have the way we are meant to.

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I wanted to experience life in higher relief, and push myself out of my comfort zone. And I wanted to experience the honest truth of a place, before it changes.

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Cuba was enchanting and sad. It had a raw, gentile shabbiness, like being in a war zone in 1950’s America. It is also one of the most photogenic places—pure romance and nostalgia, which gives it a certain allure.

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The Castro government is now the longest serving in the world. What I saw confirms it has been a wildly successful exercise in immiserating a small country. Cutting 11.5 million people out of the world economy does, in fact, result in radically higher prices, crumbling infrastructure and widespread human suffering. Salaries are consistently fixed at $20 per month. A 5 year-old car costs $100,000. Entrepreneurship is stifled and only exists in black market terms. Cuban people desperately want access to the same goods and services everyone else in the world enjoys. Seeing Americans in their streets gives them a sense, perhaps falsely, the embargo might end soon.

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There are dire food shortages. They can’t drink their water, if they are lucky to have any plumbing at all. As careful as I was to not even brush my teeth with it, I became incredibly sick to the point where we considered the hospital.

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Should you visit? It depends on why you are going.

Going to Cuba and struggling changed me for the better and made me deeply grateful for the blessings we have in America. We have so much, yet the more we have the more we want and the less we are satisfied. We suffer from so many choices — from dating partners to shoes — that we become paralyzed by them.

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The Cubans reminded me to find joy in the simplest of things. Until now it was hard to imagine a world where a stick of chewing gum can bring someone so much joy in its novelty, and a flash drive could change their life.

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It reminded me to find a reason to dance on a Tuesday night, find a reason to invite people over to dance with me, and maybe break out a violin and a guitar and sing loudly.

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When they learned I was American, their faces lit up and they asked how I liked Cuba. People often stopped to talk to me on the street, not because they wanted something but because they live with a certain openness, a kind of unguarded vulnerability and a willingness to experience life the way it is served to them. It was one of the safest feeling cities I’ve ever experienced.

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I loved watching the women walk down the streets with bodacious, thick, curvy bodies and own them. I loved seeing the men walk down the street holding their woman’s hand like she is the crown jewel of the world and behave like they are lucky to have them.

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Cuba confirmed to me that humans have a natural instinct for self expression and individual identity, and when it is stifled we find other ways to express it. I was fascinated to see some of the ways individual expression had developed and supported it by doing all of my buying on the black market.

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The next time I go to Cuba this place I saw will probably be gone, and something new entirely will be there. I wonder what, and pray it is for the better.

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