It was midnight when we finally arrived in Havana this past March, not sure what to expect. Two journalists, my partner and I had come to Cuba to see what life is like for the average person now, half a century after Fidel Castro's communist revolution.
While thousands of Americans have been coming here illegally through Mexico, Canada or the Bahamas, we joined a stream (more than 47,000 in 2008) who received special licenses from the U.S. government to go to Cuba despite the restrictions imposed on the country in the aftermath of the revolution.
We traveled light — staying in the homes of ordinary Cubans who pay heavy taxes to be in a highly regulated government program to house foreign visitors. And we counted our money carefully, because credit cards are not really an option for Americans, and banks can close for hours at a moment's notice.
In the city, we joined rivers of people on the streets in a cacophony of singing and shouting, laughing and chatting. We drank coffee and ate greasy "cajitas" of pork, rice and tomatoes. In rural areas, it seemed calmer. People waved, smiled and stared. At a splendid beach, a man watched our bikes, then took us home to eat octopus and read our fortunes from shells. In a small village near a river, fishermen fed us rum and fresh fish.
What we discovered was a Cuba both charming and jarring, a nation of vast contradictions. Of splendor and decay, energy and torpor, hope and cynicism.
In the teeming capital of Havana, beautiful chunks of its architectural history are falling into ruin. Despite some restoration efforts, especially in the old part of town, the city's skeleton of intricate stone and concrete is crumbling from time and weather, neglect and lack of money.
Yet, the city pulsates.
The sounds of music, pirated television and the banter of multigenerational families pour out from balconies and windows. At dusk, the drumming and singing of Afro-Cuban Santería followers spills into the street — the hypnotic beat filling the warm spring air. They dance to Yemayá, a goddess who represents life and the sea.
Across town, classic American cars cruise down Havana's narrow, crowded corridors, puffing out heavy, black fumes. At the right corners, fleets of those big cars — Cubans call them "maquinas" or machines — form a cheap alternative to government transit systems.
Here, life seems to be lived in or within view of the street, with few barriers between citizens and the curious eyes of foreigners. Some Cubans, the hustlers, take full advantage of that.
Psst! Psst! "Do you need a room?" . . . "Want to buy cigars?" . . . "Go on a horse ride?"
Others take it even further. At a dingy diner late at night, three Australian tourists — middle-aged men with faded tattoos — buy drinks for Cuban women half their age. The girls accept.
Across the street, on the fabled Malecón, lovers canoodle.
There is very little advertising. Only billboards reminding people of the revolution and its many "victories" for the nation. Still, the economy is fragile. People seem to rely on an informal mix of bartering, part-time jobs and making a few pesos off the tourists to provide for their families.
Cubans boast that literacy rates are high, and that college and health care are free and housing is nearly so.
But shortages, breakdowns, blackouts and long lines are common. The wife of one foreigner living in Havana complained potatoes were not available for three months.
Yet while people sometimes go without, no one starves.
The country is also secure. Unlike Mexico or many Central American countries, drugs are not ravaging the land; it feels safe to stroll the streets, even at night.
In March, Cubans were eager to hear about the new American president. Many asked if he would lift the restrictions, saying that could help them earn more money.
President Obama did open the door, lifting the limits on both how much money Cuban-Americans can send home and how often they can visit.
Will more change come? Who knows?
Castro has survived American sanctions, Soviet abandonment and more. But time is something he cannot escape. When he and his brother are gone, Cubans will face the task of setting the course for the next 50 years.
One thing seems certain: their resilience and resourcefulness will abide.
Friends dance at the Valmaceda family's house for their daughter's 23rd birthday party in Trinidad. The girls danced for hours to the deep, pulsating, urban beat of reggaeton. Music is everywhere in Cuba — from traditional folk songs to Mexican rancheras and Cuban hip-hop.
At the Casa Templo de Santería Yemayá, in the town of Trinidad, followers celebrate their saint's anniversary. Drummers and dancers surrounded a large altar adorned with cakes, fruit, cigars and rum. The Santería religion — a blend of traditions from Catholicism and West African beliefs — is widely practiced in the country.
In the small town of Casilda, men line up to refill beer in their plastic bottles. On the streets, it's often BYOB, as in bring your own bottle, to fill with beer or lemonade.
White cloths hang to dry in an apartment complex in Havana Vieja, the old part of town. Throughout the country, linens, sheets and dresses wave in the breeze.
Yenisey Lopez, 32, left, and Arletis Oliva Juvier, 18, sway in rocking chairs at a Hogar Materno in the town of Trinidad. Earlier this year, 26 women with high-risk pregnancies or special needs were living at the maternity home. Their care is free of charge; they stay until their children are born.
Arletis Oliva Juvier, 18, rests with her nephew at the Hogar Materno in Trinidad.
Two young members of a wedding party wait in the entrance of the Palacio de los Matrimonios near the Prado promenade in the capital of Havana. Until the recent worldwide economic downturn, newlyweds received gifts of cake, rum and a honeymoon hotel room from the Cuban government.
The José Martí Memorial offers 360 degree views of Havana. Old and Central Havana are shown, above.
The Ministry of Interior Defense Building displays Che and the slogan "Hasta la Victoria Siempre." The Vedado neighborhood, where American East Coast mafia reigned before the revolution, can be seen, behind. The neighborhood houses the The University of Havana, the Plaza de la Revolucion and Havana's most renowned cemetery.
There is very little advertising in Cuba. Instead, there political messages are scribed across the countryside commemorating the country, its leaders, people and its history.
In central Havana, neighbors watch the Cuban national team play Japan during the World Baseball Classic this past March. In this baseball-crazed country, Cubans have tuned into their television sets to watch their beloved players compete with teams from around the world. With beer, tobacco and rum in hand, these fans say they've watched every game Cuba has played.
A television broadcasts the World Baseball Classic this past March.
(From left) Anna Crespo, 72, greets Anna Videl, 82, in Havana Vieja.
Teenage boys play basketball in their school uniforms at a playground in Havana Vieja.
Bus station, Trinidad. The bus from Havana to Trinidad is about a six hour journey by bus.
A man smokes in a second-story balcony in Havana Vieja. The neighborhood is the oldest in the city, with a population of around 70,000 people.
Clothes hang to dry in Havana Vieja.
Santería worshipers dance during their saint Yemayá's anniversary at the Casa Templo de Santería Yemayá in Trinidad. Drummers and dancers surrounded a large altar adorned with cakes, fruit, cigars and rum. Yemayá is the goddess of life and the sea.
A sign for the CDR, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, is displayed in Central Havana. The CDR began in the 1960s as a neighborhood watch network aiming to unite grassroots support for the revolution. Today, it still plays an active role in Cuban society.
Juaqina Pinillo poses for a portrait outside her apartment in Havana.
Cubans play soccer in Havana with makeshift goals. Although baseball shines as the national pastime — volleyball, handball, soccer, basketball and martial arts can be seen practiced throughout Havana.
Old American classics can be seen throughout Cuba. Many have modern stereos rigged inside, blaring beats.
A portrait of Cuban mason is taken inside of the room where he keeps his building supplies. We saw a handful large renewal projects during our visit. Havana Vieja was added to the Unesco World Heritage list in the early 1980s. However, many buildings crumble because of time, weather, neglect and lack of money.
Bus station, Trinidad.
Rocking chair in doorway in Havana Vieja.
At certain corners and corridors, Cubans can pick up an inexpensive ride across Havana in "maquinas" or machines.
This fleet of old American cars form a cheap alternative to government transit systems.
A batter stands at home plate during a baseball game outside of Trinidad.
A group of young men play baseball on the outskirts of Trinidad.
A group of young men play baseball on the outskirts of Trinidad.
Pedestrians walk through the town of Trinidad. Numerous buildings in the small town have been preserved with UNESCO funding.
Young girl, in Trinidad,Cuba.
In the evenings, it seemed that Cubans often gather outside their homes or stores to shoot the breeze. In the tiny fishing town of Casilda, with one main road, dozens of people chatted away, including these little girls. The town was rocked by the 2005 hurricane season.
A truck with workers drives through the arid Sancti Spiritus Province.
Adriana Gonzales, 8, swims near her hometown of La Boca. Her uncle, a fisherman, works by boat early in the morning and then again in the evening. Her home is modest. Yet, many members of her immediate family live within a few houses. She smiles and sings often.
Fisherman prepare their nets for a night of fishing outside of La Boca, in the Sancti Spiritus Province.
At sunset, fishermen prepare for an evening of fishing at the mouth of a river in the Sancti Spiritus Province. With lanterns, the men fish late into the night.
Thanks to photographer Laura Gordon, of SFO, for all of her help and expertise. Laura has helped me and other shooters gain access and navigate Cuba. Also, luvs to my boyfriend Manuel, for being my travel partner, writing-coach and interpreter extraordinaire when my Spanish is terrible. Also, big thanks to the ladies at 'Pacific.
Manuel on a rural beach.
A friend took us home to feed us octopus and read Manuel's fortune with shells.
Manuel gave out disposable cameras to Cubans — moms, children, fisherman, masons— during our travels.
One little girl looks over his shoulder.
Dairon Amaya Berrio begins to photograph
Juaqina Pinillo grabs a camera, too.
All images and text copyright Erika Schultz and/or The Seattle Times