The sunburns have healed, the tan lines have faded, and I have forgotten the lyrics to Guantanamara that I learned on my third day on the island. My February trip to Cuba could have been another travel memory – a folder of pictures on my hard drive and a small diary of near-illegible scribbles collecting dust on my desk. Instead, it’s an itch on my mind, a firm weight on my chest.
Two months later, it’s a trip that haunts me.
She was tanned, but her skin was not very dark. I’d guess she was no older than 14, but she was a fairly large girl for her age. Her short brown hair made her chubby cheeks seem even wider; it didn’t suit her. Neither did the tight pink t-shirt that her thick arms spilled out of, nor the faded jeans that hugged her wide hips. She had a bold look in her eyes, confrontational but not harmful.
She stood at the edge of the dirt road that ran through her village. It was the last of a dozen of rural villages in Matanzas that I had driven through that day. In this one, the houses appeared to be in slightly better shape than those in the other villages. The shacks were made of brick, not sheets of metal that I had seen earlier. They were also built on a slightly raise platform to prevent water from getting inside when it rained – not all the homes in Cuba’s countryside had that small luxury.
When our vehicle approached her village, the kids ran out of their houses to take their usual place by the road. Like I had seen children do earlier in the day, each one of them waved at the cars passing by, smiling and hoping for a present – perhaps candy or stationary– from the tourists. I had already given out all the candy that I brought. Now I sat quietly in the passenger seat and wondered what the kids must feel like seeing large groups of well-off foreigners drive by their homes day after day. I wondered if they were as intrigued by us as much as we were by them.
Most of the kids who crowded the streets were no more than 6 or 7 years old. Her large body stood out awkwardly next to them. I spotted her from 20 yards away. Our gaze locked.
As my vehicle drove by, her waving hand stopped in mid-air and pointed directly at me. “You” she mouthed, as I stared down the tip of her index finger. Behind the safety of the passenger window, I felt like an unprepared student being cold-called upon in a lecture – embarrassed and intimidated.
The car kept driving but everything about that moment gnawed at me: her pointing, the word she uttered, her dark hair, and her commanding stare. She wanted something from me, and she called me out for it.
I never thought I would become a travel photographer because I was never too interested in architecture or history. I found myself down this path because I realized that travel photography allowed me to capture people from around the world – people of all race, age, religion, and social class. By photographing people, I also shared their stories with the rest of the world. But when real poverty and need stared me in the face, I wasn’t ready for it.
I didn’t take a photograph of the girl, but I still think about this girl and her village – and all the other impoverished communities I visited that day. It seems that, although I left Cuba, I couldn’t leave Cuba behind.