Sway to the Cuban Beat

I’ve left Cuba behind for a while on the photo front, but I didn’t forget about my promise to post the dancing. I’ve just been working on some other projects in the meantime.

Because I was actually involved in the dancing, I wasn’t able to take many photos of the dancers myself, but this small sequence is from one specific rhumba class I attended (but did not actually partake in with regards to the dancing part). Our instructor, a lithe Cuban with hips that don’t lie and enough spice to set the room on fire, also had infinite reserves of patience and instructional skill. Her imperturbable tutelage ensured that everyone in the room (excluding me, sadly) learned enough of a proper routine that they were able to show off their moves in one of the local clubs that same evening and look like (somewhat) seasoned pros.

I thoroughly enjoyed having the opportunity to watch everyone, with their swishy skirts that swirled and twirled around their legs as they shimmied along. If I close my eyes, I still hear oscillating fans blowing warm breezes by me – zwoosh, zwoosh, zwoosh, zwoosh. Methodical and melodic, soothing and sensual.

I was insanely jealous of everyone who could so easily pick up the steps and suddenly become a dancer.

Then again, if I was involved in the dancing, who would be taking the photos?

I specifically chose a slow shutter speed in order to enhance the feeling of movement and capture the ephemeral quality of motion. I wanted the images to make the viewer feel as though they were there, feeling the whoosh of the skirts and the rhythmic fluidity of bodies in sync, experiencing the moment right alongside me. Even the drummers pounding out the beats have a ghost-like quality to their movements. As if this is all a dream.

Portraiture of children – an attempt at capturing spontaneity, purity and happy moments

One of my favourite subjects for photography is children. Children don’t yet have a fear of, or worry about, how they will look in photos, and they don’t act too cool for school. In fact, aside from wildlife (and even that can be manipulated in the presence of a camera…actually, in the presence of humans, period), kids are probably the only live subject matter that acts completely naturally in front of a camera. Some are more shy than others, and they take a bit more time getting comfortable with the process. Some are hams from the moment they see the camera appear, and they are all smiles and giggles.

Every child I’ve ever worked with adores looking at the end result, appearing utterly fascinated with this tiny still image of themselves. I get that. I’m obviously totally fascinated by this whole photography thing myself. If you hadn’t noticed.

I’ve included a small gallery below of some of my favourite little chickens (and in some cases a parent or two) I’ve had the privilege to photograph. None of these photos in the gallery have been retouched. I did this because I wanted to show these children as they are, not as they look after hours of Photoshop, Lightroom, etc. I wanted to let each child’s inner spark shine through all on its own.

Just like the children in the photos, the images are about as pure as they get. Love these faces!!!

More and more monkeys!!

vervet monkey

Okay, as you may or may not know, there are more than just baboons in South Africa. Vervet monkeys and samango monkeys (also known as Sykes’ monkeys) are both found in the country, but not in all the provinces (unlike baboons, who seem to pop up everywhere). These two smaller species seem to prefer the more tropical, humid parts to the dry, colder areas. Not that I blame them. I too prefer tropical. Two species of bush babies (aka greater and lesser galagos), which are primates as well, also live in South Africa, but they will show up in another gallery at another point. So, monkeys…here are some of my other primate neighbours.

Primates in action

monkey in action

monkey in action

The past posts have captured wildlife in relatively static form. But nothing in the wild stays still unless it is sleeping or thinks it is being hunted. That said, I feel the need to post some photos of my beloved monkeys in action, specifically baboons. I realise as I look through my library of photos that I spent most of my time laughing and not enough time holding the camera steady and taking pictures. But no matter. I’m sure these provide enough of a sense of a day in the life of a baboon. I hope you enjoy it! I certainly enjoyed taking the photos.

Zanzibar’s jungle acrobats

looking skyward

There is a good possibility that if a place has monkeys, I will make it a point to go there. Zanzibar was already on my bucket list, so it was an added boon that there also happens to be monkeys there. Red colobus monkeys, to be exact. And, like the baboons in the Western Cape in South Africa, the colobus monkeys I photographed were so accustomed to people that they didn’t so much as blink, let alone run away from you. In fact, they were so relaxed I had to keep from stumbling over them.

As a note, colobus monkeys aren’t the only primates on Zanzibar. There are also bush babies (officially known as lesser and greater galagos now, but I still prefer the name ‘bush baby’). And while I am also infatuated with bush babies, they prefer the later hours of the day, thus making them much harder to find and photograph. The colobus monkeys are, conveniently for me, diurnal. They also appear more inclined to hang out and keep me company. The bush babies just want bananas, and once they get them, these nocturnal teddy bears take off into the night, bellowing out their signature “waaah-ing” call as they spring from tree to tree, little puffy pinballs bouncing off into the night.

I saw striking similarities in hair styles between a few of the youngsters and me, which makes me wonder how many degrees of separation there are between us. I too have a vast halo of frizz around my head. And I also feature the same dazed look on my face when I wake up in the morning.

I give you a troop of colobus (hmmmm, plural colobi?) monkeys!

A special little monkey

holding mom

My favourite monkey of all time was a little baboon we nicknamed Dobby, owing to her uncanny resemblance to the house elf from Harry Potter fame. Due to some birth defect, a bad case of mange, or a bout of alopecia (no one ever officially figured out the cause), Dobby lost almost all of her hair, so the first time I saw her, I actually thought her mother was carrying around a child’s doll.

Dobby had a bald pink head, bushy eyebrows like a little old man, a scruff around her neck that resembled a Victorian collar, and patches of hair here and there all over her body (except on her pip, of course). As the days and weeks wore on, she lost more and more hair. I was worried she might not survive the winter, as South Africa gets quite cold come July and August, especially in the Western Cape, where she lived.

Her little bald head made her easy to spot among the other, more hirsute members of her family. And her spunky personality and fearlessness made her easy to love. Even the other members of the troop doted on her, despite her and her mother being of lower standing than many of them. (As with people, baboons are big on their social hierarchies and class systems.)

Eventually, her hair began to grow back, and the last time I saw her she had a thin coat of dark fuzz over her entire body.

Like her namesake, our little Dobby was full of life. And, like her namesake, she suffered an untimely and sad death – by a member of a neighbouring troop. But in the short time she was on the earth, she wiggled her way into the hearts of everyone who had the privilege of meeting her.

Here are a few pics of this brave little baboon.

And, as a comparison, here are some pics of what a ‘normal’ baboon baby looks like. Notice the dramatic difference in the amount of hair.

Monkey business

baboon in flowers, looking

I admit it – I am a sucker for a monkey. Big baboons to tiny marmosets. I love them all. What probably makes them most interesting to me is how eerily similar they are to us humans. I’ve watched baboons pick at their fingernails. I’ve seen colobus monkeys tickle and tease each other. I’ve seen a baby vervet and her sibling tear through our camp, knocking her mother over in the process, and then turn around to walk back over to give her mom a big fat kiss – as if to say she was sorry. No joke. See below.

vervet cycle of guilt
vervet cycle of guilt

Watching monkeys is a lot like watching kids on a playground. You get the silly, the reckless, the shy and reserved, the fearless, the clever schemer and the inevitable scapegoat. They scream at each other, they cuddle, they taunt, they play the victim, they band together, they sit and think, they work things out. They have what seem to be full-on conversations with one another, chattering away like gossiping little ninnies on the front stoop.

I’m fairly certain they even get embarrassed. I saw one young baboon fall out of a tree, rather ungracefully landing squarely on his head. He immediately popped up, looked around him (as if to see if anyone was watching), and then pretended like nothing happened, all the while subtly rubbing his head (but pretending he wasn’t) and looking mortified.

All in all, monkeys seem to be smaller, furrier, stronger, more acrobatic versions of us.

I’ve been lucky enough to spend weeks on end in the midst of troops of baboons. I’ve had plenty of vervet monkeys swing through camp and have even had to chase them out of the kitchen on occasion. I’ve walked through tropical Zanzibar jungles full of red colobus monkeys (who, unlike other monkeys, do not have thumbs). And I’ve had a few good run-ins with some hilarious samango monkeys, who look like little, disapproving old men. Each species is unique; each individual has its own distinct personality, quirks and all.

Anyway, given how much time I got to spend with several species in the monkey family, I think it only fitting that each group gets its own post on my site. So, I’ll start here with the baboons, in all their goofy, clever, naughty glory!

Cuba: Life in the details

say it three times

As promised, a gallery of some of the smaller details that make up the bigger picture of Cuba. That is all.

Cuban Modes of Transport

Pretty in pink

Cubans are nuts about their cars, and they are maestros at keeping them running, even if it takes a ready supply of rubber bands, chewing gum and toothpicks to do so. I did actually see a guy fix his engine with a paperclip. Having no knowledge whatsoever about how an engine works or, more still, how a paperclip could solve the issue of said engine not turning over, I couldn’t begin to explain how this maneuver was supposed to work. But he used it, and behold! The car started up, roaring to life as soon as he turned the key in the ignition. I am rarely dumbstruck. In that moment, I was struck as dumb as they come.

I imagine if you took a poll, you’d find more classic cars on the roads of Cuba than in the entire United States. Everywhere you go you see beautiful classic cars (ranging from completely restored to completely in disrepair and yet somehow still running – due to masterful manipulation of rubber bands and paperclips, no doubt). But you do pay extra for a cab ride in one of the REALLY well-maintained classics. Which two friends and I did. The leather still smelled of that new car smell, and the bronze paint gleamed like it had just been waxed and buffed to shiny perfection a few moments prior to picking us up. It was a convertible, too. I felt like a ’50s movie star, Grace Kelly or Natalie Wood. Or, I guess in my case, maybe Sophia Loren. If only I’d had a scarf to tie around my head…

Transport in Cuba isn’t only about cars, though. I saw people riding in wheelbarrows, on donkey-led carts, on bicycles and on those awesome motorcycles with sidecars. The fact is, Cuban people know how to get around in style, be it in city slicker or country bumpkin fashion. No matter how they travel, they still look good doing it. It’s a skill that all Cuban people I met seem to possess – the ability to look great, no matter what the circumstances. Resilience of the highest calibre. Yet another reason it is such a special place.

Here’s a look at a handful of the modes of motion I got to see.