MindStorm Photography Blog and Gallery

Travel and Photographs by Burt Johnson and Evelyn Johnson

Hanabanilla – Welcome to Cuba!

Hava Casa Particular - Balcones

On our 2005 visit to Cuba, both of us got sick, with Evelyn's cold developing into bronchitis, so we've wanted to come back to experience the real Cuba for some time. When we got to the airport, it took more than an hour to get our luggage and clear customs. Then, we changed money into CUCs ($1 USD = 1 CUC), which is the official Cuban currency. There is a 10% penalty for changing US Dollars, but we had been warned in advance to bring either Canadian dollars or euros, so had saved Euros from our Europe trip earlier this year.

We were picked by a 1952 Chevy with a tractor engine (without muffler), and dropped off at a Casa Particular (private homes where rooms are rented out) in Old Havana (pictures above). Across the street was a Vietnamese Cultural Center, where they were celebrating until 2:00 AM, making sleep difficult. We could hear all of the urban noises from people talking on the streets below, tuk tuks (3-wheeled taxis, also known as Coco taxis), garbage trucks, and classic American cars rolling across the cobblestone streets below. Cuenca's cobblestone streets are relatively flat and safe compared to those in Old Havana.

Prior to the start of our photo tour, we wanted to experience another part of Cuba. Our tattooed guide, Monica, recommended a place where Cubans go for vacation, Hanabanilla, which she considered to be one of the most beautiful places in Cuba, and which has been untouched by tourism.

Cuba Hanabanilla Boat and View

After a 4-hour drive in another classic American Buick, we rolled into a village in the middle of a heavy rain. Our driver asked some questions and followed a barefoot boy up a dirt path. We observed the boy getting into a dilapidated metal boat, scooping water out of the bottom of the boat, and starting up an outboard motor which poured out black smoke. Our driver then pointed for us to get into the boat at the bottom of the grass slope in the middle of nowhere. The boat barely fit the two of us with our backpacks, but we puttered across a body of water for 30 minutes, then landed on a dirt patch (top right). The boy indicated we needed to climb the tree-rooted dirt path up to our room. This turned out to be another Casa Particular, where we were fed a home-cooked lunch, dinner and breakfast, and shared a bathroom with 3 generations of a Cuban family, three dogs, 8 chickens and roosters, and two turkeys.

We were experiencing the daily life of this family. The little boy had much fun dragging around the elderly dog by a rope around its neck, while the dog appeared resigned to accepting his role in life. The father was working on projects around the home with his machete, and hopping on and off of boats working on other neighboring projects. Grandma was sweeping the dirt yard, and hanging the clothes, while others were cleaning and cooking. At night, the family got together to watch local TV.

Cuba Hanabanilla family

The single bathroom was shared by the entire family, and they used newspaper for toilet paper. Toilet seats seem to be a rarity in many rural parts of Cuba. When Burt was asked whether he wanted a hot shower, he did not expect that 15 minutes later, he would get his bucket of lukewarm water in the bathroom. Yet, even though very poor, the people seemed genuinely happy.

Cuba Hanabanilla waterfall

On the final morning, we were taken by boat to the highlight feature of this lake - a 20' high waterfall.

The Magic Flute – Opera in Cuenca

magic flute opera 1-stage

We attended an opera tonight, Mozart's classic fairy tale (Spanish version), The Magic Flute, where Evelyn's Spanish teacher's daughter, Estefani Ortiz, performed both in the youth chorale and aerial dancing. This is only the second opera performed in Cuenca, and was easily on the same level as we've seen at the New York metropolitan with strong voices, mesmerizing set designs, enthusiastic musicians and performers.

Led by Michael Meissner, the director of the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra, the show ended with a well-deserved long standing ovation by all.

magic flute opera 2-intermission

The mayor of Cuenca, Marcelo Cabrera, and other dignitaries attended opening night. At intermission, there was quite a feast with free finger foods, wine, and rum.

Magic Flute Opera from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.


Festival de artesanías de América 2017

Festival de artesanias de America 2017, Cuenca, Ecuador - overview

November 3 is Cuenca Independence Day. Ecuadorians love to celebrate, and this 197th anniversary of independence from Spain was a chance for a 4-day holiday weekend.  The city puts out a booklet listing scheduled events through the end of November that was 66 pages long, and copies ran out in the first 2 days. There is no way that anyone can attend every event. However there was something for everyone.  We have already mentioned the Symphony in the Park, Moscow Circus, and art show reception we went to this weekend.

This was the 15th year that CIDAP has put on a festival of Latin American artisans.  This is a curated show, and the quality of the artisans is always quite high, so we enjoy walking the few blocks where the tents line both sides of the Rio Tomebamba.

CIDAP also has a long term display of exquisite Indonesian art, which is worth a visit even after the Independence Day weekend is over.

Festival de artesanias de America 2017, Cuenca, Ecuador - masks

Masks are always on display at this show, and many are of superb quality.  We know some people that have wall collections of masks such as these.

Festival de artesanias de America 2017, Cuenca, Ecuador - music

Music is another common element of the show.  Some music is from artisans who make the instruments and CDs they wish to sell, while others are street musicians entertaining the audience, hoping for some change to be dropped in their hats. There were also bands that we heard from our apartment window every night during the celebration.

Festival de artesanias de America 2017, Cuenca, Ecuador - wood

The wood carving artisans always create elaborate items for sale.  Some even continue to work in their tents, demonstrating how they create their art (lower-right).

Festival de artesanias de America 2017, Cuenca, Ecuador - art

One large plaza at Puente Roto is set aside for artists with their painting and drawings.  There are two spray paint artists in Cuenca (upper-left) that were also showing off their work today (upper-middle) -- all done entirely with spray paint cans and newspaper rubbed over the wet paint. There were also artists drawing caricatures.

Festival de artesanias de America 2017, Cuenca, Ecuador - crafts

There are many artisans who make crafts of various types.  Plus a few mime's that dress up and look like statues, unmoving until a coin is dropped in their can -- at which time they pop into motion (lower-left and lower-right).  The reaction of young children is often more amusing than the mimes themselves, as the kids jump when the "statue moves."

Festival de artesanias de America 2017, Cuenca, Ecuador - food

And then there was the food court section, which was much larger than in previous years.  An entire block of every kind of international food you can imagine, with a meal running anywhere from $1 to $5.  We ended coming back to this section a few times over the weekend, each time to try something different.

Festival de artesanias de America 2017, Cuenca, Ecuador - kids

There was also a small kid's section.  With so many children in Cuenca, I was surprised to see how small this section was, but it was still enjoyable to watch them create their own art or get their faces painted.


Fantasy Circus from Moscow

Moscow Circus 2017 in Ecuador - title

Every year during the Cuenca Independence Day celebrations, the Moscow Circus comes to town.  The image above was on the screen during part of the performance. The first poster I saw in town had some other posters plastered over the top of it, and all I saw was the image of Elsa (from Frozen) and the tag "Suenos de magia y diversion" ("Dreams of magic and fun").  I therefore told Evelyn I wanted to go see the Moscow magic show!

I had forgotten that the circus comes to town every year.  It was still an interesting evening, even if not what I expected when I bought the tickets (and first looked at them closely and said....  hmmm... I don't think this is a magic show after all...)

Moscow Circus 2017 in Ecuador - balance

The circus was on a theater stage at Pumapungo, instead of under a circus tent. Almost no verbal (so there was no language barrier issue), much like a Circus Soleil show.  Superb balance was a recurring theme for the evening, as seen above. In the lower row is a tightrope walker jumping over his team mates on a tightrope.

Moscow Circus in Ecuador - clowns

There was only one clown in the show, who "talked" with only a whistle.  He went into the audience and chose four young men as volunteers -- including the man sitting next to me.  He put the audience volunteers through a few comical dance routines, then sat them down on four chairs... and proceeded to pull each chair out leaving them apparently resting comfortably in space (right image).  He started to walk off stage, then returned, pulled one persons leg out and they all collapsed in a pile.

Moscow Circus in Ecuador - dancers

Other acts included a woman simultaneously twirling 8 hula hoops at one time (upper left) and various dancers (middle-right and lower row).

Another of the tightrope jumpers (upper-right) gave a rather interesting abstract photo effect, as he moved too fast for the camera. One tightrope performer had a bag over his head (middle-left), and his feet bound together, as he made his way across from one platform to the other.  At one point, he slipped, and it was touch-and-go as a teammate reached out to him, but he refused, and managed to regain his position and finish the walk.
Moscow Circus in Ecuador - kidsOf course, at any circus, the kids in the audience were a show unto themselves.  One girl (upper-middle) went in front of the stage and danced to the music, while others played with various light toys their parents had purchased for them while in line waiting to enter.

Symphony in the Park

Symphony in Miraflores Park, Cuenca, Ecuador

Ecuadorians love to celebrate and have parties.  There is some festival going on in Cuenca pretty much every month.  Whereas the US celebrates Independence one day per year on 4th of July,  Cuenca makes a four day festival of its independence from Spain every year.  This year is the 197th anniversary of that independence.  There is a book listing the various events around town for this four day period -- and it is 66 pages long!

One of the events today was a Symphony in the Park, which we decided to go to, at Parque Miraflores.  The Cuenca Symphony was led by Jeffrey Sean Dokken, a visiting conductor from the US, and all the music was from various movies.  In the leading image above, they were playing the theme from Star Trek: Into Darkness, while portions of the movie were being played on a giant screen behind the musicians.

Symphony in Miraflores Park, Cuenca, Ecuador - crowds

The crowds were smaller than we had expected, probably because there are more than 20 other venues active at the same time, for this Independence festival.  Of course I went with my new drone, and the top image gives an overview from the air.  Those umbrellas are not for rain, but rather for sun.  It was very hot today, and this high in the Andes (8400' elevation), UV warnings were active.

I have mentioned before that Cuenca often has four seasons in a single day.  Note those clouds in the upper and lower-left images?  As sweltering as it was at 1:00 when these images were shot, we had a drenching downpour by 3:00, and you needed to wear a jacket outdoors by 5:00.

Symphony in Miraflores Park, Cuenca, Ecuador - games

There were plenty of food vendors cooking up hornado (roasted pig), cuy (guinea pig), and plenty of chicken.  After we lunched on hornado, we strolled around the game arcade where the kids were having a ball.  Most of the larger parks in Cuenca also have exercise areas that get plenty of use.  The lower-left and lower-middle images show aerial views of those areas.

Here is a short 90 second portion of the Star Trek portion of the music program, to give a feel of what it was like with the massive screen playing the movie while the symphony supplied the music.


Art Exhibition – Visions Beyond Frontiers

Evelyn Johnson art show Cuenca, Ecuador Nov 1, 2017 - venue

It seems that every time Evelyn has an art reception, it's pouring rain. Some of the guests came in soaked, and we heard many others could not find taxis. Even with the inclement weather, more than a hundred braved the storm to attend the opening night, which was located at the Miguel C. lllescas Art Gallery. This is the most prestigious art gallery in Cuenca, with Miguel doing a lot of the construction himself. This show, Visiones Sin Fronteras (Visions Beyond Frontiers) featured 5 artists: Evelyn Johnson, Lorena Duca, Sandra Doren, Keith Paul, along with their maestro, Alberto Soriano.

Evelyn Johnson art show Cuenca, Ecuador Nov 1, 2017 - art

The show was a grand success, as every student was able to sell at least one of their paintings. (Thank you Susan.) The paintings were all in different styles, yet all the paintings were harmonious when shown together, largely in part because of the gentle guidance of Alberto Soriano, their art instructor.

Evelyn Johnson art show Cuenca, Ecuador Nov 1, 2017 - people

Many friends came to the show, including other artists. Evelyn's other maestro, Garry Kaulitz (upper-left), also attended the show, and told Evelyn that his lessons on printmaking obviously rubbed off on her latest painting.


Drone Menu Added

Tiny Planet of Parque Calderon

I have been using my new drone around Cuenca recently.  I expect to be using it more in the future, both around the upcoming Cuenca holidays, and hopefully elsewhere around Ecuador.  It will probably be awhile before I am ready to take it on trips outside Ecuador though.

As a result of this new style of images starting to appear, our web site now has a new top-level menu called, appropriately, Drone.  If you look on the top of this screen, you will see a menu to take you to various photo galleries of our favorite images from each category or trip, including this new menu where we will be gathering images created using the drone.

Check it out, and see what my favorite images are from my first month with this new toy... er, I mean tool...!

Cuenca Drone #1

Benigno Malo Collegio (high school) and New Cathedral shown from drone

I haven't posted any new images since returning from our 3-month Europe/Asia trip in June. Partly from medical issues that came up, partly from "blog overload" and partly because I have been experimenting with a new toy.

Evelyn bought me a Phantom 4 Pro drone for my birthday this year. Due to the difficulty of getting it from the US to Ecuador, plus our lengthy travel mentioned above, I didn't get my hands on it until late June.

Turns out learning to fly a drone and get decent results is similar to getting my first DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera -- there is a LOT to learn.

This week, I am finally getting some results I feel like sharing.  Above are aerial views of the iconic Benigno Malo Collegio (High School) and the New Cathedral, whose towers are on pretty much any poster or web site related to Cuenca.

Here is my first attempt at an aerial time lapse too, flying past the Benigno Malo High School.

Time Lapse Benigno Malo HS Flyby from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.

I also completed my first 360 degree panoramic shot using the drone.  Not sure if this will properly work in this blog software, but here is giving it a shot.  (If this doesn't work, you can check my Facebook page where I do have it properly navigating.  I will then try to figure out how to present future 360's here)

MindStorm 360 New Cathedral 360

Nope, didn't work.  This is a flat projection of the 360 degree pano.  I will study this some more, and see if I can figure out how to add these interactive panos in the future.

Portugal 9 – Lisbon

Lisbon 1- zoo dolphin show

Our three month adventure in Europe and Central Asia is now over. This is our 37th and final blog entry covering this trip that has taken us to Italy, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia, and finishing with a month in Portugal.

On our last day in Lisbon, we decided to check out their zoo.  We arrived just as the dolphin show was starting, so we quickly went to Dolphin's Bay to watch.  It was excellent entertainment, and a good way to start the day.  As it turned out, this was the highlight of the zoo.

Lisbon 2- zoo animals

There was the usual cast of animals at the zoo, in fairly standard zoo enclosures. Many of the enclosures appeared empty at first, as the animals were sleeping.  Later, many of them woke up and made an appearance.  The white Siberian tiger (center) was the most unusual animal among the collection.

Lisbon 3- zoo kids

We often enjoy watching children at places such as this, and the zoo was no exception.  There was an interesting standing cable car (center and upper-left) that circled the zoo property, giving an aerial view of the property.  As expected, there were groups of school children (center left, bottom-left and right-center) having fun.  Some people used public transportation, including the ubiquitous trams (upper and lower right), to reach the zoo.

Lisbon 4- Sao Domingos Church

Near the AirBnb in the Alfama district where we were staying was the São Domingos cathedral, which is considered a national monument, built in 1241.  We had seen so many cathedrals in the past three months that we almost passed this one by.  We decided to walk in, on our way back to our apartment, and were glad we did.  This one was quite different from every other cathedral we had seen.  It was a medieval church that had been destroyed and restored several times.  The stone columns showed the centuries that have passed (upper left), with signs of the fire in 1995 that gutted the church left intact.

Lisbon 5- construction

Lisbon is a city undergoing massive change.  Almost everywhere we turned, there were more construction cranes or facades under protective covering (center left) for new construction projects or renovation.  Unfortunately, the river front is being transformed into a massive cruise ship terminal (bottom row). On some days, more than 10 cruise ships come into the Lisbon port already, as cruise ship companies are adding this city to their routes. This will not be a very pleasant place to visit in the next year or two when this all opens...

Lisbon is famous for Fado, a music genre characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, and some consider this the soul of Portuguese culture.

There were at least a dozen restaurants within a few blocks of where we were staying that had Fado with dinner, so of course we had to sample a couple of them.  In general, the music was very pleasant, but the food was poor and the prices were exorbitant.  Here is a short clip that gives a feel of the music without the downsides...

Some say that the fado music in Porto is quite different from this Lisbon variety, and was originally sung by suitors below the balconies of the singer's affections.  By tradition, a person is only allowed to sing Fado if they have attended the music university and have reached at least the third year of study.

Portugal is a country that loves music.  We came across dozens of street musicians that were enjoyable enough to stop and watch for awhile... and video.  We will finish our Portugal blog with this street performing group singing "I wanna dance with you," with a few of the zoo images interspersed.

Hope you have enjoyed reading about our recent travels as much as we have enjoyed experiencing – and writing about – them.

Portugal 8 – Lisbon Oceanarium

lisbon oceanarium 1- building and friends

We went to the world-class Oceanarium in Lisbon today. We were joined by David and Debi Billings (right column), friends we knew in Cuenca who have recently moved to Portugal.

The Oceanarium opened in 1998, was the centerpiece for the World's Fair, and is the largest indoor aquarium in Europe with more than a million visitors a year. The free-standing building sits in an artificial lagoon (upper left), and has many educational exhibits promoting conservation of nature, including the whale made from plastic water bottles (bottom left).

lisbon oceanarium 2- fish

Of course, in any aquarium, the main attraction is the large variety of sea life, from sharks, rays, seahorses to star fish and sea urchins.  There is even a sunfish here (center), which is rarely kept in captivity, due to their unique requirements and demanding care. The main 23 foot high tank allows bottom dwellers (manta ray top center and right) to coexist alongside surface dwelling fish (barracuda top right).

lisbon oceanarium 3- birds otters frogs

Different habitats were created representing the Antarctic coast line, Indian coral reefs, to the Pacific kelp forests, which displayed puffins (upper left), penguins (upper center), frogs (lower center and right), and otters (remaining images). Surprisingly, the penguins on display came from the San Francisco zoo, while the otters came from Alaska.

lisbon oceanarium 4- non fish aquatic

In addition to the massive central tank, there were 25 thematic aquariums  housing animals such as spiny lobsters (bottom center), jellyfish (center), moray eels, a very active octopus over 10' long (upper right), sea dragons and other impressive creatures. It was a well conceived design with many indoor and outdoor viewing areas on two stories. The ocean ecosystems were displayed in a very natural setting with well preserved coral and marine plants.

Exhibits like these are always enjoyed by families and school groups, and this was no exception.  The kids were a joy to watch.

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