Paved Magazine Feature: Cuba Calling

A Canadian photographer's endless fascination with a colorful island of contradictions

Words by Brice Minnigh | Photography by Kari Medig

Anyone who has been to Cuba can attest to its peculiar allure—a Soviet-styled socialist state forged deeply into a vibrant tropical island. The ever-present juxtaposition of festive Caribbean culture and stark socialist realism never fails to fascinate, making it an absolute paradise for photographers—particularly those with an acute appreciation for twentieth-century political history.

Add to all this the liberating appeal of a bicycle trip and you have the basic blueprint of an image-making holiday for Canadian photographer Kari Medig, a British Columbia native who spends most of his days in snowy surroundings. For the past two winters, he has headed to Cuba with a bike and a camera for a week of pedaling between portraits.

"On my first trip, I built my bike in the airport in Varadero and just started riding south toward the coast," Medig said. "Then I basically just spent a week riding, stopping, talking to people and taking photos.

"Visually, there's just a lot of impact: There's a lack of signs, and the architecture is kind of clean. There's no clutter photographically."

At the end of his first trip in December 2010, Medig gave away his $80 commuter bike and returned to his home in Nelson. But he was so inspired by his experiences that he couldn't resist going back to Cuba the following November. And this time he took his girlfriend, Emily Nilsen, along for the weeklong ride.

A friend in Nelson had donated two old road bikes for the journey, and the couple carried their minimal supplies in only one pannier per bike, overnighting in the homes of locals they met in towns along their route.

"Cuba is opening up and starting to change, and it's now legal for some people to accept money in exchange for accommodation in their houses," Medig explained. "It usually cost us about 20 dollars a night.

"We were blown away by how generous the people were," he added. "Many of the people we met had so little, but they were always giving us things—handing us oranges or bananas, or taking us into their sugarcane fields to share with us. It was unbelievable how nice the people were."