I forgot to pack my camera when I went to Cuba
Hmphh said my mother. Polysporin. But. No. Camera. Bug. Spray. But. No. Camera.
It was a bigger adjustment than the language, or the currency, or the wall-to-wall Canadian tourists.
When I travel, my camera is my shield, my toy, my paintbrush, my prosthetic memory.
How would this trip get remembered? These fragile, final few years with my mother, and this precious time we have together, after so many years of being estranged.
I had to drink everything in, My eyes, my journal, and my own memory became a shutter, blinking constantly.
After awhile, I began to notice how preoccupied people were with their cameras, sometimes, several to a table, conversations punctuated by the white flare of the flash. How, when we were in a tour bus entering Havana, the men across the aisle from us poised their cameras aloft in a grasping, hungry, almost desperate gesture. I watched a woman on the beach crouch low and take pictures of shells. I would have been that woman. Instead, I dozed on a lounge chair.
From time to time I pulled out my sketchbook and watercolours, and tried to paint a portrait of my ma sitting amid coconut palms, drinking a pina colada and reading. (All through my childhood, I never once saw her sit down to read a book). Impossible to capture the benign satisfaction there, hers and mine.
I bought a disposable camera in a shop in Veradero, and these few grainy, oddly coloured shots with the red flare where the light leaked in, are what I managed to bring back.
The week after I returned, I told the story of forgetting my camera to my students. I wanted to illustrate what Guy Debord has called “the society of the spectacle”, the way we communicate, these days, through images and screens. One student told us about her dad, who went backpacking in the 70’s; for some reason there are no photos of that time.
So he tells me the stories, and I remember them, she said.