Beth Cataldo Ocean Beach Mirage

Art Opening: Out of the Box Featured

Join me at the opening of Out of the Box. Featured above is my photograph “Ocean Beach Mirage,” which is included in the show along with “Lassen Landscape.”

The exhibit is from February 6–29, 2020

Thursday, February 6
San Francisco Women Artists Gallery
647 Irving Street at 8th Avenue
San Francisco, CA
Juror: Annette Schutz, Gallerist, Arthaus Gallery + Consulting

For more information, go to the San Francisco Women Artists Web Site:


Art Opening: Spirit of San Francisco at SFWA Featured

Join me at the opening of Bay Area artwork that reflects and celebrates the Spirit of San Francisco. Featured above is my photograph “Cat Protector,” which is included in the show. My photograph “Alcatraz” will also be shown.

The exhibit is from December 3 – January 4, 2019

Thursday, December 5th,
5:30pm – 8pm
Juror: Cynthia Tom, Cultural and Social Justice Art Curator.

For more information, go to the San Francisco Women Artists Web Site:

Animalia Art Show in Healdsburg Featured

If you are inspired by animals and their beauty, you should visit the “Animalia” exhibit at The Healdsburg Center for the Arts. It opens on Saturday, March 2 and runs through April 14. My bison photograph “Endurance” is a part of the show.

Exhibition Dates
March 2 – April 14, 2019 
Opening Reception
Saturday, March 2, 5:00 to 7:00 PM – , join us for this free reception honoring the artists. Wine and light refreshments will be available

Closing Tea
Sunday, April 14, 2:00 to 4:00 PM
Opportunity for public and artists alike to discuss animals and art techniques.

You’ll find more details on their web site:

Come Snap! up Art. January 18, Arc Gallery Featured



Come celebrate the New Year with me at the Snap! 2019 art opening on Friday, January 18 at the Arc Gallery and Studios in SOMA.

You’ll find a gallery filled with bright artwork hung salon-style and ready to be snapped up. Pick your favorite piece and take it home. All works are $199. The show is up for just one night.

“Endurance,” my photograph of bison in a Yellowstone winter landscape, will be for sale. It’s beautifully printed on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Metallic paper, and featured in a bold black frame.

For more information, see their web site:

Art Opening: Gaia and Resiliency Featured

Join me at our opening of Bay Area artwork that reflects and celebrates the thesis that the earth – Gaia – in all her myriad forms, is a living system and that we must become critically aware of our role in Gaia’s health. Featured above is my photograph “The Transmutation of Species,” which is included in the show. I will also have a wall of my infrared landscapes in the Salon.

Thursday, September 13
Kim Anno, Guest Speaker at 4:30 PM
Reception: 5:30 – 8:00 PM 

San Francisco Women Artists is honored to be selected to partner with September’s SF International 2018 Global Climate Action Summit by hosting this affiliate event exhibition.

Guest speaker, Kim Anno, acclaimed artist and activist, will speak on “The Role of Cultural Resiliency in a Climate Challenged World,” identifying art, music, and writing, as important elements of adaptation when humanity faces the reality and impact of sea level and climate change.

“Homage” at SFWA Gallery Through March 31 Featured

originsJoin us at the festive opening reception of “Homage” at the San Francisco Women Artists Gallery in the Inner Sunset. Meet the artists, enjoy refreshments and music on Thursday, March 8th, from 5:30-8pm.

This show asked artists to submit work honoring Women’s History Month – inspired by a favorite female artist, feminine icon or event; an embracement and celebration of everything that comes with being feminine.

When: Thursday, March 8, 5:30-8:00pm
Where: 647 Irving Street at 8th Avenue, San Francisco, CA

This SFWA Members’ Exhibition, show runs March 6th through March 31st

Juror: Priscilla Otani, Artist, co-founder  Arc Studios & Gallery

All work available for purchase. Contact the SFWA Gallery.


“Eye of the Beholder” Show at SFWA Gallery Featured

My photograph of the California Scrub Jay watching the sunset from a tree in the botanical garden is in the February show at the SF Women Artists Gallery.

To see a collection of curated work, join us at the festive opening Reception of “Eye of the Beholder”. Meet the Artists, enjoy refreshments and music. 💫

The show runs through March 3.

When: Thursday, February 8, 5:30-8:00
Where: 647 Irving Street at 8th Avenue
San Francisco, CA


Ray Bandar and His Palace of Bones Featured

“Ray Bandar and His Palace of Bones” is a 49-page photography book that features Bandar’s skull collection along with stories about him and his favorite specimens. The book captures the importance of Bandar’s accomplishments while paying tribute to the grand complexity of the natural world.

For more information or questions about ordering this book, please fill out the form below and I will get back to you immediately. Thank you for you interest.




Save the Date: Free Screening of “Ray Bandar: A Life with Skulls” on January 31 Featured

When: Wednesday, 1/31/2018, 6:00 – 7:00pm
Where: Koret Auditorium
Main Library
100 Larkin St.

Doors open at 5:30pm.

He’s been called Dr. Bones and Reptile Ray. Usually dressed in tattered “field-trip” clothes, Ray Bandar was a fixture at the California Academy of Sciences and the beaches around the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 60 years.

Ray passed away peacefully in his home on December 23 of congestive heart failure. This showing is now a tribute to his life’s work.

“A Life with Skulls” captures Ray’s obsession for collecting skulls from local beaches, road kill, zoo animals and on field trips to Mexico, Australia and in the United States. This humorous movie investigates Bandar’s history as a skull collector, showing many of the thousands of skulls he has accumulated over the years, talking to Alkmene, his resilient wife, and touring the awe-inspiring Bone Palace.

“A Life with Skulls” is an inspiring look at a man who had a special tie to the natural world. You will be motivated to go out and explore it for yourself.

Screening followed by a Q&A with:

  • Beth Cataldo, Film director
  • Moe Flannery, Collections Manager of Birds and Mammals at the California Academy of Sciences

This is a Green Stacks event.

This is a Films & Videos program from SFPL. From feature films to youth-made videos, we’ve got something great to watch.

A Story of Recovery Featured

By Beth Cataldo

(As published on the River Otter Ecology Project web site)

In 2012, I ventured out to Sutro Baths to see a San Francisco celebrity. With his thick dark hair, slender, streamlined body and expert swimming skills, he was an overnight media sensation. Charismatic? Check. Quirky? Check. Mysterious? Yes. I wanted to get a good look at Sutro Sam – a wild North American river otter. No one had seen anything like him in San Francisco for as long as anyone could remember.

North American river otters once lived throughout Northern and Central California in marshes, bays, rivers and lakes but by the 1950s, their numbers had been greatly reduced. The most recent California Fish and Wildlife range map, from 1995, shows a blank for river otters in much of the San Francisco Bay Area, including Marin and the East Bay. While Sutro Sam still wasn’t officially on the map, his return, as part of a general Coastal and Bay recovery, was testimony to our watershed-restoration efforts. His story came to mind when I started volunteering for the River Otter Ecology Project (ROEP) this past June. I was looking forward not only to sightings of these charismatic mammals but also to helping with the work that would put them back on the official map and help us understand their place in local ecosystems.



A Stinky Mess
Why did the river otters disappear in the first place? It was most likely primarily because of loss of wetlands, trapping and pollution. Hardcore pollution began in the 1850s, when sediment from the Gold Rush flowed into the Bay. In the 1950s and 60s, people would hold their noses as they crossed the Bay Bridge, trying to block out the stench of raw sewage and toxic trash that were dumped directly into the water. People describe watching flames on the bay at night as the garbage-dump employees set the trash on fire. To increase industrial production, parts of the bay were filled in along the waterfront. In 1959, the United States Army Corps of Engineers warned that the bay would turn into a river by 2020 if the filling trends continued.


Belinda Rain/Documerica, EPA

The San Francisco Bay is 1600 square miles, the largest Pacific estuary in the Americas. If not for the grassroots work in 1961 by Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick, three self-described “tea ladies” who were horrified by Oakland Tribune illustration of the future of their Bay, many predict that San Francisco would be a narrow shipping channel today. At the time, the Environmental Protection Agency didn’t exist and conserving nature in an urban setting was unheard of. They sent a letter to everyone they knew asking for a single dollar to start the Save San Francisco Bay Association, which continues today as Save the Bay.

They successfully lobbied for a new state agency, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), establishing the first coastal protection agency in the United States, which put a moratorium on filling in the Bay and closed more than 30 city garbage dump sites. Other groups followed, including Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge, San Francisco Estuary Partnership and the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture. Most importantly, people were awakened by these efforts and became involved in deciding the future of the Bay. The year was 1961, and that same year river otters were granted protected status by California Fish and Game, and could no longer be legally hunted or trapped.

Perhaps Sutro Sam showed up in San Francisco to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, which in 1972 regulated the discharge of pollutants into the nation’s surface waters. Part of the legislation focused on minimizing the destruction of wetlands and waterways which, in turn, protected water quality and provided habitat for fish and wildlife. Federal, state and local projects also were initiated to begin cleaning up and restoring local marshes and wetlands. Localized projects continue, like the Giacomini Wetlands Project in southern Tomales Bay and the Rodeo Lagoon Wetlands Project in the Marin Headlands. While going out on site visits with the River Otter Ecology Project, I’ve spotted river otters in both these areas. Since they are top predators, they have benefited from these restoration efforts, which create healthier conditions for their food – chiefly fish, crayfish, crabs and birds.

Otter Spotter
Megan Isadore, a long-time conservationist and one of the founders of the River Otter Ecology project, had her first good look at the playful river otters on Lagunitas Creek in Marin in 2005. Early on a cold winter morning, she watched as four otters swam, hunting crayfish and chirping back and forth until they came out onto a sandbar and groomed themselves. She knew that if she was seeing them in Marin, they must be elsewhere. Yet no one was tracking them and, officially, they didn’t exist in that range. She and her cofounders agreed that these charismatic, sentinel mammals would make ideal ambassadors for watershed conservation and wetland restoration. That morning, these otters were more than just a mother and pups out hunting.

She, Paola Bouley and Terence Carroll founded the River Otter Ecology Project in 2012 to investigate the recovery of the river otter population in the SF Bay Area in order to inform wetland restoration and support watershed conservation. One of their first undertakings was Otter Spotter, a community-science project that tracks and documents the river otter recovery through individuals reporting otter sightings on their website. Since 2012, Otter Spotter has plotted 2,300+ sightings from all the Bay Area counties with the exception of San Mateo.


ROEP data. Red crosses are otter mortalities. Almost all are car strikes.

The comments that Spotters’ leave on the site reveal their exciting encounters. One woman, who saw an otter on Bunker Road at the Marin Headlands, wrote, “I saw an animal I thought at first was a big black cat. I think it was an otter because of the way it moved, kind of galumphing up and down, and because it had short legs. It appeared along the side of the road, galumphed for a couple of yards, and then disappeared back into the underbrush.”

Another Spotter, from the East Bay, wrote: “I was sitting on the lawn near the ferry in Jack London Square, and saw the otter swim by, about 30 feet off the shore. This otter was on a mission, swimming quickly. It looked right at me (or my sandwich), and looked all around, checking out its surroundings. It was headed up the estuary towards the Fruitvale. Within a couple minutes it was out of sight. Very pleasant but odd to see it near all the shipping traffic.”

River Otter Proposed Range

CDF&W Range Map, River Otters with proposed changes

A Story of Resilience
In September 2017, nearly five years after Otter Spotter logged its first sighting (and when Sutro Sam first appeared), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has agreed to fill in the official range map to reflect Otter Spotter sightings (the blue area on the map at left).

The range map provides information on otter presence for agencies responsible for oil and other spill responses. It can also help illustrate the value of environmental restoration, important for public appreciation of any conservation effort, especially with the recent threats to end funding to the Environmental Protection Agency and proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act. I’ve heard many people state that it is too late to mitigate climate change, but this story of recovery should not be lost on us as we look at bold moves to adapt to the changing world.

On that day when I went looking for Sutro Sam, I waited in the parking lot for almost an hour. I had never seen a river otter in the wild so I was willing to hang out and watch the pelicans pass over as the fog drifted in. Late in the afternoon, I spotted him through binoculars swimming in Sutro Baths, inside the dilapidated concrete remnants of a structure that burned down in 1966.

Otters aren’t the only ones making a homecoming in San Francisco Bay. Humpback whales, pacific harbor porpoises and even great white sharks have been spotted, sometimes in large numbers, since 2009.

We may never know where Sutro Sam came from or where he went. It took more than fifty years of environmental changes for him to find his way to San Francisco: More than half a human lifetime and a few generations of river otters. But for the 4.5 billion-year-old planet, that’s just a breath. Give wildlife enough food and a clean place to live, and it will return. As Jane Goodall likes to say, “Nature can win if we give her a chance.”

Mallard at Stow Lake, San Francisco

Opening for “Portraits of Birds in Golden Gate Park” Featured

Please join me this Thursday, December 7, at the San Francisco Women Artists’ Gallery for the festive opening reception of “Small Presence” – a juried exhibition featuring 100 artworks.

In addition to the show, my photographs “Portraits of Birds in Golden Gate Park” are featured in the back salon.

Meet the artists and enjoy the art, refreshments and live music.

The gallery has gifts for the holidays, including jewelry, sculpture and ceramics.


647 Irving Street at 8th Avenue (Inner Sunset), 5:30pm until 8pm.
The show runs through January 6, 2018


A Humpback whale feeds in San Francisco Bay.

Comment Now to Keep our Underwater Sanctuaries Safe Featured


The summer of 2017 is turning out to be a Humpback whale extravaganza in the San Francisco Bay. Yesterday, I saw five whales spouting, breaching and eating for about two hours. With wildlife so close to our urban world, who doesn’t want to marvel at these behemoths jumping out of the water?

While they can dance above water, they can’t write to ask our President to keep their marine ecosystems safe from drilling. That’s where we come in.

In April, in efforts to “Implement an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy,” the Trump Administration called for the Department of Commerce to conduct a review of National Marine Sanctuaries and Marine National Monuments Designated or Expanded Since April 28, 2007. This is known as Executive Order 13795.

Sanctuaries are like underwater national parks, protected from offshore drilling, that provided feeding and breeding for whales, sea lions, elephant and furs seals, sharks and all sorts of birds.

There are 11 sanctuaries that were expanded or created in the last 10 years. It appears that President Trump is trying to rescind that work so that off-shore drilling can occur in these areas. The ones that are under review on the California coast are the expanded Cordell Bank, Greater Farallones, Monterey Bay, and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuaries.

What can you do? You can submit a formal comment to the National Register:

Tell President Trump that the California’s National Marine Sanctuaries create a vital ecosystem that provides our wildlife with the food that they need to flourish, that these marine ecosystems are vital to the health of marine mammals, fish, birds and other wildlife. And that because of these sanctuaries, you are enjoying all that these ecosystems sustain.

Tell President Trump that you strongly support the current sanctuaries and that the health of these underwater parks provide people from all over the world the opportunity to see stunning wildlife. Tell him that our economy relies on the beauty of our coastline.

Ask President Trump not to undermine the agreement that citizens have made to protect these areas. Extensive public input was reviewed before these areas were expanded. The government should not weaken these agreements.

I just added my comment. At that time more than 14,000 people had added theirs. You must act quickly as the comment period ends July 26. The whales will be grateful.


Vaux Swifts in San Rafael

Keeping an Eye Out for Birds Featured

This time of the year, California is a stop-over point for birds heading down to their wintering range. Watching birds fly in groups over the ocean or land is a spectacle of beauty that I seek out each year.

This past weekend, I headed over to a brickyard in San Rafael, where Vaux Swifts stop off for a couple of nights on their way down to Central America. Below is some video footage that I captured from that day, with some birders at the site calculating that there were more than 20,000 swifts trying to get into one brick chimney. We waited until dark, and there were still thousands of birds milling around.

Rumors were that the chimney was filled to capacity and that this was the largest congregation of birds they had ever seen at this site.

By 8pm, the wind had picked up so we left the birds, flying around like an insect swarm in hopes that some space at the chimney would open up.

Faux Swifts in San Rafael, September 12, 2015 (30 seconds) (Watch fullscreen in HD for full effect): 

Faux Swifts in San Rafael, September 12, 2015 (1 minute 10 seconds) (Watch fullscreen in HD for full effect)

What the negative tide revealed Featured

There are secret beaches and caves that appear out at Point Reyes when there is a negative tide, which is when the water is below the usual tide line. In May, a small group met at 6:30am to trek the 9 miles out to the secret beaches and caves in a secret location at Point Reyes. Along the way, we saw tidal pools filled with thousands of sea urchins and underwater terrain that isn’t usually visible. Rocks and secret caves appear on the beaches, which are also not usually available. That day we were lucky enough to see 13 grey whales heading north. I believe there is no place quite as beautiful as Northern California in the spring.

Algae, vellela and feather

Beach Beauties of Summer Featured

Ocean Beach offered up all sorts of uncommon visual marvels this past Tuesday, including Vellela (commonly known as by-the-wind sailor), different types of algae, and remnants of all sorts of hard-shelled creatures.

Nature created the compositions the way that I’ve captured them here. I haven’t styled any of these photos. I invite you to enjoy the beach’s beauty.


Ray's early apartment

Bandar’s Bones Return Featured

On Thursday, May 16, the Skulls exhibit will open at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The exhibit features a collection of skulls that will provide a fascinating look into nature’s engineering while telling us all about the lifestyle of many animals.

Perhaps as fascinating (if not more) is the story of the man who collected the majority of the skulls in this exhibit. At 86 years old, Ray Bandar has been collecting skulls for Cal Academy for more than 60 years. Many of the skulls he collected (approximately 7,000) are in his house in what he calls his Skull Palace, a basement room stacked high with bones and skulls. The exhibit will have a selection of those skulls along with hands-on activities for all ages.

My favorite part of the exhibit features a wall of sea lion skulls. The diversity of those skulls is remarkable as it tells the story of individual variation in one species. In front of that wall of sea lions is a video featuring Ray Bandar, much of it from my movie, Ray Bandar: A Life with Skulls, which I began back in 2003 when I first met Ray.

The inspiration for the movie occurred when I was on a backstage tour of the last Skulls exhibit at Cal Academy. During my tour, Ray told his bounty of tales with a boyish exuberance that I felt I needed to capture on video. He brought every skull to life with a tale: mammals dying because their horns locked when they were fighting, marine mammals with shotguns shells in their heads, how dogs represented man-made evolution and bears that had become obese on human food.

In search for a complete story about Ray’s passion, I interviewed his friends, colleagues and wife and followed him out on an excursion to collect the skull of a harbor porpoise. My own three-year journey with Ray would eventually turn into a 30-minute movie called Ray Bandar: A Life with Skulls, which was shown on PBS. You can buy the movie (with an hour of extras), from

For more information see:
The California Academy of Sciences web site
KQED’s story on Ray Bandar







Animal tracks in the sand at North Point Beach in Ano Nuevo State Park, December 2013.

Imprints in the Sand Featured

While looking for debris recently on a visit to North Point Beach in Ano Nuevo State Park in Northern California I found these imprints. They looked more like stamped footprints because the sand was so dry and hard. I felt like I was spying, trying to reconstruct the story of the creatures roaming the beach while I wasn’t there.

I walked by another Elephant Seal at the North End of Drake's Beach. He had a bloodied nose, meaning that he had probable been fighting just days earlier. Depleted, he was resting to shore up energy to go back again to fight and mate.

Beached Elephant Seals and Other Tales of Winter Featured

As much of the country was shivering from arctic air mass, a group of volunteers was out on January 5 in the Point Reyes sun promoting our wildlife visitors.

We will spend the next four months at Chimney Rock, the Lighthouse and Drake’s Beach telling stories about Gray Whales, Elephant Seals, land and sea birds, snakes and wild flowers. Here’s an album of my first docent day, much of it spent trying to make sure that unsuspecting visitors didn’t approach the 6,000 pound Elephant Seal who was taking a break on Drake’s beach after many days of fighting.

On the highway in Cuba, 1993. People waiting for a ride.

Cuba: Face-to-face with Fidel, December 1993 Featured

photograph of old car in Cuba

Old car in the streets of Havana.

They emerged from the smoke like angels looking for their ride back to heaven. Bodies appeared, waving arms issued from the smoggy dark, faces looked meaningfully at the car’s headlights. “Mira,” I shouted, “Watch out!” “No problema, mujer,” the driver responded, not looking in my direction. He careened towards one of the observers, but missed him by moments.

We were going down the main Cuban thruway, Ocho Vias, in our Mercedes Sedan, the only car on this two-lane highway. Every five miles or so, a disheveled group of people appeared at the side of the road, hovering in the midst of the fumes from the burning sugarcane stalks. Like the rest of Cuba, they were waiting patiently for something to move them forward, to assist in their future. This carload of Americans had no more room, though, and just drove on by.

Ingrid and I had hired a driver for the day to take us from Havana, where we were writing about the Latin American Film Festival, out to Pinar del Rio. We’d heard that things were less desperate in the country; those who raised animals and grew food had started making money off urban folk. A pig brought in lots of cash. We needed to see the other side of this complex country to understand the full picture of the socialist revolution.

Back home in San Francisco, I had left a different kind of social revolution: A digital revolution pushing for the mass-market use of computers. As an editor at a computer magazine, I found all sorts of hopes for the future there – a desktop in every home and the emergence of a global community. But the more hardware reviews I plowed through, the more I remembered about my youthful fascination with the Cuban revolution. A longing to meet a role model who offered danger but was driven by a cause crawled under my skin.

I wanted to find those hiding in the hills – not on the 21st floor of a Silicon Valley high-rise. My access to all that power seemed too easy, too pat, without a sublime purpose. The more RAM I stuffed into my computer, the faster the fax modem, the more determined I became to meet Fidel.

So I signed up for a tour of Cuba from the Center for Cuban Studies. Although I planned to write about the Latin American Film Festival, my ultimate mission was to meet Fidel at the closing night party. Rumor had it that he was a big film fan, and, like many politicians, enjoyed parading in front of guests at one of Cuba’s largest international receptions. I would make sure that I was there to greet him.


As we began to experience the festival, I realized that everything in Cuba existed in some past tense. Staying at the Havana Libre, we felt like we were time tripping into another era. Nothing had changed since 1959 – they had the same streamlined furniture, bar stools and fixtures. The programs for the festival were printed on cheap recycled paper that was yellowed before we even got it. The old offset machines left the type raised and uneven and the rules were crookedly pasted on. The movie posters were silk-screened with inks an inch thick. Beautifully rough ridges outlined the imperfections of human handiwork.

Ingrid, a tall, redheaded, sharp-witted actress from Boston, and I spent most of our time socializing with the group and visiting old Havana. Walking with our newly found friend Phil, we surveyed the collapsed and abandoned 17th-century buildings that decorated the streets. Every blue facade, church and tiled hallway seemed carved by age. No corner had been spared by salt-water corrosion.

We met Pedro in front of the Plaza de las Armas, the governmental office. Unemployed Pedro, with the telltale scattered facial hair of a twenty-year-old, was a willing guide and marketer of the revolution, recounting the history of Cuba, rambling off the statistics of the recent sugar harvest and the number of people who could read. But soon Pedro told us that the only problem was that he couldn’t buy a bicycle for his nephew. This was a recurring theme in our conversations with the people we met: The waitresses and chefs in the hotel asked us to buy them clothes for their children and get aspirin, soap and food from the tourist-only stores.

Phil, a socially aware graduate student from Wisconsin, took to Pedro’s story and bought him a blue Taiwanese bicycle (a child’s bike with the tiny tires and a big banana seat). When I saw Pedro gleefully riding the bike, I imagined the Bianchis zooming through the streets of San Francisco. Oh, the hundreds of dollars worth of tools, tires and gadgets used to repair these bikes. Pedro celebrated his success by inviting us to his house for some homemade brew, a cross between vinegar and gasoline. His uncle sat in the kitchen and played dominoes, oblivious to the foreigners in the next room; his nephew had disappeared from the conversation.


That night, Ingrid and I spent some time at the Hotel Nacional, the four-star hotspot catering to foreigners with its computers, pork dishes and Mojitos. We ran into another traveler, Don, a retired banker who wore a jacket with loads of pockets stuffed with all sorts of things as if he were going on an African safari. He had met a Cuban dancer, Jaime, and pianist, Marisol, earlier in the day, and we joined them for drinks.

We had secured a table in the far corner outside since the Cubans weren’t supposed to be in the hotel. In their twenties, they had no hard dollars and had never been in the Nacional before. They feared that the waiters would realize they were Cuban and kick them out. So we quietly bought them drinks and listened as they whispered jokes about the incompetent comrades and corrected my California Spanish.

Our offerings of drinks plied them with enough assurance to open them up. Marisol explained how they had to lock the door to their bedroom because their roommates stole their food. Even when they did this, though, they broke in – climbed over the walls, snapped the lock – to get to the rice and eggs hidden in their closet. Born after the revolution, they laughed about the changes promised and propagated: “Just tell me where a dancer or pianist can work in Cuba.”

When the bar closed down, we didn’t bounce around the check to see who would pay like we used to do in the high-tech world. Don paid, got up, quite toasted after several drinks, and unknowingly dropped a large wad of 20s on the ground. Ingrid couldn’t hide her disgust as she picked up the wad and handed it to him. He stuffed it in one of his small safari pockets.


Several days later, the closing night party – and Fidel – finally arrived. The queue to get in was interminable, as everyone had to abandoned their goods at the door: purses tumbled with cameras, wallets and everything else behind the counter.

Inside, the Plazas de Armas was decked out in all sorts of splendor – shrimps, pork, pineapple, and sweet cakes of all types. Lovely ladies and men decorated the room, and, of course, some of Fidel’s guards, clearly marked by their leather jackets and high-riding pants, haunted the aisles. There was an air of anticipation as everyone waited for him to show – the only celebrity rumored to appear. And he entered just as any celebrity might: quickly walking through the room, approaching the most beautiful woman standing alone by a pole and chatting with her through his interpreter. He was a notoriously brilliant speaker, known to keep crowds listening to his colorful rhetoric for hours. A group gathered around him, but Ingrid and I were too far off. As we approached him, he disappeared back into the hideaway.

With no music or even people watching, we quickly became bored, hovering by Castro’s door, hoping that he would emerge one more time. Suddenly, he walked out the door as if he owned the room. Ingrid, towering over the others in her brocade outfit inadvertently lured El Comandante our way. As he approached, I pictured his fearless moves through the Sierra Maestra Mountains, “Where are you from?” he asked, using a pick-up line on Ingrid hallowed by many men across the world. I gave him a good once over: His neatly trimmed greying beard and hair, his unremarkable green jacket and leather boots. But my glare landed on his fingernails: perfectly manicured, every cuticle a rounded half-moon (perhaps with a sheen) – a protected coat on top? He was a manicurist’s dream.

I stuck out my hand to shake his as we locked gazes. He returned my gesture with uncertainty. My nails were cracked and brittle. My writer’s fingers, fat and rough. My interests, suspect. This bloated Fidel couldn’t find the appropriate column to log me under. It’s no wonder: How many twenty-something, female American groupies had he met? As his stare met mine for those few moments, he came into focus: fear was the only fire in his world-weary eyes. I had seen this look before in the faces of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who thought someone got to market with an idea before they did. Or those threatened by the outcome of a bad review. My mind locked as I searched for an explanation on why I’d come almost 3,000 miles to meet this man. His soft skin against my rough hands belied my fantasy, and I was forced to let go without achieving my desired epiphany.

As I let go of his hand, he turned to continue chatting up Ingrid. But a roughshod reporter interrupted quickly before the affair would evolve. “If a man catches a fish in his own boat, who owns that fish?” Fidel stood for a moment, perplexed, “Is this a trick question about Hemingway?” “No,” the reporter insisted, “I want to know who owns the fish – the state or the man?” Fidel laughed with polished political acumen, “Tonight we are here to celebrate movies; no one wants to talk about politics.” With that, the crowd followed him as he moved on to another lovely lady who spoke to him in Spanish and danced for a moment. The circle of people continued through the room for a while longer until Fidel had sprinkled the crowd with enough diversion to make the party worthwhile.


On our walk back to the hotel, Ingrid and I came across Quixote Park, where a life-sized metal sculpture of Don Quixote rides naked on his hag of a horse Rocinante. That the statue was in disrepair didn’t surprise us. Perhaps Fidel let it go because he was ashamed of his own resemblance to Cervantes’s character, a mad epic hero caught between two worlds. Quixote’s nostalgic convictions drive his legendary crusades and illusions: He fights windmills thinking they’re giants, falls in love with maidens who are actually prostitutes and dons a basin as his helmet. My final photos were of Ingrid in front of this withered man wasted beyond death but unable to give up his battle between faith and reason, this dreamer holding on to a past long-gone.