Thursday, February 18, 2016

¡Viva Cuba!

When Adrian and I agreed to lead a group of almost 30 Americans on a yoga and meditation retreat to Cuba, I don’t think we quite understood what that would mean, or how profoundly we would be transformed by the experience. After months of anticipation, the trip to Cuba finally took place last week. Our heads and hearts are still spinning with the things we saw and felt.

Everything in Cuba moves more slowly, takes more effort, and involves more risk. As a functioning society, it is not a well oiled machine. Certain things about life there seemed to freeze in 1959 and have remained unchanged since then. So many things are broken, or patched together. People find ingenious ways to make things work, even if it’s with the most humble solutions and materials at hand — but they are always proud of whatever they have. The moment is always now. Whatever they lack in terms of comfort, amenities, infrastructure is compensated in their smiles, cheerfulness, humanity, and a sincere desire to live the best life they can. It is mind-blowing.

Chickens designated for sacrifice in an Abakuá religious ritual.
Callejón de Hamel, Havana.

Less than six months ago, the U.S. reopened its embassy in Cuba, and the U.S. flag was raised again alongside other countries’ flags for the first time in over half a century. In the news yesterday, the U.S. and Cuba announced that they will resume a full schedule of commercial flights, and in the news today President Obama announced that he will visit Cuba next month. This will be the first visit to Cuba from a U.S. president in 88 years. The last U.S. president to visit was Calvin Coolidge. The winds of change are blowing.

We asked some locals what they and their friends thought of the lifting of the embargo and the new influx of American tourists and investments. For the most part they welcome it, because it brings much-needed economic relief. But they also fear how the sudden rush of American influence may change the island and its culture.

Havana seen from a high floor of the Habana Libre hotel.

We saw stunningly beautiful things in Cuba—not only in the places we went, but more importantly in the people we met. And we saw heartbreaking things too: crumbling buildings, shocking poverty, and a society of men and women forced to piece together a life out of almost nothing. We saw people’s cheerfulness and dignity, their pride in whatever little they have. But beneath the smiles, beneath the dignity, were things we could not see because our eyes are not Cuban eyes. As one Cuban-American friend said to me:

“There's plenty of beauty on that island. There always was. And of its resources, it is its people by far that make it the special place it is. But they are my people. I know them too well. I know of the pain behind their laughter. I know of the shame behind their dignity. I know what it's like to feel lesser than any visitor from the outside — “de afuera.” Because most Cubans are serving a life sentence on an island they can't wait to get out of, isolated from the rest of the world, their only contact with the outside from hearsay, pictures and movies.”

Woman on street in Old Havana.

After the initial thrill of stepping into a time capsule wears off and you have taken a hundred or more pretty photos of old 1950s American cars driving on picturesque streets filled with decaying colonial-era buildings, you start to get a sense of what lies beneath the exterior: the daily struggle to survive in a third-world country that has been politically and economically isolated from its giant neighbor to the north. Those American cars have been kept running for half a century with makeshift Soviet parts, because after 1959 no more American parts could be obtained to fix them. They spew black fumes that choke the air of Havana’s streets.

Taking old American cars for a night out on the town.

The pride of most Cubans for what they have—even if it seems to us like so little, coming from the lap of luxury that we live in—and their humble, kind demeanor left an indelible impression on us.

One day we had some free time in Havana away from our group, and Adrian and I wandered through back streets where our tour guide would never have taken us. A woman beckoned to me, offering to sell something, and I followed her through a narrow alley into her home. Suddenly there I was, standing in front of her family, as she took her merchandise from a duffle bag and laid it out on the bed. Above the bed was an unsupported concrete staircase to the second floor, crumbling. I negotiated the transaction with her in my broken Spanish, my face flushing with awareness of my appearance as the “extranjero,” the foreigner, radiating money and privilege.

Lost in Havana.

Later that day, we took a bicycle taxi back to our hotel. We didn’t realize the hotel was about 70 blocks away, but the driver was happy to accommodate us anyway. When we told him where we were going and asked him what the fare would be, he said, “Whatever you would like to pay.” As he pedaled us through pothole-filled streets, dodging traffic, he told us about his life. He’s been driving a bicycle cab since he was a kid, to support his family, and now he has a two-month old newborn. When the streets became very steep and it was hard for him to pedal two grown men uphill, we got out and walked with him.

Our bicycle cab ride through Havana's back streets.

Our group also spent a couple of days in the countryside, which gave us a glimpse of another Cuba. We stayed overnight in the Viñales area in the province of Pinar del Rio, one of the most beautiful places on earth. As the main tobacco-growing region for Cuba’s cigars (one of the country’s biggest exports), the Viñales valley is studded with “mogotes”—a type of sharp, vertical mountain that rises straight up out of the land, found nowhere else but in Cuba and in a certain part of China. And we dined at an organic farm-to-table restaurant that provided one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in my life.

The stunning beauty of Viñales.

During our trip we practiced yoga and meditation in exotic locations: in the beautiful Hotel Raquel in Old Havana, on top of a Spanish-era stone fortress with cannons aimed at the port, at the lookout point over Viñales valley with its breathtaking mountains. We met with a Cuban yoga teacher in Havana, and learned about the challenges and minor triumphs of establishing yoga in Cuba. At the end of the trip we donated our folding travel yoga mats for yogis in Cuba.

But some of our most meaningful experiences in Cuba were not planned activities. We brought with us a suitcase full of small items to donate, because we knew that people in Cuba are in need of everything: soap, shampoo, toothpaste, medicines, toys, pretty much anything you can think of. During our group’s walking tour of Old Havana, we passed a building where Adrian casually stopped to take photos of some floor tiles that caught his attention. An old man beckoned him inside, and they began to talk. The building turned out to be a preschool for disadvantaged children of single mothers, run by nuns, and supported entirely by donation.

The children at the preschool.

On our last day in Cuba, before going to the airport, about 10 members of our tour group returned to the preschool and donated everything we’d brought with us. The nuns gave us a tour of the school and let us play with the children and take photos. The nuns provide everything for about 160 kids in different age groups from 2 to 5 years: education, clothing, food, even assistance to some of their families. Their mothers drop them off in the morning before work and the nuns stay with them until the last mother returns to pick up her child.

Children dancing and singing at the preschool.

We kept it together while we were with the kids, but outside in the street after we left, we all cried. A special bond was forged that day between the school and several members of our tour group; we found a way to give something back to Cuba in appreciation for all that it had given us during our short stay. A group of us will be keeping in touch with the nuns at the school and organizing some efforts to provide further assistance to the children there. Stay tuned for ways you can participate if you feel inspired.

We are back in the U.S. now, and re-adjusting to the familiar American comforts that we took so much for granted before our trip to Cuba: Internet access, mobile phones, credit cards, clean water from the tap, a car with seat belts and a muffler, stores overflowing with tens of thousands of food and clothing options to choose from. But a piece of our hearts is still back in Cuba—celebrating and aching at the same time—and we will have no choice but to go back soon to find it again.

Outside the door of the preschool.