A few fun facts about Cuba:
- Baseball is the most popular sport in Cuba, to date;
- In a traditional Cuban meal the food is not served in courses, instead all the food is served at the same time;
- Cubans love to free pour their rum when creating some of the world’s most intoxicating cocktails.
When I first landed in Havana, Cuba I did not have the time to register the culture shock that slapped me across the face. The airport was small, yet confusing and my baggage was nowhere to be seen. I tried to communicate my concerns to the local authority but let’s face it, my broken Spanish was not really getting me places. Once I did manage to get my bags though and got into a cab to take us to our homestay location, nothing prepared me for the culture shock that slapped me in the face.
It was like I had stepped back in time. Everywhere I looked I could see how the vibrant culture of Cuba was heavily influenced by Latin American, European, African, and indigenous American cultures. The exotic shades of melanin dressed from head to toe is beautiful shades of blues, pinks and reds. Everyone moved really slowly through the crowded streets of Havana, almost as though time didn’t exist.
We ended up at the wrong Casa and I entered immediate panic mode. I remember standing there with my two backpacks and one other female Canadian traveller (who I met in Mexico) trying to remember how to breathe. As a solo female traveller you automatically have to be on high alert at all times. Its exhausting and sometimes even affects how you end up viewing the wider world.
SO you can imagine my surprise when the couple from the wrong Casa sat us down. Offered us some coffee and told us that they’d go downstairs to get us a cab that would take us to the right Casa.
It was raining at the time and it was starting to get dark, so I was incredibly moved when the couple went to the Casa down the street to get a working mobile phone for us to use. It was my first sneak preview into Cuban culture and I loved it.
During the week that I spent there I realised that we could learn a lot from the Cuban way of life. Yes, Cuba had a dark history and when I talked to a lot of the locals about politics I found out that the country’s story was a bit like a beautiful tragedy. But if there was ever a country that radiated refreshing values in a time where everything from world-wide politics to human morale was going to shit, it would have to be Cuba.
- Dancing as a form of expression and social pastime
If there was one thing that Cubans loved more than Rum, it was dancing. Every restaurant either had a beautiful couple dancing while you digested your meal and/or had a beautiful pair singing to you with a live band as their backdrop.
One particular evening in Vinales a few of us went to a social dance club where locals loved to spend their evenings. We walked in and the first thing you’d notice was how much the locals shone under the evening sky. The colours of their dresses contrasted against the warm shades of chocolate as their hips moved in sync with the live band.
I was lucky enough to dance with an Argentinian/Cuban who somehow managed to make me feel like I’d mastered the art of Salsa and Bachata for years. The way the Cubans moved their body to the music you could see it came naturally to them. It was a form of art and expression for them and I loved being a part of that installation.
2. The importance of family
A lot of the times (in both the bigger cities and smaller towns) I’d noticed how much Cubans valued family. I stayed with a family in Vinales where the mother (who was a doctor) lived with her family, her mother-in-law and grandmother. All under one roof. So you can imagine how entertaining family meals were.
Every morning I’d wake up to the standard noise of the mother yelling at the daughter to get ready for school, while the they’d arrange the table for breakfast. When we all sat down for breakfast the chatter and the laughter amongst everyone was plentiful.
I don’t know if it was because of the insanely strong Cuban coffee or if it was because my mind was so relaxed being away from all the tech noise. But I asked the mum if it was common for extended families to live together under the same roof? Like they do in India. To which she smiled and said that although a lot of the time it would get noisy and crowded in their house. It was a way of life for them. Cubans naturally valued relationships that way and often did everything they could to maintain them.
I don’t know I felt a weird fuzzy glow after that statement.
3. The culture of sharing despite the limited resources
Cuba is rich in culture. However it is well known that this richness does not reflect in their resources. If you walk into a standard supermarket across Trinidad or even Havana, the staple items that you’ll most likely come across will be the following:
- More Rum;
- Limited variety of chips;
- Limited sauces.
Despite all of this, it was interesting to see how Cubans managed to mix these flavours to create a wide variety of exotic and unique seafood dishes. But the thing that struck out the most to me, was how willing the locals were to share their resources.
In the mornings sometimes people from the neighboring Casa would come over and borrow some sugar and milk for their breakfast. In response? Both neighbors would stand on the street and talk for a solid 10-15 minutes before going their separate ways. It was rare to see a sight like that when we spend more time talking to an immobile object, as opposed to a live human being.
4. The ability to connect internally despite being disconnected from the wider world
When was the last time you sat down on a park bench or any kind of bench and merely reflected. In a time where our brains are so overly stimulated because we get dopamine hits from the likes we receive from Instagram, the art of staying still has escaped us.
But one fine afternoon as I was nursing a hangover in the town square of Trinidad, I noticed an elderly lady sitting down on a bench from across me. She had the most beautiful red flower in her hair and a soft white dress. She was easily in her late 50’s, with light brown freckles splayed across her face.
While everyone around me was on their phones trying to frantically connect via their limited Wifi cards. She sat there completely at peace with herself as she took the sunset in. An explosion of warm colors took spread across the evening sky as a couple of street dancers, swayed to a local band, because of course. It was Cuba after all!
5. The importance of art as a way of life
The importance of Cuban art as a lifestyle metric is best understood by observing your surroundings. Everywhere we went, you would see the importance of street art.
Everything from the iconic Fidel Castro murals depicting Castro’s revolution to colorful paintings of the locals and classic Cuban cars, took over the streets of Cuba. Since most households across the cities we visited observed the open door rule, I’d almost always be able to catch a glimpse of their lives. Sometimes I’d see a Grandma drinking tea in the living room and at other times I’d find a barber sweeping the hair off the ground prior to going to his extending living room and finishing up on his painting.
Overall, there are certain elements about this country that I noted could not be found in any of the other countries I’d visited to date. It was almost as though the entire country was stuck in a specific era. A more simpler time. Where people found happiness and a sense of fulfillment in the smaller things.