Updated: Feb 18
I wanted to visit Cuba, likely for the same reasons as you. It seemed forbidden and romantic, and I was seduced by the idea of riding in a classic Plymouth or Studebaker. Would it really feel like stepping back into an entirely different time and place? Turns out, it was exactly like that, but more emotionally moving versus a simple time transport.
The cars from a pre-revolution, American investment period were everywhere. The unique architectural mix of Spanish Colonialism, Cuban Baroque, and French influence stood grand and elegant, proving Havana's nickname, Ciudad de las Columnas (the city of columns). However, when people ask me to describe Cuba, I don’t say it is forbidden, romantic, nor vintage. I say: tristesse, a French word. The literal translation is "melancholy sadness," but I think it was more like a beautiful sadness. Let me explain.
Several years ago, when we were living in New York City, my husband was working with the Havana Film Festival and was to visit Cuba for meetings and the festival itself. At the same time, while developing my yoga book, a local organization invited me to research the Cuban culture of medicine verde, or “green medicine” – alternative health and wellness methods. This included yoga, which was allowed to exist as long as it was considered a healing modality. The U.S. trade embargo after the withdrawal of Soviet aid in the early 90s and subsequent economic disaster reduced access to many medicines and pharmaceuticals, so Cuban people sought natural healing out of necessity. This is such a contrast to the common, American way of viewing alternative therapies as choices to live more “naturally."
To be honest, I was naïve about Cuban politics, the revolution, the longest-lasting single foreign policy in American history, and the impact of embargoes on this island nation. When we arrived, I asked my host if we could step into a particular restaurant that seemed cool. I learned that nearly every restaurant and cafe I had so far laid eyes on was government-owned, and therefore off limits to me under my conditions of travel as a U.S. citizen. Through our host, I learned about paladares, restaurants opened by local Cubans in their homes as part of an ongoing growth of entrepreneurialism. You had to know about these paladares to find them and gain entry. Apparently, this was the better food anyway (it was). Here's the chalkboard menu at the first paladar we visited.
We took a long walk through Miramar, a neighborhood lined with embassies and mansions of the formerly wealthy. The homes looked as if they had hosted incredibly glamorous parties at one point (I had visions of Gatsby). We noticed signs of exhaustion: tattered shingles, peeling paint, or rusted plumbing parts strewn on a concrete path to the front door. Eerie and elegant, I was convinced each of these homes had a story to tell – like an old, alluring Hollywood of the Caribbean.
Excitedly, we explored Habana Vieja (Old Havana), where bright, stunning buildings for tourists stood right next to barely-there buildings. Vibrant, air-conditioned art galleries opened into cobblestone alleys where you could easily be met by a donkey, pulling a dilapidated cart, driven by a weather-worn Cuban farmer (we were). At one point, we walked through some unremarkable doors into a hotel that resembled a scene from Casablanca, the movie. On our way out, we noticed bullet holes in the corridor wall. What was the story here? How did these holes factor into the complicated military history of Cuba, or were they related at all? One couldn't help but wonder while immersed in this place.
Several times, we were stopped in our tracks by stunning, colorful, well-maintained, buildings which were part of the United Nations-funded restoration of Cuban sites as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Toward the end of our trip, I looked for Cuban coffee beans (coffee is my go-to travel souvenir). In the bodegas, we generally discovered only a few items behind glass, such as dusty bags of ground coffee, bars of soap with faded wrapping, or packages of diapers with aged branding – random things, all in the same case, and all of it expensive by local standards. Our host shared that I had brought with me some high value items: toothpaste, sunscreen, and shampoo, for example. He suggested I consider giving my travel supplies to some of the women who had helped us. They were so gracious as they accepted toiletries like the little hotel shampoo bottles we sometimes take for granted as freebies.
For days, I remember thinking that something was missing from Havana, the largest city in the Caribbean. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then, I realized there was a distinct lack of commercial noise which makes a big city feel, look, and sound like a city. There were no billboards, blaring radio ads, or flashing signs. On the second to the last day, we visited the "ritzy" beach resort area outside Havana, which was more like a humble stretch of sand. It was pure, unaffected by souvenir stands and racing, rampant development. The area felt like it was both lacking and rich at the same time.
I remember other kinds of noise: the warm voices of the friendly people, spontaneous dancing in the streets, and giggles from kids flipping themselves into the water off an old sea wall. Around each corner, the laughter of families enjoying the day or the sound of afternoon percussion inspired my husband and me to dance in the streets under Cuban flags.
You might know of a novel, Bonjour Tristesse (translation: Hello Sadness). In truth, the book's title describes how I experienced Cuba. In contrast to New York City, where you can get whatever you want, whenever you want (debatable if this is a good thing), Cuba's melancholy manifested in the lack of access to things and services we take for granted as everyday convenience. Cuba's beauty was in its thoughtful people, preserved history, and open vibe when so much of their country is closed off. I learned what I needed to learn for my book about alternative medicine in Cuba and traveled back to New York with a deepened sense of gratitude for freedom, progress, modern medicine, and the ability to share yoga so freely without having it scrutinized by anyone in charge of anything.
Going back seven years later, I'm curious to see what has changed. I recall seeing big, vintage cars driving alongside brand new Korean buses back then, and thinking, people should visit Cuba to witness tristesse, as change is clearly on the horizon. Who knows how the coming years will reshape the city of columns?
Embargo policies began to change under the Obama administration, but recently the Trump administration locked down flights to everywhere except Havana and eliminated the Educational/People to People category that drove cruise ship tourism and easier entry into Cuba. Tourism is supposedly down 20%, and so are the earnings of many local Cubans.
It'll likely be more difficult to travel to Cuba in the coming years, and your own perspective might dictate whether you think that means Cuba is going back in time or moving forward.
Our May 2020 retreat will allow us to travel under the category, Support of the Cuban People. Our retreat dollars benefit locals directly. We have a unique schedule created by our local yoga retreat hosts and will practice with the godfather of Cuban yoga. I am very much looking forward to green medicine. You can’t google your way to this kind of an experience. For me, it promises to be eye-opening, again. Bonjour tristesse, we’re on our way.