Each yoga retreat to a different country has presented its own insights in to who we are, as we shed away layers of national identity and move closer to our true essence. These travels are not vacations; they are explorations. It is an opportunity to examine our holding patterns and reactions in the context of a different environment with our senses heightened. Much like building heat and getting ourselves in to complicated postures where we may balance on a single foot or even hands to access knowledge of our kleshas (obsticles) or to strengthen muscles of courage, traveling to some of these countries is in itself a yoga class. Traveling Cuba was an exceptional opportunity to access our selves.
We commenced our time together in the beautiful home of a couple who study yoga with our guide. Our group, joined by a couple of yoga students in Havana, circled up beneath antique chandeliers to embrace the week ahead. In this room, we secretly practiced yoga and danced salsa and rumba. This is how we set the week:
“What an incredible opportunity this week is for us to explore not only this passionate country, but to explore who we are in relationship to our political system and culture. Stepping on to the mat each day will provide space for introspection. Beneath the thrill of travel, being in a new place with a fabulous group of people on a tropical island, there will be layers of identity to reckon with. We will have an opportunity to clean the lens of our eyes, as North Americans and as members of a democracy. Perhaps we will question or validate what we value. Perhaps we will witness joy where we think it is impossible, and we redefine what it means to be rich. Perhaps you will find gratitude for the life you have. Perhaps the spirit of the Cuban people will ignite inspiration, or maybe you will feel guilty and overwhelmed. At times you may feel yourself attached to ideals, other times liberated. You may notice aversion to differences, or perhaps enthusiastic curiosity. You may feel all of it; this space between. As we navigate these spaces and the land we travel this week, look in to each others eyes, and in to the eyes of those we meet. See yourself in every set of eyes you meet, and the space between will collapse. As our lenses become clearer, this becomes easier to do. “
It was Sunday. We walked back to our Casa Particular’s through a more upscale neighborhood, amongst delapated, colorful buildings adorned with gardens and laundry. We walked past a school that seemed as though it has been abandoned for decades. I took a photo of it, of the rusty fence that encircled it, its discolored walls, and the weeds between the cracks that seemed to be reclaiming this corner of Havana. The following day, we rounded the same corner only to find the ball court filled with laughing, running children.
Casa Particulars are like Airbnb’s, but the people are living there, and cook you breakfast. With the relatively new tourism industry and lack of hotels, Cubans have been given permission to rent out rooms in their homes. In fact, by US law Americans are not allowed to stay in hotels, as they directly benefit the Cuban government. The home owners apply for licenses and pay a monthly fee to the government to host tourists. The average monthly income in Cuba is $40 per month, and so this opportunity to rent rooms in the home is a grand one.
Although the people are limited, they are not impoverished. They have refrigerators, stoves, and regular food rations. The have health care, yet will enthusiastically welcome aspirin and Tylenol as gifts. Cubans have free education and are supported financially throughout their education, yet ask any bartender or taxi driver what they studied, and they may tell you they were a lawyer of a scientist, and this job pays better. The people are relatively comfortable, however when something breaks, it is not like you can go to the hardware store and get a part.
We walked through the city one day, and passed by a business in which there was a counter of men with tools and desk lights, repairing items. Customers patiently sat across the counter from them looking on. The rest of the room was a waiting area of people in chairs with sewing machines, toasters, and other small appliances in their laps. The people of Cuba do not have the luxury of throwing anything out, and are rather brilliant in fixing things in creative, unorthodox ways. If there isn’t a part, they make something else work. Upcycling is part of life.
There are food lines. The markets have signs, to indicate weekly rations according to ages and household members. As tourists, we could eat at restaurants, but there were no grocery markets to speak of. Rather, liquor stores carried items such as “Fitness” crackers and yogurt sandwich cookies, and that was about it for food to snack on. Cuban restaurants were alive with music and dancing, but it is rare to see someone sitting with food in front of them. The one thing you could count on was a ham and cheese sandwich (no pickles!).
We traveled to the historical city of Trinadad, were we relocated for a number of days. We explored the beach, the town, the jungle, a waterfall, a coffee farm, and took more salsa lessons.
In Havana there were several birds in bird cages, and then in Trinidad it was as though every home had one. During the day, homes along main streets were converted in to stores, and the birds were placed outside. I became obsessed with this image. It was as though it was an expression of what couldn’t be said, and possibly not even a conscious expression. I had a dream while I was in Trinadad of my pet bird growing up, laying down in her cage without food or water. She awoke to my touch, and once I fed her, she panicked, trying to get out of the cage.The thrill of travel wears quickly when life is less than convenient than life at home. When personal space, reliable plumbing, and drinking water became luxury items, our identity as Americans was quickly revealed. These standards to living are not everyones standards, and our group had to readjust. Some quickly adjusted, others more slowly. This was the medicine. When so much comfort and ease we are used to was stripped away, we were able to feel what Cuba is like- if only for a week. The dancing, the singing, the music, the vivid paint colors on the buildings and the art became much more precious, taking on new context. The things we fear; not having enough, economic instability, oppression, were remedied even if only for a short time with individuals coming together to dance, to sing, to gather. There was genuine joy there. People stopped by each others houses to visit, spending time without anxiety of the day’s agenda. People seemed to be “in the moment”, a place so many people try to get to in our world of opportunity and excess. Our group did settle in to the way well. We immensely enjoyed each other’s company. We laughed, we danced, played soccer, smoked cigars, drank Cuba Libre’s (and virgin pina colada’s) and landed in our bodies in yoga practices and dance classes
Cuba revealed to me the joy that is possible from within. It is to savor self expression, voice, to dance and sing no matter how heavy the weight on my shoulders seems to be.
During our trip, unbeknown to us, the people of Cuba had already begun to experience food shortages with their main subsidizer, Venezuela, going through political upheaval. They believe they are on the brink of a second “Special Period”. The first was a cruel time in Cuba’s history, when the then main economic subsidizer, The USSR collapsed.
It is my hope that something changes for the Cuban people. Perhaps their government sees tourism as an opportunity to truly become independent, and allows the people to have greater opportunities and freedoms. It is also my hope that more Americans get to see and feel Cuba just as it is right now. To know the possibility of joy no matter what happens, to be liberated in ways we can’t understand unless we are stripped naked of our own cultural framework. Cuba is not for the faint of heart or the resort and cruise ship traveler, but it is a yoga practice that will stretch and open you like none other.
Next year we will retreat to unwind, to experience travel in a way to place our bodies in a new place to remember our essence through restoring. I will carry Cuba with me always, and will continue to process my week there; who I was in Cuba, and what the people and country mean to me as members of this human fabric of community, teachers, brothers and sisters.