This weekend marked one week since my return from a trip to Cuba. It also marks the Cuban people voting to approve a new constitution to replace the Cold War-era charter.People keep asking me “Was it a great trip?” and instead of an enthusiastic “yes!” I keep explaining my experience with three words – Educational, Inspiring, and Sad.

Educational because, even though I have heard about Cuba and have had many friends involved in working for the benefit of Cubanos and the negative impact of the embargo, immersion is the best way to learn a language and the only way to truly understand a reality so different than your own. Upon arriving, my first visual shock is seeing cars I grew up with as a child, as the embargo began when I was two months old. The big Chevrolets are painted in the opposite palate of today’s black, white, and grey cars – rich greens, deep blues, and scandalous reds. Inspiring because our driver explains how they keep these over 60 year old cars running – they are a different kind of hybrid than what is on US roads, with parts from all kinds of cars molded together in the chassis. The new car addiction of the US is in stark contrast to this reality. As often is the case, the absurdity of how the US labels re-use is paltry compared to these Frankenstein cars. Sad because when it rains many people will not drive as their brakes are usually worn thin and the threat of skidding on newly wet pavement is too high.

Yogis de Cuba

Educational because we had presentations by different yogis from Yoga Va community on their particular emphasis in practicing and teaching yoga. One works with people suffering from severe mental challenges, one with people 65 and older, one who integrates in his work as a Babalawo/priest. Inspiring because they have completed their teacher training and have a thriving community that weather the storms of practicing despite always inadequate access to mats and props we can buy easily. Sad because they must have other jobs to support their beloved practice.

Educational because I easily stayed offline to be in the present moment with the Cubanos, inspiring because they have extremely limited access to slow internet and yet they make it work, and sad because like everything else that is scarce, it doesn’t need to be.

Colonized Food

Educational because I learned their Cuban food, like most food in Latin America, is rarely indigenous to the land – it is a mix of what the Spanish conquerors liked and what they chose to feed the African slaves to support their hard labor. Inspiring because there are many movements to shift the food to healthier, more sustainable choices. An aspect of this was shared by a visit to a small perma-culture garden of one of the yogis. Sad because, like for us, colonized habits are hard to change.

Educational because it is one thing to hear about the impact of embargo, but another to see buildings crumbling with plants growing out of the cracks of balconies within arm’s length of the hotels that cater to the moneyed tourists from all over the world. Inspiring because no matter the deprivations, music is everywhere and kindness abounds. Sad because they are forced to rely on tourism to support their economy and free educational system.

What is not scarce is literacy, clocked at 99.75%. And health care, where the government assumes fiscal and administrative responsibility for all its citizens. What is scarce are billboards and fast food empires – I didn’t see any. I saw five police officers in my entire week in Havana and no military personnel.

Cuba as a Microcosm

There is much to learn from this tiny, embattled island, and my hope is that I live to see the day when there is no embargo and Cuba is free to be what it can be. Not perfect, not aligned with any particular political system, just free to find its own way and reject the oppressive mandate that there is only one right way. For this to happen, the world has to be free of countries that are still colonizing and forcing their will on the 99%. The battle rages now in Venezuela.

I returned with more clarity and commitment to push for equity and to be a steadfast steward of my time, possessions, and gifts. As Celia Cruz sings:

Lo que es bueno hoy, quizas no lo sea mañana
Que hay el valor del momento, que hay el presente perfecto
La oportunidad te llega, tu veras si te montas en ella

Agárrate fuerte y ya no te sueltes
Rie…Llora que a cada cual le llega su hora
Rie…Llora vive tu vida y gózala toda

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