Cuba: A Land of Contradictions & Inspiration

Tracy-Straus-Bija-Beat-Havana-Cuba-Vintage-Cars

My passion for learning, curiosity about the world we inhabit,  desire to make positive change and love of music drew me to say “YES!” to the opportunity to join 11 others on a cultural “Volunteerism” trip to Cuba. 

Of course, I’d seen the news and knew that in many ways the nation was frozen in time – specifically the 1950’s – but like so many expectations we hold about life, mine about Cuba were turned on their head.  Here is what I took away.

"Instead of doing things better, do better things”.

Twelve Americans from California, Colorado and NYC, led by Lisa Rueff, the visionary founder of YogaVentures, listened in complete awe and admiration to filmmaker and writer Miguel Coyula as he shared his perspective on Cuba’s history and current reality. This was but one of many exchanges we had with prominent, groundbreaking leaders in Cuban art and culture.  Coyula addressed the fact that presently, “Havana has a housing stock that is aging and crumbling. The average building age is 75 years – an entire city getting old at practically the same time. Every day, 3.1 houses crumble in greater Havana; hurricanes exacerbate this. Quite a problem for a country with a law that says ‘no homelessness,’ so Cuba has had to build shelters.”  He addressed the fear Cubans have – that should free trade come to his country, Havana could become another Beijing, a city so polluted one cannot breathe.  How will the people of Havana handle freedom when it is given?

A country of contradictions.

Complicated does not even begin to describe the extent of the contradictions I experienced. The most stunning architecture falling down. The most talented people having few outlets to excel. Highly trained doctors make $40.00 per month, while taxi drivers (and “ladies of the night”) make double that in one night.

Beauty abounds, and there is free health care and decent schools – but the lack of abundant food, opportunity and the freedom to be creative and/or to emigrate are the tough realities of life in Cuba, which is perhaps why last year 60,000 people risked their lives, attempting to escape the island on handmade rafts.

Americans need what Cubans have – high quality, free health care, little violence (zero gun violence and very little domestic and/or child abuse), free housing for those in need – and Cubans lack what middle class Americans have in excess – material goods and the freedom to create, to go anywhere and to do anything. How does the excess at home - of the ability to get exactly what we want when we want it – impact our spiritual lives? It was refreshing to be in a place where the focus is not on materialism.

A little more history.

 Through my work with Turnaround Arts, I was able to attend to a rehearsal of Malpaso – the dynamic contemporary company directed by Fernando Saez. The company rehearses in the Sephardic Center of Havana where a Holocaust Museum is housed.

While there, I became friends with the 78-year-old retiree who hosts visitors to the center. He informed me that Anti-Semitism does not exist in Cuba and that only 1,000 Jews remain in the country. The other 15,000 left during the revolution when their businesses were taken over by the government. With the intention of helping the poor, businesses were stolen by the revolutionaries.

It’s about human connection.

Sitting in the front seat of a bright green Model Ford, I engaged my taxi driver in conversation. He told me that there is very little violence against women. In fact, the women are tough and respected, and any actions against them are punishable. When I mentioned my love of vegetables and fruits he asked if ever I had been to one of their markets. When I said “no," he took me. Just like that. He was so kind and generous with his time and energy. Sadly, the oranges I bought were neither sweet nor juicy but....

This, in a way, is a microcosm of life in Cuba. It's about the experiences, not the stuff you get – be it the food or much else. It is the human exchanges that highlight everything. And the truth is, that's the core for everyone, globally, which is perhaps why time there feels so precious. Daily life allows for ample time of quality time with community.

A reality check.

The drive to Muraleando, a most inspiring children's art center, offered another unforgettable exchange. Fernando, the brilliant driver, quoted Emerson, Thoreau and Walt Whitman, and in fact he had tried to visit America just to visit Walden Pond (the Cuban government laughed at his request). This man's intelligence and love of poetry was extraordinary. Trained in medical school, he became a Cuban doctor and, following medical school, did his required two years of service work in Zambia, Africa as part of the medical school contract. After working abroad for two years – healing victims of HIV/AIDS, malaria, etc., he felt ever more passionate about his work and intended to remain dedicated to it. But when he returned to Cuba in 1991, the "special period" had begun and, because he makes more in a day as a taxi driver than he makes in one month as a doctor, I had the great good fortune of having him drive me. My mind was reeling.

Taking creative control.

When I arrived, my visit to the community arts project Muraleando was truly inspiring.

A band played fabulous dance music and the local artists sold their work to support the cause. The percussionist stole my heart: he was playing a totally unique, handmade instrument that gave a wild groove to the experience. The creators of the project – local artists of Muraleando – had transformed their community into a “People’s Art Gallery” which is what every darn school in America could be. They accepted what they saw as an invitation to solve community problems with their own efforts and succeeded in doing so.

 Percussionist at Muraleando - Community Arts in a Havana Barrio

Percussionist at Muraleando - Community Arts in a Havana Barrio

Bringing the experience back home.

How does this apply to what I do with Celebrate the Beat in the States? Appreciation for human contact and collaboration – for what we can do when we work together – nothing in life comes close to the satisfaction we experience when we, as a team, work together, no matter the circumstances, to create beauty. 

This is the spirit I hope to imbue our CTB students with: the profound effect of taking control of one’s own body is symbolic of the power we all have to make choices that promote positivity rather than destruction.

I’m enriched and inspired by having met beautiful human beings who create loving, meaningful lives in challenging conditions. The focus is on the spirit – on things money can’t buy. This resonates so deeply with me because this is the soul of CTB: teaching our children to appreciate music, the movement their bodies can enjoy, the satisfaction that comes from trying your hardest and never giving up. These are hard won qualities, but so worth the effort.

Favorite Story.

Without knowing the intended recipient, Lisa Rueff had brought along a saxophone. 

One day, while we were walking the beach at Veradura, a gorgeous tune wafted our way and led us to a fabulous saxophonist who was playing at a seaside wedding ceremony.  Lisa invited him to play for our yoga class the next morning, and Yogi was magnificent. We learned that, although wildly talented and a pro since the age of 12, the sax he made sing actually belonged to the hotel where he played.

And so, celestial choreography brought us to him, and Yogi now owns the sax.

 Lisa Rueff, Yogi and the saxaphone

Lisa Rueff, Yogi and the saxaphone