Cuba is charming, captivating and disgusting.
At night – when the cigars are burning, the rum is flowing and the salsa is playing – Cuba is an enchanting place. You feel welcomed. Sometimes you feel more welcomed for your money than your personality, but you always feel safe. The sense of community is comforting.
The culture cultivates a perfect Caribbean atmosphere. The salsa music makes your feet move before you realize it. The smell of cigars masks the sweat and street sewage. Conversations with strangers flow from cheap rum. Everything feels perfect at night.
But during the day, walking through the streets can be uncomfortable. We wondered past decaying animal carcasses on sidewalks. Wild dogs and cats rule the streets. Buildings were crumbling on every block. We went to the beach and found a barge of pollution floating in the surf.
I spent a lot of time reflecting as we explored. Initially, I was struck by everyone’s full attention to the present moment. There was no sense of urgency – with anything. Everyone seemed relaxed. Yet, I also felt a lack of hope. It was a unique hopelessness. There was no sense of despair or sadness. They just didn’t seem concerned – for better or worse – with their future.
In a lot of ways, hope is the cornerstone of our society. We are conditioned to believe we can achieve the pinnacle of wealth with hard work and dedication, but this recipe is based more on folklore than fact. The reality is you need fortunate circumstances too. Your timing, among other things, needs to be right. We call this luck. Since luck isn’t something we can control, it’s left out of the narrative. Luck creates a gap in the easy-to-understand formula. I think we learn to fill this gap with hope.
Hope motivates us through the hardships of contributing to a competitive economic environment. Hope is our insurance that our current uncertainty will become a future of luxuries.
In Cuba, they don’t need this type of hope. Expectations don’t exist beyond necessities. If you believe that your role is to support the achievements of the collective, there is relief from the pressure of the future. You can appreciate the present moment.
I walked past construction workers with calloused hands, bald heads and layers of concrete caked on their skin. They were taking a break just to entertain the next generation of workers. I walked past a group of kids playing soccer in the street. They were unconcerned with their clothes, unconcerned with their equipment, unconcerned with their surroundings. They were just concerned about their friend passing the ball.
I wonder if the pursuit of personal wealth limits our ability to appreciate the wealth our society has accumulated. We focus too much on the future without gratitude for the present.
After a couple days, I started seeing everything through a prism of necessities and conveniences – which emphasized the distinction between our countries. They are a people of needs, and I was a dude coming from a world of wants. They have everything they need but without many conveniences. We have a surplus of conveniences but without the same sense of compassion, community and appreciation.
I’m not sure communism is wrong. I just don’t think it’s for me. I prefer conveniences. I prefer capitalism. That said, I’ve developed a disgust for the disconnect in our current system. How can some people have the wealth to acquire more conveniences than they could ever consume in their lifetime – and in the same system, there are people without access to basic necessities? I really hope (see I can’t help but hope) we solve this problem in my lifetime. If we are going to sacrifice our sanity for conveniences, we need to make sure everyone is secure with basic necessities.
When I got home, I was amazed by how much I consume, and how many conveniences I take for granted. The trip was humbling and enlightening. I’m not sure I’d recommend it for everyone. It’s not a culinary destination. The food is good, but it’s pretty simple. It’s not particularly cheap. They use a separate currency for tourists, so they can inflate prices accordingly. It’s not a relaxing place either. You constantly have to defend yourself from hustlers. They aren’t pushy or aggressive like they can be in Mexico or other parts of the Caribbean, but your waiter and people on the street are constantly trying to rip you off.
If you have a lot of money to spend, you can have a great time, but I think you’ll have a very curated perspective of the island.
If you have a lot of patience and don’t mind being uncomfortable for hours at a time, you can learn a lot and experience a truly foreign lifestyle.
Also, I came home addicted to cigars. When I grow up, I want to be Ernest Hemingway and sustain on a steady diet of cigars and rum.