There ought to be a banner in the arrivals hall at Havana airport that reads
‘Abandon preconceptions, all ye who enter here’. ~ Lonely Planet

Our plans to go to Cuba were made before Hurricane Irma and her 160-mile per hour winds pummeled a two-hundred-mile stretch of Cuba’s northern coast, including Havana, in September. We were worried about the impact. Irma was, after all, the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the island nation since 1937. She caused severe damage to the island’s electrical grid, did “incalculable” destruction to the island’s banana, rice, and sugar crops, and her 36-foot high waves hit hard at places like Cojímar, the little port east of Havana where Ernest Hemingway once moored his fabled fishing boat, Pilar. Then in November came President Trump’s rollback of Barack Obama’s opening with Cuba. The new administration’s policy stopped American tourists from traveling to Cuba on individual people-to-people exchange programs. To make matters worse, there were new reports of mysterious “sonic attacks” on U.S. Embassy workers in Havana. None of this was auspicious.

Even before all of this happened the Lonely Planet guide warned to expect a mixed experience: “Get ready for shocks, surprises and eye-opening epiphanies. Twenty-first century Cuba promises to be like nowhere else you have ever visited: economically poor, but culturally rich; visibly mildewed, but architecturally magnificent; infuriating, yet at the same time, strangely uplifting.”

By the time our trip was ready to depart for Cuba, our “group tour” was whittled down to four—me, my husband, Rich, and our good friends, Ellen and Tom. We were determined to go and—so there should be no suspense—we had a fabulous time with good surprises too!

We benefited from the reduced size of our group. We had the privilege of attending private talks with a journalist and news anchor and an economist. We got a private tour of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, arguably the finest art museum in the Caribbean, from its curator of contemporary art. We visited a working farm and were served a farm-to-table lunch, toured the Museo de la Revolución, a museum that presents the history of the Cuban revolution. We met in his home with Ramon Vasquez Leon, an artist creating modern surrealist works featuring characters and setting from his small town of Pinar del Rio, in the Vinales Valley.

We also watched a drum and dance performance given by young women at a dance school, went on a walking tour of old Havana with an architect, attended a lecture and concert on 500 years of Cuban music, and were introduced to the art and religion of Santoria, the Afro-Caribbean religion based Yoruba beliefs and traditions. And to top that all off, in the evenings, we dined on unexpectedly good food in some of the emerging private restaurants called “paladares.”

Making the trip even more interesting, with the help of our Cuban guides, we asked all the questions we wanted—and got candid responses about the good and bad of socialist Cuban living. Here are some of our eye-opening discoveries: Unlike the homelessness one encounters in the United States, we saw no one living on the streets of Cuba; rationed food through a program known as Libreta de Abastecimiento (“Supplies booklet”), provides everyone with the basics with which to sustain life. We learned that everyone receives free education, including technical school or college. The arts are accessible to all with minimal charges of twenty-five cents to attend a ballet or symphony concert! Residents receive free health care and have guaranteed jobs!

In Cuba, and whenever I travel, I try to consciously find deep meaning and I encourage my clients and friends to do the same with whatever kind of travel they are embarking on. There is always much to learn when I travel using a lens that is shaped by my three core values—community, contribution and creativity. Above all, I want to be open and present to each moment. Let me explain a little about how I put my three Cs to work:

Community — With each trip I take, I connect with new people and look for what we have in common. I consider them potential members of my moveable community. Going to Cuba on a people-to-people exchange was a way to reach across the political divide to learn first hand about the people and the culture. It was a way of broadening my community. We found that although Cubans have suffered through the embargo, they still have a sincere appreciation for Americans and our way of life. We exchanged email addresses with several people with whom we will keep contact beyond our brief meeting.

Creativity — I have a deep love for the Spanish language and Latin culture as well as its respect for the intergenerational family and its music and food. Each time I travel to a Latin country, I feel a deep heart-centered connection rooted in a unique expression of life. My appreciation of Latin culture shone through in this trip to Cuba and motivated me to request added opportunities to experience Cuban music, art and dance. Talking to the tour company and making these changes enhanced our trip greatly. I used each interaction with staff in the hotel, the van driver, and everyday people to learn more about their lives. I especially appreciated the farm family who served us a meal with ingredients grown entirely on their farm and prepared with their own hands. I drank in the coffee, the colors and smells of the city, the sea and the countryside.

Contribution — Each of these travel interactions offered choices and an opportunity to receive and give back. I feel grateful for the opportunity to have visited Cuba for one short week. I was delighted by the people we met. I hope I will be remembered by those I met as a world citizen who reached out her hand to create unity and offer appreciation for the Cuban people.

Whether your next trip is near or far, choose travel that is informed by your values and strive to have a meaningful experience!

Reprinted from Quarterly Journal of the Life Planning Network, Volume 5, Issue 1