Experiencing Contemporary Life in Havana Through Rooftop Yoga

LONGFORM

Sociology


Keeping up with Havana

Havana is in the midst of a complete social and cultural revolution - and what better way to reflect on these modern times than through a session of rooftop yoga?

Facing the sea, the view of the Straits of Florida appears, all visible from a rooftop in Havana

Facing the sea, the view of the Straits of Florida appears, all visible from a rooftop in Havana

Conjure up the idea of visiting Havana and your mind will quickly picture derelict buildings mixed in with pastel coloured houses. A quick second later and you'll pan towards the country's picturesque beaches and agricultural fields. But perhaps before your overprotective parents/spouse kills the idea of visiting citing the safety risks of visiting Cuba, you'd come to reflect on what it really means to actually visit Cuba. 

Visitors to Havana (though usually not by intention) partake in a form of political tourism, that is, the allure of the country as a destination is in part influenced by how 'exotic' and 'restricted' it is. Yet unlike a tour of North Korea, tourists visiting Havana have relatively free rein over what they would like to see and what they would like to do. And for many, this allure is quickly diminishing with each passing month as tourism takes hold of the city, making it just like ‘any other place’.

As you can tell, this article won't just be about a superficial afternoon of 'lose yourself to find yourself' yoga under the heat of the Cuban sun. Indeed, and as what the inventors of the art of Yoga would want you to do is to utilise it as a conduit for reflection. For our case, we dive deeper into what it meant to travel in Cuba and we’ll also drop in some commentary on what we observed and measuring up the pace of change that is afoot in this unique Caribbean city.

 
The Hotel Gran Caribe Plaza, one of the properties surrounding Havana’s Parque Central

The Hotel Gran Caribe Plaza, one of the properties surrounding Havana’s Parque Central

A city on the cusp of a complete transformation

Cuba regularly finds itself placed near the top of many traveller's bucket list. And while the US government does regularly warns its citizens against visiting the country, that hasn’t done much to limit interest: there are daily flights from major cities across the US.

Once the plane lands on the cracking runway of Havana's Jose Marti International Airport, the plane erupts in applause, with the enthusiastic welcome of the flight attendants matching the palpable excitement. For us though, the warm welcome already came and went before our flight left: Singaporeans need not apply for a visa to visit Cuba.

On the taxi ride into the city, what would likely strike most tourists first would be the shades of political control present in Cuba. Those intimately acquainted with music of the 70s and 80s would soon realise that while the state radio plays familiar tunes to ABBA’s Dancing Queen and Richard Marx’s Right Here Waiting, the difference here is that the lyrics were completely omitted, ostensibly because of their Western ideals and influence. In this small example, one can see how the Cuban government has finally relaxed its grip on music and culture yet at the same time, it retains the rein of censorship by altering (ie. removing) the lyrics that accompany those tracks. 

Exploring Havana will quickly dispel any preconceived notions you might have about the city - this is no dogmatic North Korea. Before the revolution, many Cubans were already been exposed to the trappings (and excesses) of capitalism as the island was a popular leisure destination for the rich and famous from the US. During the revolution, many supported the expulsion of Americans as they were increasingly seen as unsavoury colonists.

Cuban history is wrought with conflict and suffering which the Communist Revolution promised to reverse through prosperity and autarky. Yet, the recent opening up of the country (with the realisation that it is lagging behind) is a sign that state communism is simply not working. However, the idea that Cubans would abandon the regime at the drop of a feather is highly reductionist - hegemony and imperialism under the United States weren't fantastic systems to live under. Back then. tourists from abroad partied along the country's pristine beaches, while oppressive corporations practically controlled the island and essentially enslaved the local population.

Indeed, Cubans welcomed the Communist Revolution in earnest back in the day and there’s no reason to suggest that Cubans have forgotten the pro-America days. While times have been tough, Cubans have not forgotten the past and will speak their mind with political nuance - regardless of whether you understand them or not. This still holds true even though many were excited to bring capitalism out for a spin (both figuratively and literally for taxi operators) - many Cubans jumped at the opportunity to open their own stores, restaurants and provide services once restrictions were relaxed.

But what does this mean for you, the traveler? For one, don't be surprised by how friendly the Cuban people are especially to tourists. If you're toting around a camera, expect to encounter friendly locals calling out to you to have their photos taken. Silent narratives are calling out to be heard.

 
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An afternoon of reflection through a session of Yoga

If one was enamoured by the unique and 'faded' look of Havana's buildings, an afternoon session of Yoga on a rooftop is bound to delight. Yet amongst these derelict buildings (doubtlessly once immaculately coloured edifices), the mind could wander to just what happened to these once masterpieces.

Though Cuba enjoyed decades of prosperity following the revolution, this was in part buoyed up by the generous 'gifts' of its patrons. The Soviet Union, strapped to maintain a close ally in such close proximity to its greatest foe, ploughed the Cubans with all sorts of resources. This included loans of foreign currency, regular shipments of oil and commitments to purchase Cuban goods far above standard market prices. By the early 1980s, Cuba by all accounts was doing pretty well. Literacy rates were high and so was life expectancy - pretty much at levels much higher than their Latin and South American neighbours. 

Yet, as the Soviet Union goose-stepped into precipitous decline in the 80s (culminating with its dissolution), so too did the most important lifeline and supporter of the Cuba economy. What began afterwards was the euphemistic 'Special Period' for Cuba: all manner of diets, lifestyles and practices were overhauled to adapt to a new paradigm where oil, clothes and even food was strictly rationed due to shortages.

It is this Special Period that we can ascribe most of Cuba's woes to especially the current state of its derelict buildings. After all, where was the money to maintain the city going to come from when most of the population was going hungry?  The entire Cuban economy from its tractor-reliant agricultural sector to its mechanised factories were all dependent on cheap Soviet fuel. The country unsurprisingly went into complete turmoil just overnight.

Cuban society is now entering a new ‘Period’ of sorts as the country opens up itself to the outside world. Both Castro brothers are out and new leaders toeing a softer line have stepped to the fore. We reflect on three P's that stood out to use during our trip and certainly during that one special session of rooftop Yoga: Private Enterprise, Propaganda and Politics. 

Ready to strike the perfect Virabhadrasana? Let’s go.

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The Wonder of Private Enterprise  

Cuba's opening up was accompanied with a healthy collection of economic reforms aimed at reintroducing small scale private enterprise into the economy. Tourists visiting the country would be familiar with these development primarily with the Casa Particulars (accommodation) they'll stay in and the Paladars (family restaurants) they dine at. There’s certainly no shortage of options in the city because of the new policy.

And while we're not denigrating this move towards a healthier economic future, it's clear that some are getting the upper hand throughout these reforms. For one, those that already possess influence in the country hold the power of granting and rejecting applications to open a business. Yet others with foreign connections (through friends and family) are able to use foreign money to renovate houses and furnish restaurants in order to make them more attractive to tourists.

To get a sense of how lucrative tourism is, consider that the average wage for a worker hovers around $25 a month, which is about the same price that tourists would pay for a meal for two. There’s also an expectation on tourists to provide tips.

The government is unsurprisingly also getting a piece of the action. TRD Caribe is a retail chain in Cuba that has over 400 locations selling products in cash instead of requiring the traditional payment of ration stamps. TRD Caribe is pretty much the backbone of the tourist economy as it is the definitive supplier of daily essentials like bottled water and other products like Cola and Rum. 

Habanguanex (once again controlled by those in power) has been given the right to designate that a given historic, cultural or entertainment attraction in the country’s capital as ‘accredited’, providing clueless tourists with a very convenient ‘seal of approval’. Who knows what the criteria is to get the approval? Experience suggests that money and connections are almost always involved.

That being said, life is improving for ordinary Cubans. All of these economic reforms (enacted in 1993) all stand in direct conflict with the initial goals of the Communist revolution, a good thing where economic growth is concerned. Plots of land are finally being parcelled out to private farmers thereby catalysing greater productivity through ownership. Cubans are now allowed to buy and sell property. Access to the internet is spreading across the country even in the lesser trafficked ‘suburbs’ of cities.

Part 1 is done, and the Sun’s already overhead threatening to burn up everyone's exposed soles. 

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Through Hell or High Propaganda

It was only in recent memory that Cuba was a pariah state, coming close to being branded as being in the ‘Axis of Evil. Yet, unlike another ‘popular’ pariah state - Iran - where there still remains large propaganda posters extolling hatred of the United States or even sometimes, chants of ‘Death to America’, Cubans have a decidedly more forgiving tone.

Instead, the government keeps the ‘revolutionary spirit’ alive through colourful murals and subtle references to Castro and Che on colonial buildings with rotting facades. These messages and the art forms conjured by the government are just one of the tools of the “revolution” to disseminate its message to the people. These murals though have since faded just like the colour on the buildings they are found on - the government seeing prudence in climbing down from high-brow rhetoric.

Other than having control over the stereotypical state newspaper and broadcaster, the Cuban government took novel ways to spread propaganda both domestically and within the region. For one, Cuban design took direction from the nation’s famous ‘National Art Schools’, a project conceived by top leaders in the early years of the revolution. Reflected both in the architecture of the school complex and the ideals of the schools themselves, Cuban ideals of high achievement and creativity were meant to cultivate a civilised and cultured society independent of Western influence.

This sadly gave way to the rising popularity of Soviet functionalism and more utilitarian Brutalist movement as propaganda efforts shifted their tone. The new focus was on ‘modernity’, might and efficiency over more lofty and now ‘anti-revolutionary’ ideals like creativity. What remained though, was the overriding priority of using art and design to communicate preordained and centrally controlled messages.

Feel that ache in your lower back? Well, that means you didn’t do the warm-ups properly. In any case, Part 2’s over.

Raúl Corrales,  La caballería (Cavalry) , 1960 (Couturier Gallery, Los Angeles)

Raúl Corrales, La caballería (Cavalry), 1960 (Couturier Gallery, Los Angeles)

 

Politics and Freedom - Intimate Revolutionary Concepts

It's not surprising to know that the freedom to travel is heavily restricted for Cuban citizens even though things used to be way worse. Things are however, changing as some on the flight to Havana (and back, ie. out of Cuba) were Cubans themselves. While the Cuban government has already removed most of its onerous travel restrictions relating to going overseas (requiring exit permits, letters of invitation and the like), the fact of the matter is that overseas travel remains insanely expensive for ordinary Cubans.

Getting the money needed for the passport is close to impossible unless you reside within elite circles or somehow have access to hard currency as a passport with a 6-year validity costs some 500 CUC, about two times the average annual salary of an ordinary Cuban citizen. And even if that’s settled, you haven’t included the cost of a visa or the costs of travelling: flights, hotels and food. It’s no wonder that you don’t see Cuban passport holders often in foreign airports. 

This tale of Cubans seeing little of the outside world is a result of intentional design. The Cuban government rightly recognises that with its precarious economic situation, unfettered immigration would cause people to leave the country en masse in search of better economic prospects. As a matter of fact, many ordinary Cubans have attempted sea crossings into Florida using wooden rafts just like what happened in Berlin before the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Finally - the sun wrought session of Yoga is over, time for some Iced Tea

 
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Experiencing a different sort of revolution

A few decades ago, Cuba chose to strike out a path on its own - a separate path towards development. However, we now see the country rejoining its neighbours as it seeks to improve the livelihoods of its citizens. For now it also seems that tourism is playing a huge part of this effort and it is unlikely that the Cuban government will impose that many restrictions on the trade.

For far too long, the legendary city of Havana has been off the radar for travel. But that’s slowly changing. Seek out Havana even if you can only afford a half-week even if its just for the bragging rights - you’ll find a vibrant city and siesta atmosphere to reminisce of for years to come. Travel responsibly, bring enough for your travel expenses and follow all the standard safety rules and you can’t go wrong.

Also, know that there is still so much more in Cuba to explore - the towns of Vinales and Trinidad are just some names that come to mind, especially for those who take more to the countryside. Stay tuned for the Travelcene Guide to Havana where we’ll offer up some itinerary recommendations and travel advice for Havana. But in the mean time, safe travels!

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