I’ve been questioning my ambitions a lot lately with “how?”. In a fast paced world where no matter what time I wake up, when I go to bed, or how many tasks I have to accomplish in a day, I always feel I need more time, more motivation, and more resources to make it happen. But how? After visiting Havana during the last week of October with GoodTrip Tours, led by founder Ryan Stimmel, how quickly became encontrámonos una manera, meaning let’s find a way.
After the devastation left by Hurricane Irma, Cuba was left with a loss of resources and hundreds of destroyed homes and businesses, yet while meeting with local entrepreneurs in various industries such as arts, tourism, and permaculture, I was in awe of their optimistic attitudes, grassroots community development approach to restoration, and their positive visions for the future. How could I possibly be so down on myself living in the Western world with everything available at my fingertips?
“We had to rebuild ourselves first”. This quote has stuck with me since meeting the couple behind the permaculture farm of the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation. The entire foundation’s team spirit fueled my excitement for their ongoing projects. The organization is a staple for the development and education of sustainable communities, conservation and responsible consumption. After the collapse of the USSR in 1992, Cuba was in a major crisis. Hunger howled from every window and resources ran scarce. Family rations were cut from just over 3000 calories a day to under 2000. Cuban's across the island were encouraged to begin practicing urban farming with whatever land they had access to. With rolling power cuts, nonexistent trade and the black market beginning to form as a result, the island was in serious need of assistance. Truly understanding and empathizing with the people of Cuba is inconceivable, but this economic and social downfall is really what led the island to becoming so innovative.
Permaculture in Cuba isn’t just seen as a community, it’s a lifestyle. It focuses on developing agricultural systems that are sustainable and self-sufficient. And the movement isn’t just capturing and empowering Cuban youth to lead their country to a prosperous future, it’s impacting the lives of youth in the U.S. and Canada through education and immersion programming. My biggest concern when interviewing several farming communities in Havana, including Organoponico Vivero Alamar, was the lack of youth involvement. Isis Maria Salcines, daughter of Miguel Salcines, the nursery’s Founder and President, was kind enough to tour us around the facilities while explaining that the average age of their workers is 56 years old. At the Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation, the percentage of workers over the age of 60 has risen quite a bit as well, sitting at 26%. Both organizations have identified just how crucial youth programming is for the future of the island when it comes to growing their organic farming and permaculture communities. With a lack of opportunity and a rise in middle class citizens fighting harder for their rights, it’s an obvious “no wonder” that youth are getting up and emigrating to countries such as the United States, Canada and even settling across Europe. Youth engagement is a high priority for almost every industry now in Cuba.
Fun fact: Miguel Salcines is semi-famous for a TED Talk where he connects the relation between organic food, eating well and good sex: The Kama Sutra of Food. Unfortunately it is only available in Spanish.
There were five very special people that I met during my adventure in Havana, thanks to Ryan and GoodTrip Tours. Bianca, a lovely and eccentric woman who works as an event organizer/tour guide with a PHD in Psychology and a previous career as a Sex Therapist (!!!); Tony, an older gentleman who actually used to live in Markham, Ontario working for a Cuban tour company, who now teaches Tourism at the University of Havana and holds a masters in Economics; Alain, a handsome gentleman in his early 30s with an eye for photography and videography, and who has found a knack for investing in properties and transforming them into Airbnbs; and Anelore, a Cuban actress running an underground tour operation. And of course, my favourite new artist: Eduardo Mendez Navarro. I spent quite some time with these five individuals over my four day trip, along with Ryan, and learned a great deal about the history of Cuba and how everyone in-between the baby boomers and the millennials are working hard to move Cuba forward as a free country. I remember as we rode into Old Havana one day in a 1950, beige Chevrolet, the engine loudly humming as we strolled along the Malécon, how shocked I was to hear that so many of the donations brought over to Cuba after the Hurricane had "mysteriously" not found their way to the Cuban people. Bianca had even mentioned that a lot of those donated, foreign products could be found on shop shelves, priced way over the suggested retail price. Somehow shops had gotten their hands on them before the Cuban people did. I was amazed as I compared the difference between how donations after the earthquake in 2010 to Haiti actually negatively affected the island. Here, Cuba was desperately in need of resources no one could get a hold of because of government officials with their boxing gloves on ready for a fight while their people suffered.
Although Halloween was not exactly the epic cultural experience I hoped it would be, it allowed me to observe a mix of foreigners and Cubans in a very western-styled dance bar. I’m certain the incredible array of Halloween decorations were brought over by an American who lives near a fabulous party store. Being a Halloween lover, I was just so excited to wear the Frida Kahlo costume I had put together years before and never had a chance to wear. Unfortunately not everyone could guess who I was...
I was excited to get out of the city and explore Las Terrazas, a small town nestled into the Sierra del Rosario mountains. It is a UNESCO biosphere reserve surrounded by the most beautiful nature and wildlife, with organized trees planted along the mountains. The ecovillage features one of Cuba’s oldest coffee plantations, incredible hikes and walks with stunning views, the ability to zipline across the whole town (!!!), a beautiful river for swimming at the base of Banos del San Juan, and a hotel built to ensure nature is not disrupted by its activities. In fact, Hotel Moka, located just above the core of the Las Terrazas town, is built on stilts and was constructed around the large trees that rooted there first. My favourite thing about the whole town: El Romero, a completely vegetarian and zero waste restaurant, striving to educate and bring awareness to conscious consumption throughout the village and through influencing tourists who come to eat. It was truly fascinating for me to experience a community so passionate about sustainable development in a developing country with such limited resources. Is it having nothing that motivates a community to do something? I see such similar results from rural communities in Asia as well. If we took away our essential resources here in Canada or the United States, could we fight to survive, or are we so dependent that it would wipe out the entire western world? Dramatic, yes, but true, no?
My last day with GoodTrip started with me dressed like a princess riding a white horse. We woke up in Soroa, a neighbouring small town to Las Terrazas, home to Salto de Soroa, a beautiful waterfall perfect for picture taking, swimming, lounging, and even meditating. Because I dressed super inappropriately for the day in Soroa, I watched as Ryan jumped around under the falls “playing”, as I giggled and captured some great shots of the falls cascading over his head. As we sat at lunch, a patio restaurant and guesthouse at the top of a small hill, I reminisced on the whole trip which had already seemed like a lifetime based on what I had learned and experienced. Especially while on horseback, as we galloped through the backroads of Soroa, stopping for fresh coffee and coconut treats at a small cultural centre, Proyecto Montaña y Yo -The Mountain and Me Cultural Project. As my eyes grew bigger than my stomach, I devoured a large plate of rice and beans, and fresh avocado and yucca that had grown within 50 feet of my seat. I swear the avocado rolled off the tree and they cut it open for me.
My last afternoon was spent in Old Havana with Bianca, learning more of the history of Havana and the revolution. We walked the cobblestone streets as rain lightly hit the top of our umbrella. I was amazed by just how influential Ernest Hemingway still is in Havana. He drank in so many Havana bars, they have honoured him with photos, statues, and memorabilia inside and outside the bar doors!
With a 4am drive to the airport, I thought an all-nighter would be appropriate. Our evening was spent at Fabrica de Artes Cubano, also known as FAC. This gorgeous arts and culture centre resides in an old peanut oil factory, and spans across three floors, with 10 different rooms, and houses two restaurants, an outdoor patio, and a few bars - including one at the top of the chimney stack! You can experience everything from visual art installations, to film screenings, to live music and dance performances. It’s culturally immersive and the ultimate social spot for young, hipster Cubans. Obviously, I fell in love instantly. I particularly loved the installation of Renaissance-styled picture frames hosting headshots of older black gentleman dressed in 17th century colonial garments. It was quite the sting realizing how black men have never really been honoured in history quite like the way white men have. I had seen a similar installation at the Detroit Institute of Arts and felt just as moved by the concept.
As I touched down in Toronto the next morning, without jet lag thanks to good ol’ eastern standard time, I felt so refreshed, even though I had only slept three hours in the past 24. Cuba has always been one of my favourite destinations for nature, beaches and adventure, but I had never experienced it quite like this. Getting to know the locals, hearing of their struggles, triumphs and innovation, I could only think of getting home and finishing up the loose ends of projects I had going on. I hadn’t felt that inspired in a long time.
Thank you Ryan and GoodTrip for making the experience so memorable. I hope I left just as big of an impression on the people I had met during my time there as they did on me. Or maybe they’re just referring to me as the girl with the uni-brow on October 31st.