If your 2016 was anything like mine it would seem as though the entire 365 days flew by in a blink of an eye. National turmoil, economical deficits and racial divide plagued our nation and really spoiled what I hoped to be a great year. From the passing of legends such as Prince, Muhummad Ali, Phife Dawg and Afeni Shakur to the unexpected and unwelcoming election of President Elect Donald Trump, I personally wanted nothing more than for 2016 to be OVER!
With the recent passing of Cuba's Prime Minister Fidel Castro and the loosening of travel restrictions from the U.S to Cuba, my friends and I thought that visiting Cuba would be a great place for us to start anew and begin our 2017. The reopening of embassies in both Cuba and the United States orchestrated by President Obama and Cuba's President Raul Castro, helped re-establish a more than a 50 year estranged relationship. Although the Embargo Act established in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy hasn't been completely lifted, the recent efforts of our leaders have now allowed for both countries to not only work towards building a better relationship with each other, but has led to the U.S removal of Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terror.
While this decision may not mean much to the average millennial, from each countries' standpoint, this governments action was massive! Although prior to this year Cuba may not have been at the top of my list of places to visit, the knowledge that I have gained through my travels has proven to be a pivotal stepping stone along my search for clarity and truth in my life journey. In the often bias education structure, history tends to be portrayed through a subjective lens which hinders one's ability to fully understand the entire story.
Politics are petty — any time a political leader feels they've been disrespected or humiliated, they find reasons to send the entire country into a battle that had nothing to do with anybody but them. It's as if citizens are mere chess pieces forced into playing a game they know nothing about, only to protect the Queen (King) that doesn't lift a finger in protest. I appreciate President Obama exemplifying himself as a man of change and actively working to restore the relationship between the U.S and Cuba. It shows a lot about a mans character when he is willing to right the wrongs of those who came before him.
Additionally, my interest in Cuba was enhanced as I used this time to rediscover my peace. Often times while visiting Caribbean countries , I find the aura of the people to exude such a radiating peace and carefree attitude which could be highly contagious. For the past two months I've been living in a world of limbo. I quit my corporate career a week before my 27th birthday and chose to fully dedicate my time to following my life's passion which is to explore and document real life experiences and create ways to interconnect people in the world through mindfulness and understanding. I want to be able to help remove the superficial stereotypes that cloud true judgement and cause everlasting divisions. In order to sustain humanity in this world we must first understand our evolution as a people and our purpose in this universe. We must learn to conquer the fear of the unknown.
In Malcolm Gladwell's book The Outliers, I learned that every successful person has a specific characteristic that they must learn to master in order to achieve true success. For me that characteristic is the ability to connect, I am a connector–therefore it's my duty to help people connect in a way that'll loosen their reservations of one another and help to understand that regardless of your race, gender or economical status we are all here for a bigger purpose therefore we must learn how to work together.
The only prior assumption that I had of Cuba was that Castro was a communist dictator whom the people feared. I understood communism to be wrong and essentially anti-American. That was all that I was taught, and some teachings were never questioned. I never even thought to research further simply because I wasn't aware of the amount of similarities in our history. This idea was a mistake.
Learning the history of our African past and black leaders such as Huey P. Newton and Marcus Garvey, I didn't realize that the plight for freedom and the release of oppression stretched far beyond just a "black thing", it's actually a world-wide phenomena. Ironically enough, my book of choice while traveling to Cuba was Huey Newton's To Die for the People, which houses a compilation of all of Newton's speeches and letters that he wrote as leader of the Black Panther Party. As my studies furthered, I soon learned that quite a bit of the practices initiated by the BPP were influenced by that of the Cuban revolution. In fact, the process of Fidel Castro's rise to power is exactly the result of what would’ve happened if the intentions our black revolutionaries such as Fred Hampton or Assata Shakur or Angela Davis had truly been successful.
As a journalist I understand the vitality of thorough fact checking and experimentation in order to develop the most factual story. Unlike Donald Trumps administration who can state on the record lies deemed as "alternative facts" I wanted to experience my own truth about the plight of the Cuban people. Robert Greene states in his book The 50th Law "You want to take in as much as possible with your own eyes. You communicate with people up and down the chain of command within your organization. You do not draw any barriers to your social interactions. You want to expand your access to different ideas."
Because the restrictions to visit Cuba have only been loosened and not barred, traveling to this country for tourism is not an option. There are 12 different reasons as to why you are allowed to visit Cuba , the option we chose were for educational purposes. Ultimately I wanted to go and learn more of the Cuban people and explore the juxtaposition of our worlds. Someone once told me that there are 3 types of people in this world, those who stop at yellow lights ,those who slow down and those who speed up. This year, I chose to take off.
Our first day in Cuba was surreal. Just imagine with the expectation of being received with hate because you are aware of the years of turmoil and anguish that your homeland has caused this nation only to realize that those people look exactly like you. Same complexion, same statures, same warm embrace, with only a difference in the native tongue. This realization was uncanny, I was in awe. It felt as though I landed in the motherland of Africa herself. The realization of black people populating the majority of the world sometimes still surprises me, until I remind myself that our people were stolen and displaced around the globe and separated only by language. The language barrier has to be knocked down for us to truly understand that we are one.
The airport was much smaller than what I was used to coming from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta. In fact, everything was much different than what I was used to. After going through customs we discovered our host family waiting at the terminal with a sign that read "Brittany Williams." I was ecstatic by the warm welcome of their smiling faces. We felt like celebrities. That warm feeling was quickly diminished when I realized that they didn't know a lick of English, and I knew even less Spanish.
Damn, what was I thinking traveling hundreds of miles with the assumption that they would just KNOW how to communicate with me. I guess that was my American entitlement kicking in. Luckily a friend in our group could speak enough Spanish for us to get by. I quickly vowed to never expect to be understood anywhere If I couldn't promise that same understanding.
On the way to our Air bnb, I observed the condition of the country. A few friends of mine were able to visit before me and forewarned me of the "classic" feel of the city. However, merely hearing of the antiqueness of this place failed in comparison of actually witnessing and experiencing it for myself. It was as if I traveled back in time to 1950 without the American segregation. Automobiles were older than my parents, architecture and landscape looked like something out of an old text book. The bright weathered paint on the homes still managed to withhold its vibrancy. The streets rocky and wide allowing for both people and cars to move freely through the city.
Cuba's beauty was captivating!
We arrived at our home in "La Habana", where we were welcomed with cups of Cuban Coffee and a complete tour of our place. Our host left to go exchange our American dollars to Cuban CUC, which we soon found held more value than USD. A hundred of our dollars were only worth 93 CUC, talk about a slap in the face! Here we are in America thinking that our wealth is accepted and respected worldwide only to discover that we actually lose money when traveling to Cuba. However, Cuba is a much cheaper place so our money was able to go a lot further. The amount of conservation in Cuba was quite different from that of America. When we left a room, we were instructed to turn off the lights, the water and electricity. Just imagine how much more energy could be conserved if we did that on a daily basis.
When the Embargo Act was passed, it effected the trade of imports and exports of Cuba, which resulted in the country having to fully function and thrive off its own generated resources. Therefore American luxuries such as flushing the toilet and merely wiping with tissue weren't as plentiful as you would imagine. Restaurants, and public places had restraints on how often you could flush the toilet and restrictions on whether or not toilet paper could even be used. Essentially you were peeing on other people's pee. I thought this was very different but not impossible to do. We just assimilated.
Getting around Cuba could definitely be done on foot if necessary, but taxis were preferred. We quickly learned on our first day there that taxis were the biggest money makers of the country. Making up to 10 CUC per ride, taxis drivers made more than most doctors. The Cuban people were some of the most friendliest people I had ever met and they seemed to be overjoyed at the idea of Americans visiting their home. They received us quite differently than I would've imagined. In Havana, we found a Cuban native who gave a tour of the city and a more in depth incite on the cuban people. She took us to purchase the highly anticipated Cuban Cigars, the Cohiba, which were the preferred cigar of choice for Fidel Castro. She spoke of President Obama's visit to Cuba and how she was taking us to the same place he bought his cigars. Of course as an American that made us feel great! Our new Cuban friend was what they called an Afro Cuban. The African influence was greatly represented in this country. After learning that Cuba was the center for the American slave trade it all made sense. Unlike most black people in America who were forced from their country and stripped of their native language and forced fed a religion, Afro-cubans still heavily identified with their heritage and understood their history. Randomly you would see someone dressed in all white which was a way to identify someone converting to Yoruba. They were to wear all white for a year straight before becoming apart of the Afro-cubano religion.
Another Cuban revolutionary, Che Guverara prided himself on helping other countries gain their political independence and economical free from worldly oppressors, in particularly the African people, therefore we learned early on that race didn't play as big of a factor in Cuba as it does here in America. As I said before, most of the Cuban people were my complexion or darker, however some were very fair skinned and could pass for white, but none of that mattered because all they saw of each other were that they were all Cuban, which meant that they were all family. I asked about racial tensions in their country and I was only responded with the carefree response of "Cuban is cuban". In fact, I was often asked about why race mattered so much to us in America, a question I have yet to provide a legitimate answer.
We were mistaken for Cuban people constantly, "muy linda Cubano" is what they would say when we passed by until they witnessed our broken Spanish dialect. Differences were minimal, and based on the interactions between the lighter and darker complexioned Cuban it was easy to recognize that they saw no difference either. However what was mutally noted was that we were Black people!
Black Americans are embraced in Cuba in a way that white people may become envious of. They saw us as their family, as their black brothers and sisters, but white Americans they see as the people that corrupted their nation.
The second day we were there was a day of commemoration for death of Fidel, the entire city was shut down and the people celebrated in the streets in his honor with parades, music and rum. Fidel Castro and Che Guvara seemed to be the face of Cuba. Their portraits and paintings were plastered around the entire country. They're considered the heroes of Cuba. We visited the Revolution Museum which was the actual building that Fidel and his revolutionaries ambushed in the 1950's when they overthrew the Batista government. Just imagine the White House being turned into a museum honoring the Black Panthers after they over powered the American government, that is unheard of!
The rich culture and history of this country was expressed on the faces of its people everyday. Living in a land of free healthcare and free education, I witnessed just how easy it is to stop stressing the smaller things. Wifi is a recent phenomena in Cuba. Internet access was restricted inside homes, they were provided with "wifi parks" that allowed for users to purchase a wifi card and log into Wifi for only one hour at a time while in the park. Coming from a place where we have more interaction with our phones more we do with other people, this limitation was quite refreshing. Initially it was a shock and I did not think I could imagine my life without the likes of Instagram. The temporary escape from the false reality was quite liberating.
Each morning my friends and I were awakened by the sounds of a rooster cooing at what seemed to be the most piercing tone starting at 4 o'clock in the morning. We ate the breakfast prepared by our host, usually cuban sandwiches, fruit, eggs and tomatoes and a cup of cuban coffee. We enjoyed the serene howl of the morning wind that entered our patios as we read our books and relaxed on our hammocks.
Mindfulness was achieved while in Cuba. Without our normal distractions of unwanted phone calls and pointless IG memes, we were allowed to enjoy the company of each other while learning how to accept the peace in silence. We would meditate and reflect together and set our plans for the day. As time went on we became accustomed to the present and soon we were able to mentally disconnect with what was going on back home at all.
Cuba now ranks in the top 3 of best nightlife in my travel book. Each night was an event and everybody we met in the city made sure to let us know the best place to party. Another salsa party, or hip hop club, or beach party was typically their suggestion. In fact, it was here that I gained a new found respect for the art of salsa dancing. Salsa is much more difficult than it appears, and if you're visiting Cuba you better make sure you know how to dance as good as the natives. By our dancing, it was apparent that we weren't from around there which made us even more of a target to the Cuban men who wanted to dance with us. Always polite and patient, the Cuban men made it there mission to teach us how to properly salsa. After a 45 minute lesson I simply gave up, with sweat on my brow and a cramp in my right foot, I vowed to take salsa lessons this year so that I wouldn't embarrass myself again.
Its always humorous when you're in another country and you find more people from the same place as you. It's as if you expect yourself to be the only American foreigner in an entire country. One night while in Old Havana, we met some Americans at the bar. It was seven black guys and they seemed just as excited to find us as we did to find them. Not only is it comfortable to find another like being in a strange place, but it was also refreshing to find other BLACK people with similar expectations of travel. They were from New York and had been in Cuba four days at the time. We partied together and were grateful for our short union. After a night of salsa dancing, street eating and outrageously loud drinking games until sunrise, we exchanged numbers eagerly ready to continue our new found friendship. " This is what traveling is about" I thought to myself. Creating friendships, experiencing something different and maintaining connections. "
I was aware of the reality that my connection with my newly found Cuban constituents wouldn't be as promising as some of my other travel friends due to the governing restrictions placed on Cuban citizens. No one I met had any type of social media, nor were they likely enough to earn enough money to travel outside of Cuba. The furthest anybody we met had traveled was to the port of Miami and even so, they found themselves back in Cuba without any hopes of ever leaving again. Stipulations such as this is what really revealed the biggest differences between their socialist society and our democracy. Although we are required to pay for education, and healthcare, we also have the option of making a way out of no way. We are fortunate enough to create and design our future in a way that we see fit, we aren't restricted by the government as far as our limitations and that is important. I noticed the biggest differences amongst our government and learned that each have their pros and cons. While we complain publicly about our government and the type of administration that we allow to control us, Cuba is a place where public shame or complaints could easily result in death or imprisonment. While I do sometimes believe that our first amendment right to freedom of speech sometimes goes unnoticed, I have to simply be grateful that I am allowed to even have somewhat of a voice when it comes to my frustrations as a citizen. Public protests and marches are unheard of in Cuba, the slightest lash against the government can mean torture for the protestor. Even visiting another place seems nearly impossible for most Cubans.
For example, that nation wide Women's March we had a day after Trump's inauguration could have easily been a bloody massacre in Cuba.
On the contrary, imagine living in a society where all of your basic necessities of life were taken care of. You had shelter, you were provided food, you were required to go to school and once you grew up you were guaranteed to have a job. Your rent didn't fluctuate and a car wasn't a necessary item. It was designed in a way to help everybody and eliminate the disparities between the rich and the poor. When Fidel gained his power, he took the land from the top 8% of Cuba's wealthiest people and divided the wealth and land amongst all the people of Cuba. The idea of it is genius and you would think living in this type of society would be perfectly simple because you would have all the tools necessary for a successful life regardless of what career path you chose. Yet the restrictions on self freedom and personal expression were non-negotiable. Living in this type of environment would be restrictive to my artistic growth and result in hate and disdain for all that limits me. The sentiments exactly of some natives we encountered on our journey. Yet most were afraid to express their true feelings to me.
Overall my time in Cuba was well spent. After visiting some of the most beautiful beaches I've ever witnessed, to being serenaded on the Malecon by a crew of Cuban performers eager to create memories for the tourists while hoping to seek tips in return, this country had more to offer than I ever imagined. Being surrounded by a group of educated and open-minded black women made my trip that much easier. I was able to rediscover the different realms of beauty that God creates while internalizing the peace of mind that this country offered.
I learned how to be more mindful of time. Time is our most critical factor of life and essentially our most precious resource. Spending two weeks in a foreign country, allowing myself to fully immerse in the Cuban culture all while learning how to better recognize the beauty in each person was time well spent.
Once mindfulness is achieved, you're able to identify the similarities in one another and embrace the differences and grow from it. I encourage everyone to visit Cuba within their lifetime. It was amazing to experience the life of such a proud and brave people. My inner strength as a black woman was awakened and my mentality as a moving vessel in this world has once more expanded with endless curiosity. We sometimes forget that it is our natural instincts as humans to be governed by self-interest, therefore the lack of mindfulness will only further strengthens division and misunderstandings. As Americans and as humans, we seldom take the time to discover what's different simply because their is comfort in familiarity. I wholeheartedly believe that there can be a sense of healing and unity once it's realized that when you allow yourself to think of your life beyond your own, and realize that the world, the universe, this galaxy, our GOD, all which were created billions of years before our existence, will sustain until eternity beyond us, then you can begin to live life in a way that is limitless. Allowing myself to be divided or feel separate from other people of the world is simply a hinderance to my growth as a person and ultimately a waste of time. I have vowed to live my life in a way where I can one day gleam amongst the stars and experience what my ancestors have left for me to discover. I execute this thinking through my travels and sincere passion for humanity and our future.
““People who cling to their delusions find it difficult if not impossible, to learn anything worth learning: a people under the necessity of creating themselves must examine everything and soak up learning the way the roots of a tree soak up water. “”
— James Baldwin
Continue to learn. Continue to travel. Continue to be Be Classic!