What was the very first reason you traveled to Cuba, over 15 years ago?
I have a long love of dance. I was dancing salsa when the Afro-Cuban all-stars came through Boulder, Colorado many years ago. I mentioned to them that I had just finished dancing for famous salsa artist El Canario’s music video, who was finishing shooting in Denver then. I took them to meet him, and we all became friends.
As they were leaving the country, they called me for help with some sound gear issues. They were so grateful I helped them out, and told me to come visit them as a thank you. I went there initially with that invitation. This was in the 90s.
I was dancing at a large congress event that was happening in Puerto Rico every summer at that time. I was on my way there with one of my dancer friends when I went to Cuba with a research license. In Cuba, I stayed in a little town just outside of Havana with one of the families of one of the artists.
I fell in love with Cuba after the first five days, mainly because the people are incredibly beautiful. If there’s a place where you’re going to experience community and the most non-judgmental culture ever, it’s Cuba! Everybody has struggled there, so there’s so much compassion for surviving. People know that everyone has to work together to survive.
During that first trip, we had dinner one night with some family members and friends. One of the guys who lived in the house was so excited for one of their good friends to come. He wouldn’t stop going on about her, telling me she would be the most beautiful woman I’ll ever meet.
When this woman arrived, a bunch of neighbors came together and carried her in her wheelchair up to the third floor of the apartment building. This guy treated her like the most beautiful, incredible woman in the world. I had never seen somebody treat a disabled person with so much admiration and love and inclusion. It was amazing.
Once I went to Cuba that first time, I was sold. I had to go back and see more. Five days was not enough.
As you went back multiple times over the years, how did you get into Cuba?
Over the years, people have found many creative ways to get into Cuba. It was never illegal to go to, but it was illegal to spend money there. The Cubans were never against having Americans there.
There were a lot of legal ways to get there. In some cases, I was involved with an organization or a group that had permission to go. I was able to do that for example, with the Cuban Sister City Organization for many years.
There were a lot of ways one could travel to Cuba, for example to do research, for religious reasons, or for educational purposes. I traveled that way too in some cases. These days, it’s very easy to go.
Are there direct flights now for people who want to go from the U.S. to Cuba?
No, there aren’t many. American Airlines, for example, has been flying out of Miami for many years. Last I saw, a lot of the airlines were fighting over which ones would get to fly directly into Cuba. I think it’s supposed to be 20 daily flights into Havana, and another 10 throughout the rest of the country starting in November 2016.
Right now, the best way to go from Colorado is probably to Cancun and then to Cuba, because it’s the shortest travel distance. Cancun is the cheapest place to get accommodation if you have to spend the night.
Have you already seen things start to change in Cuba despite little outside influence from the developed West?
Remember that though the American embargo was in place for years, very few other countries in the world have had travel restrictions for Cuba. Europeans have been going there for a while. I don’t know if it seemed as hot of a destination, because it didn’t get the same sort marketing that it does now.
A lot of people say, “I want to get to Cuba before it changes,” but Cuba has been changing all the time. When I started going there, things were still raw, in a way. There has been a change in the urban landscape. You used to see Santeria ceremonies, the main religion in Cuba, in neighborhoods that are now more touristic locations.
Santeria is a blend of Yoruban polytheism and Catholicism. In this religion, there are multiple gods and goddesses who come onto Earth and possess people, and then through those people they offer wisdom and blessings. There are certain rhythms that are played only for ceremonies, which open the door to the heavens. Anybody can become possessed in a ceremony. It’s quite an experience.
People of that religion greet one another with the same kind of deep admiration and respect that they would a god or goddess, because anyone is a potential vessel for the god or goddess to run through.
As a dancer, I love it. I discovered Santeria for the first time when I was wandering down the street and heard those rhythms. I thought, “What is this rhythm that I’ve never danced to?” I went to go check it out, people invited me in, and I discovered this whole new experience.
A lot of people are very scared when looking at another religion, but it’s amazing to experience and witness and contemplate an entirely different mindset.
I live part of the year in West Africa too, and I see where some of the roots in indigenous villages there have evolved in Cuba. It’s quite fascinating to see the parts of Cuban culture that are really African.
I think that one of the reasons why communism became attractive as a political system in Cuba is because in African culture, you share everything. In Africa, everyone sits around and eats form the same bowl, no matter how much food there is. A certain amount is cooked, and if more people from the village show up, it goes to smaller portions. People who work come home and share with their entire family compound, which could be around 50 people. Sharing is a very natural African value and psychology.
It’s very difficult for an African living in that context to step up from a quality of life standpoint. They get stuck sharing their income with the larger group. It’s interesting to see both the beauty of that as well as the challenges that come with it.
What would you say to someone who wants to be a little more adventurous, to convince him or her to go to Cuba and discover what it has to offer? Is there something in particular that Cuba can unlock in a traveler who goes there for the first time?
I think Americans tend to feel isolated, but in Cuba you really feel what it’s like to be fully welcomed and taken in. When you’ve experienced all that nurturing and love from strangers who take you right in like you’re family, you know how to bring that back and share that with others.
Some women go to Cuba and feel a little overwhelmed, because men talk a lot on the streets. It’s a very macho culture, but also one that has a lot of love, appreciation, and respect for women. What the men value about women they fully value, and they acknowledge that and speak it out loud.
I always tell women to not take it so seriously. I feel like it’s a form of entertainment for Cubans. They don’t have access to a lot of things, like cable TV or the internet, so they sit on the street in front of their houses in Havana, watch people parade by, and find ways to say interesting, poetic comments and see which ones catch. It’s like going fishing with your words.
People will always speak. The choice is yours to respond or not respond. Americans tend to be very friendly. In Cuba you want to look the other way and kind of smile, but not engage with the other person unless you want that contact.
It’s okay to be really feminine in Cuba, which I think is sometimes hard to do in American culture with all the issues around sexual harassment or what’s politically correct. I feel like people have to be very gender neutral in the United States. In Cuba, women get a chance to rediscover parts of their femininity that they don’t always get to express or experience.
Men are also forced into being more gender neutral in the United States. I think that men here are terrified of doing something wrong. It might be refreshing for them to be in a place where they can also be more traditional and feel that role.
Anytime you travel or find yourself in an international scene, you have to learn how that culture sees the world. Anytime you step out of your own culture and place, the first thing to do is to observe the people around you carefully, and see what it is they’re doing to learn the lay of the land. That way, you will move through the challenging parts more quickly.
How do the things that you would normally purchase in America on a daily basis differ in Cuba, and how are they similar? What should travelers prepare for?
I would say that Cuba is changing about every three months at an “avalanche-turbo-rate” right now. Years ago, for example, I would never have thought of eating out at a restaurant. They were all state run.
About three to five years ago, Cuba had a policy change so that people can now own private property and start an enterprise. This has started to take off within the last year.
In the one neighborhood that I usually live in, there are about six great restaurants that opened up, and they’re all fantastic. It’s great, creative food. There are no Starbucks or that kind of thing, but we don’t know at what rate things will progress and in what direction they will go. You might go to a smaller town though, and still see what things were like in the past.
As a tourist, what would you do in that situation? Would you have to go into a family’s home and ask to share with them?
In the past, the best food you would eat would always be in people’s homes. Some people have formalized those into paladar, where they have their little restaurant in the front living room of their house.
In other cases, you would maybe ask around a neighborhood, or you’d ask the family you were staying with who the best cook is in the neighborhood. You could go to different neighbors and spread out the wealth by giving them some money and having them cook your dinner that night. That’s pretty much how I always ate.
The food is incredible, because about 90 percent of it is grown locally, and it’s organic. There’s nothing like fresh guava juice in the morning, and fresh coffee from a little organic farm.
Another funny thing for travelers is that it’s good money to sell a pig. I was staying in one house just before New Years. The family next door had been raising three pigs and decided to kill them at 7:00 one morning. It was quite horrible to hear the pig scream, but that’s the reality of real food and what it takes to get that food.
What was the most surprising thing or things that you’ve experienced in or about Cuba so far?
That’s hard, because I’ve been going there for so many years. I think one thing people will find very curious is that Cubans live a kind of double life. In the past, everyone was required to have his or her state job, and almost everyone also had an additional ‘under the table’ job to survive.
Then Cuba started allowing free enterprise, which has been transitioning into people starting their own businesses. Almost everyone is a small business owner, unless they’re still working for the state. They might be taxi drivers, or own a house and rent rooms, or have a restaurant, or sew clothes. People can now start registering those as private enterprises.
Because it was illegal to have a second job in the past, Cuba never had any marketing or advertising. There are no signs or billboards there now. People traveling to Cuba might find it very refreshing to be in a non-commercial space.
In the case of second jobs, people had to work only with people they trusted. Any time you wanted to find or buy something, you had to go through a network of trust. Cuba still operates that way, because these are patterns that are really ingrained in people.
You could also look at how collective trauma happens. Unfortunately, it’s happening all over the world right now. Cuba has had it’s own, too, like the repercussions of the embargo and the “special period” that have left their mark on how Cubans function in the world. It’s interesting to observe a culture where people have lived under a lot of repression, and see all the ways they have learned to survive.
I’ve heard that the average Cuban is joyful and self-expressed. Despite the destruction, trauma, and human rights issues, how are Cubans still so happy?
Cubans have also had many great things. Not that they live well on government subsidies, but they have always had food, healthcare, education, housing, and transportation covered in a basic way.
I feel like Cuba came through a time where it responded to a very urgent issue, like the Special Period, when Russia stepped out and the American embargo was in place. Suddenly grandparents were starving to death to make sure their grandchildren were being fed. When you see that happening with your people, you want to get that figured out. So what do you do?
There are policies such as if you kill a cow, you go to prison for life. It’s pretty damn straight. Some people would say that’s ridiculous for someone to be in prison for life for killing a cow, but they look at it like if you’re killing a cow, you’re killing six people, because six people don’t have access to the milk.
The laws are also changing in Cuba. It used to be illegal to hold American dollars, but it’s not anymore. So what should happen with the people who are still in prison from 10 years ago who did it, because it’s no longer illegal? Are they going to be given amnesty? All these things are rapidly evolving.
I think this is very positive, but it’s also part of a natural evolution of coming out of a place of chaos and moving towards a place of stability. I think growing too fast has also been a challenge for Cuba. They’ve been sort of fast-tracking many things to try to really work with this time that Obama is in office, because the policies of the people who are running for office now could be radically different. This is creating this hyper speed for change, and that also comes with its risks and challenges. They’re dealing with choices, and what the consequences are of the different scenarios.
Do you now take people to Cuba with you? Is this a business for you, or is it for fun?
I started a company called Havana Creative. It started out because people—my family, friends, and acquaintances—knew I spent a lot of time in Cuba and everyone had questions. As it has started to open, many people have been coming to me to ask for advice on where to go, where to stay, what to see and what to do.
It’s a place that I love, so I love to send people and to encourage them to go and discover it. It became so much of a full-time activity, that I decided I needed to formalize it. I’m at the very early phases of creating a website that is a portal for information.
I’m just building the website now. It’ll be located at www.havanacreative.com when it’s live. Basic things that I’ve been helping with have been facilitating lodging and housing for people. These are things that you can kind of get online and see photographs of sometimes, but I want to help people in really knowing what neighborhood they’re in, that it’s the right neighborhood, that you’re in a clean, safe and good house with good people. A place that’s not just about the photographs, but is also a really great spot with amazing people.
I want to be able to connect people to really local resources, like a university professor who could take them on a walking tour of architecture or urban planning, or help them create a custom itinerary based on some special interests. So it’s a very personalized, local perspective, getting people comfortable but integrated into what people on an average day experience.
And yes, there are still a lot of challenges with traveling in Cuba.
You’ll wait in line for so many things. There aren’t many banks. You only change money in the change house, or CADECA, but the line is very long. If you’re buying an Internet card, the line is very long.
You can do things on the street, but not everybody is comfortable changing their money on the black market, or if they don’t speak the language, not knowing whom they’re buying the card from. And that guy probably spent a couple hours waiting in line to buy the legal limit of like three half an hour Internet cards, and he’s going to sell two. It becomes a business for him.
People make a business out of waiting in line in Cuba.
Around New Years Eve, a lot of people kill pigs for the holidays. They come and they deliver pigs in these giant trucks. People will be out there just like on black Friday, and they’ll be there the day before to get their ticket to get their place in line to buy the pig. They’ll resell their ticket to people, so some people don’t have to wait in line.
If you’re going for a short holiday, you don’t want to spend half of it waiting in lines. One thing that Havana Creative can facilitate is helping with things like internet cards and bus tickets, or getting things that you’d otherwise have to spend a lot of time waiting to get. In addition, I am really interested in helping facilitate people who also want to bring small groups down, especially any sort of creative arts, or entrepreneurial activities.
One of the things I’ve done is blocked inventory of a lot of really great casas that have 6 to 10 rooms for 10 to 20 people, because there’s not enough infrastructure to support the influx of tourism right now. I’ve made the reservations and paid the deposits to have certain inventory. So with some of these pieces, as well as the contacts I have, I can make it easy for a small group to come down and have a great experience there.
There are a few trips that I’m personally facilitating and leading, in addition to helping other people who want to do that. I am bringing about 25 business students from the University of Colorado-Boulder Global Creativity and Innovation MBA class down for a two-week tour at the end of April. We’re doing things like having dinner with Cuban entrepreneurs, who are some of the people that Obama met with. We have lectures on economics, legal structures, import and export, and manufacturing.
There were also fun things mixed in with that, like an activity called Havana Hacks, where people can go out and look for creative hacks for how Cubans have solved small problems in creative ways. So it might be that they reused a water bottle to create a watering system. We will be looking for these kinds of things, then facilitating some sort of dialogues and discussions around it.
I’m doing a dance trip from July 18th through the 22nd. I’m bringing people for dance workshops, and it’s overlapping with the carnival period in Santiago. Carnival time is not based on religion there, but on the Día de la Revolución on the 26th, so it focuses around this Cuban independence celebration.
In the future, I would really like to do more things that facilitate the arts from a tourism standpoint. A fantasy end goal would be to work with a lot of Cuban artists who are friends of mine and who are jazz artists, musicians, dancers, and painters. I want to work with everybody in the arts and create a collaborative, creative space. Cuba has such a vibrant, creative culture, and for me to bring people together in that environment and collaborate on creative work would be very special.
There’s nothing like having an informal jazz jam session, and letting people bring in whatever their instrument or background is and create fusions. It’s the same thing with dance. What happens when you mix tango with salsa, or some other dance form? It creates a really interesting, invigorated space!
Where is the best place to go for people who want to find out more about you or your work?
At this moment, if they’re interested in doing anything with Cuba, they should email info[at]havanacreative.com.
Hillary Griffith has been traveling to Cuba for over 15 years, as a dancer, an artist, and a social entrepreneur. She is the founder of Havana Creative, a company that facilitates group travel to Cuba for people who want to experience the country in-depth. For more information or to join a group, email her at info[at]havanacreative.com.