Want to be happier and less stressed? Then take a trip to Cuba and make like the locals
It’s not just the heat from the Caribbean sun that can be felt wandering the dusty backstreets of Havana – the warmth of the Cuban people is just as tangible. All smiles and waves, it’s as if the obvious poverty doesn’t bother them. Not for that moment, as we pass, anyway – maybe not ever. In passing, all we get is a glimpse. We can only really guess the truth of it all. But in a place where being poor is the norm for most families and the average income is a shocking $25 per month, you’d imagine they might be more miserable.
Buildings that are crumbling in a way that makes for nice photos but not-so-nice homes, provide the backdrop for the lively townsfolk. Not a sad face among them.
On our first night there, one of our group was taken ill in a bar and the staff were amazing. It was clear they knew their first aid and did everything in their power to make things right. The Cuban family on the next table were also concerned and, despite having had their evening interrupted, still asked if everything was OK and offered to help in whatever way they could. In the UK, people would turn a blind eye. In the USA, they’d sue.
On the outskirts of town on the Malecón, at the Iberostar Habana Riviera, a faded hotel with more than the faintest whiff of the 60s about it, the staff couldn’t be more friendly and helpful. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the foyer not only framed the passing vintage cars and across-the-road sea looking out towards Miami, but also served to reflect the warmth and smiles from inside the building.
Scenic driving in a stylish car
I go for a ride around central Havana in a pink Cadillac. Like you do. At 62 years old, she wasn’t doing too badly (the car, not me). OK, so the gears crunched a little and the front passenger door flew open halfway up a dual carriageway, but I still felt like a modern-day Lady Penelope.
OK, so the gears crunched a little and the front passenger door flew open halfway up a dual carriageway, but I still felt like a modern-day Lady Penelope.
I ask my tour guide – a beautiful lady in her fifties, sat next to me on the leather back seat – what makes the Cuban people so happy?
I comment too, as we drive slowly past about 20 pensioners in a park, moving rhythmically and in synch, how slim and fit the majority of elderly Cubans seem to be, despite the supposedly high intake of rum and cigars. “They’re doing tai chi,” says my guide. “We look after our old people here.”
She tells me the average age at death of a Cuban is 79.5, which reminds me of the tiny 88-year-old Cuban lady who sat next to me on the eight-hour flight from Gatwick, (“Call me Mama,” she’d chuckled, as she swept leftover freebies from my fold-down table into the capacious bag at her feet) and that the country has the highest doctor-to-patient ratio in the entire world, with 58 doctors to every 10,000 people, compared to just under 21 per 10,000 in the UK.
We talk about mental health and I mention how joyful most of the natives appear to be. She says it’s probably because they live simple lives. It’s the complexity of modern-day living that causes sad faces and stress-related illness, she reckons.
Across the street, on a patch of green, are a group of teenagers, kicking a ball around. Along a bit further are some young people sat on the back of a bench, laughing and chatting. With the internet introduced a mere three years ago and wi-fi available in only a few places, there’s not a mobile phone in sight. These kids are actually talking to each other (“in real life,” as our kids might say) and looking at each other (using their eyes, not via Instagram pics!).
They are interacting the old-fashioned way and look very happy about it. No frowny brows, squinty eyes and hunched shoulders; the youth of Cuba look carefree, un-addled and – dare I say it? – normal.
In the bars, there is dancing, singing, smoking, drinking, the air around buzzing with chatter and music. No-one sits still for long. The constant movement is mesmerising.
I notice there’s not much variation in the clothes worn by Cuban youth – with the girls in colourful skimpy shorts and tiny t-shirts and the boys in looser variations of the same garb. My guide informs me that, in Cuba, not only do people not go shopping (“they only go to a shop if they need something,” she says), but that there are only two types of clothing available to buy – “boutique or economy,” she says, adding that “most people buy economy.”
It’s actually quite nice not to be constantly bombarded with billboards, telling us what to buy and how to look.
She also points out the lack of advertising: in fact you’re more likely to see images of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and John Lennon than posters showing stuff available to buy. This is thanks to Cuba being a socialist country and a one-party government (led by Miguel Diaz Canel) who don’t allow any private companies to promote anything that might be viewed as ‘propaganda’. I must say that it’s actually quite nice not to be constantly bombarded with billboards, telling us what to buy and how to look.
Make like the Cubans
Later in the holiday, at the beautiful Dhawa Hotel at Cayo Santa Maria, the locals were as friendly, kind and laid-back as they were in Havana. As a woman, I noticed – and I feel almost sexist for saying this, but any woman who’s travelled abroad especially alone will know exactly what I mean – that the men were respectful and polite and not even in the slightest bit flirtatious.
There seemed to be fewer rules about the small things – smoking, crossing the road, drinking – and, whereas at home, we often feel under scrutiny, in Cuba that feeling was absent.
After all we are told about the place, I was surprised to feel that way.
Adding it all together, I come to the conclusion that the happiness, health and kindness of Cuban people has much to do with the way they live – in a simple way, low on technology, money and advertising, high on fresh air, movement and life.
I remember commenting to no-one in particular as I sat in a tiny backstreet bar in downtown Havana how everything just felt so real. Hard to recapture now I’m back to non-reality…
To be happy, perhaps we need to take a step back and follow their lead and, strange dance move though that might be, maybe going backwards for a bit is the only way forward!
So stop fretting so much, have a few cigars, drink some rum, smile big smiles and make like the Cubans. Just remember to dance, sing and laugh at every opportunity. Oh, and to leave your phone at home.
Going to Cuba? Then make sure you….
… take a tour of Havana in a vintage classic car, making sure to drive along the Malecón, one of the city’s typically Cuban thoroughfares
… while you’re in Havana, pop along to the John Lennon Memorial Park and sit next to a bronze statue of the man himself. You can also talk to Aleeda Rodriguez Perasa, a lady employed by the government to specifically guard the statue’s removable glasses!
… go to the lively town of Remedios and see one of the island’s oldest churches (built around 1550)
… sunbathe on its finest beach – Playa Sirena
… drink some Cuban rum! If you like cocktails, go for a mojito
… stroll around the beautiful Plaza del Carmen near the town of República
… check out the Salto del Guayabo waterfall near the Villa Pinares del Mayari, the highest in Cuba
… walk through the Plaza de la Revolución, one of the country’s best outdoor music venues, where orchestras regularly play
… visit Trinidad Cuba, a stunning Spanish colonial town, part of which is a UNESCO world heritage site
… dance! Strut your stuff in one of the many live music bars or with some locals in the street
… visit the tobacco fields of Vinales and smoke a Cuban cigar. It’d be rude not to
* * * *
Jacqui visited Cuba as part of the FITCUBA Fair 2018, and was invited by the Cuba Tourist Board
The tour in Havana was courtesy of Viajes Cubanacan (MINTUR) ground handler of the UK tour operator Holiday Place
Jacqui stayed at the Iberostar Habana Riviera Hotel in Havana and at the Dhawa Hotel in Cayo Santa Maria. The “Gran Manzana Kempinski and Royalton Cayo Santa Maria” package from Cuba Direct includes three nights at the elegant Gran Manzana Kempinski in the heart of Cuba’s capital Havana, followed by four nights of luxury and relaxation at the Royalton in Cayo Santa Maria, a paradisiacal island off the coast of Cuba. Based on two people sharing over seven nights and including transfers and representation services, the package costs £1,239 per person. This package does not include international flights. Book here