that place i hired a mariachi band off the street

we've been back stateside since november 12. almost two months.

i am not exaggerating when i say never has planning a trip been so stressful. and, it's true what they say. it pays off:

never has a journey been so rewarding. 

there are some feelings/places/people/things/experiences of which i feel no words can do justice. this is one of them. it doesn't matter what i say or show, the only way to experience cuba is to experience cuba. in person. and, by the way, my american friends, yes, you still can.

i'm a little biased, but i'm pretty sure our trip was extra extraordinary. the timing was maddening. in 2016, obama made it possible for u.s. citizens to legally experience cuba. our group trip was booked in march 2017. in june, our current administration announced it would be partially rolling back obama's changes. never for a second did this actually directly affect us, but...you know the damage media coverage and tweeting elected officials can do. then, in august, that 'sonic attack' thing started. 

but wait, there's more. 

in september, a month before our trip, hurricane irma touched the exact part of the country we were set to visit. interestingly, we found out that though the hurricane mildly trashed the town, it actually made the shoreline way more beautiful. also in september, the us state department put out travel alerts to cuba, telling its citizens not to travel there. that warning was downgraded just yesterday. (hint of lessons to follow: NOTHING HAS CHANGED SINCE THE INITIAL 'ALERT.' NOTHING.)

and finally, on our second to last day IN cuba, we were told by locals it was a 'very important day' for us to be visiting the cuban start-up business we were with: it had been broadly announced that morning that u.s. travel to cuba was once again going to come with more restrictions. 

this trip was a bold step into the unknown. it wasn't a physical yoga retreat. cuba isn't a place you get to regularly roam freely at will; we certainly were not going to spend our time in country practicing handstands for hours. this was about off the mat evolution. it fed a need to explore beyond geographical and mental borders. to practice coexistence. to be responsible citizens of the world. to willingly learn. 

and it impacted. since returning home almost two months ago, i have processed every bit of information i've been given differently. i learn as a necessity. there is no complacency. i assume i know nothing, and then i figure it out. and when it changes, like everything does, i figure it out again.

we were a dozen americans who successfully navigated through a socialist/communist society. we lived together in the suburbs of havana for a week, in a sprawling home that was centrally focused on an outdoor breakfast table set for twelve and a swimming pool. we got to know each other on our first afternoon there, sitting around that swimming pool and sharing who we were as told through our travel habits and dreams. i planned nothing for that first half day there, assuming we'd all be exhausted and need some quiet rest time to reset and process.

right out the gates, cue that 'you know nothing. keep learning.' spirit. we were wired. we wandered our town. we managed to find the shittiest rum in all of cuba, and i think we stayed up until past when the clock struck the next day drinking it. that day, we had a scheduled walking tour of havana. by the end of that first full day, we had seen/learned/felt so much already; it was like we had been in country for a week plus. and we wanted more.  

when you travel to cuba as a us citizen, you commit to an itinerary of engaging with and supporting the cuban people. highlights of our plans included exploration of the city and visiting an independent magazine and local farm. (organic, like all cuban farms.) at finca tungasuk, we toured the land and ate an amazingly prepared, completely fresh meal. (helps when one of the owners is a french chef!) we got dirty in the fields, learning just how humbling it is to respectfully work the land- especially when that work is clean up and replanting post hurricane. 

at vistar, we saw the urban side of a cuban career, visiting the offices, studio, (and, accidentally, home) of some of the owners/executives of cuba's first independent magazine. hear their story: how they started an internet business in a country with super limited internet resources, and you will never bitch about a power outage or shitty phone or net service again.  

we successfully made it through our week not supporting a single government-owned paladar or business. all of our group money went directly to individual cubans. our use of the tourist pesos gave these individuals the monetary resources needed to purchase fresh food and other items normally reserved for foreign visitors. one day, upon discovering an orphanage in our neighborhood, we asked how we could help, and a few of us were able to pool extra money together and buy art supplies for the kids. (pool like $60 to buy about 8 crayons and some printer paper in cuba, and you will never bitch about a marked up luxury item again. and yes, colored pencils are a luxury.) 

as much as i truly hope we made a positive impact on everyone we met in cuba, they got the raw end of the deal. i think they taught us so much more.

cuba taught us to focus on the positive: those evening bugs are eating you alive as you practice yoga outside, but ohmygod look at those stars. you've never seen a sky like this. 

cuba taught us that you should 'work to live, not live to work': literally, those words were spoken to us by a farmer. figuratively, they were whispered every time anyone in the group with a stressful stateside job had to wrestle with not having the internet or resources to check in. 

cuba taught us that being present DOES create more time: truly. to detach from being available to the 74k apps on your phone is real. when there are no distractions, your only option is what's in front of you. and OHMYGOD IN CAPITAL LETTERS, it's true. time moves slower when you do one thing at a time. you live more fully when you do one thing at a time. you notice everything and everyone around you when you look up and look out. when you look up and look out, you recognize what you need, and just as importantly, what you don't. 

cuba taught me that yes, in the same way i felt a sense of urgency to do this trip and do it NOW around a year ago from writing this, you should always follow those things you're called to do. those are the things you never forget. 

on our final night in cuba, we had one last group dinner in town scheduled. after we got settled at our table, i had to run out to grab two of our girls who were coming from a different location. i never actually found them (they found us, don't worry)  but instead i found myself walking up on a full-on mariachi band. i'm absolutely not one to randomly talk to strangers. but when's the last time you fell in pace with a mariachi band? i struck up a conversation in spanish, and, long story short, five minutes later we shook on a price, and i had hired my first mariachi band. they turned their direction to follow me back to our restaurant to sing 'happy birthday' to hollie, who would be celebrating hers the following day. 

it started lightly raining as we chatted and walked to the paladar. and then it started downpouring. i will never, ever forget running down the sidewalk, dashing for cover in the rain, with this mariachi band in the streets of cuba.  

cuba also taught us some good old simple things, like: yes, there ARE tarantulas in cuba. yes, mice DO fall into swimming pools, and assisting them may require some well-thought out plans; they don't care how much rum you've already had. yes, roosters DO cock-a-doodle-doo at all hours of the day. and yes, yes you should expect that if you're a dude with a beard traveling to cuba, you're gonna be called che or hemingway for a week.

i think, to support everything we are taught when we travel, our role is to understand the responsibility that comes with that experience.

i share my experience in cuba to share what i learned. i learned to not waste. (and, uhh, before november, i had thought i was kinda good at that already.) i was given affirmation that evolution is an amazing value to live by, and that ego in excess is a violent destroyer. yoga and me go back ten years now. and to date, nothing has changed my practice more than the che guevara/revolution studies i've given a good chunk of my free time to these past few months. 

i obviously learned much more than that brief list. i have a lot more to say about cuba. about how it's people- as a cultural generalization- come across as hopeful, positive, resourceful as f*ck, and responsible for their own actions. i have a lot more to say about america's relationship with cuba, and the revolution, and cigars and rum and old cars, and 'that whole sonic attack thing.' if you're interested, hit me up. i'll trade you a lager and/or a taco for tales of travel. but whether you want to know more or not, PLEASE know that, unless you see it with your own eyes and hear it with your own ears, you can't take it for ultimate truth. KEEP. LEARNING.

now, here's a photo journey of this adventure. (*see desktop version for photo descriptions.)