Creativity, Community and Conservation

The shelves were mostly barren.  Andre and I walked up and down each row of the store, in search of food for our upcoming group picnic.  Looking for cans of tuna, a jar of mayo, pickles, some bread.  We found none of that.  Indeed, the only item we could use was a package of cookies, the kind that is good even when your stomach isn’t feeling great — dense cream-colored cookie/biscuits with writing embossed into the top.  We did see about 8 cans of corn or beans, a few packets of premixed seasonings, and some other random food items I can’t remember now.  But I can clearly envision the aisles of cleaning supplies, stocked from top to bottom and front to back.  (Those shelves seem ironic in today’s pandemic when there is no Clorox or Lysol to be found in U.S. stores.)

We were in one of Havana’s few super markets, prepping for our upcoming group trip, a cultural experience of Cuba’s arts. In the end, we decided to have our lunch catered by a local, because they know where and when to find the best food.

In contrast, or perhaps in response to the austerity, Havana’s people are resourceful, creative and generous. Colorful, 50’ style cars are symbolic of Havana. To me, the Buicks and Studebakers represent a community dedicated to reusing, repairing, repainting. Yes, this earth-friendly behavior comes from necessity because of trade embargos against the communist Cuban government.  But Cubans’ small ecological footprint is impressive. If only the rest of the world could model Cuba in this regard, the climate change crisis wouldn’t be on our horizon.

I have often traveled throughout the developing world, savoring life a little closer to the earth, in  South America, Central America, Asia, and Africa. The hardest part of  traveling to these locales is witnessing first-hand the huge economic discrepancy between me and so many local people. 

In Havana, I didn’t find people on the streets asking for hand-outs – a vivid contrast to every other developing country that I have visited. Yes, there were run-down buildings and streets in disrepair. But I felt a sense of equality and community here. Sounds of piano practice coming from a house window, laughter from the folks watching two men playing checkers at tables on the shady street, at least a hundred people dancing with heart and soul at a neighborhood “jam” session, and so many other wonderful vignettes of daily life.

Weekly community jam session and dancing: “Rumba Morena” in Callejon de Hamel, Havana

While walking in the city-center we came across vibrant young women performing Afro-Cuban dances on the street.  Their main audience was tots from the adjacent youth center, sitting on small stools right the middle of the pedestrian street, learning about Cuban cultural heritage, celebrating the goddesses of nature enacted by the dancers.

Cuban music and dance was the focus of our trip; we took dance and drum and singing lessons and experienced a range of performances. Each Cuban teacher demonstrated a deep pride in his or her art-form as well as Cuba’s dedication to the arts.

We took several percussion lessons
We saw a performance and also took a dance and drumming workshop with Obini Bata, a gender barrior-breaking all-women’s drum and dance group. My goal is to help raise money for their worthy auditorium project.

We enjoyed a walking tour with Elias to learn about Santaria, the Afro Cuban religion originating from times of slavery.

Our three day trip to to the rural town of Viñales was a brief glance into rural Cuban life and the cigar industry for which Cuba is renowned.

My three weeks in Cuba gave me an introduction to Cuban life; it was one of the most meaningful trips I have experienced because although they certainly have their problems, Cubans demonstrated that there is another way to live that isn’t just about having more material things, but about creativity, community, and conservation.

Grocery shopping in Golden, Colorado now isn’t so different from the stores in Havana. Suddenly people here, who are not accustomed to scarcity of food or supplies, are faced with a new reality, unimaginable less than a month ago.

I am heartened by stories of resourcefulness; sewing machines are coming out of back closets and folks are creating protective masks for a community need. So many acts of kindness, when time is more plentiful than money.

For Cubans, “normal” is a lifetime of conserving and making do with what they have, celebrating with music and dance and other arts.  I wonder how our society in the U.S. will return to “normal” life? Will we remember how to spend more time together and drive less, use fewer resources?

Cuba operates under a different paradigm, doing its best to function under the ideology of shared wealth and resources. The World Wildlife Fund has declared that Cuba is the only country in the world that is truly approaching sustainable development. Thanks to a massive energy conservation effort, which included free compact fluorescent lightbulbs for everybody, Cuba now uses one eighth of the per capita energy that the US does. Ninety percent of the food consumed in Havana is from local, urban organic farms. There is a nearly 100% literacy rate, the country boasts the lowest crime rate in the western hemisphere, and there are more doctors per capita than in the United States.” – from the True Nature Journey website

P.S. On an unrelated note, I was trying to find the name of the cookies I bought in Havana, which are common throughout Latin America. Wikipedia has a great table of cookies — not the one I was looking for, but it made me happy — very interesting if you like cookies: Origins of cookies


    • Thanks for your note T! It’s sort of weird to put it out there and not know if anyone is reading… Guess that’s par for the course. So nice to see you the other night!


  1. Brenda, this is such a thoughtful article. Thank you for sharing your creative spirit with your writing and illustrations.


  2. Hi, Brenda. Thanks so much for your reflections on Cuba and the US in this time. It was intriguing to contemplate how Cubans in the midst of crumbling imperialist infrastructure are creating a culture of sustainability and artistic expression. I was in the Soviet Union in 1968 at the height of the Cold War and stood for hours in line in stores with barely stocked shelves while the dollar stores where you paid in western currency were chock full of stuff! I love the way you integrate your verbal narrative with your sketches. I look forward to many more. Margaret


  3. Hi, Brenda. I just read your post about visiting Cuba and think it is great. Thanks for sharing your impressions of this vibrant culture through your writing and your beautiful watercolors.


  4. Loved your piece about Cuba. Having traveled myself with AGC to countries that are economically poorer than the US the people always seemed happy with their lives. Generations living together. Neighbors helping neighbors. Living of the land. Making do with what they had. Hoping we get to travel again but if not I’m thankful for the world I have seen, the people I’ve met and friends I’ve made. Stay safe and look forward to your next post.


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