Whenever someone asks me how I am doing, my response is evermore ‘Good. Stressed though.’ This is not an automatism, it’s the truth. I never feel at peace. Every single phone call with my mom starts with ‘I’m sorry I haven’t responded earlier, but…’ and I never reach my eight hours of sleep. I sometimes complain about my anxiety and stress, blather and babble about how my life is so hard, but it is always followed by the realization that the only one to blame is me. I do this to myself. I could say no more often, skip a few meetings or turn off my cellphone. It is just that – even though I would like to call myself a pretty disciplined person – I never seem to be able to find the strength.
When I discuss my frustrations with a friend, this phenomenon is recognized. We are stressed people with complex lives and the only ones that could solve this problem would be ourselves. This bothers me, because I am also aware of how blessed I am. I am truly grateful to be born in this country, in Europe, to be living in a house in Amsterdam and to be able to buy everything I need plus sometimes a few things that I just want. My life is so rich, yet it’s never enough.
Last month, I got the opportunity to travel to Cuba for twentyfive days. The first thing you need to know about Cuba when it comes to luxuries, is that there are none. Clean water is hard to find and not cheap, on the menu you will find beans, rice and chicken (which is delicious, but limited in choice) and due to communism, shops are nowhere to be found. At one point I wanted to find a bathing suit, which seemed like a basic item to purchase on an island, but I never found one. The government wants to decrease the gap between the rich and poor to every extent, so all goods are delivered in batches. This means that, when a batch of soap is delivered, everyone runs to the store to buy a stock and after a few hours the store is out of soap again. Also, every item solely comes in one form. There is one type of sunglasses, water, shampoo, or perfume, so everyone smells the same. Lastly, the average income of a Cuban citizen lies around the $25,- a month, so luxury items are not on the priority list. At one point during my trip I walked past a grand, beautiful theme park. It was completely abandoned; no one had the money to visit it.
However, also because of communism: Healthcare, education and owning a house is free. The government provides every citizen with the basics, so I never encountered any beggars or homeless shelters.
Now in my Amsterdam-based life, I like to, as they call it on your Instagram feed, treat myself. Then again, who doesn’t? On social media the amount of pictures with fancy dinners, fine glasses of Chardonnay, spa days and newly purchased phresh shoes is endless. This basically means that we regard being nice to yourself as consuming good food and new stuff. This is a very western, capitalist point of view. This mindset can hardly be found in Cuba. You have what you get, the end. However, and for me this was the first thing that I noticed when I stepped out of the airplane, everyone seemed so content. So much more relaxed and overall happier than the Dutch.
Not once in my journey have I witnessed some fleeky contouring (ain’t nobody heard of Kim’s contouring kit there), thigh gaps or summer bodies – going to the gym is also a luxury – an iPhone (let alone the latest edition) or a Supreme sweater. No one runs off to the Stach for an overpriced quinoa salad because they want to ‘take care of themselves’, or needs a Tanqueray gin with Fever tree tonic and three slices of lime to ‘really relax’. (I don’t want to roast anyone but myself with this, because I am describing my favorite drink here.)
I find that they find other ways to treat themselves, and, in my humble opinion, better ways. For example, they spend a lot of time with their friends and family. Every night, on the main square of whatever village I was staying in, everyone gathered around with some rum and speakers and just hung out. They talked about their days and danced some salsa while the youths flirted with each other. Everyone shared what they had, even if it wasn’t much, with total strangers like me, without asking if I wanted some. It was so naturally embodied in their system, that they also took some of my cigarettes without asking. I was a little surprised but said nothing, and later on they handed me a few again, because sharing is just part of their culture. Everyone on the square is welcome and greeted as a friend. They are interested in your story, not your money, and are happy to teach you some Spanish, or the salsa.
Even though the ingredients on the island are so restricted (the only two vegetables there are, are tomato’s and cole: Every ‘mixed salad’ literally consisted of those two items) they really take time to enjoy dinner. One of the ladies that hosted the casa particulara (bed & breakfast) I was staying at, started at 2 P.M already to prepare a special vegetable soup (tomato & cole soup, as you could have guessed) and at dinnertime, she sat down with her family and they stayed at the table for hours. Having dinner is not about the dinner, it’s about each other.
Thirdly, they relax more in general. They don’t worry so much, they just allow things to happen as they come. I feel like, in the Western part of the world, people want to construct their lives too much. As if it is a puzzle in which we can decide where each piece is going to go. In Cuba, citizens are much more accepting of what life brings them. Being limited in choice can give so much freedom. Walking the streets, you see a lot of people on the sidewalk on a rocking chair, listening to music while watching pedestrians. When someone passes that they know, he or she stops for a chat, sits down next to them and together they enjoy a cigar and a moment of relaxation. One time I was sitting in a taxi on the highway, and we passed a car that was broken down. My driver stopped and told me he was going to help them, even though it was still a long way to my hotel. He prioritized helping a man over me – his client – because at the moment that was the right thing to do. And I loved it. When you don’t cling on to your schedule so much, and just live life as it happens, it doesn’t feel like the world is ending when things aren’t going the way you planned.
Now, after I realized all of this, I reflected on my own life. I always cancel on family dinners because I have something else to do, my breakfast routine is me on my bike with a croissant from the Appie-to-go, and when I think I need to be nice to myself I buy a cute dress. Cuba made me realize I got it all twisted. Spending time with the people you genuinely care about, sharing whatever you have with your friends, taking time to just sit and enjoy some good music (preferably in a rocking chair), makes you feel way more content. This sounds slightly corny and also like old news, but I think that, while a lot of us know that memories are worth more than property, a lot of people of my generation are trying to comfort themselves with exactly that: things. Why aren’t we using the caption ‘treat yourself’ beneath pictures of us having a good time with loved ones? Spoil yourself with good company! Pamper your mind with doing nothing, indulge your body with relaxing.
I would like to add that, at the same time, I don’t believe communism is the answer to all of our Western problems. And I wouldn’t state that there’s anything wrong with a little consumerism or materialism. I know for a fact that I will be buying a new pair of Nikes in the near future. All I want to say is that I think high quality stuff never equals a high quality life, and that high quality time with loved ones will bring you much closer to happiness than material things ever can. Cubans know. Salud!
Text: Misha Ragas