We Are the Traffic

Ajahn Amaro, teacher in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition used to remind us, as we staggered into a meditaiton or yoga session late complaining of the busyness of the roads, that we always exclude ourselves when talking about “the traffic”. The morass of mobile intention around us is somehow separate from our own unique desire to go somewhere. We are not the problem.

I should probably compile or record all the emails or calls I receive now from students, friends, colleagues wanting to go to Cuba “before everyone else does”, wanting to be a unique traveller seeing only the authentic, less trammelled paths, places and people. Of course its totally understandable to want to visit a place that has been off-limits for over 50 years, and Cubans welcome contact, business and the connection that can result from these visits. However, to see ourselves as having no impact and separate from whatever future relationship Cuba and the US has, is to continue the ignorance and separation instilled by the embargo.  

We are quite literally "the traffic”. Vasito, a charming taxi driver who often meets our flights and gets us to our engagements, is very proud of his falling apart car, an ancient Lada. A whole part of his house is full of spare parts to keep it going. He doesn’t believe that he is part of the increasing air pollution problem in Habana; clouds billow out of his car as we sail from airport to hotel! But he does blame the increase in air pollution on the fleets of Chevys that are crowding Habana streets mainly to entertain the tourists. The air pollution in Habana has increased sharply since the increase in tourism. Most of the cars are owned by companies who are raking in the tourist dollars and converting the engines to low grade diesel that can be acquired on the black market. Vasito insists that these are the culprits in the pollution increase and this is one example of where our tourist dollars go that may not be to the benefit of the citizens of Habana.

Arriving in Habana airport and awaiting our luggage with the December 2015 group was one of the scarier moments of my group leading life! There simply isn’t the infrastructure to deal with the amount of planes arriving from the US already. For almost three hours we waited for our cases as more and more flights arrived. We were so jammed together with expectant others that I was at the point of telling everyone to get out of the terminal luggage less before something disastrous happened. And now we are getting 50 more flights daily from the US. Are we going to end up with big US companies owning and controling airports in Cuba as Ryan Air and other mamoth travel companies do in European cities?

This is not just a US issue. It’s now very hard to get a flight from Europe to Cuba – even Ryan Air hasn’t got into the act yet!. There were no restrictions on Europeans to visit in the past but the fear is that “ we must get to Cuba before the US destroys it”. It’s true there are 120 big companies, waiting for governement permission to dive into the economy, “sharpening their claws” according to Miguel Coyula, a well-known architect and concerned Havana citizen. Although European companies like Benetton and the Spanish hotel giant Melia are already right in the heart of Cuba, this is nothing compared to the vision that the US fast food companies have for Cuba. They have already carved up the island into potential franchises! It’s understandable that everyone is in a hurry to get there but hold on, think about how you get there and what your natural curiosity and friendly dollar is supporting along the way.

Miguel Coyula was one of those who spoke to our groups in 2014 and 2015. Within one year, the picture of Habana and its future has moved into an alarmingly delicate place. We were all impressed with how our own imprint and those of our friends who are coming here needs to be considered with great care and respect.

We also realised that the lone independent traveller doesn’t always get to meet folks like Miguel and this is why the government and ICAP (the organisation responsible for international friendship) prefers visitors to come through the vehicle of travel service providers that not only take care of travel arrangements but also have access to some of the inspiring and brilliant Cuban minds that are dealing with their own issues but also with a compassionate and farseeing perspective on global issues like climate change, organic farming, refugee situations, mass epidemics, preventive health systems. In all these areas there are remarkable people doing remarkable things.

Just the other day, Obama opened the door to individual people to people trips and in this article by NY Times, the implication is that organized trips through government agencies only give you a limited side of the picture.   Possibly so on some very controlled trips that are not well organized by the travel agency in the US.   But it is quite an assumption, a consequence of the embargo on ordinary  communication, that everyone on these educational tours are government puppets!   Our experience is very different.   

So my suggestion to those of you who are going to Cuba and/or taking groups to Cuba, is to really do your research. Don’t just go on tourist jaunt—go to find out what's going on, and yes, use official tours even if your anarchistic independent traveller being revolts at the idea.  Do chose carefully - there are sharks everywhere!  You may need to humble yourself and your expectations to visit this country with minimum impact. A few years ago my advise about going to this country would be very different, but few of you dared to go then, so now when the flood gates are opening, please remember you are the traffic.

Miguel Coyula discusses urban development of Havana, including relevant historical events and architectural highlights, at the beautiful Casa de la Amistad. Coyula is an architect, urban planner, and professor at the University of Havana.
Yornel Martinez from our Habana Study Group - Artist and Yogi

Yornel Martinez from our Habana Study Group - Artist and Yogi

So how to be part of the solution and not part of the problem?