A full moon lights the way through the dark as I am driven to the Havana airport. The streets are quiet. A few pedestrians pause at well-marked crosswalks. As the city awakens, I reflect on my fond memories of a week discovering what Cuban mental health professionals can offer to their American colleagues through a cultural educational exchange.
I experienced the Cubans’ huge heart (corazon muy grande) from our first day, when we joined them in the biodanza. This set a tone of warmth that we all experienced.
Arriving at Hotel Nacional, we listened to a brief lecture of how the Cuban healthcare is delivered with a mental health focus. Then we toured one of the hospitals where they shared about biodanza.
We jumped in with our colleagues as they demonstrated what they do. Biodanza is a modality they use with patients who have neurosis (a state of feeling quite troubled with anxiety or depression), our colleagues said as music began to play. Biodanza, they said, is a movement modality that includes dance but also being in a group, leading us to hold hands in a circle. This is because it allows eye contact as we move, they explained. The Cubans mental health professionals have found biodanza effective with many people having challenges in their lives.
The origins of this modality come from Spain and Brazil. Many staff members who have been trained in biodanza shared that it helps to remove the hierarchy between the practitioner-to-patient relationship. I found the dance to be simple to execute with the group holding hands often during the process.
Yet, the movements and interactions with others around me allowed for a deepening of connection very easily. Simple moves such as walking across the room and connecting with the other person with your eyes for a few moments without words enhanced the process. Another move was to simply walk across the room as others did but to do so with a sense of direction and commitment. Each experience helps to foster different levels of self-awareness and inner strength as well as a sense of community.
What a wonderful icebreaker this was! We all enjoyed this communal experience with our Cuban colleagues.
The days that followed included tours of other facilities, along with conversations with our Cuban counterparts. Being part of a people-to-people exchange leads to a full schedule, but often the day was finished by 4 or 5 p.m. after a start time about 9 a.m. or earlier.
We stayed at Hotel Presidente located in the Havana suburb of Vedado and near the Malecon, the road along the water. Walking around was an easy and safe experience. Local dining options included palladores within a block or so of the hotel. They were the first dining out options allowed under the regime and are located in private homes. Compared to four years ago when I was here, more restaurants were available near our hotel.
My travel companions and I had our evenings free, so we made arrangements to see two nightclub performances. I saw that the travel writer Rick Steves had recommended the Tropicana performance on a PBS program. Ten of us enjoyed the performance, which was set outdoors on multiple-tiered stages. The performers’ costumes were colorful with elaborate headdresses for the women. Carmen Miranda was with them in spirit as they danced to a live band.
The second nightclub act was in the theme of the Buena Vista Social Club, a esteemed form of Cuban jazz from the last century. The main woman singing was a powerhouse, and when I heard she was close to 80, I admired her more.
This is the first blog about my Cuban trip, and there’s more to follow.