Recently I was suggested to read a book on Happiness. Not that I am feeling unhappy, but I have gotten in the lucky position where I have been able to meet with a personal coach. She has been great in guiding me in self-reflection and self-exploration. As it turns out, I am living in one of the happiest periods of my life, but understanding happiness is one of the things we talked about.
The book is called ‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’ and was written by François Lelord. When I first heard about the basic idea of the book I recalled hearing about a movie with the same idea. As it turns out, this book has recently been turned into a movie but I haven’t bothered to watch it. Instead, I have only read the book, as in my opinion they usually turn out to better than the movies that are based on them. Especially as I wanted to be able to take my time to contemplate on what this book is about.
The author is a French psychiatrist who studied in the USA. He has had his own practice in Paris and is now located in Vietnam. He has written a few books but this one is his first big success. When I first looked into the book I thought it might require a lot of attention and analyzing to understand it, but luckily I was completely wrong.
When starting with the book I quickly realized that it is very easy to read. The style is simple and humorous so it does not take too much concentration at all. The chapters are short as well so it was ideal to read a couple when being on the train or metro.
The basic idea of the book is that you follow Hector. Hector is a psychiatrist, probably based in Paris, treating mostly well-off patients. Although Hector is fairly content with his own life, he gets to the conclusion that most of his patients seem to be chronically unhappy and he wonders why. To find out why this is, he starts on a journey around the world to see what happiness is for other people in other conditions. Meanwhile, he takes notes on the things he discovers and these appear as ‘lessons’ in the book.
The lessons are written in a very insightful way, yet kept very simple and easy to understand. By keeping the lessons so simple the author really gets to the core of what happiness is. I found it a very pleasant experience to be able to understand these basics so easily and also to be able to apply those to my own memories and thoughts. I felt a connection with the book, or maybe better said, with Hector, even though I have never really looked into psychology before.
The first connection I had with Hector was when he described his office. He mentions he has posters of Tintin on his wall and how Tintin has been an inspiration to him. Because of Tintin he wanted to be a psychiatrist. When I was a kid, I also read a lot of Tintin books, and to me too it was an inspiration. I did not want to become a psychiatrist but it has definitely spiked my interest in traveling, exploration and writing. I am sure there are millions of people with a similar experience, but nevertheless it increased my interest to continue reading.
The author is not very clear on where Hector exactly travels to throughout the book. All we know is that he goes to China, Africa and the United States. Nonetheless, when Hector is in China, the descriptions of the city make me quite certain that he is in Hong Kong. Here he meets with several people and one of the groups of people he mentions are the ‘maids’ that all group together sit outside on Sundays. He describes how happy and friendly they look while their jobs and income don’t compare with other people in the city.
When I lived in Hong Kong myself, I often wondered the same. I worked in real estate and know what is being sold as a ‘maid’s room’ in the city. In reality, it often cannot really be called a room at all. Usually it is a windowless cupboard behind the kitchen often less than a meter and a half long. I have been explained that since the ‘maids’ usually come from the Philippines and Indonesia they tend to be short so they won’t have too much difficulties sleeping in it. Coming from a different culture it was quite a shock to me to learn that this is the standard in such a modern city. Especially as the ‘maids’ seem to be the happiest people in Hong Kong it might me think about their lives and expectations too. Hector comes to more or less the same conclusion but it is nice to read about if from his perspective and to take a few more moments to think about it.
After China, Hector’s travels to Africa and the United States and the story continue in a similar fashion. Wherever he goes, he finds interesting lessons in happiness by ending up in exciting situations.
The book offers a very easy way into the psychology behind happiness. Having said that, I do find the book sometimes too simple. Hector, as the main character, is a bit too naïve and the writing style sometimes a bit too simple. Almost condescending and childish at some points. For example, all references to sex have been taken out. Only referring to it by writing that people ‘do the things that people do when they are in love’, as if the readers need to be protected from ‘adult’ language.
Still, I am happy that I have read the book and I would certainly recommend others to read it as well. In addition to the ‘lessons’ given in the book, there were many things to discover between the lines for me as well.
What I ‘discovered’ would be that happiness can be found everywhere at all times. That even though there will be times when everything seems dark and desperate, the right mindset and a change of perspective can make you feel happier. For me it might not be as easy as Leo Tolstoy’s quote, that to be happy simply be happy, but I think it is possible to look at a glass, and seeing it half full, or realizing that the sky may be full of dark clouds, above them it is always blue.
Cuba, the country with the highest doctor to patient ratio, one of the highest literacy rates among its people and with the second most restricted economy in the world.
Although I find the facts very interesting; for some reason i didn’t think of any of the above when I wanted to visit Cuba. I cannot recall how long I had been wanting to go when I finally took the opportunity in late December 2008 but something about Cuba had always attracted me. Perhaps it were above all the images of the vintage cars and the old city of Havana I had seen before. I suppose it was also a sense of nostalgia; perhaps expecting to see a better and nicer world frozen in time. Even though 7 years have gone by now, I still recall my visit vividly.
At the time I was working In Costa Rica. As the company I worked for closed for two weeks durning Christmas and new year I found myself with some free time on my hands. As Cuba is relatively close to Costa Rica and I was afraid I would not come across such an opportunity again I decided to finally make it a reality and go.
That Cuba isn’t quite a normal country I already knew, you can’t bring your mobile phone for instance, but there were still a few surprises. For example, I did not get a visa in my passports and upon arrival I also did not get a stamp in my passport. The explanation is that one with a ‘Cuban’ stamp in a passport can have difficulties entering the US later. Also the fact that Cuba uses two currencies, one for the locals (CUP) and one for tourists (CUC), surprised me.
The first thing I noticed when arriving in Havana was that it felt quite safe. I arrived late at night (something I usually try to avoid when going to new places) but didn’t feel unsafe walking down the streets trying to find the place I had booked to stay. In Costa Rica I tried to avoid being out after dark because it is outright dangerous to do so in most places. Cuba did not feel that way, which was a very pleasant change.
The place I had booked to stay was also quite different from what I expected. In Cuba one can book a room at so called ‘Casas Particulares’ which are in essence private homes from families that offer rooms for tourists. This business is all very controlled; they can only have a maximum of 2 rooms and all the prices are fixed and the same for all places. This became a bit of an issue for me as I had booked one through the internet but when I arrived both rooms were full. Luckily I was allowed to sleep on a fold out bed in the living room but the owners of the house were quite nervous about this. As it turned out that afternoon a Russian guy had appeared at their house. Apparently he didn’t speak any English nor Spanish but somehow had nodded ‘yes’ when the owner mentioned my name. The owner did not know I was arriving later and mistook him for me. It made the owner feel very uneasy to let me stay as well but since it was late he let me stay nevertheless. It was the first taste I got about how controlled daily life in Cuba is.
By day-time the old part of Havana is a beautiful city. The colours and old buildings are all impressive and put a smile on your face. It fills the city with life and joy and most people seem happy and friendly. Walking around the old streets really is a special experience. The old buildings are nice but especially the vintage cars make it unique. The idea of having stepped back in time really did come to mind occasionally. Sunshine, friendly people, beautiful buildings and the old cars did make it feel like the perfect place to be.
The first feeling I got that this might all be a bit of charade came quite soon. I was approached by a stranger asking me all sorts of questions about where I was from, when I arrived, if I was alone, where I was staying, etc. Feeling a bit trepidatious about this I lied and said I was staying at a fancy hotel I had read about in my guide book. Not 10 minutes after he had decided to leave me alone, another person came up to me claiming to be the receptionists of the Hotel I had lied about. He told me he had seen me come in the night before, remembered me, and asked if I wanted to go to a party with him. No thanks!
Of course I had heard about this type of scamming in other countries but somehow I hadn’t expected it in Cuba. The people looked genuinely friendly and Havana very well looked after.
More of this ‘two sided’ country became quickly visible. I got quite quickly used to the two currencies system for instance. Partly because I got ripped off when purchasing a ticket on a ferry for local Cubans, paying with my tourist currency and getting my change in local currency, worth about 25 times less. At other times it was more clear where I could pay with my tourist money, for example when going for lunch, I received a foreigners menu, with special prices in tourist currency for ‘non-locals’. This also made me realise how expensive things are for tourists and for locals. When visiting a museum I had to pay a more than 25 times higher entrance fee for being a tourist.
Also when walking slightly behind the flashy well maintained streets of central Havana it became clear that they had run out of paint a long time ago. Buildings were falling apart or had collapsed already and some kids had no shoes to wear. Which made the well painted and maintained part of Havana look a bit fake in comparison.
I quickly came to the conclusion that Cuba for tourists is very different than it is for the local Cubans. Not just like how it is in many other countries around the world but in a more segregated way.
In the museums the stories were mostly based on the astonishing facts mentioned earlier. How after the revolution of 1959 everything had improved. Mostly focusing on schooling & healthcare and how other countries had tried to undermine the regime and even had tried to kill Fidel Castro numerous times. This may all be very true, but nevertheless, the feeling I had gotten was that daily life was quite hard on many Cuban people. Even though all children do get free education I wonder what they learn about their ‘leaders’ and the ‘arch-enemy’ the United States. This coupled with the endless images of Ché Guevara plastered on the walls made me realise that a very one sided story is being told in Cuba.
The story might be one sided but outside, on the streets, i became aware that there are two types of life in Cuba. Even though the restaurants have two menus, it still appeared to be too expensive for most people to eat out. Except that I did see some Cubans do it, and looking very comfortable doing so. I learned that the average income is only US$20.- per month (excluding food rationing programs) so naturally I wondered how this was possible. As I was talking to one of the owners of a house I was staying in she explained that many people receive money from overseas relatives. This too is controlled by the government and they are apparently not allowed to receive more than a certain amount of money. Nevertheless, those ‘lucky’ people that do receive money from overseas often receive more per month than the average Cuban earns per year. The money is usually spent on ‘luxury goods’ in special shops as the local Cuban shops usually don’t have much on the shelves. Buying things in general can also be tricky in Cuba. People cannot buy or sell houses for example. She told me that they can only swap houses, which is a very complicated procedure, or apply for new apartments, which almost nobody ever gets. People are very much stuck where they are. Traveling is restricted and Cubans cannot take the long distance buses, which are only meant for tourists. Families who happened to own cars before the revolution of 1959 keep them running if they can (most of them sound like they have old Diesel engines). I have only seen newer cars being used as taxis, as rental cars for tourists or for foreign diplomats.
I wasn’t quite sure what to think of this all. Obviously, the freedom of the people is extremely limited, yet people did not seem to be very unhappy, neither were they starving. Is this successful communism?
In the country-side and other towns it is very much the same, A few areas for tourists are beautifully restored and maintained; showing the colonial buildings in all their splendour. Other areas show the reality for the people; poverty for nearly all and the lucky few that live comfortably. In the same town i saw people using horses and donkeys as modes of transport but also the most exquisite vintage cars.
In the country side the signs of the ‘revolution’ continue wherever you look. Only here it seems like the revolution has been completely reversed. Even back in 1959 there must have been tractors and some agricultural machines in use. What you see now is that most farming is being done by hand and with farm animals. Almost as if it has been a revolution to move things backwards instead of forwards. Goods and people move by horse and ox cart and tractors stand abandoned in rudimentary sheds. Perhaps having been there for 50 years waiting for parts, fuel or simply a mechanic. It might be a ‘greener’ and more natural way of farming and living but given the conditions in the country it is a shame that they cannot fully utilise the potential they undoubtedly have to grow sugarcane and tobacco for the famous Cuban rum and cigars. The Cubans mostly blame the American boycott for the difficulties their economy faces but looking at the country side I feel that the problems cannot all be blamed on the United States.
Continuing on that, when speaking to local Cubans one really gets the impression that what people get to hear and see on TV and in newspapers is heavily censored. When talking to a taxi driver we got into the topic of the double currency and how expensive it is for tourists, and how little seems to flow back to the people. The taxi driver explained to me that it is very difficult for Cuba to improve the living standards because there are many tropical storms. These storms cause so much damage that the government needs to spend nearly all their money on fixing damages and cleaning up after them. At one ‘casa particulare’ I stayed in there was a new TV. The owners proudly pointed out that every house in the entire town had received new TV’s as a gift from Fidel Castro.
At these moments I really felt that I was experiencing communism in action. Somehow a very nice idea but never working out so well. Or perhaps it does. Both the taxi driver and house owner were smiling and happy to talk about their lives. Buying food with stamps didn’t seem to bother them either. Maybe neither they and I will never fully understand and appreciate either way of life. I still feel glad that I have the opportunity to explore this though. Most Cubans I met are very curious about other countries and they all seem to dream of visiting other countries. They must wonder where all those tourists come from. Whether they come from a better place I was not always sure.
This doubt stayed with me as I saw how relaxed and seemingly care free people are. This especially showed in the way that music is part of everything in Cuba. You can hear it coming from everywhere. Almost from every house, behind every wall and on every square music is being played, made and danced to. It added another dimension to my trip. Never before have I visited a place where the way it sounded made such an impression. Other than music, smoking cigars, drinking rum and playing baseball are popular past times. It is easy to fall for the Cuban life when those things seem so available. Cigars and rum (in Cuba it comes in small carton containers with a straw like apple juice does) apparently are one of the few items that can be bought at the local shops. Being surrounded by the happy music and kids playing baseball while vintage cars drive by and old Cubans smoke cigars enjoying the sunshine it feels like the perfect place. Until you look down and see that the kids might not wear shoes, then the nagging feeling returns. The nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right. That there is something hidden and that that it clearly is a country with two sides, one for the local Cubans and one for the tourists.
Overall I am very pleased that I have visited Cuba. It is a truly unique country in many perspectives. I greatly enjoyed the cars, music and people. Part of me wishes it would stay how it is. Frozen in time with a unique culture and people. However, I cannot be so selfish, hoping Cuba would remain what it is for tourists knowing that this would also mean that it would remain what it is for local Cubans.