Thursday, October 13, 2011

Letter from Havana: The land that brands forgot

Ernest Hemingway, who made Havana his home for thirty years, once wrote that "you can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another". I've spent enough time in enough places to know that this is largely true, but maybe it's not about getting away from yourself, maybe it's about getting away from who you feel you ought to be, who you're expected to be at 'home'.

As I write, I am in Havana - amidst the crumbling buildings, under the scorching Caribbean sun, and in the sunset of a Socialist regime. I came to Cuba expecting little more than some beautiful weather and a bit of a rest, but what I'm finding is a city reverberating with a style and strength so powerful, it's almost impossible to believe it operates under such political and economic restraints. Foremost, what Havana proves is that Western capitalist culture can be as much of a burden and limitation to society as any government regime. With no private enterprise and, therefore, no advertising, branding or publicity, Havana feels like a time capsule in the process of bursting free from its casing.

Yes, they may be driving cars from the 1950's, but they know how to fix a car and make it last. No, they may not have iPhones and Blackberries, but everywhere you look couples are flirting and canoodling - getting to know each other the old fashioned way. And no, the kids don't have Xbox or Wii, but they are bright-eyed and full of energy, making up games in the park without a constant parental fear of pedophiles and predators.

Most noticeable for me is the lack of brands. I'm both programmed and trained to read my surroundings based on the cultural signalling of brands. I, like most Westerners, rely on brands to confirm or contest my assumptions about people, places and things. Here, without my trusted way-finding system, I feel lost, vulnerable and uncertain. I have been stripped of the self created for me by the brands I interactive with in my daily life. It has been an enlightening challenge to make choices based on the things that really matter, not just on logos, typefaces and colour.

In our modern, capitalist world, we too readily trust brands to make our decisions for us. 'There's a Wholefoods on this street? Oh, I must be in a good neighbourhood'. 'That guy's pushing a Bugaboo? Well, soy my latte, I'm sold!' This afternoon I sat for lunch in a leafy square, where families cooed over their little ones, dogs chased each other barking, and a Cuban reggae band jammed together on a nearby bench. A small part of me initially felt nervous - without a landscape of corporate badging, how was I to know if the food was well-prepared, or if I was to be taken advantage of as a tourist. But I quickly realised that, here instincts and wisdom are what counts - when choosing a restaurant the smell from the kitchen, the demeanour of the staff and the mood of the patrons are all you have to go on. You have not only to trust them, but to trust yourself as well.

Moving from one place to another isn't about losing yourself, or finding yourself, or whatever it says in The Rough Guide. It's about accepting that, if the reflection of ourselves provided by brands and media is taken away, we remain. And if the Cuban people I've seen are anything to go by, we live on more vibrant than ever.

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