This is a guest post by Kaneisha Grayson
I was ecstatic when I learned that my visa application to study abroad in Havana, Cuba for the first semester of my junior year of college was granted. My American housemates and I would be spending the next four months as international students at La Universidad de la Habana, living in a mansion with a host of service people. We would attend university courses with Cuban students, and go on weekly excursions around the country to learn more about “the real Cuba.”
However, my excitement quickly gave way to panic when I read the orientation email and saw that we would each only be allowed to pack one 50-pound suitcase for the duration of our entire trip. As a chronic over packer and admitted shopaholic, living with less was an entirely new experience for me.
Once my short-lived panic at being separated from all of my stuff subsided, I was surprised by the relief that replaced my panic almost immediately. Even in my first few weeks in Cuba, I felt lighter having fewer things to protect, think about, and take care of. I also experienced a shift in my relationship to the few things I possessed. I began to use my supplies and possessions more carefully, appreciate them more, and take better care of them.
I kept track of every single item of clothing I owned whenever I picked up my clothes from the lavanderia (a lost skirt would wipe out 20% of my wardrobe). I knew exactly how many batteries I had left for my camera and flashlight, and how little shampoo I could use and still get my hair clean. Somehow, having fewer things made me more willing to share rather than less so. We had all used our 50 pounds in different ways. One person’s book they recently finished reading suddenly became a delightful surprise when given to me. I didn’t feel constrained by having fewer possessions; I felt liberated.
Not being able to run to Wal-Mart for every minor purchase required that we be inventive and resourceful. For example, one morning, we all wanted pancakes. Pancakes and syrup were mythical concepts to our Cuban maids, so we were on our own to make it happen. Once my housemates and I found all the ingredients to make the pancakes from scratch (and it took a week to do so), I set to cooking our pancakes.
However, we were dismayed when we realized that we had no syrup. Finally understanding our explanation of pancakes (“a fat crepe with sweet liquid poured over it”), one of the maids proudly presented us with a water bottle full of honey watered down with warm water. She had poked holes in the plastic bottle cap to facilitate pouring the honey-water on our fat crepes. We all celebrated the arrival of our final ingredient with a whoop and commenced to eat our fat crepes with honey-water, which we happily shared with the maids. They were the best fake pancakes I’d ever had.
While our version of living with less would have been the equivalent of a week at an all-inclusive resort for our Cuban friends, it was still a valuable experience for us. We became less attached to our things at the same time as learning to treat our possessions with respect and gratitude. We learned that having a lot of things isn’t what makes life good–or what shows other people that our life is good. It’s our relationship to those things–and how it affects our relationships with others–that really matters.
Kaneisha Grayson is the founder of CrazyGirl Nation, a happiness and dating advice blog for women. After studying abroad in Cuba, she graduated from Pomona College in 2006, lived in Ghana for 10 months as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, and then attended Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School for a joint MPA & MBA degree. She is a writer, and lives in Santa Monica, CA. This is the first piece she has published on the internet about her experiences in Cuba.
Photo by: Edmonson Photography