Who embarked on an 8-day journey into the unknown, foreign, Caribbean Island of Cuba all on her own? This gal. But why? “You’re crazy!” The common phrase I’d get from those I told.
Well, It all started many moons ago when a dream sprouted from the depths of my inspired and determined mind. Squeezing my eyes shut wishing to be in a completely different part of the world to celebrate my birthday, with or without people by my side. So, this particular year of 2017 with extra travel adventure funds saved I scoured flight deals and came across a round-trip airfare to Varadero, Cuba for only $500 and a bonus, it overlapped on my 25th birthday! With my heart racing, a grin on my face and my eyes lit with fire, I booked it. 8 days in a Caribbean paradise. I proceeded to ask my closest friends and partner if they were interested in hopping on this opportunity as well but fully prepared myself that this may just be my first solo adventure! Then the universe made it so and deep in my heart I knew it was meant to be this way.
The journey began with my first lesson learned the hard way. Always call to make sure your bookings went through. I had a 12-hour layover in Toronto and decided to book a room last minute on bookings.com. I get there just after 11pm to only be told that my card wasn’t accepted and that they gave my room away and that they were sold out. Long story short, I called every single hotel in the area and they were all sold out so I had my first experience of sleeping in an airport; you never truly realize how loud airports can be until you need to sleep in one. The next morning I was fueled by excitement and adrenaline to arrive in Cuba.
I had booked a Casa Particular through Airbnb in a humble home in a suburb just outside of Varadero called “Santa Marta”. My taxi drove through long crumbling highways, passing people in horse carriages, locals selling fresh produce and fruit off of wheeled carts, random dogs, chickens and hens running around and families and children enjoying the sunshine. Then we pulled up to a large yellow metal gate with the words “Casa Yolanda” spray painted on it, we knocked and we were quickly greeted by a young Spanish lady nicknamed “Tata”. Second major lesson learned starts here. Learn the language before travelling to another country or at least bring a book with words and basic phrases because I didn’t commit myself to learning the least amount of Spanish and that set a huge barrier between myself and with a lot of people who I met on this trip, including those who’s house I stayed in. This young woman didn’t know any English either so when we arrived it was awkward and difficult, as she was trying to tell me things and I couldn’t understand any of it. I was culture shocked. An entirely different world surrounded by people who had no idea what I was saying or who I was and the challenge of not understanding them either.
I got to my room and was happy to know that it was the room that I booked. This first arrival day proceeded with a nap, cold shower, contemplation of going out to explore, renting a bicycle, confronting that fear to go out and explore, rode around the area and found a nice little restaurant to have dinner which had an English menu and an English speaking waitress – bonus!
The second day I rented the bicycle again and followed a family of locals who looked like they were dressed for the beach and that’s how I found my way to Varadero! The ride was fun, watching the transformation from local Cuban lifestyle to the grand illusion and world of tourists. I rode my bike down the peninsula, bought some handmade crafts in the markets, did some writing on the beach, found some tasty vegetarian food then spent the majority of my day swimming, bathing in the sun and laying by the water. It was also my birthday so I stayed out and watched the sunset. Something I haven’t done in so long. In that moment and throughout the day I reflected a lot on my own self. Reflected on the moments of solitude that I was presented with, acknowledged those feelings of loneliness and vulnerability but also found beauty in that because it was teaching me to become my own best friend; to pick myself up without having to rely on anyone and truly listening to my inner self. Then I came back to my room to have a private self-dance party and watch movies until I drifted off to sleep.
Day 3 brought a lot more challenges. At this point I was very overwhelmed with not being able to speak or understand those who I was staying with or with those who were around me in the streets of Santa Marta and Varadero. This resulted in a multiple breakdowns in front of them, which also caused more embarrassment on my behalf. They were super nice though, giving me hugs, rubbing my back and even making me some beautiful Cuban coffee. This particular day I had found an ETESCA Internet café and bought a ticket for 8CUC for one hour. During this hour I chatted with my loved ones and did some research on the area and on basic Spanish words. I feel this made my homesickness even worse or catapulted it, because for the rest of the day that’s all I could think about, was my loved ones back home in Manitoba. I went to the beach again to swim only to be greeted by a creepy Chinese man who really badly wanted to swim with me or teach me to swim. He tried to hold me up in the water and kept grabbing my arm to follow him deeper into the water. I managed to back away and motion that I was uncomfortable and decided to leave the situation all together and move to a different area of the beach. I then tried to book tours through “Havantur” only to be greeted by a grumpy old woman who told me to come back tomorrow. All the goals I had set out to do were defeated, so in a homesick, anxious, hot mess I gave into comfort food of pizza at an Italian touristy restaurant and went back to my room early and had a very good cry. It was only day 3 and I was ready to go home. SIGH…what a day lol. Life is a rollercoaster full of ups and downs but it’s what you do with those highs and lows that create outcomes and steps forward.
Once I cleared out every tear in my body (I’m so dramatic eh? Lol) I reminded myself of the reasons I was there in that situation and also realized my state. I was comfortable in an air conditioned safe place, I was alive and breathing and nothing seriously detrimental had affected me in any way, things could be way worse. So through this, along with the supportive and comforting words of my mother and partner over text I quickly shifted my perspective and attitude and found the strength to overcome my feelings, work through them and past them.
I awoke the next morning feeling determined and motivated to carry on, to not take any moment for granted and to find the beauty in the new day. This positive outlook brought a brighter day. I took a ride on the double decker Varadero bus tour that was only 5 CUC for the whole day. I sat on the top, uncovered windy level with my hair whipping in the breeze as I took in all the touristy sites and sounds of Varadero, only thinking to myself…this is all an illusion. People from all over the world travelling to Cuba thinking that this is “real” Cuba when really they are completely isolated in grand state run hotels deep down in the corners of the peninsula. A golf course platted across sacred Caribbean lands, an American plaza full of consumerism and direct materialization and marketing toward those with money, a dolphin pool completely far removed from the dolphin’s natural habitat and tacky pineapple pina coladas on every street corner. (Sorry if this brings any offence) I was truly discovering an eye opening experience. Travelling from my Casa to Varadero everyday, it was interesting to see the differences. On this day I was also able to book myself excursions to Cayo Blanco and Habana and found fellow Canadians from Quebec who I delightfully had a short conversation with.
The next day I awoke bright and early to bike on over to the hotel where my shuttle bus would be picking me up to take me to the Marina where I’d experience a gorgeous catamaran ride to a small touristy island called, “Cayo Blanco”. Gliding upon open blue waters, under gorgeous blue skies, the sun warm on my skin, surrounded by smiles and relaxed bodies, as we approached the island. It looked like something out of a painting. I was in awe of the pristine waters that surrounded this tiny tropical Caribbean island. I proceeded to walk along the shore to explore, swim, eat some lunch and relax on the plentiful lounge chairs. Relaxed a little too much though as I drifted into a beautiful calm slumber to the sounds of the waves, the breeze though the palm tress overhead and the glorious perfect temperature I found in shade.
I slept and totally missed my boat. In a panic I ran to the boat launch and truly discovered it to be gone. So I ended up asking a leader there if it would come back, he assured me it would but it didn’t so I approached another boat, similar to the one I came on and they let me aboard in order to get back to Varadero. I was supposed to swim with dolphins in a well cared area at an island across from Cayo Blanco and I assumed I missed the opportunity. But then the most epic thing happened. The boat dropped me off at the dolphin place; I swam with them totally alone with the 3 Cuban workers and watched my original boat pull up to the dolphin place to pick me up. When I hopped back on the boat everyone applauded. It was such a silly situation and even though I felt very bad and embarrassed for causing so much chaos among the workers and fellow travellers I also felt lucky and joyous of the play out of events.
When I got back to Varadero I unfortunately discovered that the bike I had rented was stolen – completely gone – even though I locked it up and everything! I’ll let you imagine the emotions I felt and how I had to break it to those at my Casa. I laugh about it now at my misfortune that day but at the time I was definitely feeling low.
The next day was my grand one-day adventure to Habana! With no bike I walked to the same hotel to be picked up again by a shuttle bus where we proceeded on our 2-hour road trip through Cuba. On this trip I met a very kind family from Slovakia and my tour guide and bus driver who were local Cubans themselves but spoke decent English. It was a beautiful day full of deep conversation and roaming the streets of Habana and learning some of the history of the area and about the residents of the country.
This day I also met a young man who was a local from “real” Habana. He worked as a cyclist for the tourists every other day and offered me a free short ride and a conversation that I’ll never forget. We discussed our interests; education and lifestyles and then I asked him about the people in Cuba, how he felt about the touristy set up and how the relationship was between the people and their government. He proceeded to tell me that all of what was surrounding us was an illusion and only for the tourists, that it wasn’t “real” Cuba. He continued exclaiming that the Cuban people are oppressed and live in fear every day. They look happy on the outside but really they are sad and fearful on the inside. He said that if he was caught talking to me about all of this that he would probably be put in jail and that a lot of what the government does, doesn’t inquire with the people first. After this conversation my perspective shifted, I saw everything that was around me in a different way. I felt so appreciative to have found that space, that moment in time where the world continued around us but we were in our own world truly having a deep soulful, human conversation.
The next few remaining days I saw Cuba through a lens that I felt many people who had travelled there probably didn’t see. I was also extremely appreciative and accepting of all the lessons I had learned, all the mistakes that humbled me and also the small growths and strengths I acquired through my own mindfulness, self-compassion and moments of human connection. My last moments in Cuba were full of swimming in the turquoise salty waters, watching more sunsets, dancing salsa on the beach, in the sand, with another local as we hummed our own music, trying different restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner along the peninsula, confronting my fear of the dark and walking back to my Casa after the sun had set and having magical little moments with the people at my Casa. Magical moments including the magnificent breakfast they made for me twice including a bountiful array of ham and cheese slices, scrambled eggs, toast with jam and peanut butter, fresh cut mangoes and pineapple, freshly pressed juices and coffee with warm milk and sugar. It was delicious. I also left one of the ladies a gift before I left and she discovered it and her whole being lit up, she smiled and hugged me and kissed my cheeks with many gracias’. I proceeded to take a taxi back to the airport and also had a nice conversation with the driver who spoke wonderful English so I ranted a bit to him about what I had experienced the past week and he offered some advice and consoling. It was a wonderful conversation before I boarded my flight back home to those I love.
Now that I’m home, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what I had learned and what I had experienced on my first solo trip. Although I feel like I went through very challenging times, I am still very thankful for those times because it taught me a lot – mostly in the hard way – but it was definitely an awakening of what a travel lifestyle can bring. It can bring those moments of overwhelming situations, homesickness, loneliness and challenges but through those you learn how to problem solve, remain calm, be present and live an entirely different way than you have your entire life. It forces you out of your comfort zone to confront fears and challenge your mind to keep a positive attitude and perspective on what is presented to you. It makes you appreciate the little things in life like a simple smile or conversation with a fellow human being or the sun setting putting on a magnificent show of a hue of colours in contrast with the landscapes that surround you. I truly believe this trip was a beginning and awakening to truly listening to my inner voice and to the practice of self-compassion and mindfulness. I feel a greater sense of my own capabilities and sense of self. It’s amazing and I will keep these moments of learning and growth deep in my memory as I walk forward in this life. If I choose to return to Cuba I will definitely travel with family, friends or my partner and I will definitely learn at least some basic Spanish and I will strive to discover the “real” Cuba that I had only had a small taste of on my travels.
With all of this being said, I hope a majority of you made it to the end. If so, thank you so much from the depths of my heart. I’m ready for the next adventure. Are you?