If I were to tell you everything that happened while I was in Cuba, you may never allow me to travel alone again. After rattling over suspension bridges on motorbikes in Bali and sleeping through overnight bus rides in Bolivia, I’d consider myself open-minded and well traveled. Yet, nothing prepared me for what I experienced in Cuba. I left understanding less of it than I did when I first arrived (which to be fair, wasn’t a whole lot). Without fully comprehending the language, having no internet and navigating the chaos of this country by myself, I was constantly surprised at how much beauty I discovered while wondering if I would make it back to the States with my sanity.
There were moments when I joyfully rode with new local friends on the back on minibuses, singing along to Backstreet Boys, and there were moments when I sat alone on plaza benches, unsure of where I would be sleeping that night, wistfully watching sunburnt couples waltz out of hotel resorts and fighting back tears from not having anyone to care for me. It’s been years since I’ve traveled out of my comfort zone and returned with a shifted perspective on life. Forced mindfulness amidst constant chaos for a week, was intense.
This isn’t my Cuba guide. I’ll do that later. For now, these are some of the moments that are forever burned into my memory from my trip, snippets I haven’t decided if I’d rather forget or treasure…
He quietly observed me from the kitchen counter as I clumsily stabbed at the sliced pineapples on the glossy white plate in front of me. The consequences of one too many daiquiris from the night before and the intense morning sunlight flooding made me a pathetic sight. Everyone raves about having breakfast made for you at your Airbnb in Cuba, as if it’s impossible to get breakfast otherwise…so here I was, barefeet dangling at a beautiful antique table with a Cuban guy Ernesto who just came to cook breakfast for me. The distant street noises below us weren’t enough to make the moment less awkward, so we chatted a bit about the few things that ended up being the theme of most conversations with locals: if it was my first time in Cuba, if I was traveling alone, where I’m from (the States wasn’t ever satisfactory, eventually I switched straight to Hong Kong), and about how he had relatives living in Florida.
I’m 99% sure it was a pity invite, but he stated that only if I wanted to, and under no circumstances would any money from me will be accepted, he was going to the beach to meet up with his friends and I could come along. It sounded like either the beginning of an epic adventure or a kidnapping, so I said yes, let me shower and I’ll be ready in 15.
A taxi collectivo is a normal taxi that you carpool into. You show up around a bus station and the drivers ask you where you’re going, and then you wait til they find others heading the same way. Sometimes you get into a car right away, sometimes you wait for an hour. I asked Leonardo, only twenty-eight, if he liked being a taxi driver and he had laughed. Now that all the Americans are coming, the money is too good not to drive. The Americans, they tip a lot.
We finally arrived in Cienfuegos, a hazy port town in the south, a little over an hour west of Trinidad. Two Belgians, a dude from Kansas, and I stood flustered as three Cuban women insisted on fitting all four of us in one room at a casa particulares. I was sticky and tired after being smushed up with these folks for the 4.5 hour drive from Havana. The old car we took had duct tape around the windows to keep them in the frames, so yeah.
David from Belgium, who spoke the best Spanish and often told locals he was part Mexican (which I never questioned and should have) gleefully translated that the ladies were searching the house for anything they could find to add a bed for me in the already cramped room. Out of nowhere, one of the ladies walks out of the kitchen carrying a metal headboard, and the other old ladies follow with a metal, twin sized bed frame and wooden planks. We stared in disbelief from the terrace as they assembled a bed for me, like it was an Ikea April Fool’s joke. The host patted the mattress after making the tiny bed and turned to me. “Only you sleep here tonight, no man,” she winked at me. Later that night, I would be pushing a local dude away from me, reeking of cheap cologne, as he’d forcefully insist in perfect English that “every hour you sleep here is an hour wasted” and “everything that happens in Cuba stays in Cuba” and “please, let’s enjoy one night together” and I was so relieved to answer “Sorry, I’m sleeping on a makeshift cot in a room with three other people. And my host says it’s not allowed.” I eventually gave him 10 CUC (10 EUR) to leave me alone.
I lost my chapstick, so I felt a bit extra bougie wearing bright red lipstick as we were floating on the vibrant, clear waves off Playa Ancon in Trinidad. Phil the Englishman loved Hong Kong, and told me all about the overlooked and underrated jungle hikes just outside of my motherland that I knew nothing about. Later, we made friends at the tiki restaurant and ordered ‘coco locos‘, which are coconuts filled with rum. I took a sip of mine, no trace of booze. Laura, who played ultimate frisbee and had a thigh tattoo, was the first to admit that maybe none of us had any booze in our coconuts and that maybe the coconut man would come back after we drank up the warm coco water to refill it with rum. The rum man never came back.
All the cobblestone streets looked the same downtown, I’m not sure how I found my way home that night. My phone showed that a bunch of us did walk into the back of a bakery around 2am and I took Boomerangs of the giant mixers before we were kindly asked to leave cause it was weird, even for Cuba.
You like to swim with horses or go to nature springs? I take you to both. He hoisted me up on the saddle with ease as I clung on for dear life to the worn leather seat. My mind was foggy from the night before, silently cursing myself for being so ambitious.
“Sure sounds good to me!” I had surrendered all attempts to further understand a proposition before agreeing. Either I could be alone and bored, or I could be with someone doing something, even if it was going out into the mountains on horseback at 2pm, the dryest and hottest part of the day. My party crew had abandoned me for the beach, and now I had Carlos to guide me through mango trees to some unknown beautiful destination (turned out to be a green water hole). Carlos was an architect, but he makes more money now as a tour guide, a repeating pattern I was starting to notice. He didn’t seem to mind, and greeted every child and passerby on our journey with ease. These were his people, he was always among friends here. My soul lightened as we made our way towards the smokey mountain ranges surrounding us. The ranch villages in the countryside we trotted past were humble dwellings, weathered from the unforgiving sun. The dusty roads reminded me of my daily commute in Honduras, but Carlos didn’t know what Honduras was and seemed annoyed when I tried to explain that it was close by, in Central America. “No viajo mucho, asi que no lo sé.”
To be continued.