“What do you think is the one barrier to your happiness?” I thought about his question as I took a sip of my chilled Bucanero, suddenly wondering if I had any (barriers). The live band was playing ‘Bailando’ for the third time a few feet away since we had squeezed onto this rooftop, unofficially the national Cuban song. Tin Tin was crowded with tourists trying to watch the fiery sunset sweep above us. I was sharing a wooden bench with a stoic German family but no one minded. Before I could muster up a thoughtful reply, Dan whom had been traveling for fourteen months, flicked his cig over the rail and continued, “I’m afraid I’ll never be happy because I’ll always be wanting more, or something better. I’ll never be satisfied if I keep on wondering what else is out there.”
Even after we parted, his question stayed with me. What is keeping us from happiness? Are we unhappy? Maybe it’s love. Finding love is the one thing that is out of our control so we have to keep on moving forward, with or without it. I felt sorry for the couples wrapped up into each other at the smaller square tables, bored but not talking to anyone else around them. It’s always better to be alone than to be stuck with someone you don’t like in Cuba. There isn’t any wifi to distract you.
It started raining just as I found a big enough rock to sit on. A pale woman nearby with an intimidatingly large camera smiled at me like strangers do when you accidentally make eye contact. Her silk blouse had safety pin patterns on it, and I was wearing white jean shorts so neither of us were properly dressed for the hike. We bonded quickly over being solo female travelers, mentally worn down by the advances of Cuban men. As a friend put it, everyone is falling in love with you and wants to take your money at the same time. “It doesn’t matter if you tell them you have a boyfriend. I tell them all the time that my boyfriend is back home in England, so they’ll just ask but, do you have a boyfriend in Cuba?”
I hesitantly ordered lobster again, but this time it was 8 CUC (about $10 USD) rather than 30 CUC like the first time around. The same cup of coffee from the same cafe can cost a dollar more or a dollar less the next day, depending on what time you order and who you order from. The same cab ride can double if the driver feels like it. The actual services or the goods don’t vary much though, my lobster tasted the same in both nights. It’s fascinating but frustrating how this works. Mo, the girl from the hike, was a delightful dinner companion and was in Cuba for six weeks on a medial rotation as a doctor-to-be. “Everyone at the local hospital here is very intelligent, they test for all the same materials we do, they’re brilliant at their studies and they know everything I know. But the mentor I’m staying with back in Havana, he’s a cardiologist and he wakes up at 5am to make bread to sell on the streets, to make ends meet. Everyone gets free health care, free education, but they all make the same and it’s not enough. My colleagues, when they graduate, are going to be making about $50 USD a month.” The server placed a napkin rose on my lap suggestively as the reality of communism sank in. This shit is real.
I counted all my cash, and counted it again in a slow-motion panic. I had about $40 CUC left and I wasn’t able to get any more. US credit/debit cards don’t work in Cuba, neither do ATMs. The blogs I read all warned US travelers to bring more cash than they thought they would need, but I was an idiot and now I was broke, disconnected and alone in Cuba. WELP. My survival tactic was to cross the street and lay on a plaza bench to accept my fate. Ironically, money matters a lot when you don’t have any. About an hour passed as I envisioned myself hitchhiking back to Havana, hopefully couchsurfing until I could hitchhike my way back to the airport. Maybe I’d make friends and pay them back once I land on American soil. At least I had enough money for food, although…what if there was an exit fee at the airport?
I felt surprisingly calm sorting out my emergency game plan, a skill we don’t give enough credit for. True travelers are not easily fazed, we take disasters and funnel the ‘freaking out’ energy into problem-solving actions. I’ve lost wallets, phones, keys, but long as I have my passport, everything will be okay. Deciding that it would probably be a good idea to make sure I had THAT, I ran back to my casa particulares and there my passport was, with $250 CUC tucked inside the holder. Sometimes my terrible memory causes so much unnecessary stress.
“How’s Uber doing in London? Imagine having it here.” Old cars whizzed by, windshields flashing the burning sun into our frazzled, dazed eyes on Monday morning. We stood on the edge of a crumbling sidewalk by his Airbnb, close to Fábrica Arte de Cubano where we met last night. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t make it to the afterparty. The air was heavy with dry dust, and all I wanted to do was to get back to my neighborhood so I could sleep. “Heh. We have Uber there. We even have Uber in Siberia, even in my little hometown,” he lit up another cigarette, exhaling with ease as he gently kissed my forehead. He had strong eyebrows and his skin was as bronze as mine from his kiteboarding holiday. “If you’re sure you don’t want to stay for breakfast, maybe I’ll see you at the airport before my flight. If not, safe travels.”
The walk of shame was really the walk of glorious sightseeing. I wasn’t sure where my casa was, but thanks to maps.me (a must-have app for Cuba) I got dropped off at Plaza San Francisco nearby and leisurely wandered through Old Havana. It’s the most touristy area of Havana, but from what I learned in Cuba, sometimes touristy places can be a nice haven. It’s okay to enjoy them as long as it’s not all you see, and I had already seen plenty. Even early in the morning, the streets were already alive with playing children, shuffling street vendors, and groups of elderly travelers on walking tours. The charming pastel facades so well known for in Havana decorated the narrow sidewalks in delicate hues of pink, baby blue, greens and neutral ivory tones. If you entered through the doors though, you’ll be standing in either a luxurious hotel lobby or an abandoned construction site. I took a million photos and found a churro stand on the corner of Calle Ignacio and Calle O’ Reilly (is there anywhere the Irish haven’t been?). The two men working the stand were well dressed, one even had on a satin vest and I wondered what their real jobs were.
At the airport, I was in line for customs when I met a lady named Laura, clearly distraught on the phone. Un beso, un beso, te amo MUCHO mucho mucho!! Her quick, dramatic Californian accent was obvious, and she suddenly turned to me in tears. “I’m sorry, this is always really hard for me. My husband is Cuban, we just got married not long ago and so I fly down from LA every month to visit until his papers come through to join me. He was my Airbnb host last year in Vinales. It was love at first sight when he picked me up from the bus station. Isn’t that crazy!? Do you know where the forms are?”
ARE YOU F*ing SERIOUS!? My mind started to slowly shut down then, unable to process one more ounce of bizarre information. Forty minutes until boarding to LAX, I had to survive.
It was nearing 4 o’ clock, and so I picked up a clear plastic cup of champagne on the way to the new mailroom at work. The polished hardwood floors gleamed down the hallway, and fresh organic tulip bouquets lined the walls. My HelloFresh package had arrived, a meal-prep kit delivery service so that I could make wholesome, healthy meals without having to go out of my way to shop for groceries, deciding on recipes or measuring anything out. It felt wrong, it was too easy. Having such clean floors felt wrong too.
I wish I could tell you the truth about Cuba and about the lives of the wonderful people I met there, but I don’t know what the truth is. One week wasn’t enough, I could spend months there and still not understand.
Would I go back? Definitely.