This isn’t a ‘How To’ type of blog post. I won’t be instructing you on ‘How To Travel to Cuba’ or where to go and what to see (though I do give plenty of nods and Cuba travel tips). No, this is about my first passion and why it’s important to invest and nurture these passions in our lives to stay sane with who we aim to be.
For me, my passion is writing. I’m not the world’s most consistent person, but if I have one consistency, it’s writing. In kindergarten we wrote in a journal every day to practice writing skills, but the habit seemed to follow me throughout the course of my life. I grew up writing down details of my day, trips, dreams and observations. I would write plays and books with a strange perfectionism for my personality and spent hours putting my imagination to paper.
Yet over the past few years, writing has transformed in my life. While my daily word count has doubled, my personal writings have dwindled. Between writing for clients, websites and social postings, I’ve definitely felt the drain of overwhelm. Which is why I recently took a trip to Havana, Cuba, to set aside a long weekend to write just for the sake of writing.
Why Havana? Why not just write in the comfort of your own home? While it sure would have been cheaper, I needed a proper refresh. There’s an inspiring beauty in seeing something for the first time before it’s tainted by life’s realities. Like licking an ice cream cone before caring about the calorie count. It’s still delicious, but the innocence of an initial meeting is lost. So off to Havana I went.
Then there was the added element of adventure. Born and raised in South Florida, I’ve grown up watching the drama of the Cuban Embargo unfold. To me, Cuba was that shadowy place Simba references in the Lion King. You must never go there, Simba. I grew up thinking Cuba was essentially a prison until talking to travelers from other countries when I lived in Honduras. I learned not only can you actually take roundabout ways to Cuba, but that it’s actually a place you need to experience for yourself. A Canadian co-worker handed me a National Geographic on Havana during our downtime and for the first time I saw the gritty, yet stunning, architecture. I tore through the article and my mind was made up. I need to go there.
Invest in Your Passion: Writing & Dancing My Way Through Cuba
// Nourish The Mind
I’m convinced the mind needs travel. At least mine does. I can only be home so long before I get the itch to leave. Itch is putting it mildly, more like a desperation. My work dulls and my passions are neglected. I get caught in the routine of life and forget to take in the people around me, or worse yet, I troll endlessly through my phone. Travel refreshes this for me and when I left for Cuba I was long overdue. I had taken a contracted 9-5 position and fallen into a numbed routine that had me watching too many tv shows at night. My only sense of escape was hitting the ocean on my weekends but being stuck to a desk for 8 hours a day had begun to dull my inspiration and thicken my waistline. I knew I wouldn’t be traveling until August and somehow convinced myself that this was okay. This is what people do, right? Work, build a routine, live their lives and resign contention to their two weeks of vacation a year. Except it wasn’t okay.
One Saturday, while cleaning my apartment I felt suffocated. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been with myself yet something was missing and I couldn’t put my finger on what. While cleaning I found my journal and saw that I had barely written in it in over the past year. Only seven pages had been marked. So I sat down to write a bit. It felt good, refreshing. Later that day a friend posted pictures from her recent trip to Cuba and something clicked – I’m going to make like Hemingway. I’m going to take a trip to Cuba and write until I can’t write anymore.
Those who know me best know that when I get an idea in my head it’s like a mind worm that won’t leave. My mind is made up and I’m going to make it happen. I almost bought the tickets right there and then but knew I shouldn’t be so impulsive – a bad habit of mine. But this Cuba mindworm wouldn’t leave. I spent the next week scouring Pinterest boards on Havana and couldn’t stop. Screw it, I’m going. I found a good price on Southwest and booked.
The lead up to the trip shifted between exhilaration and nerves. Exhilarated to travel but the typical nerves of the unknown. I realized I knew virtually nothing about Cuba except that I need to bring all my cash with me, it’s socialist and it’s going to be like nothing I’ve experienced. I still had a few second thoughts about going. I was scared. I should just settle for a nice, long weekend at home. Is it even safe? Can’t be worse then when I got robbed in Honduras I figured, which I got over with a beer. I’ve since learned to ignore these anxious thoughts because every time I ignore them and just go, I have a complete life altering experience and never want to leave. It really is as simple as taking that first step out to door. Or in this case, slipping into some comfy espadrilles.
// It’s Like ‘Casablanca’ in Havana
I heard you had to get to the airport three hours ahead of time when going to Cuba as visas and technicalities can take a while. I blew through it in under 30 minutes with over two hours to spare. Luckily, the airport bar was right across the way from my gate so I grabbed a beer and began to pour into a fresh journal, a birthday gift from my friend. The beer tasted like piss and cost $8.50 but it beat putting data into excel sheets at work. My nerves subsided with the electric energy of the airport and I grew antsy with anticipation. I sat there, scribbling in my journal while eavesdropping on conversations between traveling strangers. They shared pints talking about where they’ve been, where they’re from, where they’re going. They call loved ones making them aware of travel plans: flight numbers, arrival times, layovers and trip details.
I get a text from my friend who just so happens to be in the same airport, at the same time and in the same terminal. The same friend who had gifted me the journal. We chat over one more over-priced drink before I head to my gate. At the gate I’m taken aback. I don’t know what I expected from the crowd going to Cuba, I guess I figured it would be more Cuban-American families going to visit loved ones but it wasn’t. It was large groups of Americans on guided tours. Looking back now, I’m thankful for going solo while I still could, since the recent overturn on our rights to travel to Cuba without a group.
The flight was quick. Forty minutes to be exact. I chose a window seat and sat with my face glued to the scenery. Cuba was nothing but green tropics, fields and concrete jungles. I was mesmerized. We parked in the middle of the tarmac and clamored down the ladder, stepping into heat and humidity. I flew through Cuban immigration, handing them my paper visa. My picture was taken, visa stamped and I breezed through security. I packed only a carry-on as I heard luggage can take hours to get off the plane. My casa particular had arranged a taxi to pick me up and I introduced myself to Luis, a man about my age neatly dressed in an ironed white button-down and black pants.
“Necesitas cambiar dinero?” he asked while leading me to a long line for money exchange. This could take a while.
Just then an older lady approached me, “Americano?” Yes, I replied. My Spanish is okay and it took me a repetition or two to understand that she wanted to do an exchange “off the books.” She assured me I would get the best price with her. I glanced at Luis and he nodded his approval. She led me to a back room where she gave me 90 CUC for every 100 USD. True to her word, she had the best price. I quickly learned that black market-style exchanges are one of the few ways Cubans can get a little bit ahead in life and where they can bargain for goods outside of government sanctions. But hey, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.
In the private confines of his taxi, Luis and I struck up a quick camaraderie and he opened up to me about topics that I know can get Cubans in trouble. He said he loves Cuba, but wishes he could travel. He wants to see the world outside of this island and make something more of himself. This seemed to be the common consensus among every young Cuban I met; they love their home but want at least the option to come and go as they please and make a living equal to their quality of work. I had been in Cuba 20 minutes and already their people humbled me.
// Doce De La Noche En Habana Cuba
I arrived at my casa, only a block away from El Capitolo. I couldn’t believe how alive the streets were. People perched the stoops of sidewalks, hung out of street cafes and communed in parks. The old cars that have become iconic of its landscape motored by while white hat dawning tourists took pictures in the back seats. Two large, wooden doors opened from the backstreet and I climbed a steep stairwell bordered in Spanish tile to enter my home. Magela welcomed me in and introduced me to her family who would become my family for the next few days. The apartment opened to a shared courtyard and neighbors yelled to each other across balconies. I looked out the living room window and straight into a neighbor’s where an older man sat in a single chair glued to a small, black and white tv.
Hers was a large home – impeccably kept – though Magela, her husband and her children lived together in one room while the rest was rented to travelers. She took a picture of my passport, which is then reported to the Cuban government. I learned that while I’m in Cuba, Magela and her family are responsible for my well-being. If anything were to happen to me, they would be the ones held accountable.
It was now late in the day and I knew the sun would set in a few hours. I wanted to get my bearings and some dinner before it got dark as I didn’t yet know if it was dangerous to roam the streets at night by myself (it isn’t). I was a little apprehensive. Everyone seemed to know where they were going and where they’re supposed to be. My apprehensiveness promptly dissipated as I took to the streets in awe of everything I was experiencing. My senses flooded with a million moments I’ve never known. Buildings crumbled, people threw dirty water out windows, mothers on balconies lowered baskets to hoist goods from those passing by. I was left wide-eyed.
I walked into Old Havana where I knew I could find dinner and a solid mojito. I stepped into Plaza Vieja and approached the restaurant Magela told me about. La Vitrola sits right off the square and I was sat at the last table outside, a table for four. I ordered a mojito and ceviche before opening “For Whom the Bell Tolls” but was too distracted by everything that was happening. Though I toted that book everywhere with me the entire trip, that first page ended up being all I read.
The sun sank over the plaza and set its colonial-style walls ablaze in hues of pinks and orange. A band began to play out of the restaurant and people gathered to watch and dance in its brick-paved streets. Havana felt familiar yet like nothing I’ve ever experienced. As the restaurant began to fill, the server asked if he could sit people with me. He set two menus down and two fresh college grads on a month-long trip from Singapore, Jewel and Jade, joined me. We were making our acquaintance when another mat was placed and a man from Argentina, Enzo, joined as well. All of us in Havana for the first time, all of us of similar age. It didn’t take long for our group of strangers to feel like friends. We shared a fabulous meal over music and good conversation before departing.
Enzo and I were staying in the same area and walked toward home together while talking about our lives. Instead of packing in for a night of rest, we decided the night was young and called for dancing. We turned down Ave de Italia and found a cafe turned salseria, Cafe Tilin. A live band and no cover meant it was packed with locals, all of who look like they’ve been dancing salsa since they could walk and probably have. I was awkward, I hadn’t danced salsa in quite some time but it slowly came back. The cafe’s chairs sat useless and every bit of available space was part of the dance floor. Unlike home, people preferred dancing to drinking, drunk on the adrenaline of twirling to covers of Enrique Iglesias and Buena Vista Social Club. We danced for hours. The cafe had AC but it didn’t matter, as we were sogged in sweat well before closing.
Stepping back out into the Havana streets at 2 am, a sea breeze rushed over the wall of El Malecon to cool dancers now left fanning themselves. We walked the streets of Havana, noting large groups of people gathered in the parks while Enzo tried to teach me some more Spanish. I don’t think I could have had a more perfect first night in Havana – a city that had already begun to entrance me.
**Continue to Writing & Dancing My Way Through Cuba Part 2