Of course this blog is going to be about my Cuba escapade and my first trip traveling without anyone I knew:) Why? Because Cuba is a special place and I’m pretty sure I left a part of me there (especially my books because you know how much I love those and to leave them anywhere is a big deal). Mixture of old and new, tourists and locals everywhere, dilapidated buildings and refurbished ones living side by side. In this instance there was no judging a book by its cover. In fact, this place tested this saying to its limit.
I was nervous, I won’t lie. Solo traveling for someone who is highly introverted, not good (terrible really) at small talk and normally has the luxury of traveling with someone, is exciting and scary all at once. Yet there I was, taking this 30 hour journey (2 long flights and an 8 hour layover) to this island, on the other side of the world.
Window seating it all the way (introverts will understand this; with no likelihood of people needing to ask you to move so they can get up hence less talking…yep, I know by this point you’re asking how did I survive); immigration checks done (no smiles but friendly enough), bags collected, money exchanged. Okay tip 1 here: Cuba has these cool ATM currency exchanges at the airport so you skip the queue at the currency exchange office. Use them. And the government official was super helpful on how to use it. But don’t worry, there’s enough places on the island to resolve any money issues I found.
I must have been easy to spot because the person picking me up for my transfer walked straight up to me in the crowd and sea of people and yelled out my name. Loudly. Yep, I’m in Cuba.
40 minutes to Havana ooh na na…it’s night time, streets are fairly quiet and I get dropped off outside a building that looked like it had no one living in it. Nope, really? This can’t be it. “Is it safe?” thoughts running through my head. He must have read my mind because as he was taking my bag out of the car, he said to me, “Safe, very safe area!” pressed the bell and down came Alex, the receptionist to pick up my luggage (people must be super fit. They made carrying 16 kilos of luggage up 3 flights of stairs look so simple. Ah, the entrances to the buildings are narrow and most of the bottom areas not used. All the wonders of the places are on top! Passed out in this beautiful blue room with high ceilings. I have survived the first night! Did I mention I was in Cuba???
Okay, day 2 and tip 2: Do not ever judge a book by its cover. I was standing on the balcony, looking down Cuba Street wondering how I was ever going to walk around this city and navigate solo as I was only joining a small tour group 3 days later. It looked busy and chaotic and oh boy, what have I gotten myself into. Street map in hand (thanks to Alex for pointing out everything and where to go and what to see), bag and phone camera ready; off I set. Nicely painted part of a building, not so nicely painted part of a building, no paint…hooting, no not at me, to greet someone else on the road, people, lots of people, music, no music, horses, cars, bicycles, people, upmarket looking street, not so upmarket looking street, little gems of artists found in either, restaurants found in either, and friendliness found everywhere. Do not judge a book by its cover.
Tip 3: Smile at people (thanks for the tip Mirree and for making coming home extra special), especially when they look at you like you’re an alien. Within 30 minutes I was way too comfortable. People were curious and friendly. Many would be chatting to their friends trying to guess where I’m from as I was walking past. How do I know this without understanding Spanish? Because the question “India?” would leave their lips as they looked at me. And when I said, “Sorry?” they would ask “Where you from?” “South Africa.” then turn to their friend as if both had lost a bet and repeat what I said. Okay, doorway opened to conversation happening in two different languages. Me in English, them in Spanish; lots of nodding and laughter, with references to Caster Semenya, vuvuzela, world cup, Nelson Mandela being mentioned to questions about where my Indian looking origins come from…because you know, I’ve gone from being alien looking to just absolutely plain confusing. Yep, there’s me throwing people’s preconceptions and views completely off. I was expanding their minds as much as they were mine…hehehe…don’t judge me by my cover hahahaha.
Tip 4: Wherever there are tourists, there will be people trying to sell you something, ask you for something or trying to get you somewhere. Politely say no thank you and move on. I found that this bugged me very little. Maybe because I’ve experienced worse before and probably because the people were super polite and friendly and left you alone as soon as you said no thank you (once or twice). Havana and Trinidad have a high level of tourist feeling to it but you can get deeper than that and the place allows you to. Then Vinales was so laid back, you couldn’t help but fall into it. It also helped being in a small tour group (there were 10 of us) because everything is in Spanish so knowing what a museum was about and being able to know what you were looking at or why a place or building was important was difficult. My first few solo days in Havana made a lot more sense afterwards. The combination of solo days and tour groups was a great experience.
Tip 5: If you think you can’t, you won’t. If you think you can, you will. That’s how I ended up in museums that didn’t look like such, restaurants that had good food and exceptional live music with no trip advisor sign posted outside, walking along the Malecon without realising it and having to pose with artifacts for a lady who insisted on taking photos of me (with my phone) at a fort. She really did insist and I went with it so now I have me posing on my own and looking awkward in photos as lovely memories.
Tip 6: Embrace as much as you can. Time flies. When I joined our tour group, there was a lady who could not speak a word of Spanish. We were given basic phrases to practice and I was like, “nope too embarrassing, not going to happen” and she went All-In. Without a care. I learnt a lot from that. She would practice with everyone, from people on the street to the people in our casas. So there was me, learning from her on how to just try. People will either look at you weirdly (which was already a thing so no biggie there), understand you and be happy you’re making an attempt or correct you politely if you get it wrong. Best way still to learn is to practice.
Tip 7: Your experience will be unique. In preparation for my trip and not wanting to miss out on much or get things wrong, I read a lot of blogs and articles. I mean a lot. And none of them matched my experience. From the immigration checks, currency exchange, touristy happenings to people experiences, everything was different. Even the people on my tour had different experiences to me and we were doing similar things.
Tip 8: You can be well traveled and still have a closed mind. Be conscious about being open and hopeful that you’ll enjoy your trip and you probably will. I had the weirdest experience in that I noticed how I enjoyed things when I was anticipating to compared to when I wasn’t. All of a sudden, things just seemed better or I could let things go a lot easier. When I expected the immigration official to be aggressive or rude (fyi: this didn’t happen in Cuba or my home country) it happened that way; yet when I expected them to be calm with a quick, seamless process, it happened that way. And to be honest, I don’t think there was any real difference in their approaches but I felt it differently because I went in with a changed mindset. In other words, it bothered me less when I didn’t care about people’s approach towards me. I learnt to care less about that and more about my own approach to people. This way, I’m learning to take less offense to anything or anyone; and I definitely appreciate things way more. BIG LEARNING.
Tip 9: Explore. And don’t be afraid to. I walked around on my own a lot. And it was fun. I got to speak to people and learn things outside of touring, see places I probably wouldn’t normally have and enjoyed all of it. I now have a bigger appreciation for art, history and people. It was safe. No doubt about it. And the things you’d worry about either do not happen or gets sorted out one way or another. There’s always some guardian angel to help out! Confidence boost for sure.
Tip 10: Don’t compare. Travel to learn and open your mind. Yes, use your own home as a reference if you want but don’t compare. It’s the same everywhere in the sense that you may love where you live but your neighbour may hate it. Don’t compare. Just appreciate. Wherever I went, I would first purposely look out for what I called universal views (many mother-in-law jokes made; people complain about government service the same or even similar cooking style) and this would help me be even more curious about the differences I saw. A link would be created, people are people, history is history and culture is culture. Great! Now that I see we’re all just people living our lives as best we can, show me what I don’t know, I’m ready to be a sponge!
Would I do it all again? Without a doubt. Cuba, solo travel, even joining a small tour group. What was my favourite part of this trip? The people. By far. And my biggest learning? People make all the difference to what makes a place what it is.