With all that’s been happening in society, I find my wanderlust bug itching more than ever. I have a few short trips planned between now and September but nothing grandiose on the docket at the moment. Since I’m not sure what my next big trip will be, I thought I would just take myself (and you guys!) on a trip down memory lane and back to Cuba.
I went to Cuba for about a week back in late December 2015/early January 2016. I am fortunate enough to have baller friends, one of whom has lived in Havana for the past two years. I absolutely HAD to go visit her. Though relations between the U.S. and Cuba had “normalized” before my trip, there were/are still no direct commercial flights between the two countries aside from select charters. I was also coming from Chicago since I was home for the holidays so I had to book my trip in multiple parts- Chicago –> Cancun, Cancun –> Havana, and then Havana –> Cancun, Cancun –> LA. Of course my city had to *bless* me with terrible weather the night before my flight so the flight that I booked to Cancun got canceled. After a lot of stress and waiting on the phone for customer service, I was able to find another flight that left the same day and actually few direct to Cancun rather than having a layover like my initial flight. Because I had booked the trip in different parts, this could have been an absolute NIGHTMARE had I not found another flight. Luckily, things worked out.
Once I actually made it to Cancun, I had a lot of time to burn at the airport. I thought that it might take a while to disembark, get my bags, and recheck-in for my other flight to Havana but it turned out to be a pretty smooth transition. At this point, I had had more than enough travel drama and was grateful not to have to stress. I chose a flight to Havana that had a layover in Panama in an attempt to avoid flying with certain airlines with bad reputations for delays. This made the trip from Cancun to Havana a bit longer than necessary but better safe than sorry when it comes to these matters. Not the most ideal travel experience by any means, but ultimately successful.
I arrived in Havana pretty late at night. Sam had given me all her information and instructed me on how to take a taxi from the airport to her place. There is no iPhone/google/GPS deal in Cuba, however, so my driver (and his friend/partner in navigation) drove to the neighborhood and began looking for the address. Unfortunately, they could not find it. I tried calling Sam on the driver’s cell phone but got no answer. I really didn’t know what to do. Despite living in LA for almost three years, I still speak very little Spanish (I know. I’m a disgrace). Unlike in the States, I could not use my technology to get myself out of this pinch. I stayed calm, but I was really at a loss. Luckily my drivers were more resourceful. They began knocking on doors and ringing doorbells to ask people in the area if they were familiar with the address. To say that I was confused and horrified by this tactic is an understatement. The thought of knocking on strangers’ doors period is a social faux pas where I come from. Let alone knocking on a strangers door AT ONE AM to ask for directions. It was pure madness!! To my surprise, none of the people that they disturbed seemed disturbed at all. In fact, they seem genuinely invested in helping us find Sam’s apartment. Finally there was one woman who knew the woman who rents out Sam’s place. She was able to call her and then point us to the apartment. It took waking up an entire block in Havana to get me there but – I had arrived.
Havana has a pulse unlike any place that I’ve ever visited. The spirit of the city seems tangible as you walk through the streets. Even when I arrived at 1 in the morning, people were casually walking around, seemingly unphased by the darkness and remarkably unconcerned about safety. Despite never having been to the country and not speaking the language, I somehow felt as though I blended in. This is partly due to the diversity of the Cuban people – there was no “typical” Cuban that I could identify. Not by skin tone, not by hair type, not by style of dress. Everyone seemed to have their own thing going which made it very easy for me to navigate the city pretty comfortably without feeling as though I had a tourist stamp on my forehead.
When people ask me about my trip, I am sure to stress how it was shaped by having a local host. I cannot at all speak to what it would be like if someone were to go on their own. That being said, I really valued having Sam there. Cuba is a very informal place. Many things happen through social connections which makes it really important to build amicable relationships. I was amazed at how much time Sam would spend making “small talk” with people that we randomly encountered but after a while, it made total sense to me. These connections were extremely important within Cuban culture and within the urban space of Havana.
On the morning of New Years Eve, Sam and I decided to run away from Havana for a night and go the a nature reserve about an hour’s drive outside of the city called La Terrazas. Sam loves this place and was excited to take me. It was absolute heaven. I don’t know the last time I’ve experienced air so fresh and hills so lush. The farm animals roaming the land were incredibly charming. The food – all grown the land – was deliciously fresh. I even found the perfect little terrace to practice yoga. Though we were there on NYE, we opted not to stay up until midnight and to instead embrace the serene spirit of La Terazzas by going to sleep at 9. haha
The rest of my time in Havana was quite anticlimactic in the best way. During the day Sam and I went to the local markets, got groceries and made meals, though we did go out to some of restaurants that she liked for a few. The nights were filled with dancing. The dance scene is LIFE in Cuba and Sam has definitely sank into it. I probably went dancing more in that week than I had in the 6 months prior to my trip. She threw a party for me to meet all of her friends, which was AMAZING. Despite the language barrier and my lack of talent, they helped me master the basic salsa steps. I was fortunate to be there when one of the premiere Cuban bands Havana de Primera randomly put on a show in the streets of Havana. Talk about amazing timing! So fun dancing and mingling on the streets with the entire city!
Sam actually left for a visit to the U.S. a couple of days before I was scheduled to come back to LA so I had about a day and a half on my own. I spent that time talking long strolls around Havana, going to museums, and topped off the experience by blowing the rest of my pesos at an Italian resto around the corner from Sam’s place. They actually had decaf coffee!