In November, Melissa Faustine Chang went to Cuba.
Edith Zimmerman: Cuba! How easy is it to get there nowadays? Or, what was your progress?
Melissa Faustine Chang: It wasn’t too bad, actually — I spent a lot of time on internet forums researching, but you just need to fly to a gateway city (I flew through Cancun), then either buy your ticket to Cuba at the airport or, as I did, buy tickets in advance from a Mexican travel agency that ran my credit card through Belgium. The difficulty lies mostly in the planning. Internet is sparse in Cuba, so it’s hard to get in contact with people or book any accommodations in advance.
And why Cuba? Did you know anyone there?
A few weeks prior, I was at a point in my life where I felt like I was just treading water. I was coming on 10 years in New York, hit the ceiling at my job, generally dissatisfied in the love department — I was just feeling stagnant and not terribly happy in general. I always wanted to travel more, and to Cuba in particular, and decided I had to do it rather than sit around talking endlessly about it or bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t. So I quit my job and booked a flight to Havana via Cancun.
I didn’t know anyone there, but that was sort of the point — to go somewhere completely on my own terms. There was, of course, also the allure of going somewhere I technically wasn't allowed, so I could feel like I had made some small act of defiance. I’d also always been enamored with the '30s and '40s, and I wanted to see this place that was trapped in time before it became untrapped — although perhaps that is the most cliche reason of all.
Where did you stay?
I splurged on an expensive hotel the first night, since I got in so late and I didn’t want to risk ending up anywhere too shady. The rest of the time I stayed in “casa particulars," which are basically extra rooms in Cuban households that the owners are licensed to rent to tourists.
In Havana I stayed with a couple who lived on the 5th floor of a building with incredible views of the city’s rooftops and ocean, and a particularly handsy lift operator. There was a boy they hired who would answer/open the door in the evenings; since I wasn’t comfortable doing the nightlife scene by myself, I ended up spending some evenings just hanging out with him over the kitchen table. That I didn’t speak any Spanish at all also posed a bit of a challenge, but we managed, and listened to a lot of pirated Adele and Phantom of the Opera from his MP3 player.
In Viñales, the most incredibly beautiful valley west of Havana, I stayed with another couple, Lidia and Juan. They didn’t speak a word of English (and again vice versa), but it ended up being more than fine. The actual town in the valley was tiny, and everyone lived in colorful little bungalows with rocking chairs on the porches. I spent every evening rocking on the porch with Lidia, Juan, and their dog, somehow managing to discuss everything from politics to family values with many hand signals and a lot of rum.
What was the room like? And I want to hear more about Lidia. [Melissa mentioned her specifically in an earlier email.]
This was the tiny bungalow with the rocking chairs — it was just a simple room with two single beds, and a small bathroom off the side. It’s funny how “hot” water can be a very loose description. Lidia, however, was a larger than life woman who enveloped me in a huge hug the first second I met her. I think she became a bit protective of me since I was traveling alone; she told me not to talk to strangers, had her friends take me around on horseback, proclaimed herself my “Cubana Mama," and we just ended up becoming very close while I was there. One day, she had gone to her father’s farm for his birthday, and in the evening she came back with a slice of the coconut birthday cake she had wrapped in foil and saved for me. When I left, we both cried a lot, and she wrote me a note to give my actual mother.
The translation comes out to something like: “Dear mother, congratulations on having a daughter that is so cute and beautiful. Here she has a mother and father that will never forget her. She has earned our affection as her real parents. Kisses, Lidia and Juan."
[!] And what about the truck driver / beach story?
I took a bus out to a pretty remote beach, Cayo Jutias, for a day; the only people around were mostly just the 15 other tourists who bussed in with me. I was walking along the shore in search of a lighthouse when I met a Cuban man on the beach. We just fell in line walking together; when I asked him if there was anything farther along the shore, he said something about “stars everywhere," drew a star in the sand, and said he would show me. In retrospect, it was obviously not the wisest decision to follow a strange man farther into a deserted area in a strange country, but … I did. And he said there would be stars!
Somehow I ended up walking with him through the water and fallen branches in some areas, and through small pine forests for about 45 minutes. At one point along the way, he pulled a coconut from a tree and smashed it against a tree to open it for us both to drink — ridiculous and delightful. We finally got to the beach, which was just an incredible expanse of beautiful crystal clear blue water and not a soul in sight. We left our things in the sand and waded in; the water was shallow to our knees for 40 feet or so until it dropped deeper, and in the shallow area there were just starfish — huge, bright red starfish every few steps. It was breathtaking.
We swam together and chatted in broken Spanish for a few hours — about guys, food, the States. He was a truck driver — every day he would transport a truck of fishermen to and from the water where they would fish perched on inner tubes. It felt so natural and of the moment to just be there with this stranger, laughing and not thinking anything of it, and just have that be that.
Afterward, we walked back and drank questionable rum while watching the fishermen come back from the water one by one with their haul.
What did you spend most of your money on there?
Food and shelter — not much else since I couldn’t bring anything back. Oh, I actually did end up bringing back a peso cigar that I wrapped in a sweater in my luggage. The minute I got to New York, I dumped everything in the laundry machine, because I'm neurotic like that, and I ended up putting my contraband through a lavender-scented wash cycle.
What's the first meal from the trip that comes to mind?
The first night in the fancy hotel, I'd gotten in so late that I didn't want to venture out to find food, so I tried the hotel/restaurant buffet. The price at the door was scary expensive, though, so I turned to leave, planning instead to fall asleep in my room eating Clif bars, but the host took pity on me and let me in for half price.
It was a huge banquet-style room with a very elegant buffet spread and chefs manning the stations, mostly empty except me and a few Chinese businessmen. The presentation was beautiful, replete with silver serving platters and such, but the food was less so — mostly lukewarm pieces of under-seasoned pork and some sad, mushy carrots. The old grandpa manning the fish station was really kind to me, though, and came over to my table repeatedly to talk and make sure I was well-fed. Between that and the host letting me in (and food aside), it was a pretty comforting welcome meal after hours of travel.
Did you have any unexpectedly intense moments with other people? Sitting and talking with someone when things just came out really straightforwardly?
Language was definitely a barrier to being able to open up to people, so … perhaps just many, many emotionally naked moments/conversations with myself?
There were many moments where I felt really lonely, scared, and dumb for even thinking I could do the trip on my own. Sometimes I’d just want to stay in for the night and read, and I’d have to will myself to leave the house … because who goes to Cuba to read in their room alone?? So it really made me give myself little pushes, and forced me to be a little more open. In the end, I was never wanting for amazing experiences or random company: Cuban ice cream with a French-Canadian investment banker, meeting an Ethiopian boxer, being stood-up by a Venezuelan tour-guide of teenagers from Denmark, swimming and drinking with the Cuban truck-driver and fishermen. (Listing them like that makes them sound like action figures or baseball cards.)
In a strange way, I couldn’t have even imagined before that I’d be a person capable of having these kinds of stories. So, I don’t know — it was an eye-opener in a lot of ways.
Are there still a lot of '50s or ... '60s-era cars there? (I am now nervous this is a stupid question!)
Yes! They call them almendrones, or “almonds,” and most operate as taxis/buses along set routes. They’re a beautiful sight to see and it’s a wonder that they're still running. I only rode in them twice, as you have to hail them along the route and I chickened out usually — all the drivers are tough Cuban James Dean-types. The first time I hailed one, I was going to L Street, so I made an “L” sign with my hand. The driver laughed the whole way, making Loser signs on his head to his friend in the passenger seat, while the old woman sitting in the back with me gave me a furious scowl.
Did you dance?
No, I wish I did; it’s a big regret. Everyone dances, and asking you to salsa is a universal pick-up line in Cuba. I was just too shy, and I regret it. The last day I was there, I saw some teenagers hanging out along the Malécon, the waterfront/seawall, with a boom box just moving and contorting their bodies in the most amazing ways … I do really wish I had danced.
Did you lose anything?
I didn’t lose anything physical, but at the risk of sounding very cheesy, I lost a lot of my inhibitions and shed a lot of anxiety. The truck driver was actually not the only strange person that I rashly and stupidly followed into a potentially questionable situation that I emerged from unscathed and better for it.
I also lost a cute Venezuelan man somewhere — he drew me a very bad map to where we should meet for a drink at midnight. I couldn’t find the bar and no cellphones (!) so I ended up wandering back and forth along the windy Malécon alone in a very dramatic way. When I returned to the house, the man I stayed with huffed, “That never would have happened with a Cuban man.” Missed connections international?
I’m going to risk another terrible metaphor here and say that I gained back a lot of trust in people. Living in New York for so long, I realize that I often default to being skeptical and very cynical in general. Perhaps it was that everyone I met in Cuba was so genuinely kind and seemingly mostly absent of ulterior motives, but I somehow became a little less jaded.
If you close your eyes and picture one moment from the trip, what is it?
The starfish beach, undoubtedly. Floating on that water without anyone around, I felt more at peace than I ever have.
Previously: Biking and Camping Alone Along the Pacific Coast
Melissa Faustine Chang is a graphic designer based in Brooklyn.