I’m stumbling over the scattered rocks and pebbles of the cobbled streets of Old Havana (Habana Vieja) with my mouth wide open. Apartment blocks stacked on top of each other like old cardboard boxes are bathed in the last of the evening’s lilac light.
Paint from the crumbling casas flakes from the walls like dry skin. Shirtless teenagers are kicking a battered football around the street as the heat slowly loosens its chokehold on the city.
Everything is worth watching, each moment, a scene from a telenovela. I am travelling Cuba solo.
My keen sense of observation – and my dark skin and curly hair – grants me access to a Cuba that may remain obstructed to other travellers; the ones who rush past the smaller details, the ones who don’t blend in. I sneak onto buses and into clubs for Cuban price. I buy street food for a fraction of the tourist cost.
Along with my female African-American female travel buddy, we befriend the Cuban family we are staying with in our casa during New Year’s Eve celebrations and benefit from a cheaper room rate than the two Dutch guys staying next door. I begin a passionate two-week affair with guy who runs the house and we attend a salsa night, a museum and a party together.
Each time he calls me his novia (girlfriend) I beam with pride and wonder why things aren’t this easy on the dating scene back in London. How can I arrive in a place I’ve never been to before and feel more at home in just one month, than I normally do in my country of birth? Travelling Cuba solo – especially Havana – is easier than I thought it would be.
Perhaps it’s because as an outsider Cuba seems free of much of the racism and colourism that plagues other parts of the Caribbean – and indeed the world. Fidel Castro’s social equality reforms were focused on creating a country largely untroubled by racial distinctions. And a local tour guide I meet in Havana tells me that traditionally, race relations between black and white Cubans have great – but only because they haven’t really been discussed up until now and now the country is becoming more capitalist, there’s a resurgence in white nationalism. Later, I find out that there is more underlying controversy.
As the Atlantic reports, “Cuba has historically been slow to publicly confront its deep racism – largely because it has almost mythologised its supposed racial unity”.
Even so, in my experience if you ask a Cuban where they are ‘from’, it’s enough to simply declare: “Soy Cubano” (I am Cuban) as the overwhelming cultural attitude is one of holistic, national pride often untroubled by distinctions of skin shade. The University of Miami estimates that 62% of the country is of black or mixed race origin. Cubans still distinguish by skin colour or shade in the streets though – I was regularly called “mulata” (mixed girl) or “negrita” (black girl) but reassured by locals that it was a term of endearment.
However, in and each town I frequent, I notice families and couples of every hue. The country is an inclusive rainbow of black and blended beauty, which is why I rarely feel out of place. The only things that threaten to blow my cover are my slow Spanish accent (Cuban Spanish is famously fast and heavy), my clumsy salsa footwork on the dancefloor (Cuban salsa is among the best in the world) and my timid nature when chatting and dancing (Cuban culture is dripping in sexual innuendo at every turn).
As I am travelling Cuba solo and walking around Havana, I catch sight of a slice of the sea from behind a crumbling Church; it glistens in the sun like shredded silver. I keep walking and check my reflection in the window of a 1950s fuchsia Chevrolet, pausing to have check myself – am I really here? – before catching the eye of a curly-headed girl who could be my sister, and who eyes my bulky camera with suspicion (it’s rare to see Cubans with this sort of thing and this gives me away once again).
I remember thinking how far away this all was just 10 months ago, when the promise of Cuba was a dream hanging above me. Now, I’ve arrived and I feel as if I’ve stepped inside a dizzying, eclectic mirage. Cuba is more vibrant than I ever could have imagined; it is black and bold and unapologetic and I realise that I fit in here. I feel at home.
I stop and look around at the variety of brown faces around me, pausing in the shade of a tree to listen to the mix of Spanish spill into the air; “Si, di me” (Yes, tell me), “Como estas mi vida?” (How are you, my life?).
Cuban Spanish is unmistakeable in its familiarity and casualness, I notice that all Cubans speak to one another as friends and when they mistake me as Cubana, I too, receive my special invitation to this warm, new world.
On my first day travelling Cuba solo, with my camera around my neck, I stroll around Havana’s captivating old quarter, taking in the towering palm trees and the sound of salsa which seeps from every street corner. I’m approached by a beer-swilling man called Ernesto who taps me on my shoulder and a greets me in Spanish.
“You’re Cuban?” Much to his surprise, I explain that no, I’m actually English.
Before I know it, I’m being shown around as his unofficial guest, snapping photos at the carts laden with tropical fruit and the men playing dominos on tiny plastic chairs. I sip on Cuban rum with his friends, smoke a cigar and learn about the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria, which has roots in Catholicism and Yoruba. Later, I meet two 20-year-old antique book sellers in a Cuban cafe who take me to the city’s coolest club, Fabrica de Arte. Making friends is a daily occurrence in Cuba and makes the more difficult aspects of life there (no Wi-fi and cat-calling on every street corner) pale into insignificance.
I’m the type of traveller who enjoy risky travel experiences – and I’m not sure why. I can’t pinpoint where I got my keen sense of adventure from (my Father never left Europe and my Mother loves returning to Spain), but travel has always been an integral part of who I am. I can – and do – talk to anyone and I always make sure I leaves each destination with a camera brimming with amazing photos, a bucket-load of stories and only a handful of regrets.
Travelling Cuba solo with an open mind and the knowledge that it’s normal to hitch lifts and accept offers of accommodation from Cubans in the street, I decide to leave my inhibitions on the plane and constantly find home in many of the people I interact with.I know that second, third and fourth visits to Cuba need to happen in my lifetime. Being in Cuba is like stepping inside a kaleidoscope and turning the brightness up to a hundred, but the colours never make your eyes hurt. As well as blending in and making deep connections with many of the country’s inhabitants, Cuba unlocked parts of me that I didn’t know I had within me. And for that reason I’ll always feel at home there.
Like this? Want to go to Cuba? Check my guide for 2018 and press the heart to show the love for this post and send me any comments you have below.