The Gemstones recently returned from a week in Cuba! We had an amazing time in a fascinating country. My experience there was so different from (and better than) the trips I have taken in the past. Our time in Cuba may be the best travel experience I have ever had – and that is a big statement, considering that I have been incredibly fortunate to have traveled to many, many places around the world. There are several reasons for this trip being so special, including its marking an enormous moment of empowered transition in my life and the fact that Cuba is an inherently unique and fascinating place to visit. But I have been thinking about the biggest reason: my mindset.
A classic Havana vignette. Check out more photos of our trip HERE!
I have always, always, always wanted to be a traveler. I can recall, as a little girl in school, learning in social studies and history classes about far-off places and thinking, with complete, unblinking conviction, “I can’t wait until I see that one day.” There was no question in my young mind that I would get there when I grew up.
When I finally did get the opportunity to start traveling in earnest, I was not yet a whole person. I spent many years of my adult life projecting confidence and “perfection,” while feeling lost inside. Because it was too hard to confront that lost feeling, I built up walls and defenses to ignore it. I fooled myself into believing that “this was it” and I should try to live what appeared to be “the very best life” as it was modeled in popular culture – nice house, pretty clothes, et cetera. Among other things, this affected how I travelled and what travel meant to me.
In the past, travel was a way for me to attempt to find meaning in my life. I had not yet found it inside of me (or even realized it was inside I should be looking), so instead I combed the planet looking for external experiences to give me internal validation. “I have been the Louvre, the Vatican, the Great Wall, and Stonehenge. I must be an interesting person, I must be worth liking…” And, if I am being honest, I also considered the countries I checked off my list as symbols of status. “I know I am better than most, because I have been to so many places and seen so many things… right?”
This “problem,” shall we call it, also impacted the way I approached traveling. Because I was unconsciously desperate to squeeze out as much internal meaning and gratification from each experience, I would maniacally plan for trips in order to ensure that I had seen every important sight, tasted every “classic” dish, checked each of the “must do” boxes for each city I visited. I would spreadsheet my trips – down to the hour – and even block in “X hours of wandering Y neighborhood” to attempt to infuse some of the magic of spontaneous discovery into the experience. Restaurants were examined on TripAdvisor, reservations were made, everything was planned “just so” to maximize surface pleasures. I was confident that, with planning, I could ensure the “perfect” trip (which was a critical component to my larger plan of building the “perfect” life).
The magic of spontaneous discovery – a “bookstore” we stumbled across in central Havana
This wasn’t a healthy way to think or operate. And it wasn’t working – it wasn’t giving me lasting internal peace and joy. Don’t get me wrong, I have certainly felt moments of exhilaration when face-to-face with the wonder and beauty of the world – feelings I mistook for completeness. But the feelings faded, and my core was no stronger. I would come home feeling hungry rather than fulfilled.
In the last several years, I have done a lot of hard work on myself. I’ve stripped away the illusions of fake happiness, bared my core, and found the strength that was always hiding inside of me. I know who I am now, and why I am here.
As a result, I approach travel completely differently now. We arrived in Havana with a few places we wanted to see, a list of questions, and a desire for adventure. We talked to people with open hearts, and walked the streets with open eyes. I wasn’t looking for perfection, I was looking at Cuba for what it really is. And Cuba is fascinating.
Cuba is a country defined by the revolution, and shackled by its aftermath. The government is actively engaged in a propaganda campaign that continues to this day, and the people are as conflicted about their government as we are about ours. Because Amethyst speaks Spanish, we were able to have in-depth conversations with many Cubans about their thoughts on life in Cuba and their political system. We even interviewed a few folks for a big project we are working on (more about that in the future…).
Amethyst in a crumbling building in old Havana
We spoke with Cubans who derided Castro as a thief and Communism as the sole cause of Cuba’s misery, and we spoke with others who touted Cuba’s excellent education and healthcare programs, as well as their efforts at providing a social safety net to every citizen. Many Cubans were quick to explain that, while our governments may fight, we as people should have no qualms with each other and should treat each other as friends. I think one man summed it up for us as best as it can be described: There isn’t one truth in the story of Cuba, or in its relationship with the US – and even if there were a truth, it is so obscured we likely can never discover it.
Ruby at the Museum of the Revolution, symbolically located in the old Royal Palace
Despite the significant struggles and immense poverty in Cuba, the people are vibrant, curious, and engaging. It is also a country full of art. Everywhere we went, we saw art – people using any medium they could get their hands on to express themselves. There was juxtaposition everywhere. Our minds could never be at rest in Cuba, there was too much to see, ponder, consider, remember.
The Callejon de Hamel, a street-turned-arts project made from salvaged items
Had I still been a plastic person, my trip would have been marked by mojitos, salsa music in the street (which really was excellent!), and a ride in a shiny old convertible car. But because I didn’t need this trip to give me meaning, I could enjoy Cuba for all it is in reality. It turns out, reality is so much better than a postcard.
Check out pics from our trip HERE!
Ruby enjoying morning coffee from our porch in the Viñales valley