Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Like a Travel Virgin, Touched for the (Thirty) First Time

Over the years and with each new stamp in my passport, travel lost some of its initial thrill. The terror, excitement, and culture shock that accompanied my first trip abroad couldn’t be replicated—and certainly not over and over again.1 But then I went to Cuba, my 31st country, and returned with the same feeling I’d had as a 16-year-old coming back from Ecuador.

Between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I went to Ecuador for a summer abroad program. It was a summer of firsts: the first time traveling without family, the first time I’d had so much independence, and the first time I had to function in a foreign language. In short, it was the first time I’d had so much fun. After five wonderful weeks, my mom and sisters met me at SeaTac airport to welcome me home. I stood completely rigid while they embraced me, and had nothing to say except, “I want to go back to Ecuador.”

Half a lifetime later, I feel like that petulant 16-year-old once again. Even though it’s been two months (and there’s been a trip to Mexico in the interim), I just want to be back in the Caribbean, drinking rum and dancing to reggaeton. So what is it about Cuba that got inside of me and ruined real life for the foreseeable future? Like Russia, Cuba is one of those rare countries that makes me feel like a travel virgin all over again.

As everyone who has been there will tell you, Cuba is unlike anywhere else on earth. Though there is plenty to frustrate travelers and residents alike (empty shelves, long lines, and Soviet-style efficiency, to name a few), Cuba’s energy and excitement make up for much of that. There’s island magic in the air—a joie de vivre that permeates daily life despite poverty and regardless of politics. Life is lived with zeal, and is accompanied by a constant soundtrack of son and salsa.

A view of the Vedado neighborhood of Havana

Before you assume that I’m describing an experience exclusive to privileged foreigners, let me quote two Cubans (from two sides of the country) who voiced identical refrains:

“I live better abroad, but I only feel truly alive on the island.”

I first heard this in Santiago, from a Santiaguero who left Cuba for Canada. I heard it again a week later in Havana, this time from a Cuban living in Switzerland. It also sounded strangely similar to something a friend once said when we were talking about Moscow. “Don’t you just feel more alive there? Sure, you also feel like you might die at any moment, but there’s just an energy to it.” Fittingly, this was the person I was traveling with in Cuba.

I had the perfect travel companion for visiting a nation under communist rule—a Spanish-speaking Russian whose appetite for adventure is even greater than my own. Despite canceled flights in Florida, a lost phone in Havana, blackouts in Santiago, and a scrapped plan to hitchhike across the island, serendipity was always on our side. When two of my college friends failed to meet us at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, I ran into a high school classmate I hadn’t seen in fifteen years instead. When we got suckered into the worst casa particular in Santiago, our search for better lodging led us to a rooftop terrace and a night of rum-drinking with the proprietor’s childhood friend. When a storm hit Havana, we ended up with the one driver who would take his ’52 Dodge down an abandoned and rain-battered Malecón. Similar circumstances led to a marriage proposal at a bus station, a visit to Fidel’s grave, and a personal violin concert in a moonlit alley.

And I eventually found those college friends

Not surprisingly, Cuba brought out my same fearless (and somewhat foolhardy) alter ego, who first appeared in Ecuador and resurfaces every time I go to Russia. It’s a good thing we’ve only got eight more weeks to go before my blog returns to its regular programming. That’s right—I’m going back to Russia in June, and this summer has the added bonus of a two-week stint in the Central Highlands of Kazakhstan. It seems I’ll do anything to recreate the feeling of my very first time.

1 My first trip overseas, at age 16, was to my mother’s home country of the Philippines, and coincided with the Second EDSA Revolution. While I met extended relatives and attended a cousin’s wedding, the Filipinos took to the streets to overthrow their president.

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