fourth year nyia bolin
As I stepped off the plane, my heart began beating so fast that it felt like it might jettison from my chest. All around me were signs in a language I could not decipher, people who looked different from me, and scents that I could not place. I was surrounded by bright pastel, dilapidated buildings. I watched a child play soccer with a completely flattened ball. I saw bicitaxis and classic American cars cruising down the streets. I swayed my hips to the lively salsa rhythms. I sipped a mojito at the same place Ernest Hemingway frequented. I was in Havana, Cuba. Immediately, I was thrust into a whole new world, and this world had very limited wifi. I had immersed myself into an unfamiliar environment, but abandoning familiarity would turn out to be a liberating experience for me.
My first day was marked by anxiety as I struggled to find my way around the city. Admittedly, I’m a directionally challenged individual. However, after a few days of walking various routes and getting lost, I began to recognize my surroundings and even learned some shortcuts. Another major struggle I dealt with was the language barrier. It’s hard communicating with people when you have no idea what they’re saying (and vice versa) but I learned that body language goes a long way. A kind smile when you’re trying to be friendly, a slight shrug when you’re confused, or pointing in a general direction when you’re lost can translate into any language. People speak a universal language with their body movements and gestures. It is just one way in which we are all similar.
Solo traveling can be a lonely and frightening experience, but that is what makes it so empowering. You don’t have the luxury of comfort—you are independent and must rely on yourself. But also, you’ll find that people are friendly and willing to help. You’ll even make new friends along your journey. I stayed in an Airbnb, where I was able to meet fellow backpackers and solo travelers. I met Alp and Vanessa on my sixth day in Cuba. As the other guests spoke to each other in Spanish, I felt slightly out of place, until Alp told me that he and Vanessa spoke English and he began translating what was being said. We sat on the terrace of our hostel, underneath the warm, night sky, as we bonded over a bottle of rum. From that moment forward, I had two people to experience Cuba with. The next day, we went to the beach together. As we laid on our towels, fingers buried in the hot sand, we talked about everything from our home countries to our future dreams. Within a day, they’d gone from complete strangers to my friends, and I could not think of anyone else I’d rather share that moment with. For my first time solo traveling, I didn’t feel too solo at all. Actually, the best part of my first time solo traveling wasn’t the country, but the amazing people I met during my time there.
I was forced outside of my comfort zone, but life is never supposed to be comfortable. Sometimes, it can be scary--which isn’t a bad thing. Solo traveling is an experience that not only reveals your strength, but shows that even when you feel disconnected, you’re actually more connected to yourself, your surroundings, and locals. If you’re up for a challenge and looking for a destination that’s rich in history and culture, then go to Cuba. You’ll be Havana good time.