A Tortured Traveler – Havana, Cuba

A Tortured Traveler
Havana, Cuba

Agnes and Alfredito

Agnes and Alfredito on Calle Virtudes

The sweating awoke me. Plastered between a set of mildewed sheets, I lay comatose gazing at the dizzying rotations of a fan whipping stale air against my body. Suddenly, in a surge of panic, I shot up. Where was I? Whose room was this? What home was I in? Looking frantically about me for clues, my eyes darted from the fan to the bed posts, from the floor to the ceiling, from the chair to the bureau, lingering on a heap of clothing, a toothbrush, sun lotion, a hair clip, a bottle of deodorant, a backpack. In a wave of relief it hit me, and I slouched back into bed, I was in Havana.

It was Monday morning, July 2, 2001, my second week in Cuba, my seventh month abroad. I remember that morning because that very same evening I logged the following entry into my journal: “Traveling is wearing a toll on me. I woke from my slumber this morning disoriented, not knowing where I was or where I had been. It was a frightening feeling.”
My entry continued, “I am tired, tired of the heat and the humidity, the cockroaches, the rats, the filth. I am tired of the swindlers and the swingers and their catcalls, ‘Lady! Lady!’ I am tired of being young and blonde and foreign. I am tired of being alone. I am tired of traveling.”

Traveling has never met my romantic expectations. Perhaps that’s because I have never traveled with anything more than a few hundred dollars in my pocket, an oversized backpack gripping my shoulders, and a Lonely Planet guidebook in my hand. Or perhaps traveling never meets anyone’s expectations; all those stories glossed over and glorified by the traveler, in an effort to impress and invoke envy from listeners. (I’ve done it before, so why wouldn’t they?) But, despite my disillusions, and despite all the comforts and conveniences of home – warm baths, clean sheets, a cozy bed – I stubbornly long for the tortures of travel.

My parents don’t get it. They don’t like the thought of their lovely daughter riding on strange buses, with strange people, through strange countries. They often ask me “Why? Why waste your money on travel? Why not buy a car? Or make a down-payment on a house? Or invest your money in stocks?” Or anything else that is tangible, and not fleeting, like the moments that form the unforgettable experience of traveling.

Sometimes I ask myself these same questions. Like that July evening in Havana. The heat was unbearable, so unbearable that even after dark as I wrote in my journal my pen continuously slipped from under my sweaty grip. I had never, never in my two hundred-odd days of traveling, blasphemized what I lived for. But that day I wrote with passion and urgency. I despised traveling. I despised Cuba. I wanted to go home. My parents were right, traveling was nonsense, I was wasting hard-earned savings on what? Torture? Anguish?

I continued writing, consoling myself in a flow of words, revealing myself to my only companion: my journal. And as I wrote, the fever slowly subsided, and little by little gave way to reason: “I didn’t leave home for the comforts and conveniences of another country. I left home in search of a new perspective. I wanted to see how other people live. I wanted to become a part of them. This is why I travel.”

Living with Alfredo and Luisa, and their son Alfredo, and his son Alfredito on Calle Virtudes in Central Havana gave me that new perspective I was looking for. If it hadn’t been for the cockroaches that scattered across the tiles each time I opened the bathroom door, and if it hadn’t been for the showerhead that convulsed above me as I bathed, I might have never been awakened to the stark reality of another people. Sharing in their day-to-day existence, I earned the family’s trust – I was their equal, no better, no worse. And then it happened, I was let into their world.