A TRANS­FOR­MA­TIVE TRIP TO CUBA

Rachel Ed­wards quit her job to spend a month trav­el­ling

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A TRANS­FOR­MA­TIVE TRIP TO CUBA

It has to be now, I thought, star­ing out of the win­dow of the Ox­ford­shire mar­ket­ing com­pany where I’d worked for two years. We were a tight-knit group at work, but I didn’t want to stay for ever. I longed to write. I was cram­ming what writ­ing I could into my evenings, but some­thing had to give. My 30th birth­day was loom­ing and I felt com­pelled to make some­thing hap­pen. So I jacked in my job, took out a new credit card and jumped on a plane bound for Cuba. I ar­rived in a swirl of heat and high ex­pec­ta­tions. Ha­vana had long been on my wish list and I planned to stay for a whole month. This city felt as fa­mil­iar as an old movie: salsa mu­sic waft­ing from shad­owy door­ways and the air filled with the scent of cigars. At the same time, it felt alien. This still-mys­te­ri­ous is­land, the largest in the Caribbean, was run by its famed com­mu­nist regime. Would I feel Cas­tro’s grip as I wan­dered the streets in my wedge heels, search­ing for life and laugh­ter?

At first, I did. Tourists had to ini­tially check into govern­ment-ap­proved ho­tels, so I chose the Ho­tel Sof­i­tel Sevilla. I woke up in an­other decade. Over break­fast, a vi­olin­ist ser­e­naded us with As Time Goes By. Sit­ting alone, I felt deeply moved. I knew I had just four weeks in which to reimag­ine my fu­ture.

I strolled the streets of Ha­bana Vieja – the Old Town – tak­ing in glo­ri­ous, sun-bat­tered ar­chi­tec­ture and traips­ing through the craft mar­kets of Plaza de la Cat­e­dral and Plaza de Ar­mas. I drank mo­ji­tos in rum cafes and ate slices of peso pizza. An added joy of Cuba is that – black, white or brown – there is no ‘typ­i­cal’

Cuban. The melt­ing pot has it­self melted, un­der that undis­crim­i­nat­ing Caribbean sun. Ev­ery­one be­longs.

And of course I wrote, car­ry­ing a large notepad and phrase­book wher­ever I went. I had ar­rived with no Span­ish but was de­ter­mined to speak it 24/7. I jumped into yel­low coco taxis, em­braced the Malecón seafront and pushed my way into open-air dance par­ties, where both lo­cals and tourists twirled to salsa beats.

Af­ter a three-day ro­mance with Ha­vana, I headed south to the town of Trinidad, where colour­ful colo­nial houses lined the streets. I got chat­ting to two lo­cals, José-edel, whose im­pres­sive physique I re­mem­ber, and his friend, whose name I for­get. They seemed friendly, so I agreed to join their horse-rid­ing trip the next day.

Not know­ing one end of a horse from the other, I shared a mount with José-edel, part of a small clus­ter of som­brero-topped guides and tourists. We rode for hours, then broke into a gal­lop through shim­mer­ing fields of sug­ar­cane be­fore bathing in the azure wa­ters of the Javira falls. I was stunned into si­lence by the beauty of Cuba.

But even José-edel’s mus­cles couldn’t dis­tract me from what­ever I sensed was miss­ing. On one level, I was happy; on an­other, a pro­found lone­li­ness had seeped into my skin along with the sun­shine. Free from all ties, I had been granted time to think.

Af­ter din­ner out in Trinidad a few days later, I lay on the bed and poured my­self a rum night­cap. I started to sing – not qui­etly, in Span­ish and with some feel­ing – alone in my room. The song was Quizás, Quizás, Quizás, also known as Per­haps, Per­haps, Per­haps. No one knocked to tell me to keep it down, no dogs howled and I didn’t wake up with a hang­over. But I re­mem­ber how bit­ter­sweet it all felt. I was lost, loud and sad. Un­teth­ered from life’s cer­tain­ties, I re­alised what I truly wanted from life: to find some­one to love and be loved by. And to write nov­els.

On the flight home, with my credit card still suf­fer­ing from ner­vous ex­haus­tion, I won­dered how I would man­age. The real world was wait­ing for me and I was about to re­turn to rent, bills and no job.

For many peo­ple, a trans­for­ma­tive trip means that they live their life from then on in a dif­fer­ent way. But for me, the re­turn from Cuba didn’t lead to a per­sonal rev­o­lu­tion where I could only be happy on a trop­i­cal is­land. In­stead, it helped me to see that the job I had quit wasn’t the prob­lem. In fact, some­thing in my gut pulled me back to­wards it. I’d still write, but I had to live as well. And though ask­ing for a job back is never an easy choice, my trav­els through Cuba had given me the courage and clar­ity to make the right call.

Days af­ter land­ing, I called my old boss and asked about the pos­si­bil­ity of re­turn­ing to my old job. He sug­gested lunch. My pre-cuba self might well have said a po­lite ‘no thanks’, pre­fer­ring to catch up with my for­mer col­leagues at the of­fice. And se­duc­tion hardly beck­oned: I was 29 and he was 42, a sin­gle dad, sep­a­rated with five-year-old twins. But re­laxed af­ter my is­land ad­ven­ture, I sim­ply said, ‘Sí.’

We chat­ted be­yond the al­lot­ted hour and then this gen­tle man, never nor­mally flir­ta­tious, em­pha­sised a point with the light­est touch of my hand. Some­where within, a faint salsa beat.

A col­league’s din­ner party fol­lowed, then din­ner for two… and now, 14 years later, we’re mar­ried, and the in­fant twins, who we raised to­gether full-time, are 20. I found love, I found my fam­ily, I wrote al­most ev­ery day as a free­lancer and I’m a nov­el­ist.

Had I not quit my job, we would never have shared that lunch. Lit­tle had I known, as I sang ‘Quizás…’ to my­self, alone and sad, that the trip would ready me for an­other side of life. I came home re­newed, health­ier, with ex­cel­lent con­ver­sa­tional Span­ish, but most of all ready to open my­self up to the ‘some­thing more’ that was miss­ing. That ‘some­thing more’ hap­pened to be my fu­ture hus­band. Cuba gifted me all kinds of sur­prises, but he turned out to be the great­est of them all.

Dar­ling by Rachel Ed­wards (Fourth Es­tate) is out now

‘MY TRAV­ELS GAVE ME THE COURAGE TO MAKE THE RIGHT CALL’

José-edel was Rachel’s tour guide on the trip to Javira falls

Rachel was stunned into si­lence by Cuba’s beauty

Cuba is like a par­adise f rom decades be­fore

Lo­cals and tourists join mu­si­cians at a salsa club

Che Gue­vara was a ma­jor f ig­ure in the Cuban rev­o­lu­tion

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