A TRANSFORMATIVE TRIP TO CUBA
Rachel Edwards quit her job to spend a month travelling
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