Picture yourself relaxing in Cuba. Scrunch your toes into the powdery white sand. Take a sip of your mojito. Plunge into the warm, azure waters. Wait two hours in line at the bank. Sit in your wrought-iron rocking chair and light up a cigar. Pay twenty-five times too much for your coffee. Watch the stars while sipping on a Cuba libre. Wait three hours in line to get an hour of Wi-Fi. Get a flat tire. Pay twenty cents for the best pizza you’ve had outside Italy. Go salsa dancing. Get a second flat tire. Watch the palm trees sway in the wind. Wait two hours to buy a bus ticket. Yell at a man who tried to charge you a dollar fifty for a pizza when you know very well it’s worth twenty cents. Get a third flat tire. Accidentally spend fifty dollars on counterfeit cigars. Are you relaxed yet?
Venture beyond the forced fun of Varadero’s resorts, and you’ll find an entirely different Cuba. Most locals prefer reggaeton to salsa. Beaches are a long and pricey taxi ride away. You’ll inevitably shell out fifteen dollars for a meal that cost less than fifty cents to make. And it’s impossible to get a straight answer out of anyone.
In short, travelling in Cuba is not relaxing. The near-total lack of Wi-Fi makes planning difficult. Public transportation is inconvenient, forcing all but the most determined to take expensive taxis nearly everywhere. The locals are welcoming, but it’s impossible to shake the feeling that your new friend is somehow making a commission on your time together.
Not to mention the bureaucracy that pervades every aspect of Cuban life. You’ll probably spend three or four hours queueing up before even leaving the airport. Once, after spending two full days with a fellow backpacker, we realized that half our time together had been spent waiting in lines.
But if you commit yourself to taking Cuba as it comes, you will be rewarded.
This country is so different from everything you know that every mundane task sparks a philosophical conundrum. What happens to a society when cab drivers make more than doctors? Is it immoral to charge relatively wealthy foreigners twenty-five times what you would charge a local? Is free healthcare more important than free speech?
In the hours upon hours that you will inevitably spend waiting, you can do one of several things. You may use your time to criticize the Cuban government’s penchant for bureaucracy. Many visitors choose this as their pastime, but I find others much more interesting. If you suspend your frustration, you may instead spend your time pondering Cuba’s complexities, befriending your fellow line-mates, and enjoying the sunshine as you watch Cubans go about their business. After a time, you may even find waiting in line rather… pleasant.
Once you venture away from the resorts, there’s little conventional relaxation to be had. Instead, your bus will be delayed. Your car will break down. Your taxi driver will take you to the wrong address. Your bank card will not work. Your bed and breakfast will give away your reservation. Your dinner will arrive cold and under-seasoned and might even give you food poisoning.
You will be subjected to so much stress that you will simply not survive unless you rise above it. Tranquilo, you must learn to tell yourself. Be calm. Be unconcerned. Let it go.
Lying on a beach with a coconut full of rum won’t rid you of the stress of your daily life; it will only delay it. Beach vacations are called ‘escapes’ for a reason—they allow you to escape your life, your job and your worries, but all of your problems will still be there when you return.
Exploring Cuba on your own is no such escape. You’ll encounter more problems than you could ever expect. You will get so frustrated it will be hard to believe you’re on vacation. But perhaps the most relaxing trip you could ever take is the one that teaches you to transform your frustration into something positive. And the ability to rise above your stress, to be tranquilo, will stay with you long after your Caribbean tan has faded.