Cuban Vibes: Why do we travel?

By Charlotte Discombe
– A QUESTION:
I am back in England. It is cold and raining. On days like this I wish I was back in my favourite place: a sanctuary far away from here. As I write this I am sitting in an overpriced coffee shop, treating myself to one of their overpriced drinks and I am feeling very sorry for myself. I’m drinking a decaf Americano, one sugar and skinny milk so nothing too fancy. In this moment I am trying to work out what it is about travelling and exploring the world that stays with you for the rest of your life, AND why we (a very general WE) crave the excitement of backpacking around the world. These are questions that I have often had to deal with when I’ve spent the last of my money on that one flight or when my environmental beliefs come into play and I can’t comprehend why I consciously decide to damage the world I treasure to, somewhat selfishly, go out and explore.
(For your information, the day before this coffee shop incident, I spent most of my money on tickets to visit a friend in Australia. Typical me).
There was a time when travelling over land and sea to get to the unknown was almost unheard of. My parents for instance never really travelled until much later in their lives; money restrictions, travel prices and a life of hard work made sure of this. As a result I consider myself extremely lucky that I have had the opportunity to go off travelling. The rapid growth and popularity of travel packages like Interrail or Intro Travel emphasises the fact that travelling with just a backpack, particularly for my generation of 20 somethings, has become the ‘in’ thing for many: the curious, the free spirited, the ones who need to get away etc etc.
A.A. Milne, popular children’s writer and author of the Winnie the Pooh stories, once said:
‘You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think’
To me personally, this quotation sums up my travelling experiences and in turn my want to keep on exploring in spite of lack of money and my want to protect this Earth. I hope a brief remembering of my time in Cuba four years ago can illustrate to you, dear reader, why this particular quotation can answer my questions of why we travel and why these experiences stay with us.
– A CONFESSION
Dear reader,
I thought you should know a few things before we really get started:
I’m scared of flying
I’m scared of being on my own
I AM A VERY ANXIOUS PERSON WHO STRUGGLES WITH NEW ENVIRONMENTS.
– CUBAN VIBES
I wake up. It’s around 5am in the morning. The sun is rising and shining through the opening into our room. There are no glass windows here; glass is too expensive and it is way too hot here to justify needing glass windows. Instead, there is just an opening with maybe some shutters (if you’re lucky… we weren’t so lucky).
After a bizarre and somewhat awkward night whereby my new roommate accidently fell on top of me thinking it was her bed thanks to lack of electricity, lack of lights and maybe too many Cuba Libre’s, I feel strangely awake and alive.  I am ready for the day.
It is sometime in February 2012 and I am travelling around Cuba with some history pals. This is the first time I have been so far away from home on my own and to be honest with you I am terrified. But from the moment I arrived in Cuba, I knew this would be my favourite place in the whole entire world – a pretty big statement to make. I also knew that after this trip I would want to continue to travel and explore the world – again another big statement.
A Cuban family looked after the room we were staying in. We had travelled the 14 hour flight from London, and the 3 hour journey from Havana, to a small farming town named Viñales just North of the main city. Families in Viñales are encouraged by a Government scheme to literally house and host the gradually increasing number of tourists visiting these tranquil areas within Cuba.  I remember wondering how long it would be until corporate hotels and Americanisation invaded this indescribably beautiful place – probably not that long.
I walk out of our room to find bread, papaya and juice ready for breakfast. I sit outside in the sunshine and view the hills and trees surrounding me. I am content, despite fearing I may have offended our hosts by talking to them with my awful GCSE Spanish.
Today we will be visiting and working on two farms: one that grows tobacco, the other that grows exotic fruits and vegetables on one of the many hills surrounding Viñales. It is hot already and I know we have a long day ahead of us.
We start at the tobacco farm, 7am. We walk the dirt track through the little town, home to a couple of bars and local shops. The town is already alive with locals drinking, selling fruit and veg and chatting. After 30 minutes of walking we arrive at the farm and get working. I learn how to roll pure tobacco into a cigar using dried palm leaves. The task is a delicate one, but one that is very rewarding when you finally make the cigar. Others in the group learn about harvesting the tobacco whilst the sun beats down on them working on the hillside. One family looks after this farm, a family of three: father, son and mother. They harvest and make the cigars by hand, along with a couple of mates, to then be exported around the country – an incredible feat.
A couple of yards further up the hill we find a hut surrounded by goats and bulls and vegetable patches. Again one family runs this farm, often helping other farmers out if needed. I begin to admire the friendly and hard-working nature of the Cuban people. The family show us around and are patient to teach us how to harvest the goods of the land. They are proud of their work and their produce and want to pass on their knowledge. Such skills learned and experiences felt are ones I will never forget because they were initially so alien to me. It is these kinds of experiences that I crave more of.
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After collecting the foodstuff, we help prepare a meal for us all to share. There are 20 of us in a hut trying to cook a traditional Cuban mean: black bean rice, spicy pork, goat and grilled vegetables like I’ve never tasted before. After a day of hard work, we eat heartily and watch the sun go down over the hills. It is a moment shared and a moment that I wish I could re-live over and over again.
The day ends with the twenty of us fitting into two small 50s vintage cars with no headlights in order to get us back down the hill to Viñales town. Terrified, drunk and merry.
This is why I travel, for moments like these. Moments that show us you’re braver, smarter and stronger than you seem. These moments stay with you for the rest of your life.
– A CONCLUSION OF SORTS
Dear reader,
I AM BRAVE
I conquered my fear of flying
I conquered my fear of being on my own
I explored new things and new places
I AM SMART
I learned new skills once totally alien to me
I learned to appreciate the shared moment
I AM STRONG
I am determined to keep on seeing the world and experiencing the unknown no matter what life throws at me
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