Marching to the beat of the drum

Until Cuba, whenever I’ve travelled anywhere, I’ve always arrived at my destination with a clear idea of where I’ll be going, when I’ll be going there and I’ll have at least a pencilled out plan of the things I want to be doing during my visit.

When I travelled through Asia last year, I was amazed by some of the people I met who rocked up in cities with no plans, no suggested itineraries – hell, they didn’t even have any accommodation booked! How did they do it?

But then I got to thinking. There’s something strangely attractive and romantic about the freedom of it all, of just turning up and being ready for whatever the world throws at you. Sat at my desk in Manila staring at the hotel wall in front of me while desperately trying to ignore the ever-growing to-do list, I realised my eleutheromania was kicking in again. I needed to go somewhere, anywhere – so I booked flight tickets to Cuba and that was that.

I decided Cuba would be my guinea pig. Could I, Queen of schedules and punctuality, possibly travel without a plan? We were about to find out.

My trip started with a five hour stopover in Colombia which I was determined to make something of. A cheeky, rule-breaking Wikipedia check prior to boarding the flight meant I at least had the name of a place to go to in Bogotá for when I arrived. Racing through immigration, I found myself in arrivals in no time at all. Then I found out the place I’d found was actually a neighbourhood and dismay kicked in. What had I done? My foolish lack of planning threatened to ruin my opportunity to explore Bogotá. It was only thanks to the kind help of a stranger that I actually managed to make something of the following few hours.

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Back in the airport with shaken confidence somewhat restored, I fought the urge to crack open my guidebook as I waited to board the plane. A few hours later, I was standing in Havana airport. It conspires that arriving in Havana without a hotel reservation was not such a smart idea after all but I survived. I caught a lift into the city with two American girls who hadn’t booked a place either. We ended up in a casa but the lady had no space. We sat and waited while she called her friends but to no avail. An hour wasted, we once again found ourselves in the street calling into casas to see if they had any space. Eventually we found a casa not too far from the square – it was a lot more expensive than I’d wanted to pay but as the gentleman who owned the casa quite rightly said “you should have booked in advance”. Now I was starting to feel like a bit of an idiot.

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My three days in Havana were a shambles. Despite my open dislike of guidebooks, I wandered around shamelessly clutching the copy of ‘Lonely Planet Cuba’ that my colleague insisted on lending to me – thank God she did. I missed out on visiting some of the museums because I didn’t figure out their opening patterns until too late, I ended up staying a day longer in Havana than I’d wanted to because I didn’t by my bus ticket in time and I got followed and harassed for money when asking locals for directions. It was exhausting and my travels were not off to a good start.

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While I wasn’t too taken by the city itself, everything picked up in Camaguëy when I met Kristen, a fellow solo traveller. We met at a cafe, both seeking shelter from the harsh sun and the relentless heat and ending up chatting for the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening. It was the confidence boost I needed to take on Trinidad head on and get stuck in. When I wasn’t hiking through the mountains or cycling along the coast with my brilliant guide William from TwoForCuba, I relished the time to myself; writing my diary, going for long walks and indulging in iced coffees in Café don Pepe. Touts still called out to me but no one followed me or hassled me for money. The pace of life was much slower and I was loving it. From Trinidad it was on to Santa Clara where once more, I had a fellow travellers to thank for trip highlights.

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Meeting Kristoffer in Cienfuegos was the turning point in the trip – I had a travel buddy. I threw the provisional travel plan I’d knocked together with the help of the casa owner in Havana out of the window and we travelled together from Cienfuegos back to Havana and on to Viñales. It was awesome. There was no plan but that was ok because I wasn’t alone. Kristoffer, bless him, took on Cienfuegos while I was dying back in the room with what was undoubtedly the worst case of food poisoning I’ve ever had but from then on, we had Cuba down pat. From getting caught up in voodoo celebrations in Havana to wandering through fields in Viñales and being invited into the home of the 83-year old farmer who owns the land for a cup of coffee, we had a smashing time.

I left Cuba satisfied. I’d tried travelling alone without a plan and learned that it didn’t work for me. When travelling alone, knowing that I’d have somewhere to stay and places to go gave me a sense of security and I’ve realised I do need that.

And you know what? That’s ok.

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