Reflections of a Middle-age Black Latina Traveling Solo Around the World
By Carmen Bardequez Brown
Traveling – It leaves you speechless then turns you into a storyteller.- Ibn Battuta
New York – I like this quote because it truly captures my experience and reflection of traveling alone for the last two years.
I have always wanted to travel the world but many factors delayed my dream. The sudden death of my husband, the death and terminal illness of my two sisters forced me to question how I was living my life.
I could not pretend to go on acting “normal”. My son, who is a world traveler, encouraged me to start living my dream of traveling. He supported my desire to retire and embark on a new life. My son was my role model and Iam blessed to have a son like him. I took an early retirement and left my regular job on December 1, 2016.
I started international traveling in April of 2017.
My first solo trip was Cuba.
I love everything about Cuba – its music, food, the distinctive Cuban accent and yes, even The Cuban Revolution. Castro was one of my idols when I was a teenager growing up in Puerto Rico.
He was the Latin American leader who stood up to the bullying of the USA. Yes, he represented an idealized romantic view of the struggles of the countries of Latin America to achieve political and economic independence. Castro was the real mythological leader of the 20th century, the one who survived political assassinations and was able to implement structures that eliminated poverty, illiteracy and improve the health of millions of Cubans. He was Don Quixote dela Mancha. History will judge his legacy.
I knew every song from the Cuban “nueva trova” whose international musicians Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez were not allowed to perform in Puerto Rico. I guess their music was odious for the many Cuban expats who took permanent residence in Puerto Rico in the 60s and 70s. Castro or anything related to Cuba was a social and political taboo in Puerto Rico.
Visiting Cuba was an ephemeral dream blocked by the US trade embargo for more than 50 years.
I like to know the history, culture and idiosyncrasies of the people that I visit and believe that is common sense to respect their customs and rules.
Tourists should be able to learn and appreciate the commonalities as well as the differences that make us all members of this great family called humanity. After all, we are all tenants on this blue pale dot. Traveling allows us to live home away from home.
I migrated to New York in 1984 and was exposed to an incredible exchange of cultural and political ideas. I love the Nuyok of the late 80’s and 90s. I tried to go to Cuba a few times via Mexico or Canada but I never did because of the draconian restrictions.
Obama’s foreign policy towards the island offered me the opportunity to finally realize one of my dreams. I bought a roundtrip ticket to Havana. I had no idea where I will stay. I brought enough money with me to figure out some kind of living arrangement but the only thing I knew was that I didn’t want stay in a hotel and be a typical tourist. I wanted to stay with Cubans and be among them as one of them.
I wanted to shed my sadness venturing to the country that always lived in my imagination.
Traveling was my alternative to a nervous breakdown. It was my way of asserting life in the midst of personal suffering and grieving. Traveling alone shakes you from your comfort zone your day to day habits and it forces you to deal with your inner self.
Solo travelers embark on an adventure that heighten every single one of the senses. You embrace an opportunity to live life differently. New smells, new flavors, new language and sounds forces you to reflect about life. You live without the constrictions of the society that you live in. Traveling alone allows you to become free to be yourself, to learn who you really are. Traveling alone teaches you to be open to the beautiful adventure that is life.
As I was waiting to board the plane at JFK, I started a conversation with several Cubans who were going to visit their relatives. I told them I did not have a place to stay and they all offered their suggestions. But one of them made me an offer that I could not resist.
He was bringing things to give to his family and he was concerned that he had too many items and the Cuban government might confiscate. He told me that I could pass as his relative. To be honest, we looked like brother and sister. So I was going to pass as his sister in order to help him bring in more toilet paper and he will help me find a place to stay. He also said that he could help me get into the Cuban version of AirB&b. As soon as we landed, his cousin picked us up at the airport and took us to his parents’ home.
What an incredible welcome!
They treated me as if I was one of them. They had an impromptu party with lechon, rice and beans and salad. At the end of my first day, they helped me settle in a nice apartment in an area called Miramar with a feisty and amazing octogenarian. Her name is Melba. What an amazing woman.
Every morning, Melba would make a delicious breakfast of eggs and freshly squeezed orange juice. She always shared stories about her life in Cuba before and after the revolution. She showed me letters of commendation, medals and pictures of how she helped the revolutionary forces and with the Cuban National Literacy campaign.
What an amazing woman!
Melba helped me to see life from a completely different perspective. Her vibrancy and desire to live was contagious. She was full of love and stories. She also had a boyfriend that was almost 30 years younger than her but who cares. They didn’t and they were happy.
My days in Havana were a dream come true. I bought a ticket for 9 days but towards the end of my stay, I decided to extend it. I wanted to stay there. Melba allowed me to stay the extra 6 days and I paid her as soon as I arrived to New York via Western Union. The embargo doesn’t allow any kind of transaction there as you have to bring the cash. The embargo doesn’t allow any access to credit cards or ATM machines.
The new sanctions make communication difficult.
I made friends there and I hope that they are ok. I still correspond with a young artist and writer that introduced me to Lina De Feria who is one of Cuba’s preeminent poets. She has been awarded several national and international awards. I spent an amazing evening with Lina, my friend JC and Lina’s sister. Reading her poetry was like mana from poetry heaven.
Iam still in touch with my friend JC. We send sporadic emails and talk about life and poetry. We hope that one day the United States and Cuba could normalize their relations and that the Cuban people will be free to be like any other country that we could visit without restrictions. We both hope for the best and pray that it will happen in our lifetime.
My Cuban trip was the foundation of how I like to travel around the world. I learned to be open to life to renew my belief in the goodness of people and to allow myself to step into the unknown fearless and in love for the next stage of my life.