I sit in a simple wooden chair near the entrance of a small, cozy café in Havana, slowly sipping a cup of strong Cuban coffee topped with a pristine white froth.
In the background, Frank Sinatra croons “Come Fly with Me,” and the timeless words float out the door and into the dusty street; past sagging, once-regal buildings, a fruit stand, a man tugging a wagon packed with fresh lettuce, a flock of uniformed school children heading home for lunch, and a forever rolling rainbow of ancient American-made cars. A few of these automobiles surely played this classic Sinatra song on their radios back when the words were fresh to citizens’ ears.
A scarcity of wifi signal in Havana precludes my usual travel routine of binge-reading the news each morning before exploring or writing. I’m thwarted from checking email or feeding a single one of my social media addictions. It forces me to be present as this foreign world (which ironically, stands frozen in the past) transpires around me.
Cuba is the last international stop of my year of sojourning. After this, it’s a one-way ticket to the U.S. and back to reality. In three weeks I will be settled once again in my cozy little apartment in my still-favorite city in all the world, San Francisco.
“Come Fly with Me” finishes and is followed by another of Sinatra’s most famous hits — the lyrics, When I was 35, it was a very good year… send me into a state of nostalgia for my past 11 months of travel.
I see flashes of the many incredible souls who have crossed my path. Gentle smiles, compassionate hands, and eyes full of acceptance gaze back at me across my memories from 24 countries. From good-natured tuk tuk drivers to sweet homestay hosts to new hostel friends, and so many more.
Over and over again, I’ve learned that people are not always what they seem. On countless occasions, I have scolded myself for judging people’s books by their covers.
The tattooed, shaved-head, heavy-bearded Polish man in Delhi, India turned out to be a kind and thoughtful artist. The hulking bedreadlocked Rastafarian-looking man who slept in the hostel bunk bed next to mine in Panama was a lovely and well-spoken teacher from Detroit named Steve. My quiet Airbnb host in Sri Lanka was not a simplistic country bumpkin, but in fact was an educated world traveler who had been an award-winning sushi chef in Japan for eight years (no wonder his food was so good!). The stylish, giraffe-height Brazilian girl in Mexico was not the snobbish mean girl from high school as I’d expected, but was actually one of the most genuinely nice and humble people I’d met anywhere.
Meeting these shining souls during my travels has given me a deep, heart-pricking love for humanity. These amazing human beings I’ve come to know, even if for a few brief moments, even if I never learned their names — have been more enriching during my travels than the places themselves that I’ve been to.
I have been wondering what my proverbial ‘book’ will be like when I return to my real life. The cover has been undeniably altered.
Before I left San Francisco, my hair was long and nearly bleach blonde, carefully straightened each day using a variety of tools and potions. Now it is short-ish, dark, and falls in stringy semi-waves that I tie into an unfussy knot each day, still wet from the shower, while marching blissfully out the door. Though once upon a time, I refused to leave my apartment without at least five types of applied color, I’ve hardly touched my makeup (and have pitched most of it by now). On New Year’s Eve, I half-heartedly swiped on some mascara, faint eye shadow and face powder, after which I felt as if I had plastered myself in a mask of gunky Play-doh.
My skin portrays semi-permanent brown vs. white lines created by the Equatorial sun’s daily blasting against the same shirts, shorts and backpack. A vertical crease smack in the center of my forehead that once metered my stress levels, has deepened into an everyday weathered, sun-squinting crevice. My physique has become perceptibly plumper from too much idling to read or write, plus slow meandering instead of twice- or thrice-weekly intense treadmill sessions at the gym. Of course, the rich sauces, meats, rice and noodles I’ve consumed haven’t helped me retain my original shape, either.
The thought of wearing high heels again after a year spent in increasingly demolished tennis shoes and repeatedly super-glued rubber sandals, sounds nightmarish. Though I must admit that the concept of having a few more articles of clothing to choose from again is the stuff my dreams are made of. But curiously — it’s not style I’m after so much now, but merely a semblance of variation from the same four shirts I’ve had on rotation.
“Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about unbecoming everything that isn’t you so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.” ~ Unknown
And what of the interior pages of my ‘me’ book?
Little by little, the cultures I’ve come into contact with, the amazing things I’ve seen and done, and the people I’ve met on the road have joined forces to rewrite, essentially… me.
“No one here is going to judge you,” my friend Kate said to me late one night as we strode over the darkened cobbled streets of Quito in Ecuador. She was referring to our little insta-friend-group, but she might as well have been speaking of nearly all the travelers everywhere in the world. They — we, I suppose, as I must now include myself — are a special breed.
Within this unique species of long-term traveler, stereotypes do exist, to be sure. But they mean far less than they do in the real world.
You, whoever you are, are allowed to be yourself. Nobody will stare dismissively at the style or label of your clothing. They will not fault your bedhead, nor turn up their noses at your ‘Eau de 10-Hour Train Ride’ fragrance. They will not think you rude for sitting at their table of strangers to chat, nor retreating away to a table alone to read your book. If you stumble nervously over your first few words, you are immediately forgiven with a kind and patient gaze.
I began my journey almost one year ago with a goal of smashing my wallflower ways.
With the help of the pride of travelers, I’ve quietly hunted down life through the hills and valleys of this planet. I’ve crawled out of my shell and realized that the great majority of strangers are wonderful people and new friends I just haven’t met yet. And those who aren’t can be easily side-stepped as I press onward.
I’ve faced down some of my biggest fears. I’ve turned expectations of me into a smoldering heap. I’ve shed so many of my exterior and interior insecurities — and I’ve come to learn that those things aren’t actually me.
Now, I know who I am. I am weird in my own unique ways. I am kind. I am creative. I am curious. Sometimes I am scared. I am adventurous. I am an introvert. I am exactly who I need to be. And I am one thousand percent ok with all of those things.
They are me.
Back in the Cuban café, the music switches to a lively, bongo-y, trumpet-y salsa tune. The sound carries out the door into streets containing turns, alleys and sights I have yet to explore. I pay for the coffee and head outside to follow the music, stepping around the lettuce vendor’s wagon. He hums and dances slightly in place to the beat, a grin on his face.
I’ve still got Sinatra playing in my head.
When I was 35, it was a very good year…
Stay tuned for upcoming stories from crazy beautiful Cuba!