“Much have I traveled in the realms of gold, and many goodly states and kingdoms seen.” –John Keats (English poet, 1795-1821)
Here at All Things Good, our love of traveling, exploring and embarking on adventures is grounded in our belief that a curious mind can not only stimulate the senses, but transform our sense of self in relation to the world at large. In fact, it was ultimately our love of seeking and exploring the world around us that led us to launch this blog.
Since then, we’ve had some fun adventures, including to the land of Hula Honeys, the birthplace of Harry Potter, the traditional music capital of Ireland, the oldest teashop in Europe, and a sailing adventure in the Florida Keys (to name just a few!).
We’d now like to turn to the adventures of others – you! – to hear your own stories as you travel “Through the Realms.” We love all the beautiful photos of exotic destinations and spirited excursions you can find on the social media landscape, but want to hear what you learned, who you met, and what you’ll remember about the realms you travel, too!
We’re excited to launch “Through the Realms” with Katie Christensen, a travel addict who has visited 13 countries in the past 12 months. Last May, Katie left her management job and made it a goal to visit a different country every month. Since November 15, she has traveled to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, Mexico, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Belgium and, most recently, Cuba! Needless to say, she has surpassed her goal – and inspired us with her adventurous spirit and traveling curiosity. Her blog, Global Novice, documents some of her experiences with beautiful photography.
(Katie also has a knack for finding hidden gems, as she did when we were studying together in Rome and found perhaps the most beautiful place to stay near Sorrento, Gocce di Capri, seated atop a mountain overlooking the Gulf of Naples and Isle of Capri.)
Given the historical significance of the restoration of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations in 2015 – and easing of travel restrictions between the two countries in 2016 – we asked Katie to share some of her tales from the communist country that was locked in isolation for 55 years:
1. Why did you choose to go to Cuba? (and how long did you stay?)
I’m not sure when my desire to visit Cuba started, but after I heard the embargo was lifted, I knew I wanted to experience the culture before it became Americanized. After some research, I found out the best visa for me to apply for and decided that one week should be enough time for me to see what I wanted to see.
2. What were some of your most striking observations about the people, the culture, and the country?
For some reason, I was expecting it to be like stepping back in time but as soon as I stepped foot outside the airport, I realized that wasn’t the case. I could sense the presence of it being a third world country more than the presence of the fifties. What really shocked me though was how much propaganda there was! Every billboard, every mural, every poster I saw had a governmental message behind it, whether it was celebrating the 59th year of the revolution, healthcare for all, or Fidel Castro (one read: “Give me Socialism or give me Death.”) Not one ad was used for promoting businesses, like we see here in the states.
“Every billboard, every mural, every poster I saw had a governmental message behind it, whether it was celebrating the 59th year of the revolution, healthcare for all, or Fidel Castro.”
3. Tell us a story from when you were there.
My best friend’s dad had always wanted to take his boat to Cuba, but died last year before he got the chance to. So we brought with us some of his ashes to spread as a way to fulfill his dad’s dream. It was a bit of a trek to get to the beach, so I didn’t want David to feel pressured to go through the motions if he didn’t feel this was the time and place to do it, just because we went through the effort getting there.
But, as I told him that I’m okay if we leave, he kept walking towards the water. We walked along the shoreline just a few minutes, and I started laughing at this deformed face someone made out of sand. I pointed at it, in a lighthearted mood, and asked him why someone would only go through the effort of only finishing half the face, and as David looked at it, his reaction was very different from mine. “It’s a man without a jaw,” he said. Just then, my smile went away and I was instantly paralyzed with goose bumps because his father died from cancer and had part of his jaw surgically removed. David’s then said, “This is it. This is where he wants to be”, as he pulled out the ashes and started walking into the water.
I let him have his moment while I rebuilt the bottom half of the sandman’s face. We stood there silently on the beach together, just embracing the sacred beauty of the moment. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
“We stood there silently on the beach together, just embracing the sacred beauty of the moment. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
4. Tell us about the most interesting person you met, had a conversation with, or someone who left an impression on you.
I got to have an in depth conversation with someone – who, for protection of their identity, I’ll refer to as Alex – about what living in a communist country is like. Alex told me about how it is their belief that the government is afraid of its people, so they do things like use propaganda, and limit technology to keep people under control.
Alex described to me how Cuba hasn’t set up an infrastructure to get internet into the homes of its people yet, and this is just one example of how they limit people’s access to information. You can find internet at hotels and a few other designated wifi zones, but from my experience it can be very expensive and unreliable. The closest wifi zone to me in Havana cost $10/hr.
As Alex and I talked more, I shared a bit about how different the U.S. is compared to Cuba, and found out that Alex has tried to visit the states, but was not granted access. How could we turn down such a generous, honest, and good human being from visiting our country? It’s that question that left the biggest impression on me. Just because Alex was born 90 miles south of our border, instead of 90 miles north of Cuba’s, their life will never have the same opportunities that mine does.
“Alex described to me how Cuba hasn’t set up an infrastructure to get internet into the homes of its people yet, and this is just one example of how they limit people’s access to information.”
5. What is your favorite thing you did or saw?
My favorite activity was finding a local to take us on a horseback ride up to the Javira waterfall.
Favian showed up at our Casa Particular at 9am, not knowing a lick of English whatsoever. Luckily I can speak Spanish, but none of my jokes landed with him! He was a younger Cuban version of Clint Eastwood – very quiet, very serious, which just added even more to the mystery.
Soon the cobblestone turned to dirt, and horses were increasing in frequency. At this point, we could see over thirty horses tied up sporadically along the dirt road. After passing a few tie up areas, Favian stopped, grabbed a horse and handed it to David. After a minute or two passed, he grabbed another seemingly random horse, and handed it to me, and told us to keep walking downhill. David and I looked at each other, both wondering if we had just stolen a horse, with an adventurous smile sneaking onto our faces. After another 5 minutes, Favian caught up to us on a horse of his own, and we all started off towards the mountain.
My horse was named Mulatta, and David’s was named Blanco. I’m a pretty competitive person, so anytime David tried to pass me, I’d cut him off, but after about twenty minutes I noticed Mulatta swinging to the left out of nowhere, because she knew Blanco was trying to pass her! I asked Favian about her, and he told me that she always has to lead the way, she won’t ever let anyone pass her. That’s when I realized Mulatta wasn’t going to let David pass us whether I wanted him to or not, so I sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed the show.
Along the ride up to the waterfall, we passed a farm where the owner made his own cigars and espresso, and another where they made refreshing sugar cane juice. Not before long we reached the top, swam around, and relaxed while a few others showed off their slack lining skills. It was a perfect Cuban adventure! We returned the horses right back to where we got them, thanked Favian, and set off to explore more of Trinidad.
“David and I looked at each other, both wondering if we had just stolen a horse, with an adventurous smile sneaking onto our faces.”
6. Because we love food…what was the most memorable meal you had?
The most memorable meal I had was at a local restaurant down the street from my Airbnb in Havana. It wasn’t decorated lavishly, nor was it as fancy as other places we visited. Everything about it was very simplistic. Up until this point, we had been spending an average of $10/person per meal (which was more than I was expecting in a third world country) but everything we wanted added up to just $3/person. My eyes lit up, and we both ate our hearts out (it was local cuban style food, so a lot of rice, beans, and chicken). We made it a habit to visit this place for lunch and dinner two days in a row. The pure fact that it was, in a sense, nothing special made it special to me. I loved it!
7. How did your view of Cuba change after going? What did you learn?
Before visiting Cuba, I was expecting Havana to be a polished city, with shiny classic cars, cigars, and salsa everywhere. Although there were a lot of classic cars, cigars, and salsa, the buildings in Havana were all very neglected. You can see the shell of something that at one point was very well-kept. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think there had been a war there in the last few years! It was really eye opening to see just how significant of an impact the embargo of 1962 had on the developing country.
“You can see the shell of something that at one point was very well-kept. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think there had been a war there in the last few years!”
8. Would you encourage others to make the trip to Cuba? Why or why not?
Definitely! Experiencing a culture that is likely to change very soon is something that I feel privileged to have done. I would encourage you to as well, before Starbucks, McDonalds, and Hilton’s start making their way into the country.
9. Do you have any advice for someone who goes to Cuba in the future?
Before you go, I’d suggest reading more about the revolution, and exactly what happened shortly before and after the U.S. and Cuba stopped trading. I’m so used to researching stuff as I’m in the moment, but with little internet access I wasn’t able to do that this time and my trip would have been so much better if I had more knowledge going in.
10. What is one word that comes to mind when you think of Cuba now?
> > Pulse. < <
Cuba has such a strong pulse! It’s lively, it’s vivacious, and it’s so energetic. It truly has its own unique vibe.