A cup of coffee takes me back to Cuba
Why do I love travelling so much? At the top of my list is meeting wonderful people whom I would probably never encounter in my daily life. Many have become my good friends; Bill, who I met in Bermuda when I arrived one sunny day at Dockyard, became my husband.
Ten years ago, I flew from the rain and gloom of Vancouver to warm and sultry Cuba. After three days at a resort outside of town, Varadero, I found myself feeling restless lying on the beach. I was reading The Old Man and The Sea and I decided in an instant to rush to Havana, the city beloved by Hemingway. I threw his novel in my backpack along with a toothbrush, a few clothes, my passport and a Russian-Spanish dictionary.
Within an hour, I was on a local bus. I planned to spend three days in Havana, but I did not have a clue as to where to stay. When I got off the bus, a woman in a red dress with shining auburn hair came and asked: “A room to stay?” I looked into her dark brown eyes, and noticed her deep laugh lines.
“Si!” I nodded firmly, and it was done. How easy it was! Those were happy days in Havana. I remember getting lost on the winding streets and the feeling I had of stepping back in time. Daiquiri cocktails were still popular in Hemingway's favourite bar, and lovingly maintained 1950s Chevrolets were parked among ancient rusted cars from the USSR.
The deep rhythms of Latin music poured from every bar and the restaurants all had open windows. Laundry was hanging on the balconies and nests of tangled electrical lines dotted the leaning utility poles. Faded pink and white Spanish colonial mansions stood in stately neglect among the crumbling patchwork of the slums.
As I peered into high-ceilinged hallways and living rooms, I glimpsed haunting canvasses of long gone families on cracked and peeling walls. Girls strolled confidently on shady boulevards in bright cotton dresses clinging tightly to their sinuous bodies.
The elderly sat on small chairs on the sidewalks smoking thick brown cigars and blowing fragrant plumes that drifted down the cobblestones.
My landlord told me of a famous bar in the old town where I could dance salsa. I arrived amid a swirl of sweating dancers and a fabulous band. I looked around and did not see a single empty table. One woman was smiling and waving to me as if I were her best friend and she gestured with great enthusiasm to the empty chair next to her.
I threaded through the crowd and sat at her table. She introduced herself in English.
“My name is Loly. I'm Cuban.” I struggled to hear her.
“My name is Nina, I am Russian. Thank you for kindly inviting me to your table,” I said this as loudly as I could.
She immediately spoke in Russian: “I love Leningrad so much that I studied there for five years. Those were the best years of my life!”
I laughed in a great astonishment and knew we would be friends. She introduced me to the table and we danced and talked for the whole evening. As the band finished its final song, Loly invited me to dinner at her house.
“I will cook lobster for you,” she said. “Lobster? Perhaps something more simple?” I suggested.
“What could be simpler than lobster?” she said firmly and it was decided. I visited her the next day. She lived with her cousin, Nena, who drove an old red Cadillac convertible with doors that were impossible to open.
Together, they ran a bed and breakfast casa, a rambling house of big rooms that were an oasis of cool shadows. From the first moment, it was easy for me to be with them. Even though Nena didn't speak English or Russian, I felt we were very close.
I admired them. They were strong and beautiful women who were able to organise and run a profitable business in a country that was just rediscovering capitalism. Like all entrepreneurs, they were not afraid to take risks and had dreams of expanding their already successful guesthouse into a hotel.
We joked a lot, told our life stories, and spoke endlessly about life in Cuba and the USSR.
And, of course, Loly cooked for me the most tender lobster and made the strong coffee I love afterwards. Then she saw me off to the bus stop.
Since then, we have become close friends. A few years later I went back to visit her with my daughter and stayed in her even larger casa. All my friends and relatives who visit go to see her when they go to Havana and she helps them discover parts of Cuba they might not otherwise see.
I send dark chocolate with them as a gift and she sends me Cuban coffee back. This has become our small tradition.
When I make her coffee, I pour it into a little clay cup of hers and I remember the moment when I saw Loly waving to me among the crowd of salsa dancers in old Havana. My friendship with her reminds me not to be afraid to leave my comfort zone when I travel.
I have little interest these days in staying in all-inclusive resorts. I want to meet new people who live in the place I have travelled so far to reach. Adventure begins with new friendships and, in our hearts, isn't adventure why we all yearn to travel?
I have learnt that smiles and gestures are understood everywhere on this planet. Hospitality abounds, but first you must leave your shell. Do not be shy, because I have found most people are delighted to help a stranger. The first words I spoke to Bill were to ask him if he could help me find the sea glass beach here in Bermuda.
The more people travel, the more they recognise the interconnectedness of our world. We all breathe the same air, swim in one ocean and smile in one language. And you never know when a seemingly chance encounter can bring you together with someone who will change your life and be your friend for ever.
•Nina London is a certified wellness and weight-management coach. Her mission is to support and inspire mature women to make positive changes in their body and mind. Share your inspirational stories with her at ninalondon.com