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HAVE any of your travels been inspired by television or film? When I was at university, The Talented Mr Ripley sparked my desire to travel to Italy. The Beach, on the other hand, inspired me to make a trip to Ko Phi Phi for a glimpse of a far-eastern paradise.
Of all the films that motivated me to pack my bags and head out into the world, the one that took me to the most obscure destination was Buena Vista Social Club. The film, set in Cuba, featured a group of legendary Cuban musicians brought together to record a music album.
I remember seeing the film for the first time as a student, completely bewitched by the beautiful sounds of Cuban music. As I stepped out of the cinema, I told myself that someday I would experience Cuba as portrayed in the film — a country full of colours, energy and emotion.
My wish came true a few years later as I embarked on a two-week solo trip to Cuba, equipped with a heavy backpack, an old camera and a Lonely Planet guidebook.
In retrospect, the trip was an act of stubbornness. I was alone, didn’t know anyone in Cuba and spoke very little Spanish, but I couldn’t care less.
Little did I know that the trip would turn out to be two exciting weeks of amazing discoveries, history lessons and appreciation of life in general.
Havana was surreal. As soon as I stepped out of the airport, two things struck me. One was vintage cars in vibrant colours and the other was signboards with photos of revolutionary heroes as well as slogans in large, faded letters.
At first glance, everything seemed to be fading in Cuba, especially the buildings. Despite the decay, the architecture was stunning — a hint of Cuba’s wealthy past.
With plants creeping out of the crumbling walls and laundry neatly hung over rusting balconies, Havana was a great reminder that beauty was more about character than appearance.
It was undeniably a beautiful city — stylish and graceful in its own unique way.
Wandering around Old Havana was one of the most enduring memories of my trip. Old Havana, or La Habana Vieja, is a Unesco World Heritage Site with beautiful colonial buildings, pulsing music and people.
As I circled every block, I came across plazas with cafes and shops selling handmade chocolates, rum and cigars.
In short, Old Havana looked like a film set — one with the lingering scent of cigars that made the scene unmistakably Cuban.
STROLL ALONG MALECON
Another activity that I enjoyed in Havana was strolling along the Malecon, an old seaside avenue which ran the length of Havana’s waterfront.
With the ocean on one side and old buildings on the other, this iconic boulevard appeared to be frozen in time. To me, it was like looking at a postcard of a bygone era.
As I walked leisurely along this charming stretch at sunset, it was easy to understand why the Malecon was considered the Soul Of Cuba.
Locals and travellers went there to engage and people-watch, or swim and fish for dinner. It was the perfect place for me to get a sense of how people enjoyed their leisure time in Havana.
If I could name one thing that I looked forward to the most from the trip, it was the Cuban music. I expected music to be a large part of Cubans’ daily life and I wasn’t disappointed.
In every corner of the city that I visited, there were sounds of Latin jazz, rumba, salsa and so on, to name a few. Cuban music — a fusion of Spanish and African elements — appeared to be a form of self-expression among the people. It was as if music was part of what it meant to be Cuban.
In a nutshell, my trip to Cuba was certainly a revelation to me. These days, whenever I hear Buena Vista Social Club songs, my mind takes me back to the cobbled streets of Old Havana, the decaying pastel-coloured buildings and the warm, sincere smiles of the locals — images that I will forever cherish.
Politics aside, I will always think of Cuba as a hidden gem, a country that taught me how to appreciate life in its simplest form.