How 10 Days In Cuba Taught Me to Talk Instead of Text
Could you go over a week without the Internet? One digital addict went to Cuba to forgo phones in favor of real life.
"Hotel Nacional is a must. They have an amazing mojito-and Wi-Fi!" "Snapchat is blocked there, so definitely get a VPN." "You'll need a new map app. Google Maps doesn't have an offline download option for Cuba."
These are the tips I received before I embarked on my trip to Cuba. Though the restrictions have been lifted on American travelers, Cuban Wi-Fi is extremely limited, reliably unreliable, and strictly government-monitored. Staying connected remains one of the greatest difficulties when traveling to this country, and it no doubt influenced the advice my friends gave me.
There were a lot of things they recommended that I did do: I exchanged my dollars to euros beforehand, I downloaded Maps.me, and I studied restaurant reviews like religious texts to make sure I found the best food. What I didn't do was any social media.
In the 10 days I spent in the country, I was "connected" for a total of possibly 30 minutes-mostly to assure my anxious mother and a few forgetful friends that I was still alive. The rest of the time, I was off my phone unless I was using the camera to document decaying pastel facades, pristinely maintained Chevies older than my parents, and canvas-clad tobacco farmers deftly rolling cigars. And surprisingly, I didn't miss being connected. Not at all. (BTW, here's how to do a digital detox without leaving the country.)
As a typical New Yorker and (gag) "Millennial," I am unhealthily attached to my iPhone, laptop, entitlement, etc. Once, for an entire summer, I forced myself to sit still for 15 minutes every day with my eyes shut in so many failed attempts to meditate. But I didn't become more present; I just became better rested from all those surprise naps. My mind continued to wander to places my body wasn't. I continued to check my phone every spare minute I had-during long waits at doctors' offices and short waits to cross the street (sometimes while crossing the street, so yes, my mother's fears are justified).
But things move incredibly slowly in Cuba in comparison to New York, and I was made to wait a much longer time than I'm accustomed for a variety of things-banks, restaurants, bars, and even museums-sometimes hours. Normally I would've been reading, tweeting, or timeline scrolling. But because I was disconnected, I ended up doing something else: IRL texting, also known as "talking."
Waiting in an hours-long line at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a factory transformed into a multilevel, indoor-outdoor art gallery–nightclub hybrid, I met three fellow New Yorkers when I heard them discussing cutting the line for 5 CUCs. I struck up a convo with them and we shared foot-tall mojitos all night. They invited me to a dinner party at their apartment next month. I'm going. In New York, we would have ignored one another in favor swiping our thirsty thumbs off on Tinder or texting our early-bird friends to see if the club was really worth the wait. But this was Cuba.
This was no isolated event. While in line at a highly recommended local eatery, El Chanchullero, I struck up a conversation with a couple whom I ended up dining with to taste every tapa on the menu. (Croquettes FTW, in case you were wondering.) And while I waited for the Museo de la Revolución to open-there was competing information listed for the hours-I met a dancer on a park bench who showed me videos of her rumba prowess while she explained the complicated process of procuring a Spanish visa to visit her father in Madrid. In New York, I would've simply googled the hours to avoid arriving early, to avoid wasting time, to avoid, apparently, speaking to interesting strangers on park benches.
I met all of these people because I had relegated my phone to camera status. Even on other international trips, there is at least the possibility of accessing Wi-Fi at cafes and bars throughout the day. And hunting for that access is often as consuming as using the Wi-Fi itself. Going cold turkey was something completely different. Without memes, mentions, and emojis, there was really nothing to do but enjoy Cuba, to meet its people and its visitors, to absorb its relentless rays and Caribbean pace without the barriers of iPhone screens or earbuds. (There's live music everywhere, beautifully played.) For the first time on a vacation, I felt unfettered-not only from the responsibilities of my life back home, but also from the pleasurable distractions. It accomplished what an entire summer of reluctant meditation had failed to do: It made me present.