I'm Christina Lyon, a coffee sipping, piano playing, beach loving, word-obsessed freelance writer and musician. I'm on fire for helping freelance writers get paid and small biz owners succeed online. When I'm not reading or writing, I play music and explore the beaches and wild trails along the California coast.

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Cuba Travel Story – Separated Only by Bars

Christina Lyon

You all know I love Cuba! When it came time to submit a story for the 2018 World Nomads travel writing contest, in which three winners would win a trip to Argentina and study under an accomplished travel writer, I knew I had to write a Cuba travel story.

There were three options of story themes, including “making a local connection, the decision that pushed me to the edge, and the last thing I expected.” Because I had so many resonant connections during my trip to Cuba last year, I chose to write about a local connection I made and an experience that’s stuck with me. Without further ado, here is my Cuba travel story.

My Cuba travel story took place at the fortress in the bay of old Havana.

This is the fortress in the Bay of Old Havana where I had the encounter with the friendly local who inspired this Cuba travel story.

Separated Only by Bars

by Christina Lyon

I shuffled into a shadowy corner near the stone fortress in the bay of Old Havana with a small wad of Cuban pesos in my hand. For the third time, I ignored the warnings and foolishly exchanged money in the streets.

American banks don’t do business in Cuba so my cash was all I had, but between mojitos and street food I’d rapidly burned through it. My salvation was an emergency reserve of US dollars to exchange at a government-run Cadeca, but it was Sunday and the banks were closed.

Havana was alive with nostalgia and I wanted a fix so I conjured up some coin and cruised the Malecón, a roadway along the coast, in the back seat of a teal 1957 Chevy Bel Air convertible. The fact remained I was out of money. My driver agreed to exchange my dollars for pesos, and with the bolt of doubt that slashed through my gut I surrendered my last $100 on good faith they would be legitimate.

Sequestered in a corner I held my breath and a bill up to the sky to prove that humanity was good. A figure rapidly approached me from behind the iron bars of the fortress as cars belched by and I coughed on fear and exhaust smoke. A man in a black bomber jacket faced me through the bars and reached for the bill as I saw my hopes of getting home dissipate into the blur of the Caribbean sun. He took the bill and held it up where the light illuminated the watermark, which could be copied on fake bills, and said to look for the metal strip instead.

“It’s real,” he said, flicking ash from his cigarette. He handed back the bill and his security badge came into focus. “You need to put those away.”

When I stuffed them into my purse I scraped the wall and fragments of the forgotten fortress fell to my feet along with my doubt. Minutes were lost to hours as we discussed dictatorship, his former leader, and my newly appointed one. We exchanged opinions about the tumultuous affairs of our mother countries and speculated about when they would finally forgive one another.

We stood there with different realities, separated only by bars, a contentious history, and a misguided belief that the other was bad, talking about life as if we were distant relatives reunited. His shift ended and he hugged me goodbye.

On my walk home I crossed Obispo and a sunset haze hung in the street until it gave way to night. Two boys kicked a soccer ball around and their mothers laughed in the courtyard of a crumbling colonial building. At that moment I didn’t see politics or differences, I saw people living.

How to travel to Cuba as an American

Making another connection with a friendly local outside of Havana.

The winners were announced today, and despite not being chosen, I’m damn proud of my Cuba travel story and the fact that 21 strangers decided to share it. There’s nothing that ignites the fire within my soul more than having meaningful conversations with strangers and expanding my world view. Since my trip to Cuba last April, (how has it already been a year!?) I’ve always reflected fondly on this experience. Writing about it brought me right back to that moment, standing outside of the fortress, talking about differences yet finding common ground in an unlikely situation. Isn’t that a perfect summary of my main motivation to travel?

Winning this scholarship would’ve been very validating to me as a writer, but thankfully the act of writing about my experience was cathartic and only fueled my fire to keep writing and traveling. Plus, I was just in Argentina 😉 , though I would have loved to study under an esteemed writer. My time will come, until then, I’m gonna continue blazing my trail and telling my stories.

If learning about cultural differences and debunking myths is your jam, check out 11 myths and truths about travel to Cuba.

Thanks for reading my Cuba travel story! Let me know what you thought of my story in the comments below.



April 4, 2018

Stories + Poetry, Travel

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