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Travel Therapy: How A Trip To Cuba With 20 Strangers Eased My Depression

By Travel Noire

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Written by: Amer-Marie Woods

At a very critical time in our lives, we must face the inevitable: GROWTH.  In order to achieve the very best of ourselves, we have to outgrow old ways and replace them with renewed mindsets.  It always seems that this transition presents itself after a difficult period in our lives. There is no warning for this transition. We can either grow with it or remain stagnant. 

This time came in my life around my 30th birthday. It can only be described as a beautifully orchestrated crashing down of all the pieces of my life at once.  A little background: during this time, I was fresh out of a five year physically abusive relationship but had just jumped into my next mistake.  I was struggling with my walk with Christ, my finances were in shambles, two of my closest friendships had dissolved, my performance at school and work were suffering tremendously, and topping it all off, I felt like a failure as a mother. I had no one to turn to because the biggest secret was that I didn’t want anyone to know my life was not perfect. I was spiraling out of control, trying to maintain motherhood, work, school, friendships, relationships, and my piece of mind.  At my lowest moment, I can remember laying on the couch in the middle of the day under a blanket, the blinds were drawn, everything was off, and a single thought washed over me, “Amer, you are depressed.”  As shocked as I was to admit this, I knew something was off all along. It was textbook depression. I was alienating myself from family and friends, losing weight, crying all day long, and not feeling like myself.  I was becoming an expert at not dealing with my responsibilities. I had officially lost myself between all of the fragments of my perfect little life.  I felt like nothing, I lost all of my power, and worse, I didn’t know who I was anymore.

At this point, I needed some serious help, I reached out to my mother to get some clarity and guidance. She immediately suggested that I look into therapy to find some answers. Over the next year or so, I worked closely with a therapist to dig my way out of this depression and to find myself again.   My therapist suggested that I write out what my “dream life” looks like in five different areas: Career, Relationships, Finances/Resources, Spirituality, and Health/Wellness.  This list gave me the power to give myself permission to design the life I wanted and to say no to things that did not align with that vision.

Something that stuck out in each category was traveling.  Travel had never been a really big part of my life before.  I mean, I had taken a few domestic trips here and there, but traveling was never a priority.  At the same time, I did feel a very strong connection to the notion of jet-setting and seeing every inch of this planet.  So, with my newfound self-empowerment, I decided that I would start traveling to all the places I dreamed about visiting. 

I started creating a list of all the places I wanted to go and all the things I wanted to see.  I introduced the idea of traveling to one place a year to a very good friend of mine who was a true globetrotter. He was elated and very eager to teach me every trick and hack he learned along his journey but there was just one problem, he was a solo traveler and all his travel tricks were designed for just one person. I had barely even flown by myself at this point, so I decided to couch the idea of traveling until I found some travel partners. Discussing this dilemma in my therapist’s office, she looked at me with confusion on her face and said something to me that would change everything. “Amer, if you sit around and wait on everyone else to do things with you, you will never get anything done. You got to go at it alone.”  And there it was, the cold hard truth of how I was holding myself back my entire life. The root cause for why I never became the person I wanted to be but always being there as the picture perfect friend for everyone else.

That’s it, I had to give up my old thoughts if I wanted to become the woman I always wanted.  I had to give up the idea of perfection and move out on faith that everything was going to be ok. So, I decided to get back to my plan to travel whether anyone went with me or not. 

Since I was inexperienced as a traveler, I decided the best way to go about it was to travel with a group. What I had not considered at the time was that I would be traveling out of the country with people I had never met.  Not only was there the fear of going somewhere new but I had to do it while learning and adapting to new personalities. I had no security blanket to help me through this trip, I had to show up and be my best authentic self.

After days of talking myself into this, I did some research and ended up booking a trip to Cuba through Travel Noire. Cuba was still new to letting in US travelers at the time and I was too inexperienced to plan a trip by myself. However, I felt that I could learn a lot about planning a trip by going with some experts and I could do it safely. The only thing still plaguing my mind was wondering if I could do this alone. Self-doubt was starting to creep in and I was considering backing out of the trip. Luckily, my therapist reconfirmed that I was doing this to challenge myself and that no matter what happened I was going to have a great trip.

And you know what, she was right! I spent 8 of the most life-changing days in Cuba with 20+ of the most amazing people I had ever met. 

Photo: Amer-Marie Woods

The itinerary was filled with lots of cultural experiences to connect us to Cuba. The aim was to make us feel like we could come back to Cuba on our own and feel like we knew every corner. What was unexpected was the sense of adventure that brought the entire group together. I am not sure if it was because Cuba was such a new place to explore or just the excitement of 20+ people of color doing something new together.

Our first few nights in Viñuales were spent experiencing the countryside. We learned how cigars are made at a local family’s tobacco farm. They showed us how they grow the tobacco, dry it, create flavor in the leaves and then hand roll them one by one. This same family also hosted us for dinner and provided us with the best farm to table meal I ever had. A beach day followed up our experience in the hills of Viñales, at Cayo Jutias. We got to relax on the white sandy beaches, enjoy drinks served in a coconut and have an impromptu photo shoot. There is nothing like a group of black women to hype you up on the beach to be your best self.

Photo: Amer-Marie Woods

Before we got to Cuba, I was able to meet up with 3 of the group members in Ft. Lauderdale for dinner. We spent the evening laughing and getting to know one another over drinks and that set the tone for the rest of the trip. At dinner, I was able to calm my anxious mind and stop worrying about being alone. I was being vulnerable with people I had just met and they were doing the same. This was a new experience for me but it was a valuable lesson that if you are authentic you will attract authenticity.

The next morning, we met the remainder of the group at the airport and flew to Havana together. Once we landed in Havana, we took a long 3-hour bus ride to the famous Viñales Valley where the first part of our itinerary would begin. That bus ride is where I sat next to a young lady I met in baggage claim, we talked about how our fathers were both pilots and our own plans to get our pilot’s license. I didn’t know it then, but she would also become one of my closest friends and future travel partners amongst the many I would make on this trip.

Later in the week, we moved to our next location in Havana, and the cultural experiences really began to show a different, deeper, historical side of Cuba. We took lots of tours and learned the history of how and who built what you see as Cuba today. We learned about the evolution of how Cuban music came to its own unique sounds as well as met with local artists to hear about how life in Cuba inspired their work. The most profound part of the entire trip was meeting with local music artists who identify as Afro-Cuban. We listened as the taught us how they navigate life in a country that basically treats them as if they are invisible. One of the female MCs explained to us how she was challenging the racial disparities by driving conversation around natural hair in her music. Apparently, if you had hair that was not straight you could not get jobs in certain places or even move up in society.  This hit home for many of the women on the trip because most of us were natural curly girls and were saddened by the discrimination these women had to face because of their hair choice. The time spent listening to these stories only fueled us, as a group, to take an epic photo on International Women’s Day at the Paseo de Marti, which is directly down the street from Havana’s capitol building. I think we all knew what it meant at that moment to be a strong successful black woman in this world and showing up as our everyday selves mattered globally.

Photo: Amer-Marie Woods

From smoking hand-rolled tobacco and enjoying lazy days on a secluded beach to navigating the streets of Havana, this trip pushed me way out of my comfort zone. I made it a point to have a conversation with each person on the trip and to connect in a meaningful way. It gave me an opportunity to allow someone to be themselves with me as well as showing my more vulnerable parts. I let my authentic self shine for once.

On the plane ride home I remember sitting and thinking to myself, you are stronger than when you left. YOU ARE ENOUGH! I literally could feel my soul grow. Everything I had been battling from my past seemed to become not such an obstacle anymore. I felt the shame of domestic violence and depression begin to gently lift off of my shoulders. I found a space to fit in with people who were just like me, people who had experienced worse and still survived. I was finding my way back to myself by traveling away from everything I had known.  There is something about having a shared experience with people in unknown situations that allows for the truth to surface. There is strength in vulnerability in showing up for yourself and that is what they taught me.  A bond was made with each person and I am forever grateful to them for allowing me the space to be myself. They continue to pour into me and I into them. If I never stepped out on faith I would have never have found my tribe. Since this trip, I have seen each one of these beautiful people and traveled to many other places with them including, New York, San Francisco, British Virgin Islands, Miami, Los Angeles, France, Mexico, etc.

Photo: Amer-Marie Woods

If you feel the beginnings of change start to rise up in your life, I say grow with it. Whatever you have been holding on to that has held you back, let it go! Let that situation go, that person go, that generational curse go, and let your true self blossom. Have the courage to tell yourself it is ok to become something new, to reinvent yourself. Also, have the grace enough to forgive yourself for the past.  There is nothing wrong with changing your own life.  So, go out there and do it, challenge yourself to reach for your highest potential. Never settle for anything less than a life well lived.

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