I'm a Martini Explorer (and I'm OK with it)

This blog has been a long time coming (read: almost a year now). I guess I’ve avoided it for months, not because I didn’t want to write it, but because I could think of other articles that were more worthwhile. You know, informative blogs. Ones about how to spend time in Cuba, ones about hiking in Nevada, ones about Iceland and beer baths.

But now that I’ve eliminated my backlog of ideas for the time being, I figure I can't put this off much longer. So here's another confession as a follow-up to this blog.

Read More: I’m Afraid to Travel Solo (but I Shouldn't be) 

Ready for it?

Traveling through Havana, Cuba in May 2017

Traveling through Havana, Cuba in May 2017

Hello. I’m a martini explorer.

There, I said it. You’re looking at a world class, ultra sensitive, can’t-do-it-alone sort of traveler, often classified as a martini explorer.

What's a martini explorer, you ask? I actually first heard the term when reading one of my all-time favorite travel memoirs, Turn Right at Machu Picchu. It’s a book by travel writer Mark Adams on his journey retracing the steps of Hiram Bingham III to discover Machu Picchu. It's an AH-MAZ-ING read; I’d recommend it to anyone.

But anyway, when reading this book two years ago, a particular passage stuck out to me.

“What’s your take on Bingham?” I asked John. 

“Bit of a martini explorer,” he said, employing what I later learned was a euphemism for a traveler who fancies himself tough but who really expects a certain level of comfort.”
— Mark Adams, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, pgs 4-5

I distinctly remember reading this passage and, like Mark, going “HA. I’m not a martini explorer. I can be fearless. I can travel solo. I can definitely go to different places, and put myself out there, and not expect a level of comfort. I can!” I was so certain that I turned to my fear of solo travel and wrote the aforementioned post admitting that I was afraid, but gosh, I’d go to Cuba and stay there solo and damn it, I’d come out on top! I would.

Except… I didn’t. And that’s where this blog post comes in.

I failed being a solo traveler in Cuba, and honestly, it's still one of my most embarrassing travel moments to date. I let my fears, the heat, and being unprepared with no direction get the best of me. I spent over $300 on a last minute ticket out of Cuba to Fort Lauderdale with absolutely no plans on how to get home because I was delirious with nerves and didn’t know how to travel solo.

It was bad.

What happened?

A lot of things compounded on each other.

After I parted from my travel friends, our host dropped me off in Vedado, the business quarter of Havana. There were still a few hours before I could check-in to my hostel.

Read More: Exploring Havana in 20 Colorful Photos

I wanted to find a place to eat, but as I got closer to where I thought the hostel was, all the dine-in cafes and restaurants disappeared. The streets got crowded with locals. I ran out of water. The sun burned; it was close to 90 Fahrenheit, and my mind started whirling, thinking about heat stroke and my habit of fainting when it gets too hot. I took to a bench and tried to figure out where my hosts were via my phone, thinking I could check in early, but I couldn’t make sense of the directions and didn’t know how to ask.

My phone battery—my only anchor to help, to my Spanish dictionary, directions, and family—dwindled below 30%.

I started walking again, desperately looking for food. If I could find food and water and a place to sit, I could figure this out. But I walked for minutes each way, back and forth down a main road, and only saw food stalls. I sat down on a step and a Cuban man approached me. “Are you lost, lady? Can I help you, beautiful?”

Each time I managed to extract myself from his attention, a new man approached and asked in broken English if he could help the beautiful lady around. I wanted to say yes, but I was burnt out. Many men had offered to help us with directions during our trip. Every time, we were led away from where we wanted to go. I couldn’t trust anyone.

Panicking, I gave up on sitting down and paced. I walked up and down the street. My phone battery was getting low. I knew no Spanish.

Dear god, I thought, this was it. I was going to die here.

Not having any other options, I went nuclear. I text Mr. Nerd and asked him to buy me a flight back to the United States. I couldn’t handle not knowing the language or being able to use my phone to help me around. In hindsight, spending my first solo time in Cuba? Probably a bad decision. I should’ve chosen England or New Zealand or Canada.

Or I should’ve learned Spanish. Duh.

Mr. Nerd found me a last minute ticket (literally one that was taking off in two hours), so I nervously flagged down a taxi and asked, in a very broken version of his native tongue, if he could take me to the airport.

A wannabe solo traveler looking out over Havana, May 2017

A wannabe solo traveler looking out over Havana, May 2017

He didn’t understand me.

I almost broke down. Mr. Nerd wasn’t going to purchase the ticket unless I got to the airport in time. I had enough money to make it around Cuba if I didn’t, but under the severe time pressure and with my phone about to die, I couldn't allow that to happen. I had to get out of Havana.

Me gustaría ir al aeropuerto, I said. The taxi driver shook his head. Me gustaría ir al aeropuerto, I said again, a little louder, hoping he just hadn’t heard me the first time.

Again, he shook his head.

I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong. Those words were correct; I knew they were. I’d written them down and saved them on my phone.

I said it a third time, nearly crying, making a motion with my hand like an airplane taking off a runway. Me gustaría ir al aeropuerto.

He said something in Spanish this time. I didn’t understand him. Nervously, stomach flopping and squeezing, I wiggled my phone from my purse and brought up the Spanish dictionary app I’d installed, then showed him the picture of an airplane next to the word aeropuerto. He scratched his head, shrugged, and pulled away from the curb.

And I sat in the taxi, heart pounding, wondering if he was taking me to the airport, or if I’d just made some horrible mistake.

Ironically enough, when I asked in Spanish how much it’d be for the taxi (Cuanto cuesta por el taxi?), he understood completely. And of course, I later discovered that there were two airports in Havana. One local airport and one international. So it’s possible that was the source of our confusing conversation.

I guess I’ll never know.

Making friends in Havana - if only he'd been able to give me directions!

Making friends in Havana - if only he'd been able to give me directions!

Still, all's well that ends well.

Despite my panic, I did make it to the airport in time, breezed through security and customs, and found a seat to wait for my flight. In the end, I ate my pride, as I am now with you, when my two companions (who had left that morning) ended up on the same flight and I had to admit to my colossal failure as a traveler.

At least they were nice about it. Thanks, guys, for not crushing my already crushed spirit. I appreciate that.

I appreciated the beer I drowned my sorrows in even more.  (Yeah, they actually sell beer right by the gate and you can take it on the plane. How awesome is that?)

To be fair to myself, I wasn’t a total travel failure. Once I arrived in Florida, I was able to negotiate taking my original flight home the next day, giving me 18 hours to spend, by myself, in Fort Lauderdale. I secured accommodation on the beach (thank goodness for the Hotel Tonight app) and spent my time swimming, walking the boardwalk, and sleeping in a giant hotel room. I got a drink at a bar with other travelers and listened to a major fight break out just outside my window, involving 4 guys over a disappointing lack of arm candy.

So I can’t say it wasn’t an experience. But it wasn’t the experience I’d hyped myself, and others, up for… And I have to admit that.

Truth is, though, I don’t have to be a kick-ass traveler.

And neither do you!

You don't have to like solo travel, especially not on the first try. It's OK to get scared and nervous, and it’s okay to draw lines and fail … because it means you tried something. So if you're in the same boat as me, where you felt you’ve failed at something you “should have” been good at, I encourage you to embrace it! Life is here to be lived. Failure, and learning your tastes and preferences, is a part of that. You won’t like everything you try, and you won’t hate everything you try, and sometimes all you need to do is give it some time and patience.

Flying solo may not be for me, but it taught me a lot about myself—things I truly appreciate now, over 9 months later.

In fact, this story has a happy ending. If Cuba hadn't happened, I wouldn't have been inspired to learn Spanish ... or travel to Mexico for 7 days in January to redeem myself. I'm happy to say that although I wasn't in Los Cabos solo, I did speak confidently to dozens of people and figured out how to ask for directions. I call that a win.

So yes. I'm a martini explorer.

I enjoy certain comforts and feelings of safety. If it means traveling solo in a country where I have good cell service and a quick way to bail if I need to, so be it! I’m not ashamed of that. It’s the training wheels I need to learn how to ride a bike.

And rest assured, I will get back on the bike of solo travel. Just … on my terms.

Until then, I’ll be over here sipping my cocktail like Hiram Bingham if you need me.


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