Talek: An Interview with Cuba Expert & Career Traveler

Today, we hear from Talek, who is a true New Yorker with Cuban heritage. Since childhood, Talek has never questioned her passion for travel, ever since she would look at the map on the wall of her Mom’s travel agency with wanderlust. She has lived and traveled through her former job as an international business professional all over the world. Below she shares delightful stories of unique characters she has met in her travels. Talek is now an author, runs the travel blog Travels with Talek, hosts cultural tours to Cuba, and is a dedicated member of the NYC chapter of the Nomadic Network!

About Me

I’m a born-and-raised New Yorker and daughter of Cuban immigrant parents. Travel is my passion. I even traveled before I was born, as my mom came to the US from Cuba when she was pregnant with me. I like to say I was made in Havana, born in the USA.

What city are you based in? Describe it for us.

New York City is my home. I feel such a kinship with the place, as if the city is in my DNA, which I guess in some ways it is. I love everything about it.

One of my favorite things about NYC is its respect for multiculturalism. It’s almost a cliché that you can get any type of ethnic cuisine within just a few blocks. I love that and have always taken advantage of our rich “cuisine scene.”

Although the city’s cultural landscape is legendary, I also appreciate New York’s off-the-beaten-track attractions hidden all over in its vibrant, interesting neighborhoods.

Speaking of the neighborhoods: now is a good time to let you in on a little secret about New Yorkers. We all say we wouldn’t be caught dead in Times Square. We declare it tacky and kitschy. The truth is we go there all the time, and we LOVE it. When we get off the subway we are immediately hit by the flashing neon lights, the theaters, the energy, and the improbably costumed characters asking for tips. It is a uniquely New York experience and as much a part of the history and character of our city as the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Lincoln Center. I’ve definitely got a thing for Times Square.

Why is it important you have a supportive travel community around you? Why did you choose to join The Nomadic Network? 

I appreciate being part of a community that is as passionate and comfortable with the concept of travel as I am. It’s like you don’t have to do a lot of explaining to get your point across.

How did you start traveling, like really traveling? What was the trip that had you bitten by the travel bug?

As I said, I’ve been traveling all my life. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to NOT travel.

As a child, my mom took me back and forth from New York to Cuba to visit family. She had a travel agency on Manhattan’s West Side where there was a huge map in the office that took up an entire wall. I would spend hours looking at it and imagining what life was like in many of those places. For some reason, Fiji caught my attention; it was so remote and had such a funny name.

Looking at that map, I determined I would travel to as many places as possible and aspired to live in many countries. Later in my professional life, I did just that, living in Spain, Mexico, London, Italy, and the Dominican Republic. I also spent a lot of time in Asia, particularly Beijing.

There was never one trip that did it for me. I just always assumed that travel was something you did, and a normal part of life.

Throughout my travels, the one major life lesson I have learned while wandering this beautiful earth is that we are more alike than we are different and that people are basically good.

What’s one of your most significant or pivotal travel moments?

I have a ton of pivotal travel moments, but here are some of the biggies:

In my first corporate job, I was an international sales representative for Latin America. I was on one of my first business trips, in Rio de Janeiro, walking down a beach with a colleague from the same company; he happened to be working in the same city as me. I had this strong feeling I would always travel exactly as I had been doing all my life and that I couldn’t possibly have any career that didn’t involve travel. That’s exactly how my life turned out.

Coincidentally, I married the guy I was walking on the beach with. We had similar careers in international business, and we felt the same way about travel. We’ve been together ever since.

There are other moments I’ve experienced that may not be as life-changing but have taken my breath away. For example, seeing Petra for the first time exactly as I imagined it; visiting Baku, the city where one of my favorite books, Ali and Nino, takes place; and whitewater rafting down the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe (that one literally took my breath away).

Other memorable experiences include floating over the ancient temples of Bagan in a hot-air balloon and camping in central China on my way to Tibet, and, of course, Tibet itself.

What is your travel style?

When I travel, I like to challenge myself to act as local as I possibly can. It starts with taking public transportation from the airport to my destination. Taking public transportation vs. private vehicles, like taxis, is one of the best money-saving tips while traveling.

I prefer to stay at an Airbnb or hotel where I get points. I get a kick out of scoring a free hotel stay every once in a while with a rewards program. When I stay in hotels, I try to stay at only one or two chains, so my points can rack up faster.

Food is an opportunity to experience the local culture in a deeply authentic way. I’ll sample the local food and eat where the locals eat whenever possible. I ask them where they eat rather than where they recommend foreigners eat. There is usually a big difference in both price and authenticity.

Is there a creative way that you fund your trips?

Having spent my entire career in international business development, I was an ex-pat and traveled a great deal for my job. I always took advantage of business trips and assignments to get to know the countries I was working in. Once I left the corporate world and started blogging, I funded my travels with savings.

Tell us about a time on the road where a stranger or local made an impact on your day/week/trip/life?

I have so many examples of locals going out of their way to help me, but a few quickly come to mind.

In Beijing, a woman saw us looking around confused at a bus station. With her broken English, she put us on the right bus and rode with us to our destination.

In Chengdu, a woman walked with us for about a mile, leading us to where we wanted to go, ensuring we didn’t get lost.

In a small country village in Japan, we missed the last bus to town. A couple gave us a lift all the way back to our inn.

On a night train from Shanghai to Beijing, an old lady insisted on feeding us little licorice candies until we fell asleep. When we first entered the sleeping cabin, she welcomed us as if we were guests in her home. The woman had arranged her bed and nightstand on the train as if it were her own bedroom. She had placed doilies and a tiny vase with flowers on the nightstand and was wearing her pajamas, a robe, and hair in a net. Although we did not share a common language, that didn’t stop her from chatting away animatedly and insisting we sample her little delicacies. Eventually, we pretended to fall asleep because we did not really like the candies and did not want to offend the cute little old Chinese lady. What an unforgettable character, I wish we had taken a photo of her.

On another overnight train from Ho Chi Minh City to Hue, we didn’t have time to buy food and were unable to find any, so we were starving. Our cabin companion, a middle-aged man with calloused hands, shared his chicken and rice meal with us.

What brought you to Cuba? What were you doing there?

My family is from Cuba, and I spent a lot of time there as a child. I started going back and forth to Cuba as an adult as soon as it became easier to do so for US citizens.

The more I visited Cuba, the more I was impressed with everything about it: the music, colors, culture, history, architecture, jaw-dropping natural beauty, and, of course, people. I started taking friends and family to Cuba with me and enjoyed showing them around. They were as delighted as I was.

Eventually, I started giving tours in Cuba to share my experience with others besides my friends and family. The most popular destination is the colorful, colonial capital city of Havana, with its quirky museums, fascinating secret spots, and trendy restaurants. Havana is the ultimate walkable city.

Many people believe it is difficult or even prohibited for US citizens to go to Cuba. I want to dispel that totally wrong assumption and show people what an amazing place Cuba is.

I bring visitors to the less-visited and, some would argue, more authentic cities in Cuba. For example, beautiful Viñales; Trinidad; Cienfuegos, with its amazing French-influenced architecture; the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, featuring an ocean-facing fortress considered “the Pearl of the Caribbean”; and the tourist-free towns of central Cuba. I try to create the perfect Cuba itinerary that hits all the most interesting destinations.

In an effort to remain as authentic as possible, I only accommodate tours in Cuban-owned B&Bs, use local transportation, and eat in Cuban-owned restaurants called paladares, all consistent with US regulations for American visitors.

Nomadic Matt has interviewed me about traveling Cuba on a budget, information that I love to share with other potential Cuba travelers.

Besides my hometown of New York City, Cuba is one of my all-time favorite destinations.

What is the most surprising thing you learned while on the road? 

I can’t think of any mind-blowing, transformative experiences, but as far “surprising,” I have to say that the toilets in Japan were a real eye-opener and, I must admit, pretty cool.

Have you ever been scared of traveling solo to any of these places?

I’ve never really felt scared of traveling somewhere, but there have been times when I have gotten lost and ended up in a questionable neighborhood I was unfamiliar with, which can be stressful.

One time I got deeper and deeper into the Beijing hutongs (ancient alleyways) where no one spoke English; there was no local transportation, and night was falling. There was another time in Buenos Aires, when a football [soccer] game let out after the home team lost miserably and fans were rioting in the streets where I happened to have gotten lost. I have felt uncomfortable in situations such as these, but I tell myself, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”

Of course, some situations really are dangerous, and one should always practice good judgment and be responsible. Insurance companies will tell you that most illnesses and injuries while traveling happen when people do things they would never do at home.

What’s it like to be at home now during this pandemic? How are you keeping connected to your love of travel?

I’m trying to make the most of the time since I’ve been in lockdown. Being in New York City, the epicenter of the virus, I’ve been homebound for months now.

In February, we were in the Canary Islands and Madrid. Little did we know that Spain was going to be such a virus hot spot.

We also had a trip planned for May. We were going to walk the Camino de Santiago on the Portuguese side, stopping in Lisbon, Porto, and those wonderful cities in Galicia. All canceled!

Otherwise, I’ve been working on my third book. It is about the Cuban exile experience. My first two books are Don’t Just Travel to Cuba, Experience Cuba: The Ultimate Cuba Travel Guide and 110 Best Travel Tips. I’ve also been updating old posts and collaborating with other bloggers on various projects.

How has your view of traveling changed since the coronavirus?

I don’t think my view of traveling has changed. I expect things to get back to normal, but I have no idea when. I’ll probably travel with a mask and sanitizing wipes, where in the past I might not have.

What’s the best travel advice you’d ever received?

I don’t remember having received this advice, but I know from experience that it is the best travel advice out there: “Never agree to something without first knowing how much it is.” You would think that’s obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people, myself included, still make this mistake.

This travel tip applies to so many instances. Examples include: getting in an unmetered taxi/tuk-tuk/bicitaxi, etc. without first agreeing on the price; ordering the house special, or a bottle of wine that is not on the menu, without knowing how much it is; agreeing to a “special” tour without confirming exactly what is included. There are so many opportunities for the unsuspecting traveler to get scammed. This tip will help you think before you agree to buy.

What’s in store for your future travels?

I have way too many plans. In the short term, I’d like to go on the Camino de Santiago walk I had to cancel. And as soon as it’s safe, I want to reactivate my cultural tours to Cuba.

In the long term, I still have my bucket list destinations like the Silk Route, northeastern Brazil around Belem and Recife, the Galápagos Islands, New Guinea, the Pacific Northwest in an RV, a train trip to southern India on one of those cool trains, Sri Lanka, and so much more!

How can we keep in touch with you? Tell us all the places to follow you!

Of course, there is my blog Travels With Talek and my social media handles on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and the Facebook group “Over 50 Women Travelers Community.” I hope we can connect online. I’ll be happy to reciprocate.

Talek is an author, runs the travel blog Travels with Talek, hosts cultural tours to Cuba, and is a dedicated member of the NYC chapter of the Nomadic Network!

Note: We love featuring our travel-loving members, if you’d like to be interviewed or write a guest post for this blog, send us an email at info@thenomadicnetwork. com with the subject line “TNN Blog.”

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