How many times a day does it happen? That moment when you think, "I don't know—but I can look it up on the Internet!" And then you get a little thrill of gratification, a sense of security and power that comes from having ready access to a piece of desired knowledge, even if it's only the second verse of "Incense and Peppermints."
I don't usually appreciate that comforting (if hubristic) sensation, but when it came to me the day before my departure for Cuba—sans laptop or smartphone—I felt a surge of anxiety. I was going to miss that comfort, never mind the addictive pleasure of checking my email 15 times a day and keeping up with my friends' Facebook posts.
My research had showed that it's hard to get online in Cuba. The handful of public Wi-Fi spots in Havana are notoriously slow, unreliable and bogged down by crowds of users. I didn't want to spend a big chunk of my two-week vacation staring at my screen, waiting in frustration, when I'm so used to the rapid response of my router at home.
Anyway, I thought, it will be interesting to see what it's like to live without the Internet. Maybe I'll have withdrawal for a few days, but I might feel liberated by the end. What revelations might come to me without the Web diverting and clogging my mental stream?
I thought I would miss email the most. It's such a visceral pleasure to open messages from people I know and like or love, with information I need, sometimes accompanied by expressions of affection. (On the other hand, I wouldn't have to sift through any number of promotions and other nonsense.) Once my friend and I hit Havana, however, I was so busy gleaning information from the owner of our guest house, from cab drivers, from strangers on the street when I was lost—I didn't even think about email. I was glad to have questions to spur interactions with people in my new, halting Spanish.
I hadn't expected to pine for Facebook, and I didn't. Although I'm on social media numerous times a day, I have an ambivalent relationship with it, appreciating its news-gathering properties while dreading the hypnotic hold it can exercise. Occasionally, I wished I could post a photo of the moon over a pink Havana house or the artful papaya bridge sculpted by the cook of the guest house for my breakfast fruit platter—but those postings could wait.
What I truly missed was the ability to Google. I longed to get instant answers to my questions, to check the conjugation of the verb "decir" or look up a story from the life of anti-colonial revolutionary José Martí. Of course, I could easily ask my hostess for the past tense of "decir," and my travel guide contained a capsule biography of Martí.
But what about the legend of how Martí, during his years of exile in New York, had broken his writer's block by visiting the Hudson Valley, where he composed 125 verses of "Guantanamera"? And how Pete Seeger had learned the song from a Cuban busboy at Camp Woodland, a few miles from my house in the Catskills? If I wanted to verify this possibly misremembered story, I needed the Internet, or I might recount it in error to some unsuspecting tourist or, worse yet, a Cuban.
The real problem came when I was lying in bed, worn out from hiking around Old Havana. I was feeling the same emptiness that hits me when my deadlines have been met, and I have to make a decision about how to spend the next hour or two, and I find myself sitting down in front of the computer, scrounging for a focus. But in Havana, I had no computer to rush to for guidance. Instead, I passed through the worrisome void and into a sense of grand spaciousness, of infinite potential and no obligations, and my heart softened out, my senses relaxed and happiness enclosed me—not the kind that comes from getting what you want but the kind that floats in the ether, ready to drop into a space carved out of an open, restful mind.
Of course, that bliss didn't last long. After three days in Havana, we went to Trinidad, a small city near the southern coast, crawling with tourists drawn to the stately colonial architecture of the hill town founded in the 16th century. Trinidad has about two days' worth of tourist activities: landmarks, museums, shopping, art galleries, beaches and trail rides on horseback. As we watched other travelers come and go, never spending more than two days at our guest house, I wondered if we hadn't made a mistake by booking a room for a week. But even when I drifted into boredom each afternoon, I didn't think, "If only I had the Internet to entertain me."
Toward the end of the week, our stay was justified, since by then we had made friends with Rosa, the cook, and she invited us to a New Year's Eve party at her house. As her relatives streamed in and out, the teenagers did not sit around looking at cell phones. A college student from nearby Cienfuegos told me she's on Facebook, but otherwise the Internet was absent, replaced by stimulating, exhilarating human warmth.
After Trinidad, we spent three days in Mexico City. At a Best Western down the street from our Airbnb rental, the desk clerk let us send email on the lobby computer. I informed my husband that I was still alive, but I refrained from glancing past the first screen of messages. I felt so pure!
The next day, everything went wrong, including missed connections that could not be corrected because my clamshell phone doesn't work outside the U.S. Locked out of our apartment, I had the gnawing feeling I was being punished for not checking my email in case something had gone wrong at home. I went back to Best Western and luxuriated in sweet messages from my family, reassured myself that no disasters had occurred, and answered a few emails, feeling more relief than regret at being back on the stuff.
So I lasted 13 days—not too bad. And now that I'm home, I am exercising a smidgen of restraint, at least on those aimless afternoons, when instead of bopping around the Web, I read a book or lie in bed with my eyes closed, enjoying the luxury of empty space.