Nikola Abudová: From Marketing Professional to Tourist Guide in Cuba

Fulfillment Seekers Interview Series

I have known Nikola for many years and I have to say that she is certainly one of the most inspiring people I know. 

A couple of years ago, after many years of “playing by the rules” and ticking “the right” societal checkboxes, she challenged her status quo and decided to give a shot doing something that many people were barely daring to even dream about. 

Nikola’s journey was not easy, nor straightforward and no outcome is ever guaranteed. She was aware of this from the very beginning of her journey but she decided to trust herself and her own judgement and make things happen to start living her best life. 

In spite of being called “crazy” and not having much support from the people around her, she decided not to settle for less and to take the scary leap and make her dream life happen.

Always making the best of her life, for me, Nikola is a great example of courage, resilience, dedication and appreciation for her time on this planet. 

I’m very pleased to be sharing her story with you!

You are currently working as a private guide in Cuba – sounds fantastic – can you tell me a little bit about who you are and what does it mean to be a private guide?

I am from Prague, half Czech and half Iraqi, travelling all the time between Prague, Cuba and London. A few years ago, I decided to change my lifestyle completely. From a typical office rat, I decided to become a private guide in Cuba and make my dream come true.

Guiding is an exciting job where I meet a lot of great people and it allows me to work on a beautiful Caribbean island with a unique atmosphere.

Your previous career path was very different from what you are doing right now and your way to start working in Cuba was probably not the easiest – what is your story?

I used to work in marketing for many years – first in the area of qualitative marketing research and later in the field of smart technologies. I worked in different kinds of environments; from small start-ups to international corporations. It was a classic 9-5 routine, with five weeks of paid holidays. Every day, I used to drink many coffees, complained about my back pain and spent all my weekends in shopping malls or “in nature” – which honestly was usually just one of the nearest city parks. More and more, I started to question whether getting a mortgage and going on holiday once a year should be the peak points of my life.

One Saturday morning, I watched TV as usual. There was a documentary about people travelling in a truck across a beautiful landscape, all with wide, happy smiles on their faces; they were radiating ease and contentment! There were shots of ocean waves, splashing seawater across the seaside road with vintage Chevrolets from the 50ties riding along it. That was the moment when I told myself I have to visit that country at least once in my lifetime. Afterwards, I spent a couple more years as an “office rat” until the moment I reached the point of burn-out and ultimate fatigue. On top of that, a 9-year relationship with my boyfriend came to an end.

I told myself: This could be the right moment to take a break and to leave for somewhere far away. My friend mentioned that she had a cousin who worked at the embassy in Havana – and that was the moment when I recalled the magic moment when I watched the documentary. Me and my friend went to Cuba for two weeks, and from the moment I entered the country, I knew I had hopelessly fallen in love. My fate had been sealed! I quit my job of five years right after returning to work. My boss thought I had completely lost my mind 🙂

When did you start to play around with the idea to become a guide?

After quitting my job I still worked for various companies for a while, but it felt a bit off, and I knew that something had shifted in me – there was just no running back to the “old life”!

I travelled to Cuba a couple more times, but while getting more popular, Cuba, as a tourist destination, was becoming more and more expensive. It was not sustainable for me anymore to keep going there as a tourist. And so I started to explore other possibilities, and becoming a guide was one of them. When I first started to explore this option, it was the biggest sci-fi for me – I did not speak a word of Spanish!

What was the moment when you told yourself: “I’m going to do this as a job!”?

Honestly, the beginning was tough. I reached out to dozens of travel agencies and got rejected by all of them – because of my lack of relevant work experience and also because the guides are usually sent to positions in the lucrative places in the Caribbean as a “reward” for the many years of hard work at European destinations.

One day I got a phone call. A guide from one of the biggest travel agencies had gotten sick, and they were looking for a replacement urgently. They had one condition: I had to learn at least the basics of Spanish basically in no time. After this first experience, it got easier to find another job.

First, I used to go to Cuba 2-3 times a year while still keeping a full-time office job in Prague. But one day, my employer announced that the company culture was about to change and they were about to impose stricter rules for employees, so I made a clear decision. I quit right on the spot. I felt frightened as hell but also amazingly free!

I know that you also support yourself with other jobs/activities – what are they and what are you looking for in those opportunities?

All my other professional activities are related to my work as a guide in Cuba. I worked in the oldest Cuban cigar shop in the world in London, a Cuban restaurant. I have spent a month as a delegate in Spain to improve my Spanish, etc.

How did you learn Spanish?

I couldn’t even say ‘hello’ when I came to Cuba for the first time. I learned my first words just on the streets of Havana. My friends taught me but especially dirty words :-). The travel agency which gave me the first chance insisted on a knowledge of Spanish, so I started with private lessons – 3x week/90 minutes. It has also helped me a lot that I spend time only among Cubans; as it forces you to speak. 

Perhaps there were some challenges you were facing leaving your “old” career and going for something people usually consider “just a crazy idea” – how did you manage to make your transition? Did you face any fears/limiting beliefs/judgements from other people? If yes, how did you manage to handle them?

Many people get all freaked out once they see someone deciding to exit “normal life”. They try to discourage you, they talk about all the possible negative scenarios, and they call you insane! My family could not digest, for a very long time, that I had exchanged a cool office with design furniture for bumpy rides in old taxis in Cuba. But as I was getting more and more positive client testimonials, they came to understand that my work made me truly happy. 

Today, I’m not afraid to admit that in the beginning, I cried for many nights and I could not imagine that my dream to become a guide in Cuba could ever come true.

What does working with tourists in Cuba mean to you personally? What do you like about this work?

I love working with people, making their holiday the time of their lives and preparing many wow moments for them. I’m the happiest when I see that my clients are having a great time, and when I know that I have managed to refute some judgements which they held about Cuba when they first came.

My niche is to focus mainly on getting to know the real Cuban life with adventurous trips, nature, waterfalls, caves, but also real-life in the cities and villages where tourists usually don’t go.

I love the sense of freedom that this work enables me to experience, and as I usually say: I love my office in my folding chair on a beautiful beach!

If you could give some advice to someone who is thinking of pursuing their dream lifestyle/career, what would you tell them?

Many people say: “I have no idea what I would like to do!”. But I believe that everyone knows. They are just afraid of dreaming big. My advice is to ask yourself: If you could choose, without taking into consideration your current life, what would you like to do? And even if the answer is entirely crazy, start from that idea. Things take time and in the beginning, making the decision is crucial, and it is just the start. From there, you can start exploring education, language courses, entry-level jobs that are related to your desired area. And then, one day you wake up and realize that indeed anything is possible!

What are your future dreams and aspirations?

My dream is to work for an international travel agency directly in Havana, where, thanks to my experience and my knowledge of the country, I would get the chance to co-create itineraries that would be offered to travel agencies around the world. My other wish is to slow down a little bit and find a permanent place to live in Havana!

Thank you for your time and sharing your inspiring story and good luck with your job hunt in Havana!

Find and follow Nikola’s adventures on Instagram.

If you enjoyed reading Nikola’s story, check out my another Fulfillment Seekers stories: Anne Dellerue: From TV and cinema industry professional to Diving Instructor and Yura Gulyayev: From Account Manager to Independent Tattoo Artist

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