Introversion has become a badge of honour lately. It’s not the dirty word it used to be, people are understanding it, introverts are understanding themselves, accepting themselves. Quiet and reflection is a strength. Facebook pages of quotes and memes are popping up in newsfeeds and introversion is gradually, becoming mainstream.

As someone who needs a lot of time alone to recharge, travel can be difficult. This is why India was so disappointingly challenging for me – amazing beauty buried under layers of noise, dirt, crowds… Having to scrape all that away to get to the prize. Needing a strong filter, a bubble around you. The challenge is trying to find a balance between socialising and hiding away. Avoiding crowds at tourist hotspots, breaking away from a tour group to do your own thing, fully intending to go out on the town with new hostel buddies but being too tired and drained to make it. To me, happiness is when I can’t afford a private room and end up in an empty dorm. In order to survive I need to leave the group, I need a nap, my Kindle, noise cancelling headphones and my favourite music, an eye mask, a wander around the town, an empty coffee shop, a cool place with dim lights, a massage, time in nature, time for art – creating or just looking, one to one time with someone quiet or stimulating chat. Time to breathe.

Two weeks in Havana, Cuba, in a group of 46 people taught me a huge amount about handling my introspection and about how interesting and inspiring other introverts are. Watching them juggle their time to survive, give themselves wholly and withdrawing when necessary.

I met a myriad of engaging and wonderful people (introverted and extroverted) who were willing to get into the nitty gritty of their lives, their opinions, their dreams and views of the world. Introverts are easy to identify, there’s an intangible but mutually understood agreement that small talk is off the table, there’s no awkwardness or cringing, just delving straight into deep chat and comfortable silence. There was a huge level of empaths among this group, most of whom had come to volunteer, many teachers from disadvantaged schools, many open minded and compassionate youngsters – hungry for life and experience.

I met many types of quiet people who may be otherwise judged, avoided, or written off. Tough, dark alternatives who are fiercely loyal and soft-hearted but covered in broken glass, wrapped in barbed wire, surrounded by landmines to keep people out. Painfully quiet and shy free-spirited types who are serenely content, able to energise you with their beautiful zen silence, going unnoticed, avoiding the limelight. I met erudite, eloquent and witty people who were wise beyond their years, sustained a conversation, yet could up and leave the table, unapologetically, once they’d had their fill of people. Introverts who cringe at eye contact with an overtly sexual salsa instructor but tear up the dance floor in their own escape, invisible, living in the song, lost in the melody, the rhythm acting as barrier to the world and its noise. Sweet, kind introverts who are full of fun and love to give but are disillusioned with people, due to how they’ve been treated in the past, reluctant to be burned again, so hide their true selves and expose to only a select few. Pensive, sensitive dreamers who retreat to the solitude and sanctity of nature to regroup and reflect. Astute, highly observant introverts on the perimeter, sizing up group dynamics, while wearing the mask of an extroverted persona and mixing with all cliques and groups.

I find that one to one or in small groups, I cannot get enough of these people. Get an introvert talking about a passion of theirs or a topic they have strong convictions on and they emerge from their shell. No one ever believes that I am introverted, because once I like you, I turn bouncy, don’t shut up and it’s like splatter painting you with all my thoughts. I can be hard to handle. I can be labelled as moody. Constant thinking and analysing makes me feel self absorbed.

Initially, with the 30 people talking at breakfast, followed by group Spanish lesson, concentrating intensely on the conversation, I found myself completely drained. Having to take part in Circle Time or think on your feet to answer a random question is uncomfortable and awkward enough in English let alone translating to Spanish… I had to retreat to the patio alone, before lunch, as the idea of another meal with 30 people, chatting at once, stressed and exhausted me. Once I identified my fellow introverts, had stimulating conversation, stayed in small groups and made time for my survival tactics, I absolutely thrived and made friends with basically everyone. At one stage I was asked, “Where do you go to when you go off on your own?” I didn’t realise my absence was noticed. Well, I have a two hour siesta, I drink in the day while watching a salsa band, I wander the narrow streets of Habana Vieja and take photos.

Only once did I find myself pushed to my limit and snapping. In the beautiful Viñales, after horse back riding in the tobacco fields, our 46 strong group found ourselves caught in a thunderstorm and avoided the rain in a small shack where they make cigars. Usually, I loved any time to spend with the group, but so many people, their energies, chatter, it gets too much. All of the energy suddenly builds to this cacophonous crescendo of tension and it’s as if people are pulling and dragging on you, their thoughts invading your thoughts, complete with flashing lights and sirens and chaos. I could see some of my fellow introverts absolutely crumble, and die inside, when one very loud member’s chanting and sing alongs attempted to rouse the group spirit. Damp and shivering, one girl was literally head down, hiding inside her shawl, creating a cocoon. I followed suit within my towel. Utterly done. Mutually united and supportive. Seriously, sometimes silence is fine, in fact it is golden.

That evening, I felt paranoid, self conscious and insecure. I was frazzled, cranky, uncomfortable in my skin  as if it didn’t fit. I needed my time to get ready after a shower, methodically and slowly, my ritual. Yet I was rushed for others’ conflicting dinner plans and confused as to what was happening. Unfortunately, I was sharing a room so had no time to unwind and regroup. I just wasn’t myself. Late that night, I had an amazing chat with an absolutely beautiful and intelligent girl from the group. Sitting on the porch, under the stars on a dark and peaceful night was exactly what I needed. The following morning, waking before sunrise, I was brimming with energy (apologies to all the non morning people). Combine that with a hike and watching the sunrise over the valley and you’ve got one happy introvert. It was interesting to see which of the group could sit in blissful silence, no phone out to take photos, enjoying the moment, lost in their thoughts, reenergising.

I can see why I, and other introverts, could be labelled as negative, touchy, grouchy or stand offish. We love you, we really do, but we need time to ourselves to come back strong. I am glad that this experience taught me so much about myself, self-care, making friends and letting others in.