Browsing Date

June 2015

Carribean, Destinations, North America

Arriving in Havana, Cuba

June 21, 2015 • By

In 2004, I lived life a bit more in the moment than I do today. A risk taker and not as restricted by burdens of job and family, I yearned to live like Hemingway on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean writing the days away. I convinced my boyfriend (and myself) at the time that the allure of Cuba was too great to refuse.   With only a Frommer’s guidebook (too afraid to search on the Internet), bright hues of red, yellow and green pulled me into the pages of what I imagined to be Trinidad.   I immediately rang up a Canadian travel agency and booked the seven-day adventure with only one pause for concern, “Is this trip refundable?”

A few months later as our departure date loomed, President George W. Bush announced further sanctions against the Castro regime and along with that enormous fines and possible convictions for any Americans disobeying the travel ban. I may like to live on the edge but I do try to abide by most rules so I cancelled the trip. Sometimes things are not meant to be – the boyfriend and I broke up and another 11 years passed by before I set foot on Cuban soil.

It was worth the wait.

I traveled from Mexico City to Havana on a sunny day in late January. A family friend had arranged for me to stay with her cousin near the University about a 20-minute walk from Old Havana.

Viva Cuba

When I first arrived at my casa particular (room for rent), I thought I stumbled into a community center. Friends and neighbors peeked in the door of the living room, while others sat on chairs and couches and chatted with my host mother. I introduced myself to everyone and I understood they were cousins, or second moms and aunts and definitely very involved in each other’s lives even if not related.

Living Room

I quickly discovered no one speaks English and after being up for many hours my concentration waned and I only noticed mouths moving presumably asking me about the United States and New York. Thankfully, Hans from Munich (not his real name) enters the house and grants me a Spanish language reprieve. He greets me, we make introductions and I learn (from him) that he is a famous Munich DJ to the soccer players and that he found Jesus four years ago. “I used to do a lot of drugs and sleep with lots of women and party. Now the “chief” guides my life.” Ok then I mean I don’t know why but I really want to hear more about him and I press the conversation. He was visiting Cuba a few years ago with a fellow German friend and spotted his now fiancé being solicited for sex. (The Cuban government has been cracking down on tourist sex /prostitution). When she refused, he was intrigued so he asked her for coffee. Apparently it’s that easy to find love in Cuba.

My host family lives in a converted house with three rooms on the main floor consisting of a living room, kitchen and a side room; a second floor with a bedroom and bath rented out to guests – my temporary gigs; a third floor with a room for the computer, and a divided area for the two children and parents to sleep; and a separated open roof floor with a kitchen and spare room. Currently, the roof is home to Hans.

Living Quarters

When Communism fell in Russia in 1991, Cuba went into a state of deep decline knows as the “Special Period” to Cubans. Russia had been the country’s lifeline for food and supplies and now the Cuban people suffered from a shortage of water and electricity and basic everyday needs. During this time, Fidel Castro opened up Cuba to tourism appealing to Canadians and Europeans and their pocketbooks. Many families like mine sold rooms in their homes to tourists as a means for income.

I paid $45 a night for my room and it included breakfast, dinner and guava smoothies throughout the day and the most hospitable, generous, welcoming people I have ever met. Keeping in mind Cubans have limited money and supplies, stores etc., I found my meager accommodations to be clean and my shower functioning with a trickle of water, which is more than I can say for the tourists who paid for 4-5star hotels. Killing hundreds of mosquitoes a day while trying to shower was just part of the experience. My family even bought me eggs with their rations after I mentioned that’s what I eat for breakfast. A humbling experience for me on day one when I learned every Cuban household maintains a Libreta (ration book) entitling the family to a monthly supply of basic goods like fruit and meat provided at a small cost.

Rationing Book

With a population of about 11 million, the Republic of Cuba is one of the world’s last remaining state-capitalist countries following the Marxist-Leninist approach /Communism. It’s an archipelago of islands located in the northern Caribbean Sea where the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean meet. Cuba is only about 90 miles off the coast of Florida but far enough to make it a metaphor for forbidden fruit to most Americans. Approximately 3 million tourists visited Cuba in 2014 up from 600,000 in 1991.


Travel Tips, What to Pack

It’s time to pack

June 18, 2015 • By

Your departure day is fast approaching and it’s time to think about packing. If there is one piece of advice every single traveler gives to another it’s DO NOT OVER PACK but it’s bound to happen to everyone sooner or later and you will find yourself sitting on that suitcase to ensure closure and cursing at it the duration of your travels.

My trick to the trade is checking the weather of my destination as early as possible so I can figure out if I need to hit the sporting good stores, Athleta, Lululemon or stock up on cotton dresses from various department stores.  If you are planning a trip in advance, it also helps because some clothing is only available seasonally in stores (always check online).  Will you be hiking in the mountains or sunning on the beach?  Typically, I use a durable suitcase that I can carry-on but expands if necessary and a small backpack or over the shoulder day bag.

Travel tip: Lay out all the clothes you think you need and then pack half or maybe even less than half.  You don’t need four pairs of shoes, two sets of jeans and multiple swimming suits unless of course you are going on a two week holiday to one location.

WHAT TO BRING ON ALMOST EVERY TRIP

CLOTHING

  • Underwear – I bring enough for 2 weeks of travel
  • Socks – Mix and match your favorites I tend to wear these a few times before washing
  • Undershirts & Bras
  • Pajamas
  • Cardigan/sweater or wrap for airplanes and air-conditioner
  • Dressy Outfit – You never know when there might be a special occasion
  • Jeans/Pants/Shorts – Climate and culturally appropriate
  • Skirt – Many women are required to wear garments covering the knees
  • Jacket/Rain proof/vest – Depending on climate, you may need a full winter coat or a waterproof rain jacket or something to block the wind
  • Hats – Winter hat for the cold climates or a baseball cap to block the sun or even a visor or beach hat
  • Gloves
  • Scarves – Multiple purposes (covering hair, shoulders and keeping warm or dressing up an outfit)
  • T-shirts/tanks
  • Exercise Clothing
  • Swimsuit or trunks
  • Sandals/flip-flops
  • Sneakers
  • Flat comfortable shoes

TOILETRIES

  • Toothbrush – old-fashioned or make sure you extra batteries for electric
  • Toothpaste & Dental Floss
  • Bar of Soap
  • Deodorant
  • Shampoo/conditioner
  • Brush/Comb
  • Hair accessories/products
  • Cleanser
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip balm
  • Lotion
  • Contact lenses/glasses/solution
  • Razor
  • Make up
  • Nail accessories if necessary
  • Hand wipes – these are my saving grace.  I buy a few packets and keep on me at all time along with mini toilet paper rolls
  • Kleenex
  • Laundry packets
  • Stain remover/Tide stick

MEDICAL

  • Vitamins
  • Aspirin
  • First-aid kit – band-aids, neosporin, moleskin for blisters, cotton balls, sewing kit with needle and safety pins
  • Birth control/prescriptions – Don’t forget to bring a list of all and the reason for taking each
  • Sleeping pills
  • Earplugs
  • Iodine tablets to sterilize water if necessary (camping/hiking)

TRAVEL DOCS

  • Passport/Visas – also bring paper copies and hide in luggage
  • Driver’s license
  • Copies of itinerary on you and one left at home with family for friends
  • Copies of credit cards in case of loss (in accessible location)
  • Emergency contact
  • Medical/health insurance cards
  • Medical history
  • Hotel loyalty cards
  • Money belt/secure and hidden bag for valuables

TECHNOLOGY

  • Laptop
  • Camera
  • Mobile phone – Make sure to set up roaming/data before departure.  Foreign fees are high
  • Chargers/Adapters
  • Batteries
  • Mini Flashlight
  • Download any movies/books for the long plane rides or drives

MISCELLANEOUS

  • Journal
  • Magazines/Books
  • Snacks/granola bars
  • Pens
  • Gifts for locals such as pencils, chewing gum, paper, etc
  • Umbrella if room
  • Ziplock/plastic bags – dirty clothes, shoes, toiletries, all sorts of uses and come in handy
  • Cash – US Dollars or Euros are safe for exchange
  • ATM Card/Credit card – Use cards with no foreign service fees like Capital One or Chase explorer
  • Luggage lock – May not use on some airplanes but good for leaving behind at hotels
  • Day bag/backpack – over the shoulder or small to fit a guidebook and scarf and a few toiletries
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