travel

LAST MINUTE CUBA

Cuba is the perfect place for the last minute, spontaneous traveler who prefers little preparation or planning ahead. Over this past year, with the luxury of time and flexibility, I have opted for one way flights whereby I can decide once in a place where and when I'll go next. Because If I've learned anything from my recent expeditions, if you do have that luxury to change your mind and direction within travel - it can greatly add value to your experience, and not just monetarily. 

Cuba for a long time had been a 'Forbidden land' to American tourists, therefore, I’d always been curious about visiting this intriguing, mysterious, and elusive country. The idea to visit Cuba this spring arose when a friend I’d met on my travels last year, suggested it as a meeting place. Because it was so far in the future and thinking by then I’d have a full time job, boyfriend, or both - I didn't commit to anything until a week before the departure (as it turned out I had neither at that point). Booked last minute flights from SFO > CUN > HAV totaled $550. This was the easiest and most affordable route to take via Mexico.

On one of our many Skype conversations about the trip, I threw out the idea of biking around part of Cuba - as a fairly avid cyclist it sounded like the ultimate adventure. I saw a cool YouTube video of a guy who did just that, and and at the end he donated his bike to a well deserving local. Feeling inspired, the day before leaving I decided to bring my beloved road bike of 15 years to use and then give away. I set out to figure out how the hell to pack a bike.

However, after many calls to the airlines and a visit to the bike shop, I discovered it would cost hundreds of dollars and as much of a do-gooder I wanted to be - decided to skip it and rent a bike there. Bike tourism isn’t huge in Cuba at all, but I luckily found one out of two Canadian run rental companies in Havana and it seemed straightforward enough.

Money, Getting in, Staying Connected :  

Money exchange - American banks can not be accessed here so you will have to bring all of your cash with you, no use of ATMS or credit cards. With that said, prepare to bring lots of cash. It’s NOT a cheap country overall. It’s ideal if you can get your hands on some euros - you’ll get a much better exchange rate compared to USD, which automatically is charged a 10-13% fee. I went to a Travelex in my local bank to get euro’s and casually mentioned I was headed to Cuba. Do not mention anything about visiting Cuba, they won’t give you money! Learned that the hard way, but honestly it made me even more excited about visiting a country with so many restrictions. Such a rebel.  

Having read several examples of people who asked to not have their passport stamped, I felt confident about doing the same so there would be no trace of my travels to Cuba. When I landed in Havana and waited in the cluttered line at border control, I was pulled aside by a  woman in plain clothes who asked several questions about my purpose of travel. Already prepared to say “journalistic activity,” one of the 12 government enlisted travel categories, I told her I was there to shoot a documentary. “Yes I worked for myself, here’s my website, contact information, sure you can look through my bag” … I started to sweat and asked a couple times, “is everything OK?”

She nodded and finally ushered me to the passport agent who within 2 seconds stamped my passport. “Nooo...I didn’t want it stamped,” I said. “Well you should have told me, sorry,” she said. I grabbed my passport, quickly found the stamp and the part that said Republic of Cuba was hardly legible. To make it even less so, I wet my finger and tried to wipe it just a teeny bit more. Stupid yes, but I was motivated by the image of being handcuffed and taken to airport jail when I returned home. *I’ve had some bad travel experiences involving airport police.

 

Shortly thereafter, I rolled into the heart of Havana in a 1950’s chevy (or something like that) and was immediately hit by the sticky heat, crumbled buildings, and a chaos of people filled the streets. I felt as if I was an extra on a giant movie set, full of every mid-century classic American car in every style and color, with once beautifully constructed buildings now cracked, worn, and dilapidated, with weathered tributes to the dream of Americana. Cuba is literally a country stuck in time and desperate for progress, a result from being cut off from modernity by our cruel embargo enforced a half century ago.

Like most things in Cuba, rates are negotiable and if you offer a fair enough price they will usually agree. Just don’t be a cheap arsehole and low-ball too much, be aware that Cubans give over HALF of what they earn to the government and their average salary is a $18-20/month. A MONTH, people! As a culture they are very honest and seem to be government fearing, which as a result Cuba is very safe country with a low incidence of crime.

To survive and live comfortably, most people have a side hustle because who the hell can live on that kind a salary? We met doctors who earn much more driving taxi’s, farmers selling fruit illegally on the side of the road, and aquarium workers offering to swim with dolphins for 3 x their salary for an hour. Which brings me to the two types of currency. There’s CUC which equals $1, and CUP which is the locals currency. You’ll see the difference in the two, watch out for the 3 CUP bill with Che Guevara, it's good luck. I’d try and get your hands on the local CUP’s, you can give them CUC and get CUP’s in change.

It’s cheaper in the long run for things and made sense to use in the smaller less touristy towns, and I usually preferred to eat in the local joints anyway. They get a kick out of seeing gringo’s eating in their local spots, and would usually ask us how we found the place. Just ask a local where to go, of course.  watch out for the 3 CUP bill with Che Guevara, it's good luck. 

For those of us who are addicted to wifi, this country will challenge that addiction and force you to look at your habits a little differently. Cuba just got legal wifi about a year ago, and can only be accessed in public parks. Which seems so counterintuitive, right? A select number of public parks allow access and you have to purchase a card for $2-3/hour. And this is for everyone, not just tourists. You can get the card from guys selling them for a $1 mark-up around the parks or you can wait in long queue. Either way I was so aware of my usage that an hour card was stretched over 3 days sometimes, I didn’t waste any time on social media, or just scrolling through random content and sometimes we couldn’t find wifi for 3-4 days in the smaller towns. I was deliberate, and would write emails or text ahead of time and then just press send.

Honestly, it was a relief not to be tied to my phone, having the option or excuse to not respond immediately, or get lost in social media’s endless web. It was a nice change of pace and kind of fun to resort to setting a meeting time/place, and actually following through. As strange as it was to see huge groups of people sitting in the park with their laptops, skyping with loved ones, and carrying on intimate conversations in such a public space- you didn’t see people aimlessly on their phones outside of the parks, avoiding social interaction like us addicts do so much of the time.

Accommodations:

The universal symbol for “Casa Particulars”

The universal symbol for “Casa Particulars”

Sure, you have the big fancy hotels (none of the large chains, though) but why stay in those when you can have a more authentic experience renting a room in a local's home or the entire flat? These rentals called, ‘Casa Particulars,’ are everywhere, easy to find, and you can rent them with little to no pre-planning. Perfect!

You will start to see this symbol all over the place on people’s doors, hanging on signs, and on small tiles above the door. Once you see a place that looks nice, has a sweet terrace, or is in a desirable area just walk up to the door, knock, politely say “Hola” and ask if they have availability. It’s that simple.

And If they don’t have anything available, usually the homeowner will cheerily invite you in, offer you a coffee and will call up their cousin, brother, nephew, or some other family member or friend to see if they have space. We even had a woman call ahead to the next 4 towns we were set out to visit and ensured we had a place to stay and negotiated the same nightly rate. The rooms are the same price no matter how many people you have in the room, and usually there are two full beds or a large queen. We paid anywhere from $15 - $35/night and 85% of time included a decent breakfast. If you’re lucky, dinners are also on offer for an extra $6-8 and I have to say some of my favorite meals were in the casa’s. *More on the food in a minute.

We learned that almost every Cuban is given a home by the government, and most of the them have been kept in the family for several generations. Like many other cultures, the entire family can be found living together until the children are well into adulthood. A prime source of income for families with extra space is to turn part of their home into a Casa Particular. As modest and outdated as the rooms can be - with silk bedding, lace doily decor, and fake flowers- they were always clean and had a fan or AC, and tiny refrigerator with cold drinks for purchase. It’s like the old-school mini-bar, and for much less!

You can now also book properties through Airbnb, but only if you’re doing so from outside the country. When I tried to book a room the same day, an error message popped up something like, “we see you are in Cuba and you’re not allowed to book from there”.  I received a similar error message when I tried to log into my bank, they put my account on lockdown real fast until I was able to later verify my identity when back in the states. While it may seem things have relaxed a bit in regards to Americans traveling to Cuba, American companies still have a lot of restrictions against spending money there. Hopefully this changes quickly.

As a fairly new to solo traveler, who mostly enjoys it because I never feel completely alone, I personally didn't feel the country is yet designed for this adventurous soul. Here’s why: after spending the first two weeks with a guy by my side, I had a contrasting experience when my girlfriend came for a short visit. While it’s one thing to get the occasional eyebrow raise, head turn, or whistle --being completely eye f*cked, followed, constantly approached by groups of men who asked  “where are you from,?” was overwhelming. But once we were again in the company of a guy, all the oogling and oggling practically came to a halt. So ladies, take this into consideration and team up with a male travel partner if you are able to!

Stunning beaches in Vinales

Stunning beaches in Vinales

Also, because there isn’t a hostel culture there (yet), the chances of meeting fellow solo travelers are slim. I primarily spotted couples or groups of guys, and the occasional group of two or more woman. I do think Cuban culture oozes sexuality in its music and dance, so it's an ideal place to spark the fire between you and your significant other.

Food/Drinks:  

Unfortunately Cuba isn’t a foodie haven. A fairy delicious mash-up of black beans and rice is a huge part of their diet, as well as fried chicken, fish, pork, plantain, salad (tomato and cucumber) and potatoes. As a meat eater you’ll be hard pressed to find beef, as it’s really expensive for them to produce. When on the road most of the time I fueled up on jamon y queso sandwiches, it’s the easiest thing to find everywhere you go. Breakfast is typically an omelette, bread, coffee or chocolate milk, and fruit (pineapple, papaya, banana). Some of my favorite meals were in the hole in the wall restaurants set in someone’s home, offering heaps of quality food for a around $3.

Being a vegetarian here could be tough, and you’ll probably get tired of the limited veggie options in restaurants. I recommend hitting up the fruit and vegetable stands which are always separate from grocery stores, and getting creative. Beware nothing is more depressing than the government run grocery stores - everything is canned, packaged, and unhealthy. We literally couldn’t find water in most grocery stores, only several aisles dedicated to all types of soda, rum, and beer.

Which brings me to Mojito’s and Cuba Libre’s - the national drinks! Super sweet with lots of mint, you can find a variation on these classics that will either make you fall in love with rum or you’ll never want to look at a bottle of Havana Club again. To complete the whole experience, channel Ernest Hemingway who lived in Cuba for 20 years - sit at an outdoor cafe, sip your mojito, spark up a cigar, listen to the sounds of live salsa music billowing out into the streets, and take in the charm of Havana before you...

Nightlife is also a national pastime, especially in Havana where there are several clubs playing all styles of music, live or otherwise, with some specially catered toward the gringo crowd. Like most other Latin cultures, nights begin here after midnight and go well into the early mornings.

One of my favorite dance spots was with some locals who took us to a small reggaeton club off the tourist path, and while it had it’s shady side with prostitution clearly on offer, I prefered this type of spot over the crowded version with cheesy music and tourists. Plus, in these types of places you’re guaranteed to dance with someone who will want to teach you proper Cuban style salsa. And if you want to feel like a total baller, do like the locals do and buy the whole bottle of rum with mixers for less than $20.  

Day one, outside Havana

Day one, outside Havana

After getting acquainted with Cuban culture for a few days, It was time to leave the confines of the big city and head onto the open road. After spending an entire day to get the bikes rented and back to our casa - nothing seems to be that efficient - we left around 5pm with a couple hours to our first destination. The heat was oppressive, and thick smog followed us in a consistent black cloud. Roads in Cuba aren’t terrible, but they are not yet equipped with much of a shoulder for the cyclist, and just about anything with wheels can be seen rumbling down the busy road from Havana - which stretched on for what seemed like forever. I quickly caught a glimpse of what we were really in for on this two week two wheeled adventure.

Over the next couple days we both gained our bike legs, and slightly adjusted to all of the elements at play which made the journey that much more rewarding. We got a kick out of the waves and funny looks from locals, and almost every casa owner shook their heads in disbelief when we rolled up on our bikes. They’d say, “you’re biking all the way from Havana to Trinidad, are you crazy,?!” Yes, pretty much. I’ll never forget the look on our host’s face when we asked if she could make us sandwiches for our 4am departure the next morning. We had one long final stretch left to Trinidad and I couldn’t bear the idea of doing it in the heat like we’d been doing the past week.

The ride out of town at 4am was by far one the most memorable and insane things we did. At first I was amazed by the amount of light we had as we rolled out, I stupidly forgot as soon as we left the street lit village, we’d be in absolute darkness. The kind of darkness where you feel as if you’re floating in the middle of an abyss, I couldn’t see anything. Through a nervous laugh, I tried to stay calm and made casual conversation like, wow it’s still really warm even without the sun ...ha ha.

And then the dog. All I know is it charged out of nowhere and chased me, barked like a crazed lunatic inches from my foot and my laugh quickly turned into shrieks. The visual in my head getting pulled off the bike and dragged to the woods where I’d be attacked by a more vicious dogs, propelled me faster.

My bike partner on the other hand, couldn’t stop laughing through my screams of terror. OK - maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but this is how I felt it went down. And on top of that, the day before we’d driven the same way in order to get an idea of what we were in for. At the bottom of one of the steep hills we come down, were several cows just chilling in the middle of road. Pedaling as fast as I could, the fear of running head on into a cow was also on my mind.  

The forethought to bring a bike light never crossed my mind, but then I remembered my iPhone had a flashlight!  We quickly pulled over, dug out tape and strapped that bad boy right on the front of my bike. Now with enough light to see a few feet in front of us, we relaxed a little and took notice of all the shooting stars. It was awesome. We then rounded a corner to witness the most beautiful orange colored moon rise above the mountains. Truly an unforgettable experience, as was the sunrise hours later as we ate our sandwiches.

Besides the bike version as a way to see Cuba, you have many other options. Most popular seemed to be renting a car for the obvious freedom, but this isn’t the most economical option. Buses and collective taxis are fairly affordable, easy to find, and are a great option for the last minute journey. The country isn’t relatively that big, although to be time efficient a flight is recommended to places like the south east to Guantanamo Bay for example.

For those of you who have asked if you should visit Cuba now, I don’t think it will change overnight, there is plenty of time before we see the positive and negative effects of our inevitable American influence. But to answer the question to visit or not, the answer is absolutely yes.

Favorite places to visit:

Varadero, 12 miles of pristine beach along the Caribbean sea 

Varadero, 12 miles of pristine beach along the Caribbean sea 

Varadero - Two hours east of Havana, known for it’s endless stunning beaches on the Caribbean sea and is a very popular tourist destination. We found it to be mellow despite it's popularity and definitely worth a couple nights stay. Plenty of nice casa particular’s close to the beach along with several hotel options, and a wide range of restaurants. Very sleepy town though, you’ll be hard pressed to find any decent nightlife.

Vinales has a unique landscape and is absolutely gorgeous! 

Vinales has a unique landscape and is absolutely gorgeous! 

Vinales - Two hours west from Havana, this gem is beyond charming and is surrounded by stunning scenery. Soon as I arrived into town I knew my two nights planned were going to extend to four. Again a very touristy destination, we found that it was quiet for the most part and we could escape the crowds which there wasn’t much to avoid. Taking a walking tour with a local guide was a major highlight even though his whole  “I just want to make new friends, I’m doing this for free” turned out not to be true (obviously), the all day event was so worth it. We swam in a never ending cave for almost a mile in pitch dark, sampled the high quality cigars where the tobacco was dried, danced to live music and drank beer with locals in the middle of nowhere, and

We rented scooters and headed to the coast, this I highly recommended to get out of town to enjoy the crystal blue water and white sandy beaches. The views are absolutely stunning along the way as well!

Trinidad is a colonial charmer, you won't want to leave! 

Trinidad is a colonial charmer, you won't want to leave! 

Trinidad - All the way to the south of Cuba, this city was a highlight and our final biking destination! Arriving into town I immediately felt at ease and loved the cobblestone streets, horse and buggies, and quaint restaurants, shops, and bars. There is a club in a cave here too, and goes off on the weekends - it’s huge and an experience not to be missed. While there are heaps of tourists in town, you can easily avoid them by opting to not gather in the ‘hot spots’ or take a crowded tour on a bus with AC. We did our own version of some of the touristy things in a private taxi and found that what they boasted as the ‘best view in Cuba’ was in my opinion not the case. But explore for yourself, there are many things to do here and I think we barely scratched the surface.  

“Cuba - a country stuck in time and forever in my heart.”  - WM







 

SURF AND SPANISH

Brazil - The other day while out surfing in the frigid water and pouring rain, waves thrashing me around like a rag doll, barely able to catch a wave, and then stung by a jelly fish - I started thinking about the things I had set out to focus on improving during my trip to South America. 

Surfing and Spanish. Two things I'd love to improve and simultaneously terrify me. 

Reflecting on whether there's been any improvement over the last month and a half, at that moment all I could think was how terrible I was and whatever excuse I could muster - the board is too small, the waves are too big, and I just basically stink at it. 

Spanish is a bit of the same thing - finding my way around best I can, stumbling along and when feeling defeated coming up with any excuse for not stepping out of my comfort zone and practicing. 

Ideally, the key is to spend as much time as you can with a non-native speaker who knows a few things in english, and then it’s a reciprocal experience. For over 2 weeks I traveled with a Spaniard, and found it was the best way to learn via a lot of practice and consistent laughter. And then at times it was extremely frustrating (so incredibly thankful for Google translate). 

Later on that day after my attempt to surf,  I mentioned this to a friend about how i set out to tackle these things and felt I hadn’t made much progress. "Yeah," she said, "but you're out there doing both of those things, and isn't that the point?" 

She’s right, I thought. At least I'm trying. Traveling is such a wonderful way to get out out of your comfort zone and focus on things that you may not be able to on a daily basis because of some excuse or life gets in the way. Maybe it’s to read a book a day for a month, master calligraphy, or find your true calling in life. 

But more importantly, now I'm trying not to be so hard on myself. Because while it’s good to have an idea of what you’d like to accomplish or have a goal to focus on - more often than not at first you’re going to fall down much more than you stand up. That’s all part of the process of becoming better at anything, so in the meantime I'll just keep paddling and rolling my r's. 

Insecure? Sure. Determined? Yes. 

Un dia a la vez! 

THE RIGHT ONE

IMG_2172
IMG_2172

Most of us know the fundamental difference between right and wrong. As someone who definitely prefers, stubbornly, to learn from my own mistakes rather than follow what people say to do (most of the time), I’m simultaneously very influenced by others opinions and actively seek advice. Deep down, there is a sense of knowing it will all work out, and even if the decision is impulsive - at least it’s a decision.

And when it comes time to face the consequences, if any, be grateful for the support system that surrounds me. But what about when things aren’t clear at first and take a painstakingly long time to figure it out if it’s right? I’m also beginning to think right and wrong is subjective, and ultimately, if you can learn from the wrong it can hopefully transform into a right.

the wrong one

“Thank God we can't tell the future, we could never get out of bed.” - August: Osage County

In a rush out the door to the airport for my flight to Rome, I quickly grabbed my passport. I’d be turning the big 35 somewhere in Europe in the coming week and would either be in Prague, Amsterdam, or Berlin – or all of them at some point.

But the first stop was Rome, where I’d scheduled a round trip from last year after coming home from an 8-month stint abroad. Not knowing with whom, where, or what this trip would entail when I purchased it last year was exciting and sitting in the airport enjoying a glass of wine before boarding I was looking forward to an adventure – despite unsettling events leading up to the my departure.

As I handed my passport to the attendant at the counter to get my boarding pass, I realized it was my old one as I’d recently renewed it for this trip. Not yet expired, but it had 2 punch holes in the front cover. But there were no problems getting my boarding pass and onto the plane, so I thought everything was OK.

Ten hours later, exhausted yet excited to be in my favorite country again, I stood in front of the customs guy with a smile as he looked up and down from my holey passport back to me with raised eyebrows.

When another agent came to further inspect my passport, still smiling and nodding, I thought it was going to be an easy explanation. Oops, silly me, grabbed the wrong one!

Not so fast. Second agent man was there to take me back behind the scenes, the back room where you’re greeted with stern faces and glaring eyes. After being asked several times by different officers as they vigorously shook my passport, “what is this?!” I tried to calmly explain the easy mistake, and that I had a valid passport at home.

Therein steps the police chief, a tough woman that would take no pity on me or offer any understanding, her words stung and I could feel all the blood rush out of my face; “You have to go back to the US – this is not a valid passport – you will not get into Italy with this!”

Dizzily I pleaded with her, and took off my jacket as I broke into a sweat. Surely there is something I can do, someone who can help, call the embassy? Going back is not an option (!)

Or so I thought.

“No. You’re going back now.” (insert Italian animated hand gesture here, once considered charming, now cringe worthy as they all laughed and gestured in unison about the dumb American with her invalid passport).

Luckily I had a phone and could communicate with my friend who was on the other side waiting and wondering what the hell was going on. He connected me with the US embassy and still hopeful I spoke with a nice person there who didn’t have much hope for me. Unless I could physically make it to the embassy.

I was shuttled upstairs and told to stand outside of a room where I could apparently use the internet to connect to the embassy, even though I had the contact info already. After 20 minutes standing there, alone, watching the airport personal and travelers whiz by, I had a momentary breach of movie-inspiration/insanity.

Jason Borne style. I started to walk away from my post, wandered into a store and asked the clerk how do I get out of the airport. How do I escape? I had seen a glimpse of my door to freedom when I was led upstairs, and now was determined to find my way back there. On the phone with my friend I said, I’m walking, I’m walking away, OMG.

Not making it very far I came up against a security checkpoint. Of course they wouldn’t leave me alone with a chance to get away. And what was I thinking?!

Sheepishly walking back to where I had been standing, I was intercepted by a frantic US Airways manager and another police officer. He was pissed. “How did you get through the US customs with this passport?!” US Airways guy yelled, “We now have to pay a very big fine for this, and you’re going back to San Francisco in 20 minutes”

Ouch. Reality was hitting. But I still begged for him to let me go the embassy, to please not put me back on that plane.

Within 3 hours of landing in Rome, I was deported and on a flight home. (free of charge, thank you US Airways)

On my layover in Charlotte, NC a woman was complaining that she couldn’t get on a flight and had to wait a couple hours. I leaned over, interrupting her conversation, and said, “You wanna hear a crazy story? I was just in Rome this morning…” That shut her up.

Clearly, the passport was the ‘wrong one’ and it led to negative consequences (HIDE YOUR OLD PASSPORT FROM YOURSELF!). But in our lives, relationships, and decisions it may be best to avoid judging them as either black or white. Knowing what’s right and wrong for yourself is ultimately your decision – what works and what doesn’t for your life - and sometimes you miss the punched holes the first time around and need to learn to take a closer look.

PS. Determined and taking this as only a small bump in the road, I jumped on a plane the following day and completed my trip to Europe with a damn good story to boot.

RECYCLED

Leopardpants
Leopardpants

Packing light is essential. Either a weekend getaway or year long round the world trip, cutting down on the content in your suitcase will make your life much easier. I learned this tip somewhat early with a 6-week trip to Thailand, only bringing a small backpack. Two pairs of underwear, shorts, tank tops, and a bathing suit.  This was a huge shift in my usual packing habit where I’d consistently overstuff XL suitcases and end up wearing half of what I brought, and paying the airline for the extra weight.

It allowed for such an effortless trip in regards to schlepping around, and brought envy from fellow travelers lugging massive backpacks.

Two sides to every coin. On the latest trek to nine countries, I packed fairly light with a carry on roller bag. And with the variations in weather and venue in each location, it was a challenge to pack for every occasion. Buying jackets, shoes, and borrowing things were necessary.

I also became slightly self-conscious thinking, “I’ve literally worn these leopard print pants in every photo, what will people think?” They’re most likely NOT thinking about it, so get over it.

But let’s just say by then end of the trip I wanted to set fire to all my clothes, they’d been recycled one too many times.

Flip the coin again. If you want to feel like you have just shopped for an entirely new wardrobe in your size, go away for almost a year and then come back home. Open your closet, and an entire new set of clothes, shoes, and accessories that have taken years to accumulate awaits you. And you had forgotten all about them.

It’s a great feeling and fun to reconnect with those ‘new’ items!

Travel Tip: TRAVEL LIGHT. ALWAYS. YOU WON’T REGRET IT.

#LONDONLIFE

undergroundpic
undergroundpic

Rainy, dreary, snooty, uptight, expensive – just some of the adjectives I’d think of when considering a visit to London. Always curious, but going on others' opinions and observations I moved it down the list accordingly. Then I had an opportunity to find out for myself. Yesterday I finished a month-long intensive at the London School of Journalism.  Let’s just say all said preconceived assumptions have been squashed (OK most of them), and honestly it’s been an incredible 30 days. Rented a room in a flat close to school, albeit government-housing aka the ghetto, but it’s been nice having a place to call ‘home’ and a routine in such an exciting city.

And did I mention the bloody heat wave?! One rainy day so far!

We worked really hard at LSJ and wrote like crazy, and the course definitely reinforced my strengths and weaknesses. News writing – not so much. TV stuff and features – yes.

First week in I said to my new school pal, ‘think I may be too lazy to be a journalist.’ All jokes aside, part of that is true. And most of us agreed, it’s highly demanding but a potentially rewarding and exciting job. Overall it was good to get the inside scoop and feedback from people in the biz, and I’d like to incorporate elements of journalism in my work.

Another highlight has been reconnecting with old friends, some really old friends. A childhood BF lives here and we hadn’t seen each other since at least 16! Love when it feels like no time has passed, and I can get a glimpse into people’s lives.

Now I have time to take part in being a full on tourist, but it’s been fun feeling like I live here. Commuting on the tube with the masses crammed like sheep heading to slaughter at rush hour - not super fun - but getting to know my ‘hood’ and local pub has been a plus.

Every experience is what you make of it (of course), and it does help to connect in with a community, learn and challenge yourself when trying out a new place.

So London, I adore you. And thanks for a fabulous time thus far to everyone who’s been a part of the journey.

What places or things are you making assumptions about and not getting out there?

SLOW DOWN

willow car pic
willow car pic

One month ago it all came to a screeching halt - because of a stamp. I was looking forward to the final leg of my four-month trip, ready for some solace and girl time in the Greek Isles. In the airport boarding the plane, I’m sent back through security because I didn’t read the fine print to get a stupid stamp on my boarding pass. I curse you Ryanair! Missed my flights and with the not-healing-so-great back injury, made the rash decision to fly to SF.  In a blink I was back home. Definitely classified as a really bad day for obvious reasons, but also had my first panic attack – or something closely resembling one. With some clarity during the fiasco or ‘freak out,’ I thought if I’m reacting like this and feeling like a crazy person, what can I really handle?

But deep down I knew, this too shall pass. A good reminder in moments when it all feels overwhelming.

Major perk of my ticket home, it was actually cheaper to buy a round trip back to Barcelona. Days before, I was researching and found a one-month program at the London School of Journalism in August. Which also fit perfectly into place before the third and final September wedding in Italy. I hastily threw out a date a few days before it started, and felt excited about the idea of returning to Europe.

Now home my objective was (is) to focus on healing, and once better keep it that way. Obviously not easy when traveling, and so I’m thankful to have had a space and the time and it’s summer thank God! Days are filled with icing, baths, stretching, chiropractic, swimming (aqua therapy kicks ass), reading, writing, piano lessons(!) and of course socializing. The alone time, which was an objective of the trip, is now happening at home. Albeit isolating, I feel lucky in so many ways to have this time to literally chill.

Occasional pity parties, yes, but thankfully I have people around who keep reinforcing and support the “SLOW DOWN” mantra. I can be unaware of ways I do things and how I fill my time, how it’s not necessarily moving me forward in the healing process. And honestly, no one else is living in this body so it’s up to me to take care of it. I’m starting to sound kind of mature, wow.

Our brains have us live in accordance to the non-existent dimension of time called the ‘future.’ It’s good to constantly be moving forward towards setting and accomplishing goals, as it can give us a sense of purpose. But if you have the luxury to actually slow down and get in touch with what you really want and enjoy (without the guilt factor), it can be healing overall. Lately it has been the basic things like getting solid sleep that I’m grateful for. Also rediscovering loves from the past, like swimming and piano, which have also made me happy.

With my departure date quickly approaching next week, I’ve been reflecting on my favorite John Lennon lyric, “life happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Just because you may have a plane ticket for the Greek islands, it doesn’t guarantee you a seat.

For me the key is to acknowledge, when this is all a distant memory, that it did get to this point and there are many factors at play. But ultimately to be more conscious about how I move through the world, both physically and figuratively.

How can you slow down in your life and reassess?

PERSPECTIVE

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So we made it to the sand dunes, the long awaited part of our journey to the Sahara Desert. Funny because when tour guides try and convince you to shorten your stay, it's usually a sign they're onto something and less concerned about making a sale. A three-day trek on camels throughout the desert from one nomad camp to another sounded completely surreal. But when multiple outfits suggested at the most two nights, we gave in and went for the one night desert camp out and two nights elsewhere along the way to various other attractions, to round out a three day tour. We were determined to see it all. Now enter our colorful and outspoken driver and guide, Driss. Upon first meeting we of course late in our departure and his irritation (American's and their lagging), it began with a haggle about pricing, days and itinerary. I was a little turned off, as it felt like we were paying the same for two nights as for three, and we were confused on what exactly we were doing. Silly me, guess I relapsed on the fact that everything in Morocco is negotiable, from spa treatments to a loaf of bread, so it's merely a formality to bargain and meet around the middle. Needless to say after we relaxed into our comfortable mini-van listening to an Arabic version of "Gangnam Style," stopping regularly for espresso and bathroom breaks, we all got along famously.

Probably somewhere on most people's "bucket list" is to ride a camel into the sunset to some vast desert landscape. At least it was lodged somewhere on mine, not really knowing when, where, or how exactly but it was on there. Mounting the camel and slowly meandering into the sweltering heat - at 7pm - was a feeling like nothing else. Almost as if on a movie set for a cheesy Arabian film, an image i've only seen onscreen or in other people's photos from trips to the Pyramids. Couldn't stop taking pictures of all the classic shots; camel shadows stretched along the dunes, the #selfie (instagram reference) like hey! i'm on a camel! The views were beyond stunning, and with the golden sunset it was dreamlike.

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Lucky for us it was a full moon. Never have i seen a moon rise over a sand dune, and it actually looked more like the sun - it was unbelievable! After our typical Moroccan meal (couldn't even look at another 'tagine' after awhile), drum, singing, and shisha session we hoofed it up the ridge to get a closer look. Not until well after midnight did we retire to sleep outside under the *full moon.* Sunrise came early, and again we hiked up the dune to experience yet another unique encounter with the sun. Barely 8:30am, luckily we were almost back to our starting point at the edge of the desert, and it was scorching. How people live in that climate I have no idea, and no wonder one night is recommended. So all of you wanting to check this experience off your list, I urge you to do a single night and it will be more than satisfying.

Unfortunately the rest of the tour wasn't too memorable, for me anyway. Coupled with mild food poisoning and the back pain, i was horizontal in the van a good portion of the time hoping for a cool breeze and the headache to go away. The saving grace was Driss, who has a keen sense of humor and did everything he could to help ease our woes as we each were struck with the queasy unsettling bouts of an unsettled stomach. Surely par for the course in Morocco, but what a drag. We did have some great times and Driss posted pics on Facebook, but I could sense his relief as he dumped us off in Marrakech after four long days on the road.

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Hustle- bustle, crazy, hectic, chaos - these are just a few ways to describe the city of Marrakech. It's amazing. Oh, and tourists - so many of them! I kept imagining stepping off the plane and right into this maniac of a city, thinking this is what all of Morocco is like. Luckily for us our jaunt began in the quaint 'blue city' far far away from this place and we were thankful to have ended here rather than began. Imagine a giant plaza with snake charmers, guys with diaper wearing monkey's doing tricks, drum circles, ladies (chasing you) with henna, restaurants with fierce salesmen out front, relentless merchants (yelling at you), orange juice carts everywhere with the same product for the same price, and massive fruit and nut displays. Add thousands of people going in all directions any time of day and oppressive heat, there you have a basic sketch of Marrakech.

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Hundreds of venders lined the plaza and went on forever twisting around in narrow corridors, never-ending and selling everything you can imagine. Getting lost is what you do there, for fun. Good luck buying something and finding that shop again for a return or a fix. My most exciting moments were in discovering a new section of the medina, like the dying quarters where all wool, fabric, scarves, etc. are hand dyed with natural pigments. Men with permanently dyed red arms and hands stood above boiling liquid and posed for pictures. And then the leather tannery. You need a "Moroccan" gas mask for your nose (aka mint leaves) just to breathe for the stench of the ingredients used to treat the animal skins is overwhelmingly pungent and burns your eyes. The metal workers section, welders hovered over their works of art in tiny dark spaces were covered in dirt and grease. Scariest and most 'twilight zone' of them all, was the section that sold animals. Curious as to what the smell was and why the eery feeling as we stumbled through the 'gates,' we saw dead and live animals for sale. Men here were covered in blood from head to toe, shoved and sharing a a small stall with a hundred live chickens, and several rabbits and pigeons in cages. Other men in stalls were de-feathering chickens using a horrible machine, it's one of those places where you swear off eating meat all together. On an upside, these animals are fairly 'free range' and this system seems more farm to table style in comparison to gross scale of factory farming. All how you put it in perspective, i guess.

Lots has transpired in the last weeks in Morocco until now, as I'm sitting in a beautiful apartment in the heart of Barcelona, Spain. (thank you new friends, Shayne and Kristen!) The week here has been a bit relaxing, as I'm still in healing mode but trying to get out and about to take in the sights - most importantly the beach. What a fantastic city! Even if it's covered with Gaudi architecture :)

Something terrible has also happened recently, my young and vibrant aunt Erin is in the ICU for bleeding in her brain and was in a coma for several days. Yesterday she opened her eyes. Heavily drugged and sedated, doctors still aren't clear on what's happening but she is responding and making progress. We're all in shock, and i feel really far away. On that note it's approaching the five month marker, and I've recently been planning my trip home for the end of June.

Nothing like a sudden and serious health scare to put your own life in perspective. Again a reminder of how fragile and fleeting life is, but also how incredibly powerful we are to create the life we want. Which brings me to the question, how do i incorporate travel (taking pictures, video, writing and telling stories) and get paid?

BTW, my comp is totally dead and for real this time. Not a terrible thing overall (may be last blog entry for awhile), but now having to lug the useless metal corpse around it could affect my luggage weight limit, damn these budget European airlines.

Tomorrow I fly solo to my (possible) final destination - Crete, Greece.

Random Travel Tip: For the first time ever I didn't have a flight scheduled out of Marrakech until the day before. As freeing and exciting as it can feel, prices and options literally change and go up in a matter of seconds. I recently was introduced to this highly addictive and amazing app, Skyscanner. Late on the game i'm sure, but it gives you cheap flights to "everywhere" instantly. Planning ahead can take up a ridiculous amount of time, but just getting an idea of available flights and prices a little early on, can save you a lot of time and money. I wish it were the opposite and prices went down as you waited, until the very last possible minute. For all us spontaneously bad planning folks out there.

THE LABYRINTH

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Pulled the trigger and decided to leave the comfort of our nest in Chefchaouen, Morocco after 10 days. It had been rainy and cold for more than half that time, and slowing way down because of the injury I’d barely seen the light of day for a week.

Our last evening and final attempt to ransack the shops we’d been scouting for must-haves, clouds parted and the sun finally peeked out. Feeling a bit better and determined to enjoy the warmth, I managed to collect a decent variety of Moroccan gear. Included and of total surprise (as a usual non-rug lover), was a fairly large 25 yr. old “Berber” rug – made by the indigenous people of Morocco who live in the Rif or Atlas Mountains and Sahara desert. All other Moroccan people are descendants of Arabs coming from Spain or Saudi Arabia. I think this is why Morocco is so unique, among the many things, is the blending of African and Middle Eastern cultures and Islam which connects them all.

Next up, the Imperial city of Fes. Nothing compares to the narrow passageways, which create the labyrinth of Fes's medina. With walls so high and thick, it almost gives the feeling that nothing exists outside its matrix and in some places the sun can barely creep through. Luckily, our Riad or home was just steps away from one of the liveliest areas of the medina, the "blue gates." Amongst the many cafés and restaurants, a food market showcasing local fare – camel thighs suspended from large hooks, live chickens and pigeons, live turtles, cubed beef chunks suspended in thick fat (a typical breakfast), goat heads, and every part of an animal neatly displayed. Not for the faint of heart, but an authentic version of local delicacies and cuisine. We haven't quite ventured into those realms, just yet.

Ready for a girls night out, Jasmine and I headed in anticipation for the hammam we'd heard so much about. After paying around $1 for entry, we curiously poked our heads through the creaky doors and were instantly hit with the heavy smell of a sauna or sweaty locker room in need of sterilization. Woman sat topless scattered about in a tiled room filled with buckets of water, scrubbing themselves and then each other. We smiled, acknowledging that we had entered into the locals’ domain where there would be no thrills or fluff involved in this experience. Dollar or two more for an olive oil paste and hand scrubber, a nod yes for a 'massage,' we were directed to the steamy room and greeted with inquiring glances. A woman grabbed me by the arm leading towards yet another room, this one thick with heat intensely radiating from the floor and walls. She motioned for us to scrub ourselves and thinking we were left to our own devices, it made sense why it was so cheap, assuming it was self-service - and what a bonding moment for sure.

Water pooled in two large basins, one practically boiling and the other ice cold. We watched as women continually came in and out grabbing buckets of either variety and we tried to follow suit. Just when we thought it time to rinse off and go on our way - maybe try out a more 'spa-esque' hammam - we were greeted again, this time for massage. Seeing your friend getting scrubbed from head to toe with such force it’s hard not to laugh or feel bad for them. Definitely a cross between painful and pleasurable, it was quite an experience and pleased to have happened on the more gritty locals’ version. Mothers delivered the harsh scrubbing while their children squirmed uncomfortably, and babies cried. Feeling for a little girl on the verge of tears, I thought one day she’d deliver the same fierce scrubs to her children.

Slightly elated and a bit refreshed, I joked about wanting a glass of wine. Something we hadn't had for weeks, and for the first time it sounded appealing. On our way home we were ambushed by a guy in bright orange with a huge turban. "Welcome, welcome, come check out our terrace," something everyone with a restaurant says, "We have wine…" And so it began, a glass of wine in a Berber tent on the terrace turned into our most eventful night in Morocco. Live music with drums and a snake charmer flute, dancing, singing, shisha, and more wine. We even got to play dress up, each given Berber outfits in neon colors (think mumu) and scarfs to match, we were quite the spectacle.

Feeling we had barely scratched the surface of Fes' labyrinth and leaving the next day, Jasmine and I set out to see some notable attractions, most importantly the largest leather tannery. Not ten minutes into our mission we walked alongside a young man whose father happened to work at the tannery, and was actually on his way there now. Perfect, because there's no way we could successfully navigate there even with the map. First, he said, we would stop quickly at a Berber house to say hello, that kind of thing. A little confused and not entirely keen on the idea, we stopped in front of what looked like a rug store. Just then a few men ran past holding huge platters of couscous, and it was Friday the day of rest, where traditionally every family eats couscous. Stomachs growling, we both agreed on finding some after our short visit.

Clearly walking into a rug store, we reluctantly entered inside to find several men hovered over a communal platter of couscous surrounded by several other little dishes. Practically forcing us to sit down and eat with them, we awkwardly accepted and picked up a spoon. It's customary in their culture to always offer something, usually it's what they call "Moroccan whiskey" or mint tea with a hefty dose of sugar (also contributing to their notoriously bad teeth). After such hospitality and really delicious food, I felt obligated to ask about one of the many rugs on display, even though I had the scoop already from my previous purchase. "We don't talk about that now, we eat, no discussing business, and we're not leaving until you both finish this entire thing." We did our best, and thinking we could graciously ease our way out of there after tea, the official 'tour' began.

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Several hours and cups of tea later, after seeing every old, distressed, and faded rug they had I fell in love with a couple more pieces and my friend shook hands on some too. Even involved a friend back home in the fun, she picked up two antique stunners as well. Obviously they're professionals and this is what they do but the hard sales process - if you're open to it and like what they’re offering - can be an enjoyable experience. Bargaining is a key element of Moroccan culture, and actually an insult if you don't try. Funny because on many occasions I’ve been called “Berber,” and told I have Berber eyes. After asking around what that really meant, the response was they’re strong and hard bargainers. Well, no wonder I love this place.

Until next time, from the Sahara sand dunes…

After thought: Great and unexpected experiences usually come about by saying “yes.” I think this is the best part of traveling, so many things coming your way that you constantly get to choose yes or no. (Wish I had said ‘no’ to that omelet which I think gave me food poisoning :P)

UPS DOWNS AND ALL AROUND

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17 May : As I write this from a beautiful Moroccan hotel room set in the storybook village of Chefchaouen or “blue city,” drinking mint tea and running a hot bath, I can’t help but focus on the ‘downs.’ It’s been over a week of nagging and at times unbearable pain in my leg and lower back; pain way too familiar has reared its ugly head again.

Before I left in February signs of sciatica started to manifest, partly due to an intense yoga practice and stubbornness about being diligent with self-help techniques to prevent it. Thinking I was free and clear of any recurrences of the back pain that had me bed ridden and on pain pills years ago, carelessness took over in the health department, and I willed myself to do all the physical things I love, in full capacity. Weird because most people do yoga to rid themselves of ailments, but something I’m doing is helping to create them. Nevertheless it’s an injury that lives on after the initial pain gradually slips away and I’ll have to learn to find balance again.

As they say, timing is everything and right now it’s all-wrong. But maybe, it isn’t? Not that there is an ideal timing for anything unpleasant like a back injury that leaves you crawling on the floor to the bathroom, but in a way there is. Having responsibilities of a family or job, things like that. Right now the focus is on getting better, and am trying to look on the bright side. My already impatient self is growing even more intolerant as my symptoms persist – and I’m completely exhausted. Admittedly this is a dramatic version of my current status, which is heightened by the last couple days of a horizontal existence, missed outdoor activities, and lost sleep.

Poor Rama and my friend Jasmine who we’ve recently met up with, now having a gimp on their hands. I’ve had a hard time not thinking ‘why now … not again,’ and feeling guilty for holding them up in a way – not being my usual active and hike-for-hours self. On top of that we’ve landed in a place with beautiful and endless hiking terrain with countless trails leading to majestic waterfalls and vistas. Thankfully it’s a place neither of them wants to leave too quickly, and seem content on hunkering down for a bit.

18 May : Yesterday, I slipped. Not the kind that sends you to the ground in a half second, but the kind that causes your whole body to cease up from the slightest movement to regain stability. It had been raining all day, and with the entire village lined in tiny cobblestones it was a slicker than ice.  I had been feeling a little better that morning and despite the weather, was eager to get outside to feel like a normal human again. The dramatics mentioned earlier are no longer an overstatement. I feel broken in half.

No stranger to foreign doctors offices and communicating through hand gestures; this fiasco is bringing back memories of my countless trips alone to a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya for an MRI four years ago. One good thing about healthcare abroad, is the cost. Today’s excursion and homeopathic massage was a whopping $43.

Doctor visit + steroid shot = $15, 4 prescriptions = $18, homeopathy + in room massage = $10.  Majority of the people here speak Spanish on top of French and Arabic, and luckily we had a necessary warm-up in the Dominican Republic and Spain, so carrying on has been fairly effective. Kind of interesting and fun to choose from “hola,” “bonjour,” “salam alaikom, “or a combination of all three in one sentence.

Now, the ‘ups.’ Things that I’m more than thankful for in this not-so-great situation. The moments where you think of nothing else and are grateful for the experience and adventure of it all. Fortunately, there have been many of those in the past 3 ½ months. I acknowledge often how lucky i am for the time and freedom to see the world, something I’ve always wanted to do and am determined to make the best of it. The ways you look back on and remember fondly the people and places, and can laugh at the times that weren’t so enjoyable.  I’m hoping this is a bump in the road, that will soon be a distant memory.

Our incredibly comfortable hotel room complete with a plush Moroccan lounge, has become a healing haven and perfect for hosting “shisha” (hookah) sessions and dinners with our friends we’ve acquired in the week here. A local college student we call “Newman” has been more than helpful, and has taken a liking to our threesome, especially Jasmine. We’ve been welcomed into his home and shared meals, stories, and photo albums with his family. Then there’s Neil, a funny English bloke traveling alone who smokes more hash than I thought humanly possible. Quite a motley crew.

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It’s been an ideal reprieve from our stint in Spain – vibrant nightlife until 3am, bottomless sangria, tapas for every meal, and the consistent moving from city to city. I really love Spain and the warm social nature of the culture, although for many reasons I’m thankful we’ve been sucked into the vortex of bohemian Chefchauen, for rest and recuperation.

Meals now come with a side of anti-inflammatories, a muscle relaxer, and homeopathic remedy. I even dared try the infamous hash this town is known for and constantly trying to sell you. Just small puffs, but enough to bring on contagious laughter and a bit of solace. This is not a regular pastime, as someone who can’t stand (tobacco) smoke or anything related to the feeling of being stoned. But what the hell.

We have found our fun in playing ‘Uno’ on the terrace, enjoying the Muslim prayer call echo throughout the valley, drinking mint tea, and finding street food that we are consistently satisfied with. Not only the taste, variety, and cheap prices - but knowing where to go for the best avocado smoothie, samosa, or a visit to the ‘nut guy’ for the hugest bag of mixed nuts for practically pennies. Going out in seek of all the food assortments is still exciting, but now that I’m succumbed to the hotel room with minimal activity, I get to be on the receiving end of the findings and a play-by-play of the day.

Feels like we’ve been here for longer than a week, people know us on a first name basis and are extremely friendly. I’ll be out hobbling about town, people will stop and say “hammam” and point to their backs. That’s what you need they say - wham bam – wake up tomorrow, you’ll be fixed. A hammam is a Moroccan spa, the likes of a Turkish bath where a very strong man or woman gives a vigorous massage, then tosses hot and cold water on you after scrubbing off couple layers of skin. Think I might skip that for now.

Drinking isn’t technically illegal in Morocco, but being a predominantly Muslim culture it’s frowned upon by locals. As a tourist - or local but discreetly - you can buy beer at bars and some restaurants throughout the country (we’ve heard in the bigger cities it’s much easier to find and accepted), although in Chefchaeun only a a couple establishments hushly sell 8oz. beers and bottles of wine more expensive than a 5-course dinner for two. We’ve taken a liking to the local tea and freshly squeezed orange juice that you can buy on every corner.

Within the “medina” or old city walls, there are no cars so the streets are narrow and wind about lined with shops stuffed in every crevice, miniature doors lead to people’s homes and every bit of the city walls and buildings are painted the most vibrant shades of blue. Reasoning behind the blue came as a surprise, thinking it was more for an aesthetic or higher purpose, but is actually to keep away the mosquitoes and other pesky bugs. It also helps to create a ‘cool’ feeling in the summer heat. Either way it feels like a set for a Disney film, I half expect to see an ice princess emerge behind one of the mystical looking doors.

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I think the term ‘hole-in-the-wall’ was invented here. You’ll see a man tucked in a hole carved out of the concrete, diligently perfecting and debuting his craft; leather, jewelry, rugs, clothing, shoes, etc. The urge to shop is overwhelming and coupled with the ridiculous low prices, I can’t wait to get back out there to buy one of everything and send a huge box home.

Woman from the mountains, or “Berber” culture, sit on the streets selling their hand woven rugs and vibrantly colored straw hats, olives, goat cheese, figs, herbs, and dates. It feels like time hasn’t touched this village, and has been proudly preserved for hundreds of years. I’m secretly hoping to bump into a shaman that has just descended from those mountains, and get cured once and for all.

19 May : All around it’s been an ideal venue for this crucial rest time, surrounded by supportive and caring people to laugh with and keep me positive. In some ways I’ve forgotten about the world outside of this charming village set high in the Moroccan mountains, and am focused on emerging stronger and healthier.

Because without your health, what do you have?

Hoping the healing process will come swiftly, so we can continue writing the next leg of our journey throughout the country. More importantly, I’m determined to hop on a camel and ride into the Sahara desert...

Feeling better already.

After thought: Being here has really inspired travels to other Middle Eastern countries, which until now hadn’t been high on the list. Spending time with locals learning about their culture and hospitality has been a very rich experience, and by far the most rewarding. More reflection on this topic later, as we tackle other cities and destinations. So far we’ve only sampled a small but satisfying dose.

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