Cuba: Days 6-10

Read about my pre-trip planning here and days 1-5 here!

Day 6: Wednesday

Another beach day! The forecast was supposed to be totally clear, so we were excited for another sunny day. We woke up a little bit late and didn’t make it to the beach until around 1pm. It was very overcast with foreboding clouds. The first beach we went to had lifeguards telling everyone to stay out of the water. There were red flags planted in the ground along the shore. We looked farther down the shore and plenty of people were swimming at the next beach, so we walked down there and paid our umbrella and chair rental fees.

The waves were gigantic! We had way more fun splashing around in the whitecaps than we did on Monday. We exhausted ourselves swimming since the current kept pushing us so far down shore. After awhile, we realized there was chair-side restaurant service! The waiter said there were no menus, but they had fish. I opted for grilled fish. Shan asked if they had sandwiches and the guy seemed to understand and said yes. Soon, we received our meals. Shan’s was a simple ham and cheese sandwich on wonderbread – the kind you’d find in a kids school lunch. Mine was an entire fish with the head and skin still on! It was pretty good, but picking out the bones was a pain. It was also difficult to eat the rice as the wind kept blowing it off of my fork!

We settled up (Shans was 3 CUC and mine was 14!!) and headed back to Havana. We had fancy dinner reservations at La Guarida (the place with the cool rooftop bar) at 7:00pm! They are located on the top of a building in Centro Habana, so it provides great views.

We showed up for dinner and were seated at an amazing balcony seat overlooking the street. Shan ordered his favorite drink, a Gin and Tonic, and I got a Daiquiri. We ordered “Smoked Marlin Tacos” to start. Oh My God. They were the best thing we had on the entire trip.

I was skeptical when Shan said he wanted to order them. I had seen them on the bar menu on Saturday and didn’t think tacos were a fancy dinner staple, but he deserves to get what he wants, so we ordered them. Best decision ever. They were so balanced. The tuna was smoky. The fried shell had a fattiness that the citrus aioli cut perfectly. There was a subtle heat at the very end. I wish we could order those again!

Dinner came and I wanted to order the famous Cuban dish Ropa Vieja. It is essentially “old clothes” or shredded beef and shredded sautéed veggies. Our waitress informed us that they were not able to get beef for the evening, so all of those menu options were not available. I opted for the rabbit, instead. Shan got suckling pig.

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The dinners were pretty good. Definitely high quality Cuban food, but only “good” compared to what we are used to. He let me try his gin and tonic and it was incredible! Easily the best cocktail on the trip. We ordered another round and debated a third.

After dinner, we were tired, but went upstairs to enjoy some sparkling water and the view. It was clear the La Guarida was a tourist destination. Everyone was American or European. We finished our drinks and headed home.

Day 7: Thursday

It was supposed to rain so we decided to postpone our third beach day and explore western Havana and the Vedado neighborhood. We set off to get breakfast at Topoly, an Iranian spot that had fantastic TripAdvisor reviews and photos. We trekked through the University of Havana and down the famous La Rampa street. It was interesting to see more middle class Cubans who were attending school and working at the hospital. It felt more relatable than the people who were living in squalor in our neighborhood. 

We made it to Topoly and immediately got a seat outside by their lush garden. We ordered a large appetizer mezze platter and then two lunch entrees. It was so much food that we had to get a to go box! We tried to order iced coffee again, but this time we received room temperature coffee without ice. But it did come with mini chocolates!

We continued our adventure to the Plaza of the Revolution. There’s a large memorial dedicated to Jose Marti and a building with the silhouette of Che Guevara. 

We snapped some photos and started to walk to the famous cemetery and gardens but got caught in the rain. We found shelter under a bunch of trees in a residential area. Two men came out of their house and motioned to us to come inside, but we didn’t feel comfortable going into a stranger’s home. We also had our rain jackets so we were prepared!

I was surprised how awful the drainage system was in the streets. It was a torrential downpour, but the streets flooded almost immediately with inches of water. Cuba definitely has a rainy season and has to deal with hurricanes, so I’m not sure why they don’t have better infrastructure.

We hailed a cab and immediately went home as we were drenched and it was still coming down. It continued to rain all evening so we had a quiet evening at home and went to bed early! We didn’t eat much except our leftovers from breakfast. We debated going down the street to the corner pizza store located in someone’s home, but wanted to eat healthy instead. Vacation is funny like that – I spend weeks beforehand eating healthy so I can splurge, but after a few days of vacation, I end up craving healthy food and feel so gross eating out for every meal!

Day 8: Friday

Third beach day! It was supposed to be clear skies, so we took the same bus out to the beach. I wondered if the workers started to recognize us. I definitely got tired of the same playlist of music videos they played on repeat!

We went to our favorite spot and played in the water. There were ominous clouds looming in the distance, but we didn’t think much of them. We ordered drinks, but suddenly the sky let loose and started pouring! We grabbed our stuff and ran to the little beach restaurant nearby. We got a table and looked at the menu, but they didn’t have many options other than pizza or ham sandwiches. We waited it out for 30 minutes until it cleared up.  

We laid out for awhile and ordered pina coladas. We started swimming again as it began to drizzle. We decided it wasn’t bad enough to leave the water, so we had a lot of fun swimming in the rain. Luckily all of our stuff was still dry! After awhile, a stray dog showed up and sought shade under my chair. He wouldn’t leave us alone! Even when we started walking to the bus stop, he followed us all the way there.

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Around 5pm, we headed back home. We showered and headed back downtown for dinner. We had mainly been taking taxis, but there were also bicycle taxis! They are basically adult tricycles with 3 seats on the back. We realized we had to try it once before we left! We hailed one and had a very bumpy ride. It started to drizzle and the driver said he had some rain gear at his house around the corner. He stopped to get it and affixed it to the bike. He had an interesting speaker system set up that blasted music from his phone. It was certainly a wild ride.

We wanted to try the second best restaurant in Havana called Dona Eutima. It is at the end of a long alley. Many restaurants will hire poachers to grab tourists from the street and convince them to eat there for a commission. This alley was filled with poachers. We walked by and one started talking to Shan. He asked where we were going and we told him Dona Eutima. He said he would show us where it was. I was worried he would take us to the wrong place, so I refused. He continued nagging us until we basically had to hide to avoid him. He kept following us around for 5 minutes until he got distracted by other tourists.

We went to Dona Eutima and were informed they were full for the evening. We made reservations for the following night. Wanting to avoid the poachers, we ran out of there as quickly as possible. We walked around and consulted our restaurant list. Nothing was close. We ended up at La Mina. We sat outside and saw they had a 15 CUC pre fixe menu that included two cocktails, an appetizer, rice, beans, an entree, dessert, and coffee. We opted for that!

The waiter took our order and was not very friendly. Our entrees were delivered and Shan had rice and beans mixed together… but I only had white rice. I figured it was the end of the night and they were out. We were also promised creamed corn on the menu, but were served a domino sized brick of dried, flaky corn paste. Plus some vegetables that I’m pretty sure are Kroger frozen vegetables. So unappetizing.

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Finally, dessert came and it was a delicious flan. We enjoyed that, but there was no coffee or second cocktail after we waited 30 minutes. We were so fed up and wanted to leave. I am definitely writing a poor review!

It was Friday night and we wanted to go out, but had no clue where to go. All of the bars on our list turned out to be lame and we couldn’t seem to find any hip ones. We ended up getting strange ice cream and hailing a taxi home.

That evening, I suffered from the worst stomach cramps and sickness. I’m not sure if it was food poisoning (not surprising) or if my body was simply rejecting all of the non healthy food I was ingesting. Definitely not a fun evening.

Day 9: Saturday

Since banks are closed on Sundays, we had to wake up early to exchange our CUCs back into Euros! We also had signed up for an “Experience” through Airbnb, the company we booked our lodging through.

“Experiences” is their new attempt at excursions guided by locals. They have them in several cities, but Havana was one of the first. We signed up to tour a local paladar (family restaurant) and learn about the difficulties of running one. We also got a meal out of it!

He first difficulty was finding the place. The address our guide, Ariel, sent us was pretty vague. We ended up having to ask the currency exchange office to show us on a map. It was a paladar named La Cathedral in Vedado. We arrived at 11am and met Ariel and the two other Americans who signed up for the tour.

Ariel quickly launched into how he has spent the last 5 years starting a company that has an app to show tourists where the best restaurants and bars are. He was definitely a passionate guy who has a lot of love for Cuba.

We started off by learning how to make mojitos! Shan and another girl went behind the bar to make them for the rest of us. The formula is simple: a tablespoon of sugar, enough lime juice to cover it, a spring of spearmint muddled, fill the glass with ice, 6 count of rum, fill the rest with soda water, and top with more spearmint! The mojito Shan made was definitely the best I had in Cuba!

Afterward, we went outside to meet the buyer of the restaurant. He is employed full time by the restaurant and his entire job is to make 3-4 trips per day to local markets to get meat, beer, vegetables, sauce, and any other ingredients they might be low on. Servers are trained to know what the inventory is and how to stall on certain items or brands of alcohol until the restaurant gets more stock in a few hours.

Then we toured the kitchen. There is one sink and one man washing dishes for the 1500 plates that are used daily! We tasted their famous tomato sauce and saw the process of making one of their most famous lamb dishes. Guy Fieri has even visited and made that exact dish! We tasted it at the end and it was simply delicious: Tender lamb marinated in white wine and cooked in red sauce with peppers and onions!

We went out to the patio and ordered lunch. Shan got a steak and I got pork with pineapple. They were only okay, but our table shared an appetizer of the dish we made in the kitchen. Still so good!

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The best part of lunch was the conversation. Ariel explained how he grew up poor, but since everyone has free education in Cuba, he was able to make a name for himself. He’s a successful app developer and works with several talented Cubans. We asked if he ever wanted to move to America or Europe to work and he said he’s considered it, but quickly realized he would be taking a valuable asset away from the workforce of Cuba and making it harder for his country to develop. He wants to help Cuba and prove that success is possible within the country.

I asked about the vegetable production within Cuba and he asked why I was dissatisfied. I explained that all of the fresh vegetables we have been served are very small and wilted and generally poor quality. I asked if vegetables were not a profitable crop in Cuba. He laughed and said Cuba has the best vegetables of the region and I am simply used to GMO Vegetables that are gigantic. I didn’t want to argue with him, but I know that is not true since I only buy organic. Cuba’s vegetables are simply not good in Havana. I took the rest of his nationalistic bravado with a grain of salt. I do admire his passion for Cuba and making the experience as good as it can be for tourists. His favorite motto is “In Cuba, having fun is mandatory!”

After the tour, we walked around Vedado in the heat and got some ice cream. Still not great. The entire thing tasted like the foamy bit that is left over after you finish actual ice cream. We walked all the way home and rested our sore feet.

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We headed to dinner at Dona Eutima. We sat outside on the patio in the alley. It was an adorable area with lots of umbrellas and lights. Occasionally a band would play some soft music. We were within view of the hostess stand and it was amazing to see how many people tried to get tables without a reservation and were turned away. The poachers would even lead them to the restaurant, knowing full well that the restaurant was full! We couldn’t figure out what the point was.

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There were so many cats prowling around and begging for food! They were cute at first, but soon after we ordered, one caught a bird and ran under our table where it began to torture and eat it. The bird was squeaking and all of the customers were staring and gasping. The employees rushed over and tried to shoo it away from my ankles. I was terrified of the cat biting me or the bird guts getting on my feet. I was almost in tears. Suddenly, the cat got out from under our table and ran into the middle of the alley. A woman was so angry at it that she kicked it in the head and sent it flying! It was such a traumatic experience, but none of the restaurant staff apologized or seemed sympathetic. They simply threw water on every other cat that tied to get close. I couldn’t help but think how if that happened in America, we would definitely have a free meal!

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Our food was bland as usual. I ordered Ropa Vieja – the traditional Cuban dish. We settled up and debating trying to find somewhere to go out. I still wasn’t feeling well and my stomach was still cramping, so I didn’t want to go on a wild goose chase, so we just went home. Cuba definitely doesn’t score points for fun nightlife!

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Our Airbnb had a TV in the room, but on the first night, we discovered it only had Spanish channels. Tonight, I decided to try again and there was MTV Classic! We stayed up watching old music videos and packing so we could sleep in.

Day 10: Sunday

Our check out time was noon, so we naturally woke up at 11:30am.

We checked out and wanted to get food somewhere before the flight. La Guarida was close, so we decided to go there for lunch. Shan wasn’t impressed by his dish and I got duck salad with onion soup. Both were only okay. Seems like even the best restaurants are hit or miss! It was also frustrating how I ordered coffee, but it wasn’t delivered until AFTER I was done eating. I guess Cubans consider coffee a dessert whereas Americans think it’s an appetizer!

After lunch, we got a taxi to the airport. Our flight was at 6pm, but everyone said to get there 3 hours early. We arrived super early at 2pm. Of course we were “randomly selected” for additional screening. So much for having global entry which is supposed to prevent that! Luckily the “extra” screening was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, the entire Cuban airport was a joke. There was no line for the security check. The employees were sitting on the conveyer belt and chatting when we walked up. We had to ask them to move so we could put our bags on it. The woman who was wanding me with a metal detector was so caught up in a conversation with her friend that she forgot she had asked me to spin around so she could scan my backside. I simply walked away after waiting and she didn’t notice.

Finally we boarded the plane. Unfortunately we weren’t upgraded to first class for Havana to LAX, but we were upgraded to premium seats with unlimited alcohol! And we did get first class for LAX to PDX! Score. We were both still dealing with stomach issues, so we hadn’t eaten much. Shan was starving so he ordered two entrees – hamburgers being the only option. His little tray table was filled to the brim!

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Overall, the trip was unlike any other. It definitely took me farther out of my comfort zone (language, weather, conditions), but I simultaneously felt like I didn’t get a good grasp of the culture. We didn’t have the chance to interact with many Cubans (except for Ariel) due to the language barrier – and because they were constantly trying to scam us. On the surface, they seemed very kind and accommodating. No one catcalled. No one threatened us. No one said anything racist or anti-American. Everyone we encountered was friendly and wished us “Happy holidays!” which I assume means vacation. They are a lovely nation of people who deserve far better than the stereotype they are given and the poor condition of their nation. I hope that increased American tourism opens up jobs and boosts the economy so that if I ever visit again, the dilapidated buildings will be replaced by more paladars and local businesses. Cuba has a rich culture that I would encourage any adventurous traveler to visit, but definitely don’t look forward to the food!

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Cuba: Days 1-5

Read about my pre-trip planning and worries in this blog I posted yesterday!

Day 1: Friday

We checked into our Airbnb which actually turned out to be a hostel. We had our own room with air conditioning and a bathroom. We rarely saw anyone else in the building, but there was always an attendant there to buzz us in and sell us water (don’t drink the tap water!) The only difficulty was that they didn’t always speak English, so asking questions was tough. Our room was bright orange and fabulously gaudy. We specifically picked this Airbnb because the decor was incredible!

We unpacked our bags, showered, and embarked on the town in search of dinner. We wanted to go downtown and see the city.

The 20 minute walk downtown was… interesting. The streets were dimly lit and there were cats and dogs prowling everywhere! There were kids playing in the street and a few adults chilling in their doorways. Air conditioning is rare, so everyone leaves their doors and windows wide open. As we walked, I peeked into homes and everyone was doing the same thing: watching TV. Entire families were crammed in tiny living rooms, surrounding the TV. I don’t know the exact layout of a typical Cuban home in Centro Habana, but it seems like there is one 10’x6′ living room, a smaller kitchen in the back, and then maybe a bedroom upstairs – or maybe a tiny cot in the tiny living room that also functions as a couch. Our 300sq ft hostel room suddenly felt like a mansion.

As soon as we reached downtown (Habana Vieja), we saw many many more tourists. We walked along the Prado – a lush median down the center of one of Havana’s busiest streets. There were lots of other couples walking, too. The large hotels and historical buildings were lit up beautifully!

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We consulted our map and picked Restaurant Van Van. It was in the heart of downtown, among the winding cobblestone streets. We were immediately seated and ate a mediocre dinner. We were warned that the food in Cuba isn’t exactly delicious. I got chicken curry (I know, not really Cuban food, but it sounded tasty!) and Shan got a beef/lamb dish with interesting potato scoops around the plate.

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On the bright side, there was live music! Unfortunately it also included the band going table to table to sell their CD. Afterward we were exhausted, so we went back to the room to have a long night’s sleep.

Day 2: Saturday

The main point of this vacation was to relax, so we decided not to set alarms or wake up early. As a result, we slept in until 11am! We awoke well rested and left our room in search of coffee. There was a cafe on our list, so we walked downtown. The streets seemed much less intimidating in the day time. They were still as busy and everyone seemed to be working – repairing a bicycle or selling tamales. Havana is a very loud city. People roam the streets advertising their services (cleaning, repair) by scream-singing in Spanish. There are no stop signs, so cars always honk when approaching an intersection. The bicycle taxis are always trying to get new passengers, so they yell, “TAXI! TAXI!” at everyone they pass.

We made it to the cafe and it was totally empty, except for a group of guys chatting and jeering loudly outside. We decided to pass. We kept walking and stumbled upon the San Francisco square. It had a cool statue and fountain and lots of pigeons.

We walked along the water and decided to eat at a waterfront restaurant. Again, the food was mediocre. We ordered iced coffee and were given two espressos with cups of ice. We made it work, but definitely not what we expected. I ordered “pork with BBQ sauce” and it turned out to be ribs! Shan got a Cubano sandwich. During all of our meals, the waitstaff was extremely friendly. They all spoke limited English but were determined to make sure they understood (mostly) what we wanted.

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We continued walking around the city. To the north of Havana, there is the Malecon. It is a long seawall that runs along a busy street. During the evenings, locals get alcohol and sit along the water and hang out. We walked this route and laughed at the number of cars that passed and screamed “TAXI????” It was never ending! We spent the day walking the city. I think we walked 11 miles total that day!

The stereotypical photos you see of Cuba always feature two things: colorful buildings and old cars. There are definitely plenty of old cars in Havana, but we couldn’t find the colorful buildings. There were some painted unique colors, but all were dull and falling apart – not the vibrant, new buildings featured on magazines. I think some heavy Photoshop was used… or we spent our entire vacation in the wrong areas!

We discovered that the best restaurant in Havana was located in our modest neighborhood. It is called La Guarida and the famous Cuban movie “Strawberry and Chocolate” was filmed there. We wandered in and asked if they had an opening for dinner. We knew it was a long shot. Indeed, they said they were full. We made reservations for Wednesday evening and instead went to their rooftop bar.

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It was INCREDIBLE! A total 360 degree view of the city and extremely modern touches. The menu of drinks was extensive. We managed to get a table and drank mojitos as the sun set.

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We had heard about Factoria de Artes. It is a giant factory building that has been converted into a party warehouse. Some floors have contemporary art. Some have club dancing. Some have tables for drinks. The novelty is that you get a punch card when you enter and bartenders give punches as you order drinks. Then, they tally up your card when you leave and you pay then. I had heard nothing but rave reviews from friends. It’s the best nightlife spot in Havana, however it is a 15 CUC taxi ride away. We tried to negotiate lower, but ended up walking half of it to save some money. We finally arrived and it was closed for renovations until June. I had checked their website before leaving America and there was no mention!

We tried a few more bars on our list and they were all sketchy or filled only with men. We couldn’t seem to find a good place to go. We chalked the night up to a loss and went home.

Day 3: Sunday

We tried again to find a cafe for coffee. We found a nice little plaza square and went to a cafe. It was highly rated, but filled with old men watching sports inside. I ordered an iced coffee and Shan got a banana liqueur coffee. We sat outside on the square and it was nice until it started to rain! We scrambled across the square to a restaurant where we wanted to get lunch. Every table seemed to have a platter of meat skewers. We thought it might be their specialty and almost ordered them, but decided to look at the menu first. Good thing we did, because they were almost 25 CUC for 4 skewers of meat! By far the most expensive thing we had seen. Most meals were 5 to 8 CUC and “fancy” places were 15 to 20. We opted for two burgers and beers instead. The burgers we got were the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen. A bun, a patty, one piece of lettuce the size of a golf ball, and one slice of cucumber. At least it came with 5 French fries!

We waited out the rain and then walked around a bit more. It was so humid from the rain. All we wanted was a cold drink and more food! We discovered an adorable and modern cafe with air conditioning. I ordered a mojito (not my favorite drink but no one in Cuba knew what a vodka soda was!) and looked at the menu. It was entirely in Spanish. Shan ordered a fried appetizer of some sort. I saw the word “Sopa” and it reminded me of “Sopapilla” which I thought was a breaded dessert. I assumed sopa was a type of flatbread appetizer.

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I was wrong. I had ordered piping hot vegetable soup on a 100 degree day. Oh well. It was delicious and at least we were in air conditioning! We hung out at that cafe for awhile and had a long conversation about school. We went through each grade year from kindergarten to college and shared our teachers name and most memorable moment from that year. It was definitely a relaxing afternoon!

That evening, we showered and then got ready to go to dinner at Atelier. It is a fusion restaurant that has been featured in several foodie magazines. We walked a few blocks to the Malecon and hailed a cab. We were lucky enough to get a convertible! We enjoyed the sunny ride to the restaurant.

We didn’t have reservations, but they squeezed us into the patio area. It seemed to be where they put all the foreigners. There were four tables and we were all seated around the same time… and then promptly forgotten about. We had ordered water when we were seated, but it never arrived. The waiter hadn’t even come back to the patio. It was probably 30 minutes before we got water and ordered… and another 20 before we got our food.

The food was pretty bland. We both got meat dishes that didn’t taste like much. But they came with a bowl of white rice and a bowl of black beans and sauce. WHOA. Those beans were the second best dish I had in Havana. They were seasoned so well! I ordered beans at every other meal, hoping to find some as good and never did.

After dinner we walked around, trying to find a bar to get a drink, but failed again. All of the “bars” were more like restaurants with bright lights, quiet music, and everyone sitting at tables. There are salsa clubs, but we weren’t looking to dance. We hitched a ride back to our room and fell asleep.

Day 4: Monday

Beach day! The weather forecast predicted rain, but we decided to risk it and go. We went downtown to catch a bus that would take us to the Santa Maria beach and back for 5 CUC. Such a deal. The only bad part was waiting for the bus that came every 40 minutes on an unpredictable schedule.

Once we made it to the beach and forked over 6 CUC to use the umbrella and beach chairs, it was heaven! The sun was shining and the water was perfect. After awhile of playing in the water, we went to the beach bar. Coconuts were free, but it cost 3 CUC to fill them with rum. Yes please! There were at least 3-4 shots of rum in each coconut. We drank them all afternoon and then caught the bus home.

We caught dinner at El Chanchullero. It was a little spot in Habana Vieja with a very punk beach vibe. We ordered the two most expensive dishes on the menu and they were still only 8 CUC each! Shan got lobster and I got shrimp. One interesting thing about Cuban food is that each dinner came with a “salad,” but it wasn’t your typical veggie dish. It was usually a mix of raw and wilted cabbage, scraggly carrots, and a few slices of cucumber and tomato. There was no seasoning or dressing, except for some olive oil on the table. As someone who loves vegetables, I was always disappointed and quickly learned that even the entree salads are this pathetic! Vegetables must not be something prevalent in the Cuban diet. We finished our meals and went home.

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As soon as I showered, I knew I was burnt. Badly. I always burn once at the start of the summer but it’s never too bad. This time was different. I had applied sunscreen +30 SPF repeatedly, but not often enough. My entire body was lobster red, except for my face, luckily. I put aloe on and wore my loosest fitting pajamas since everything else was painful against my skin. It felt like I had the flu. I was wearing a hoodie and had 3 layers of blankets and was still shivering while trying to sleep. Halfway through the night, I started sweating and had to lower the AC. My body definitely was angry I was sunburnt!

Day 5: Tuesday

It was supposed to rain all day, so we planned to visit the Museum of the Revolution. We walked downtown and went to a small cafe nearby. It was definitely a local place. Everything was in Spanish and they didn’t have a clear menu. Shan ordered a croissant with ham and cheese but I was content with coffee. As we were eating, we saw other people eating much larger sandwiches. Shan was starving, so he tried to talk to the cashier and order an actual sandwich. The hoagie he received for a few bucks was definitely worth the language barrier!

Before we left, I had to use the bathroom. I noticed there was a woman guarding them and accepting money each time someone used them. I had read about some places charging customers to use the bathroom and figured this was the case. I gave her a few coins and she gave me toilet paper. I went into the bathroom and the light didn’t work. I did my business and then realized the toilet didn’t flush! Probably a good thing I couldn’t see what was in there. After I left, she went in with a bucket of water to manually flush the toilet. Definitely worth the price not to have to do that myself.

We walked to the Museum of the Revolution and paid the entrance fee. The museum is in the old Governmental building that housed Fidel’s regime. We saw his office and several artifacts.

The true gem was the grand ballroom. I was excited to photograph it as it looked amazing on other travel blogs, but it was under construction when we went! I managed to get a few photos between the scaffolding.

After the museum, we tried to find lunch in Chinatown. I had only had coffee and my sunburn was draining my energy. I desperately wanted my skin to heal, so I had worn a long sleeve flannel as a shield from the sun. We wandered around in the heat for 45 minutes. Chinatown was filled with crowds, but no restaurants that looked decent. I felt like I was going to pass out from lack of food and heat. We walked back to the main square and went into an air conditioned hotel. I typically avoid hotels and tour companies at all costs, but I desperately needed quality food and cold air.

I ordered the “salad with tuna” and hoped for 12 CUC that it would be filled with fresh veggies and protein. I received a small cup of olives and a small cup of tuna salad with mayonnaise. Not what I hoped for, but I did feel much better afterwards. We hung out at the restaurant for awhile and drank so much sparkling water.

We went back to our room and got ready for dinner. We wanted to go to Miramar, the farthest west region of Havana. There was a paladar (family own restaurant, as opposed to state owned) called Paladar Miramar that looked incredible. It was in a modern home on the water and overlooked an infinity pool. We had called ahead and made reservations for 7:30 so we wouldn’t be disappointed.

After a cab miscommunication where the driver tried taking us to Street 22 in Vedado instead of Miramar, we made it to the restaurant! We told them we had a reservation and…. they couldn’t find it. We insisted we called earlier that day and they seemed confused. Nonetheless, the sat us at a table on the upper patio, overlooking the water.

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This was our splurge dinner, so I ordered an expensive dish that had octopus, lobster, and fish of the day. We also ordered a couple appetizers like fried yuca! It was so delicious. The octopus was spicy and incredibly tasty. I’ve had better lobster in the states, but it was still good. We snapped a couple photos by the sunset and then went downstairs to sit by the pool and drink Tequila Sunrises. It was definitely the most picturesque vacation moment and a perfect halfway point to our trip.

Read about days 6-10 here!

Next Stop: Cuba!

I just arrived back in America from my most recent trip to Cuba! Our plane landed at 3:00am on Monday morning. Remind me to always plan a recovery day before returning to work. Coming to work on only 5 hours of sleep has been exhausting!

I started planning this trip a few months ago with my boyfriend, Shan (pronounced Shaun). We wanted to go somewhere exciting and tropical. Several of my friends have been going to Cuba since the travel ban has been lifted (more about that later…) and it seemed like a fun destination. Plus, Shan has premier status with Alaska Airlines and we could fly them all the way to Havana. He also let me use a companion fare that lowered the price of first class significantly. We were going to travel in style!

Our trip was from May 12-22nd. Ten days in Havana! We had plenty of time to research, so I quickly found out that you needed to purchase a tourist visa before arriving in Cuba. We bought them online and they arrived in a few days.

We also needed to submit an official “reason for travel.” Simple tourism still isn’t legally allowed for Americans. You have to comply with one of OFAC’s 12 designated reasons for travel to Cuba. They include religious, business, family, educational, performance, sports, among others. The one most tourists use is peer-to-peer education which means you plan to exchange culture with the Cuban people. Pretty broad, huh?

The other technicality of traveling to Cuba was that American credit/debit/ATM cards would not work. Americans are forced to use only cash for transactions. Better yet, once you entered the country, it was impossible to withdraw more, so you had better hope you brought enough! All of the travel blogs say a $75/person budget is average, so we figured $1500 total was enough for 10 days. Cuba charges a 13% fee on US dollar exchange whereas they don’t charge one for Euros. US banks do not exchange to Cuban currency, so we were forced to do it in Havana. If we brought dollars, we would be subjected to a $195 fee. Instead, I converted my $1500 to Euros while in Portland and saved so much money!

We gathered our documents and headed to the airport for our 5:00am flight. Shan and I have Global Entry so we got TSA PreCheck and a special line when returning to US customs. We simply walked though the empty PDX airport and onto the flight. It was my first time being in first class as an adult, so it was exciting! We got a yummy egg breakfast on each flight and unlimited mimosas and bloody marys! 

We landed around 5pm with the pilot’s greeting, “Welcome to Havana where the local temperature is a warm 98 degrees.”

The airport was so tiny! No gates or jet bridges. The giant plane of 150 people unloaded onto the ground and we walked into the airport. I was wearing jeans and a long sleeve shirt since the plane was frigid, so I was sweltering in the heat. Going through customs and immigration was a walk in the park. No one seemed to care why we were in the country and there were barely any lines. We had to fill out a health form stating that we were symptom free and handed them to two nurses by the baggage claim area. They skimmed them and waved us ahead. There didn’t seem to be any formality in Cuba.

We exchanged our Euros into CUCs (the tourist currency. Locals use CUPs. 1 CUC = 1 USD) at the airport. We thought we would be able to convert the entire $1500, but each person was limited to only $200 and the office would only accept bills that had certain serial numbers. I still have no idea why. It was the first absurdity of the day and we hadn’t even left the airport yet!

We tried to find a reasonable taxi to our Airbnb. We spoke to a man who knew the location and gave a fair price of 25. We thought he would lead us to one of the many standard yellow cabs or one of the few nice retro cars. Instead, he told us to wait there. Three skeptical minutes later, he pulled around the corner in a rusty, rattling ’51 Dodge. We decided to go for it and hopped in.

We cruised 30 minutes into Havana and I was a little surprised. Cuba was definitely the least developed country I’d been to. All of the cars were rusted out. All of the buildings were dilapidated. Even the restaurants we passed were all tiny shacks with counters and plastic chairs in dusty front yards.

I expected the scenery to get nicer as we got closer to downtown, but the buildings simply got bigger in size, but not better in quality. We were staying in Centro Habana aka Old Havana. It is the area my friends recommended and is close to everything. It isn’t directly in the touristy downtown area (Habana Vieja), but it is a 20 minute walk away.

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We soon came to find out that we were staying in the working class Havana neighborhood. Our first clue was that there weren’t really streets. Everything was just a dirt road between buildings, littered with old food, bones, and random splatters of mysterious liquids. Our large taxi tried to navigate down these roads, but there were at least 50 people trying to walk down each block, usually in the middle of the street. Our driver honked relentlessly to get people to move. They were all locals. Not a tourist in sight.

It soon became clear that our driver was lost. There are barely any street signs and certainly no stop lights or stop signs at intersections. He drove up and down the grid streets asking locals for directions in Spanish. People were swarming everywhere, so it was easy to get several responses. We continued driving around until he eventually found it. We recognized the bright blue exterior from the photos. He dropped us off, accepted his fare, and drove off.

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We took a look around. The photo above is our street. Lots of people, animals, and cars (typically old, except for the occasional Audi or Kia) all squeezed into the same alley. We hauled our suitcases through the tiny blue and white entryway to the Airbnb, ready to start our adventure in Cuba.

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Read about days 1-5 of my trip HERE and days 6-10 HERE!

A Weekend in Astoria!

This past weekend, Shan and I went to Astoria, Oregon, for a weekend getaway. I don’t have any fun photos because we decided to make it a cellphone-free trip! We printed out maps and navigated the old fashioned way. It was fun, but definitely more difficult!

We stayed at the cool Commodore Hotel where they let you borrow record players for free. The vibe was very modern and it was in the heart of the city. The lobby was also really neat with a sitting area and lots of books!

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When we first arrived, we went to Ft. George Brewing and took a brewery tour. I had no idea that much work went into making beer! I definitely have a new appreciation and can’t believe some beers like PBR sell for $1 per can!

We went to the Bridgewater Bistro and had a fancy dinner of scallops, clam chowder, alfredo, and vodka sodas! It all tasted so fresh and delicious. I couldn’t help but notice most of the other diners were either older couples or families. Astoria is such a close city with so many breweries… why don’t more Portlanders come?

The next day, we got breakfast at a cafe (Shan got a crab hash!) and then went to the Astoria column. We originally planned to hike up to it, but it had been rainy and we didn’t want to get super muddy. This was probably a good plan because it was so high up! You could climb to the top of the tower and throw paper plane “gliders” off, but we stayed put at the bottom. The Astoria Megler bridge spans the water and is quite the sight to see. We drove over it and it was less exciting than expected – still just a bridge!

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To cap off the weekend, we went to see Astoria the play back in Portland. It is a two-part play that depicts the founding of Astoria. I expected to learn about the early days of the town, but the entire first play was only about their land and sea journey to get there! I had no idea that one expedition party went around the tip of South America and another party traveled by river and land across the US from the east.

The second part comes out in 2018 and covers the establishment of Astoria. One fun fact I learned was that, during the Revolutionary War, the British were planning to capture Astoria, so America simply sold it to them. During this time, it was renamed Ft. George. After the war, it was given back to America.

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After the play, we ran around downtown and ate at one of my favorite restaurants: Luc Lac. If you’re ever in Portland and want some late night food, check it out. They are open until 4am!

This last meal was so enjoyable because we started Whole 30 the next morning! You might remember me blogging about it a year ago – it is a dietary reset. You eliminate all sugar, dairy, grains, and alcohol from your diet for 30 days. After that, you reintroduce them one at a time to see how your body reacts. If you feel sick or get stomach cramps or feel groggy… you know to stay away from it! I personally enjoy doing it because it cuts out all the mindless snacking I do at work. My coworkers constantly bring in baked goods, beef jerky, chocolate, and other snacks that I always *have* to try a taste of. I’m sure these tastes add up over time! Last time I lost 6 lbs and felt so much better! It will be interesting to see if my results are the same.

Autumn Bucket List 2016

Now that we are into December, it feels like autumn flew by! If you follow me on Facebook, you’ve seen that a lot has changed! I’m finally accustomed to my new job, I traveled back to Kentucky for my brother’s wedding, and I got a boyfriend! 2016 has been a great year and I’ve learned so much and improved myself as a person. I want to make it go out with a bang, so back in October, I created an Autumn bucket list! I didn’t achieve everything on it, but I did most! Here is the list and I’ve crossed off what I finished!

  1. Drink a Pumpkin Spice Latte
  2. Tailgate a football game
  3. Go apple picking
  4. Buy a new fall candle
  5. Watch a spooky movie
  6. Go to a tree fair
  7. Bake pumpkin bread
  8. Make a Halloween costume
  9. Drink apple cider
  10. Watch Hocus Pocus
  11. Make a homemade pie
  12. Carve a pumpkin
  13. Drink mulled wine
  14. Decorate the yard
  15. Drink a pumpkin beer
  16. Make caramel apples
  17. Pick a pumpkin from a patch
  18. Go on a hay ride
  19. Host a chili cook off
  20. Go on an autumn hike
  21. Go to a corn maze
  22. Go to a haunted house
  23. Drink hot chocolate
  24. Spend time with family
  25. Go trick or treating
  26. Go to Oktoberfest

I didn’t go home for Thanksgiving, but I celebrated with friends. We threw a giant Friendsgiving party for the Portland community and around 100 people showed up. The organizers rented out an empty restaurant so there was plenty of seating and counter space for people to put their pies and side dishes. The best dish was swedish meatballs! So good.

It has been a busy fall season but winter seems to be busier! My boyfriend, Shan (pronounced Shaun) and I are going to Vancouver, Canada this weekend, so I will be sure to post lots of photos from that! I’m also going home for Christmas, so that is a nice trip. Then, in January, I have my work holiday party AND Shan’s! This season is going to be a lot of fun!

 

 

Kate Goes Viral

My childhood was no stranger to the unwelcome guest that is strep throat. I have not-so-fond memories of missing school, gargling salt water, and adhering to the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast.) My overwhelming memory, though, was the feeling of being helpless. Luckily as a child, I had a wonderful mom who could coordinate doctor’s appointments, remind me when to take my medicine, and cook 20 different foods until I found one I could stomach. Unfortunately, adulthood doesn’t come with such perks.

Last week, I was chugging along at work on Monday afternoon when I noticed some discomfort in my throat. It felt like a piece of food had gotten lodged behind my tonsil (I actually had them removed as a child but one partially grew back!) and swallowing didn’t feel as natural as it should. I brushed it off as a weird body issue that would resolve over time.

As the afternoon drew on, I started getting cold. I was wearing jeans and a long sleeve shirt, but I was shivering! I went on errands outside just so I could stand in the sunshine and try to warm up. I cancelled my fitness class and planned to go home and sleep.

I woke up at 9pm in a cold sweat. My body was burning up and my throat had caught fire. It hurt to swallow. It hurt to even exist. I texted my boss and asked for Tuesday off. It was only my third week, but there was no way I could go into work. I could barely text.

I scheduled a doctor’s appointment as soon as I woke up. They squeezed me in that morning and I thought I would be fine to drive. As soon as I parked and walked up the stairs to the office, I felt woozy. As the receptionist was checking me in, my vision started to go blurry and I knew I needed to sit down. Of course, this put everyone on high alert and they treated me like a fragile snowflake the rest of the appointment! Not surprisingly, my blood pressure was low and my white blood cells were at 0. We awaited the results of the strep and mono tests.

Both came back negative. Without a culprit, I couldn’t be prescribed any medication. I was told to alternate Advil and Tylenol and to try to eat soft foods like macaroni and cheese. When was the last time a doctor recommended junk food!? I would have been excited if I wasn’t in so much pain. My tonsils were swollen and it hurt to breathe, let alone swallow solid food!

I was referred to my regular hematologist who wanted to take a second look at my white blood cells to make sure everything was normal. After a viral infection, it’s normal for white blood cells to take a hit. They ruled out any funny business and I was sent home with strict instructions for bedrest.

Taking care of my body was a priority, but so was making a good impression at my new job! I felt horrible asking for 3 days off, especially since I already had approved vacation time in 2 weeks for my brother’s wedding. What does it say about an employee when she misses 6 business days in the first month?! I’m not sure if cool millennial tech companies are always this lax about vacation or if they just really like me!

I don’t have a TV in my apartment, so I spent most of my time sleeping. I could barely stay awake, anyway! Luckily I got better and was able to make it into the office on Friday to catch up on work. Everyone was so supportive! Even my friends offered to bring me soup and throat drops!

What caused the virus? I’ll never know. My habit of adopting abandoned drinks at bars certainly didn’t help. And here I thought I was building my immune system! I am grateful for one result of this sickness – I dropped a couple pounds and now my bridesmaid dress fits much more comfortably! Silver linings.

Now I am back in the office and gearing up to leave next week for Brent’s wedding. I fly out on Tuesday and return Sunday. I can’t wait to be part of the ceremony and see all of work that Alicia has done to plan everything! Knowing my brother, the food and drink will be great… but the after party will be better!

Floating on the Surface

Last weekend, I took the plunge. I scheduled a “float” appointment. I’ve wanted to do it for years now, but never made the effort. I was never scared to do it, I just didn’t want to pay the lofty $60-70! The idea of floating is to spend 90 minutes in a tank filled with 10 inches of salt water. You’re meant to float on the top of the water and experience total sensory deprivation and relaxation.

Luckily I found a Groupon that lowered the cost to a reasonable $30. I read the Yelp reviews of the “spa” and they seemed to be split. Some customers loved the place, but others wrote harsh reviews. Most of the bad reviews had to do with pricing or saying “They made me cancel my appointment after I showed up 30 minutes late! So unprofessional!” So I took those with a grain of salt.

I took a leisurely walk to the spa on Saturday afternoon. It was nestled on a residential street and would have been easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it. I walked up right as another customer did. We approached the door and saw a sign with an arrow, pointing to the house next door. So we walked next door and saw another sign with an arrow pointing to the first house! We were confused. After a bit of back and forth, we realized the arrows were instructing us to enter through the tiny gated alley in between the houses! So strange.

Once we opened the gate, it made sense. There was a nice courtyard with a pond and flowers and beautiful trees. We walked into the reception area and it was crowded. There was one woman working the front desk and she didn’t have an ounce of urgency. After about 8 minutes, it was my turn to check in. She took my ID and I filled out the waiver. She asked if I needed a towel. I said yes, and she handed me what can only be described as a dish towel.

She instructed me to wait on the bench and someone would show me to the tanks shortly. This little spa was busy! I saw 30-40 people come and go within the 15 minutes I spent waiting. Most people seemed to be using the spa pools or getting a massage. After awhile, a woman walked up and asked “Are you the floaters?” The guy sitting next to me said yes and we followed her to the tanks. I was a little concerned. The lockers where we were supposed to store our clothes were located all the way across the spa. We would have to strip down and then walk past the showers, sauna, relaxation room, and then into the float tank room. There were signs everywhere saying that it was a “Clothing Optional” spa and told people not to exhibit creepy behavior. What?!

I assumed it would be a normal spa with normal sized towels and a tank in a private room. I didn’t pack a swim suit. You’re supposed to float naked!

My float parter and I went to the lockers and he started to strip down. I turned around and played on my phone until I could tell he was finished and had left. I have no interest in seeing a strange hippie get naked! I changed and wrapped myself in the mini-towel as best as I could and scurried into the tank room. Luckily there wasn’t anyone in the sauna or showers, so it was okay.

The tank room had 2 tanks the size of large ice coolers. They were slightly separated by a large folding wall, but there still weren’t any doors for privacy! Each tank had a slanted door, similar to a cellar. My float partner insisted he have Tank #1… I’m not sure why, but that should have been my first warning sign!

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I put petroleum jelly on my cuts so the salt water wouldn’t irritate them and then jumped in.

The water was warm. Almost too warm! I climbed into the tank and shut the door behind me. It was dark and the air was human. I laid down in the water and let myself float. It was a little uncomfortable at first. The water was pushing my back into a weird arch that wasn’t natural. I tried moving my arms in different positions and felt that the “goal post” felt the best. I closed my eyes and tried to relax.

I “relaxed” for about 20 minutes before I became bored. I couldn’t fall asleep because it was so cold! The top half of my body was above water and there was a ventilation fan that continually blew cold air into the tank! I ended up shivering most of the time and resorted to swimming around to try to stay warm. I realized I could easily just exit the tank and leave… but I paid money for this! It was kind of a cool feeling to float around on the top of the water. I had about 2 feet on either side, so I gentle pushed myself back and forth across the tank.

Before I knew it, I heard the knocking on my tank door that signaled the float was over. I listened for my float partner and waiting until he exited the room before I opened my door. I quickly grabbed my towel. The spa had become a lot busier and there were several naked people showering as I walked out. I was covered in salt water and I still had to walk home, so I needed to rinse off. I pretended to read a brochure until everyone left and I could shower in peace (as peaceful as an open shower with no wall or door could be!)

Inevitably, as soon as I started to rinse off, an old lady wandered in and started showering next to me. I’m not sure why this experience felt so awkward when I’ve already been to a naked bath house in Korea. Maybe because I was a foreigner it felt new and exciting. In America, it just felt weird. I showered as quickly as possible and put my clothes on before fully drying off.

I checked out and left the spa as soon as possible. Apparently my float included a complimentary 30 minute soak in the hot tub room… but the idea of sitting in there with more naked strangers was not something I was interested in.

I don’t think I would float again, even if it was at a more private spa. I never felt fully relaxed because I was so cold. Even if it had been warm, I don’t think I would have experienced the full sensory deprivation. My tank had flashing lights that reflected off the water and I could hear footsteps whenever anyone walked on the floor above us.

I would recommend floating if you want a unique experience, but definitely go in with low expectations!