Week One in Hawaii

“Oh my god. I’m actually doing it,” was my first thought when my alarm rang at 5am on Monday, January 22nd. It felt like a lifetime in the making, but the day had finally arrived. I was leaving Portland for a 6 month trip around the world.

My last day of work was January 12th and I had given myself a week to prepare for my trip. It turned out that was ample time and I had actually become quite bored! I was excited to finally get on the road.

I gathered all of my belongings for the next 6 months: a 40lb travelers backpack and small purse. Since I had the space, I also brought a tote bag filled with RxBars (protein bars) since I knew I would be eating on a budget.

My flight from Portland to Honolulu was great. I flew Hawaiian Airlines and they actually served food! An entire free breakfast! That’s unheard of these days. Unfortunately it was sugary yogurt, sugary cereal, and a cheesy bread loaf. None of it I wanted. Even though I’m on “vacation,” I still know which foods make me feel gross, so I try to avoid them. Obviously I’ll make exceptions for unique things, but plane food doesn’t cut it!

I landed in the afternoon and was picked up by Ausra, the woman I was renting a car from. Having a car isn’t totally necessary on Oahu, but I had a credit which made the rental pretty inexpensive. Plus I wanted to be able to access hiking trails and beaches at my leisure.

Ausra was a character! She was from Eastern Europe but grew up in New Jersey. She said she meets a lot of travelers by renting her car and always admires their bravery in traveling solo. Her toddler was in the backseat and Ausra joked, “Sweetie, are you going to grow up to be a world traveler like this cool lady?” and then turned to me and said, “I’m so jealous of you. I really want my daughter to be independent and confident like you.”

It really shocked me. I had known her less than 30 minutes and she had already formed the opinion that I was a fearless badass. I felt so far from that! I was confident in my decision to travel, but I still felt so inexperienced. I guess I gave off a different vibe!

I got my rental car and drove straight to the beach. It was already 3pm so the sun was starting to go down, but I enjoyed it. After I got my fill, I drove to my hostel. I had decided to stay in Waialua/Haleiwa on the North Shore, about 45 minutes away from Honolulu. I wanted to get away from tourists and found a small hostel that had availability.

For $20 a night, I’ve been staying in a 4 bedroom house. Each room has 2 bunk beds, so 16 people total. When I arrived, the owner wasn’t around so someone told me to simply pick a bed. It was unlike any hostel I’d ever been to! What they say about Hawai‘i is true: the aloha spirit means anything goes!

I’ve been spending the last week waking up to the sound of roosters around 9am and then heading out to a hike. I try to pick dry ones along the coast, rather than humid ones in the jungle mountains. Afterward, I head to a beach to swim and tan. Around 4pm, I head home to make dinner and relax.

I expected the town to feel quaint and maybe discover a cafe I could spend afternoons reading and writing at. However, this isn’t the case. Most of Haleiwa is very touristy and expensive! It’s filled with retired sunbirds, tourist busses, and surfers from Honolulu who flood the city on weekends to catch waves. The main drag is lined with expensive restaurants, tourist beach shops, and art galleries. I haven’t been able to find a salad or anything healthy for under $15 a plate. Everything is greasy burgers or tacos. Even black coffee is $4 and up! So I’ve been making my own coffee and spending my downtime in the house where WiFi is free!

I’ve been spending most of my time researching and going on hikes. My favorite hike has been either the Kealia Point trail or the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail. I liked the Kealia Trail because it zig zagged up the side of a mountain, overlooking the coast. It was pretty rocky, so it was a great workout and wasn’t slippery like other dusty trails. The view was incredible!

I also enjoyed the Makapuu Lighthouse hike because it was paved (slipping and falling is my biggest fear, so I hate muddy or gravel paths!) which allowed me to enjoy the view instead of watching my foot placement!

The most fulfilling hike was Koko Head! It is an intense hike straight up the side of a mountain using only railroad ties as steps! It’s very touristy but I was feeling up for the challenge – and it was a challenge! The ties were uneven and dusty, so very slippery. Going up was a quad burner, but coming down was mentally terrifying. I saw so many people fall! But I kept repeating the phrase “one foot in front of the other” and eventually I made my way down.

I had a scary experience while swimming at Hukilau Beach. It was a sunny day and the waves were perfect for swimming. Families with children were in the water and plenty of teenagers were playing in the waves and trying to body surf. I swam out and had a blast playing with them. Then, a giant wave came and I got caught in the undertow. It slammed me into the sand underwater and I landed on my shoulder. I think I pulled a few muscles because my shoulder instantly turned red and started swelling like a balloon. I went home and took painkillers. It’s been a few days and I have full mobility, but it is still so sore. I’ll definitely think twice before playing in the waves again. The ocean is no joke!

I took a few days off from hiking to rest my sore body, so I got to hang around the hostel a lot. Honestly, I’ve had a hard time connecting with the other people staying here. They are all on the North Shore to surf, so that’s all they talk about. I did meet a flight attendant from DC who was here for a quick vacation. We spent a lot of mornings chatting over coffee. Hostels were fun to stay in when I was younger and could bond over drinking with everyone at night, but now that I’m older, I’m appreciating the value of peace and quiet!

I’ve cooked all of my own food in an effort to save money. I’m trying to keep my food budget to $10 a day. However, I did let myself splurge and eat out on Sunday! I got Huli Huli chicken from Ray’s. He only cooks it on weekends and only until he sells out. I went around 3pm and got one of the last chickens! Lucky me. I also learned that Huli Huli means “turn turn” since the chicken is rotated over hot coals. It was delicious!

I plan to spend my next week seeing more sights. I feel a little burned out of hiking. I’ve been on 6 in the past week! Now I want to visit the famous Temple, botanical gardens, coffee farm, and Dole plantation. I’m ready to be a little bit of a tourist!

Until next time!

Aloha!

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Kate’s Trip Around the World!

It was always my plan after college. I would graduate and then take a year off to travel. I remember staying up late to plan it all out. It was the summer of 2013 and I had just returned from studying in Amman and moved to Portland for my internship. Wanderlust had me in its grip.

But, as with most wild dreams, it failed to come to fruition. I was intimidated enough by the scary idea of “life as an adult,” so I couldn’t bear to add the uncertainties of solo travel on top of it all. So instead, I stayed in my comfort zone and moved back to Portland to find a job.

Fast forward 4 years later to December 2017. My life looked exactly how I planned it to be: a great apartment in the best part of town, a solid group of friends, an interesting dating life full of highs and lows, a quirky job that let me live comfortably… so why was I bored?

After my break up with Shan, I started reading a lot of books about self-compassion and following your passions, even if they aren’t the easiest or most logical path to follow. I started examining aspects of my life that made me unhappy and vowed to change them. I started off small. I ended friendships that brought me more stress than joy. I stopped doing activities that I didn’t actually like, but felt social pressure to participate in. These included online dating, putting on makeup every morning, and binge drink every weekend.

Once I made a few minor adjustments, life felt so much better. I was finally the productive morning person who could wake up and journal while sipping coffee before the sun came up. But still, it felt like each day was a monotonous repeat. I wasn’t living for my passion. I could wake up early, but I wasn’t excited for the day.

All the books I read were written by inspiring women who spent years in relationships, jobs, and social circles that weren’t fulfilling. Their lives were “good enough” and gave each woman the comfort of being “on track” and “successful.” I found myself relating to them immensely. I enjoyed my coworkers, but I didn’t feel passionately about admin work or advertising. I loved my friends dearly, but didn’t feel like I was challenging my social bubble anymore. From the outside, I was exactly where every 25 year old should be, but I wasn’t happy.

The “a-ha!” moment that kickstarted my trip was the realization that I turn 26 in July. I will get kicked off of my parents insurance and have to finance my own, which means depending on an employer (or a husband’s employer) to provide access to a plan. Never again in my life will I have the freedom to quit my job for 6 months and still have free/inexpensive healthcare.

So I quit. On January 2nd, I gave my two weeks notice and booked a plane ticket from Oregon to Hawai‘i to New Zealand.

I am so lucky to have the opportunity and means for this incredible adventure. I will try to update this blog weekly with a few travel stories and photos. I’m trying not to plan too much, but here is my itinerary so far:

Jan 22 – Feb 6: Waialua, Hawai‘i

Feb 6 – March 14: Roadtrip around New Zealand

March 15: Day layover in Singapore

March 15 – March 22: Hanoi, Vietnam

March 22 – ???: Italy and Greece!

My friends have jokingly called my trip “Kate’s Eat, Pray, Love Trip” but I don’t have any big expectations for life changing realizations. I know who I am. I love myself. I am comfortable spending time alone. My sole purpose of this trip is to do exactly what I love: travel. I want to wake up each morning with gratitude and excitement for the day.

My goal is to post weekly about my adventures. First stop: Hawai‘i!

My Solo Trip to Amsterdam!

Another trip is on the books! I’m writing this post as I fly back home. The past 10 days have been a whirlwind. Easy and challenging. Rushed and leisurely. It was the perfect blend of a trip. But let’s start at the beginning….

Pre-Amsterdam

Getting to Seattle was tough. I booked my trip out of Seattle because it saved me $400! Even when I factored in gas and long term parking, it still saved $300. I thought it would definitely be worth it. What’s a quick 2.5 hour drive to Seattle?

My flight from Seattle to Reykjavík to Amsterdam departed at 3pm on Saturday. I woke up and went to an OrangeTheory fitness class at 7:30am (if you aren’t familiar, just imagine 30 yuppie women running 9mph on treadmills while club music plays on full blast in a dark room!) I really pushed myself in class, knowing I wouldn’t have the opportunity to work out for a full week.

Little did I know, pushing myself in that workout would make the drive to Seattle miserable! My arm muscles ached so much and I just wanted to relax them, but I had to keep gripping the steering wheel! The weather was foggy, rainy, and dismal. It made visibility almost impossible. I spent the entire 2.5 hour drive white knuckling the steering wheel and struggling to see the painted lines on the highway.

I made it to the airport and to my gate. I didn’t get to use my TSA Precheck since Icelandair doesn’t participate in it. I didn’t know it was an optional thing! I managed to fit everything into my tiny Swedish backpack. No need for checked bags! I HATE checking bags. It is so time consuming and, unless you’re traveling for more than 14 days, you don’t need that much stuff! For my personal item, I brought a little tote bag that I found in my car. There is a simple but true statement printed on it: “May you always have the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

It made me the most popular person in the airport. Everyone from TSA agents to flight attendants to fellow passengers complimented me on it.

Once I was at my gate, I spent the down time journaling and eating roasted veggies out of a plastic baggie. I brought along a tiny Moleskine journal to record my thoughts on the trip. Best idea ever! I typically don’t journal, but it’s very helpful since I tend to forget little details more often these days.

I got lucky and had my entire row to myself! It was a 6 hour flight to Rekjavik, but I couldn’t sleep. I was too excited! I watched a few movies and read a bit of my book. Icelandair was very nicely equipped with TVs and charging ports for each seat, however, there was no free food! Not even snacks! Everything had to be paid for. Have you ever heard of that on a transatlantic flight? Crazy!

By the time I arrived in Reykjavik, I was starving. It was 9pm Portland time and I had only eaten some eggs for breakfast plus a few protein bars I packed. I try to eat Paleo (no dairy, grains, beans, sugar, or processed foods) so finding food in an airport is pretty difficult.

Imagine my surprise when I glanced at a deli in the gate and saw a refrigerated meal with a giant label that read “PALEO!” It was the last one, so I snatched it up without thinking. It was a salad with beets, lettuce, veggies, chicken, and barley. Technically barley isn’t even Paleo, but my options were salad or parfait or a pastry. I figured the barley wouldn’t kill me.

After waiting in line for 15 minutes, I got to the register and realized it was 1750 Icelandic kroner. That’s $17! For a deli meal! I bit the bullet and figured it was all I was buying for the day, so it was okay. I’ve been to Iceland before but obviously forgot how expensive it was!

My next flight to Amsterdam was uneventful. I still couldn’t sleep, so I read my book and thought about my goals for the trip. I didn’t expect Amsterdam to be culturally challenging. I wouldn’t have to struggle with a language or cultural norm barrier. My true apprehension was whether or not I would get lonely. 10 days is a long time to spend alone. Why was being alone considered a bad thing? When I originally told people I was traveling solo, they were shocked. Not for my safety, but because it is assumed that traveling with a friend is “more fun,” so why would I choose to go alone? I made it my goal for the trip to become comfortable hanging out with myself. There’s no shame in eating dinner alone, going to a concert alone, or being alone! I wanted to learn to be self-reliant and empowered!

I arrived around 12pm Amsterdam time and took the train into the city. The train ticket machines don’t accept US credit cards without a PIN, so I had to wait in line to buy one. Public transportation and finances are always the trickiest part of traveling!

Amsterdam Centraal is the main station in the center of the city. Emerging from its tubes into the hustle and bustle of the city was jarring. It was like traveling directly from JFK to Times Square. There were people everywhere. Trams, busses, cars, bikes, and pedestrians all battled each other for the right of way. I quickly consulted my phone map and took off in the direction of my hostel.

I walked through the heart of Amsterdam, through the red light district, and finally into winding back alleys that led me to my hostel – EcoMama. It was still too early to check in, so I left my bags and hit the streets. I walked around the neighborhood and was awe struck by the beauty of the city.

I knew Amsterdam had canals and skinny townhouses and houseboats, but there’s something that can’t be conveyed through photographs. The city is BEAUTIFUL in a romantic, heartwarming, cuddle by the fire kind of way. The cobblestones, the chimney smoke, the bells of bicycles, the aroma of fresh bread from the corner bakery – it felt like I was transported into a different world. Cities don’t normally elicit an emotional response from me, but this one did.

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As I walked, I stumbled upon a street market. I browsed the stalls and sampled homemade ice cream, sausage, and hot chocolate. I was quite hungry, not having eaten since that expensive salad six hours prior, so I consulted my map.

When I went to Cuba in the spring, I made a map on Google maps with a pin showing all the cafes, restaurants, and points of interest I wanted to see. Since I don’t purchase international cell service when I travel, I have to export it to an app called Maps.me that lets you download entire city maps for use when you don’t have service. So before I came to Amsterdam, I made one and saved it to my phone.

I looked at the map and saw there was a salad restaurant called Sla nearby. I ordered an autumn harvest salad that had chicken, egg, roasted parsnip, brussels sprouts, pumpkin, and parmesan. The best part was the black truffle pepper dressing. It was the BEST salad I’ve ever eaten. I was in heaven.

Afterward, I walked a bit more but returned to my hostel at 5pm since I was exhausted. I checked into my room – it was an 8 person dorm room. I met another traveler from Indiana who had been working as an opera singer in Germany. He was also traveling alone for the week. We ended up becoming friends and eating the hostel breakfast together each morning.

I hadn’t slept in 28 hours and it was catching up to me. I fell asleep at 6:30pm and sleeping until 10am!

Day 1 in Amsterdam: Jordaan

I woke up feeling refreshed and ready to spend the day exploring the Jordaan district. The name is said to come from the French word jardin or “garden.” There are many courtyards and picturesque trees in this area that the rest of the city lacks. It is in the northwest quadrant of Amsterdam and is a bit more yuppie and upscale. I wandered the streets, peering into shops and cafes. Everything was so cozy and welcoming. After walking about 5 miles, I settled into a store/cafe called STACH and ordered a coffee and snacks. They sold Paleo protein bars! I also saw these white chocolate peanut butter cups that I made a mental note of. My strategy for treats during the trip was to keep an eye out for anything tasty and keep a mental list. Then I would go back and buy the one I wanted the most on the last day of my trip! It may seem like a control-freak tendency, but I struggle with moderation and didn’t want to go overboard!

I had signed up for a photo tour of Jordaan that afternoon. A local photographer named Jan would show us around his favorite part of the city and teach us how to take photos… as well as take a few photos of us! As a solo traveler, it is hard to get photos of myself. I don’t want to trust a stranger with my iPhone, but I also don’t want all of my photos to be selfies. It’ll take 2 weeks to get his photos back, but hopefully they’re good!

I learned a lot from Jan. Most of the canal houses were valued based on the square footage of their foundation. The wider the house, the more expensive! Most canal houses are also bigger on top. The attics could have a larger square footage for free since it was only the foundation that determined value. This makes the buildings looked a bit warped… like they’re leaning forward and about to fall over!

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During the tour, I met another American from DC. She was also traveling alone, but it was her last day in Amsterdam. We planned to get drinks later that night! I had worried about being lonely, but making friends was easier than I expected.

After the tour, I had a reserved ticket to see the Anne Frank House. It was a simple audio tour retelling all the facts we learned in grade school, but it was sobering to be in the same house where it all happened. The exhibit took a look at the strategies Hitler used to create widespread anti-Semitism in the Netherlands. One interesting example is that he singled out and demanded punishment for athletes during the Olympic Games who refused to salute him. Sound familiar to our current leader?

I was a little disappointed to find out that her diaries were removed from the exhibit temporarily to be refurbished. Isn’t that the main draw of the museum?

After the Anne Frank House, I walked to get dinner. I had read about a place that makes the best ribs. I know, I know – you shouldn’t go to Amsterdam for ribs, but it sounded good! I sat at the bar and ordered a simple plate of spare ribs. Oh my god. For 20€ I was given the biggest portion of meat I’ve ever seen. At least 15 ribs plus a salad plus a bread basket. And the ribs were delicious. Fall off the bone and melt in your mouth good. I’ve tried several rib joints in Portland and haven’t found anything this good.

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I ended up talking to the person sitting next to me at the bar. He was a Delta pilot and said my stay in Amsterdam was way too long. He suggested I go to Bruges, Belgium. I looked into it, but it would have taken at least two days. I only had 5 in Amsterdam! Plus, I like having “too much” time. It lets me explore the little spots away from the guide books. I finished my meal (well, I ate 4 ribs and took the remaining 11 home) and bid him safe travels.

That evening, I met up with my DC friend at a bar called Hiding in Plain Sight. It was an upscale cocktail bar near my hostel. I don’t drink much anymore, but I got a delicious beet and black pepper cocktail. It was 15€ but worth it! Since it was her last night, my friend wanted to do something memorable. But it was a Monday night, so nothing was really going on. We talked to the bartender for awhile and he suggested a death metal bar in the Red Light district. I was skeptical, but we went and the drinks were very cheap! We met a few Russians and chatted with them for awhile.

During my travels, I’ve found that most people can speak English… even in rural Middle Eastern cities and Cuba, but not in Russia! I’m not saying that English should be the global language or that other nationalities “should” speak English. In fact, traveling reminds me that I am ignorant in regards to not speaking a second language. I have so much respect for all of the cashiers and waiters I’ve encountered who start speaking to me in Dutch but then can automatically switch to English without a second thought.

As we kept drinking, we decided it would be a great idea to go to the “Live Sex Show” going on next door. We stood in line with two moms from California who were on a divorce celebration trip. They were wild and fun and reminded me of Tiffanny! We paid an astounding 55€ for entrance with two drink coupons. Of course, my friend demanded we sit in the front row.

I won’t go into detail, but the show was exactly what it sounds like. Typically each act was 5–10 minutes long and alternated between a solo dance/strip act and a couple doing everything. And I mean everything. Completely naked. Nothing hidden or censored. It was definitely shocking.

The highlight was the solo act where a woman was smoking a cigar with her mouth…. and then changed to smoking it with something else. I didn’t even know that was possible. All I could think was “Good thing you have universal healthcare because your likelihood of cervical cancer is through the roof!”

We left the show and I went back to my hostel. My first full day had been jam packed with excitement. Even if I had to leave the next day, I would have been happy with everything I accomplished! Plus I walked 10.5 miles, so I definitely saw a good portion of the city!

Day 2 in Amsterdam: Vondelpark

I woke up to the same predicament I found myself in the day prior: eat the free hostel breakfast or get better food elsewhere?

I had chosen to eat the breakfast the day before. The hostel is connected to a cute little cafe called The Fix. Each guest is provided a bagel, schmear, and coffee of choice. There were so many choices! Just for the bagel, you could choose between plain, cinnamon raisin, pumpernickel, sesame, and everything. For the schmear, they had original, chive, jalapeño, honey walnut, peanut butter, jam, and marmalade. And then any coffee you could dream of!

I never eat bagels, but I got an everything bagel with chive schmear. It wasn’t anything to write home about. However, I’m cheap as hell. If the hostel has a free breakfast, you bet I’m participating! So on my second morning, I devised a plan. I got a pumpernickel bagel with peanut butter, but then snagged a free apple from reception. I transferred the peanut butter into a baggie with the apple and saved it as a snack and threw the bagel away. Healthier free hostel food!

I set out on another 10 mile day. First, I walked through the university area to Vondelpark. It is a GIANT park that is popular in the summer, but still filled with dog walkers and cyclists in the winter. I also walked through FoodHallen, a large cafeteria style food hall with many different vendors. I didn’t eat anything, but I appreciated the concept!

I made my way to Dignita, a hipster cafe. I sat on the second floor balcony overlooking the main level. I got a coffee (served with a tasty biscuit!) and their autumn salad. The salads in Amsterdam are next level. So many tasty goodies!

I sat in my cozy corner spot and wrote in my journal. I reflected upon the previous day and how I felt challenged by the strangers I had met and whether or not I had let myself be vulnerable to new experiences. I found this act really soothing. I felt more connected to my life. Most of the time during traveling, I am rushing through the day and gorging myself with new experiences and emotions and thoughts without giving myself to digest. Journaling let me reflect on what these moments could teach me.

The idea of “being present” has taken center stage in the media recently. What does it mean? Pay attention? Stop worrying? These two word mantras are catchy, but how can you apply it to your actual life? I like to think of it as being present with your feelings. Each time I feel anxiety or nervousness or shame, I sit down with myself and examine why. Many of us have the habit of pushing uncomfortable feelings away. “Okay, I’m feeling jealousy. That’s bad. Stop feeling that way. Focus on something else,” but this only avoids the issue as well as building shame.

Taking the time to slow down and journal about my experiences let me dig into my emotions and become familiar with them. I’ve been reading a lot about self-compassion and self-love. Allowing space for how you’re feeling instead of rejecting it is the first step. By giving my emotions literal space on a page, I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress!

I spent the morning journaling at Dignita before continuing my walk around the canals and through De Pijp. I walked through the famous Albert Cuyp market and was honestly disappointed. Everyone had said this was the best market in Amsterdam, but I found it was mostly junk. There were vendors lining the streets selling clothes, shoes, appliances, etc. It all seemed to be poor quality. There were a few food vendors there, but they also sold the same type of things – waffles, fish, nuts, cheese, or olives. The market is certainly something different to see, but I wouldn’t plan on focusing an entire day around it.

I went back to my hostel and napped before going to the Hoodie Allen concert. He is one of my favorite rappers, so I was thrilled when I found out he would be in Amsterdam at the same time!

Waking up from my nap was tough. My body was still tired. The concert venue was miles away and my body ached and it was cold outside. I debated skipping it. I almost did. But then I remembered that I didn’t come halfway across the globe just to nap. So I put my coat on and ventured out.

I arrived just as Hoodie was going on stage. It was a small venue – maybe 200 or 300 people. Even though I was in the back row, I was only 10 rows back! It was so much fun to dance and sing along with other fans. At first, I felt self conscious. I wasn’t drinking so dancing in public felt weird. Then, I remembered everything I read about vulnerability. Sometimes you have to do uncomfortable things to make yourself happy! So I danced and sang loundly. No one laughed. No one stared. We were all having fun! I walked back to my hostel, proud of myself for simply showing up.

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Day 3 in Amsterdam: Hoorn/Wieringerwerf

On my final morning at EcoMama hostel (thank god, because one of my dormmates was a snorer!) I skipped breakfast and went to Bakers and Roasters. It is a New Zealand inspired cafe, but I desperately wanted one thing on their menu: Aubergine Pancakes.

I am a sucker for any food fusion. If you take two unexpected flavors or cuisines and turn them into a dish I’ve never had before, I’ll be ecstatic. Maybe it’s because I rarely eat out. I make 99% of my meals in my own kitchen, so when I do treat myself to a restaurant meal, I want it to be new and exciting. I already know what steak and mashed potatoes tastes like. Why would I order it when I can easily make it at home? But if there’s something on the menu that’s exotic or sounds impossible to recreate, I’m ordering it!

The aubergine pancakes are basically the result of turning the Middle Eastern baba ghanoush dip into a breakfast meal. The pancakes are made from eggplant and topped with whipped feta, cumin chickpeas, fresh herbs, an egg, pita chips and roasted cashews. It wasn’t mindblowingly amazing, but it was tasty and was a unique flavor combination.

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I journaled some more before heading out. I explored the little neighborhood surrounding my hostel. At one point, I was walking along a canal when I looked to my left and saw an elephant. Yep. An elephant. Smack dab in the middle of residential Amsterdam. Turns out the Amsterdam Zoo was across the canal – but I had no idea. It was a moment of surprise and mystery and definitely brought out a sense of childlike joy. I laughed with myself about the absurdity of that elephant for awhile. Sometimes it’s the simple things.

I checked out of my hostel and hopped on a train to Hoorn. I had to transfer there to a bus that would take me to Wieringerwerf. No matter how much I travel, public transportation will always stress me out. I try to research as much as possible, but nothing gives me a straight answer. Do I need cash? Do I specifically need coins and not bills? Will it accept my credit card (a surprising number of places in Amsterdam refuse to take American credit cards, even my Chase Sapphire travel card, because they have to be equipped with a PIN number… and most American cards don’t have that. If you use a debit card with a PIN, you get slammed with fees. There’s really no winning.)

I got to Hoorn and decided to take a quick break and get coffee along the coast. I love water. I’ve always loved water. It’s my favorite place to be, no matter if I’m swimming, wading, or just sitting next to it. It has the ultimate calming effect on me. You know the feeling you get after a hard day when you get home and your partner wraps you up in his arms? That sense of calm and security and safety that washes over you? It’s like that. Suddenly my earthly problems like bus fare don’t matter in comparison to the vast power of the water. I can just exhale.

It’s a life goal to someday live on the water. Expert level would be in the Faroe Islands, but maybe that’s a reach!

I arrived in Wieringerwerf unscathed. I turned on my phone’s data and texted my host. We had arranged that she would pick me up from the bus stop when I arrived, since their farm was another 5 miles away and it was too cold to walk. I waited. And waited. I decided to pop into the grocery store to kill time. I got some fresh veggies for dinner. Still no text.

I walked back to the bus stop and sent her an email message via the Airbnb app. Then I waited some more. Another 30 minutes passed and I was still waiting. The temperature was dropping and I was getting cold.

Suddenly my phone buzzed with her reply, “Got held up at work! My husband Rudolf and the kids are going to pick you up!”

My thought process: “Okay. I am in a rural town at dusk. A man I don’t know is going to pick me up and take me somewhere I’m unfamiliar with. Sounds like a really bad idea…. but there are no other options, so let’s see what happens!”

Old control-freak Kate would have been panicking that things weren’t going to plan. One of my goals for this trip was to go with the flow, so I sat back down on the bus bench and went with the flow. I didn’t get stressed or anxious or mad. I just waited patiently until Rudolf pulled up in a cargo van and I hopped in. He had his two adorable toddlers in the back seat. We barreled down the gravel road to their farm as he explained that his family has lived on this potato farm for 3 generations. The entire area used to be underwater, but then the government created all of this manmade farming land for “sea potatoes.” Recently, they installed a turbine and sell that electric back to the power company. They power 600 homes alone!

Rudolf showed me to my cabin (which was more of a trailer) and said his wife, Sasja, would be by shortly. She soon knocked on my door and introduced herself and showed me around the cabin. It was tiny! Maybe 6 ft x 11ft. The bed was a Murphy bed that pulled out of the wall and almost took up the entire room. It also had a little mini fridge, induction stove, heater, table and chairs, and sink (without running water.) The bathroom was located a stones throw away and had a shower, but was also shared with the other cabin occupant.v

Just as I was getting settled in for the evening, it started raining. Then hailing! The weather was taking a turn for the worse. I fell asleep listening to the sound of the wind turbine and hail pelt against the roof.

Day 4 in Wieringerwerf

My plan for the farm was to have the ultimate relaxation day. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bike into the city to explore, so luckily the weather made that decision for me. The high winds and heavy rains continued all day, keeping me inside. I woke up and did some yoga and meditation. At 10am, Sasja brought me a breakfast basket with fresh bread (still warm), butter, jam, meat, cheese, a fresh egg, yogurt, milk, and a dessert roll. It was way too much for one person, so I stuck to the bread, egg, meat and cheese. I wish I would have taken a photo of the basket. It was so cute!v25158136_10212175665005670_4581604744760878239_n

After breakfast, I wanted a change of scenery, so I walked to the greenhouse and spent awhile reading and journaling. It was very cozy and well decorated, but there was no heat! There was an old wood burning stove, but I couldn’t figure it out. I even googled and tried to watch videos, but this stove was older than the ones online with far more compartments and doors. I didn’t want to break anything, so I wrapped myself up in blankets.

Imagine my surprise when a few farm workers came into the greenhouse for a break and immediately flipped a switch to the electric space heaters. HA! I had suffered for two hours when the solution was so easy. Sometimes the answer is right in front of you.

The book I chose to read was “Present Over Perfect” and it is about slowing down your life so you can enjoy it. It is easy to get caught up in success or fall onto the “typical” path with each promotion pushing you farther away from why actually brings you happiness. It was definitely more for women nearing a midlife crisis, but I learned a lot from it. The biggest takeaway was that it’s never too late to re-evaluate and change your life. That’s the beautiful thing about individuality. We all have different strengths and passions, so why is it expected that we all follow the same path? The book challenged me to evaluate which fears are keeping me from living the life I want. For most people, it boils down to vulnerability. “What will people think?” “What if it inconveniences them?” WHO CARES? If you go through life being a people-pleaser and always saying yes, that will be your legacy. Do you want to be known as the person who was always responsible and dependable? Or do you want to be known for being brave and following your heart and having meaningful connections? I know these are all buzzwords and the book was admittedly pretty fluffy and inspirational, but it helped me brainstorm where I want the next part of my life to lead.

One of the most interesting questions from the book was, “If you had an open calendar and an unlimited bank account, how would you spend that time?”

Of course, my gut reaction is “travel!” I feel pretty proud that I’ve stuck to my goal of traveling internationally twice per year. I want travel to have a bigger role in my life, but I haven’t quite figured out how to implement that yet.

I read a different quote that said, “If you want to feel confident, you need to create something,” and it stuck with me. What do I create? What do I contribute to this world? My blog isn’t very active. I don’t have any other creative outlets.

Then it hit me. Maybe you caught onto before I did… but I love to cook and eat. I’m good at it, too. However, simply following recipes and eating meals isn’t very rewarding to me. So instead, I’ve decided I’m going to start experimenting and creating my own recipes. I know, I know, the food blogger world is overpopulated with mommies trying to stay busy. I don’t want to make this a job. I don’t even want to make any money. I want to create unique recipes that inspire the same excitement I get when I discover a recipe for “Pad Thai chicken wings” or “Paleo chili pie with cornbread crust.” Anything unique and unheard of. I want to contribute to something to the world!

I’m excited to return home and dive into this new hobby. Of course, everything will be Paleo and healthy, so I don’t expect my family to be avid followers, but I’ll share my creations here!

I fell asleep on the farm brainstorming ideas. I have a few good ones. Let’s see if I can actually execute them!

Day 5 in Wieringerwerf and Amsterdam

The next morning, I had another delicious morning breakfast basket. It’s dangerous how much bread I ate on this trip. I started off eating very well, but after my time on the farm when I was trapped in a cabin with loaves of bread, it went downhill.

A side note – Since January 2017, I’ve lost 40lbs. The majority of that has been since August. I’m finally at a healthy weight and my strength and cardio endurance is at the best it’s ever been. I can truly say I feel proud and confident when I look in the mirror, but finding the balance between dieting and living life is still a challenge. This vacation was hard. I still have 10ish lbs I want to lose and it’s the most difficult time of the year for weight loss. I really don’t want to backslide, but I also don’t want to pass up on unique Amsterdam food for the sake of counting calories. (Edit: Once I got back to America, I weighed myself and I actually lost 2lbs on vacation! Must have been all the walking!) After breakfast, I left the farm. The family’s nanny gave me a ride into town and made sure I got on the right bus. She didn’t speak much English, but she was my age and very sweet. Once I got to Hoorn, I had to change to the train. I bought my ticket and hopped on the train displaying “Amsterdam Centraal” on the side. Once we departed, the conductor came around the check tickets. He scanned mine and said something in Dutch. I asked if he spoke English and he said, “You’re on the slow train. You should have gotten on the fast one. You’re in for a long trip….” I was worried. I couldn’t find any concrete info on how long it would take. It ended up taking 2 hours instead of the ‘fast’ 45 minutes. Oh well!

Once I arrived back in Amsterdam, I was antsy. I walked the 4 miles to the hotel – perk of only having a backpack and not having to haul luggage! My room wasn’t ready for check-in until 4pm so I explored the Oosterpark neighborhood. It is known as being the working class/diverse neighborhood. There were many Arab restaurants and stores. Honestly, it reminded me a lot of Amman, Jordan. The aroma of freshly baked bread with za’atar, the fragrant spice shops, the juicy schwarma meat. It all make me nostalgic for Amman!

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I walked through the Dappermarkt and it was the same as the Albert Cuyp market. A bunch of junk! Maybe that is insensitive, but I hate how these markets are the “tourist destination for local culture” when it’s really just a flea market.

After a 4 mile walk, I checked into my hotel. It was definitely… pretentious. My dad would have hated it. The little details were creative, but a little annoying. The room cards said “Keep me. I unlock doors for you,” and the “Do not disturb” door cards said “Writing the next great novel, don’t bother me.”

The entire time I was checking in, the receptionist was telling me about their yoga class and organic breakfast and in-house haircuts. Never once did she mention the trick to getting the lights in my room to work. Imagine my frustration when I got to my room and none of the light switches worked. It was pitch dark and I was using my iPhone light to find a master switch or something. Next to the switches, there’s an illuminated “No smoking” sign. I tried pressing it. It didn’t budge. Finally, I asked the cleaning lady in the hallway if there was a trick to make it work. She barked, “You gotta talk to reception.” Okay….

So I went back down and explained the issue and she said, “Did you put your key in the slot?” I asked, “What slot?” She said, “There should be a slot next to the light switches that you put your keycard in.” I knew what she was talking about. The hotels in Amman had the same thing. I should have known. But I played along, “There’s no slot, there’s a no smoking sign.” She said, “Yes that’s it!”

How on earth was I supposed to know to put my card into the no smoking sign? I looked at my card and there were no instructions. I told her, “That would have been helpful information when I was checking in.”

That was the only time on my trip I felt defeated. It’s a pretty uncomfortable feeling. Like running up a mountain but you keep sliding down. Nothing makes sense, yet you’re doing all the right things.

Luckily, the feeling passed as soon as I turned on the lights and took a dip in the rooftop hot tub! The Volkshotel has 3 tubs on the roof and a sauna that is open for guests. I brought my bathing suit and planned to make full use of them. But when I got to the roof, it was pouring rain/hail. I was hungry, but couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat. Nothing sounded good. I also didn’t want to venture out into the bad weather, so I decided to eat at the hotel restaurant, Canvas.

I ordered the stemppot – a common Dutch food that’s basically a mash of meat, veggies, and potatoes. Perfect. One funny observation about Dutch dining: the waiter always disappears. After they attentively take your order and pour water and deliver your food, they disappear. I can only assume I’m supposed to walk up to the register to pay, because that’s what I did each time.

After dinner, I went back up to the roof. It was still raining, but I figured why the hell not. I sat on the hot tub for a full 2 hours in the hail storm. It felt incredible and was the perfect ending to a busy day.

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Day 6 in Amsterdam: De Pijp and Museums

I had planned to wake up and go to 10am yoga, but I wasn’t feeling it and I didn’t want to pay 12€ for yoga led by the pretentious hotel staff. Instead, I walked to a cafe called Cottoncake.

Getting out the door was a struggle. The redundancy of the day was challenging me. Did I really want to spend another 24 hours walking around a city, avoiding rain, paying for coffee, and shoulder checking tourists on the sidewalk who didn’t learn how to share it? I told myself it was the last day. Just show up.

So I did. And I was rewarded with the tastiest omelette of all time! It was a Brie and sage omelette and it was stellar. I stayed at Cottoncake for awhile, journaling, but soon it got busy and I had to give up my table. Just my luck, as soon as I left, it went from sunny to torrential downpour. My jacket is fairly waterproof, but it was starting to seep through, so I popped into another cafe for a coffee and to wait out the storm. One thing I love/hate about Amsterdam: each black coffee is served with a small cookie or biscuit. Far too tempting to avoid.

I continued on my way to the Ons Lieve en Solder. It is a museum inside a canal house that hides a secret Catholic Church. I would have NEVER chosen to visit this museum, but it was a gift. Each year, I participate in an online Secret Santa exchange. Everyone is matched with someone randomly in the world. This year, my secret Santa saw that I was going to Amsterdam and bought me a ticket to his favorite museum.vIt was certainly interesting and a fun rainy day activity. The history behind it is that Amsterdam used to be a Catholic City, but then “The Alteration” occurred and it became Protestant. The Protestants converted all Catholic Churches, but still allowed other religions to practice as long as it wasn’t openly displayed. This led to the creation of homechurches where followers would gather to practice. It might not sound impressive, but they hollowed out the top 3 floors of a home to create a giant altar. Given the tools of the time, it was no easy feat!

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After that tour, I continued walking. I had heard about Van Stemple and how they make the best cookies in Amsterdam. I’m not a big cookie fan, but I gotta try anything that is the “best!” So I stood in line for a single cookie.

It is a chocolate cookie with melted white chocolate inside. So many reviews said they brought home 50 of these cookies because they couldn’t get enough. The bar was set pretty high. Unfortunately, the cookies didn’t live up to the hype. They tasted like boxed brownie batter around bland Hershey’s white chocolate. I ate it still warm from the oven and it was still a disappointment. I took two bites and threw the rest away!

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The weather began hailing again, so I headed to the Moco to see the Banksy exhibit. I honestly didn’t know much about his work so I was excited to learn more, but the museum didn’t have much to offer other than a few placards about how famous he is.

One funny life lesson: Earlier in the day I realized I never saw the famous “Iamsterdam” sign that EVERYONE has their photo with. I thought about where it might be and figured it was at Dam Square, the tourist epicenter. On my way to the Moco, I walked through the square looking for it. I never found it. It wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to see, so I chalked it up to a loss and kept walking. I also couldn’t google it since I didn’t have data or WiFi available. After my visit at the Moco, I walked out onto the plaza to find the famous sign staring me in the face! Turns out it’s next to the Rijksmuseum! Sometimes you find things as soon as you stop looking.

On my way back to my hotel, I stopped for dinner at Sla. I was still dreaming about that salad I had the first night in Amsterdam! I ordered a different one this time – an Indian spiced tempeh salad. It was just as amazing as the first one.

I’m not a big fan of souvenirs but I decided to treat myself to the Sla Cookbook. It is entirely in Dutch, so I plan to use Google Translate to help me make the recipes, but I am so excited! Such a great way to remember the trip.

I returned to the hotel and had another evening on the rooftop in the hot tubs. It was more crowded this time, so I talked to a few new people. Surprisingly there were very few Americans staying at the hotel. Most were Dutch!

Day 7 in Amsterdam: Saying Goodbye

I woke up on my final morning to find it snowing! It was supposed to keep falling all day and I hoped my flight wouldn’t be cancelled. I ate the hotel breakfast (omg I forgot how tasty eggs on a croissant is!) and took the train to Schiphol.

Getting through the Schiphol TSA was a nightmare! I was behind a family from Spain and their toddler wouldn’t stop throwing himself on the floor and licking it while screaming. Luckily the agent took pity on me and let me cut them while they unpacked their million bags. I try to be compassionate in stressful situations, especially when the parent is clearly doing their best, but I was glad to get away from them!

While waiting for my flight, I ended up talking to a guy who went to the University of Colorado! Then, as soon as I said I went to DU, a different person said he sometimes teaches there! It is such a small world. I half expected to run into someone I knew on the streets of Amsterdam.

Well, we are landing in Reykjavik now. This flight was delayed, so I hope I can make my connection. Writing this post took exactly 3 hours! I feel like I’ve already woven enough heartfelt life realizations through this post. I don’t need to wrap up my trip in a tidy summarized box. Overall, it was a fun little vacation that gave me the space to evaluate the direction I want my life to head. Traveling alone is no longer a big scary challenge. It’s so easy. I might actually prefer it! I get to do whatever I want without the consideration of anyone else. There are no “What do you wanna do? I don’t care, what do you want to do?” conversations. There was virtually no harassment which was actually surprising!

I’m not saying I feel “ready to conquer the world!” or any feel good mumbo jumbo. But if you want to travel and the only obstacle stopping you is finding someone else who can go with you…. just do it. Just show up. That’s the hardest part. The rest will figure itself out.

An Impulse Trip to Amsterdam!

It’s been awhile! A lot of things have happened in the last few months: I’m single, I discovered meditation, and I’ve lost a ton of weight by stopping drinking!

My break up in August sparked a season of change. Suddenly, I had the time and emotional capacity to focus on self-care. Losing weight has always been a struggle for me. Being in a relationship with someone who loved trying new bars and restaurants meant most of our date nights were spent eating or drinking – a lot. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE trying new food, so I was happy I finally had someone who could afford to do it with me…. but it also meant I was eating a lot more than I had before. During the first 3 months of our relationship, I gained 15lbs.

In February of 2016, we both resolved to cut back on the restaurant dates. We did a round of Whole30 together and I lost those 15lbs by March. I tried to keep losing weight, but it wasn’t working. Even though we weren’t eating out, we were still drinking on the weekends because we wanted to continue being young-20-somethings. Plus, a conversation over drinks by candlelight is a lot more romantic than sitting at home on the couch…. We didn’t want our chemistry to suffer, so we kept going out, but both felt conflicted about it as we HATED the after effects on our bodies.

Our breakup was a blessing in disguise. Now that I didn’t feel social pressure to keep going out, I could shift my focus to fitness. I could start working out at 7am before work because I didn’t have to shuffle my clothes/makeup/gym bag between my apartment and his. We had always meal prepped food together, but now I reliably had all my meals at my OWN apartment, not split between both of ours, so it was much easier to keep on track with my food.

By simply cutting out alcohol and hitting the gym every morning, I have lost 30lbs since March… and 20 of those pounds have been in the last 3 months since we broke up. My body feels amazing and I am so much stronger in the gym!

Since my morning fitness class ends at 8am but I don’t start work until 9am, I’ve started meditating in the downtime. It began during a particularly stressful time at work and I was desperate for a way to escape it and quiet my mind. Once I realized how effective it was, I began doing it every day.

I use the Headspace app and I can choose if I want to meditate for 5, 10, 15, etc. minutes. It helps me stop worrying about tiny details of the day and focus on the bigger picture and my overall well-being. The biggest thing I’m focusing on right now is letting go of the past and present. Most of my mental dialogue is spent worrying about things in the future. “What are my plans Friday night? Will I have enough time between work and my date to go home and eat dinner? How will I handle this crisis at work? How much work are people expecting of me today? What did my friend mean by that offhanded comment? What will I do if it rains when I planned to run outside?”

I am trying to realize that none of those things are immediate problems and none of them require my current attention. Some of them I can’t even control! But yet, I spend an insane amount of time thinking about them. I am always anticipating the future instead of appreciating the present. By meditating each morning, I am trying to become more mindful of my thoughts and my emotional reactions to them. Overall, it is helping! My coworkers have told me I seem much happier and less stressed out.

In the whirlwind of these life changes, I neglected planning a fall vacation. I have a resolution to take two international vacations per year. This spring, I went to Cuba! Shan and I planned to go to New Zealand or South Africa this fall, but obviously that can’t happen.

I had planned on just staying in Portland and saving money, but then I saw an absolutely insane deal on a flight to Amsterdam. A round trip from Seattle to Amsterdam was only $380! That is cheaper than flying home to Kentucky! Plus I had 4 vacation days to use before the end of the year, so I figured it was the perfect time to do a solo trip.

I didn’t want the deal to slip away, so I bought it that same day!

I’ve been all over Europe, but never to Amsterdam. I don’t know anyone in the city, so it should be an adventure! I am trying not to plan my trip like I usually do. I want it to be an experiment in being flexible. I’ve researched some cool cafes and activities, but I’m not going to make an itinerary. I’m planning on waking up each morning and seeing what I feel like doing. Maybe I’ll go for a run if its nice outside. Maybe I’ll rent a bike. Maybe I’ll walk to a little salad cafe. Who knows!

I did book my accommodation in advance and I couldn’t be happier with my finds:

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Days 1-3: Central Amsterdam. I am staying at the EcoMama Hostel in central Amsterdam. I’ve stayed at budget hostels before and shared a room with 40 other people in bunk beds, but I feel like I am a little past that stage in my life. I value sleep! Plus I don’t plan on drinking, so I can’t rely on alcohol to help knock me into slumber. I chose the EcoMama hostel because it has a smaller 8-bed dorm room that looks adorable! The entire hostel is well designed and looks like such a nice place to wind down. It is also connected to a cafe, so I won’t have to walk far for coffee (but I probably will, because I love exploring on foot!)

I’m going to participate in a bunch of the hostel activities (evening family-style meals, pub crawls, etc) and hopefully meet some fellow travelers. I am also going to try to go to some Amsterdam meetups. The website Reddit has forums for most major cities. I am very active in the Portland page. We have meetups every 2 weeks where we all go to a bar and hangout and meet any new people who want to join. I’ve met all of my best friends through Reddit! Hopefully the Amsterdam community is as active!

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Days 4-5: Remote Farmhouse. I am most excited about this experience. I am going to be traveling 2 hours north of Amsterdam to the little town of Wieringerwert. I’ll be staying in a small cabin on a family farm underneath a windmill! The family provides breakfast each morning with eggs straight from their farm. There’s also a bicycle to use, so I can pedal around the tiny town. I know there won’t be anything to do, so I plan to use this time to read, write, and reflect. It’s not often I get the chance to go somewhere so remote and beautiful to unplug.

Days 6-8: Vondelpark. On the outskirts of Amsterdam is a large park called Vondelpark. I’ve found a small Airbnb guesthouse nearby that looks perfect for a solo traveler. It is verrrry small, but it was a great price for a private spot in a good location. The guesthouse is what is pictured above – just a room and a heater! But I have access to the bathroom and kitchen inside the house, across the patio. A young couple lives in the house and they have great reviews. It will be nice to meet locals and get an inside scoop.

It is located on the southwestern side of Amsterdam, so it will be an entirely new neighborhood for me to explore. It cost a little bit more than a hostel, but I think one weekend spent sharing a room with 7 other people is plenty. This neighborhood seems much more quiet and suburban. I’m excited for runs through the park. There’s even an expat bootcamp-style fitness class I am eager to try!

Everyone I’ve talked to who has been to Amsterdam says there isn’t a big food scene. I am secretly happy about that! I won’t have the temptation to try street food like I did in Asia (octopus kebabs, squishy spicy rice patties, custard filled fish pastries, etc!)

Eating alone in a restaurant is also a very awkward experience. I don’t mind spending time by myself, but I hate feeling judged by others who are wondering why I am alone. Maybe it is all in my head, but I definitely plan on spending more times at cafes where it is more acceptable! Plus, my hostel and farmhouse both have kitchens, so I plan on cooking for myself a lot. I’m determined not to let this vacation get in the way of my fitness goals!

I plan on seeing all of the typical touristy things (Anne Frank Haus, Van Gogh Museum, etc) but if you have any unique or unusual suggestions, please share!

 

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!

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!