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!

A Weekend in Vancouver, Canada!

As I took the majority of my vacation days when I went to Asia, it has been hard to find the time to travel! One of my good friends, Alicia, is leaving to go to grad school, so we decided to go on a weekend trip to Vancouver, Canada, as a final hurrah!

I have been to Vancouver once before in 2013, but Alicia had never been. We took the Bolt Bus ($80 round trip!) and stayed at the Cambie Hostel ($15 a night!) in order to save money. The Bolt Bus takes 8 hours and has stop-overs in Seattle and Bellingham, Washington. It takes a bit longer than driving, but is so much cheaper! And it has wifi and outlets, so we spent the entire time napping and listening to podcasts.

We arrived at 9pm on Wednesday. We found our way to the hostel and checked in, only to find that the remaining 2 beds in the room of 8 were top bunks. Lame! I spent the first night sleeping above a Brazilian guy who kept tossing and turning the entire night. Doesn’t he know that bunk beds shake?! He also kept itching his skin incessantly which was pretty gross.

The next day, we decided to switch beds to the opposite side of the room, away from the weird Brazilian. I got a bottom bunk next to a window that had a breeze, so it was great! We spent the entire first day walking around Vancouver and Stanley Park. We walked a total of 15 miles!

The food in Vancouver is so expensive. An “inexpensive” meal in the “$$” range is $15-$20! That’s too much to spend on lunch, so we brought a lot of protein bars and ate the complimentary muffins the hostel provided. We did splurge a couple of times on nicer food. My favorite was a picnic board where you built your own sandwiches! The entire platter was $15 and we split it between the two of us. Extravagant but cheap!

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On Friday, we found a bar to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympics. It was a lot of fun and we even got to see the city light the Vancouver Cauldron from the 2010 games! That night, we planned to go to the Richmond Night Market which is famous for Asian street food and unique wares. We spent $9 to get there and it took 45 minutes on public transit. Once we arrived, there was an additional 15 minutes of walking to the market and being shuffled around by crossing guards and crowd management. It was packed! We stood in line for 20 minutes before deciding it wasn’t worth it. The food was still expensive ($10 for street food!) and the fairgrounds were exploding with people. There wasn’t an inch to move inside the fence! We left and took the train back to Vancouver, feeling defeated.

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The next day, we took the ferry across the water to North Vancouver where we went to the Lonsdale Quay market. That was much better! We didn’t find anything to buy, but it was nice being on the harbor. We stopped by a restaurant to get brunch. Did you know that in Vancouver, Bloody Marys are called Caesars? They’re made with clam juice, too! Pretty tasty. I also got to have taiyaki – my favorite fish shaped pastry I discovered in Tokyo! We ordered 3 of them to share… one with beans, one with custard, and one with nutella!

On our final day, we stopped by Tim Horton’s, the famous Canadian coffee chain. I ordered “one iced coffee” which typically is just black coffee with ice. I was served a beverage that was almost white in color and tasted like melted ice cream. It had so much cream and sugar, it didn’t even taste like coffee! Since turning 24, I’ve realized that I need to start asking for what I want, especially in stores. So at Tim Horton’s, I had no problem with telling the barista that I wanted a BLACK coffee. She seemed irritated, but ultimately switched out the coffee. You’ll never get what you want if you don’t ask!

The bus back to Portland was less fun than the ride to Canada. A loud group of 20-somethings got on in Seattle and kept LOUDLY talking about attractive women and explicit topics. The entire bus kept giving them the stink eye until they got the message and shut up. Some people just don’t know how to act in public.

Overall, it was a fun trip! Vancouver is a great city with amazing food (if you want to spend the money!) There aren’t many cultural or historical sites, so there isn’t much to tour. Unless you have friends who live there or are into the bar scene, I wouldn’t recommend going there on a long vacation, but it’s great for a short trip!

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Last 2 Days in Japan!

Our last couple of days flew by! Tokyo is such a large city, but I feel like we managed to see and do most of the major attractions. If we had another day in the city, I would have wanted to take the bullet train to Hiroshima or Kyoto. We spent our last full day traveling into the “suburbs” (a stretch considering Tokyo is so dense!) to see the hipster neighborhood of Shimokitazawa. As we were in the metro station, we spotted cherry blossom lattes! We had wanted one from Starbucks and saw them in Korea, but by the time we made it to Tokyo, they were discontinued!

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We wandered up and down the main street full of thrift shops and salons. If the city center of Tokyo was NYC and our hostel’s neighborhood of Shinjuku was Chicago… Shimokitazawa was definitely Portland. The residents were younger and better dressed than everyone we had seen so far! The skyscrapers had vanished and we were suddenly in a quaint, quiet neighborhood.

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I had read about a small bakery that exclusively made Totoro pastries. “My Neighbor Totoro” is a movie by Miyazaki that I loved when I was growing up. Joe was also familiar with the movie and wanted to check it out. We went to the bakery and had another confusing incident. Apparently the house it is located in is separated into a restaurant and a bakery. We walked into the bakery and she asked if we wanted to eat it there. We said sure and she said “Then you must order upstairs at restaurant.” We walked upstairs and were told it would be an hour long wait! We had to return to the bakery and explain that we actually would just take it to-go.

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Once we got our pastries (I got banana cream filling and Joe got custard), we went to Yoyogi Park to eat them. I expected it to be quiet and relaxing, but apparently there was a giant festival! The park was PACKED with people. It looked like ants swarming an anthill. We found a spot and started eating our delicious Totoros!

Joe wanted to go check out the Meiji Shrine attached to the park, but I had already toured it the day before, so I chose to grab lunch in the park. I ordered two of the most popular street foods – yakitori (meat on a stick) and takoyaki (a vegetable batter ball with octopus inside, topped with eel sauce and mayonnaise and seaweed!).

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It was great people watching in the park! I saw so many interesting things! One group of people were filming a shoe commercial and another group were playing drum music. A boyfriend was trying to take care of his sickly drunk girlfriend who was sleeping on a bench and another boyfriend was trying to hold his stumbling girlfriend upright. The Japanese can definitely drink! And this was at 4pm on a Saturday!

Joe and I met up and decided to go get dinner. It was our last dinner in Tokyo and we wanted ramen! We found the best ramen spot in Shibuya. We expected to wait, but there were only a few people waiting outside the door, so we got in line. We were quickly informed that the line “actually” began on the opposite side of the sidewalk behind 20 more people. The restaurant actually employed a hostess to stand outside and organize people in line to keep the sidewalk clear due to the high volume of pedestrians. After 1.5 hours of waiting in line, we made it inside! It was a tiny restaurant with 21 seats. Each seat had its own window into the kitchen. You purchased your meal ticket at a vending machine upon entering and then filled out a questionnaire about your ramen preferences. Then, you rolled up the window and handed it to the chef who soon delivered your food. It was pretty weird, especially considering the window was tiny and you couldn’t see the face of whoever you were talking to!

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My ramen was okay. It wasn’t as great as the ramen we had the very first night! These noodles were thin and I like mine pretty thick. The pork was also sliced into thin pieces, whereas the pork before was in giant chunks!

We had planned to go out to celebrate our last night, but we were just too exhausted – this seemed to be a common theme of the trip! We crashed early and set our alarms early the next morning to check out of the hostel.

10am rolled around and I was in the lobby waiting for Joe. We had planned to leave at 10 to get an early start on the day. Soon, 10:15 rolled around and he still wasn’t anywhere to be found. Turns out, he slept through his alarm! We didn’t leave until around 11:30 after we checked out of the hostel.

We made our way to the Hello Kitty cafe called Cafe de Miki in the Diver City mall in Odaiba. It is a giant man-made island off the coast of Tokyo. It was nice to be near the water! The island is known for its modern architecture and skywalks!

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I had heard about a candy store nearby, so we went to check it out and found the infamous flavors of Kit Kats! I bought wasabi, green tea, sake, and cherry blossom flavors. They were absolutely delicious – sake was my favorite. I brought a bunch back for my coworkers and friends to try!

We wandered along the waterfront and saw the beach. Interestingly enough, it restricted swimming. I read online that this is because of the pollution in the water! Gross.

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Joe wanted to go to a design museum, so we split up and I walked around Odaiba. A couple days earlier, we tried to find a purikura, or traditional Japanese Photo Booth. We found one, but it was already closed so we couldn’t use it! Taking photos in a purikura was one of the main things I wanted to do, so I was determined to find one. While wandering around the mall, I stumbled upon an arcade and took a chance to see if they had a purikura area. They did! I spent 30 minutes and $10 to take the most amazing photos of all time!

First, you walk down the narrow hallways between the machines and try to decide on which one you want to use. I didn’t quite understand the difference, so I did a bunch!

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There are 3 different sections to the machine – first, you pay on the outside and select your soundtrack and background, then you enter into the “photo area” where you take the pictures, then you go into another room where you can edit the photos. The process is pretty confusing! And you only get 30 seconds to edit each photo which is difficult when all of the menus are in Japanese!

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And that’s just one of the photo sheets! I have 3 or 4 more! I wish I could have a higher quality copy. There was an option for the machine to text the photos to you, but it only used Japanese numbers and carriers 😦

I met up with Joe at the Tokyo Tower. It is a similar attraction to the Tokyo Skytree, but the Tower is shaped like the Eiffel Tower. As I was looking over the guidebooks, I realized this was the only spot we didn’t visit, so we planned to meet there before we left for the airport.

Getting from Odaiba to the Tower was… interesting. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t have data on my phone. Before we split, I had Joe route me on his phone and then I took a photo of it. I went back to the Odaiba metro station and didn’t see any lines that matched the instructions on his phone. I went with my best guess and went 3 metro stops before I realized it was NOT the right way! I had to retrace my steps. Once I was back in Odaiba, I realized I was supposed to leave from a different metro station! I tried to swipe my card to leave, but the machine started an alarm and wouldn’t let me out. I assume it is because I didn’t actually GO anywhere and it was confused why I was trying to exit from the station I entered. I flagged down the worker and he let me leave with a chuckle.

I followed the instructions and made it into the city. I just had to take a bus to the Tower. I found the bus station and compared the Japanese on my phone to that on the stop – it matched exactly! I was so proud of myself. I got on the bus and followed my GPS location on my phone. The bus was following the intended route… until suddenly it veered off track and started going the wrong way! I immediately pressed the “stop request” button and got off. I still have no idea why the bus route was different than that on Google Maps!

Joe and I had planned to meet at the Tower at 7:00pm. We agreed to wait until 7:10, and if the other one didn’t show up, we would meet at the hostel at 8:00pm. When I got off the bus, it was 6:55 and I was 25 blocks from the Tower. There was NO way I could walk it and I didn’t have any way to figure out an alternative route. If I missed meeting Joe, I would have to figure out how to get back to the hostel and that seemed impossible without wifi. This was the first time I felt truly lost and helpless! I did what any stranded tourist would do – flag down an expensive taxi.

I made it to the Tower on time and met Joe after a $10 cab ride. We took the elevator to the top and got a gorgeous view of the city!

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We took the metro back to the hostel to pick up our bags and then headed to the airport. We wanted to get a good dinner in Tokyo, but there were no places along our route, and we didn’t want to have to haul our luggage into a small restaurant. We made it to Haneda airport and found a table with an outlet and ate and drank to our hearts’ content. He ordered a burger and fries and I got my favorite… ramen!

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The flight back to America was painless. I didn’t intend to sleep, but I nodded off during the second movie I tried to watch. I think I slept for about 4 hours! I woke up as they were serving the meal. I got the pasta and it was a simple mac and cheese… disappointing!

We had a 3 hour layover in San Francisco, so we went to a bar and drank a few beers. I looked at my passport and realized I’ve filled 12 pages and only have 8 to go before it expires in 2022. It is my goal to fill it, but thats only 6 years. Even if I do one major trip per year, that isn’t enough! I need to step up my game!

This trip was so much fun. I know I say this each time I travel, but I didn’t realize how similar we all are. I imagined life in Asia to be much less… western. I didn’t expect to feel the hustle and bustle of America, but Japan is a thriving city with just as much excitement. Both Korea and Japan are much more inclusive and I found it more difficult to meet locals. Going out is also much more difficult due to the lack of “just bars” and the requirement of a cover charge or mandatory food. We still had fun nights… but it sure was expensive!

I also realized that I’m growing up. Traveling in my early 20s was all about partying and eating at the BEST restaurants and maximizing every moment. My goal of NOT planning this trip resulting in a much more relaxing time. I caught myself appreciating the moment a lot more frequently. Joe became the “Planner” during the trip and I could tell he was a lot more stressed out than me. Our generation has a tendency to want only the best – the best restaurant, the best menu item, the best seat at the show – but, in reality, anything can be the best if you take the time to enjoy it. Our favorite bar in Tokyo wasn’t one that we found online… we stumbled into it and ended up loving it! I’m going to try to adopt this way of thinking in my life in America. Instead of planning out every weekend, I’m just going to go with the flow and see how it works out.

But for now… off to plan my next trip!

Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom

Our last 3 days were filled with a lot of sightseeing! Joe and I took another day to do our own things. He went to the beer museum and I went to a few beautiful parks! First I walked through our quaint neighborhood. It was absolutely adorable and I purchased breakfast from a little bakery that spoke no English. It’s amazing how well pointing and grunting works! I also stumbled upon a temple across from the metro station!

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I went to Ueno Park and found more fish bread! I found a cute spot and ate breakfast before walking along the water to see the cherry blossoms. It blew my mind how populated the city is! People were EVERYWHERE.

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I ended up going to 3 different parks all across the city. Yoyogi was definitely my favorite – it was the least populated, so it felt like I was actually in nature. It took me all day to transverse the city on foot to get from park to park, so by the time I made it to Yoyogi, it was dinner! I found a food cart serving steamed pork buns, so I bought one. I also purchased what I thought was carbonated milk, but turned out to be a sports drink! Haha.

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Joe and I planned to meet at a nearby bar. It was full of westerners but had amazing beer! We each had two flights and then left after the Irish men next to us began to scream across the table. At least Americans aren’t that obnoxious!

We wanted to see the famous Shibuya Crossing – an giant 5-way intersection with no rules! When the pedestrian sign turns green, you can walk across the street at any angle you want!

The best view of this is from the Starbucks overlooking the intersection, so we joined the throngs of tourists and bought lattes and fought for a spot to take photos.

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It was crazy! There are just so many people everywhere. Even more insane is how big of a tourist attraction it has become. Where else do people take photos of crosswalks? Abbey Road, but I think thats it!

Afterward, we went to our local 7/11 to get water (we were constantly dehydrated!) and I found an interesting snack that quickly became my favorite! It is shrink wrapped fish wrapped around spray cheese. It sounds nasty, but it was so good. Joe refused to try it and all of my coworkers thought it looked revolting, too!

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We grabbed drinks at a few nearby bars and then turned in for the night. The following day was our final day full day in Tokyo, so we wanted to rest up!

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto!

Thursday was a big day for us! We woke up early and went to the Tsujiki fish market. The earlier you get there, the better. It was around 11 by the time we arrived via metro, so it wasn’t as lively as I hoped. It was also pouring rain, so I spent most of the time trying to dodge other people with umbrellas!

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We wandered through the alleys and looked at all of the fresh fish. There weren’t too many street vendors, so we popped into a cafe for a latte while we decided where to get breakfast. I had wanted to try “fish bread” the entire trip, so Joe tried to find a place. I had read about this on the internet and posted about it before I came – basically it is a pastry in the shape of a fish! We walked down the street to a local shop, but realized it was closed. We planned to go across town to another shop that was open… but I wanted to see the nearby wealthy shopping area of Ginza before we left that neighborhood. While we were walking there, we stumbled upon the traditional Kabuki theater!

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Kabuki is a style of theater known for intense drama and crazy makeup! I had read about it online and its one of the top tourist attractions in Tokyo. Tickets for an entire show are pretty expensive and each performance lasts 3-4 hours. Luckily, I had read that you can buy single act tickets for $20 that only last around 1 hour. I mentioned this to Joe and we walked over to check out the performance times. It turned out a performance was just getting ready to start in 45 minutes! We purchased tickets and set off to wander around Ginza to kill time. By now it was 2pm and I still hadn’t eaten breakfast, so I popped into a little cafe. I was on a time crunch, so I picked two items from the bakery that looked intriguing. The first was a shrimp and egg croissant. I thought the second item was a meatball wrapped in spaghetti…. but it turned out to be a ball of fudgey icing wrapped in more icing!

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We quickly went to the show where we were given a run down of the rules – no photos, no talking, no standing! The show was pretty interesting. It was entirely in Japanese, so I have no clue what happened. All I could gather was that a powerful man killed a woman, her dog, and a servant and was then banned from the city. It was pretty slow… most of the action in the plot happened in the last 15 minutes. I’ll admit, I almost fell asleep quite a few times!

After the show, we had to get back to Shinjuku to go to the Robot Restaurant! This was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s TV show so we HAD to go. It is a 2 hour long show of pure insanity! We had no idea what to expect, other than a fantastic light show and lots of robots!

We entered the lobby and were blown away. It was so gaudy and there was a man in a robot costume playing some great jazz music. We ordered a couple beers and hung out while we waited for the show to begin.

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I was surprised the show had a plot! A planet of animals and humans had to defend their peaceful nature against invading robots. Each act featured epic battle scenes between giant robots and animatronic dinosaurs. There were a couple musical acts, too! It was pure entertainment and constant sensory overload. I definitely recommend it!

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I was disappointed the show had to end – it was a lot of fun! We only had drinks during the show, so we headed to Harajuku for some Japanese BBQ. This was ANOTHER 30 minute metro ride, so we were starving. We decided to stop off at a fish bread shop so I could finally try it – and it was amazing! I had expected a fluffy bread with barely any filling, but this was the opposite. The bread was crispy and the sweet black bean filling was overflowing. It was delicious. I wanted to go back another day, too, but we never made it!

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We continued on our way to Seiko-En where we splurged and ordered a giant prix fixe dinner! I was seriously amazed at how many amazing courses there were. However, the meal got off on a rough start. Once we told the waiter that we wanted the prix fixe dinner, he said “Okay okay, go to bar.” And kept motioning for us to get up. So we figured we were being relocated. We picked up our stuff and walked over to the lobby where he was motioning. Then, he looked visibly frustrated and called over someone who spoke better English. This man said “It is time for salad bar. You do not have to move seats. Do you want to move??” We said no and went back to the table to put our jackets down. So confusing!

We had full access to an amazing salad bar that was stocked with so many vegetables I have never seen! I loved my delicious salad. Soon, additional veggies were brought out for us to nibble on… including kimchi, seaweed, and other side items. The next course was raw beef sushi. It was very interesting and surprisingly delicious! Not at all what I thought raw beef would taste like… but it was cut very thin so it was easy to chew.

The next course also presented problems for us. It was a plate of shrimp, chicken, and pork. Since the last course was eaten raw, we began to eat this one without any thought. We were chewing on raw pork when I looked around and realized everyone else was grilling their meat on the giant grill in the center of the table. It became clear that’s what we were supposed to do! I didn’t want to be rude and spit it out, so I chewed and chewed and chewed. Raw meat is surprisingly difficult to eat!

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The next courses were soup, rice, and green tea ice cream. All was delicious! We left the restaurant with full bellies and went back to Shinjuku to go to an elusive whisky bar. When we showed up, the bartender said “We are full but wait 2 minutes, someone is leaving!” and slammed the door in our faces. It was a small space with only 10 seats and 1 bartender. He has a reputation for being gruff. While we were waiting, several other people tried to walk in and were turned away and told they couldn’t wait. A bar with no waiting room – what a concept! You show up and if there aren’t any seats, you must leave! We saw a man attempt 3 separate times 45 minutes apart to enter and he was turned away each time. We got lucky!

Joe ordered a flight of Hibiki, a Japanese whisky. We ended up talking to an American who was an engineer for Apple! He had been in China for work and popped over to Japan for a quick visit. We hit it off and he invited us to his Japanese friend’s bar. It was a lot of fun and we ended up all getting ramen at 3am – another late night abroad!

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