KNOW BEFORE YOU GO! Havana Edition!

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Man! It’s been a while! Hello there, great to see you again! 

I’ve been on a few adventures since we last spoke, but Cuba has lulled me out of my writers block. 

This country is amazing! 

We’ve only been here a week and I’ve only gone a few hours from Havana on this trip, but there are some things I think you might need to know before you head here! This compilation is entirely things I wish I would have known before I came here. This is from a “travel Spanish” speaking, well traveled, budget conscious, American traveler. Now, some of you might be more of a choose your own adventure while on the adventure type of people so I’m trying not to let my overbearing type-A mentality suffocate your fun out the trip, but I hope these tips will help all of you have a slightly more awesome time in Cuba than you’re already sure to! 

WHILE AT HOME

  •  Screenshot everything you think you might want to do with maps! To be fair, my cousin and I did very minimal research before we came and when I travel, I’m used to having a list of the things people told me to check out and looking them up when I get here. I know this seems stupid, but you not only don’t really have the luxury of abundant wifi, you also probably don’t want to spend the internet card time and money looking up places that you could probably have found with a screenshot of a basic google search screen! For us, it wasn’t the social media we missed, it was the google! It seems so common sense but I wish I had been a little more prepared for that.  
  • Try to arrange a driver from the airport and pay in advance so you don’t have to get CUCs out at the airport. We found the exchange rate to be the same everywhere we went (as of 9/20/16, 87% when you include the 10% fee for US$) so there was no real reason to get money in the airport other than to to pay the cab driver. And that line is about an hour long…there’s nothing like getting off a long flight, waiting forever for your luggage, only to wait in another line. Just in case you’re looking for someone, here’s our guy! Tell him Cessalee sent you! IMG_5938.JPG
  • Bring some inflight entertainment and back up chargers. Again, this may be travel 101 for some of you, but the planes we flew from the US to Mexico to Havana had no tvs and no chargers for phones. Also, we found it nice to have a few games to pass the time on buses and at the end of the day. 
  • If you’re flying through Mexico, its very easy to get your visa there for $20, but make sure you have at least an hour of a layover. We were towards the front of the plane and were able to get off and through customs quickly! Our bags were (surprisingly) already there so we grabbed them, went up to re-check them, got our visa, got back through security, to the gate and in line as the plane was boarding. Thankfully we were totally ok and had a few minutes to spare, but I wouldn’t chance it with less than an hour. We were one long customs line away from missing our connection.IMG_5922.JPG
  • Again, it may go without saying, but bring more money than you think.We set a budget of $500 each for 7 days not including lodging and exceeded it by about $150, but had more than enough to cover our expenses. 
  • Airbnb is a great way to find a casa particualar in Cuba! There are also great options in the other cities in Cuba. Just make sure that you’re extremely clear about the space that is yours vs. the shared spaces. We had a small issue where a listing said that we were renting an entire 4 bedroom, 4 bathroom home, but what they really meant was that we had an entire room with one bed in a 4 bedroom, 4 bathroom casa. Definitely not the same thing! So just make sure that you’re very clear about what you’re expecting. 
  • If you have any extra room in your suitcase, bring a few snacks. The bodegas are harder to find here than you’d think. And if you really have extra space, consider bringing small travel sized toiletries or toys for your host. We gave our host’s daughter two bottles of nail polish and it brought such a smile to her face! It’s the little things! 

WHEN YOU GET HERE

  • If you do have to change money at the airport, just know that if you change more than $1200, you are exempt from the 10% fee. So if you’re traveling with friends, pool your moola to save some moola! 
  • There are two kinds of money, the CUC, or convertible “tourist” money, and the CUP, or the “locals” money. We had absolutely no issues, but make sure that the money you’re getting says convertible on it and had pictures of monuments, not people. IMG_5824.jpeg
  • One thing I wish we had done on day one, was to head to the Infotur spot on Obispo. There a woman named Leda gave us all the information we needed and it didn’t cost a single cent! She’s got the most up to date schedules for the buses to the beach, Varadero, Vinales, Pinar del Rio and anywhere you might want to go! Head over to see her and take a few pictures of the schedules. That will help you know what time you need to get up in the morning to take the 5-10 CUC tourist buses instead of taking a 50-70 CUC tour! 
  • Wifi cards are available at most large hotels for between 2 and 5 CUCs. Some charge more for not being a guest, some won’t even sell them to you if you’re not a guest (I’m looking at you Inglaterra…grrrr). People on the street will sell them for 3, I”m not sure if they’re legit, but it sure beats 5! You can also buy them from the Etecsa office on Obispo (just past the Floridita Hotel) for 2 CUC, just make sure to bring at least a picture of our passport. And maybe a game, the line will be long! 
  • As for attire, for me, loose and comfortable was the way to go. The heat is on in Havana! So depending on your sweat level, you’ll want to make sure your clothes are lightweight! But these Cuban chicas are flaunting it, so if you’re a mini skirt and bandeau top kind of person, go for it!! Feel free to wear as little as you’d like, you won’t feel out of place. 
  • Someone is going to try to tell you that there is a “cooperativo” selling half price cigars for one day only and then they’ll take you into their house and show you cigars that they will sell for as low as 10 for $20. I personally didn’t know enough about cigars to even test their authenticity, but here are the things I do know. Many of these people sell “cigars” stuffed with banana leaves instead of tobacco so if you’re not sure what cigars are supposed to look, feel and smell like – I’d probably avoid it. However if you think you know what you’re looking for, the workers at the factories (at least the Partagas one we visited) get 5 free cigars a day to take home. So after a week, they’ve got a pretty nice batch of cigars to sell on the black market. So proceed with caution, but just know that it’s not one day a month! We’ve been here 7 days and it’s been happening every day so far! IMG_6220.JPG
  • Negotiate everything! And use your casa host/hotel as a reference. They’ll tell you what cabs should cost so you can start on a fair playing field. Most people start with about double what the actual price should be. Same goes for the tours that the cab drivers offer, the horses etc. 
  • But on the other hand, most people are working on some kind of kick back/commission situation. The cab drivers get a kick back from bringing you to the bar, the guys out front get a commission for bringing you to the club etc. So don’t be too weirded out when they walk you to the next place. It’s just so they can get their payment! 
  • It seemed that most of the “Havana tours” were the same. The hop on/hop off bus was the same basic route as the classic car tour and the walking tours. I’d suggest figuring out where you want to go and then starting with whichever mode of transportation appeals to you most and then getting a private cab/car to hit the places you miss! 
  • If you’re headed to Varadero, get 2 days for one night price like we did! I’d say, take the 8:00am bus (10 CUC) and then hang out in Varadero town near the bus station, check out the stores a bit and then get a taxi to your resort (10 CUC), and even if the room isn’t ready, they’ll let you enjoy the amenities. The next day, they’ll let you stay and relax and the last tourist bus leaves at 7:30, so grab another 10 CUC cab ride to the town (unless your resort is already in the city) and you just got two resort days for the price of one! You can also opt for the shuttle service which will take you directly from hotel to hotel! it’s a little more expensive but the convenience is totally worth it! 

There is so much more to say and share about Cuba! We had a wonderful time going all around Havana and visiting the beautiful beaches of Santa Maria and Varadero! Overall I would say that the people here are amazing! The sights and sounds you’ll hear are some of the most exciting and authentic in the world. Don’t be afraid to talk to people, they are excited that we’re coming and just want us to love and respect their culture as much as they do! Have a great time, enjoy Cuba and when you come back, please leave a comment about what you wish you knew! IMG_4329.jpeg

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Midriffs and the Middle East

Last week my #cescapades took me to Dubai and Abu Dhabi with my Mom and Aunt. When we arrived, I realized that “none at all” was a nice way of putting our pre-planning. None of us had any clue what we wanted to do. With only a few “must see” spots and group activities planned, we pretty much landed without a clue about the first move. It seemed the only thing all three of us had actually looked into was how to dress.

And when it comes to fashion my mom just wants to be cool. Literally. She’s not really a big fan of heat. Once we pass about 70 degrees, she’s ready to go inside. But she loves a sensible sun dress with a shrug! My aunt is a fashionista – looking good is ALWAYS important and in a place with such a rich culture and fine silks, she wanted to make sure to be in the running for Emirati’s top model…or at least look like it. I’m sort of ambivalent about fashion, but I like to be respectful. So all three of us landed in the middle of the desert with our cardigans and sweaters and long pants and maxi dresses and 2 hours in, we were soaked, I’m talking drenched, in sweat. And to make matters worse, we looked around and saw all the no-no’s our individual research had warned us against: exposed shoulders, short skirts, Bebe-I mean, WTF right? Here we are basically wearing our ski jackets and petticoats and these folks are just frolicking in their summer best! What gives?

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The Emirati culture is an absolutely beautiful one. The pride that the people had and have in their land and their work is clear to see today. The big Dubai boom came after the discovery of oil in 1966, but the foresight of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum is, in my opinion, what turned the United Arab Emirates into not just an oil producing region, but a major travel and business destination for the rest of the world for centuries to come. Throw in the exports to Iraq and you’ve stumbled upon a gold mine. And it’s understandable why people who are native to this land want to celebrate that rich culture. (all puns intended)

So thanks to booty shorts and American Apparel, it became pretty easy to pick out the foreigners.

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Truthfully, there was a delicate balance between under dressing and over heating, but we gave it our best effort! We went to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (one of the three things we had actually planned) and we were ready! We went through the website several times to make sure we were in compliance: Nothing tight, nothing short, long sleeves, head covering, nothing transparent.

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Mosque Manners for the Sheikh Zayed Grande Mosque

Of course upon arrival, all three of us were told we were in non-compliance and were swiftly sent into the basement to pick up our abayas. Sure, we were a bit frustrated at the lack of recognition of our efforts (ok..it was just me), but we went and made the most of it. And to my surprise, they were pretty cool. Our guide, Laila, also made a point to talk about the traditional dress of both men and women in the UAE. She said that she enjoyed wearing her abaya because it ensured that people were listening to her and not passing judgement based on her dress or her curves. Coming from a country where we regularly judge based on all sorts of things long before we even meet people (I’m looking at you, Tinder), it was a very interesting way to think about appearance.

Auntie, Mom and Me at the Mosque

Auntie, Mom and Me at the Mosque

So by the end of the trip, we relaxed our dress a bit. We weren’t so terrified to wear a v neck t-shirt or throw on a knee-length skirt. But the traditions and the culture definitely rubbed off on us. I may or may not have bought a few traditional dresses of my own. I have no idea where I’ll wear them, but I’m excited!

And more than anything, I left with a great deal of respect for the women in the UAE, or anywhere, who choose to wear their abaya, burqa, hajib, chador, or niqab or any other garments that allow them to feel comfortable. In the States, I’ve seen my fair share of side eyes at women fully or partially covered, but I get it now…at least better than I did before. And I have to say ladies, though it may not be MY look, I think YOU are beautiful!

Here’s to beautiful people, inside and out!