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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The funny thing about home

KARIBU!

Welcome, they said. The warm smiling faces that greeted me upon arriving in Kenya were so genuine. Welcoming me to their country. I have many friends who have visited different parts of Africa, many of them Black, and hearing stories about their feelings upon arrival gave me a certain expectation about how I would feel touching down in the motherland. And with this expectation came also so nervousness. I had no idea what the feeling was-maybe it was because it’s the farthest I’ve been from America. Maybe it’s because it was such an unfamiliar land. Maybe it was just gas…but I was ready to come HOME. Or at least feel like I was connected to the land by a force stronger than that which connected me to America. So I walked off the plane and set foot onto the African soil, but just like Diana Morales, I felt nothing. But it was just the tarmac, I told myself. So I walked into the airport, stood in the visa line and when my passport was finally stamped…nothing. But it was hot and there was a long wait. So I gathered my things in anticipation of the great powerful feeling that awaited me outside in the warm African sun. I emerged from the airport, and was greeted immediately by a row of drivers waiting to pick up their passengers. Now was the time, I thought. I searched for the man holding the sign with my name. Welcoming me, Cessalee, home to Africa. But he was late, and I went back inside to wait and I have to tell you. I just didn’t feel like home.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I have absolutely fallen in love with Africa. I started my trip with two days in Nairobi where I kissed a giraffe, got nuzzled by an elephant, held a crocodile, named an ostrich, and got to visit a museum filled with living history and stories of true courage. Then I continued in Zanzibar where I went scuba diving in the Indian Ocean and had fresh fish cooked for me in a park. I sat on a beach and took my first Maaselfie, had tea with a cheetah and got raspberried by a lemur. A zebra gave me a rose and I gave a command to the king of the jungle and he followed. Then came the safari in the Maasai Mara followed by Lake Nakuru where I danced with an African tribe, watched multiple animals mating in the wild, and learned that even the cheetahs aren’t safe when there’s a lion around. I watched a kill, I saw day old babies being taught how to live, I saw elephant skulls that had been there for years. I truly saw and experienced so many wonderful things in Africa, I’ll have to do a separate post just about my itinerary!

But the only thing I didn’t do was feel like I was home.

It’s ironic because I don’t really have a “home.” I last lived in NYC in 2012, right before I left to start tour with The Book of Mormon and since then, I’ve been on the road for work or on the road to travel. I do have a storage unit or two in my hometown and my parents have the key, but a home…well I don’t currently possess one of those. And part of this #Cescapade is elongating the time before I need to drop back down from my wanderlusting cloud and find a job, in a city and make some moves to have a home.

When I talk to people about my trip, everyone thinks it’s pretty cool to be traveling so much and so far and mostly alone. And everyone has a comment or opinion about some place I’m going. It’s dangerous, it’s beautiful, don’t forget to haggle, it’s the best, you’ll love this bar or this hotel, make sure to do this excursion. And I am definitely the kind of person who soaks that up! I always keep a notepad to jot down the suggestions I get and truthfully, I’m the same way when people tell me about their trips. But this time, I think I allowed myself to get too wrapped up in how I expected to feel. I truly thought that whatever my friends experienced in coming to Africa would be my feelings too. Even more than the places on my list, I was most excited about the feeling I would get. This grand feeling of belonging. And that didn’t happen.There are people all over this world and someone has been everywhere. You can take tips and suggestions about where to go, but it’s up to you to decide how you feel. And it’s ok if it doesn’t feel like home, or however you expected it to feel.

So I’ll tell you what I did feel. I felt comfortable, I felt safe. I felt beautiful-in a country where everyone looked like me, the things that make me special stood out. My hair is a HOT MESS most days, but I got more compliments on it here than I ever have in my life. It made me feel like there was value in my skin, in my body, in my being. I loved that. I felt so welcomed by the most kind and warm people I’ve ever met. I can’t tell you how many stories there are of people being kind just because they are kind. And patient. And the scenery…my goodness. The trees, the mountains, the bright colors worn by the people, the buildings, it was just amazing. I’m pretty sure I cried about 10 times just because something was overwhelmingly beautiful. And those are feelings that I couldn’t have expected to have and to me they are more real and valuable than the “missing” feeling of being home.

And just to clarify, when I say it didn’t feel like home, I don’t just mean that they don’t feel like America, although they certainly don’t. But they also don’t feel like my home. The good news is, I have felt “home” before, so I am confident that when it feels right, I’ll decide to stay. But for now, as I say goodbye to Africa, I’m filled with excitement. I can’t wait to visit this beautiful land again and hopefully bring my family back with me. I feel like I have so much more to see and do. But when the next trip is over, I’ll be happy to head back home…wherever that may be.

#journeyon

Free as a bird in Zanzibar

Free as a bird in Zanzibar

Africa sure it pretty at night

Africa sure it pretty at night

Maasai Mara

Maasai Mara

My pal, Luck!

My pal, Luck!

Just a trio of cheetahs!

Just a trio of cheetahs!

The Lion Sleeps tonight

The Lion Sleeps tonight

Sweet little lion cub

Sweet little lion cub

Go your own way

Oh Iceland!

This trip has been absolutely phenomenal from inception, through execution and I’m pretty sure it will live on as one of my favorite vacations of all time! Back in January, I had decided to leave The Book of Mormon and after finding and booking a great deal for the European Adventure, I came across Wow Airlines‘ amazing deal to Reykjavik. For only $300 (plus a trip to Boston, one of my least favorite cities based entirely on the football team) I could come to Iceland. A few folks in my travel group had been talking about it and the pictures you see online are stunning. So what the heck, it meant I would get a nice long break of 6 weeks before going back into the workforce, I thought! So I posted on facebook:

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And within minutes, Drew replied that he was in. And while we had become facebook friends and frequent “likers” on each other’s pages, we had only met briefly once in LA through a mutual friend. Next came Amber, my cousin. We’ve talked many times about traveling but have never been further than Chicago together so this was going to be a new journey for us. And then Lindsey, one of my dearest friends from a show I did five years ago. Within 2 hours of posting, flights were booked and we were set.  With a few weeks to go, a good friend from college, Holly, sent a message while I was in Europe. Where will you be Oct. 13-17 she asked? A few hours later, she had a ticket and completed our crew headed to the Land of Fire and Ice!

The gang's all here!

Although at different times, we all arrived to Iceland and took up our places in our amazing airbnb and basically set off to explore! Truthfully a few hours passed before it really hit me. Four friends of mine who had never met before were going to be living and exploring this foreign land together. Someone asked how we all knew each other and with four eyes fixed on me, it meant a lot of responsibility to make sure everyone had the vacation of a lifetime. For me, it was one stop of many on my #cescapade. For them it was their a fully thought out vacation that likely would be the only one for several months. Take about pressure! So in typical Cessalee form, I stated worrying about the schedule and who needed to be where and when. And taking time to tick off all the boxes that my travel books and online research had turned up. And for three days or so we went around doing all of the stuff we “needed” to do. And I don’t mean to downplay that, they are high on the lists because they are awesome! The Blue LagoonHallgrimskirkja, Þingvellir, Scuba diving the Silfra Fissure and more filled our days with so much more excitement and beauty than we could have expected.

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Diving the Silfra

Lindsey, Drew and Cessalee at the Church

Lindsey, Drew and Me at the Hallgrimskirkja

Making Friends in the Blue Lagoon

Making Friends in the Blue Lagoon

But then we started to really explore. And the need for “planning” went out the window. Our scuba instructor Byron, wonderful man, suggested we take a trip down towards Stokkseyri; he claimed that the best restaurant he had ever been to was in this tiny little town and we needed to go. And from a man who has lived all over the world as a dive instructor and an advocate of humane food preparation, we trusted his opinion of seafood. THANK GOD we did! Holy cow, the lobster at Fjörubordid was unbelievable. Out of this world. And I had my first trip to a Black Sand Beach!  And the cave we stumbled upon off the side of the road was equally amazing. The 4th longest cave in Iceland gave us hours of adventure…and a perfect spot for photo shoots on the way to the most epic meal I’ve ever had.

The After. So much lobster.

The After. So much lobster.

The Before

The Before

5 Friends go into a cave...who will come out?

5 Friends go into a cave…who will come out?

Black Sand Beaches

Black Sand Beaches

We stumbled upon a flea market on Saturday, wandered into the Art Museum with had this curious display of teddy bears covered in wax. An entire room was filled with all kinds of archways and portraits with varying shapes and sizes of bears, some more worn/loved than others. On our way out, the woman stationed at this exhibit began to talk to us and we learned that Kathy was actually the artist of bears; truths…. She told us about her piece and how each bear was actually donated or rescued from local Goodwills; they represented the stories and secrets of children and in sort of a Pixar movie way, allowed their humans to grow based on the foundation they provided. I’m probably not describing this to make it seem as awesome as it was but man, I surely hope someone out there sees here package and brings it to the US. It was the trippiest, weirdest, but coolest piece I’ve seen in a long time! Amber is in school and in exchange for missing some of her classes, she has to interview entrepreneurs here in Iceland and because Kathy also owns a restaurant and 72 apartments in town, we went to her Korean-Asian-Islandic Fusion restaurant K Bar to eat while Amber did her interview. What an awesome woman! From owning a Montessori School in Berkeley to starting with one apartment for rent to becoming a multi buisness owner in Reykjavik, she has a life well lived! And she set us on one of the best adventures of the trip!

Us-is with Kathy Clark, creator of bears; truth...

Us-ie with Kathy Clark, creator of bears; truth…

Family Portrait with the Bears

Family Portrait with the Bears

All bears go to Heaven

All bears go to Heaven

Drew, Lindsey and I set out to explore the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Using the notes I could jot down from Kathy, and the Drive it Yourself Map from www.IheartReykjavik.com, we set out for an adventure. What a day this was. The scenery was beautiful. Thankfully I was driving because I stopped the car no less that 821 times to take a picture. It was like you saw something and thought, nothing could be more beautiful than this spot. And you kept thinking that until exactly 7 seconds later when you saw something more stunning. The worst part of that trip was when a car was behind me or I was on a bridge and couldn’t stop the car in the middle of the road for a photo! We hit a few of the must do spots, with a 6 hour round trip drive without stops, we knew we wouldn’t be able to see everything on everyone’s lists. But for me, the most magical part of the trip was finding the double waterfall. Don’t ask me where we were, don’t ask me how to get back there, but somewhere between the Crater and Kirkjufell there is this little spot between a sheep farm and a sheep farm where you can climb into the waterfall. It wasn’t on the map, or a list, or suggested at the visitor center (we needed a bathroom…stat!), or by Kathy. There were no plans to see it. We just stumbled upon it. So it was ours. We made our own way.

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Living in the glow of the moment!

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Lindsey took a moment of intention.

Drew was just being Drew! Excitable as always!

There is so much beauty to see here in Iceland. I truly hope to come back and explore even more of this awesome country. But until then, I’ll keep the memories of the day I decided to chase waterfalls.

The Lighthouse at Stikkysholmur

The Lighthouse at Stikkysholmur

The cliffs at Arnastapi

The cliffs at Arnastapi

Great friends, great food, great adventure

Great friends, great food, great adventure

ICELAND

ICELAND

Hello world….indeed!

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And I’m off!

It’s been a lovely almost three year run with national tour of The Book of Mormon! The second to last thing we sing in the show is “this Book will change your life” and my oh my did it! I was introduced to some amazing people and had the chance to see so much in our beautiful country! And I figured, if all of this is here, I can’t imagine what’s out there! So, I’m gonna go see!

For the next six months, I’m headed to a city near (or far from) you! The concept of “plans” is such a joke in my life, but for lack of a better word, here’s my “plan”:

Sao Paulo and Rio, Brazil

Abu Dhabi and Dubai, UAE

Oslo, Norway

Copenhagen, DK

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Brussels, Belgium

Frankfurt, Bad Durkheim, Berlin & Munich, Germany

Prague, CZ

Paris, Indiana (that was a joke)

Reykjavik, Iceland

Nairobi, Kenya

Zanzibar, Tanzania

Tokyo, Japan

Bali, Indonesia

Caye Caulker and Dangriga, Belize

all over Guadeloupe

London, England

St. Croix, VI

undecided in Morocco

So if you’re out there, I’m coming to see you! And if you’re back here, stop by to see what I see 🙂

#journeyon

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