Africa Journal – Kenya

IMG_1206Africa Journal November 25th, 2017 

Kenya- the next step in my journey! I arrived in Nairobi, but as planned, I didn’t get a chance to see the city as it was a mere transit point for safari in Amboseli National Park. Upon landing, I quickly paid the ATM a visit for some Kenyan Shillings and went right to an airport hostel/lounge. Yup, that’s about it for Nairobi, a pity, but there’s so much wildlife and so little time and safari is on the mind.  

I’m not in Nairobi Anymore

7am the next day on the 22nd of November, my safari vehicle was awaiting to take me to the national park. Heading farther and farther from Nairobi I got to see increasingly scenic landscape along the highway and started to see the Masai peoples tending to their herds as they graze, all a sign I was getting closer to what I came here for. 

The paved roads disappeared as we headed closer to my lodging just outside the park. No longer could we simply keep driving in the designated left lane (no, this isn’t England, but a former British colony) but instead strategically swerved all along the road, dodging potholes and large troughs and crests on the dirt road. Despite the “bumpy” start, things got much more luxurious at the lodge. As a result of limited days for seeing Amboseli, I had few options for tours and there weren’t any real budget accommodation options. Turns out, what I booked was essentially “glamping”. The staff was sure to greet me immediately once I arrived at Kibo Safari Camp and swiftly took me to my glamorous tent. It was a permanent tent with a solid overhang superstructure. Inside had electricity, full plumbing, and nice lighting. Outside my tent was a private patio with a view of Mount Kilimanjaro (when there aren’t clouds in the way), and down the path was a pool, a full bar, fire pit, and restaurant. I was quite honestly uncomfortable at first, as I’m not used to staying at such nice places. It was almost too nice for me. Not to mention it wasn‘t a typical place for backpackers like myself and instead it was a cushy place for couples and groups of foreigners. The clear downside of the demographics of the place was that it clearly lacked in the social aspect that I would experience at a much more modest hostel. However, I embraced the place for the next couple nights and let it give me an opportunity to catch up on sifting through my photos thus far and uploading many of them online. 

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View from my “Tent”

Still, the same afternoon I arrived, we had time for an afternoon game drive in the park. One of the main reasons I chose Amboseli as a destination was mostly for the Kilimanjaro views coupled with the safari wildlife. Unfortunately, this main draw was hiding in a thick, rainy cloud the entire afternoon. The drive was still successful, encountering elephants, gazelles, zebras, baboons, and even lions! I determined this was just the warm-up and hopefully tomorrow Kilimanjaro would rear its head among the surrounding plains. I was certainly excited, don’t get me wrong. When I first started laying eyes on my first animals, I was so happy that I was finally experiencing a top bucket list item of mine and could sit back enjoy the ride and start clicking away photos to my heart’s content. After a good start the safaris, we head back near dusk. 

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Ostrich in Amboseli National Park

A Part of the Tribe

The next morning, I was given the opportunity to visit a Masai village nearby. With a contribution, I went following a Masai man to his village. It was a beautiful morning, it was warm and comfortable, and to my pleasure, Mount Kilimanjaro was fully visible on the entire journey to the village. Following a Masai tribesman as we walked towards Kilimanjaro was such a fulfilling feeling. It, too, was a big reason why I came. The village was simple and very tribal in nature and most importantly, authentic. They configure the village in concentric circles. The outer ring is sharp shrubs and sticks to keep the elephants and predators at bay. Inside this is a circle of cow dung structures reinforced with more wooden sticks. Then inside this inner ring is some walking and living space with the next layer being another defensive and containment perimeter, keeping cattle reserved in the center of the village where they are least vulnerable from hungry predators.  

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Masai Medicine Man

I felt very welcomed at the village, where I was handed off to one of the sons of the village doctor. He gave me a tour of one of the homes, occupied by woman I would peg as being in her 50s or 60s of age. Inside was dark and tight and somehow managed to have enough space for a bed or two and a “living room” were a fire was burning. The smoke produced by the fire made it difficult to breath but their design of ventilation certainly kept the smoke a much safer level that would occupy the structure otherwise. Afterwards back out in the open, fresh air he showed me some of the natural medicines the Masai people use. They were various twigs and roots retrieved on 7 day treks every month or two that are meant to curb or prevent many ailments, such as malaria, stomach aches, muscle and join pains, and even erectile dysfunction. Following learning what old men and men with multiple wives used to “keep them going”, they showed me how to make fire. It seems to follow the same procedure the Boys Scouts follow- a soft wood stick with a hard wood friction board in combination with tinder, which in this case was dried cow dung. Between three tribesmen switching off on the exhaustive task of rubbing sticks, they got the dung ablaze.  

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Masai Making Fire

My favorite part of the visit was the tribe dance. Roughly 15 of the village’s men and women came out to perform a traditional group dance for me, with “Kili”, as Mount Kilimanjaro is affectionately nicknamed, in the background. After a few minutes, they asked me to join in and I started dancing like a Masai, jumping up and down as high as I could. Not being a person who has ever been known to have “ups” and I suspect they’ve been practicing all their lives, it was not contest regarding who could bounce higher- me or them. Though I was quickly put in my place in vertical ascension, I had fun and it was experience I will remember.  

Amboseli

The dancing got my blood flowing, but Day 2 of safari must begin and so we reenter the national park for another game drive. Unfortunately, during this time the clouds swiftly formed around Kili and it was gone. Just like that. The cursed late morning heat! I was hoping to get a decent photo of wildlife set against the mount, but that opportunity vanished as quickly as my basketball career apparently. It was never a guaranteed thing and was still happy with my Masai visit and I still got to see much more of the park. More and more zebras and gazelles, now with warthogs, vultures, bushbucks, impalas, and water buffalo. My favorite wildlife sighting was definitely the six or so elephants walking towards our vehicle and one other. They weren’t bothered by us apparently and one elephant even got up right next to the other vehicle where the others blocked the road. Elephants, lions, and giraffes were the animals I was looking forward to most, and got two of those under my belt. And as far as the fabled Big 5 goes, by the end of the morning drive I was at 3 out of 5. Not too bad! 

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Our drive was complete and we drove through the park en route to the Tanzanian border at Namanga. When I thought I was done and wasn’t about to see any new wildlife, I was jolted at the slamming of the brakes for some giraffes near the roadside. One of my most anticipated safari animals was now before my eyes. And this wasn’t the last time, we came across two more groups of giraffes lollygagging through the trees to get a munch.  

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I’m not in K…enya Anymore

The border town of Namanga is nothing noteworthy besides the border control itself. It’s the first time I’ve seen the set up that they had, which was where the border posts of both countries are in the same building and is technically in Tanzania. My taxi drove into the parking lot, where my new Tanzanian cabbie parked literally right beside. It’s more of a border check than a hard border. I went into the building, through passport control, and walked out the other side. I felt like I could have skipped the process and just went straight into the next cab and drove into Tanzania without check. It felt incredibly loose and wouldn’t be difficult to cross borders illegal. One thing’s for certain, it’s not the USA-Mexico border.  

When I booked the safaris, which is all through the same operator, he really wanted me to stay at a hotel in Arusha during my transition to the next safari. He did give me a good price and was just a place to crash but still was craving hostel life. I made the best of my evening there, with a free dinner, in addition to having some drinks while going through more photos.  

After taking full advantage of the free breakfast in the morning, I was picked up early to head towards Serengeti National Park with a stop at the Ngorongoro Crater view point. Already in the vehicle were Kelly and Andrew. Both came across as nice people right from the start. After some talks, I find that Kelly is a journalist from Ireland who quit her job from a big national newspaper there to travel over the course of the next year while doing some online gigs. Andrew is a student at the moment taking a break and traveling with his friend Jake, who we’ll soon pick up at another hotel down the road in another town. Jake works in athletic training also taking time from work to soon get back to school.  

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Ngorongoro Conservation Area Entrance

Our stop along the way was the Ngorongoro Conservation Area view point. The drive through the conservation area was nice enough with quite an ascent up the crater rim, complete with plenty of curves and steep drops and view of the vast expanse beyond the crater. The rim view was gorgeous. To the far left, far right, and far into the distance were the crater rim as it rises and encircles the plain held within. The plain itself is vast, full of green, and 21 kilometers from rim to rim. All of which made for a great photo-op with new the new safari-mates.  

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Ngorongoro Crater

The drive from Ngorongoro took about four hours, arriving at the Serengeti National Park gate, shortly followed by the Serengeti welcome center. The gate was nothing more than an archway bannering the name of the park but the welcome center was a picnic spot, with a lookout point, a souvenir shop, and coffee shop and is where our guides had to check in with park officials to arrange everything necessary to enter. We took our time here at each of the aforementioned amenities. It started to rain, but it didn’t stop us from hiking up the slippery slope up the hill to the lookout and while everyone was rushing down the hill, we were the only ones toughing it out to reach the top. This short hike was fun despite the view being not particularly the best with one way being a partly visible plain and the other direction was featuring two obstructive cellular towers (as one pictures in the Serengeti, right?). But joking around with the good company in the rain more than made up for the underwhelming view.  

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Masai Near Ngorongoro

Though we did have make the best of the drizzly weather, we were in fact getting pretty wet so we boarded the safari Land Rover and set off into Serengeti National Park. It took just a matter of a couple minutes out of the hilly terrain into the plains to spot our first zebras. At the time it very exciting. After all, I was in the Serengeti and was looking at a zebra! All of us were quick to start snapping photos, ogling at the beasts. But little did we know, we’d be seeing as many zebras that we could possibly want and in much more picturesque settings. Good thing our guide knew to keep moving so we didn’t get hung up on the animals that just so happened to be closest to the park entrance. Even with moving on, we were quick to stop again. This time, though, was warranted. We had suddenly come into mobs of animals – zebras, wildebeest, and gazelles – all mingled in these huge hoards grazing the plains for as far as the eye can see. It was incredible as the horizon itself wasn’t the visible edge of the curvature of the earth but the masses of mammals blending into the sky above. 

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Serengeti National Park Entrance

Here was the beginning of a great experience in the Serengeti. 

 

Africa Journal 4: Stone Town, Zanzibar

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Stone Town, Zanzibar as viewed on our boat to Prison Island

November 23, 2017

The Dala Dala Experience

The day was open. With a late flight out to Nairobi out of Zanzibar Airport at 7:30pm, the day was my oyster. After some discussion with Ellie, we decide to take on Stone Town for the day, giving us both the opportunity to explore it properly. Ellie made the experience more fun than it would have been alone. Not only that, but her two-months of intensive Swahili lessons really helped us communicate with the locals.

To say money, and for a more authentic experience, we elected to take the “dala dala” or minibuses that makes stops along routes on the island but operate in a much more casual fashion than a normal bus line. Plus, it only costs Tsh 2000 ($1) for an hour and a half journey in a crammed vehicle. We just had to wait for it at the Paje roundabout for pickup. I actually enjoyed the ride, not only because it was far cheaper than a taxi, but because we were the only white people in the bus and got to be elbow-to-elbow with locals going about their daily business.

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The Old East Africa Slave Market

Remnants of the Slave Trade

Neither of us really planned specifics of Stone Town ahead of time, so we just wandered around for a while before heading towards the harbor. I fortunately was already ahead with sightseeing as I had my original taxi to Paje stop at the Old East Africa Slave Market just a couple days prior. It’s a now a church with the alter being the very location of the auction platform where the slaves dragged over from all over East Africa sold and shipped to the Americas.

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The church alter at the former auction block site

Still existing to this day and underneath the church is the confinement areas. One chamber housed women and children, and the other was for men. The men were especially kept in down there long enough so some would die from starvation and dehydration and the strongest could be identified and then sold upstairs. Dozens of men were kept in these rooms in tiny confines, with nowhere to stand with a trough of sorts for human waste. It’s a very sad location but beneficial to see to reflect on their hellish treatment and understand what others endured with the goal of creating an awareness to ensure history never repeats itself. Sadly, in current events, slavery is very much real in this day, such as the captured refugees fleeing western and northern Africa for Europe, for instance.

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Local boys play off the shore

Giant Tortoises Doing (Lots of) Time on Prison Island

Onto happier thoughts, Ellie and I scheduled to meet with a couple friends of hers that were staying in Stone Town and planned on venturing to Prison Island that afternoon. The island, known for its former prison of rebellious slaves that turned into a hotel and its tortoise sanctuary. It being one of Stone Town’s best attractions and from what we heard of it, we quickly decided we were in.

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The Old Fort is not a bad thing to look at while waiting “forever” for pizza

Zanzibar has a well know market of street food somewhere near the harbor so we set out to find it, even though we didn’t have an exact location. After a pleasant walk around the seafront and down narrow, winding alleys of the neighborhood, we were unsuccessful and with meeting up with the island group in less than 30 minutes we had to settle for western food… pizza at a local cafe. I normally avoid western food on trips like these, but we were in a pinch and I must admit, it was pretty delicious. And we got to look at the Old Fort and clock tower from across the way while we waited. The point of the pizza was to get something quick but turns out it takes darn near a half hour for these things to pop out so we simultaneously ate and briskly walked in classic “rushed American” style. After all, they say Americans are always in a hurry, and we hit that stereotype to a T. Even eating while meeting the group, and continuing all the way to the boats, just 100 or so meters away.

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The boat to Prison Island from Stone Town

The group we joined were American high school students on a homestay program and Ellie’s friends were group leaders. Besides the ride over on the wooden craft over to the island, I never got the chance to know them. Ellie didn’t have swimming gear and even though I did (I’ve been lugging around my entire bag with me the whole day), I didn’t want get wet and salty before flying.  So even though the rest of the crew started out with some snorkeling in the beautiful blue waters off the Zanzibar coast, we got dropped off right on the island and started to explore.

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Boats anchors at Prison Island

We were in a time crunch, well I was because I had a flight to catch, but Ellie was nice enough to adjust to my schedule and saw the same things as me even though she’d have to repeat them later with her group after I leave on my separate ride back to the mainland. Now with little time and an island to explore, we headed straight for the tortoise sanctuary – the highlight of the trip over. Both of us snapping loads of photos each, we entered the sanctuary containing at least 20 or 30 humongous tortoises with dozens more younger ones. The hugest must have had shells of 2.5 or so feet long and 3 or 4 feet long with their long necks extended for some grub, and were known to be 120, 140, 160, up to 186 years old. It’s amazing how such a big, super slow animal has such a long lifespan. Leafy stems were included, giving us the opportunity to feed them, touch them, and simply observe them up-close and personal.

 

Prison Breaks and Goodbyes

Satisfied with the amount of tortoise interaction just had, we quickly saw some the old prison facilities, and even took a moment to enjoy a male peacock really flaunting its stuff to an apparently uninterested hen. My previously scheduled boat was about to arrive so we had to cut the roaming short. After a nice goodbye and well-wishing, I was off to mainland and then to the airport as Ellie rejoined her friends that just arrived from the snorkeling.

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The Prison-turned-Hotel on Prison Island

The Next Leg of the Adventure

As I have been writing on the plane from Zanzibar to Nairobi, the plane is now preparing for landing. Next time: Kenya.

 

Africa Journal 3: Paje, Zanzibar

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Paje Beach, Zanzibar

November 21, 2017

I can say with certainty that things are well underway. I feel like I’m actually in the thick of my vacation now that I’ve passed through the early parts of my agenda and content that I’m in my travel element completely once again.

Zanzibar Background

These past couple of days were spent on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar. The largely conservative Muslim region is a hot spot to westerners on beach holidays. The contradiction is vacation-goers sporting bikinis while sipping on excessive amounts of alcohol in a land where local women are largely covered in niqabs, hijabs, and at a minimum, longs pants and shirts with wrist-long sleeves. This clash has caused occasional issues with tourists ignorant or defiant of the customs leading to angered and sometimes outraged Zanzibar citizens. Luckily, I didn’t see such clashes and have only heard of it, both first hand and otherwise. Largely, Stone Town (the old, colonial town in the west and the major port city) is where customs must be adhered to a respectable degree and the beach resort and hostel areas on the other coasts is where the tight rules of conservative Islam are relaxed.

 

Setting Sail

I arrived in Stone Town on November 19th, the day I wrote my last entry. At that time, I was contently typing away with a beer in the hostel tiki shack restaurant and bar, but earlier it started with the ferry from Dar es Salaam to Stone Town.

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Zanzibar Spice Farm

I said goodbye to now friend Amani Prosper, the brother of my coworker in the USA. It was a short, but great visit with the family, but the ferry was calling to whisk me away to Zanzibar. Since I didn’t opt for the $50 V.I.P. ticket, the $35 regular ticket got me in a well-kept compartment of the vessel, however, even with relative timeliness, finding an open seat was a typical “Hi there, is this seat open?” scenario. It was stuffy, too, and compact, which was far from ideal as I was still tired from the night before, but after making our way out of the port, we were granted access to the deck on the seaward side of the boat, opening up to fresh air, a nice ocean breeze, and nice views of passerby gigantic shipping container ships and other ships. This was, until the breeze turned into a whipping wind and it just POURED.

The rain refused to stop and after getting through passport control, my plan to walk around Stone Town was shot and instead elected to taxi it straight to the hostel on the other side of the island in Paje.

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Entrance to my Paje hostel

Hostel Folk

I met some cool people at the hostel. I got the chance to meet and hang out with a couple of Brits, a few Germans (there were so many Germans), and another from Colorado, Ellie. The non-Americans I got to know more-so in the hostel confines over casual drinks and food, and one fun night at an area club/bar. Ellie and I spent more time together. We were in the same room as a couple of the German girls and had good conversation right off the bat. We weren’t hanging out every waking moment but it was funny that when we did our own things, our paths crossed very soon after. I found it fascinating how she studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa and just completed a two-month Swahili language immersion and was taking a little time to relax before heading off to a rural village outside of Mombasa, Kenya. She in return took interest in my previous travels and experiences, which I very much enjoyed sharing with her. We became friends very quickly.

Spice Tour

With limited time for organized activities, I booked a solo trip for a spice tour. It’s about what it sounds like, it’s a tour consisting of looking at and consuming spices, but it is also more fun than that. It was partial day of walking around a spice farm where they did indeed have a wide variety of spices growing.

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Produce fresh of the plant at the spice farm

The guide would take me around to each plant, explain what it is consumed in and what ailments it may alleviate. Many came with a good old sniff sample and some I got to taste, such as the ginger root. Towards the end, we got to see an entertaining man shimmy up a coconut tree, chanting and dancing his way  to the top and along his descent. Let’s just say he made it look easy and if I attempted I probably wouldn’t be pretty!

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Newly appointed “King of Africa”

We celebrated the successful climb with sipping milk out of fresh coconut and I was awarded a woven crown and necktie by the child who was following in wake for the much of time. This, of course, was for my newfound title of “King of Africa”. Naturally this was a touristy thing, but I had fun with it nonetheless. After seeing so many spices and fruits on the way, we got to enjoy the fruits of their labor in dishes prepared by a widowed women foundation who benefit from some of the proceeds of the optional goods for purchase after all of this. The food was very good, consisting of Pilau rice, a curry dish, fresh fruits sliced before my eyes, and a prepared banana dish. Still proudly wearing my crown and tie, it was time to head back the hostel.

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Fresh as it gets!

Beach Combing

With some day to seize yet, there was still time for an afternoon of walking the white sands of Paje Beach and a couple of $2 half liter Kilimanjaro beers over an ocean view as I sifted through my photos of the day. Not a bad way to cap off my day in Paje!

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Fresh coconut milk on the beach, yes, please!

 

Africa- Journal 2: Days in Dar

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Dar es Salaam, Tanzania near the harbor

November 19, 2017

The trip is well under way. My splendid time in Dar es Salaam with the Prosper family has come and gone and I now have found my way to Zanzibar island off the Tanzanian coast.

Dar es Salaam (“Dar” for short) was even better than I anticipated. Although the city itself wasn’t honestly anything to fall in love with, it was the company that made the experience one to remember. My stay was with a Tanzania family, of whom are the family of a Tanzanian coworker. I quickly found that they were such great hosts right from the start. Even though I arrived at 3 a.m., they insisted on picking me up from the airport. Amani, the bother of my coworker, made me feel welcomed straight away and got us home so we could both get some rest before the day, because, after all, I have been traveling for the last 21 hours and he was up way earlier than is alarm clock would be set on a Saturday morning as I can pretty safely assume. After a struggled night sleep trying to cope with the jet lag, I awoke and found a hearty breakfast was in the making. Eggs from hens in the coop out back, mangoes from a tree also just steps away, and some of the freshest pineapple I’ve had…and tons of it! I found out quickly that I usually underestimate how much I can eat.

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With the Prosper family

As much as I’d like to just stay and eat all day, I had to the see the city and Amani helped me do just that. After a bajaj (the three-wheeled, compact taxi vehicle, elsewhere as an auto-rickshaw, trike, or tuk-tuk) ride to the bus station and the bus to the city center, we bought a ticket for the Kilimanjaro Ferry ticket to Zanzibar for use the next day. We continued walking to enjoy the path along the harbor glancing by some colonial government buildings such as for the Tanzanian Court of Appeals, their High Court, and the Surveying and Mapping Department, and others. Fortunately walking was very welcomed after than long, seat-ridden flight because we continued to walk and walk that, seeing the National Museum of Tanzania and the fish market at the harbor – even tasting the catch! Amani bought an entire bag full of whole, seasoned, fried, small fishes, and had a couple – eyes, fins and all – and to my surprise, they weren’t half bad!

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The vendor selling fishes that we bought and ate from
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Auction at the fish market, Dar es Salaam

Now that we’ve satisfied our appetite for the moment, we set out on the ferry across the harbor. The ships that file into the harbor are humongous and stacked tall of shipping containers laid one on the other and another. Due to the size of the vessels and the relatively short passage between shores, a cheap ferry runs continuously back and forth during the day. Since it’s a necessity for many locals, rather than a typical tourist attraction, a one-way ticket is a mere Tsh 200 (US$0.10). I wish everything was that inexpensive! After capturing some view of the beach and the harbor, we set back to the side from where we once came.

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Vehicles and pedestrians unloading off the harbor ferry

The day was winding down, and with the thirst derived from being in the hot sun of the late southern hemisphere spring in Tanzania, I was starting to feel a bit out of it. But we persevered, heading to one last museum on the way home. It was the Village Museum, as it’s called, which was a site that recreated tribal huts of the different ethnic groups in all corners of the country. We got to walk in, look at recreated tools, and feel like tribesmen for an hour or two.

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Hut at the Village Museum in Dar es Salaam

No matter what kind of structure you reside in, you need and eat and we once again have another filling meal of the wonderful cooking and preparation by Amani’s mother. After dinner, full and having no need to eat, we go to a local societal club where we, can you guess it?… ate more food. This time hunks of goat, chicken, grilled banana are on the menu and, of course, beer. Though the night started as a chill few beers and food over a projection of the football (soccer) match, it turned into an active night on the town at a couple of the city’s hot spots. It was a welcomed glimpse into local night life as there were few to no foreigners at these places besides myself, which I much enjoy. The night faded into early morning and by the time our bajaj took us home we ran into Amani’s father who was starting his day while ours was ending. 10 a.m. arrived, and I reluctantly got up – I had a ferry to catch.

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Just some of the spread by Mrs. Prosper. There was more before I had something to do with it.

Africa- Journal 1: The Start of the Trip of a Lifetime

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Some of the many elephants spotted on safari. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

November 17, 2017

When it comes to epic trips to do in one’s lifetime, an African safari is certainly one that comes to my mind. It’s right up there with walking climbing the Great Wall of China or gazing upon the northern lights. Since I have a seemingly automatic and natural allure to these bucket list trips, I’m embarking on this very African extravaganza. Safari isn’t the only thing on my mind that this vast, beautiful, chaotic continent has to offer. Although I have done extensive research and planning into this trip, I can’t wait to see it all unfold over these next three and a half weeks, and share my experiences during and following my journeys.

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Some of the fun to come – Atop Victoria Falls, on Livingstone Island, Zambia

As a write, I’m sitting at the bar in the international transfers terminal at the Istanbul Ataturk International Airport. At this point I’m still flush with excitement and anticipation of arriving in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, my first stop along the trip. So far it’s been a comfortable journey. It all got going with a great send-off from my Uncle Bob and Aunt Kim over some drinks at a brewery near the Chicago O’Hare airport. They’re the best hosts around and really know how to help kick the trip off right. Soon enough after, I whisked myself away through the airport security and the journey had officially begun.

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Boarding a jet bound for Nairobi bound for Kigali.

Although the flight was standard with no surprises, I got the same thrill that I have every time I fly, particularly abroad. To me, there’s an incredible sensation about the moment when an airplane’s jets engage, propelling the vessel into motion, accelerating and accelerating to the point where suddenly feel a sudden lift in combination with the quick disappearance of the rumbling of the tire on the runway pavement, followed by the inclination of the plane’s nose towards the sky. There’s just something about disconnecting from where you were and knowing the next time you touch the ground is going to be somewhere totally different. This feeling is the strongest the moment I leave US soil because there’s something about being in a foreign land, and when the tether is severed for weeks at a time, it’s strangely liberating.

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There’s something about reaching new nations. On Victoria Falls Bridge at the Zambian border.

Well my beer is finished here in Istanbul and I have the next leg of my transit to catch. Here we go!

Going to India- How to Prepare and What to Expect

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Taj Mahal. Photo taken during my visit in December 2015.

General

US outlets produce 110V of current, while India’s provides 230V. Many plugs for our equipment can handles this range of currents but verify to be certain. Laptops and phones are most likely to adaptable for this. It will specify a voltage range right on the cord’s adapter. If it works with 230V, then only a power adapter is necessary, which is just a little piece that turns your US/North American prongs to the Indian ones, leaving the voltage unchanged. If not, a power converter is necessary, which is bigger and down-converts the 230V to the 110V your equipment can handle. A power converter is always a safe bet as it never hurts to use one, plus buying one lets you use it around the world since they typically come equipped with multiple prong sets built-in. Using the wrong voltage on your devices can ruin them. Indian prongs are typically (but not always) the European two circular prong.

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Power Adapter (left) and Power Converter (right)

Carry a copy of your passport on you and leave your passport at the hotel, unless you actually need it for something specific. Note: Passports are many times required to change money at currency exchanges. Carrying a state I.D. (i.e. driver’s license) is good, especially when proof of age may be required.

Consider buying a money belt. I use one when I need to carry my passport and larger sums of cash. If you get pick-pocketed, or something slips out of your pockets, then at least these items will be safe. I also bring a spare credit card to leave in my hotel room as a backup in case my wallet disappears.

Most ATM’s accept US debit cards. Most card companies will charge a 2-3% foreign transaction fee (as many credit cards do as well), plus the ATM charges a fee itself. Always remember to discretely type in your PIN.

Always try to keep some smaller rupee notes with you. Auto rickshaws and places where you make small purchases may get frustrated if you present a large denomination at best or simply unable to change it at worst.

Only drink bottled water. Keep a large 1.5 liter bottle or two in your hotel room.

One US$1 is approximately 65 Indian Rupees at the current time (December 2017)

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10 and 100 Rupee Notes

 

Shopping

Most places (besides malls) require haggling for prices. For foreigners the price may be inflated significantly. If something feels clearly overpriced, offer half the price or less. Don’t feel like you’ll be insulting by offering something low (unless you actually are low-balling) since they were trying to rip you off anyways. Some lines that vendors say to you that should be taken lightly: “For you, I’ll give you a good price”, “Since you’re my first customer, I’ll give you a good price”, “Oh American! For you my friend, I’ll give this to you for cheap”, “Today’s a [insert random reason] sale!”, etc., etc.

Never feel pressured into anything. Taxi drivers, vendors, and beggars are notorious for using senses of urgency, guilt, pressure, and other tactics to try to get your business and/or money. Never feel like you have to give them anything or use their services.

 

Transportation

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Just enjoyed a (crazy) ride in an auto rickshaw. If you’ve never been on one, hold on tight!

Try to get auto-rickshaws metered as much as possible. The meters are at regulated rate which the locals also pay. Otherwise agreed upon prices may be inflated by the driver for foreigners.

In Indian airports, you are expected to walk with your boarding pass through the metal detector at the security check as it is typically stamped at that time. Don’t send it on the conveyor with your bags and metallic items. Carry-on bags and handbags sometimes need to be tagged by the airline at the check-in counter as well.

For inter-city journeys, consider taking the train. It’s a great way to experience the country for reasonably distanced trips.

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At the Jaipur Railway Station after a journey on the train.

From personal experience, I’ve been in a taxi that came up with several excuses to not taking me to my hostel. They’ll say that the address doesn’t exist, or that it’s wedding season and the streets are closed, or they’ll “ask for directions”, or they’ll take you to the Dept. of Tourism to figure things out. “The Dept. of Tourism” isn’t a government agency but rather a private travel company trying to sell overpriced tickets  that the driver receives a commission on. In this situation you tell them you don’t want anything and that you really just want to go to the hostel. You likely wouldn’t be in harm’s way but is really annoying and frustrating. If they totally refuse to take you, then ask to be taken to the nearest rail station to find a new taxi or an auto rickshaw. When they see you’re serious about just going home, they’ll probably eventually get you there like in my case.

Traffic drives on the left side of the road, be aware of this when looking both ways. Traffic is also crazy and caution must be used at all time when walking across roads.

Be cautious when exiting auto rickshaws or other vehicles. Never put any body part outside of a moving one.

When sightseeing in a new city, considering hiring an auto rickshaw for much of the day. It can save the hassle of dealing with swarms of drivers at every tourist spot in town. One thing to expect is they they’ll many times want to take you to a shop sometime during this. It’s okay to go, but the driver’s usually get commissions from this and therefore prices can be higher. If you decide to buy something, make sure to haggle as chances are that its price is inflated.

Men: If you take the local trains, be sure not to get into a women-only car, even if you are with a woman. Men are strictly not allowed in any capacity. There’s no such thing a men-only train car, so women can go which ever car they please. Not that local trains get crazy busy in place like Mumbai during peak hours so avoid this time if possible should you choose this mode of transportation.

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Local Train in Mumbai

 

Being in Indian Society

Don’t trust anyone right away that you don’t know, no matter how friendly they are.

Eating from food vendor carts on the street is risky and may lead to food poisoning since the vendors themselves have very poor sanitation and they food may be very old.

If someone random wants to take your picture or wants a picture with you, it’s almost always sincere so allow them to if you don’t mind it, but keep an eye on your pockets and valuables.

If you encounter monkeys, don’t attempt to touch them as they are wild animals. They are also into thievery, so keep an eye on your valuables as they may take them. Also don’t touch any other animals in the streets such as cattle, goats, stray dogs, etc.

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You may see monkeys like these I saw in Jaipur. They also hang around the Taj Mahal.

Follow Indian customs. For example, take off shoes when and where requested. Also it can be considered polite to accept tea or snacks when offered in someone’s home or place of business so no need to feel like you’re imposing.

In crowd situations, such in queues or entering trains, etc., some bumping and pushing is normal and you must become aggressive yourself. If you remain passive, you’ll be passed over time and time again. Ignore your personal bubble – it will be popped.

Never let anyone take your bags unless it’s a taxi driver or hotel staff, and if so, always stay within reach of it. There’s people even in the airports that may try to take your bags. Usually they just want to take it somewhere for you and expect a tip, but running away with it is always possible as well.

Be open minded. Things will be different. How much of how life works in India isn’t wrong while our way of back home isn’t necessary right either. It’s just different, so embrace it.

 

Final Thoughts

This list isn’t all inclusive and is based on my own experiences and what I remember. Others may feel differently on my suggestions and observations. You’ll have your own experience there but the goal of this is for me to prepare you best I can so there are less surprises once your feet hit the ground. Also see how to pack for this trip.

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Amber Fort in Jaipur.

India is an amazing place. This list may sound intimidating, but once you start getting a feel for the lay of the land, things getting easier and easier. Even though there’s much to be aware of when traveling in India, make sure to slow down and soak in the atmosphere, because it is truly fantastic! I love India and once you’re there, hopefully you will too! It is 100 percent the experience of a lifetime.

Brian’s Packing List

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Items to Pack 

This list may is not all-inclusive for all travelers and some items on this list may not be necessary for yourself on your travels. However, it is what I typically pack on a trip in my backpack and is a great starting point for your packing as well. Rememeber to pack smart! Whatever you pack you have to lug with you the rest of the way and be sure to leave room for souvenirs!

Here’s what to consider packing:

  • Outlet splitter or power strip to increase the number of things you can plug into one outlet/socket
  • 3-prong to 2-prong (Ground to no ground) converter, if necessary 
  • 3 copies of passport info page. One to keep hidden in backpack. One to keep on person when not carrying actual passport. State ID also good idea. And one for someone back home to hold on to.
  • Spare passport photos – optional in most cases.
  • Spare zipper-seal bags 
  • Printout of return flight confirmation (in case requested by immigration official) 
  • Pen and paper (pen at very least). Have on the plane with you for customs forms.
  • Spare credit/debit card(s)Leave one hidden in bag/at hostel 
  • Rain poncho 
  • Paper clip(s) for opening SIM card tray 
  • Back-up U.S. Dollars (keep hidden in bag/at hostel) 
  • Combination lock (mostly for hostel-goers for in-room lockers)
  • Small bottle opener 
  • Mini bottle of hand sanitizer 
  • Travel adapter or converters
  • Passport! 
  • Power bank (and spare batteries if needed) 
  • Sunglasses 
  • Clothes for warm, for chilly, and the beach. 
  • Travel-sized toiletries 
  • Miscellaneous equipment (e.g. camera, GoPro, laptop, selfie stick, etc.) 
  • Phone charger and other chargers 
  • Earbud headphones 
  • A couple of plastic grocery bags. One to store soiled or wet clothes. Another to keep sandals in. 
  • Toilet paper and/or sanitary wipes 
  • Medications (i.e. ibuprofen, acetaminophen, antacids, anti-diarrhea meds, etc.) 
  • Travel wallet/belt 
  • Luggage tag with contact info on baggage 
  • Travel insurance card if you obtained one.

 

Things to Do Before Departure

  • Download offline locations on Google Maps or on the app called Maps.me
  • Contact credit/debit card companies to alert of foreign travel transactions 
  • Save (star) important locations (esp. acoommodations) on offline maps and Google Maps
  • Convert some cash to destination currency ahead of time – optional
  • Reserve seat on plane – optional 
  • Check-in for flight 24 hours ahead of time or per airline policy. 

May Day, May Day

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“The Cuban People Will Win”. Sign at the May Day march.

It was April 30th and I was just arriving in Havana from San Jose, Costa Rica. After dealing with the hassle of getting my hands on some Cuban Pesos at the airport’s seemingly only exchange counter, I was finally on my way with an acquaintance I met on the tarmac bus. We and a couple of nice, older gentlemen from Turkey went on our way to the taxi staging area to share a ride to the city center. Itching to start seeing those classic 1950’s, that itch was scratched the moment we got outside and hopped into a bright blue 1950-some Chevrolet with classic white leather seats. Though this car was rigged with a digital odometer and under the dash were A/C vents that appeared to be taken off of a cheap Asian car, it still retained much of its charm and certainly its rumble of a vintage American engine.

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Didn’t take long to see the fabled cars! Our taxi at the airport after landing in Havana.

The spring Havana heat coupled with eagerness of seeing Cuba with my own eyes, I delicately rolled down the window as I crossed my fingers the seeming ancient mechanisms of the window crank didn’t break on my watch. While I continue to gaze upon the world largely withheld from American eyes, we approach a stoplight adjacent to La Plaza de la Revolución. It was a nice open area with the José Martí Memorial, circled by government buildings displaying larger-than-life outlines of the revolutionaries Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. It’s at this point that our cabbie informs us that there will be a massive parade with thousands in attendance, included their very own dictator, Raúl Castro. Naturally, I had to be there.

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Che Guevara at La Plaza de La Revolucion

That evening upon socializing with fellow foreign travelers at the hostel, I found out I wasn’t the only one intrigued by the hoopla and commotion of the parade. In fact, everyone wanted in. The thing was, we all wanted to enjoy the evening, but wanted to make the 7am parade start. Our solution: let’s stay up all night. At this point, I knew it was going to be a night to remember.

The Struggle

Here we are, a bunch of 20-somethings from different parts of the world who all decided to converge in Cuba, ready to take on the night. The nightlife was naturally were we belonged, and we set out to find it. We would go to the doorstep of one establishment, then another, leading us to quickly realize that most Cubans shut everything down the eve of May 1st, presumably in respect for the holiday ahead and to get a good night’s rest before the holiday’s bright and early start.

 

Disappointed, but still energetic and not about to give up, we found a convenience window, stocked up on a couple of bottles of Havana Club and made our way down to the Malecón (sea wall and adjacent boulevard) with our group and some new faces we met on the way in tow. It was our time at the Malecón that was one of the most memorable and it was coincidentally one of the simpler. There we were, sitting along the wall as we face Havana and its 1950’s cars joyriding and taxiing up and down the boulevard, with our backs to the United States somewhere out in the abyss amongst the sound of Caribbean’s waves crashing on the rocks below. Couples embracing and kissing, groups of friends hanging out and passersby all congregated to the wall that night, like many nights before. We talked, laughed, and shared insights and stories from our homes abroad.

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El Malecon near sunset, April 30th.

The Cuban Immersion

A part of the Malecón session that doesn’t happen as much as it should on trips sometimes was the interaction with the locals. The couple of Cuban guys we picked up along the way couldn’t have been older than 19 years old and by talking with them, gave us a glimpse into the life of the youth in Cuba. It was so interesting that they marveled at my iPhone 6 saying that they never could obtain one in their lifetimes. Having been hanging out with them all night, I felt comfortable enough with to let them handle my phone. They got such satisfaction by simply moving the background screens back and forth as if they liked the way the touch sensory responded to their fingertips. They had phones of their own, and not too out of date but were less popular, cheaper brands. Granted, Apple products are expensive by most American’s standards (and certainly my own) but their response to something that is a very common part of our lives for us -tourists was eye-opening in a way. I read about how wages are very low and imports are limited and restricted but I had just witnessed this authentically first hand. All these sights, sounds, and interactions were all great, but the rum was running out and we were now in the wee hours of the morning- it was time to roam across the streets of Havana to La Plaza.

As we left the Malecón and made out way inland as a pack of mostly foreigners down the darkened streets, relying on the few city lights for guidance, we quickly started joining the masses of Cubans, street by street, joining more and more people before dawn in a communistic pilgrimage of sorts.

In the Thick of It

A food break here, a restroom break there, and before we know it, we made it! “May Day” has arrived. In the thick of it, we weave our way through the families, social groups, and loners, towards the center and around the parade staging area lining up the middle of the street. Finally, we find a spot we were all content with right next to a pack of Cuban soldiers preparing to walking in synchrony with their nation’s flag held by each of them in the middle.

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Cuban soldiers carrying the nation’s flag at the May Day event.

It was surreal at this point. Here we are, our group, having walked miles in the dark, starting just as the fewer than 10 of us to now being in a pre-dawn congregation of over possibly a million people, most of whom living in the strict, communist rule of the Castro regime for all or most of their lives. The parade groups wait with anticipation to start their march towards the ominous, towering José Martí Memorial as the sun starts to illuminate the early morning sky.

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Service men and women wait for the May Day march to commence at La Plaza de la Revolucion.

The time has arrived. The beats and rhythm escalate, everyone now is attentive and upright, and the parade caravan begins to slither forward. Our endurance has paid off, witnessing this sight that few Americans have seen. I felt truly fortunate enough to seize the opportunity to travel to Cuba with the loosed travel restrictions and happened to arrive perfectly in time for one of the nation’s most important holidays. We stayed for a half hour as we were only humans on 24 hours of no sleep, therefore desperately needing to get back the hostel for a well-deserved mid-day sleep… and a propaganda break.

Getting from Costa Rica (and the US) to Cuba

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Cuba Ready! My Passport, Boarding Pass, and Cuba Visa.

First a Bit on Travelling from the United States to Cuba

Getting into Cuba isn’t the most straight forward, especially for Americans. Under Barack Obama during his time in office as US President, travel to Cuba got much easier, although still technically not allowed. Prior to the loosening of restrictions, to get a visa you had to apply to qualify under one of 12 categories for permitted travel to Cuba, examples being Humanitarian, Educational, Support for the Cuban people, Journalism, etc. Nowadays you still have to claim you’re going for one of these categories once you’re at your departing airport in the USA, but it’s no longer enforced and no application process takes place ahead of time- more or less a nod from the US government to “go for it”.

The Department of State website it the best place to go for the lasted information. The website currently makes it sound harder to go than it really is. I personally went from Costa Rica but from my discussions from fellow Americans in Cuba who flew from the United States, I found they had no issues whatsoever. Those I befriended I know made it back safely to the USA as well. By far, “Support for the Cuban People” seems to be the most vague and ambiguous of all the categories and thus the most difficult for immigration authorities to argue against  (which they wouldn’t under normal situations). This category was the choice of all Americans I met and I would encourage using this one. Although not always checked, you are supposed of having non-US health insurance during your time in Cuba as well.

I myself flew from Havana, Cuba to Tampa, Florida on Southwest Airlines to exit the country. Upon entry into the US and going through immigration, none of the officials thought twice about this planeful of cigar and rum loaded Americans coming back from Cuba and most, if not all of these passengers were obviously there for more tourist reasons than anything else. I didn’t even have questions asked. That little of a deal. Hope that puts you at ease.

*Under the new president, Donald Trump, things may change as he plans to take a different stance on Cuban-American relations. Any changes made may greatly affect travel from the USA to Cuba in the future. Again, see the Dept. of State site for more information.

Now from Costa Rica

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The Plane I Flew On from San José to Havana.

Booking

Flying from other countries, such as Costa Rica, Canada, and Mexico has long been the “loophole” to get to Cuba for Americans. I just so happened to be in Costa Rica with friends before I would set out to Cuba on my own there-on. So regardless of most nationalities, Costa Rica can be a great jumping point from one beautiful place to the next.

There’s a limited few airlines that service this route. Copa, Interjet, Cubana, Avianca, Aeromexico, United, and American some of these. Cubana and Aeromexico must be searched on their sites as they aren’t included on those travel search engine sites. I personally found Cubana to be the best deal for a mere $137 one-way, but they have few flights- one a day if not at all on a particular day.

It’s Not a Trip Without Something Getting Changed Around On You

The flight from San José, Costa Rica to Havana, Cuba on Cubana Airlines (in Spanish: Cubana de Aviación) wasn’t the smoothest experience right off the bat. I got an email in Spanish about 36 hours before the flight that my 3:30pm flight was rescheduled to the morning and I must report to the desk by 7:30am. I had no idea when my actual flight was rescheduled to! I was lucky because not only did I have internet access, the email didn’t end up in my spam folder, and I was able to get there early. I was fortunately only in Tamarindo, a several hours shuttle ride to San José that was booked to arrive the night before anyways. So I was fine, but I couldn’t say the same to much of the other passengers since the plane turned out to be mostly vacant, presumably from this schedule bump.

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Above the Caribbean Sea.

Exit Tax

To leave the country, an exit tax must be paid. Many airlines will include this in the cost of your ticket, so no need to worry about it if that’s the case. However, if you fly Cubana like myself, it is not included. If you are unsure if it is included, the exit tax desk has a list of the airlines. The tax is US$29 payable in US dollars, which is widely accepted in Costa Rica to begin with. If you don’t have enough cash, there is an ATM back out the nearest terminal doors and to the left at the departures passengers drop off area. You can practically see it out of the windows behind the exit tax desk.

Visa

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My Cuba Passport Stamps. Oh, and My Old India One.

After you have your exit tax ticket, you may proceed to the ticket counter. Here an employee asked if I had the exit tax paid. After my confirmation that I had, he asked, “Do you have your visa?” I wish he had followed that question with the word yet, as I got instantly nervous that I was supposed to already possess one. Like I mentioned, travel to the country is technically still not allowed for Americans, so I’ve been crossing my fingers during this entire transition from Costa Rica to Cuba.

Note that there are only tourist visas issued here, regardless of if you are American or otherwise. The whole category visa system doesn’t apply for travel initiating from Costa Rica.

Fortunately, I didn’t have any reason to be nervous as we then went to the counter where he pulled out a box full of empty visas. I paid the US$30 for the Tourist Visa (more cash you’ll need!) and he handed me one to fill out. From there, I got my boarding pass and I was off through the gates! Of which there was no line through security which was a welcomed surprise. By the way, don’t forget a Red Bull in your bag as you pass through the x-rays as they WILL find it and you’ll feel like an idiot.

From there on out it was normal boarding procedure and was soon enough off to Cuba!

 

 

Cuba- A Place Unlike All Others

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An Elusive Island

Cuba is undoubtedly a place that most of Americans, let alone most of the world, has never been. Europeans, Canadians, and Latin Americans, among others, have been fortunate enough to visit this elusive land for all these years, while Americans, though only a mere 90 miles away, haven’t had a straight forward opportunity to go in many decades.

Fortunately for travelers looking to go there from the United States, former President Obama loosened travel restrictions to the island nation. So what did that mean to mean to me? Well, I said to myself, “I gotta get to Cuba!”

Getting from Costa Rica (and the US) to Cuba

Throughout my travels thus far, I’ve experienced over a couple dozen countries spread over nearly all of the continents. Many of those places share similarities and differences with other countries far and wide. However, Cuba had erred on the side of differences much more. It was a country truly unlike any other I have personally explored. The main reason? It is truly stuck in time!

Life in the 1950’s

It’s stuck in time: You may have heard that phrase used to describe Cuba before. Well, whoever you heard this from is spot on. Granted few of us ever experienced actual 1950’s Cuban life, but it’s close to what I would picture it as. Imagine a place where most of the cars rolling by down the streets are 50’s American classics, your old Plymouth’s, Ford’s, Chevy’s, Oldsmobile’s- cars that would be a collector’s dream, but are instead used for everyday commuting and as taxis. Some of these cars are in such great condition, you’d swear they just came off the assembly line last year and boast shiny, colorful paint jobs with glistening chrome bumper, rims, and trim. Some, on the other hand, show their age but have character from having spent over half a century on the road.

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The cars are just a piece of the puzzle. Just look around. They’re constantly driving through the streets of Havana, which are lined with Spanish colonial era architecture buildings. Though the poverty has taken a toll on these buildings through the lack of upkeep, these as well add to the charm and character of the island, and when you find the more meticulously maintained structures, you appreciate their beauty all the more.

In our day of age, consumer electronics are all the rage and can be found nearly everywhere but that’s not the case in Cuba. Through with the passing of Fidel Castro, some electronics have recently hit the island under his brother Raul’s rule but they are far from common. Even internet is hard to find! Someone having internet in their home? No way. When you go to Cuba get ready to put away all your electronics except your camera. I found it to be surprisingly liberating anyways! People around the world weren’t on their phones or playing video games all of the time decades ago and that case stands true today there.

Beautiful Landscapes

The beaches, the beaches, the beaches. Pale white sand, aquamarine water, and a beaming sun radiating, the beaches are tough to get outside the Caribbean. Varadero is a great spot to be if you’re looking for this kind of beach alongside tourist-oriented amenities such as bars, clubs, shopping, and dining. Especially after a few days walking up and down the streets of Old Havana, this is a great place to unwind.

Unbeknownst to many, Cuba actually has mountains and caves. These provide fantastic views, particularly in the Pinar del Rio area surrounding the many plantations. Of course, the plantations that visitors are most interested in are tobacco, heart of the cigar industry.

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Rum and Cigars

As I’m sure you know, Cuban cigars are renowned as the best in the world and I have to say, I believe they are. The micro climates of the Pinar del Rio region and other parts of the country are prime for tobacco production. Go ahead, smoke one or two or 10 fresh Cubans. Even go to a plantation and smoke them at the source! Oh and don’t forget to bring enough cash to bring some home as you family, friends, and your future self will thank you. Who doesn’t like the best in the world, especially if it’s so hard to come by?

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The rum, my goodness, the rum. Caribbean rum is a favorite amongst businessmen and pirates alike. Cuba’s famous Havana Club rum is top-notch and usually in the vicinity of US$6 for a 750 mL bottle… you can’t go wrong! You just might have to find room in your baggage to bring some home as well (you know I did).

In Conclusion

Being that Cuba is full of culture, architecture, natural beauty, and timelessness I highly recommend it to an experienced traveler. Resulting from the lack of technology and capitalism, the country is challenging to navigate and get accustomed to. However, if you’re willing to take on the inconveniences, the rewards will be spectacular. You’ll fly back home with memories of a life time. Take plenty of pictures and indulge on the nation’s specialties. Leave behind your daily routines and come with an open mind, and if you do so, you’ll enjoy Cuba to the fullest.