Rules are Rules. Especially when it comes to ice cream.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream. Visit Coppelia’s in Havana for the ice cream and the chance to experience the many oddities of Cuba.

A few blocks down from the Hotel Nacional de Cuba is Coppelia, an ice cream parlor. It’s here where you can not only try the ice cream but experience the many oddities of Cuba, and in some ways, communism.

When you start telling people you are traveling to Cuba, especially Havana, you’ll hear stories about the “amazing” ice cream. Coppelia’s isn’t easy to find but its hard to skip if you are stopping by the Hotel Nacional for the stunning views of the Havana harbor, the seawall and the city overall.

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Looking out across Havana’s Harbor from Hotel Nacional. The blue skies in Havana were ever present and even this photo doesn’t do them justice.

It’s at the corner of La Rampa (23) and L in Vedado district. If you are at the Hotel Nacional, it’s about a 15-20 minute walk straight down L Street. The neighborhood has an academic feel, and then somewhat suddenly, you’ll stumble on a futuristic looking spot (there is a flying saucer tower at the center) with lots of people walking around. Depending on the day, you may also see long lines that are common with Coppelia.

As you enter the shop’s mostly outdoor space, Cuban’s are directed to the right and tourists to the left. We were specifically told to avoid the tourist ice cream. Its more expensive, the flavors aren’t as wide and the experience overall isn’t the same. Armed with this knowledge, we steered ourselves to the right.

Cuba, however, had other plans. Did you know Coppelia’s has their very own ice cream police? We were hunted down in line and forcefully told “tourista.” While we weren’t yanked out of the line, it was clear by la policia that we were bucking the rules. I never got the impression that locals would have objected or been offended by our presence. But, we never made it that far. In Cuba, rules are rules. They are to be followed even when they seem dumb. Even when the enforcer can’t explain the logic or rationale of the rule. So, we were forced to the path on the left.

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To the left! Cuban ice cream for “touristas.” 

The ice cream selection for tourists was limited (vanilla, chocolate, raspberry), scooped out of a trailer looking to mimic a 1950’s dinner, and served in old fashion glass dishes. In fairness, the selection could have been limited due to the Christmas/New Year’s holiday. Suppliers are on holiday, which limits deliveries of necessary ingredients.

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One scoop of vanilla ice cream at the Coppelia in Havana.

Tables are communal, grouped for parties of four and six so its possible to have the experience of sharing you sweet snack with strangers. Overall the ice cream was underwhelming. It was ice cream, sure, but it lacked any lingering flavor or unique quality. It could be that dairy products are so difficult to come by in Cuba that isn’t a treat in a literal sense but in an economic sense. In Cuba, if you are prosperous, you can visit the Coppelia. Perhaps people don’t care what it tastes like. It’s the act of being there.

Interestingly, we got to the Hotel Nacional by walking along the Malecón. Along the way we stumbled on an ice cream parlor. I don’t remember the name but we walked in, managed to navigate a communication barrier, and were served a wild concoction of flavors –mango, pineapple, banana with a small square of cake at the bottom. This, THIS, was the ice cream I think everyone describe to us. Amazing. Despite the uncommon flavors, they mixed together. And the cake was sweet, spongey and absorbed the melted ice cream in this perfect way. It was a real treat in every sense of the word.

I’ll have many fond memories of my trip to Cuban. The quest for ice cream will always stand out. Mostly because of la policia. But really it’s a lesson about getting off the beaten path while you are traveling. Traveling with a large group, most people took cabs everywhere. We split off into a smaller group, and walked everywhere. Everyone had fun but I maintain we saw and experienced the best of Cuba. How do I know? Because I just (somewhat vaguely) told you where to find the real, amazing ice cream.

If you are curious, I found this write up on Coppelia from a Cuban writer. While this was closer to the experience I was hoping for, I wouldn’t change a think about my excursion.

Outtakes from Cuba

Travel restrictions to Cuba are back. People much wiser than me will share their position on the topic while I’m just sharing a few of my favorite images from my trip.

The world moves fast and many times my writing doesn’t keep up. Case in point: my January trip to Cuba. New restrictions placed on travel to Cuba (for U.S. citizens only) mean Americans can no longer travel the way I did.

Many people will write more elegant thoughts on why President Trump’s reversal of Obama’s looser restrictions is right (or wrong, to be fair). Here’s my brief thought: its wrong.

I don’t agree that tourist dollars go straight to “the government” as stated in the reversal of travel restrictions. It’s my opinion that mandating US travelers visit Cuba under a “cultural exchange” tour is ridiculous. You think the government doesn’t dictate where these tours go? Give me a break. Further, these tours are triple the price of solo travel or making your own arrangements as a group.

Sadly, what’s done is done. I agonized about going to Cuba. I hadn’t traveled in a large group, or with this group of people, our accommodations were made last minute and overpriced. Yes, I also thought about traveling to a communist country. Its something I’d never done before. While some said, “it’ll be a breeze” you just don’t know what to expect or what can happen. Ultimately, a friend convinced me to say yes. I’m glad I went. It was such a unique experience. Perhaps even the equivalent of travelers bragging rights.

Because it’s an experience many people now won’t have, I do feel conflicted about writing about. I don’t naively believe I have millions of readers. I write as a hobby, primarily for myself. But, if you actually take the time to read my musings (thank you), isn’t it a bit like putting dessert in front of a child while saying, “sorry not for you?”

While I wrestle with my own inner conflict (a bit of sarcasm)… here are a few of my personal favorite images from Cuba. Enjoy!

Colors of Trinidad, Cuba
The colors around the city of Trinidad are like nothing I’ve seen. Soft pastels that are just beautiful while calling out to be photographed. 
The band played on
By the time I left Cuba, I felt like something was missing if we weren’t being serenaded by musicians. It a way of life for many Cubans but it was a treat to sit in cafes listening to salsa, mariachi or something else.
Fishing Off the Malecón
The Malecón is a five mile highway along the coastal portions of Havana. Its a long walk from Old Havana to the famous Nacional Hotel, where travelers folk for fancy drinks and lovely views of Havana Harbor. I loved seeing the locals out fishing (and of course blue sky and ocean) along the way.

Return of the Summer Bucket List

Looking for inspiration about what to do this summer? Try a making a to-do or ‘Summer Bucket List.’ Here’s a peak at mine.

Back from hiatus is my own summer bucket list. And, a short diatribe on why the term ‘bucket list’ is probably not very inspiring.

The dictionary defines ‘bucket list’ as “a list of things a person wants to achieve or experience, as before reaching a certain age or dying.” I’m totally on board with a running list of things you want to experience. But do we have to have ‘before you reach a certain age?’ (Don’t even get me started about dying.) Why do we have to make everything a race or competition? Why can’t it be a life list, or notes on things a person wants accomplish, explore or see?

While I am TOTALLY guilty of using the word bucket list, the more I think about it, the more I realize it doesn’t capture the essence of what I’m doing. I create short lists and notes about what I want to see, hear, explore and do because… well, let’s face it, without a list I’m inclined to forget most of it and spend my summer weekends on the couch. (In my defense, it can get crazy hot and humid in Washington DC). How’s that for brutal honesty?

Unfortunately, bucket list and even summer bucket list are catchy and people readily understand the root of what you are talking about. And, no matter how you define Summer -the time of year where you can wear white, three months of no school, those warm and sunny days that come before winter- Summer is a time where everyone wants to get out and go.

Generally speaking, I prefer not to travel too much in the summer. Most of the destinations I’d like to be at are too crowded and the cost of June, July, August travel is prohibitive. Instead, I lay low and relax. But that’s no reason not to get out and do things.

My Summer Bucket List (yep, still cringing about using that phrase) took a hiatus last year. I had too many things going on and was too caught up in overwhelming sadness and dealing with the blows of life. It happens. I knew I’d never do anything I wrote down. Knowing this turned out to be a critical turning point. Instead of setting myself up for failure, I decided to start looking inward and work on myself. So in a manner of speaking, taking a break actually helped me get my groove back.

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The 2017 Summer Bucket List. As of this publication, I’ve already nailed two on my list. (Yes, if you follow my adventures and writing, there is a duplication from the 2015 list. I never quite got to Gospel Brunch at the Howard Theater.)

Enough with the personal stuff. This year’s list is healthy mix of things to see, explore, do and listen to around the great Washington DC area. I also added a few personal things, stuff that is important to tackle but for whatever reason, I get a mental block when I think about them.

If you are in Washington DC and looking for adventure, message me here. I’m always looking for someone who’s willing to expand their horizons and trying something new. I’m told I’m also pretty good at helping people plan a visit here.

Packing for a trip to Cuba

Heading to Cuba? Here are my notes on what you must bring, probably should bring and absolutely don’t need to bring on your trip.

Passport: Check, Ticket: Check, Tourist Card: Check.
A Cuban visa (or tourist card) is just one of the documents you’ll need to pack.

Packing for a trip to Cuba* is an experience unlike any other. At least, that’s how I remember it. The list of government-required documents –health insurance, visa– takes time and legwork to track down. Once you’ve checked that box, the challenge shifts to what kind of stuff to throw in your luggage. Temperatures are warm year-round because Cuba is close to the equator. It’s usually sunny and in the summer months, sunny and humid.

With that in mind, pack clothing that’s comfortable and keeps you cool. Air conditioning is not universally available in shops and restaurants, and where it is available it may be on the fritz, or just off.

To offer a little more guidance on “comfortable” I’d suggest you dress moderately; nothing risqué or showy. No need to dress as if you are visiting an Orthodox church, but generally I’d err on the humble side. Packing one slightly dressier outfit in case you want to visit one of the fancier restaurants in the major cities like Havana is enough.

But, what I want to focus on is the other “stuff” that—in my experience—nobody talks about. To make your trip fun, I’m passing my learnings along. Having these items will increase your enjoyment and peace of mind.

Here’s what you must bring, probably should bring and what can be left at home when traveling to Cuba.

Must Bring. As in, don’t get on your flight without these items.

Cash. Outside of your passport and travel documents, cash is king. Food, drinks, shopping, lodging—all of it has to be paid for in cash. Once you hit Cuba, credit and debit cards are almost universally useless. They aren’t accepted and you most certainly cannot withdraw money from ATM’s.

Savvy travelers swap dollars for Euro’s, Canadian dollars or Mexican pesos (I didn’t know anyone who used pesos, but heard it mentioned in conversation) before leaving the US. That’s because changing currency in Cuba is tricky. There is a 3% processing fee to change any currency to CUC (convertible pesos, the tourist currency). But be warned, if you are changing dollars to CUC, you get the privilege of paying an additional 10% “processing fee.” Ouch, the fun of being caught up in politics.

One thing to consider is, because of the amount of cash you’ll be carrying, a traveler’s money belt is a smart way to keep the majority of cash. Then carry few denominations in your pocket. Not that you have to worry about muggings. Aside from pickpockets, Cuba is one of the safest countries for travelers. There may be many poor neighborhoods, but there are no “bad” ones.

Another item to consider the exchange rate is about 1-to-1 CUC to dollar, and slightly better for Euro. This is not the same currency that Cubans use. You’re paying much more with a CUC than a Cuban peso, but prices remain comparatively reasonable. A good meal, when you find one, will cost a quarter of what it would in the States.

Two other considerations—1) where, and 2) how much money to exchange? Changing dollars at the airport is the only alternative we found. Any airport you arrive at will have a money exchange, and this is often (but not always) the best rate you’ll find. We exchanged the majority of our Euros there, and then once at a major hotel in Havana.

How much to exchange depends primarily on your budget. Still—exchanging money back to dollars is a losing proposition. So whatever you’re going to exchange you should spend. Rest assured, your money makes a positive difference in Cuba’s economy.

Probably Should Bring. These things aren’t must haves, but you’re better off bringing.

First aid kit. Nothing complicated like you are planning for a Zombie apocalypse, but a supply of band aides, bug/mosquito spray, aspirin, Pepto, and Kleenex (which comes in handy for places that don’t offer toilet paper). Stomach upset can quickly derail a vacation, so it’s not a bad idea to speak with your doctor about antibiotics, or other items that need a prescription.

Tip: Carry medications in their prescription bottles, especially controlled substances, to avoid problems with Cuban officials.

How important is a first aid kit? Only you can say. But, my entire mini kit was emptied helping other people on my trip before we left Havana.

Host gifts. You’ll read that sundries like toothpaste and shampoo are expensive and difficult to find in Cuba. While things are better than in the past, both of these facts (not alternate facts) remain true.

You’ll want to show your gratitude for strong Cuban coffee and a delicious homemade breakfast when staying at a Casa Particularas.

If you are staying in a Casa Particularas (highly recommended over state-run hotels), it’s good form to bring your host a small gift of toothpaste, shampoo or soaps. Or, you can bring something from your own hometown. The Cuban people were extremely friendly and open to receiving small tokens of gratitude.

Even if you aren’t staying in a Casa Particularas, these small gifts can be given to hotel staff like the concierge and housekeeping staff. As far as how to present the gifts, do it with respect. I explained I was thankful for the host’s help to make my stay in Cuba extra pleasant, and because of that, I wanted to offer a small gift in appreciation.

Spanish phrase book. Because you can’t readily access Wi-Fi or the Internet, apps like Google translate aren’t an option. Therefore, consider a Spanish phrase book. If you are traveling without someone proficient in Spanish, and venturing outside a major city, then I urge you to consider one. “¿Dónde está el baño?” will only get you so far. By the way, tipping is expected in public bathrooms—have your wipes and pocket change ready.

Definitely Don’t Need to Bring. You’ll be grateful you didn’t waste space in your carry on with these items.

High-heeled shoes (wedges, platforms). Outside of major cities in Cuba, and even in some areas of smaller cities like Trinidad and Cienfuegos, roads are dirt, uneven cement, and cobblestone. You won’t want to navigate these streets in anything other than flats.

Adaptors. Cuba’s electric grid is U.S. compatible, so you don’t need adaptors to charge up your camera and mobile phone (for photos or games, since Cuba blocks U.S. carrier signals).

 

*Sorry folks! This content is primarily applicable to U.S. travelers. This is especially the case related to travel documents and currency exchange. Other information is what I’d consider more “globally appropriate.”

 

Cuba and The Rule of Four

Travel is a privilege, but sometimes travel is also political. When our former President opened up diplomatic relations with Cuba, clearing the way for wanderlusts to start visiting, I began to get serious about visiting this forbidden-to-US-citizen’s-island.

I started by hitting the books, beginning with Cuba Information Manual by Michael Bellows. It’s an older book, updated recently, about travel around Cuba. Why does this matter?

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Via la Cuba! Street art in Trinidad, Cuba.

Cuba is a communist country. Bellows lays out all the various rules (drugs in Cuba will result in prison) and regulations (tourists can only eat tourist ice cream) that you need to take into consideration (hot water for your shower is a luxury in many places) when visiting. Some of the rules aren’t relevant anymore. Some are. And, like many guide books, it’s a bit of a “take it with a grain of salt.” You’ll have to decide, based on your own itinerary, how much is applicable. Bottom line, if you read this book and panic, this might not be the right place to visit.

If you are still in, as I was, then I suggest finding a travel guide. You can certainly opt for “DIY” planning. But I wouldn’t. I’m not sure it’s worth it and the risk of getting stuck at a government run, over priced hotel, is real. Ask around, it’s surprisingly easy to find a “friend of a friend” who lives in Cuba and tapped his or her entrepreneurial spirit by starting a business helping travelers.

One thing travelers don’t tell you about Cuba – there is a Rule of Four. The Rule of Four is an unwritten occurrence in Cuba. It happens largely in restaurants but can happen shops. The rule is that every fourth thing you order or ask will be forgotten. Seriously. It’s not an insult or a deliberate thing.

As a communications professional, this is consistent with delivering a point or a key message. We always tell brands or spokespeople to give no more than three points. That’s all people can remember. I think, in Cuba, much of the staff is mildly proficient in English. They forget the fourth item because they are trying so hard to speak to you in English and remember the first points of your order, the fourth just drops.

My other theory behind the Rule of Four has to do with food scarcity. Throughout Cuba there is an insufficient supply, or amount, of many foods. The most common items we observed being consistently unavailable were cheese, jamon (ham) and by the end of our trip beer. I’m not an economics professor but its a bit of supply and demand. It’s expensive to “stock up” on these items. And, it’s just how Cubans live. Out of something? No big deal, wait until the next delivery.

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Croquetas. A delicious but rare snack in Cuba.

Of course, travelers from Europe and especially the US don’t think this way. Some travel companions advocated that Cuban restaurants should know better and order larger qualities of popular items. That’s just not the way it works in Cuba. It’s also not a question of “getting a larger fridge.” (For the love of whatever God you may worship, PLEASE, do not say this. Its insulting to Cubans and fuels the rampant stereotype that Americans are idiots.)

Outside of restaurants, even in a taxi, the fourth question you ask the driver is likely to be forgotten. In shops, the fourth item you want see and negotiate for, is also, forgotten.

Now that you know about the secret Rule of Four, prepare yourself by ordering food or asking questions in batches of three. Seriously. It works.

With a new President residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s hard to say how much longer Americans will get to experience this entertaining Rule of Four. After I wrote this, I discovered the administration is conducting “a full review” of US polices on Cuba. I fear embargoes will return and ease of travel will be a thing of the past.

It’s a shame. From my perspective, this only hurts Cuban’s who are inquisitive and friendly beyond your wildest imagination. If you’ve stumbled on my infrequent writings, do know this information could be dated as soon as I hit publish. Check the status of US-Cuban travel rules before moving ahead. Of course you can still visit via Mexico and other Caribbean countries like many people have for years before. But you won’t get that precious stamp in your passport.

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Cuban Passport Stamp: Check

Three Things To Do On/Around Chincoteague

For a quiet island along the Mid-Atlantic Coast of United States, Chincoteague and its neighbor Assateague, are jam packed with activities. A person who visits here and complains of boredom or not enough to do, is wildly off the mark.

 

Once you’ve decided what time of year to visit, the Chincoteague  website is a great starting place to keep planning your visit. As far as things to do, options range from seeing the ponies of Chincoteague, visiting the wildlife refuge, hitting the beaches, crabbing/clamming, hiking, fishing, go-carts, miniature golf, etc. If you factor in what’s off the island but accessible with a car, the options become overwhelming.

To help, or because we all have a little FOMO from time to time, here are my top three picks for how to spend a few days on Chincoteague.

  1. Book an island cruise. There are several cruise operators on the island, we used Daisey‘s and were happy with our excursion. “Cruises” are done on a pontoon boat, so its flat and generally means no need to worry about sea sickness.The boats will take you to the north area where ponies live. While its possible you’ll see them on beach, this is a great way to see them in their natural state.  Depending on your Captain, you could also be treated to the history and lineage of each of the ponies. On the cruise you are also sure to see birds and dolphins so pack your good camera.
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  2. Go to the Library. When was the last time you went to a library? Years I’m guessing. The Chincoteague Island Library, formerly a barber shop, is an independent library supported by donations and grants. But the beautiful architecture and attention to detail inside the library make this worth a visit. The children’s area will make you want to grab a book, a cozy chair and stay for a while.
  3. Hit the (Dog) Beach. Interesting fact: pets are not permitted on Chincoteague or Assateague. Apparently not even the car. But, the Guard Shore Beach is a great, hidden spot about 20 minutes away that you can visit with your dog. I wouldn’t recommend it for laying out in the sun, but dogs will love the sights and smells. If you watch the water closely, you’ll also see crabs scurrying around, or in some cases, fighting with each other.
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Honorable Mention(s): NASA Wallops Flight Facility. Although this small museum is geared more for kids and families, it’s a great way to spend a cloudy morning (or afternoon). The Visitors Center is a self-guided tour featuring exhibits about aeronautics, NASA missions and the history of the Wallops Flight Facility. Pro tip: Don’t skip the observation deck for beautiful views around the area.

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Island Creamery, rated the best ice cream parlor in the US, is a great place to stop and treat yourself. This family run shop features homemade ice cream and waffle cones (duh) as well as coffee and espresso’s. Note: the selection of non-diary treats is limited so bring your Lactaid.

The Year of No Summer Bucket List

You may have noticed, I’m late publishing my annual Summer Bucket list.

I’ve always had secret lists of fun adventures for the summer. Two years ago, I started sharing and writing about them. I enjoyed the local outings and weekend getaways. It’s fun to explore your own backyard. And, it was a lot of fun to see who was interested in joining along (and for what). You think you know a  person and POOF, suddenly they are all in for gospel brunch? Who knew?

For reasons outside this space, I didn’t actually finish my summer bucket list last year. I’ve reflected on this a lot and can say it truly, even deeply, bothers me. But I can’t seem to figure out why it bothers me so much.

Its possible that as an organized, list maker type of person, I have a gnawing feeling about unfinished business or broken commitments. It’s possible life got in the way. I had a lot going on last summer and at some point, the stress and emotional baggage I was carrying led me to shut down. Its possible, as a Type-A, hard charging person, I have a residual a sense of failure over these self-set goals. The truth is probably a hybrid of all of these things. While I continue to obsess, dissect and dwell on this (as opposed to allowing myself to move on), I have become more self-aware of my limitations as a result.

That’s a gift because late last fall, I was thrust very suddenly into the role of caretaker. (I’d love to share more, in fact it would be cathartic. Its not my story to share and I certainly don’t have permission to do so.) In this role, which most of time makes you feel like a failure because there is little you can do to heal a person, I’m painfully aware that writing a list of fun things to do, knowing that most of them won’t be possible, is … well, its pretty damn depressing. Whoever said being more self-aware was good, may not have been in this position.

It’s a one step forward, two steps backwards kind of thing . Some days you see the light at the end of tunnel and breath deeply. Other days, you feel shut in a dark closet, your hands groping the walls in a desperate search for the door latch. Things will improve, I know they will. It just takes time. And while I wait for them to improve, I don’t have the mental capacity to be side tracked by in town excursions, trips overseas or around the U.S.

Until things are “back to normal” rest assured, I’ll be day-dreaming about places to go and things to write about. With any luck, the summer bucket list will be back in all its glory next year.