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

In Search Of: Inspiration

If you’ve stopped by, you probably noticed my outdated and semi-abandoned blog. I’ve sorely neglected my little slice of cyber real estate.

Why disregard something that made me happy? I lost my inspiration and I just haven’t been able to find it.

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If we could press the rewind button on life for a moment…In April, I returned from Kilimanjaro where I obtained the number one missing stamp in my passport. I was eager to share my adventures. I was so eager to share my adventures I made arrangements to do some guest writing. I wrote two excellent stories –totally biased but they were GOOD- about preparing for Kilimanjaro and what’s like to climb the highest free standing mountain in Africa. I submitted them, eager for some affirmation of the work, eager to know when they would be published and how many photos were needed to accompany the each story.

I waited. I waited some more. I followed-up. And then I waited…and waited…and honestly, I’m still waiting nine months later.

Okay, I’m not literally waiting any more. I totally gave up.

At first my ‘never accept no for answer’ mentality kicked. I looked around for other opportunities. Nothing seemed like the fit or the bloggers said they weren’t interested in guest content.

While I was looking around for other opportunities, I started to notice how much sponsored content exists in world of travel. Honestly, I think it’s everywhere. We just tend to notice things more when it’s a topic or subject we are passionate about. The one that sent me off into the deep end was a travel post about avocados. Yes, the Avocado Board of Mexico wanted you to share your favorite travel stories over recipes that include avocados.

I really try to abide by a philosophy where I respect another person’s feelings, right to earn a living and have their own views, even if I might personally disagree. And on this, I disagreed. I couldn’t see the passion, the joy, or frankly the connection to travel. That ‘take no prisoners’ mentality that was just at my fingertips suddenly slipped. Now it was an arms length away and moving further as the days passed.

Then, life happened. First, there were family health woes. Stressful, but everyone survived and is great. Then there was work. It just wasn’t materializing the way clients committed. Then, my amazing canine companion passed away. He came into my life when he was three and we had some fantastic adventures. Caring for him in his twilight years was an ongoing joy and total pain in the ass. But saying goodbye was horrible. I’m still very sad and feel ridiculous sharing with people. And, in case you were wondering, losing someone (human or animal companion) does wonders when it comes to inspiring your writing. That’s sarcasm, by the way. The hits kept coming, too, that but those stories aren’t mine to share yet. Suffice to say, I had to step up to the plate big time in a caretaker capacity.

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Is that you knocking, inspiration?

After months of waiting for the something… hello?…inspiration fairy?…I still have nothing. And in the interim all the little things that were just annoying are suddenly 10-foot high hurdles: I hate the design of my blog, why can’t I find a design that matches the vision in my head? How do you write about travel when you are marooned in one location? Can you be credible? How do you write when it’s your own experience, not paid content? I don’t have the answer but it’s easy to see how sometimes, the mind is a terrible thing to be alone with.

This probably begs the question: why exactly am I hear being all ‘woe is me’?

In January I swapped my annual goals for Three Words. (The idea came from Chris Brogan and you can read about it 3 Words.) Goals were still too scary and overwhelming. But three words to guide me seemed a little more my speed this year. One of my words is write.

I’m still figuring out how to make this work when I feel lackluster and uninspired. I don’t have the answer. But, if you stuck with me this long, maybe you’ll stick around to see what’s next?

 

Misc. Musings Vol 2: On Processing & Regrouping

“Sometimes a blog in silence is the sign of a life being lived to the fullest. An update on what I’ve been up to.” -Carol Cain. I saw this quote Monday and fell madly in love. On Tuesday, I was able to actually read the post that followed it –Carol Cain: Family is Everything– and fell even more in love. Everyone should read this, or at least the first few paragraphs. Whatever your ‘everything’ is, be mindful to make time for it.

Right now I’m musing over…

I’m musing over completion (okay, I know technically you can’t muse over that, cut me some slack). In June, I had two major but unrelated events come to a close. I’ve been working for the past year on a project that culminated in writing 50,000 words of web copy. Like any client assignment the process was adventurous, arduous, fun, frightening, grueling and groovy. For all of those mixed emotions, it’s done and I am thrilled. It took the life out of me.

A week before this content was due, I found out I would need to appear in Washington DC’s Superior Court. No, I’m not in trouble. I had to give a statement about an incident that happened to me last summer.Turns out that getting up in front of an offender, telling a judge how an incident changed your life (and, for the record, they don’t mean for the better) is emotionally draining. And I mean that in every possible interpretation.

After all this, I found myself exhausted and needing to disengage from reality. This may shock you, but I don’t “put it all out there” they way other writers do. I’m also not a “fake-booker” (the practice of writing how great things are when they actually suck). This break was me processing, recharging and taking care of myself. Which, at its core is part of Carol’s message. I think that’s why her quote and story resonate so strongly with me.

Travel. I’m so happy to have shared initial impressions and excursions in Moshi, Tanzania. I had hoped to do some guest writing about my actual climb up Kilimanjaro but that fell through. So, in the coming weeks I’ll be share so much more about this African Experience. I’ve also been busy knocking stuff off my Summer Bucket list, creating adventures that are more locally based.

Auntie Adventures. Holy crap – My oldest niece is a GRADUATE! It feels so strange not to call her a kid, but this young woman is whip smart and heading off to University in the fall. I’m so proud of her.

Fitness & Lifestyle. No surprise, in “processing and regrouping” it’s been a struggle to stay active. The heat and humidity in Washington DC also make rigorous exercise tough with asthma. But, I’ve picked out my first century ride – The Seagull Century this fall. I’m super excited and ready to kick training into high-gear.

On my Bookshelf. Funny, when I need to process and regroup, I find myself reading less and watching more television. I used to be a huge fan of BBC America’s Orphan Black. Season three ended well but up until the last two episodes, I really feared it jumped the shark. Or they wrote themselves into a corner. I don’t think I’m the target audience but Grace & Frankie, on Netflix, is a great program. It’s a light-hearted, but really insightful, look at what happens when two men come out to their wives. I won’t spoil the plot in case you are interested. I’m also counting down the days to Sharknado 3. Yeah, I admit it. It’s so bad you can’t not watch it.

I’m still working on The Rosie Project as well as The Art of Fielding. The latter has been a slow start but the story is picking up steam.

What are you musing over?

The 2015 Summer Bucket List

Summer! Whether you define summer as that time between Memorial Day and Labor Day (rejoice! You can wear white without worrying if you are breaking a fashion rule), or if you follow the Farmers Almanac more traditional first day of Summer (June 21st: thank goodness I for the extra time to mentally prepare), we can agree the season is here.

Summer in the US is synonymous with barbecue and vacations (or staycations). Because I march to my own beat, for me, Summer means the return of my the Summer Bucket List.

Inspired by Carla Birnberg, I made my first summer bucket list last year. It was so much fun, I decided it will be my new “thing.” Here are a few highlights from my inaugural list.

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2014 Bucket List Highlights (from the bottom left, up and around): Pottsville, PA road trip, Ride in 2nd Trek Across Maine, Photography Tour of Central Park, Kayaking on the Potomac River, a National’s game and Visiting the re-opened Washington Monument.

This year’s list is not as extensive as my first go-around. I have a lot of work lined up and don’t want to be disappointed about not getting everything done. I’m already dealing with one failure, why set myself up for another?

But really, the length of the list is not what matters. The list is a collection of things and mini-adventures I want to have. Writing them down and sharing them becomes a device for making it happen. I mean, let’s be real. How many times have you said you wanted to do something and months, even years later, it still wasn’t done. Yeah, I thought so. I’m guilty too.

Instead of lolling around wasting beautiful days, my Summer Bucket List helps me prioritize my weekends, days off and most importantly gets me out enjoying life and all that the greater Washington DC area has to offer. Without further ado, here is the 2015 Summer Bucket List.

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What do you think of my summer tradition? Would you make a Summer Bucket List?

Misc. Musings vol: 1

After a lot of thought, chatting with mentors and friends, I’ve decided that a semi-regular “Miscellaneous Musings” is a great way to share things that are on my mind. Because, believe it or not, my life is not ALL about travel. More like 92.5%

What follows is what I hope will be the beginning of a regular feature.

Right now I’m musing over… 

It’s been over a month since I returned from Tanzania. The trip was absolutely fantastic and (not surprisingly) I have really been struggling with “re-entry.” Getting back in the swing of work and other commitments has been tough. I am totally unmotivated.

I’m also really wrestling with a strong sense of failure. I had a specific vision in my head about what it would be like to reach the Summit of Kilimanjaro. Sure, I made it. But when you are grappling with altitude sickness, dreams and reality clash. Talking through it with friends in the social world is helping. But this overwhelming feeling is certainly why I’ve been slow to write. (That and I made arrangements for some guest writing that fell through).

I have finished writing about my pre-climb time in Moshi, Tanzania. If you’d like to see more photos, you can “friend” me on Facebook. I just published an album of images that haven’t been published here or on Instagram.

Just one of the breathtaking views surrounding Kilimanjaro
Just one of the breathtaking views surrounding Kilimanjaro

Travel. After such a big trip, I don’t have any immediate ex-US plans. I am working on my summer bucket list and look forward to sharing that.

Summer is a great time to travel and explore. It’s also a perfect time to do one of those things you always talk about but have yet to actually make happen. Last year, we visited the Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville, PA last summer. Nothing crazy but something we had literally talked about doing for 3+ years.

Auntie Adventures.  I consider myself a “Professional Aunt” to five nieces and one nephew. Recently, I spent a lot of time with my two youngest nieces. (Referred to as five and six so they have some form of anonymity later in life). I took Five, who is four, to the beach one afternoon. It’s always fun to see how excited kids are. Seemingly inconsequential things, like finding a pretty rock, bring them such joy. It really is true, kids just care who shows up. Not what they brought.

Here's Five totally enthralled with collecting fragments of shells.
Here’s Five totally enthralled with collecting fragments of shells.

Fitness & Lifestyle. I injured my knee last summer and getting back to cycling has been a slow process. But I’m finally up riding and hoping to do my first Century ride (that’s 100 miles in one day) this September. Can I get a Woot-Woot?

On My Bookshelf.  Earlier this year I read All the Light We Cannot See. That was a brilliant novel. I loved how the author ultimately brought the two main characters together. I just starting reading The Rosie Project. If you haven’t read this, I totally recommend it. The story is incredibly accurate and so well written. Another noteworthy read: As You Wish by Cary Elwes.

What Else? My former co-worker has moved to Dubai and started blogging. Check her stuff out here. I LOVED her story that equated making new friends to dating. It’s so accurate. Anyway, she’s great and I can’t wait to read more about her adventures.

The Most Overused Words in Travel Writing hit my inbox in April. I’m doing a significant amount of content writing for a client and tips like this are always interesting to me. I was disappointed to be an offender with some of them (Hello, “Must See”). I thought she had some good points and am actively working on banishing a few of these words from my personal writing.

What are you musing over right now?

Lessons Learned: Passport Renewal

Also known as why I’m very disgruntled with the State Department.

Remember that time when I shared how excited I was to have more pages added to my passport? Well, lesson learned: never share your enthusiasm for something until it’s already happened.

No sooner had I hit “publish” then I received a letter from the State Department informing me that my passport had expired and would be held by the State Department until I 1) completed and submitted a new application that 2) included an additional fee of $28.00. And PS: don’t forget to include the authorized passport photos.

When I pulled the letter out of my mailbox I actually believed that my passport was inside. I mean, the envelope was thick enough. I can’t articulate how stunned I was to see my beloved blue book was not there. I had mailed my passport a full two months ahead of time, and I know they received it. How?

Because my check was cashed five days after mailing my paperwork in, and well within the window of time that my passport was still valid. In any business I’ve ever dealt with, if you accept payment but don’t do the work you’re paid for, that’s fraud. Adding insult to injury was the horror of my passport being held hostage by the State Department! All I could muster was a very loud and angry “WHAT THE F—.”

I was so mad, I stuffed the letter aside to deal with later. Note to self: stuffing something aside absolutely changes the outcome (not one bit). When these unexpected and un-welcomed issues pop up, address them right away, or they may come back to bite you, and derail your adventure before it starts.

While booking my trip to Tanzania, I realized I couldn’t ignore the situation any longer. I was risking my trip by deluding myself that the State Department would magically correct its mistake and mysteriously resolve the situation. I had to face the very sad fact that they would not send my old passport book with new pages.

Armed with a new sense of determination, I called the Passport Processing Center to confirm next steps and address some of the very fine print at the bottom of my letter… “if we do not receive the requested information within ninety (90) days…” I was on day 88. According to “Paula,” all was good and I had nothing to worry about. No, they would not reject my application, even if it arrived on day 91. Paula told me I should just send the application, photo and check for $28.00, not the entire amount stated on the website.

You know, by now, that’s not how it ended. Paula was an idiot, and I was too for believing her. Three days later, I received another notification that my 90 days had, in fact, expired. I now had to send a new application, new photo and complete application (again $110 + $25 +$60.00 expedited fee) for a new passport. To say I was infuriated is an understatement. This exactly what I wanted to avoid, and why I grilled Paula for 20 minutes when I called the processing center.

As you can guess based on the name of my little blog, my passport is a special thing, and each stamp in it represents a slew of stories—fond memories, new friends and personal experiences. Now despondent at having an empty passport, I was nonetheless hell-bent on getting this done. I again called the processing center. My second call was significantly more productive thanks to “Richard” and five days later my wallet was lighter but new passport arrived. Whew.

So what’s the big lesson here for readers? The State Department’s passport processing center is abysmal. What branch of government is not equipped to processing fees with a credit card or debit card? It’s the 21st Century and this is unacceptable. But we can’t change that, so my takeaway for the reader is as follows.

While I planned for a six-week turn around time when I initially submitted my request, that’s clearly not enough time when you factor in the unforeseen screw-ups that may happen. If you want to take the State Department up on its offer to add pages, you need to do it at least 3 months, and if it’s really important to you, then consider paying the expedited processing fee. If you are a frequent traveler that’s going to strike you as absurd. Certainly it is as absurd as the fact that the State Department only accepts personal checks and not credit/debt cards. But, it is what it is.

Another lesson: the State Department is just like every other government branch. The answer you get depends upon whom you speak with, so always take notes, get names, dates and times. And know that in the end, if you don’t get what you want then you’ll just have to lump it. And vent about it in a blog.

Okay, I’m wrapping up this rant. The most important thing, ultimately, is that my new, blank passport is now back in my hands and I feel complete again. Now I can only wonder what adventures await me as I set off to get my Visa for Tanzania.

 

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Kalós órises to Greece!

Greece is in the news again. Are you like me where news in countries you’ve visited pops out at you long after your journey? I’ll always stop and read a story about Nepal, Egypt and India and remember another adventure. That’s probably why word of Greece’s recent failure to elect a new President hit me.

Actually, I’ve been watching Greece for a while. I am eager to share my adventures but conscious that the Greece I knew, still using Drachma as it currency, is archaic. And for some reason my travel guide, normally stuffed silly with receipts, brochures and recommendations from locals to jog my memory, is virtually empty. Even without mementos to prompt my memory, it hasn’t made much sense, given the political and economic turbulence, to talk about Greece.

But this summer Jill Abramson wrote about her recent visit to Greece. I thought her story would prove to be more of a catalyst to changing perceptions about the country. I also think she is correct that the slow economic recovery will have pluses for visitors. Not the least of which is smaller crowds at the major sites. I think its possible you could find lower price luxury hotel rates; or you can stay at a lower price (two or three star) hotel like the Metropolis Hotel and use the savings to for more local excursions. Of course all of this is back in doubt with the potential ” Grexit.”

BUT, if you are brave and going anyway, here are my traveler tips, recommendations from friends who recently visited  and other pieces of Greek wisdom

Go to Greece but don’t just visit Athens or the beautiful Greek Isles. I started on the Island of Rhodes and quickly picked up the art of lounging on a beach, relaxing. And seeing beautiful sites, largely untouched by my fellow Americans. Then, I traveled to Santorini, one of the most beautiful, picturesque places I have ever seen and finally on to Athens. I actually recommend starting in Athens and working your way to one or two islands. You’ll feel like you visited different countries when you return and the noise, pollution that are so dominate in Athens will not be so jarring if you are simply passing through on the way home from the islands.

Go to Greece and embrace Greek mythology. It’s simply fascinating to walk among ruins (even if many of them are recreations) and think about what could have been. If mythology isn’t your thing, I’d suggest you skip this country. You’ll be miserable.

Go to Greece and know that the people are warm and welcoming to visitors. Also know that its customary to cat call at single women, even approach and “get in your personal space” to speak with you. Get used to it and bring dark sunglasses so as not to avoid anyone thinking you are inviting the attention.

Go to Greece and don’t be a wuss like I was. Try all of the food, not just the Nescafe that offers you hours of space at the corner cafe. Try the honey, mixed with nuts. No yogurt company can replicate this, it’s delicious. Try the lamb and the seafood, too!

If you love shoes, visit the Poet Sandal maker of Athens. The poetry is not Pulitzer winning but it’s good enough and the shoes are fantastic. They are simple, classic designs each constructed in the shop. I loved my shoes so much I’ve begged people traveling back to Greece to get me more. Sadly, I’m on my last pair right now.

Go to Greece and be aware that across the Islands, it is possible you will meet only one or two other people who speak English. Be prepared to communicate through hand signals or learn a few Greek phrases.

Not convinced? Don’t take my word for it. Two friends also visited Greece this fall so I picked their brains. They too were told not to spend too much time in Athens because it was dirty. They say, it’s not spotless (it’s not) and thought of it like Paris. A big city with amazing history and ruins. I agree, but would add the pollution in Athens is strong. If you have breathing problems, be prepared.

They found the people to be wonderful and started their trip in Athens, moving to the island of Santorini which they agree is paradise. In Athens, they suggest Orizontes for amazing dinner and to-die-for views. On Santorini they recommend a catamaran tour (a semi-private all-inclusive tour was 100 euro) and eating at Ambrosia.

Been to Greece recently? Share your recommendations in the comments section.