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

First Impressions: Chincoteague, Virginia

 

If you are female and grew up in the United States in the ‘70s/80’s, there’s a good chance you read Misty of Chincoteague. (It’s possible boys read this beloved novel as well, but I have yet to meet a gentleman who will admit to it.) This children’s novel* is set in the small community of Chincoteague, Virginia, and depicts the trials and tribulations of a family raising a filly (young horse) born to a wild horse. I don’t recall what about the book resonated with me, but something did and I read all of Marguerite Henry’s books in the ‘Misty’ series.

In a passing conversation with Mr. Os about B&Bs and cabins last year, it was brought to my attention that Washington, DC is comparatively close to Chincoteague Island.  In fact, it’s about a 3-hour straight shot by car. A visit to see the horses Misty is based on instantly appealed to me and the spot landed smack on my 2015 2015 Summer Bucket List. It was such a great visit that I decided to revisit the quiet island for some much needed stress relief.

After two trips to Chincoteague Island, along Virginia’s scenic Eastern Shore, one of the more important influences on a visitor’s first impressions is the time and season you are visiting the island.

“The season,” (essentially the summer months June, July and August) is the time of year when the sun is out, temperature is hot and being on an island offers ocean breezes; a wonderful respite from the land-locked scorch of DC humidity. If you are here during “the season” you’ll observe islanders in typical island attire (shorts, t-shirts and sandals) with a business as usual attitude. Souvenir shops are open and almost too plentiful in some spots, the boat tours are running (and worth it) and ice cream or coffee bar is churning out everyone’s favorite treat. It’s one part quaint, one part relaxing, and just invitingly frozen-in-time enough to make a perfect getaway.

Make no mistake, this is the kind of sleepy small town where no matter how much you might try to blend, islanders will instantly peg you as visiting. It’s a tight-knit, but friendly community (population under 3,000 per the 2010 census). You’ll be treated in a courteous manner, but don’t expect to be making new friends of locals at Chattie’s for happy hour. Nod, be polite and pass through.

If you grew up in a similar town or community, you know exactly what I mean. If you didn’t, it’s difficult to explain. Small, tight-knit communities are just that. Visitors move on, that’s the way it goes. It takes a long time to prove to these folks that you are worth an investment of their time.

But, you aren’t necessarily on Chincoteague to make new friends. If you made the trip, you are hear to see the famous ponies, relax, (over)eat seafood and enjoy the scenery, beautiful beaches and vibrant wildlife.

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The ponies of Assateague Island.

 

A visit in shoulder months surrounding “the season,” either late May, or early November, is a drastically different experience. Beach weather varies depending on the year, but it’s likely going to be overcast and chilly. More importantly, unlike “the season” when there are a series of festivals and things to do from Thursday through Sunday, people are left to their own devices.  Shops aren’t open during the week; some not at all. Visitor foot traffic just doesn’t warrant it and can’t support it.

Without the sunny skies the island feels tired, maybe a little forgotten. You get the feeling it’s a bit like time bypasses Chincoteague until it’s time to expect visitors. Cinco de Mayo is not much more than a passing thought—even at the local taco stand. When we recently visited it was more about the upcoming Mayoral election.

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Even grey days on Chincoteague Island are lovely.

Interestingly, I found islanders to be more welcoming in the off-season. While I don’t read much into it, I do believe it takes a special kind of traveler to visit Chincoteague outside the normal dates. The type of person who can appreciate when weather is grey and wet. Maybe it’s the kind of traveler who’s visited before and appreciates  quiet time to refresh and recharge. Maybe locals can sense this and are happy to oblige. Maybe they just appreciate a little extra off-tourism income.

Either way, a visit to Chincoteague is worth the time. Before you go, consider the type of experience you want and book accordingly.

*Yes, the novel launched a life long love of horses, which was sadly stifled short by an off-the-chart allergies to grass, hay…and (wait for it)…horses.

Author’s note: My personal travel philosophy is never to write while I’m away. I do keep notes in a journal. Observations help me to remember my impressions and experiences for your (and really my) enjoyment. To me, travel is about being in the moment, not spending the moment on a computer.

 

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How to Pack for Kilimanjaro

Let me start with a few confessions.

Confession #1: I love a good capsule wardrobe for travel.

Confession #2: I admire people who can put 3 weeks of clothing into one carryon bag.

Confession #3: While I’m hardly “fashion forward” I do try to look my best at home and when I travel.

However, when I’m climbing a mountain, I’m all about comfort and safety so the above confessions are pretty much tossed out the window.

Whew, now that’s out of the way…Once you’ve committed to Kilimanjaro, you are going to get two things in abundance: advice and packing lists. Even the most well intentioned friends will have you over packed for this journey. Trust me when I say: Don’t. Do. It.

Before you run for the hills in tears, allow me to offer some advice. Do read the packing list from your trip organizer. Think about what you need, what you can borrow, etc. (Not so shameless plug: review my beg, buy or borrow post for ideas). Take a deep breath.

The best way, IMO, to tackle your packing list is to break it into two parts. The first is what your porter carries. While this is a godsend come day three, porters are only allowed to carry so much. Spend a few minutes deciding what you really need versus what’s a safety net.

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In case you thought I was joking. Our Porter and Guide doing the required gear “weigh-in” before we started climbing.

The second list is what you want in your own day pack. You don’t have a weight restriction for your own pack. But, you’ll enjoy your climb A LOT more if you don’t burden yourself with unnecessary items.

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All ready to be packed! A mix of Kilimanjaro items from pack list #1 and #2

Kilimanjaro Pack List #1. (Again, this is what your porter carries for you. Modify the quantity of items based on the duration of your climb. I did the Rongai Route, which is six days. Other routes are shorter so you’ll need less clothing.)

  • 6 pairs socks. Invest in heavy-duty running or hiking socks so your heels and toes have some “cushion.”
  • 3 dry weave type shirts, short sleeve
  • 2 dry weave type shirts, long sleeve
  • 1 pair of hiking pants (converter style that double as shorts are best—in a fabric that dries out fast)
  • 1 pair extra thick, wool socks*
  • 2-3 pairs long underwear/base layers (top and bottom)*
  • 1 pair of heavy duty down pants, ideally wind/water proof (think ski pants)*
  • 1 all weather down jacket*
  • Winter hat*
  • Gloves*
  • Neck warmer, scarf*
  • Hand/foot warmers*
  • Select toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, travel size deodorant, bug repellant, sunscreen. That’s all you need. This is a hike, not a beauty pageant.)
  • 1 Headlamp and one small flashlight—invest in a good, light LED headlamp, you’ll thank yourself later.
  • 1 Sleeping bag (Depending on how much your sleeping bag weighs, these may have to in your backpack)
  • 1 Sleeping bag insert/sheet

* items are for the final climb to Uhuru Peak. What’s odd about packing for Kilimanjaro is that half your gear is for the final 12 hours of the climb.

Kilimanjaro Personal Pack List #2. (What you carry up the mountain)

  • Water bottle—Insulated is best but a regular bottle will work
  • Camera
  • Book or journal if you use them
  • Rain jacket
  • Rain poncho
  • Warm fleece jacket or “outer layer”
  • Sunglasses
  • Sun screen and/or hat
  • Passport, ID and cash. (There is nothing to buy on Kilimanjaro so you really don’t “need” cash. But, if you bring cash on your climb its best to keep it on your person)
  • Hard candy (bring it, if you don’t use it the porters will HAPPILY accept it)
  • Starbucks Via packets (what can I say, I need my caffeine)

Put these items in a Ziploc or dry bag inside your own pack:

  • Band-Aids and moleskin
  • Sandwich bags (if you forget to water proof your boots, or the water proofing fails, put fresh socks on, add bags and get back on the trail. Thank MacGyver)
  • 1 pair of clean socks
  • Travel pack of kleenex
  • Any meds that you take regularly
  • Hand sanitzer, wet wipes

Not referenced: dry bags. Invest in some dry bags for your clothes. Don’t be a smarty and think your stuff won’t get wet. After getting soaked on the Inka Trail, I own several different try bags. My favorite were from a now closed local store, Hudson Trail Outfitters. REI, LLBean, etc., have decent ones. When purchasing dry bags, make sure the item has  a very tight seal, otherwise its worthless.

Pro tip: Put everything in your dry bags and weigh them before you depart. Bags often add unplanned weight to your items. Depending on the final weight or your gear, you may need to shuffle and repack so your porter isn’t breaking any park rules.

Two items I packed that, in hindsight, weren’t needed: mosquito spray and after bite (think: itch reliever). There are pretty much zero mosquitos on Kilimanjaro.

The final word goes to cameras. My preferred camera is a larger, multi-lens digital camera. Because of space and weight, I decided to bring the small “point and shoot” seen above. I was worried about the quality of photos but that was wasted energy.

Most camera battery’s (and iPhone’s) freeze half way to Uhuru Peak. Your best bet to capture those YOLO images is to bring an extra battery and keep it and your camera tucked inside your jacket. The warmth is usually enough to keep the battery from draining.

Happy packing (and climbing)!

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The start of the Rongai Route, Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa.

Facts (and Fictions) about Climbing Kilimanjaro

If climbing Kilimanjaro is on your “bucket list” you’ll find plenty of information about the climb. Complete strangers will transform into smiling, well-intentioned people who offer you counsel. Some of it is sage advice, some not so much.

Annually, about 25,000 people attempt to climb what is the highest free standing mountain in Africa. Of those visitors, estimated success rates according to Kilimanjaro National Park are less than thirty-percent for five-day routes.

Less than half reach Uhuru Peak (the Summit) doing the six-day route I climbed. An eight-day route promises the best chance for success. That’s because it provides the best amount of time to become acclimatized. Although I had horrible altitude sickness, I did summit Kilimanjaro, and offer a little “myth busting” for fellow travelers.

Fact. Your guide checks your oxygen and pulse rate each night.
It’s a painless process that tracks your overall health during the climb. Guides are monitoring your body’s ability to adjust to the thinning atmosphere. An oxygen rate below 60 will, however, will result in you being sent down to lower altitudes.

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My pre-Summit oxygen check. Why do I look distressed? Because my oxygen levels went from a stellar 99-97% to 88%. In retrospect, a sign of a long, tough night ahead.

Fiction. Guides will turn you back at the slightest hint of a problem.
Guides are there to help to ensure you reach Uhuru. Safely. Be open and honest about everything you are feeling. Got a headache? Feet hurt? Speak up.

I was very open that I have asthma, and cannot stress the importance of that to my ultimate success. Guides kept an extra close eye on my breathing and slowed my pace considerably at lower altitudes. While I H-A-T-E-D being stuck at the end of the line, I needed all that extra stored strength and energy.

Fact &Fiction. You are going to puke.
Not everyone will but it is not uncommon for even the fittest hikers to vomit on the way up to Uhuru Peak. Stomach upset is commonly brought on by a combination of fatigue and altitude sickness. Be prepared to set your jaw, and get right with it. Then keep climbing.

Fiction. Porters can carry everything you pack.
Not even close, because they’re lugging food, stoves and tents. Each person is allowed to pack a maximum of 30lbs of gear for your porter to carry. Anything else is on you. Literally. I try to Pack light, and pack smart. I carry rain gear, snacks, sunglasses, Cottonelle wipes, an extra layer, hat, camera and water, and personal medication/sunblock.

Fact. The most successful climbs to the Summit have a 1:1 or 2:1 guide-to traveler ratio on Summit day.
My tour had the same amount of guides as climbers for our climb to the Summit, allowing for personalized attention, motivation and medical care (if necessary). Worst-case scenario, a sick traveler can return to lower altitudes without disrupting other climbers. In this case, I was the sick traveler

Fiction. Summiting is all about physical preparation. Being physically prepared is critical, but only half the battle. You have to be emotionally ready and mentally resolved. While training, put yourself in situations that are mentally exhausting, boring and uncomfortable. Because come Summit night, you will be mentally exhausted on top of dealing with a host of potential discomforts. For me, getting to the top meant struggling through asthma, and overcoming altitude sickness. That  had everything to do with mental willpower and resolve.

Fact. Your guide knows all.
Don’t second-guess your guide, Kilimanjaro is his office. Get input on your gear before you take off for Kilimanjaro National Park. Chances are you over-packed and they are an invaluable resource for sorting out what is useful vs. what is weight.

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Our second guide, “G-Man” who decided it was time for me to rest and have a snack. Who needs snacks when you can take selfies?

Fiction. Guides travel with Oxygen, to dispense if someone is having difficulty during the climb.
Yes, guides do travel with oxygen. No, oxygen is not prophylactic. That’s a combination red flag/white flag. Once you require oxygen, your climb is done, and your hike returning down to lower altitudes has begun.

Fact. Guides and porters liked to be thanked.
If you think your guide and porters did a great job getting you to Uhuru Peak, don’t be shy. Tell them. It’s a source of pride for them. Trinkets like high quality wool socks are also appreciated. But, pro-tip, if you really enjoyed your trip and want to do something unique, offer to get them a banana beer on the way back down the mountain. It’s an acquired taste but a not-to-be missed experience.

 

Planning for a Trip to Kilimanjaro

Exactly one year ago, I completed the number-one item on my bucket list; traveling to Tanzania, and summiting Kilimanjaro.

Anyone preparing to climb Kilimanjaro (“Kili” as it’s called) can find an abundance of information on the Internet. In fact, there is so much information it’s overwhelming.

Add to that friends, family and strangers who’ve never climbed a hill offering their best intentioned “helpful suggestions” about what they’ve heard about what to pack, proper physical preparedness, and who knows what all and your eyes may very well cross.

I listened to it all because, frankly I was a little intimidated. I’ve hiked Nepal, Colorado, New Hampshire, the Inca Trail, etc. Still, I knew enough to know to take it seriously.

I was right.

Among the “challenging” vacations I’ve taken, Kili was by far the most physically demanding. Psychologically, it rates third, but this is not a trip to take on a whim.

Unless, of course, whim is the usual way you approach things. For others visiting Tanzania for the first time, I jotted down a few insights from my experience. I winnowed it down to the things and tips I found valuable.

But first, let me set the stage. To view Kili from the right perspective—consider it’s the same perspective as viewed out of a Boeing’s window.

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This is the view of Moshi and surrounding areas roughly half way up Kilimanjaro. Breathtaking (literally and figuratively)!

If it’s not the view out of an airplane window, sooner or later something about Kilimanjaro’s landscape will remind you of somewhere else you’ve been. Because climbing it means traveling through a little bit of everywhere, and a series of climates from sea level along the way up to 19,800 feet.

Beginning at the equator, ascending through lush rainforest, then on to grasslands, then alpine deserts, and finally arctic summit. Temperature variation ranges from hot and humid, to “I can’t feel my face or my legs…we have to go back down?”

With that in mind, the few things I found most important when climbing Kili are:

1.     Plan your trip at least six months in advance. As mentioned, this is not a “last minute” trip, unless you already have everything you need, and maintain a very active lifestyle. I started researching tour companies, gear, training, vaccinations, visa, medical documentation—those little things take big chunks of time. I maintain you need six months to get it everything done and train sufficiently (mentally and physically).

My favorite resource for training is the book Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro . It’s an easy read that is direct, and accurate. I customized my training based on what the authors did. Helpful Hint: Do cardio wearing your daypack to help your body adjust to this added weight, feel and wear before you climb. I also urge adding yoga, stretching and weight training.

2.     Bring used gear to the climb. Allow time to break in gear, and to get comfortable with it. Take time to organize and test all gear in as many types of weather as you can find. Pick the coldest day to walk in your Summit down jacket, wearing a properly weighted (35lbs) daypack. Or walks in rain gear, adding a rain poncho to keep everything dry. This also helps to mentally prepare for what’s ahead.

I believe there is a psychology behind packing (and over packing). The more gear is used before a climb, the more confidence there is in it, and the less one needs—or wants. Superfluous items are just added weight.

3.     Choose your travel companions wisely. Your success and safety directly relate to the tour company you select and your climbing guide.

Our guide estimated there are about 300 tour company’s operating in Tanzania. Anything over ten requires good old-fashioned “elbow grease.” The website Kili Adventures has lots of traveler reviews on the different outfitters, look at Trip Advisor and network your friends for recommendations.

Specifically examine: were travelers satisfied with their experience, the service and search for those intangible things especially important to you. I decided to travel with a company that provided jobs to Tanzanians. I also wanted a team that had worked together. Finally, I was interested in being exposed to local customs and culture.

Before booking, here are a few questions to ask the operator:

·      How large can I expect our group to be?

·      How many guides climb the Summit with travelers?

·      How many times has your guide summited?

·      If you have a specific a medical condition, asthma let’s say, ask if the operator has experience in and is comfortable dealing with that issue.

We had three different conference calls with our travel operator to review the above, and travel insurance. Don’t be bashful.

4.     Shyness will be overcome, or it will do you in. I’ll put it this way. Altitude sickness cannot be described. To experience it, as I did, is an entirely different perspective. You shift from livin’ the dream, to waking up in a nightmare. Symptoms can include sleeplessness, dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Of all of these, at 16,000 feet, the last symptom is the most miserable. I’m not saying that I experienced it (because that would be embarrassing) but modesty goes out the window and over the side. Not generally life threatening, altitude sickness is serious because it can mean not summiting. Listen to your guide, listen to your body, and then listen to your guide again.

5.     Be thorough and thoughtful about what you pack. You’ll receive packing lists from your tour provider in addition to opinions about what to bring.

The onus is yours to determine what you need. I prefer traveling light so I have room to pick up souvenirs. Of all the things we were told to bring, the five I most appreciated were:

·      Wet Wipes. If you are staying at a hut, you have access to a shower of numbingly cold water. Wipes are a great way to clean up and for emergencies (I’ve been told), so consider wipes appropriate for private parts. A few ten packs are better than a family-sized container.

·      Tent lights. These small, light-weight lights can be found at any outdoor or recreational store. If you are sharing a tent, these help because you don’t have to use your headlamp, and can avoid blinding your tent mate. Also useful for late-night nature visits.

·      (Extra) Camera battery. Cold drains camera batteries. Bring an extra one, or a portable iPhone battery. You don’t want your device to die before Summit night.

·      Electrolyte tablets. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this last-minute addition to my bag. Be it Gatorade tablets, goop or generic electrolytes, helps avoid dehydration and provides extra energy for Summit night. My tablets were climb saving, and helped prevent even more serious issues of altitude sickness.

Kilimanjaro is truly the adventure of a lifetime. Despite my “extremely mild, nothing to see here, don’t worry about me, I’ll catch up” altitude sickness, summiting was a very proud moment. I’m so glad I did it and recognize my next journey has a tough act to follow.

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Kibo Hut: Base Camp before you start the final climb.

If you plan to climb Kili, I wish you tenacity, perseverance and happiness as you reach Uhuru. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. I’m not an expert, but I love to talk travel, and collect stamps on my passport.

Salem: Beyond the Witches

Salem, Massachusetts is a mid-size town along coastal New England. It’s famous for a tiny 17th Century misunderstanding that resulted in the stoning, burning and murder of 20 residents. No big deal, right? If you grew up in MA/NH/ME area of New England chances are you spent an entire month in school studying this NBD, also known as the Salem Witch Trials.

In summary, the reality of post-war, puritan New England set in with this deeply religious community. In addition, controversy bubbled up behind the ordaining of Reverend Samuel Parris. Locals disliked his ways and greed.

In 1692, Rev. Parris’ daughter and niece began having “fits.”  (fits: screaming, throwing things, uttering weird sounds and contorting their bodies in strange, unusual positions.) Presumably at a loss, a local physician blamed … THE SUPERNATURAL!

Under pressure from local magistrates, the girls blamed three women for afflicting them: Tituba, the Parris’ slave, Sarah Good, a homeless beggar and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman. The woman were brought to trial, two proclaiming their innocence, the salve confessing “the devil came and bid me to do it.” The spark that would ignite paranoia was lit and the rest is history. (For the record, I remembered about 60% of the above from school. I had to look the rest up. Yet again, thank goodness for the internet.)

By today’s standards, the Witch Trials resemble Tina Fey’s biting (and accurate) Mean Girls but on steroids. But for whatever reason, people love the story and the idea that Salem is home to a lot of witches and witchcraft. They love it so much that the other “gems” of Salem, in my opinion, get overlooked.

What exactly are these gems? Thank you for asking…

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I loved the “pop” the turquoise door makes against the black frame of this house. It’s so un-colonial while pretending it is.
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The Flying Saucer pizza has great pizza and craft beer. Have no fear, Trekkies are welcome and they have memorabilia that will appeal to you as well.
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Harrison’s Comics & Pop Culture is *the* place for relics of days gone by (like this one) as well as TONS of Walking Dead and other more current stuff.
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Literary wonks will know interested to know this is The House of Seven Gables, that inspired Nathaniel Hawethorne to write the novel. (It’s also the oldest wooden mansion in New England.)

Other Salem gems not photographed but worth your time: Gulu-Gulu Cafe for lunch, Sea Level Oyster Bar (upstairs) for drinks and Captain Dusty’s Homemade Ice Cream for your sweet tooth.

If you are in New England, don’t wait until Halloween to visit this lovely community. It’s a great day trip from Boston (and not nearly as crowded) and Portsmouth, NH.

For visitors with a car, Salem is located off I-95 in Massachusetts. Parking was pretty easy since we were visiting a friend. Without that perk, you may want to Google “parking in Salem” to find a lot closest to your destination. Plan to pay $10-$15 for a day. You can also access Salem via MBTA Train.