Six Travel Tips I Learned in Cuba

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves, and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” – Pico Iyer

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The dreams of wandering to faraway locations blur the snags destined to be encounter along the way and soon after I’ve returned, the bumps fade away and only the highlights seem to remain in memory.  However, I’ve taken a moment to write down a few things that could save you (or future me) from turbulence on the next adventure.

My fiance and I were planning a pre-wedding getaway to London when I came across a familiar group’s upcoming plans to visit Cuba.  And the idea struck, “Wouldn’t old Havana be a glorious haven from the stresses of wedding planning?” and excitingly, “What’s to stop us?

beach

A little googling and we learned that the flights from Miami to Cuba would be filled with household items such as TVs, microwaves, and the like.  But we didn’t really foresee what that might mean for us. After we arrived in the Havana Airport, our group of friends gathered around the carousel to watch as dozens of blue, shrink wrapped packages with names scribbled on the sides repeatedly made their way around the room.   Eventually, airport employees started to pull the unclaimed parcels off the carousel.  After three hours time, we realized that there was something dreadfully wrong.  The piles of bags on the floor grew to an impressive size while the number of bags taking a ride began to shrink until only a handful were going around.  Yet, half our group was still without bags.  With a few difficult questions to the staff and a couple of travelers who frequented Havana, we discovered just how lousy our situation actually was.  We learned that the airline piles all the luggage and packages onto the plane and when the plane surpasses its weight limit, luggage is unloaded until the flight can meet its requirements for takeoff.  The luggage pulled off the plane is set aside for the next flight out. It creates quite a domino affect and the weekend suffers the worst from this condition. All the unclaimed bags piled around the room were from the day before.  And tomorrow, we could only hope that our bags would be in the piles for us to claim.

FlagFrom this lost luggage situation and two days of wearing the same clothes with no toothbrush to call my own (by the time we made it to the hotel all the shops were closed), I learned two very important lessons:

  1. Carry-on essentials
    Perhaps it is an obvious behavior to a seasoned traveler who has lost a bag before, but in all my travels, I had never suffered a situation where my bag didn’t show up within a couple of hours.  I had grown complacent and relaxed and consequently completely unprepared.  Always pack a carry-on with 1-2 days fresh clothes, a toothbrush, deodorant, sunscreen, bug spray, and hand sanitizer (I kept the last two in my purse and was so thankful I had them).
  2. Cross-pack
    A few of those with missing bags had shown up with a travel companion who was lucky enough to have their bag arrive. If you travel with someone: Cross-pack.  Half of your things in their bag and vice versa to win in a situation where only half the bags show up.

I will let you in on a little secret: I’m a bit of a worrier when it comes to my stomach and missing out on enjoying my vacation due to a stomach issue that could have been avoided.  However, my travel companion has never made it much of a habit to worry and after he stuck his toothbrush in the sink, we have a couple more tips:

  1. Cover the sink with a hand towel
    If it’s your first time in a country where you cannot brush your teeth with the water out of the sink and the nightmare of traveler’s diarrhea doesn’t scare you enough to recall this tidbit in the wee hours of the morning, cover the faucet with a towel.  The inability to quickly turn the sink on seems to be enough to jog a foggy memory and send you reaching for the bottle of water instead.
  2. In a pinch, Rum is a decent disinfectant
    After a toothbrush ends up in contaminated water, you can use a high-proof alcoholic beverage as a disinfectant.  If you already put the brush in your mouth, you wouldn’t be remiss to rinse it with your drink of choice either.

old_havana

Related to the water conditions: in the past when I’ve traveled to such countries, I’ve always followed the recommended food safety precautions, and avoided vegetables or anything else possibly rinsed and washed in water. This leads to a certain uncomfortable gastrointestinal situation we’ll call “no poo” which I’ve always considered a reasonable price to pay to avoid “too much poo.”  However, on this trip I tried something new:

  1. Bring dried fruit
    I brought a sealed bag of dried fruit with me and ate about a serving a day which seemed to solve all the problems that could result from eating a diet of mostly well cooked meat and bread products.

Lastly, in the spirit of Douglas Adams,

  1. Always have a towel.  “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a few things to say on the subject of towels. A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” This is also true on the subject of international travel.  Despite a quaint hut that lent snorkeling and scuba gear for our snorkeling expedition into the Bay of Pigs, a towel was nowhere to be seen. Many people chose to air dry while I ran to the bathroom and paid CUCs to dry off with toilet paper; it would’ve been all the better if we had just brought a towel.

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Despite the difficulties that obviously occurred for these lessons to be learned, Cuba was a wonderfully interesting destination.  We enjoyed our night time ride through Havana in a classic american car with the window blowing through our hair, the seaside seats as we sipped Mojitos at the Hotel National de Cuba, the home cooked meal in the countryside of Las Terrazas, snorkeling in the bay of pigs and the beautiful colonial architecture of Cienfuegos and Trindad.  I would be neglectful if I didn’t mention the generosity of our wonderful local guides and friendly strangers who welcomed us to their country.

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