Cuba 101: What You Need to Know

Ramze Cuba
In this week’s Travel Tuesday Interview, I chat with Cuba expert Ramze Suliman. He’s been traveling to Cuba for the past seven years and is the author of two books about the country. (I met him in Havana on the first day of my Cuba trip!) He discusses the cost of traveling in Cuba, safety, how Americans can visit legally and the best restaurants in Havana.

 

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A classic car in Old Havana, Cuba (All photos by Ramze Suliman)

 

Name: Ramze Suliman
Age: 42
Hometown: Las Vegas, NV
Country count: 50
Blog/Website: www.RamzeTravels.com


1. How did you start traveling?
I originally started working for a company that did poker cruises. That gave me a small taste of many countries and from there the [travel] addiction was born. I originally went to Cuba back in 2010 because I have always been a cigar lover. The minute I arrived, I was in love. I have since written two books about Havana (Havana for Americans and Top 100 Places to Eat in Havana) and started my own tour company there:  www.TheCigarLover.com

 

2. How can Americans legally travel to Cuba?
Due to the economic embargo, Americans technically still can’t go for outright tourism. Obama opened it up quite a bit though. There are 12 sanctioned reasons that make it legal to go. Most people just choose either “Support of the Cuban people”, “People to People educational tours” or “professional research.”  These are all very easy requirements to fill and there is currently no real oversight or hassle with Americans traveling for these reasons. The gate agent will ask you when you check in at the airport in the US. That is the end of it.

 

3. When is the best time to go to Cuba?
Cuba shares very similar weather to Florida. The weather stays between 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, but it is more humid in the summer with more rain. December, January and February are peak months.

 

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Ramze enjoying a cigar and Havana Club at one of Havana’s many amazing restaurants.


4. Where are your favorite spots to eat in Havana?
Havana has some great restaurants and food and a lot of mediocre ones. My top three are Starbien, La Terazza and La Guarida. That said, I live there so I have lots of very inexpensive street foods I love. [FYI: Starbien is my favorite!]


5. What are your three favorite cities in Cuba?
Havana for the energy, Viñales for the sheer beauty and Varadero to just chill on a beautiful beach.

 

6. What’s the average daily cost of traveling in Cuba? Can you share some budget tips?
Cuba has some wild swings in what things cost. You can literally get a shot of coffee for .4 cents and then have to pay $25 bottle of sunscreen. Being prepared and knowing what to bring and where to go is more important than most countries. There are no supermarkets or drug stores on every corner to just pop in if you forgot anything. You can definitely hit the three budget ranges most people associate with though

Backpacker Budget:  $40/day
Average Budget: $100/day
Top Tier Budget: $200-$300 a day

Cuba Budget Tips:

  • Internet is $2 per hour and cards can be bought at all major hotels and at the government office called Etecsa.
  • Hotels currently are overbooked and severely overpriced. You can book at Casa particulars (private homes) for around $30 per night. This is the best option, and you will get a better feel for how Cubans actually live.  Check Airbnb for listings. [I stayed at casa particulars, which is how I met Ramzee.]
  • Learn to eat at the local peso kiosks and restaurants. If you see them full of Cubans, then you know they are cheap and good. The Cuban pesos is 24 to 1 with the CUC or Dollar. You can have a good meal for a buck.
  • The tap water is potable. Carry a small filter and drink the tap. Bottle water isn’t always easy to find and is expensive.
  • Fruits and vegetable markets are widespread in Cuba and are heavily subsidized by the government. So, is bread. You can easily buy both for pennies and make healthy easy meals. Take a jar of peanut butter with you.
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Pinar del Rio, Cuba (Photo courtesy of Ramze Suliman)

 

7. Share one of your travel highlights in Cuba.
I have learned to speak Spanish in Cuba. I took salsa lessons, learned to scuba dive and got some tattoos all while traveling around Cuba. There really is something for everyone and it has definitely enriched my life. I am writing this from Spain currently and it is such a pleasure to be able to speak to the locals here in Spanish!


8. What is the biggest myth about Cuba?
Safety. People always ask if it is safe. I have visited 50 countries and it is the safest I have ever been to! [I agree with Ramze. I always felt safe.]

The Cuban people have always been warm and friendly. They love American tourists the most because we tip and also because we are the closest to their lifestyles. In seven years of being in Cuba off and on, I have never heard of or witnessed any violent crime. I have walked dark streets at night and nobody will even approached me.

 

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Hotel Nacional in Havana is a must stop for their famous Cuban sandwich and fresh piña coladas. The historic hotel has a list of famous guests ranging from Frank Sinatra to John Wayne. (Photo courtesy of Ramze Suliman)

 


9. Name three things you always pack.
My electronics, my flip flops and my cigars

 

10. What is your next adventure?
I am officially moving to Havana full time in June. I am thrilled to finally call Cuba my official home. I have some repeat trips planned this year to Thailand and Colombia and some new ones to other parts of Southeast Asia


Want to know more about Cuba?

To connect with Ramze, check out his blog, Instagram and his two books on Cuba: Havana for Americans and Top 100 Places to Eat in Havana.

Looking for photo tips for Cuba? Check out my Photo Guide to Havana!

(Please note

The Art of the Road Trip

Horseshoe Bend, Arizona

Thanks to a tip from a friend, I discovered Horseshoe Bend near Page, Arizona on my Southwest road trip last summer. I couldn’t believe this hidden view was a short walk from the road! I went back twice to shoot!

 

There’s something therapeutic about a long drive and a beautiful sunrise. The clutter in my head slowly dissolves with each passing mile. There is nothing more relaxing to me than a long road trip.

Road trips are the most nostalgic form of travel. Everyone has at least that ONE epic road trip memory that makes them smile or laugh hysterically. What was your favorite road trip?

 

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Bell’s Beach, the infamous surf spot, located west of Melbourne was one of the highlights on my road trip along the Great Ocean Road in Southern Australia in 2009. 

 

For me, it was the Great Ocean Road, a postcard worthy section of the coast of Southern Australia. (It’s the Australian version of the Pacific Coast Highway.) I was traveling with two guys from Buffalo, NY. We slept in our rental car by the beach every night, ate lots of peanut butter sandwiches, drink beer on the beach and snuck into RV parks to shower. It was literally the BEST.

I’ve driven across the U.S. roughly four times. I prefer driving to flying any day. Last summer was the summer of road trips for me. I drove out to New Mexico and Arizona to explore Chaco Canyon, White Sands National Monument and Antelope Canyon in May. In August, I drove the ring road around Iceland then flew back into Boston and hopped in a car to explore Cape Cod.

I am kicking off this summer with a long road trip from Austin to South Carolina to visit my family. It gives me an excuse to break up my trip to visit friends in Birmingham (my former home) and Atlanta. (Plus, it’s like a third of the price of flying. There’s also the fact that being stuck in my hometown without a car is a form of torture.)

Afterwards, I’m hoping on a plane to Vermont and NYC before taking the train to Washington DC. I’m also super excited to announce that I’ll be running photo trips for National Geographic Student Expeditions in Yellowstone this summer! Plus, there’s a few more exciting things in the works!

 

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California Redwoods

 

What if you can’t find the time to drive cross-country? Well, then pack mini-road trips into bigger trips. When I visited my friend Miles in San Francisco, we rented a car, borrowed a tent and headed out to see the Redwoods. My best friend James lived in Boston for years. We always took trips to Vermont, Maine, Cape Cod or Rhode Island. I explore all the cool small towns in Texas like Marfa, Round Top and Boerne.

A few months ago, I flew into Miami, met up with three friends and spent four days road tripping through the Florida Keys and stopping at all the dive bars and places that my travel hero Jimmy Buffett sings about. (Blog post coming soon!)

I pass the time by binge listening to NPR, attempting to do my Spanish audio lessons and long phone conversations with old friends. (Don’t worry, those phone calls are all hands free!)

Let’s be honest—the best thing about road trips are singing horribly loud in the car.  Admit it – you know it’s your guilty pleasure as well. Most of my road trips are solo so I can sing and car dance without judgement from anyone besides the occasional trucker or RV in the other lane.

Here’s my favorite road trip playlist:

  1. Wherever You May Roam by Metallica
  2. Keep the Car Running by Arcade Fire
  3. Sleep on the Floor by The Lumineers
  4. Next Year by Foo Fighters
  5. Heads Carolina by Jo Dee Messina
  6. Changes in Latitudes by Jimmy Buffett
  7. American Girl by Tom Petty
  8. Mr. Columbus by Grace Potter
  9. Breakdown by Jack Johnson
  10. Leaving Town by Dexter Freebish

Any traveler can relate to the lyrics of each of these songs.

Pack your bags, download some new tunes and hit the road! I challenge you to make the most of your summer!

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COMING UP:

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Cuba, Epic Road Trips & Interviews with NYTimes Frugal Traveler

I’ve got some exciting posts coming up this summer including an interview with the New York Times Frugal Traveler Lucas Peterson, my top eight road trip destinations and an interview with a Cuba expert! Sign up for the email list to have the posts delivered directly to your email inbox!

 

6 Free Things to Do in NYC

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Sunset at Brooklyn Bridge Park

My very first flight was to New York City. It was a school trip during my junior year of college at the University of South Carolina. It was a mad rush to visit all the highlights –  Times Square, Broadway show, Central Park, the museums, etc. My second trip was a 24-hour quasi-layover. I’d flown back from Delhi and was headed to London. (Crazy, I know.) All I did was eat a lot and go for a run in Central Park. Every trip since then has been to visit friends, meet with editors and explore new parts of the city and check off icons that I missed on my previous visits. (I’ll be back again in early June!)

Whether it’s your first or 40th trip to the city, make sure you check these six free sights off your list. (Plus, they are all great photo opps!)

 

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I totally got up at sunrise to photograph Alfred the Gnome on the Brooklyn Bridge.


1. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge

One of the most famous icons of the New York City skyline is the double Gothic arches and crisscrossed cables of the Brooklyn bridge. Built in 1883, the bridge was the first road to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn. Be sure to walk, bike or run across the 1.1-mile pedestrian path. I recommend walking from Brooklyn toward Manhattan to get the best view of the skyline like in the photo above with Alfred the gnome!

How to get to the Brooklyn Bridge:
From Brooklyn: The promenade begins at Tillary and Adams street. Several subway stations get you close to the entrance. If you’re on the A or C train, exit at High Street Station. The entrance is a quarter of a mile north from this station. There are signs marking the entrance but consider using Google maps to help.

From Manhattan: The entrance is just across from the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station for lines 4, 5 and 6.

 

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The Staten Island Ferry offers one of the best (and FREE) views of Manhattan.


2. Staten Island Ferry

The free 25-minute ferry is a great way to see both the Statue of Liberty and get one of the best views of the Manhattan skyline. Departures are usually every 30 minutes. Avoid rush hour times, when ferries are packed. (I discovered the ferry on my quest to shoot the most iconic NYC gnome photo but preferred my Brooklyn Bridge shot above.)

How to get to the Staten Island Ferry: From Manhattan, the nearest subway line is the J/Z line to Broad Street or the 1 to South Ferry and 4/5 to Bowling Green.

 

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The High Line offers great views of the city and great spots to relax.


3. High Line

One of my favorite things in NYC is the High Line, the former above-ground train tracks that were transformed into a 1.45-mile public park and garden. The tracks were used to transport goods from 1934 to 1980. Afterwards, nature took over for almost three decades before the City of New York took ownership and transformed it into an urban masterpiece that incorporates many of the original tracks. 

PRO TIP: The Highline offers a plethora of FREE activities including multiple themed tours throughout the week, Saturday yoga classes and stargazing on Tuesday nights. (Check out their calendar.) It’s open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

How to Get to the Highline: There are eleven different access points that stretch from 34th and 12th Avenue to Washington and Gansevoort Street. Check the official website for a great map.

 

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The Chelsea Market is my favorite lunch/dinner spot!


4.
 Chelsea Market

The Chelsea Market is a fun food court/shopping mall/office building combo located close the High Line. While entrance to the building is free, the food’s not.  It’s a great lunch or dinner spot. Los Tacos No. 1 is amazing and Creamline is a farm to tray burger spot.  It’s very budget friendly for New York standards. The best part is that’s it’s air conditioned and a great escape on those steamy summer days.

How to Get Here to Chelsea Market: Take the A, C, E or L train to 13th Street.  Walk one block west and one block north. The address is 75 9th Ave, New York, NY 1001.

 

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One World Trade Center borders the 9/11 Memorial.

5. 9/11 Memorial

Everyone must take a walk through the 9/11 Memorial, which is both a powerful and beautiful tribute. The centerpiece is two enormous reflecting pools and waterfalls located at the base of each of the original towers. The pools are lined with the names of those who died on September 11, 2001 and on February 26, 1993. The surrounding plaza is lined with swamp white oak trees adjacent­ to One World Trade Center building, which is the tallest building in the Western hemisphere. Memorial is open 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

How to get to the 9/11 Memorial: The A, C, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, J, Z and R trains all run within walking distance of the memorial.

 

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I paused my run for a quick snap of Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.


6. Exercise in Central Park

On every NYC visit, I always go for a run in Central Park with just my phone, a little bit of cash and my subway card. It’s a great way to explore the park and relax. Pretend you are a local and go for a run/walk/bike ride through the park. The trick is to leave all your bags and cameras in your hotel/hostel so you’re not distracted and can focus on just enjoying the park like a local who’s just out for their morning workout. I always start on the east side of the park near East 59th Street and run along the eastern side to Bethesda Terrace then head to Belvedere Castle before running around the reservoir. When I get tired, I just exit the park and head to the nearest subway stop!

For more about NYC, check out my Travel Tuesday Interview with native New Yorker Jennifer O’Brien, founder of TheTravelWomen.com!

 

Interview with a NYC Expert

Jennifer NYC-01

In this week’s Travel Tuesday Interview, I chat with NYC native Jennifer O’Brien, who runs the TheTravelWomen.com, a community of women travelers! I met Jennifer when she was working at Budget Travel magazine a few years ago, and she’s my go-to NYC expert! She shares her favorite restaurants, budget tips and favorite secret spots in the city!

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Jennifer O’Brien is a native New Yorker and founder of TheTravelWomen.com. (All Photos Courtesy of Jennifer O’Brien)

 

Name: Jennifer O’Brien
Age: 26
Hometown: New York City
Countries: 23
Website: TheTravelWomen.com
Instagram: @JennifersCamera  & @TheTravelWomen 

 

1. How did you start traveling?

My first time on an airplane was when I was only one-year-old, and my parents brought me to San Diego. A few family trips later, I studied abroad in Parma, Italy for a semester, which allowed me to visit ten more countries. The travel bug bit me hard, and I found every opportunity and holiday to take vacations and travel more. I founded The Travel Women, which is a community for women by women to empower women to get out of their comfort zone and travel more! I am excited to share that I am now dedicating myself full time to my passion of traveling with The Travel Women!

 

2. Why do you like living in NYC?

NYC is huge and small at the same time. I love how it constantly surprises me, just when I think I figure out a neighborhood or the best pizza, I move and discover a new side of NYC! I have now lived in five different neighborhoods and love Williamsburg the most!

 

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“It was chilly but so worth it!” says Jennifer O’Brien about her snow photo shoot on the Williamsburg Bridge.

 

3. What are your three favorite places to eat in the city?

It is so hard to only pick three favorite spots, but here are my current favorites in Williamsburg:

  1. Mesa Coyoacan: This one-of-a-kind Mexican spot is my favorite Mexican food outside of Mexico—YES, it is THAT good. From the flavorful chicken in the tortilla soup to the fried grasshoppers that come with a shot of mezcal, which surprisingly taste a lot like salted sunflower seeds.
  2. Carmine’s Pizza: I cannot get enough of Carmine’s pizza right now. It’s one of the best places that offers pizza by the slice and even gluten free pizza! The ricotta and Kalamata olives slice is my current obsession.
  3. Loosie Rouge: This is a little interior design heaven with grass on the door, hammocks and colorful walls made for Instagram. The food is also pretty amazing, too! They have salmon or bacon with their eggs benedicts that come on waffles, which is the best combo of salty and sweet! The “Matcha Patcha” drink is amazing featuring matcha tea, shochu, elderflower, lime and spring flora.

 

4. Share some tips for traveling on a budget in NYC.

  • Getting a CityPASS can help you see multiple attractions for less. For example, you can save more with the pass for six attractions ($122 USD), but their C3 pass for three attractions could be perfect for people only in NYC for a few days.
  • Research museums that offer “recommended” rates so you can pay what you want especially if you’re going to a lot of museums.
  • Take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry for some of the best views of Manhattan.

 

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The Queens Museum is one of Jennifer’s favorite spots in the city!


5. What are some great off-the-beaten path places to visit in the city?

One of my favorite parks is Elizabeth Street Garden, a small little European style garden full of statues. Another lesser known spot is the Queens Museum, where you can see the 1985 Panorama, a miniature metropolis of New York City. Queens Museum is in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, which also includes two remnants of the World’s Fair including a giant globe.

 

6. What is the biggest myth about NYC?

The biggest myth is definitely that all New Yorkers are rude. Yes, some of them can be but I’ve also met some wonderful and friendly people.

 

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Jennifer snuck into Gramercy Park, the only private park left in the city, and almost got locked inside!


7. Share one of your favorite adventures in the city.

One day I was walking past Gramercy Park, the only private park left in NYC, and I saw a group of people my age with a key and started a conversation with them. They mentioned it wasn’t their key and asked if I wanted to come in, and I naturally said yes. I was so excited to explore this private green oasis during the golden hour on a day [when] I had my camera on me. The funniest part of the adventure though was just after sunset I realized that I was one of the last people in the park and that apparently you needed a key to exit the park. I almost got locked in and was so happy I realized just in time to casually follow a local out with their key!

 

8. What advice would you have for aspiring travelers? Any tips for overcoming fear?

Do what you love and it won’t seem as scary! If you’ve always been dreaming about a certain place or experience, go do it and the obstacles you thought would stand in your way won’t really be obstacles at all! If you’re afraid of traveling solo, start small by traveling in your own backyard to a local museum or park by yourself and overcome your fears slowly to realize that it’s not that bad. It can be more fun to travel solo!

 

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Jennifer, founder of The Travel Women, is a native New Yorker and has lived in five different parts of the city.


9. Name three things you always pack for a trip.

The first thing I pack is definitely my camera gear including charger, extra batteries and extra memory cards. Second, it always helps to have tweezers around for everything from keeping your eyebrows nice to getting rid of a splinter. The third thing I love to have are snacks. Depending on where you’re going or how long the transportation takes, having a few different flavored granola bars goes a long way!

 

10.  What is your next adventure?

I am currently packing for a trip to Panama with another blogger, where we will cover all the best spots from the Panama Canal through to Starfish Beach.

For more about Jennifer, follow her on Instagram, Twitter and at TheTravelWomen.com!

 

4 Tips for Surviving Tough Travel Days…and GIANT Australian Spiders

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I felt like I was driving into the opening scene of a horror movie on my way to Chaco Canyon. The scary drive and storm were worth it though. For more details about my trip, checkout my Chaco Canyon post!

 

There’s bad days on the road just like there are at home.

The good days are glorious – riding camels on beaches in India, watching the sunrise over the towers at Torres del Paine in Patagonia and photographing the Dalai Lama’s teachings in McLeod Ganj. These are the days that people envy. The ones that cause people to stalk my Instagram and say, “I’m living vicariously through your life.”

What people don’t want are the bad days I endured to get to those glorious moments like the 18-hour bus ride in Burma sitting across the aisle from a kid puking in a bag for the ENTIRE trip.

For me, bouts of food poisoning always arrive at the most opportune moments like the middle of the 10-mile hike or on a bumpy flight. There’s nothing more fun than waking up in a swanky hostel in Cancun covered in bed bug bites. (There is NOTHING that itches more.) It was just as much fun as standing beside my car on the side of I-40 in the middle of Missouri after my engine blew.

 

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McLeod Ganj, the home to the Dalai Llama, is one of my favorite cities in India and also the place I’m most accident/illness prone.

 

And, my personal favorite – the time my foot slipped between the grates of a sewer drain in India when I was walking down the street. Thankfully, it was only knee deep so I didn’t break my leg. This nice Tibetan boy was kind enough to retrieve my flip-flop from the toxic black muck.  My leg was so bruised I couldn’t sit Indian-style with my legs crossed for weeks.

Oh, and let’s not forget my hilarious battle with the GIANT Australian spider.

I found myself living in a Western Union commercial when my purse was stolen in Thailand. I lost all of my bank/credit cards except my American Express, which was worthless. (Despite their slogan, those bastards are NOT everywhere you want them to be!) There I was in Cambodia a few days later calling my parent’s at 5 a.m. to transfer me money. (FYI: You can’t transfer yourself money. Trust me, I tried.)

Sadly, life can’t always be filled with sunshine and tacos, but there are always more good days than bad. After 14 years of relentless travel, I wouldn’t change a thing—even the food poisoning. Besides, nothing worthwhile will ever be easy.

If fear of the bad days or any of my stories scare you, learn from my mistakes.  Here’s four ways to survive the tough travel days:

 

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I didn’t let my stolen purse ruin my first trip to Southern Thailand. (Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand)

 

1. Humor

The food poisoning hit me at the top of the mountain in India. I hiked back five miles getting sick every 15 minutes. The next day I was so weak I could barely walk to breakfast. Then, I had to take a two-hour car ride through winding roads to the village where I was working for the next week. My room was so hot at night that I took multiple cold showers every hour or two just to cool off. (Keep in mind, I was still massively dehydrated from the food poisoning so the heat didn’t help.) It was cooler outside than in my room, but if I opened my door, I knew the tiny scorpions would wander in the same way they strolled into my friend’s room down the hall.  As I lay there sweating, I couldn’t help but think “This will make a damn good Facebook status update!”

I love a good story. After all, I have two degrees in journalism. Everything I do in life is for a story. Most of the time, bad mishaps make the best stories later. All of this is pretty hilarious to me now as I type this from my air-conditioned room in Austin.

The main thing that gets me through the rough times is the realization that the moment will pass and not come again. And, the story. There is humor in everything. Plus, people LOVE to hear about that bad things that happen do you. Don’t you agree?

 

2. Be calm

My purse was stolen twice. One in Thailand and again in Spain where they also snagged my iPhone. (Both were my fault. More on that later.) After the initial moments of shock and realizing that my purse was REALLY gone, I whisked through a gamut of emotions that lasted five minutes. I quickly realized that overreacting/crying was not going to change the situation. Being calm and focusing on dealing with the situation was the best way to move forward. This is coming from a girl who often finds it nerve-wracking to decide what to order on a brunch menu. When the stakes are high, I’m calm. When they aren’t, I’m a mess.

Crying won’t make your wallet reappear. Take a deep breath. Access the situation and put all your energy toward the solution.

 

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I spent the morning at La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona the day and later that day my iPhone was stolen from the beach.

 

3. Learn from your mistakes (and mine)

Both stolen purses were identical situations. I was on a beach and not paying attention. (Again, I admit both were totally my fault.)  All of my bank cards were in my wallet (except that useless American Express) in Thailand.

Since the beaches in Spain have high-theft rates, I made sure to lock up all my valuables in my hostel locker (based on my experience in Thailand) every night except one. I was rushing to meet some friends and didn’t want to go back to lock up my phone and wallet, which were promptly stolen.

Luckily, I had learned from my previous Thailand incident so at least I had my bank cards and cash hidden in multiple places with my luggage back at the hostel. I still lost my iPhone but luckily, didn’t have to call my parent’s at 5 a.m. to send me money this time. Small victories.

Since that incident in Spain, I travel with a purse with a long strap, which I wear across my body even when sitting down so it’s not as easy to grab. Now, I ALWAYS lock up my phone and wallet when I am in a high-theft area. When I went to dinner at night in Peru, I would only carry enough cash for my meal in my pocket. Everything else was locked up.

In Buenos Aires, I was able to fumble a pick-pocket’s attempt to steal my wallet/phone from my purse based on my previous experiences above.

All of these are hilarious stories in hindsight. (You’ll have to wait for my autobiography to get the ENTIRE story.) The biggest takeaway is to learn from your mistakes to make sure the situation doesn’t happen again.  Also, trust your instincts. When something feels strange, get out of the situation immediately.

 

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My foot fell through the grates of a sewer drain on this street in McLeod Ganj, India. (Yes, that’s a stray cow wandering the street.)


4. 
Be Prepared

It’s always good to plan for the worst if only to reduce your fears. Buy travel insurance and take small precautions that will save you a lot of headache in the long run. Here are few things I do to be prepared:

 

  • Do Your Research. Research potential health or safety concerns in your destination so you can take the proper precautions. Check travel alerts on Travel.State.gov and recent editions of travel guides for current concerns. Ask receptionists and locals for safety advice about places you want to visit.
  • Road-side Assistance. There was no way for me to predict that my car engine would blow on I-40 especially since I’d just had the oil changed the day before. But, I had AAA so they towed my car for free to the dealership, which took part of the headache away. (Many credit cards offer similar services.)
  • Talk to Your Doctor. For Delhi Belly (food poisoning), my doctor prescribed antibiotics for me to carry on trips since I always seemed to get sick in the middle of nowhere. I also travel with rehydration salts to help with hydration. I always buy medical travel insurance with no deductible so it covers any medical issues and emergency evacuation.
  • Back-up Bank Account. I opened a second back-up checking account and always keep that debit card in a different spot than my main card. If one card was stolen, I can easily transfer my money to the other account. (Both accounts are Charles Schwab and have no fees or minimum balance requirements. For more on travel banking, read my Travel Banking 101 post.)
  • Don’t Get Hangry. Pack snacks to avoid hanger (anger caused by hunger). I ALWAYS have a snack with me that ranges from bananas to peanuts to a homemade steak sandwich, which come in handy when things are running smooth or when I’m stuck in a bus station in the middle of nowhere.

How to Win a Battle with a Giant Australian Spider

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At first glance, Sydney, Australia is a beautiful city but it has it’s share of dark secrets like GIANT SPIDERS!

 

It was midnight on a Wednesday.

In typical horror movie fashion, I was home alone. I was renting a room in a three-bedroom house in the western part of Sydney, Australia. On this particular night, my roommate was working late.

As I was turning off the light before crawling into bed, I noticed a dark spot on the ceiling directly above my bed. I flipped the lights back on to investigate. The dark spot was a MASSIVE spider. By MASSIVE, I mean it’s head was the size of my thumb and its’ body span was the size of my ENTIRE hand!! It was like a tarantula with longer legs. I stood there flipping the lights on and off repeatedly in hopes it was a mirage. But, it was very, very real!

Take a moment to Google “Huntsman spider.”

Now, that you’ve stopped screaming and picked your phone up off the floor, let’s continue with the story.

First of all, spiders should NOT be that big. I have never been afraid of spiders. When they reach a certain size that rivals width of my shoe…well, things change.

There was ABSOLUTELY no question that the giant spider had to die for several reasons:

1) Australian spiders are known to be very poisonous and deadly.

2) There was no way I was sleeping in the same room as him.

3) He doesn’t pay rent. Damn, freeloader!

 

Luna Park, North Sydney, Australia

My reaction to the spider was the same as the entry way to Luna Park in North Sydney. 


Problem # 1: My room has 12-foot high ceilings.

First, I moved my bed and anything he could hide under out of the way or into the hall. (Did I mention he was directly above my pillow? AHHH!) To prepare for the battle, I put on the thickest shoes I owned, tucked my pajama pants into my socks and put on a long sleeve shirt to cover my skin in case he fell on me.

Instinctively, I ran to grab the broom, a shovel and the vacuum. (The shovel seemed like a good tool to use to decapitate him.)

Then, as any self-respecting 26-year-old would do, I called my parents to discuss my strategy. (It was the middle of the day in South Carolina so they were clearly awake.) Parents are supposed to know how to deal with these things. After clarifying the massive size of the spider to my dad repeatedly, he helped me concoct a plan. His exact words: “Go ahead and vacuum him. Then, call me back.”


Problem # 2: The vacuum doesn’t have a long hose attachment.

Again, the ceiling is 12-feet tall. My Macgyver instinct kicked it. To maximize my distance from said spider, I taped the broom handle to the vacuum hose with the roll of mailing tape. Hitting him with a broom or even the shovel would be messy (i.e. spider blood on the white paint, holes in the wall, etc.) The vacuum was my only hope. I just prayed it was strong enough.

 

 

Problem # 3: The vacuum hose is too short to reach the ceiling.

I put the vacuum on one chair and stood on another chair in order execute my plan. Both chairs are as far away from the spider as possible. I round up every bit of courage in my body and poke him with the end of the vacuum using my DIY broom-hose attachment. He scurries to the right. I scream and almost fall off the chair. Then, I intercept him. He puts up a fight, but he is no match for the power of the vacuum! (There was a moment where I was seriously concerned he was too big to vacuum.)

I step down from the chair and put the vacuum on the floor. My heart is pounding. The vacuum is still running at this point because I’m scared that when I turn it off he will try to run out of the hose. Or what if he multiplied like those Gremlin things from that ‘80’s movie? I busted out my Jackie Chan ninja skills to quickly tape a plastic bag over the end of the hose as soon as I hit the off switch. The bag looks a bit thin so I quickly grab a thicker bag and tape it over the hose with lightening speed.

Then, I lock the vacuum in the closet in the spare room and proceed to check my entire room for the spider’s friends and relatives.

Anna – 1

Giant Spider – 0

Now, I’m terrified to go to sleep. What if he comes back for revenge? I feel like spiders are crawling all over me. There is a vent near where the spider was on the ceiling. I rip off the back of a magazine and tape it over the vent so none of his freeloading friends can come visit.

I text my roommate to explain that there is a giant spider living in the vacuum in the spare room. Then, I call my dad back to let him know that I’m alive.

Since it’s clear, I won’t ever be sleeping again. I sat down to type this email.

This, my friends, is how you defeat a giant Australian spider.

(Update: The vacuum stayed tapped up in the spare room until I moved out a few months later. Initially, I thought the spider was a deadly funnel web but later found out the spider was a Huntsman, which is not poisonous.  Ironically, after spending the next five summers in Asia, I became very Buddhist and started catching small spiders and taking them outside instead of killing them.)

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COMING UP:

Mazurek_ChacoCanyon_500

4 Ways to Survive Tough Travel Days

There are bad days on the road just like there are at home. The good days are glorious. And, the bad days are, well, tough. I’ll share some of my hilarious travel mishaps and offer tips to help you deal with the less than glorious days.