Hello Cuba!

Cuba is more than puros (cigars), salsa and classic cars, Cuba is about its warm and happy people who are hungry for more…

5 days in Cuba-2018

I was a little worried about being able to go to Cuba with the new regulations imposed by the new administration but I was glad to find it as easy as traveling anywhere else with our privileged blue passport.

During this trip, in July 2018, I chose to travel a bit slower and not overwhelm myself with multiple cities in a short period of time. All I can pretty much share is my experience in Havana and a day trip to Viñales.

From what I experienced, Cuba is more than puros (cigars), salsa and classic cars, Cuba is about its warm and happy people who are hungry for more and are persistent in their pursuit to provide a better lifestyle for themselves and their families.

Before Going to Cuba: Visas & Research

Visa: In order to travel to Cuba, American citizens must get a visa and select 1 of the 12 traveling categories, I selected Support of the Cuban People. You can buy your visa at the airport for around 50 dollars but since I am a control freak I wanted to buy them in advance. I purchased them here for $85. They also charge a nice $25 for shipping but it was waived for us since we booked our flights with American Airlines.

Research: You can find the 12 categories on this site including a link to restricted places by the US Government. I did not have a problem with many of the restrictions since I planned to stay at airbnbs, also known as casas particulares. I personally think that’s the best way to do it. While researching I found some great articles/blogs that explain more in detail the new restrictions imposed at the end of 2017: What to Know Before you Go to Cuba and What’s the Result of New Cuba Restrictions.

Also, I read a lot about Cuba from my favorite travel blogger How Not to Travel Like a Basic Bitch, she has an entire section about it, you can check it here.

I had absolutely no problem getting into Cuba or coming back into the US, no questions were asked. I’ve heard some people have an itinerary ready in case they are questioned while they are there. No one asked me anything. I always have an itinerary regardless. The only time I was asked the reason for me going there was by the monitor when I was checking in my flight at the airport.

Besides staying at casas particulares, I also ate at paladares (privately owned restaurants), did some tours in Havana and Viñales, visited museums, and got lost in the middle of the night in Central Havana. Some of my readings said to keep receipts in case you get audited by the US government. I have yet to hear anyone getting audited for going to Cuba. I was not worried about that, I got pictures and a vague itinerary and if that’s not enough well “lo bailado nadie me lo quita” (what I have enjoyed nobody can take it away).

In Cuba

Money: Take cash, cards don’t work there, at least American cards. Well that is what every blog and person I know told me so I did not even try to use a card while there but who knows maybe things are changing; I would not risk it. I changed my dollars at my local personal bank to euros because the exchange rate is better when you go there and you have to change it to CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos). CUCs are one of the two currencies they use. This is the money you will use there. The other currency is the CUP (Cuban Peso) which is about 1 CUC= 25 CUP approximately. Just so you have an idea if it’s worth it to change your dollars to euros, here it’s an example with the rates given to me:

  • $1000 / 1.2466=802 euros. 802 euros x 1.3874=913 CUC

If I would have taken just dollars, I would have received this:

  • $1000 *.87=870 CUC

If you are scratching your head, based on the above I had about 43 more CUCs just by taking euros instead of dollars. Is it worth it? that’s on you. Take into account that exchange rates fluctuate often. I also heard from a friend, who visits Cuba often, that you can get a better rate (.90 or a bit more instead of .87) at La Moneda Cubana. I changed my money at a CADECA, casa de cambio, (money exchange house) in Obispo Street. You can also change some at the airport but their rates are a bit lower.

Just to give you an idea, I spent about 600 dollars in 5 days including souvenirs, tours, airbnbs, food, museums, etc. That does not include my flight and some of the costs were split with my boyfriend.

Where to Stay: Casas particulares (Airbnb) are definitely the place to stay, you get to mingle with local Cubans and get an idea of how they really live. This was my first international Airbnb experience sharing someone’s house and I loved it. They give you tons of tips and Cuban’s hospitality was excellent. I spent 35 CUC on average per night. You will not get luxury but a clean room with air conditioner was all we needed.

What to See: Havana has many zones but the ones most people visit or talk about are Old Havana, Central Havana and Vedado.

There is a lot to do in Old Havana (Habana Vieja), we were lucky to stay right next to Plaza Vieja, a charming old square. Some restaurants and souvenir shops are here but I would suggest to go the Almacenes for that. Obispo Street is one of their main and busiest streets for tourists that leads you all the way to Parque Central where the Capitolio, Paseo del Prado, Jose Marti’s statue, Museo de las Bella Artes and the Hot Corner are located among many main hotels, and more.

Watching the sunset at the Malecon (seawall) is a must, take some change or small bills as you will have many people approach you trying to sell you fruit, gum or simply start serenading you with some salsa, don’t just dance with them, a tip goes a long way. Not everyone there is going to solicit from you either, some people just like to know where you are from and want to have a conversation. If you can head over to The Christ of Havana Statue on La Cabaña Hill for some nice panoramic views of the city, it’s worth it.

We did the Habana Bus Tour for 10 CUC per person; it’s a hop on, hop off bus. We also did a two-hour classic tour for 70 CUC. It was actually a little over 3 hours. I am not sure if that was a good price for those tours or not but we enjoyed it.

We got lost in Central Havana our first night there, it was full of old alleyways with houses crumbling down and with people just walking or hanging outside. We kept being told that it was very safe regardless of how dark it may get in the streets at night and they were right. We also walked down the Malecon and let me tell you, on a Saturday night, that is where all the locals go. They gather in small or large groups while playing music on their phones or speakers and just hang there in the dark. You may also find some kids just twerking there lol, don’t ask, or couples engaging in some exuberant PDA– hey it’s their place not mine. It was a site to see, I wish I would have taken a picture but the simplicity of enjoying just their own company was refreshing.

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Somewhere in Havana Central
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Somewhere in Havana Central

Our last night, we rented a private studio in the Vedado area which is their more residential neighborhood. Here we had some wonderful massages for 25 CUC for one hour and an amazing facial for 12 CUC. We checked out their “mall” a galeria de tiendas that consisted of a handful of clothing stores, a large electronic store and a food market. You can also catch a little train for 1 CUC that takes you via the Malecon area from Hotel Melia Cohiba all the way to the Almacenes San Jose (huge flea market).

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Classic Car Tour

We were able to go to their local beach, Santa Maria del Mar or Playas del Este, it was about 20 to 25 minutes away from Parque Central. We took a bus for 5 CUC round trip per person. The last one runs at 6pm. There were three stops for the beaches. We got off at the last stop recommended to us for a more private area. It was a Tuesday so it was not busy at all. At first, I was going to go to Varadero but I am glad we did not thanks to my fave blogger’s suggestion. I was just as pleased with this beach. Soft white sand with clean and pristine water was all I needed; I had a great time there.

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Playas del Este
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Playas del Este

We also went to Viñales on a day trip, from 7:30am to 7:pm. The cost was 67 CUC per person which included pick up from a major hotel, lunch, a free drink (if you want to call it that, some green liquid), a tobacco tour, a cave tour and a quick stop at a mirador for some panoramic views. You can purchase the tours at major hotels or you can rent a private taxi which may be about 120 CUC or more, if you split it with more people then you are better off.

If you have time, stay in Havana 2 to 3 nights and get out the city and explore places like Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Santiago, etc. I just scratched the surface but I will be back.

Food: Food was okay but it was not great and this opinion can be biased since I am used to the taste and seasoning of Caribbean American food and this may have messed up my taste palate. Keep in mind they don’t enjoy the luxury of having supermarkets with 1 million products and seasonings as we do in the States. Some of the typical dishes I enjoyed were rice and black beans (moros y cristianos), puerco asado (roasted pig) yuca, tostones and veggies. Also, their lime soda nacional is bomb.

For breakfast, we mainly ate at our hosts’ house for a small fee of 5 CUC per person which included eggs, fruit, coffee, smoothies and bread with some type of spreading.

Food was relatively cheap at restaurants depending on where you go. I loved Don Julio’s Cafeteria-Pizzaria in Plaza Vieja. We had ropa vieja (shredded or pulled stewed beef), a pizza pie and two mojitos for 14 CUC total plus live music. Besides the lady who screamed at me because I did not want to buy a rose at that moment, I think that was my favorite place to eat. Castropol had excellent views of the Malecon and decent seafood. The paella was better than the one I ate in Valencia Spain but I also only tried one paella while in Valencia so don’t pay my paella reviews too much attention.

WiFi: What they say is true, WiFi is not really at hand’s reach but you can have it if you really want it. You need to buy a WiFi card, I got mine from Etecsa their main WiFi and phone company for 1 CUC for 1 hour or 5 CUC for 5 hours. They also sell it at other places for a slight premium. You can get WiFi at different parks or near certain buildings by the Malecon. It’s very easy to spot them since you will see a lot of Cubans all on their cellphones. I was lucky one of my casa particulares hosts had a WiFi router, which later on I was told it was illegal by another Cuban; if that’s true, well you got to love the ingenuity. There and at Floridita Restaurant were the only places I used WiFi for a total of a few hours during my entire stay. Being able to unplug almost completely was beyond relaxing, I guess one does not realize how dependent we can be to our phones until the internet vanishes.

What I learned: I was told repeatedly the average monthly salary for a Cuban is between 20 to 25 CUC, while a doctor may make 40 CUC a month.

They want more. They don’t understand how they have some of the best doctors in the world and they still get paid 40 CUC a month. I mean damn, I don’t understand either.

Cubans are highly educated, all my casa particulares’ hosts were former attorneys. One of the drivers was also a former attorney and the other a recent graduate of economy. They all turned to the tourism industry, Cuba’s highest paid industry. While all the people we spoke with seemed to express their desire for more for their country as far as income and a better quality of life, I did not get the same sentiment from my hosts. I actually asked the wife of one of my host if her husband was out working another job when I did not see him at home and her response was “no, this is more than enough.” This same sentiment was shared with us by some friendly guys at the Hot Corner, it seems like there are people doing pretty well for themselves with private businesses but this is not reflective of the pueblo (all the people). Our friendly masseuse said the same; she told me she knew the deal and some will be better off than others and that is how they will prosper. It was amazing to engage in conversation with them and how willing they were to speak with you just by us asking them how was Cuba.

Cuba also gave us a reality check of the privilege we often take for granted. For a Cuban just to get a passport can cost him 100 CUC, that can mean a 4 month salary for some. That’s not counting the visas, a visa interview can cost you a little over 150 CUC just to be denied and told to come back and try next year.

One other thing I noticed was the long lines at the Spanish Embassy, a fairly new legislation now allows Cubans to apply for Spanish citizenship if they can prove their grandparents lost or gave up Spanish citizenship as a result of exile. Having a Spanish passport would allow some the ability to travel more freely.

During Obama’s administration, they said there was an invasion of Americans, they did not know what to do, their prices skyrocketed but with the new administration that stopped quickly. They don’t see American tourists too often now.

One of our drivers mentioned Facebook and how his view of Cuba has shifted. He was only 22 and said when he was a kid he thought Cuba was the best country ever. Now that he can see more via social media and how others around the world live and enjoy life, he said that regardless of how hard he may work, he knows there is more to life that he cannot attain. I tried telling him it’s not always greener on the other side but who was I to really say that. Yes, I lived in poverty in Peru until 13 but I was given the chance to have a better life with more opportunities that others may not enjoy.

Cuba was refreshing, it was warm (well hot af in July) but you know what I mean, it was eye opening. It is not your typical all inclusive island vacation. There was obvious poverty, crumbling buildings left and right, dirty alleyways and a smell you get used to while wandering some streets. There were complaints from many, even the ones who made more money by working in the tourism industry. Not everything about Havana was colorful, in every sense of the word, but it was welcoming and beautiful at the same time, and I think you should all go experience it for yourselves. Take your dollars and enjoy.

You don’t travel for others to abide by your standards, you abide by their standards when you are traveling.

5 Rules to Self Love

We have to divert the focus back on us and genuinely learn to love ourselves. Self love is the foundation of happiness and without it, it will be hard to give to others and make this world a bit better than before.

Self Love Takes Work.

In a world where comparison is more popular than quinoa or kombucha tea and authenticity is more scarce than tasty gluten-free pasta, we have to divert the focus back on us and genuinely learn to love ourselves. Self love is the foundation of happiness and without it, it will be hard to give to others and make this world a bit better than before. I struggle with this also but I know it’s a work in progress where we have to aim for continuous self accountability. So, here are 5 rules to consider in our journey to self love:

  1. It’s Okay to Put Yourself Before Anyone Else: Don’t let anyone make you believe you are selfish because you take care of yourself before others. Often, I see people giving their money, time and energy to others before they look out for themselves and consequently I see growing resentment in these situations. Your biggest investment should be in yourself so when you decide to devote anything to anyone else, make sure you have covered yourself already.
  2. Learn to Say No, Say No and Say it Again: I used to think saying no was easy, I am very good at saying no to invitations, causes, roles, etc. My mentality was be honest with yourself and others, if you can’t afford it, do not have the time or cannot devote enough energy to provide a quality outcome to what is requested from you, the answer is simple, “no sorry, I can’t this time.” Do not gamble with the “I’ll say yes now and figure it out later.” Remember your word is your bond and every time you take back on it, its value diminishes. Nonetheless, I find it extremely hard to say no when someone asks me for genuine help. Saying no gets better with practice. Check back to rule number 1 and remember by forcing yourself to any commitment sometimes does a disservice to both parties. You can always make more money but you can’t regain the time lost. Overall, remember that no, is a complete sentence. You owe no one explanations.
  3. Accept and Love your Flaws, or Change Them: Flaw by definition is a mark, fault, or other imperfection that mars a substance or object. So, it may seem strange to “accept” them but you must, in order to modify them. We all have walked by the mirror and thought about what we could improve. I’m not saying, “if you come to the conclusion you hate your a-cups, to go get surgery.” I mean, if by all means that is what you want, who am I to stop you. The flaws I am referring to are the ones that weaken your confidence and limit your greatness. Now, these flaws are not always physical, they can be the lack of certain attributes like the ability to take risks, fear of criticism, fear of failure, the need to please others, etc. Flaws are within us all, however, we have to come face to face with what needs to be improved and develop a plan of action. Many times we do not sit with ourselves and give ourselves the time of day. We handle many roles and rarely ever the role of “self” is prevalent. Do you even like you? If no, why? And, go from there. Take a risk and try something new, welcome failure, be yourself and take notice of who accepts you for who you are.
  4. Seek Less for Reassurance: Have you found yourself asking your significant other, friends, family or even strangers for approval about something you wore, the way you look, an idea you presented, or even input on your own opinion? Thanks to social media and our ability to interact with many of our peers simultaneously, it seems like we have shifted our focus from what we like to what others may think of what we like. There is nothing wrong with seeking advice, a second opinion or just seeing what others think, but if your decisions are going to be dependent on outsiders’ input or your mood would somehow be affected by the reaction of others, then we may need to try to self reflect a little more. Realize that at the end of the day, it’s you the one whose opinion comes first and while reassurance can boost your confidence, reassurance is also a double-edge sword. Don’t ever let outsiders have more control over you.
  5. Don’t Compare Yourself or Your Life to Others: Comparing ourselves to others is sucking the life out of life. I know, a very deep thought lol. We live in a capitalist culture where having more is equal to happiness, but is it really? We live in a world where having more degrees and titles is more important than what you do with your knowledge and education. We continuously compare our material possessions and even memories and experiences such as traveling, dining, hobbies, etc. Although it’s nice to share our experiences so easily thanks to the internet, I think many of us are losing our sense of authenticity just to portray what is acceptable or trendy to others without searching for meaning in what we do. Comparing your life to others will lead to disappointment because someone will always have less than others which will cause a cycle of dissatisfaction. We can try to avoid this by practicing gratitude daily, being thankful for what we have and what we do not have yet. Remember, we don’t need to match someone’s else perfection, we can only aim to be better than ourselves yesterday. Being content is okay, don’t let anyone tell you that your ambition must match the next person. At the end of the day, you define your own happiness.
Thank you Wilma Lebron (IG: @mixtapesnlipsticks) for your input with rule number #3!

~LOVING YOURSELF ISN’T VANITY, IT’S SANITY~KATRINA MAYER

Picture by Carpe Diem Design Studio.

Why Life is Loading?

Let’s face it, nowadays we are living our lives through a lense, a picture, a video, a snap, a blog, vlog, podcast, website or livestream, so much that it feels like our entire lives are being uploaded and they load as others check in on it.

Why Life is Loading? simply because I needed a space to get my thoughts out, a place where I could share stories, tips, advice, venting sessions and everything in between about this fast changing world.  And let’s face it, nowadays we are living our lives through a lense, a picture, a video, a snap, a blog, vlog, podcast, website or livestream, so much that it feels like our entire lives are being uploaded and they load as others check in on it. Cheesy huh? It made sense in my head.

Hola, I am Susan, some call me Susu, a nickname given to me as a joke by a sorority sister some years back. You heard it right, I am a in a sorority, a sisterhood, an hermanidad (Er-Ma-Knee-Dad) or however you want to refer to it. But, let’s get it right, it is not the type of sorority you see in the movies nowadays (no Stomp the Yard or Neighbors over here), that’s the beauty of being a member of a Latina based/founded sorority; there’s beauty in culture.

Talking about culture, I’ve lived in the United States since I arrived when I was 13 years old, I have now been here for 18 years (go ahead, do the math lol) residing in the lovely New Jersey. During my transition here, I have seen so much change through my little eyes that it is time to share.   

Being an immigrant, a 1.5 generation (we’ll talk about this later), someone who followed all the rules from immigrant parents (went to college & got two degrees, got a stable career, bought a house), travels but still is frugal as hell, and lives in this social media world, all while trying to still figure out life in her 30s without kids, has put a lot into perspective.  A lot of “I wish someone told me that,” “Is this really the American Dream?” “What else am I missing?” “What is next?” All these questions led me to create an outlet (fancy word for blog) where others could come and hopefully relate, opine, share and learn something. But learn what, you may be wondering, well this outlet will have topics on:

  • Personal Finance: You’d be surprised how many people with or without degrees can’t manage their personal finances and struggle with debt and poor credit scores. This stops us from achieving greatness! Not that a house is greatness but the less options or ways you have to bargain, the less resources available to you. Let’s even the battlefield y’all.
  • Lifestyle|Hobbies|Tips: Travel, Beauty, Reading, Photography, Health and más (more) because life can’t just be about your 9-5 or business ventures. We must balance life without breaking bank.
  • Empowerment and Reflections: Relationships discussion, figuring out ourselves/loving and being our best selves, strengths & struggles of young people of color in America today…because in today’s world, we are fucked by the “image you have in your mind of what you are supposed to be and often fail to be your best self by comparing to the person next to you.”

   ~YOUR JOURNEY IS YOUR JOURNEY~