Living La Vida Loca

Hola! Buenos días. In case you haven’t guessed I’m just back from Mexico where I recently visited the Riviera Maya on the East Coast in the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the weeklong forecast of rain, I experienced mostly beautiful and sunny weather throughout my stay. I chose to enjoy the first two days lounging beachside as insurance against possible rainy days. You can certainly sightsee when it’s raining but you sure don’t want to sit on the beach during a storm. By day 3, it was time to venture beyond the boundaries of the huge resort and fortunately, the weather was still cooperating. I wanted to see some of the historic areas and I inquired about transport options from the resort to Tulum to see the ruins of the walled city erected by pre-Columbian Maya. The resort wait staff assured me that I could take a local bus from the hotel to “Playa del Carmen” for about $3.00 USD. I would then need to do some walking to the public bus station where I could buy very reasonably priced transportation to Tulum.  That sounded like a good option. I often lean towards public transportation because usually, you can’t beat the price or the opportunity to meet the locals and get suggestions about what to see or do. When I asked the resort Concierge for more detail on the local bus system he tried to convince me of the folly of my plan by reminding me of the dangers of trying to cross several lanes of traffic to reach the bus stop. I countered with “hey, I grew up in the city where we played in 6 lanes of traffic”, he cited an example of a local having recently been struck and killed on this very road. Point, game and match went to the Concierge and I acquiesced, partly because it was a swanky place and I didn’t want to appear literally “pedestrian”. A registered cab was summoned to take me to Playa del Carmen to the tune of $20.00 and during the ride we engaged in general conversation about what my sightseeing plans were. Now, I know better, but I was being polite and was rewarded with a round of “The Price is Right” as the cab driver kept searching for what I was willing to pay him to host my entire journey for the day. He was persistent and I was annoyed. By the time we arrived at Playa del Carmen, I was resolute and he was annoyed. I tipped him anyway and he drove off. The next leg of my journey was by foot and I moved at a quick pace up 5th Avenue towards the bus terminal. My timing was perfect as a bus would be departing for the Tulum area in less than 10 minutes. The cost of the one way ticket was 66 pesos, roughly about $5.00 USD and I was pleased with myself and boarded. The bus ride would take about an hour. One by one I watched as passengers asked to be let off by the side of the road where they would continue their route either by local transport or by foot. When the hour mark passed I started watching more intently for signs of Tulum. I grew concerned when the bus departed from the main highway and started a series of turns through a labyrinth of local streets. Eventually, I realized that it had reached its terminus and not only did the bus ride come to an unexpected end but I had no idea where I was in relation to the ruins. What little Spanish I had acquired was of no value but I knew I had three choices: wait for a bus going back to Playa del Carmen, try to hire a cab or walk. I chose to walk. I started seeing signs for Tulum so at least I was headed in the right direction. But the distance was listed in kilometers!  I’m embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t remember which was longer, a mile or a kilometer. Did 1km = . 6miles or was it 3 miles to a km??? Fortunately, I was less than 2 miles from Tulum. I walked at a quick pace along the main thoroughfare and probably would have gotten to my destination a bit quicker if I hadn’t stopped to peek in the local shops. Unfortunately, that delay cost me valuable time at the ruins and to make up for the lost time, I hired a private guide. It was well worth it but the entry fee and private tour guide cost more than I expected. At the end of the day I had no fiscal choice but to take the really local route back to Playa del Carmen and then to the hotel. I boarded a smaller local bus and travelled with several employees from Tulum as we made multiple stops to pick up staff from hotels along the route. We arrived in Playa del Carmen but I still needed to transfer to the bus that would take me to the hotel zone for $2.00. I was the final one to board and I took the only available seat which was under the dripping A/C unit but I was grateful for it. An episode from the 5th season of Breaking Bad was playing on the bus TV and I struck up a conversation with a friendly local who was enjoying the entertainment. It seemed she was an ardent fan of the show. She was elated when I informed her that she still had 2 more seasons coming her way. We were still chatting when the Bus driver drove past the main gate of my hotel forcing me to backtrack by foot on the very highway that the concierge had warned me against. I arrived at the Main gate, dirty, tired, wet and laughing. The Gate Attendant took one look at me and asked incredulously, “what are you doing out here”!?  “I went exploring”, I replied as he called for a private ride back into the resort. I decided no further explanation was needed.

 

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“Send me a postcard.” It used to be a very common request. I have a wall full of postcards sent to my office by happy travelers. For obvious reasons, it makes me happy when I receive a postcard. I feel as though someone has thought about me enough to make the effort to buy a postcard, hand address it, write a note and then spend the money on a stamp to send it to me. I do still receive an occasional postcard, however, sending them definitely seems to be going the way of the typewriter. But, I’m not so sure the tradition is officially dead. Instead, it seems to have been reincarnated. It’s gone electric, via social media sites such as Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. Perhaps you’re active on one, none or all of these. If you’re not familiar you should know that thanks to Twitter I can tell you what beverage I enjoyed on the beach in 140 characters or less. Instagram will allow me to share a photo of that same beverage. If I send it by Snapchat you will see the photo and it will disappear almost as quickly as I consume the frosty drink. You can also go onto  Facebook and if I choose to share, follow literally every aspect of my trip, almost as soon as it’s happening. Perhaps you would prefer to “rate” my vacation. I’ll know that I’m really having a good time based upon how many “likes” I get for a post. You can “like” the sunset I just witnessed because if I capture it on my phone and share it, you too can enjoy the same sunset. I can also “share” the meal that is currently on the table before me. You get all the thrills of my vacation without having to pay a dime or even leave your home. You get to live vicariously through my experiences. Good for you, but, what about me? Do I really need someone to “like” my vacation? Isn’t the most important issue that I actually like it, in real life? We have to wonder about how much sharing is too much. When does sharing cease to be sharing and turn into plain old bragging? It’s a slippery slope when you start counting the number of “likes” you receive. It can offer a heady sense of self importance. I struggle with that which makes us all believe that everyone is fascinated with everything we do and everything we eat or drink. So much so that’s it’s worthy of its very own mini-series whose ratings are determined by the number of retweets or shares or comments. Yet, there are professional Social Media experts who would have me believe that my success as a Travel Agent, in fact, my very existence is dependent upon how many people “follow” me. Frankly, I believe I’m successful if people “follow” me to Europe; as a group of fellow travelers. When I started writing this column I decided that I didn’t want to write a typical travel column about hotels, weather and restaurants. It has already been done, and done well, by the likes of Fodors, National Geographic and my personal favorite, DK. I chose to call this column “Postcards” because I wanted to share my experiences, good and bad, funny or awkward, to encourage people to reach out and stretch their comfort zone. My goal was to inspire future travelers to enjoy new experiences and destinations even if it is vicariously through someone else’s travels. Yes, I’m more than happy to share my photos. But, I think that viewers will enjoy them more if when I return from my trip and I have the chance to review the photos to determine which are worthy of sharing. If necessary, I have the option to weed out any that shouldn’t be shared or are just plain uninteresting. Perhaps I’ll share my photos with a friend over dinner via actual face time instead of Facebook. I might even bring back a souvenir too that I’ve handpicked for my friend. Now, that’s really sharing! Some would say that electronic updates are the new digital postcards with specially selected images that are far more personal and meaningful than something purchased from a souvenir shop.  It’s not that I’m not social. I enjoy talking to people in my office, on the phone or even at a Bridal Show or Travel expo. I’m not opposed to social media. I have multiple email accounts, a website, a Facebook page, a blog, all the things recommended for small businesses and yet there are many that I haven’t joined. Therein lies the difference; I’m trying to promote my business but I also have the choice to disconnect and keep some things private. I do wonder: are we really afraid of missing something? What is the risk in disconnecting for a few days? You run the risk of watching a gorgeous sunset from your ocean view room that you’ll recall for years to come. You run the risk of having an intimate, romantic dinner that’s not interrupted by taking photos of what’s on your plate. That’s a risk I’d definitely be willing to take! Sure, you’ll want to check in with home during your stay to soothe your worries and be assured that everything is as it should be. But the time spent off the phone might allow you to meet a new friend in person. You could have a conversation with your spouse that didn’t involve talk about children, house repairs, bills or relatives. You could talk about life changes, hopes, dreams and maybe find the determination to bring any of them in to reality. Now that’s the type of connection that really has meaning.

Good morning, Havana!

It’s official! The U.S. and Cuba have shaken hands and moved on from 54 years of suspended relations that included a financial and economic embargo since 1961. For as long as I can remember, maps of the Caribbean would show a large mass of unidentified land, positioned approximately 225 miles from Miami and only 90 from Key West. It was Cuba, however, it was never labelled as such. It remained a nameless silhouette in the Atlantic Ocean in the ultimate declaration of denying its existence as a country. When diplomatic ties were severed, families were separated, literally overnight. It was seemingly a prelude to the division of Berlin, Germany with the difference being that miles of ocean separated families instead of miles of concrete walls and barbed wire. Many East Berliners lost their lives while attempting to escape their new prison. Many Cubans too, in desperate attempts to escape the island aboard makeshift boats and rafts, lost their lives when they drowned in their quest to reach the shores of freedom in Florida. Worse, many achieved their goal of reaching America only to be sent back and face whatever punishment their government meted out. There are no exact numbers as to how many were successful at reaching our shore and have since been living under the radar and completely off the record for 30+ years. It is known that more than 125,000 refugees arrived during organized transports called the Mariel boat lifts.  Times have changed and diplomatic relations have recently been re-established even if in a polite but strained way and with the borders partially opened, travel packages to Cuba abound. Cuba has been on the radar for many internationally based travel companies who looked into their crystal balls and saw a lucrative future that included Havana. The anticipated pent up demand was expected to inspire a huge surge in visits to Cuba for those denied that privilege during the embargo. This disagreement between America and Cuba existed without the sanction of the United Nations and was unique to our two countries.  The governments of European nations and Canada maintained diplomatic relations and their citizens have been travelling regularly and legally to Cuba for decades. Americans have also visited Cuba during the embargo but it was without the permission or knowledge of the U.S. government. Despite the negative repercussions, should the journey be discovered, travelers would often enter Cuba via a neutral country. Apparently the temptation of forbidden fruit and the bragging rights were worth the gamble in breaking the law.  I wondered about the allure of Cuba, what siren song could draw proud, law abiding Americans to their shores on an illicit journey.  I came up with three reasons:

  1. Families…Many people left family behind when they escaped the island and haven’t been able to see their loved ones for decades. While we now have a golden opportunity for them to reconnect, reunite and make families whole again, that wasn’t legally possible during the embargo.
  2. Curiosity…What was behind the not quite iron curtain? Classic cars and classic architecture amongst other things. This is an island that has remained virtually untouched for decades as though frozen in time. Classic cars are part of their culture with many Cubans joining clubs such as the American Car Association, an organization of fans of what Cubans call “Old Styler” cars. There are more than 50,000 of these cars on the road, many left behind after the embargo was imposed and many in service as taxis. I would imagine that the taxi fares provide the revenue to keep these antique cars rolling. The Spanish colonial architecture is both charming, intricately detailed and colorful. Plaza Mayor, located in Trinidad Cuba has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back to the 18th century.
  3. Bragging rights…This doesn’t need much explanation as there will always be those who have to do something edgy and daring. However, this seems less likely for their own personal interests and more likely to be able to say they’ve been there and done that.

Still, despite the progress, the brand new welcome mat comes with many U.S. imposed strings attached. As Americans, we are able to visit Cuba but not as tourists. In fact, the U.S. Department of State still indicates that “Tourist travel to Cuba is prohibited under U.S. law for U.S. citizens and others under U.S. jurisdiction”. In other words your next beach vacation will not be a leisurely week on the famed shores of Playa Paraiso and Playa Sirena, two beaches on Cuba known as some of the most beautiful in the Caribbean. However, educational travel to Cuba is permitted and “people to people” or “discovery” tours are becoming increasingly trendy with each departure offering at least one component to fulfill the educational requirement. Visits to organic farms or local schools qualify as well as anything that includes a charitable component.  At first glance these “People to People” programs appear to be a form of control, restricting what the visitor may or may not see. At second glance it’s a well thought out plan that does provide a measure of supervision of tourists but successfully allows visitors to engage with locals in a meaningful and more importantly, profitable way for the Cubans. Visits to cigar rolling shops, music organ factories, dance lessons and cocoa production all offer opportunities to highlight Cuban products as well as provide revenue to the islanders and let’s just say it – the government, from either entry taxes or product purchases. Either way both the vendor and the visitor benefit; one from earning a living selling products or services and the other from getting an item or experience that is unique and memorable. Participating in a “People to People” program could simply be for the sole purpose of extending the American hand of friendship to rebuild relations and to illustrate further that we are world leaders in achieving peace.  Like any relationship that goes bad, sometimes you get to repair it, you get to start new and perhaps it’s better than it was before. Sometimes it’s just never the same and you end up with polite but distant relations. Each party has got to be committed to the process, to be willing to look past previous transgressions and work towards the future with a common goal of respecting each other’s individuality. Re-establishing relations with Cuba may seem like a small step in a sometimes hostile world environment and some would also say that world peace isn’t possible. But, it has to start somewhere and if that somewhere is a 42,000 square mile island known as Cuba then I say “Bueno”!

Excess Baggage

To check or not to check, now that really does seem to be the question. At least, it’s one of the most frequently asked questions that I hear, as to whether you should check your luggage or carry it on the plane with you. I wish there was an easy answer. Packing for a vacation used to be a whole lot simpler than it is today. There were fewer restrictions on what or how much you could bring on board. You could pack a few extra outfits to allow you the luxury of choosing what to wear based upon the current weather or your current mood. You weren’t forced to measure or weigh your bags out of fear of additional and unexpected surcharges. There were even people at the airport terminals that were ready, willing and able, for a tip of course, to help carry your luggage for you. Now that was luxury. However, the glory days of travel are now history and roll-aboards a.k.a. bags on wheels are a current trend and are probably here to stay. The carry it yourself phenomenon not only erased another layer of the good life, it also put a whole lot of porters out of a job. On the positive side it also forced us into shedding our excess baggage.  That’s good advice for travel and a metaphor for life in general. Extra baggage both weighs you down and slows you down. 11113261_10152957133221581_8044809352030848652_oBy packing fewer items you have less to worry about losing and your choices when dressing will be simplified since your options are limited. I know that doing laundry isn’t usually included on a vacation wish list. As a matter of fact it’s often one of the daily chores that people are trying to escape. But, by bringing along wash and wear items and being willing to rinse them out at night you will be able to pack less and wear twice. That definitely lightens your luggage load. If that appeals to you I would suggest that you save a little room in your 3-1-1 bag for a small bottle of laundry detergent. I quickly learned a handy trick when I was in Africa for two weeks. I needed to be able to dress down for dusty safaris, dress up for formal evenings and then dress down again for more dusty safaris. I also had to adhere to strict baggage weight restrictions. Necessity certainly helped me discover that if you sink-wash your items and then roll them up between two towels to remove the extra moisture and then hang them, they’ll be dry and reasonably clean by morning. Now, I know that a vacation should be considered a break from everyday life, which normally includes not doing laundry, but I also interpret that as simpler dressing, simpler make up and definitely simpler hairstyles. To that end, I often adopt a barebones, minimalist approach such as putting my hair up in a clip, using more sunscreen and less make up and easy mix and match clothes. Really, who cares what you’re wearing. I talk to a lot of returning vacationers and not a single one of them has ever once mentioned the woman down the hall who actually wore the same outfit twice. “Can you imagine wearing the same outfit? I mean, really, who does that?” Well, I do. I am proud to spend more time vacationing and less time preening. I like being able to relax knowing that my luggage will arrive when I do because I will be carrying it. I like being able to save time when I bypass the luggage carousel and head straight for a cab. I know that if a sudden need arises I can always purchase what I need at my destination. Sure, there’s a possibility that I’ll pay a premium for the convenience of making a purchase at tourist prices but there’s also the possibility that I will find something unique and will be happy to wear it again in the future. That’s actually the best kind of souvenir. On the other hand, I absolutely recognize that for some folks, being able to dress up at night and wear nicer clothing than they usually wear in their daily lives could all be part of the fun.  If you tend to try on 3 or 4 outfits before finally making a decision, you’re probably going to be carrying a heavy load when you travel.  To those who have trouble leaving it all behind I say “yes, you can take it with you!” You just might have to pay a little more in baggage fees and tips to those who help you carry it. You could consider that to be an investment in good style. Fortunately, there are a few airlines that still allow you the dignity of checking a bag without a charge, such as Jet Blue which allows 1 free bag. Southwest Airlines is even more generous and allows you to check two bags! That’s mighty kind of them and has also proven to be a winning strategy. Travelers specifically request that they fly with Southwest because of their luggage policies. Imagine that, give the passengers what they want and they come back for more. Most major airlines will charge you $30.00 or more for each checked bag. If you dare to check a second bag you will pay $50.00 for that privilege. However, if you happen to expand your travel horizons to the Caribbean or beyond you will find that the airline’s generosity also expands and in most cases, your first checked bag will be transported for free. So pack what you want. The best advice I can offer is that if you bring a smile, a sense of adventure and enough clean underwear, they will see you through almost anything that might come your way.