The 10 Things You Must Know Before Traveling to Cuba (Part 2)

With the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016, President Obama’s recent groundbreaking trip to Cuba in March 2016, and the gradual relaxation of travel restrictions to the country, for the first time in over 60 years, Americans can realistically think about visiting Cuba for a number of reasons. But what are the important things to know and prepare for before visiting this gorgeous, historic, and Communist Caribbean island nation?

Street life in Havana, Cuba

A street vendor in Havana, Cuba

(Continued from The 10 Things You Must Know Before Traveling to Cuba)

6. Know what is a tourist scam and what isn’t a tourist scam in Cuba

Partagas Cigar Factory in Havana, Cuba

Buying Cuban cigars directly from the workers at a Havana, Cuba factory (like this one) is WAY more reliable than street-bought cigars!

Especially if this is your first time traveling to Cuba, or your Spanish skills are less than conversational, you’re likely to have a huge “sucker” tattoo written all over your American/tourist forehead. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what is actually a scam in Cuba, and what’s actually legit.

An excellent deal on Cuban cigars sold by some local Cuban in the middle of a street or an alley? SCAM…Almost definitely they are fakes. Buying cigars from workers directly inside the factory, who are trying to make a few extra CUCs on the side? LEGIT…Each worker gets 5 cigars (a week I think) as compensation for their pretty horrible salary, and basically everybody sells them to make side money.

Getting brought to a must-see local bar or restaurant by a helpful local in the middle of Havana? SCAM…These touts are all over the streets of Havana, and get a cut/compensation for bringing in random parties, and this extra fee is often added to your bill as their commission. Plus the place will often have overpriced and lousy food and drinks. Making reservations days or weeks in advance on the phone in order to get to eat at that paladar you’ve heard so much about? LEGIT…(See Survival Tip #3 here). Also, make sure you check the bill when you get it at the end to make sure a lot of extras haven’t been added on, as sometimes happens in less reputable restaurants.

Flea market in Old Town Havana, Cuba

A lot of the cigars, art, and knick-knacks in the streets and markets of Havana, Cuba is vintage, but isn’t worth what you might pay…Do your research!

Finding a super friendly and romantically-inclined Cuban girl (especially in the bars/clubs/nightlife) or guy who wants you to get them into the club/restaurant, marry them, take them home to your country, etc.? Ummm…SCAM!!! #CaptainObvious. Most local Cubans can’t afford the entrance fee/cover for a lot of clubs or even the cost of drinks inside. There’s unfortunately a fair amount of Cubans who will basically offer a whirlwind Cuban romance and their body for the chance at a green card or a way out of the country. But a lot of them are essentially prostitutes/gigolos (or “jinteros” in Cuba).

Just keep your wits about you, be aware of anybody trying to offer something for way too cheap, and make sure you do whatever bargaining you can for souvenirs, art, etc….although in my experience, Cubans are not as likely to drop the price of something 40-50% with haggling, like their Moroccan or Asian counterparts. Most times they will only take one standard street price, except possibly for taxis where you can agree on a price. Cuba is in general a fairly safe country, except for minor petty crime, stealing, pickpocketing, because trust me, nobody…I mean, nobody…wants to end up in one of Castro’s prisons in Cuba!

7. Explore outside Havana if you have more than a few days in Cuba, but prep for transportation and lodging issues

La Melia Americas resort in Varadero, Cuba

The gorgeous entrance to the beach from the La Melia Americas resort in Varadero, Cuba

Havana steals all the history, praise, and beautiful pictures in Cuba, but it’s definitely worth getting out of Havana if you have the time. It’s a fairly large country, about the size of Virginia and with about 3 million people. In general, you can see a lot or most of Havana in 3 or maybe 4 nights max, so if you go for more than a week, you should take the chance to explore outside Havana somewhere.

A lot of tourists visiting Cuba end up trying to go to Varadero, which is a famous beach resort area just about 2 hours east of Havana. This is the beach playground of the rich and famous, sort of their version of Cancun. Although you can find casa particulares to stay at, most people stay at a variety of all-inclusive resorts, where for something like $150-$500 a night per person (depending on how nice a resort and suite you have), you have access to a huge beachside resort, with unlimited food and drinks. You get your choice of many different types of restaurants and buffets (TIP: Make reservations for these restaurants early to make sure you get the time/restaurant you would like). In general, stay away from ethnic foods like Japanese/Chinese/Asian; their Italian, American, western food is way better. We stayed at the Melia Las Americas for 2 nights, for about $150/pp a night (with 3 of us in a 3 person/3 twin bed suite for $450 a night), and it was a fairly decent experience, you can read my review here.

The beach at La Melia Americas resort in Varadero, Cuba

The best AirBnBs, resorts, and accommodations in Cuba will get booked very quickly…Plan and reserve in advance!

Even things such as beach chairs/umbrellas, kayaks, salsa and dance classes, and social activities (TIP #2: Reserve your all-inclusive Varadero resort early, they tend to sell out especially during peak months/weekends. Also, make sure to get down early in the morning to claim the best beach umbrella/chairs for you and your friends/family; people tend to come early and leave their towels there all day long, and at some point shortly after breakfast almost all of them tend to be taken. Remember to tip your servers for things like your unlimited drinks at the bar, it’s just common courtesy and means a lot to their salary…It’s got to be hard for your average Cuban worker to be surrounded by rich foreigners and sugar daddies with their 20 y.o. European girlfriends as they spend 15 – 50x your weekly salary in one night just to get a tan and get drunk. Just keep that in mind.

But if you talk to locals, most of them will tell you that they absolutely hate Varadero, because it’s just super overpriced and not authentic. Most of them will describe the coffee farms, gorgeous countryside, and stunning caves of Vinales as a must-see, and our two sets of friends who went the same time as us and visited there whole-heartedly agreed. . Other destinations, such as Cienfuego and Santiago de Cuba, are must sees if you want to see something else besides Havana and the beach resorts of Varadero. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to organize transportation through a private driver/cab or private transportation buses. A 2 hour taxi ride to Varadero costs about $90 CUC for the entire taxi, and it’s worth it if you have 3-4 people in your group. If you are traveling alone or with one other person, you can take Viazul buses between major towns, which are air-conditioned, comfortable, and slightly more cost-effective than a taxi. Car rentals are an option, but not that recommended, because again the car rental agency infrastructure in Cuba is just extremely poor, limited, and pretty pricey.

8. Make sure you have good offline Cuba guides, maps, advice, books

Old Town Havana Cuba Plaza

Having a good offline guide and map for Havana and Cuba will make all the difference for your trip!

The poor communication/internet infrastructure doesn’t help out with looking stuff up online in Cuba either. I highly suggest getting a well-written guide book for traveling to Cuba, because unlike other countries where you can look stuff up on TripAdvisor, Yelp, or just Google things, you’re going to realize that you may have no idea where you are, how to find something, and how stuff works in this country without a little offline help. And it’s really really difficult to get on the internet easily to just look things up.

The #1 thing I would do is get a well-written and reliable hard-copy of a guidebook. I highly recommend the Havana guide book by Moon, written by Christopher Baker. It’s supremely detailed, has a lot of insider info on how to survive in the country, restaurant/paladar recommendations, and tips on how to prepare during your trip to Cuba. While it doesn’t cover a lot of things outside Havana, it’s epic for surviving inside Havana on a short trip, like on a cruise stop-over or weekend vacation from Mexico or the U.S. I also got a chance to look at the Top 10 Havana guide book, in the DK series. Normally, I like this series of guidebooks for other cities and countries, but it’s pretty haphazardly written and not very helpful; Christopher Baker’s guide books are way way better and probably the best offline tour book about Cuba to get. Better than Lonely Planet or Top 10, in fact.

The #2 thing I would do is to download an offline copy of a guidebook as a backup, specifically TripAdvisor for Havana and/or Google Maps for Havana. Hell, do all of that, so you have multiple off-line maps and info as back-up! You’ll use TripAdvisor more for numbers and restaurants, and Google Maps more for directions/addresses and a searchable map as you walk around Havana. As in Morocco/Marrakesh, having an offline map, filled with restaurants/nightlife/sights you have bookmarked/saved, will make all the difference in not getting lost and finding your destination. You’ll have a wonderful, stress-free trip to Havana where you don’t get lost and you don’t waste time. Remember, you basically will never have internet your entire trip!

9. Find a local guide in Cuba instead of a normal group tour guide, especially if you need transportation

Fabrique de Arte Cubano in Havana, Cuba

Talking to the locals and cab drivers will help you find great local nightlife, like this underground art and live music venue (Fabrique de Arte Cubano)!

Especially if you are somebody that doesn’t speak a lot of Spanish, it’s way more worth it to try to find a private local tour guide who can also double as a cab driver around the city. Your typical tour set up through a hotel will cost about $20-$30 CUCS per person, and is usually a 3-4 hour affair that takes you on a drive of the Malecon and Miramar/Vedado, a stop at the awesome but fairly empty Plaza de Revolucion, a rum factory or outlet, and maybe a walking tour of old Havana. A lot of times the tour is bilingual, and they tend to speak way more Spanish than English, so you may leave the tour feeling kinda underwhelmed. They really don’t give you much more information than what is written in most tour books. But for the same price, if you have 3-4 people in your group, you could probably hire a local who can give you a much more personalized and one-on-one tour of Havana and drive you all around in a cab.

If I could do the touring of Havana and Cuba all over again, I would probably just have found and hired a private Cuban tour guide through TripAdvisor forums or word-of-mouth to take my group around. It would have been a way better use of time and money in Havana. I would say that if you had 3 or 4 days in Havana, you should consider hiring a local tour guide for at least one of those days in the beginning to get a more authentic experience. You can basically do this in each area or local city of Cuba you visit; again, the main challenge is finding someone who speaks enough English for you and who is reputable for the right cost.

In addition, if you are visiting another area of Cuba outside of Havana and decide to rent a cab, feel free to quiz the cab driver on all aspects of Havana, the other city you are visiting, the countryside you are going through, and life in Cuba. Some of the most interesting and educational stories I heard in Cuba came from these cab drivers. You already hired them for the ride, you might as well get some great insider local information from them!

10. Ensure a good back story for your 12 reasons to visit Cuba if you are American, in order not to have a problem with customs coming into Cuba or returning to the United States

Havana Cuba Airport Check-In Counter

Is it legal to travel to (and from) Cuba? Basically, Yes…And No! Read below!

Officially, tourism from America is still considered illegal and there are travel restrictions. But practically, nobody really cares, and there is probably a very minute chance you will get charged or fined for doing it. In a legal sense, you are legally allowed to travel to Cuba, but you’re not supposed to spend any money there. It’s kind of bizarre, antiquated, and with all the recent attention with American cruise ships coming, President Obama visiting recently in March 2016, it’s going to get a lot easier to travel to Cuba as an American citizen. Now, with President Obama’s blessing since the end of 2014:

– You don’t have to get pre-approved license to visit Cuba as long as you “fit” under one of their 12 general use license reasons
– You can now use U.S. credit cards and ATM cards (although I still think it’s way easier to bring in Euro in cash and exchange for CUCs for practical reasons, since most places in Cuba really run on cash)
– You can legally bring back up to $100 in Cuban rum and cigars and $400 in Cuban goods total

Although your trip still has to technically qualify under one of 12 general use license reasons, you no longer have to get pre-approved. And a bunch of the reasons are super vague and would work for almost every tourist, with a little bit of preparation. The official list of allowed reasons for travel are: (1) Official governmental travelers (2) Journalists (3) Full-time professionals who are doing non-commercial, academic research in their field or are attending conventions or programs in their field, and have a full schedule of non-tourist activities (4) Visiting Cuban relatives (5) Faculty, staff, and students of an accredited US undergraduate or graduate program traveling to Cuba for educational activities (6) Religious activities under a religious organization (7) Humanitarian projects that benefit the Cuban people (8) Activities that provide support for the Cuban people, as a part of recognized non-US government human rights and charitable organizations (9) Public performances, including concerts, clinics, workshops, athletic games, and exhibitions (10) Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes (11) Export, import, or transmission of informational materials (12) Certain export transactions that are authorized under existing regulations and guidelines for visiting Cuba already.

Building ruins in Old Town Havana, Cuba

Going on an official tour to “study” Cuban architecture is a legitimate way to visit the country…But there are much easier ways!

So that all sounds pretty confusing, but here’s basically what you need to know: Anybody, and I mean literally anybody, can go to Cuba now…as long as you don’t do a few stupid things, which I’ll list later. Almost everybody qualifies for some reason to go to Cuba. For example, I went under a combination of reason (2) and (3), since I’m an official, published travel and food travel guide author and I laid out a full itinerary of restaurants, nightlife, and interviews I was going to as part of my “research” for an eBook I may or may not be writing eventually about the Cuban nightlife, food, and travel scene. Pretty convenient, right? 😛 Another girl I know, who just Instagrams travel pictures and has a big following went under the same reason with her mother, and they had no problems getting into or out of the country.

I had another friend, who was a doctor, who didn’t even go for medical professional reasons but just went in February 2016 when the Rolling Stones gave a free public performance and concert, which qualifies under reason (9). So basically if you find a good free public concert, art exhibition in a gallery or museum, dance performance, or heck, even a good baseball game or sporting event you want to attend, you legally qualify! That’s all it takes. Another old college buddy went more than 2 years ago in 2014, under reason (3) by just saying he was doing research into possible business investment, after hiring a local Cuban to guide him around Cuban cigar and rum factories. No problems getting into and out of customs also. In fact, out of everyone I’ve talked to who has visited Cuba as an American in the last 2 years, which is over 10-15 personal friends, nobody had any difficulty at all!

Getting into Cuba is simple. You’ll usually fly through Mexico City, Cancun, Panama City, or Montreal, or some city in another 3rd country, which is likely to happen for you until more direct flights are set up through U.S. airlines by the end of 2016. Search for flights on Kayak.com, because some websites like Orbitz.com, Travelocity.com won’t show results for flights to Cuba yet. Same thing with lodging, as websites like AirBnB.com will show listings and lots of availability, but not places like Hotels.com or Booking.com. When you check into the first leg of your flight at whatever U.S. airport you take off from, you’ll have to sign the attestation form and pick one of the 12 reasons you are using to qualify.

Entry Visa for Cuba

The entry visa for Cuba costs only $20 and is bought at your departure (or layover) airport gate…You might not even get your passport stamped!

Then at your stopover, you need about $20 US to buy a entry/exit visa into Cuba at the check-in desk for your 2nd leg of your flight; I did it at Panama City airport, and it was no problem. Just fill it out before Cuba, and show it, along with your passport, to the customs officer at customs in Havana. If the Cuban customs guy is nice, he’ll ask if you want the passport stamp on your US passport or on the separate entry/exit visa paper. Some people don’t want it because they think it’ll help them avoid detection of going to Cuba, which is not true. I didn’t care since I had a legitimate reason to go to Cuba, and a stamp from Cuba on the passport is pretty bad-ass! 😛

You’ll need to show the exit visa on the way out of Havana, and then the bigger deal/more scrutiny will come when you are enter the US again back from Panama/Mexico/whatever third country you flew into. Even if you don’t have the passport stamp from Cuba in your passport, a good vigilant U.S. customs official will know you have been somewhere. This is because you will potentially have an entry and exit stamp from a country like Panama, Mexico in your passport from their customs and they will want to know where you have been to in the meantime.

Just don’t lose your cool during this process and you will be fine. The most important thing is that you don’t under any circumstances tell anybody in Cuba or while returning from the U.S. that you are coming just for tourism. Use one of the 12 reasons listed above, whichever one works best for you, and have a good story for it. That’s all it takes. The U.S. customs official didn’t blink an eye or even ask about Cuba on the way back for me.

I was, however, asked by a Cuban airport guard/customs person why I was there, and he asked “Are you here for tourism?” which of course I replied “No” to. I had a feeling that if I had said “Yes”, I would definitely have been questioned more or pulled aside. I had all my business paperwork, a pre-written out “Cuba eBook Travel Book Research” itinerary printed out with address, phone numbers, and schedule to show it wasn’t all tourism, etc., so I felt safe!

Also be careful about import/export rules to not get in trouble when you leave Cuba or enter the U.S. That includes how much cash and money you can take into and out of the country, as well as how much in cigars/rum or goods you can take into out of the country (e.g. $100 for cigars/rum in total, and $400 for all other goods; no valuable works of art, etc.)

Old Town Havana, Cuba

Gorgeous 1950’s automobiles…Slowly decaying buildings…Old Town Havana, Cuba is like something out of a time-warp. You have to visit!

In the end, I can’t tell you whether you individually can or cannot take the risk of going to Cuba. That is a both a moral, legal, and political decision you have to make for yourself. I’m just saying that the risk of being charged or caught for something as an American basically doesn’t exist anymore, if you plan it out carefully and have a legitimate excuse or reason. You don’t need to apply for a special license anymore, and you just need a good story, so it’s way easier.

Enjoy your trip and happy traveling…Que Bola!!!

Havana, Cuba Restaurants – Doña Eutimia

Doña Eutimia restaurant in Havana, Cuba

Doña Eutimia restaurant in Havana, Cuba…One of the best paladars in the country!

One of the first, smaller, and best paladares that is open in Old Havana, ever since the Castros let people privately own restaurants, Doña Eutimia is owned by the famous Cuban grandmother Leticia, who doesn’t come by as much anymore to the restaurant. It’s got a killer location just off of Plaza Catedral, a gorgeous terrace you should try to eat on if you can, and some surprisingly awesome food.

First of all, make a reservation way in advance. Second of all, double check on that reservation…Ours was lost, even though we made it in person 48 hours before. If it hadn’t been for the kind waiter who fit us in last minute because he saw an open table and we played the American card again, we might not have eaten here. It really helps to know Spanish, once again, to get a reservation here either on the phone or in person.

Ropa Vieja from Doña Eutimia

Unbelievably delicious ropa vieja (braised lamb) from Doña Eutimia

What to order? Definitely somebody has to get the Ropa Vieja at least, which is one of the exceptions to the rule that beef and lamb dishes in Cuba are bad in general. This stuff is succulent lamb, dripping with flavor, braised with garlic, tomatoes, and awesome spices, and so well done. Although my friend also got the Picadillo with olives and he had a great experience, saying it was also one of the best dishes he had in Cuba. We also had a few appetizers that were super yummy, most notably the seafood/fish fritters.

Frozen mojito at Doña Eutimia

The kinda weak frozen mojito at Doña Eutimia…Ask for way more rum!

One note, their signature drink is some sort of frozen mojito that obviously has some green food coloring and is kind of weak. It wasn’t that great according to my friends initially, but our fun super flamboyant waiter was happy enough to bring back the bottle of rum and give my friends super strong double (or triple perhaps?) pours of rum to stiffen up the drinks. I just stuck with a glass of their red wine, which was from Chile and on point. Cuba doesn’t make any good wine, only rum, beer, and coffee!

Croquettes and Tostones appetizers at Doña Eutimia in Havana, Cuba

The surprisingly yummy appetizers at Doña Eutimia: Croquetas de Leticia (Fish croquettes) and Tostones rellenos

Be sure not to be tricked into going into or eating at the restaurant right across from Doña Eutimia, which seems to have about 3,427,891,790,463,178 touts with waiters nearby who try to convince you that it’s as good as Doña Eutimia. It might well be, but if you want to eat at one restaurant in the terrace area, you might as well eat at the one everyone wants to try!

4.5 out of 5 Coconuts (1 Coconut = Muy malo <=> 5 Coconuts = Ay papi!!!)

Doña Eutimia
Callejón del Chorro, #60C (off of Plaza Catedral), Habana Vieja
07.861.1332
12 pm – midnight (Daily)

Havana, Cuba Restaurants – Atelier

El Atelier paladar in Havana, Cuba

The gorgeous entrance to El Atelier…No signs at all!

Atelier was the first highly recommended paladar (state-sanctioned locally owned Cuban restaurants) that we ate at during our trip to Havana, Cuba. It’s in a gorgeous 19th century mansion that is converted on the inside and has two areas to eat, the nice quaint inside area and the gorgeous terrace with a view and funky antiques (check out the old school “Coca-Cola” sign) overlooking the more sedate neighborhood of Vedado.

El Atelier terrace in Havana, Cuba

The stunning terrace at El Atelier near sunset

Like a lot of the paladares in Havana, if you want to eat here at Atelier, you better make a reservation. I would suggest calling ahead of time when you are still at home, and get someone with Spanish to make sure you are getting the right time, date, and ask for the terrace. Try to get an earlier reservation so you can watch the gorgeous twilight of Vedado slowly drift into nighttime while you are getting first drinks/appetizers.

El Atelier menu in Havana, Cuba

The menu at El Atelier, written on quaint Cuban ration cards

The menus are written out and change daily on cute little ration cards, which Cubans would normally use at markets to get their supplies and food. Even the unisex bathroom is kinda cute, with their (believe it or not) artistic toilet paper wall art.

Octopus salad appetizer at El Atelier in Havana, Cuba

A decent octopus salad appetizer at El Atelier paladar

As for the food, it’s okay. Nothing to scream about, but after the shit we had at Floridita, honestly anything was better. We had a wide sample of appetizers and mains, and in general the appetizers were pretty good, including their octopus salad and their salmon stuffed with eggplant. Their lamb seemed to be over done also and not taste quite right, according to my friend, so it was the weaker dish. In general, lamb and beef tend not to be as good as chicken and seafood in Cuba, as a whole, and El Atelier was no exception.

Chicken and shrimp dish at El Atelier paladar in Havana, Cuba

Chicken and shrimp with white sauce dish at El Atelier

Service was great and on point, and even though the cutie waitress didn’t speak a lot of English, I was able to order well enough in Spanish and she gave decent food recommendations and great attention. Funny enough though, she directed us to a nearby bar for the afterparty that was an obvious working girl/hooker spot, sooooo…Not sure what she meant to imply by that! 😛 (It’s called Up & Down Bar, for anyone who really cares…Sarao, F.A.C, and 1830 are way better nightlife areas in Vedado)

Terrace of El Atelier in Havana, Cuba

A beautiful sunset on the terrace of El Atelier

All in all, Atelier was a great introduction to the paladar fine dining scene in Havana, Cuba, but also a culinary experience that showed us that there is definitely room for improvement with the food. And it was still worlds better than the awful experience at El Floridita. Definitely worth checking out if you happen to make it to Havana, Cuba! But the better paladares are yet to come…

 

The Traveling Bachelor rating:

3.5 out of 5 Cocounts

El Atelier
Calle 5, #511 (between Paseo and Calle 2), Vedado
Havana, Cuba
07.836.2025
12 pm – midnight

The 10 Things You Must Know Before Traveling to Cuba

Classic cars in Havana, Cuba

Gorgeous classic 1950’s automobiles (for rent!) near Parque Central in Havana, Cuba

With President Obama’s recent groundbreaking trip to Cuba in March 2016 and the gradual relaxation of travel restrictions to the country, for the first time in over 60 years, Americans can realistically think about visiting Cuba for a number of reasons. But what are the important things to know and prepare for before visiting this gorgeous, historic, and Communist Caribbean island nation?

1. Learn some basic Spanish, if you want to have a more enjoyable trip

Street art in Havana, Cuba

Learning a little bit of Spanish goes a long way when visiting Cuba!

This is probably a no-brainer for most of you who want to go to Cuba, but it’s especially important to emphasize. Knowing Spanish will go a long way in preventing confusion, bargaining, making key reservations, finding places, and avoiding scams. Unlike most tourist cities in Mexico like Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta or even more traveled places in Central America like Costa Rica or Panama, using Spanglish will only get you so far in Cuba. If you’re lucky, some of the staff at high-end restaurants, hotels, and AirBnB accommodations will speak some level of English, but many taxi and shared cab drivers, wait staff, and your basic Cuban walking on the street (especially outside of Havana) won’t be too good at English.

Even at the beginning of my trip, the customs attestation form at JFK airport at Copa Airlines, where I had to pick which of 12 approved general use license reasons for US citizens I was going to Cuba for, was entirely in Spanish. One of my AirBnB host’s girlfriends only spoke Spanish, which came in useful during a flooding emergency and when our apartment was forcibly sprayed for the zika virus (true crazy story, for a later blog post). I got better cab prices on the street and ended up talking and meeting way more locals, just by having a decent command of Spanish.

Luckily, I retained a lot of my high-school Spanish and use a lot of it for work, so besides some vocabulary and verb conjugation problems I didn’t need to do any prep work. Doing an intro course on Rosetta Stone, the highly-recommended SpanishPod.com podcasts, or having a good offline translation app, like Google Translate, or other apps that help you practice will go a long long way! If all else fails, you can learn basic Spanish phrases from the back of your guide book you have or carry a small Spanish phrase book. Por favor…do yourself a favor and just try to have the most authentic experience possible!

2. Realize Cuba food/drinks, internet, tourist stuff, and amenities have tremendous growing pains, and Cuba isn’t set up the way you are used to for tourism

Getting internet in Havana, Cuba

Crowds of Cubans and tourists trying to get internet on their phone in a Havana, Cuba park

Most people are shocked to find out that Cuba doesn’t have great food or choices of restaurants. Cuban street food, although cheap at $1-$4 US dollars/CUC, mainly consists of hamburgers, pizza, and fried chicken that are meh at best (although their chicken tends to be better as a whole). Even their best-ranked restaurants, known as paladars, sometime had notoriously bland food and not totally exciting dishes (e.g. avoid the lamb dish at Atelier). I think Cubans aren’t used to the level of salt, spice, pepper, etc. that our Western tongues are used to. The all-inclusive resorts at Varadero, such as the Melia Las Americas, had pretty crappy food overall. Also, Cuba only as recently as 2011 didn’t have many restaurants; only recently did the Cuban government and Castros allow private citizens to open and run their own restaurants. As I can tell, almost no international culinary institutes and few-internationally trained chefs exist. So don’t expect a Cuban foodie paradise and do your research before you go! They have a long way to go re: food quality. Even drinks were of questionable quality. So called “famous” places like El Floridita make weak and crappy daiquiris, and mojito quality ranges tremendously; the best one I had was at the terrace bar at the Hotel Nacional, although it wasn’t the strongest.

As for chatting on Facebook and posting pictures on Instagram to make your friends at home jealous or Skyping with family? Forget abut it…Skype is actually banned. Finding last minute information on hotels, AirBnB, resorts, or Trip Advisor restaurant or tourist suggestions. Really difficult. Internet access is horrible, and usually exists mainly in the lobby or lounges of high-end 5-star hotels, and will cost  $5 – $12 an hour for extremely slow internet. Don’t even think of trying to stream any You Tube videos, Netflix movies, or latest episode of Game of Thrones online, although why you’d want to do this while in Cuba is beyond me! I read an interesting article from an avid traveler about how the Cuban government essentially doesn’t have to censor information, like China does with Facebook, You Tube, etc. That’s because the internet is so slow and so expensive in the country that most Cubans can never really get it consistently! Do all your research and download all your information before you get to Cuba, and print out any tickets, hotel reservations, phone numbers, etc that you need ahead of time.

You can purchase pre-paid basic WiFi credit to use at ETECSA internet spots at some major sites and parks in Havana. You’ll see hundreds of people congregate at all hours of the day at these parks (a major one is on the corner of Galiano and San Rafael in Havana), just to do what you and I do on smartphones everywhere in America all the time. But it’ll be slow, inconvenient, and a hassle to do. Be warned! Phone call credit can be bought through scratch-off cards that can be used at pay phones throughout the city, for ridiculous rates of up to $1.60 a minute to the US. If you are lucky you can bring an unlocked phone and try to get a pre-paid SIM card at the airport, although it’s very complicated and I wouldn’t count on it working well

Also, this goes without saying, but bring all your toiletries, shampoos, medicines, condoms, and pharmacy OTC related stuff with you. There is almost no chance you will find it easily in Cuba, even in the middle of Havana, especially if you want a specific brand. It’s even hard to find things like toilet paper and toothpaste sometimes, especially in the middle of the night, unless you are at a hotel. Cubans obviously do have these things, but they are highly regulated in the Cuban markets (even shampoo, hair gel, etc. is kept behind the counter at some places, otherwise it would potentially get stolen). Often times you only have your choice of 1-2 types of item. American versions of toiletries, be they deodorant, or toothpaste, are highly sought after in Cuba because they are more trusted, harder to get, and considered of a way higher quality than the corresponding Cuban version.

3. Reserve everything way ahead of time in Cuba, especially restaurants, apartments, hotels, tours

San Cristobal paladar and restaurant in Havana, Cuba

To eat at a good restaurant/paladar like San Cristobal, you have to make a reservation ahead of time!

I booked everything ahead of time as much as possible, and I’m super glad I did, or we wouldn’t have eaten at their better restaurants, and trust me, you’ll want to once you get there and see how bad food quality can be in your standard restaurant you walk into off the street. You should strongly consider making Skype calls from home in the U.S. to make reservations book pre-planned dinners and keeping a note of them on an itinerary and schedule. If you want to go to the more famous and nice restaurants and paladars, like San Cristobal, Doña Eutimia, or La Guarida, you definitely need to make reservations at least 2 weeks in advance for dinner, if not earlier if it’s peak season between December and April.

I would also double check by calling a second time on another day to confirm or check again in person once you get there to Cuba (if you happen to be nearby the restaurant), since some places like La Guarida require a reservation reconfirmation the day before and other places, like Doña Eutimia, completely lost our reservation in the reservation book, even though we made the reservation in person just 48 hours before! You may also have better luck getting reservations more last minute for lunch meals (if they are open in the daytime) or walking in off the street; this worked for us when we went to eat at San Cristobal, where President Obama recently ate and where Jay-Z and Beyonce visited a few years back. We luckily found a great and friendly waiter named George who graciously fit us in last minute, but I think it was only because it was the daytime.

Also for hotels and all-inclusives in Havana and Varadero, casa particulares (which are more similar to local bed-and-breakfasts or the riads of Morocco, where you rent a room in a local Cuban family’s large apartment complex), or AirBnB, you definitely need to arrange and confirm everything ahead of time. We went during the end of peak-season in mid-late April, and waited last minute til about a week before, thinking there was plenty of availability. Almost everything had run out, with only about 4-5 decently reviewed places on AirBnB’s in Havana available at all, and maybe about 4 all-inclusives available in Varadero. I’m almost certain availability will get much much worse as more and more Americans come to the country last minute in the near future. Forget about hostels…at the writing of this list and my last trip (April 2016), the concept didn’t really exist yet and I didn’t see a single one in all of Havana. Maybe, and hopefully, that will change soon!

Last tip: If you are absolutely homeless and stuck in places like Havana or other big towns, you can walk around in the nicer areas of town and look for buildings that have a sign showing upside-down blue anchors, and just knock on the door. These signs indicate that there is a legitimate Cuban government-sanctioned apartment, room, or casa particulare for rent inside. No guarantee it’s available for rent immediately, if you try to walk in off the street!

4. Don’t count on credit cards working in Cuba and bring cash ahead of time, preferably in Euros or another currency and not US dollars

Exchanging money in Havana, Cuba

International tourists waiting in a long line at a bank to exchange money for CUC (Cuban dollars)

You probably have heard already that it’s important to bring cash to Cuba. What you may not have heard yet is that if you just bring US dollars and try to exchange them to Cuban CUC dollars, you’ll get an awful, nearly 10%+ penalty on the exchange rate, right away! The currency you’ll normally use, the CUC, is tied $1 : $1 to the US dollar, which makes figuring out prices pretty easy at least. But you do not, repeat do not, want to bring in dollars if you can help it, or you won’t get your money’s worth.

My best advice is that you should bring in Euros or Canadian dollars, probably Euros. Bring whatever you are more likely to use in the near future, in case you bring too many and have extra leftover. To give you an estimate, my two friends and I each brought in about $1000 USD worth of Euro for our 8 day trip, and after about 7-8 days there we found that was definitely enough. We each actually had about $200-$350 USD worth of Euro at the end left-over. But that’s mostly because for two of the days/nights, we were at a pre-paid all-inclusive resort, where we basically didn’t have to pay anything for drinks or food.

I would say that if you plan to have a nicer vacation and eat at like 2 higher-end paladars or restaurants a day, go out for drinks at a bar or a club at night, pay for some minor tours and excursions, and a few cabs, you’d probably need at least $100-$125 worth of Euro for each day/night you are there. That’s only if you booked and prepaid for your AirBnB, hotel, or casa particulare lodging already before you traveled. You can definitely get away with a lot less, like <$100 worth of Euro a day, and possibly even as low as $50, although that’s pushing it I think. This is only if you ate bad/crappy street food, bargained down and took shared-transport cabs or crowded buses, and didn’t really go to official bars/restaurants and just drank rum on the Malecon boardwalk, but it’s up to you how nice a vacation you want in Cuba! Cuba is not as cheap as you may think, especially if you are living it up and want good food and drinks in Havana.

5. Understand that local Cubans make way way less money than you and also pay less than you for everything…with a totally different type of currency

Musician in Plaza Vieja in Havana, Cuba

Your average Cuban citizen only makes about $30-$60 a month! Think about that…

When you walk around some of the local neighborhoods and side-streets, especially if you are checking out prices at the grungier stores, sidewalk restaurants, and cafes frequented by locals, you might get confused at the prices. Why is a hamburger listed as $25 and a pizza at $30 on some street signs? That’s because the prices are being listed in local moneda nacional, often referred to as CUP. This is not the Cuban money you are used to getting, that is $1 CUC : $1 USD. Divide that bizarrely high price by 25 and you’ll get the price you are probably used to.

Keep in mind that most locals mainly pay for things all day long in CUPs, not CUCs, and also they are a lot of times getting a discount for it. For example, I saw one popular club called Casa de Musica in Havana, on famous Galiano Street, where the entrance was $10 CUCs (probably for tourists) while the local price was only $75 CUP, which is only $3 CUCs!!! So basically, locals were paying 30% of what others would if you try to pay in CUCs. You may be tempted to try to just get CUPs and pay for everything in that, but some higher-end places only take CUCs and some lower end and local places only take CUPs. It makes it all kinda confusing, and my best advice is just to get CUCs when you exchange; I’ve heard most cacheca/money exchanges, won’t even give CUPs to foreigners but I’m not sure about that.

Your average Cuban is making only about $8 – $15 CUCs a week, or $32 – $60 CUCs a month, according to a few Cubans I interviewed. A gallon of $2 milk may cost them ¼ their weekly salary! I met IT guys who were driving cabs, and even heard of doctors doing that, because they can make more picking up just four $10 CUC taxi rides in a day than an entire week’s worth of work! You can read an excellent article on the average Cuban salary here. Communism in Cuba may have redistributed a lot of land and necessities to people, but it’s not exactly filling the pockets of average citizens. Just accept the fact that you are way richer than them and will probably overpay for almost everything. This is probably the Cuban government’s way of making other things still affordable for the local Cubans so as not to alienate them, while they up-charge the growing number of international tourists that are coming to Cuba every day! Just a guess…

Plaza San Francisco in Havana, Cuba

A gorgeous panaromic view of Plaza San Francisco in Havana, Cuba

(To be continued in The 10 Things You Must Know Before Traveling to Cuba (Part 2) )

Oahu Restaurants – Da Poke Shack

Ahi Tuna Poke Bowl from Da Poke Shack

Scrumptious Poke Bowl from Da Poke Shack, with Shack Special and Wet Hawaiian Poke on furikake brown rice

Even if you’ve never heard of Da Poke Shack, originally in Kailua-Kona on Big Island Hawaii, any one who lives in Hawaii (who’s not vegan) loves a good poke. No, not “POKE (pohk)” like what that weird sketchy guy from the bar might try to do to you online on Facebook, but “PO-KE (po-kay).” Generally, poke refers to any type of fish or seafood (usually ahi tuna, salmon, octopus/tako, crab, mussels, etc) that is marinated, seasoned with onions, soy sauce (or “shoyu,” as it’s referred to in Hawaii), maybe sesame oil or spicy mayonnaise, and then served raw!

People on Oahu live and die by their favorite poke place. It’s great for picnic potlucks, a quick snack topping on tortilla chips or a rice bowl (with furikake seaweed seasoning, of course), or just by itself. And locals know that you ALWAYS eat it with chopsticks, never forks! If you don’t know how do use chopsticks, then you better learn fast before people start making fun of you and calling you “haole” behind your back!

On Oahu, especially in Honolulu, it’s common knowledge that to get decent poke by the pound, you can go to small markets like Fresh Catch, Yama’s Fish Market, Young’s Fish Market, or larger supermarkets like Foodland, Don Quixote, Tamuras, Safeway, or even Costco (TIP: Just make sure it’s FRESH poke you’re picking up, and not the previously frozen stuff). But where do you and a friend go for a fresh poke bowl when you are on a lunch break, and not picking up for catering?

Da Poke Shack Food Truck

Da Poke Shack Food Truck…Now in Honolulu!!!

First of all, TONS of places in Honolulu serve poke, but not all of them are good. In all the time I’ve spent in Hawaii, my favorite poke bowl place of all time was Da Poke Shack on Ali’i Drive in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island. For a quick period when I was working there for about half a year in a hospital and living nearby in Kealakekua, I ate here nearly every other day! A year later, in 2013, they were nominated and then won the coveted #1 restaurant in the ENTIRE United States of America in 2013 on Yelp.com. I was just happy I had eaten there first, before it blew up with tourists.

Well, for everyone on Oahu and Honolulu who’s dying for a new fresh poke bowl place but can’t just jump on a quick inter-island flight to Kona, you’re in luck! Da Poke Shack recently opened up an awesome second location at a food truck, conveniently and centrally located at the southeast corner of Ward Avenue and Queen Street, just next to the Ward Marketplace and Consolidated Ward Movie Theaters!

Da Poke Shack Honolulu Food Truck

Da Poke Shack Honolulu, located at the SE corner of Queen Street & Ward Avenue

When I visited last week, I was excited to try out any and all the flavors of poke they had there. One of the things that sets Da Poke Shack aside from all the other mundane poke places is they have a lot of inventive flavors, not just your standard Shoyu and Spicy Ahi flavors. My friend and I tried most of their flavors, and while hot and spicy flavors like their signature Pele’s Kiss and the Dynamite flavor had a great kick, we personally loved their Shack Special, which has a slightly sweet/miso flavor but isn’t overpowering with the miso, and their Wet Hawaiian, which has a great nutty (kukui nuts, I think?), green-oniony, slightly less sweet taste. Not surprisingly, their Shack Special is their most ordered flavor and their Wet Hawaiian was a contest winner! At this time, they are mainly focusing on ahi tuna poke, so there’s no salmon, marlin, octopus, etc. here, but they do ahi tuna poke almost better than anybody on the island!

Another thing that sets the poke at Da Poke Shack aside from the rest of the crowd is that it’s ALWAYS fresh and never frozen, as their motto says and cut in such a fine manner that you’re guaranteed a stellar yummy explosion of flavor with every bite. Instead of big meat chunks of fish that are haphazardly cut, containing stringy white tissue, or hard to chew pieces of poke, each of the samples of poke served in small cups are literally lovingly cut into smaller non-gristly pieces which are perfect in every way. They are smaller pieces with more surface area, which help soak in way more of the surrounding flavor, but not too small that you can’t enjoy chewing it down a bit.

Ahi Tuna Poke from Da Poke Shack

Poke Sampler Plate ($21) from Da Poke Shack

The third thing that sets the poke bowls at Da Poke Shack aside are their epic choices for side dishes, which was a defining part of why I loved the original Da Poke Shack in Kona, Big Island. Instead of just having your typical furikake white or brown rice below the fish, you’re also allowed to pick 1-2 sides (depending on what size poke bowl you order), which range from excellent kimchee or cucumber kimchee to seaweed salad to more local favorites like the taegu/seasoned cuttlefish. It adds the perfect accompaniment.

In addition, on top of the mouth-watering poke bowls they serve, if you are in the mood for a helping of local food, they have large lunch plates that can include your choice of homemade laulau and kalua pig as well, which is what most of the better small poke markets, like Yama’s Fish Market and Fresh Catch, also offer as well! We had a chance to try this and it was stellar Hawaiian food as well.

Laulau and Kalua Pork PLate

Homemade Laulau and Kalua Pig Hawaiian Plate at Da Poke Shack

All in all, you’d be crazy not to try out Da Poke Shack, simply to try a sample of what’s offered at the one-time #1 restaurant in America. It’s super close to Waikiki and in the middle of Honolulu, and the perfect local lunch stop. If you don’t know which kinda poke you’d like to try, they can give you small samples or you can try their large poke sampler platter to try a bit of everything! The only thing I wish they could figure out is how get more parking around the area, but this place is definitely worth feeding the street meter on Ward Avenue. At $10.50 a poke bowl, it’s slightly pricier than bowls from other places, but you get not just one but TWO choices of poke with this and it’s WAY better quality than pretty much everywhere else I’ve ever eaten at. Plus if you check in on Yelp you save a $1 off a bowl!

Menu at Da Poke Shack

Menu at Da Poke Shack (subject to change)

I’m totally pumped that Da Poke Shack is now part of the Honolulu local foodie scene, and I’ll definitely be back! If you’re a poke or ahi tuna/sushi lover, this is a must-eat at when you eat out on Oahu.

5 out of 5 Coconuts (on a scale of 1 (Bleeeagh!) <=> 5 (Onolicious!) )

Da Poke Shack
940 Queen Street (On the SE corner of Queen Street and Ward Avenue)
Honolulu, HI 96814
808.445.1721
10:30 am – 3 pm (Monday-Friday, closed weekends)
www.dapokeshackhnl.com

For more detailed insider reviews on other Hawaii restaurants, beaches, hikes, local spots, and nightlife like this, download the Oahu Nightlife & Travel Guide…The #1 downloaded Kindle Hawaii travel guide eBook on Amazon.com, written by The Traveling Bachelor

Top 10 Ways to Survive (& Enjoy) Morocco

Camel back safari trip in the Sahara Desert in Merzouga, Morocco

As many of you guys know, I just finished a pretty epic 12-day adventure-heavy trip running around in Morocco. I read up a bit about the country before I went, using Wikitravel, and a few guides like DK’s awesome Top 10 series, The Rough Guide to Morocco, and TripAdvisor, but honestly I had barely done any research and kinda did a lot of trip-planning at the last minute. After traveling around this totally epic country, I came up with a list of my Top 10 Ways to Survive (& Enjoy) Morocco. If you or anyone else you know is planning to go to Morrocco anytime soon or in the future, this will probably be some pretty good information to have before you get started on your trip! Here we go:

1) Stock up on tons of small 5 – 20 Moroccan dirham (~$0.50 – 2) coins and bring backup ATM cards/Euros for emergencies as soon as your trip starts

20 dirham bill in Morocco

Make sure to have plenty of 5 – 20 dirham notes in Morocco and coins…or your wallet will get cleaned out!

The ATM’s at the airports in Morocco and in the big cities tend to spit out 100 – 200 dirham bills (~$10-$20). Unfortunately, most things that you will spend money on daily (food stands, buses, taxis, minor shopping in the markets, going to the bathroom in public, etc.) all require money way less than 100 – 200 dirham bills. A typical excuse in Morocco from vendors, cab drivers, etc is usually “I don’t have change, sorry!” They’re hoping you’ll just give them a big bill and they’ll keep the change. Sure, it’s only an extra $0.50 or $1 they are getting out of you, but after awhile it definitely adds up…And besides, it’s the principle of it! Why get ripped off if you don’t have to? So as SOON as you can try to break as many 50 and 100 dhr bills early and often to get a lot of 1-20 dhr change for tips, tourist sites, pictures, and avoiding the common “I don’t have change so just give me more than I deserve” routine! You’ll be happy you did.

Also make sure that your ATM and credit cards have their travel notifications set up and are good to go to withdraw cash and be used. I had one ATM card swallowed whole for no good reason at all, which would have really sucked if I didn’t have two backup ATM cards. And even then, in some towns some of my ATM cards didn’t work at all, also for no good reason. You will mainly be using coins and bills though, because like 8-9 out of 10 times you spend money in Morocco you will have to use cash since people don’t take credit card much there, unless it’s a fancier restaurant, hotel, or other tour activity.

2) Make sure you have downloaded maps or have offline maps for Fez, Marrakesh, and other Morocco cities you visit that are complete mazes and easy to get lost in. Don’t trust people who promise to be your guide!

A souk alley in the market of Marrakesh, Morocco

The markets of Marrakesh and Fez in Morocco are winding and confusing, so make sure you download an offline map for your phone!

The markets and souks of Marrakesh, Fez, and other large cities in Morocco are a totally confusing rat maze. It doesn’t matted what kind of guide you have, or what kind of paper map you have. Download a good offline map, like Google Maps or better yet TripAdvisor city (Marrakesh, Fez, etc) and set up whatever app you use to have Location Services on. This will allow you to stare at your GPS blue dot as you slowly navigate and get comfortable with the totally confusing jumble of alleys you will 100% get lost in.

Make sure you pin and save your favorite tourist sites, restaurants, shops, bars, etc. so eventually you’ll always know where you are just based on landmarks, restaurants, and shops you’ve been to before. Since your GPS and apps will be sucking up so much energy and draining your phone, make sure you bring a Mophie or some sort of portable battery pack and charging cable! Don’t forget the power converter as well, obviously. Also, as a last minute way to find your way out of somewhere when you are completely lost in the alleys or Morocco, try to use the compass function on iPhone or download a compass app…it always is a useful last minute item, and way less obvious than pulling out a big book or map that makes you look super lost.

Lots of people will try to guide you to the restaurant, riad, store, etc. you are looking for, but do NOT ever use these people unless you (surprise surprise!) like spending money you don’t need to for it. Half the time they won’t take you to where you want to go, but instead drag you to their friend’s restaurant, riad, store, etc. and convince you to stay there, because they will get a commission for it. And in case they DO take you to the right place, they 100% will be asking for a tip of some kind. In Morocco, unfortunately most of the times, especially in the Old Town/medina, markets, and shopping areas, people are usually not offering help for free!

3) Wear wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses, speak a foreign language, and walk quickly and confidently whenever you are around major Morocco souks and markets, if you want a hassle-free experience!

Avoid haggling and getting stopped in the Morocco souks by wearing sunglasses and walking quickly through

Avoid haggling and getting stopped in the Morocco souks by wearing sunglasses and walking quickly through

Wear sunglasses as much as possible in day (or even night if possible), allows you to avoid eye contact with beggars and shop owners while still checking out shops/wares without getting attention and having to start haggling. Get good at “drive-by window-shopping” while walking. Walk with purpose. Speak another language they can’t speak (Spanish sometimes works, unless you are in the north of Morocco like Tangier or Chefchaouen, or Chinese also works well). Wear earbuds while you are walking around in the markets to pretend you are listening to music and can’t hear them. Or you can just ignore them, it’s the most effective way…although you’ll may be feel bad, you won’t get stuck in the markets forever! Basically pretend you are a hot chick trying to walk around your neighborhood without being hassled or hit on…it’s basically the same techniques! 😛

4) Make sure you are careful of who and where you take photographs in Morocco

Dance performance at Theatro club in Marrakesh, Morocco

It’s hard to find nightclubs and bars in Morocco, and a few won’t allow you to take photos. Theatro in Marrakesh does!

Japanese tourists, teenage girls, and people with the last name “Kardashian” are totally okay snapping hundreds of pictures, taking selfies, and generally using a camera or camera phone every where they go. Moroccans, and a lot of Muslim people, are not always the same! In Morocco, don’t assume you can just take candid or sneaky photos of everything and everyone, especially close-ups of people’s faces without asking them first. I mean, a majority of the time it’s okay! But some Moroccans find this offensive, some (especially around Jemaa El Fna and other large markets) will flat out ask you for 10-20 ($1-$2) to be able to take that picture. If you didn’t realize this before you took the picture, it’ll be awkward as you try to argue against having to pay for it!

If you happen to be in a some of the bigger clubs, like 555 Club, you also will probably get reprimanded by the bouncers for taking photos. This is because Morocco actually had a problem with liberal Moroccan girls going to party and dance, but then having their photo taken, spread all over the internet, and being called slutty or cyberbullied, etc. No joke! More than a few Moroccan girls told me this was a problem. So don’t take photos in the clubs unless you are sure you can do it. On the other hand in Theatro in Marrakesh everyone seemed to be fine taking photos. The smaller Western lounges like Kozybar, Comptoir, and Dag Mahal (and other places that have belly-dancing dinner shows) usually don’t have a problem with photo-taking.

Other places where photography might be frowned on is inside a mosque during prayer, which you probably won’t be able to get into as a non-Muslim, and maybe certain market stalls.

5) Stay safe and clean…Because there are many of opportunities to be unsafe or get dirty in Morocco, very quickly!

Standard rules apply. Carry stuff in front pockets to avoid getting pickpocketed, especially in busy squares, markets, and alleys. Make sure you know exactly where your bags are when you are taking long-distance buses, trains, etc. Bring hand sanitizer and Kleenex or toilet paper with you everywhere, since most public bathrooms are pretty dirty and don’t get cleaned much. Baby wipes are golden as well to keep you clean. And this goes without saying, but it’s widely know that in Morocco you should ever be drinking tap water. That extra 5 or 8 dirham for a bottled water is well worth it to save you from “travelers belly”!

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of using nasty squat toilets, these are often the only toilets that are availably in public areas like bus and train stations. If you’re a girl or unfortunately have to drop a deuce, you’re sort of screwed when you travel long distances on the road and you’ll be forced to use a squat toilet. The fact that you have to fill up a plastic bucket to gravity flush these squat toilets to make all the nasty stuff go down makes it even worse! Try to use a normal Western style toilet before you get on the road if you are grossed out easily, before you start traveling or needing to use public restrooms, to avoid an awkward experience. But if your bus ride is going to be some long 10-12 hour bus ride, you may not have a choice!

6) Always be thinking about how to position yourself the best way to (surprise surprise!) avoid the hard sell in Morocco and being upcharged.

Rooftop cafe terrace in Marrakesh, Morocco

Sitting on a rooftop terrace above the markets of Marrakesh is a great way to get some peace and quiet in Morocco

If you have to sit in an outdoor cafe or restaurant by square or busy area, sit one row or table inside; you’ll be less likely to be bothered every minute by beggars and peddlers hawking cigarettes, sunglasses, watches, fragrances, compared to the the row of tables and chairs right on the square. Better yet just try to sit on one of the many rooftop terraces to get some peace and quiet and safely away from all the street peddlers who will try to sell you everything from watches to fragrances to wallets to belts.

As soon as you arrive outside an airport, train station, bus station, or other public transportation hub, make SURE you cross the street and go farther away to get a fair price. Always make sure you agree on a price beforehand that is fair (so know what a fair price is with research online!) or get the taxi to use the meter. The older and more beat-up the taxi is, the less likely you will be to get ripped-off.

Don’t take illegal taxi-cabs if at all possible. I made the mistake of taking one in Agadir to get to a small surf town of Taghazout and some random dude threw me in the back of his minivan and then made me hide under a towel to hide from angry cab drivers that knew he was an illegal cab. The same guy also convinced/forced me to lie to Moroccan police about his name and how I knew him in order for me to get there…no joke! And he still charged me 50 dirham ($5 more) than the ride was supposed to cost!

7) Learn some basic Arabic or French words, numbers, and phrases…It goes a LONG way in Morocco!

People always try to say “Hi, where are you from my friend?” or guess your origin by saying hello in multiple languages “Konichiwa! Hello! Bonjour!” Especially if you are Asian or blonde or white or speak French, they will be definitely be trying to get your attention right away. Learning basic numbers in Arabic, such as 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, etc, really helps with bargaining. Also learning how to say “Yes,” “No,” “Please,” “Thank You” in Arabic go a long way. Everytime some trys to bug you about something you have no desire for, just say “La, Shukran! (No, Thank you!)” or “La, Min Fadlak! (No Please!)” without breaking stride and keep walking! I promise you, it’s probably the most useful phrase you’ll use in Morocco.

On the other hand, if you know some French it will come in supremely useful since many local Moroccans have learned how to speak French as they were growing up due to Morocco’s former status as a protectorate/colony of France before World War II. Many people will be able to speak some English, but mainly in the major cities. Don’t assume for sure that they will be able to speak English well everywhere you go.

8) Be aware of your surroundings, simply for safety’s sake!

Chickens in the Marrakesh market in Morocco

Be careful and stay to the side in the Morocco markets…Scooters, cars, bikes, and all types of animals will come flying by you!

Crossing the street, even when you have the right of way or light, or just walking around the markets at any time of the day can be hazardous to your health! Stay to the far right or left when walking around medinas or souks, since in general there is no pedestrian right of way at all. Every 30 seconds there will be a dude careening by on a bicycle or scooter at 30 kmh or someone pushing a heavy metal cart or wheeling a bunch of chickens around or something. The Old Towns and medinas are supposed to be pedestrian-only and not for scooters or cars, but almost everyone completely ignores this rule and nobody seems to be enforcing it! There is no such thing as “pedestrian rights.”

One night when I was in the famous Jemaa El Fna market square in Marrakesh, I literally had walked 5 feet away in the middle of the squareto try to get WiFi reception, and the dude next to me got completely creamed head-on by a bike. He got really hurt, had the wind knocked out of him or ribs broken, and proceeded to curse the guy who hit him in Arabic, while the bike driver just dusted himself off, shrugged a “Sorry!” and slowly rode away. Everyone else acted like this happened all the time. So be really aware of your surroundings so you don’t get creamed by some sort of motor vehicle, pushcart, bicycle, chicken wagon, or something else. Listen for cries in Arabic of “Belek! Belek!” to get out of the way. In fact when anyone yells ANYTHING in Arabic while you are in Morocco, it’s probably a pretty good idea to just get out of the way! 😛 I had a very extensive travel insurance/accident insurance policy in Morocco, and was happy I did!

9) Protect yourself from the vicious Moroccan sun, excess dehydration, and not being able to poop

Chicken and beef kebab couscous in Marrakesh, Morocco

This awesome chicken & beef kebab couscous will fill you up, but make sure you drink plenty of water to avoid getting stuck up!

Bring good wide-brimmed hat for that hot Moroccan sun. Even in February or the winter, you can get some pretty sun in the daytime. Or get some head covering…a short sleeved collared shirt you can wrap around your head with sunglasses to hold them in place works in pinch, in case you don’t have a legit wide-brimmed hat or turban to wear. This is especially important if you start doing long hikes out in the open or camelback trips in the Sahara in the daytime. But you’ll also need to back for some colder weather that can come on at night and in the winter, such as a few long-sleeved shirts, maybe even a sweatshirt or bulkier top, jeans, a good warm jacket, gloves, and a hat. You can always pick up a cheap wool beanie in the markets of Marrakesh for 15-20 dirham.

Also, remember your “ABHF”: Always Be Hydrating & Fibering! Lots of heat in the daytime, tons of starch and meat in the Moroccan diet, coupled with not enough access to veggies and fruits usually end up with a very full feeling that won’t go away. If you don’t want to be bloated and all “stuck-up,” make sure you are constantly drinking bottle water, juice, or trying to eat some fruit or veggies whenever the chance arises. You’ll thank me later when you’re not just sitting there on a Moroccan toilet wondering why nothing is happening!

10) Get really patient and good at dealing with loooooong Moroccan bus and train rides

Bus ride through Tiz N Tichka pass in Morocco

A long, windy, and gorgeous 12 hour bus ride through the Morocco mountains in Tiz N Tichka pass

Morocco is a wonderful country, but unlike Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Scandinavia, and other more developed parts of the world, almost everybody has to travel between cities on trains and buses that aren’t of the best quality. The trains aren’t so bad and usually have multiple availabilities a day, but usually only run between major cities like Tangier, Fes, Casblanca, Rabat, and Marrakesh. Trains also have frequent delays, cost about 30-40% more than the comparable bus ride, and aren’t always a lot faster than buses. On the other hand, they are way more comfortable than buses, don’t charge you for luggage, allow you to get up and walk and stretch easier, and tend to have snack carts and a basic (Western) bathroom on board.

If you are going south or west of Marrakesh to Essouaira, Agadir, or the Atlantic shore beach towns, over the Tiz-N-Tchka mountain passes or other mountain journeys, to smaller desert towns like Zagora or Merzouga, or beautiful northern towns like Chefchaouen, then you’ll be forced to take a more cramped long-distance bus . In Marrakesh, the long-distance buses take off from Supratours station just west of main train station (Gare de Marrekech); be careful if you take CTM instead of Supratours since they don’t often service the exact same routes and they sometimes have different stations.

An average bus ride from Marrakech to/from Agadir costs, for example 100 dhr ($10)  and takes 3 hrs, every 2 hours. From Marrakech to Merzouga it’s a long windy 12 hr bus ride, once a day at 0830, and costs 220 dhr ($22). It’s 175 dhr ($17.5) for a Supratours bus ride between Merzouga to Fes. The buses usually have AC, stop a few times to pick up passengers at smaller towns, and include a few short stretching breaks for food or bathrooms. The longer rides will have at least one main 20-30 min water and food break in the middle so you can get a quick sandwich, crepe, or bowl of harira soup somewhere.

Try to buy bus tickets early in person at the station you want to leave from or there is danger of not getting one or having to wait for the next one, esp in busy season/infrequent buses/specific bus. Each piece of luggage you bring on a bus costs 5 dhr, and you have to prepay 15-30 minutes before and get yellow luggage sticker/claim ticket before you can put it on the bus.

Medersa Ben Yousef in Marrakesh, Morocco

One of Marrakesh, Morocco’s most gorgeous Islamic sites that you can actually enter and photograph: Medersa Ben Youssef!

 

Morocco is an insanely beautiful and wonderful country, with unbelievable sights, sounds, colors, smells, and tastes. It’s one of the perfect gateway countries to start experiencing Africa, if you’ve never been there before. All over Morocco, you’ll see buildings, jewelry, clothing, and foods you’ll never have seen anywhere else, and experience a culture like no other. There’s no wonder in my mind why places like Marrakesh and Fez and the other gorgeous smaller towns of Morocco are so popular to visit; multiple tourists I had talked to were visiting for the 2nd, 3rd, or even 10th time! And despite all my warnings and advice here, I really felt like a huge majority of Moroccans were super welcoming, eager to help, and were just trying to genuinely help/weren’t trying to rip you off.

Even after visiting 48 countries worldwide, Morocco is probably one of the most memorable, exciting, mysterious, and fascinating places I’ve ever visited in my life, and I’ll definitely be back. Hopefully reading this will make you want to go to Morocco, and be able to travel the country like a local!

GoPro 4 Silver FLASH Deal – Only $299 with Free Shipping!

GoPro

For anyone who has been watching all my Caraoke, surfing, camping, and hiking videos, they were all filmed with my GoPro 4 Silver…It’s probably the best travel and action camera investment I’ve made in the last 5 years.

Normally, they go for about $399 (plus tax and tip). The cheapest I’ve ever seen it around Black Friday 2015 was $329. I just found out about a GREAT deal through Dick’s Sporting Goods that will get you it delivered for free in the United States (not sure about Hawaii or Alaska though) for only $299, with FREE SHIPPING.

The catch is, it’s a FLASH deal, meaning it only lasts til 10 pm EST TONIGHT (January 28th, 2016). Just click on this link to go to the Dick’s Sporting Goods website, add the GoPro 4 Silver (normally $399) to your shopping cart, and it’ll knock off $100 to make your total $299, with FREE shipping!

I don’t work for GoPro or Dick’s Sporting Goods but with all my travel trips and footage, and GoPro’s recent partnership with up and coming live-streaming video app Periscope, this is a great investment. My only minor complaints about the GoPro 4 Silver is that it’s pretty horrible at low-light/dark settings without extra backup light (like worse than the iPhone video), it doesn’t have the greatest battery life (especially if you use the touch/video screen), and it can be quite shaky for video footage if you don’t have a good mount or hold it steady (which can be taken care of by stabilizing the footage on iMovie).

It’s possible GoPro will release a way better GoPro 5 Silver or something in the future, but for now this is the best option you have for the best price! It’s a way better deal and useable camera than the GoPro 4 Black or the GoPro Session. Hope you all manage to get one, if you’ve been looking for one!

(NOTE: There is a way to get the final price of the GoPro 4 Silver down to $265 by following the complicated Slickdeals.net directions here, but I figured it’s more trouble than it’s worth.)

I’ll be routinely posting up great Hawaii travel deals, airfares, and other options for people here and on my Facebook page, so just LIKE my Facebook page to get all the info! Until next time…

A Passport is Required to Fly Anywhere by October 10, 2016…If You’re From These 9 States!

A U.S. Passport with visas and passport stamps

The Traveling Bachelor getting ready to use his U.S. Passport for another Eurotrip

 

***UPDATED May 1st, 2016: I was just notified by a observant friend that the below information is no longer timely, and that until January 22nd, 2018, residents from ANY state are still able to use a driver’s license, or any of the various other forms of identification accepted by the Transportation Security Administration, to get through security and onto an airplaneAfter that point, American Samoa, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, and Washington will no longer be compliant unless their state gets an extension. By October 1, 2020, 27 other states will no longer be compliant. Read the updated information from the Department of Homeland security here as well as here!!!***

 

Did you know that right now, according to the latest statistics, only about 4 in 10 Americans actually has a passport? That’s right, only 40% of the people in the United States have a passport, and it’s bizarrely low compared to the rest of the world. It demonstrates how few Americans actually travel abroad, in comparison to the other countries in Europe and Asia, for example. Those numbers are drastically going to change, because a lot of US citizens are going to be forced to get passports by the end of 2016!

Why will they be forced to get passports you ask? Word is rapidly spreading in the traveling community: By October 10, 2016, if you are from one of these nine U.S. states and territories you will no longer be able to use a driver’s license to get through airport security and TSA in order to board your plane. You’ll actually need a verified and valid U.S. passport! That’s because of a little known law passed back in 2013 requiring states driver’s licenses and ID cards to be compliant with machine-read/chip technology. This is for all international and domestic air travel!

The following U.S. states and territories are going to be affected, so beware if you are a frequent flyer from one of them:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Illinois
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • South Carolina
  • Washington State
  • Rhode Island
  • Puerto Rico
  • Guam
  • The U.S. Virgin Islands

Just so you can verify that this is actually happening and not just some rumor on the internet I picked up, here’s the official Department of Homeland Security announcement about it.

Why are they doing this? Of course it would seem to be about just protecting American’s from people who would use false identification to board a plane. But in my mind the answer is much more complicated than that. It’s not just terrorists and insurgents that the U.S. government is trying to keep from traveling, but potentially anyone with a fake identification: sex-trade workers, illegal immigrants, etc. It’s a technological safety move that will force a lot of different types of people who are here in the U.S. illegally to not be able to travel by plane.

Also, and this is pure speculation, but there is a huge monetary incentive for the U.S. government to require citizens to get passports. Assuming that there are about 323 million Americans, and that the average passport costs about $110, if even another 25% of Americans sign up for a passport (i.e. want to fly each year into and out of those 9 states above), that’s about $8,882,500,000, or almost another $9 billion dollars!

Either way, I’m sure there will be some sort of grace period or warning period for passengers. Otherwise, I can’t see how the TSA could piss off tens or hundreds of thousands of people that might fly into California, New Jersey, Illinois, etc but then not let them fly out on their return/departing flight, just because they didn’t know about this new rule, without causing a major aviation PR disaster. But you never know!

Better start renewing or applying for those passports! So says The Traveling Bachelor…I’m planning to hit at least 10 more countries this year alone, if all goes well! Won’t you join me? :)

Aftermath of a National Tragedy: A Personal Journal from 9/11 (Part 2)

9/11 Memorial Lights of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero

9/11 Memorial Lights of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero (Courtesy of www.richardkingphoto.com)

(Continued from Aftermath of a National Tragedy: A Personal Journal from 9/11)

Wednesday, September 12th

7 am – 6 pm

The work day at the hospital passed by in a blur, and the three other medical students on my team noticeably were distracted. Our conversations inevitably turned towards the craziness we had seen in the last 24 hours. The hospital was running at half-speed, since the computer system with all the lab values, charts, and drug ordering capabilities had been knocked out. It seems that the main computer running this Midtown Manhattan hospital is for some ridiculous reason located in the southern tip of Manhattan near what used to be the World Trade Center, and is now either knocked out or lying under tons of rubble. The computer techs came around trying to fix the system, but couldn’t do it because they needed mouses on the computer in order to try to reboot the computers with a new program; unfortunately, all the computers work on some old-school “light pen” technology where you point and click with an electronic light pen on the screen, so all of the computers didn’t have a mouse and couldn’t be fixed! My medical students friends and I laughed at the irony in the situation.

As we were busy seeing our patients, doing physical exams, and writing our notes, a gradual stench of smoke and something burning drifted through the hospital. As we began to glance nervously at each other, wondering whether this building was also being hit by a terrorist bomb or act of arson, the announcement came over the loudspeaker:

Attention please, attention please…the hospital is NOT on fire…the burning and smoke you smell is the north wind blowing the smoke up from the World Trade Center disaster site.

We all laughed nervously and quickly finished up our day, as medical students on a non-emergency rotation in a city filled with a million unending emergencies. I headed outside, determined to buy some food for the dwindling supplies in my fridge….

6 pm – 8 pm

Outside the hospital, I suddenly remembered that the temporary morgue, filled with an unimaginable amount of horrible things that at one time might have resembled human bodies, was right next to me and I quickly hurried across the street towards the throngs of sobbing, incredulous passerby and fearful relatives who were being held back by the police and still in total denial. A hysterical doctor in plainclothes grabbed me, jabbering about how she couldn’t do anything, how she felt helpless, and how she almost vomited as a not-so-well refridgerated truck had driven by towards the morgue on the corner of First Avenue and 30th Street, with its noxious burden of smoking, charred, and crushed human flesh. Crying, laughing, sobbing, the doctor told me to call those I love and walked away, a glazed look in her eyes.

Walking towards Second Avenue, I passed by one of the many refridgerated trucks that was in standby mode, waiting to be hauled down to Ground Zero of the World Trade Center and drag more body parts out of the wreckage. It might have been my imagination or the garbage can I passed at the same time, but thinking of the nauseating cargo that would soon be inside and perhaps catching a whiff of some rotting garbage, I almost lost my stomach right there on Second Avenue.

I had to get out of there, away from the Medical Center and the East Side/Kips Bay area…I couldn’t take it anymore. I had reached my absolute limit and had been spending the last 36 hours surrrounded by death. I was sick of the sirens, the imagined stench of death, the constant bombardment on the television. Determined to find something resembling the warm, welcoming, energetic life of the New York City I once knew, I set out trying to pretend that I was just living a normal night in NYC.

My first goal was to try to get some basic food supplies so I could cook for myself and eat in the next couple of days….the restaurants seemed to be working and delivering, and NYC’s famous pizza joints were still open as usual. But I was still a broke-ass med student waiting for a loan refund coming in the mail from the downtown NYU financial office, and the last time I checked all mail service in NY seemed to stop below the quasi-DMZ-line that NYC had set up: As of Tuesday night, NYC police were threatening to arrest anyone who didn’t belong below 14th Street for safety reasons. So cooking seemed like a good, cheap, and natural way to get back to living in NYC.

What I saw when I stepped in the local Gristedes was not exactly disturbing, but it was depressing. I saw families walking out with cartons of milk, and bags and bags of toilet paper, and began to realize that NYC was starting to horde. In the greatest city of the world, in a place where you could normally count on running down at 4 am to Chinatown, Koreatown, or the local diner and finding food anywhere, suddenly the supermarkets looked like something out of a third-world country. The bread shelves were completely bare, only a couple of cartons of milk remained. I went to try to get chicken and quickly realized that there was no chicken left on the shelves, no ground beef as well. Everything left in terms of meat seemed to be in the extremes, either crappy-ass hot dogs or steaks and gourmet fish filets. I left the store extremely annoyed and again determined to find some chicken, anywhere. The last thing I needed tonight was to have to stock my shelves with a bunch of hot dogs…however ridiculous that seems to some people it somehow made sense to me.

8 pm – 12 am

I ended up walking all the way down to the limits of where most New Yorkers could get to: 14th Street/Union Square Park, and the scene there almost awed and humbled me. Stretching before me as far as my eyes could see was the largest improptu shrine I had ever seen. Innumerable candles lay around the ground, throwing flickering light on sobbing shaking men and women, people in prayer, people in song, and dozens of flowers, in a park normally filled with skaters, punks, and glowstick artists. All over the ground, there were rolls of butcher paper unrolled with markers next to them, filled with comments ranging from “All Arabs must die….now you’ll learn the wrath of our might” to “America brought this on itself…the capitalist pigs government ruling this country caused this” to simple messages of “Love Each Other.” It was overwhelming, and with the World Trade Center smoke cloud looming to the south and the warm lights of the Empire State Building to the north, I stopped in the middle of this endless stream of emotions poured out on paper, and prayed for a few minutes. Aftewards, I looked around for awhile, and was interviewed by a Korean film student on what I thought of the last days events. Union Square Park was filled with people, some just looking, some getting high, some just hugging silently….It’s still there right now, and will probably be there for a while to come.

On the way back home, I finally found a store that actually had chicken, and I walked back home with a fresh store of chicken and pasta, happier than words can describe. It’s crazy how content someone can be with the simple things in life when you realize that hell is in your backyard, and others have much bigger problems to worry about. Walking back home northwards on Park Avenue, I passed by a bunch of bars and restaurants and lounges, filled with laughing, camaraderie, and conversation…at first I was really upset and thought “How the hell can anybody be JOKING or happy right now?” Then I realized this is what I had been looking for: the life and spirit of New York, unbroken by the destruction and death that had suddenly appeared a day ago. I realized that people were just celebrating life, celebrating with friends, co-workers, and loved ones they thought they might never see again, people they had taken for granted. The faceless bastards who had violated our city were unsuccessful in their mission of terror, New York was not afraid and was taking back the streets. I saw a New York filled with people refusing to live behind locked doors, and I fell in love with The City (not the Big Apple like some foreigners call it) all over again…

12 am – 2 am

Upon returning home, I was just setting my shopping bag down when I received a frantic call from my friend Rachel, who was calling me to warn me of a bomb threat made to the Empire State Building…which was only 4 blocks away from me. She was calling on the run, and quickly hung up so she could call other people and get away from any possible bomb blast. People were fleeing the streets all around the Empire State Building, and it would be the first of numerous bomb threats going on the next two days, including bomb threats to Penn Station, Grand Central Station, the American Express Building, and Times Square. My faith in humanity was quickly being peeled away by the pathetic actions of a few sick individuals, it was extremely depressing.

My last hours late Wednesday night/early Thursday morning were the most disturbing so far, and are the ones I think I will carry to me until the day I die. After realizing that the Empire State Building was not going to fall on my head, I found out that some medical students had been called up to volunteer for something that few people were willing to deal with: identify, separate, and pore through the endless stream of body parts being brought up by those “death trucks” I had seen earlier in the afternoon. In the weeks to come, the task of identifying body parts and simply getting the remains back to relatives and loved ones is going to be tremendously difficult, but is so important for the throngs of people outside the hospital who are waiting for some sort of closure. On the one hand, I wish I could take back that decision I made to volunteer for the gruesome task that I took part in that night, but on the other hand I will always remember and honor the memory of this life-changing and indescribable event.

For 90 minutes, myself and some other medical students armed ourselves with morgue gowns and thick yellow rubber gloves, helped weary medical examiners, FBI agents, and other law enforcement officers unload and pore over the decaying remains of the victims of the World Trade Center destruction. Sifting through intestines, shattered bone, torn skin, and a horrifying mess of human mush, searching for some sort of identifying information: a tattoo, a piercing, an earring, even a birthmark that could be possibly used in the months of DNA testing and pathology to come. The stench etched itself onto my soul, a wretched smell of rotting garbage mixed with the odor of something that was definitely flesh, and unmistakably human. My stomach was churning at first, but I quickly got over it….it was my job, I had volunteered to do this, as had all of us. No one should have to go through this, but eventually somebody had to.

New York’s finest, the firemen, the policemen, the FBI agents and so many others were gloved and gowned standing at the sidelines, but why would anybody force them to dig through the remains of their own fallen….why after they had already been tortured with the sight of all their comrades who were crushed and wiped out right before their eyes? Grown men were shaking and sobbing, unable to look at the carnage. Full and intact bodies were far and few between, and the stories the seeped through the crowd were heartbreaking and froze everyone to their souls. Stories of a fireman, decapitated but still bearing the company badge and uniform that was now his death robe. Stories of remains found of two or more people who in their final moments, hugged each other and held each other tight….people whose remains were now so pulverized that the two or more human beings had literally had their organs and bones smashed together with their arms locked and intertwined in a final fatal embrace..

I left around 2 am as a new group of medical students came by to relieve those who had been helping out for awhile. Coming back to the apartment, I thought back on the events of the last two days, and let out a sigh….whether it was a sigh of sorrow, one of mental and psychological exhaustion, or one of frustration is still unclear to me, but it felt like a mix of all of those. I showered, cleaning my body but futile in my attempts to psychologically cleanse myself of the horrible memories of the past 48 hours. As I knelt by my bed, just before getting my last 4 of 9 hours in an two-day span, I prayed for those who had lost, those who had found, and those who were no longer with us. I prayed for what was only minutes but seemed like hours. In the end, I had to stop, because I felt it was physically and emotionally impossible to pray for everything….

But strangely enough as I was finally falling asleep, I felt content. New York would go on. My country would rise again, and the United States of America would stand proud, of that I was sure. This is only the beginning of something that has forever changed the world, and this is only one of millions of stories that New Yorkers have to tell. We will always remember and honor those heroes among us and those who are no longer with us. Tomorrow is another day, today is our finest hour. God bless the victims, the workers, and the families, friends of everyone who has been affected…..we will overcome.

 

Aftermath of a National Tragedy:A Personal Journal from 9/11

The World Trade Center North Tower and South Tower in NYC during 9/11

The World Trade Center shortly after the second plane struck during 9/11

9/11. I still remember it like yesterday. It was  Tuesday, a beautiful fall day, and the sky was clear and blue as the ocean in New York City. Since I’ve traveled all over the world these last few years, I’ve lately come to realize many of my foreign and younger friends have no idea what actually happened and how crazy things were on the ground that fateful day.

This blog entry comes from a journal I wrote and e-mailed to my concerned friends that week, about the 48 hours living and working in NYC right after 9/11 when I was a med student at NYU. I usually try to send this out like once a year to new friends or people I just met here in the US and abroad, because I keep running into people who tell me that it seemed unreal and like a movie when they watched it back then. It amazes and saddens me that it has been almost 14 years since that fateful day. While so much has happened since, I think it’s still important to, as people say, “Never forget…”.

Before you read what is below, just be warned that it is very graphic, emotional, and isn’t for the faint of heart. But above all, it’s real…

And even though he barely uses social media anymore, I want to send my love out to my buddy Jon, who worked in the WTC and ran down 50 flights of stairs that day…out of a burning wreck of steel, fire, and hell which I hope no one I know will ever have to go through. Jon, I’m glad all of us in the world get to party with your crazy ass a lot longer.

Thanks, all you dear readers…It’s a long entry below, and I split it into two parts, so it might take you awhile to read…

Please share…and Never Forget,

The Traveling Bachelor
—————————————————————————————————
Sent: Thursday, September 13, 2001 10:40 PM

Subject: A chronology of the aftermath – Shell Shocked in NYC
Hello all, and thank you for the mountains of calls and e-mails I’ve received in the last 48-hours. You have no idea how much it means right now, still feeling helpless here in NYC….I wish I could e-mail you all individually, but that will take a long time for me, and there is obviously a big mess here. So what I did instead is something I felt was important to do, and I’ve written an hourly account of the last 48 hours here in NYC.

I hope you will read this and try to live through this story what I’ve been living through, the cameras can only tell half the story. Even though I’m exhausted and tired, I felt a great need to write this story and share it with you….A warning to the meek though, the account below is graphic and vivid, but above all it is the truth, and I NEED to share it with all of you, because it will never be as fresh in my mind as it is now…hope you forgive my prose/way of writing, I just tried to write from the heart. Feel free to pass it along…

I pray you are all able to live day by day….and I will talk to you all soon. My sofa is still always available to crash on, and you will all always have a home here in NYC….in fact our couch has had someone crashing on it every other day for the last two months even BEFORE this tragedy!

Write back again soon, this will probably be my last update unless something else significant happens, since this is all I really can relate about life here….watch the news for my updates. I may send one more brief info about more blood donation/missing persons information if I have the time to find it, but for now I am going to try to get a couple more hours of sleep.
Missing you more than ever,

____________________________________________________________

Tuesday, September 11th

9 am-11 am

Waking up in the middle of another captivating Pediatric Grand Rounds, I was glad that I managed to catch a few zzz’s that would help me get through my 6 am to 6 pm 12-hour day…I walked out of the auditorium filled with NYU doctors, residents, and medical students, and suddenly remembered that I was also on-call tonight, meaning I would have to stay later in the hospital and pretty much have a 16 hour day. “Damn this is going to be a long/exhausting day,” I remember thinking to myself, not realizing what an understatement of the century that was.

Heading back to the hospital to check on some more of my patients, I ran into my med school classmates Josh and Eric, and Josh yelled to me that an airplane had just crashed into the Twin Towers. Swearing in disbelief, I ran outside the hospital on 30th Street and First Avenue to see for myself. Not wanting to believe, I looked south, and saw a huge plume of dark, black smoke rising from the Financial District. My stomach flipped and my heart stopped, and instantly I grabbed my cell phone to call my friend Jon, who works on the 42nd Floor of one of the Twin Towers…there was no service, in what was to be the first of a huge communications blackout

I ran up to my apartment across the street, where my roommates Rick, Dan, and my visiting brother Stan told me the second plane had hit…Not knowing what to do, we turn on the television and try to make more calls, still with no luck. Chaos was everywhere in the streets, and as I headed back out to the 9th floor of Tisch Hospital, my roommates and brother ran outside to see everything for themselves.

Back at the hospital, the residents and attending told all the students that we didn’t need to stay, and we should go out to see if there is anything that we could do as medical students, or as volunteers….

11 am-2 pm

The next hours were a blur, as I ran back to the apartment to watch more TV updates in my empty apartment. Eventually, I realized I was alone, my brother was nowhere to be found and my roommates where already dressing in scrubs and joining other NYU Medical students. A bunch of us took off for the Bellevue Hospital ER, a Level 1 Trauma Center just 4 blocks south of Tisch Hospital and on the way some students told me that the two Twin Towers had completely crumbled. The news never hit until hours later…

At the Bellevue ER where there was a controlled chaos going on, literally hundreds of doctors, nurses, med students, and volunteers poured through the doors and got dressed in surgical scrubs and gloves. Eventually the reality sank in that there were about 150+ medical professional in the ER and not a single patient. A stressed-out ER attending who is tripping over all the well-intentioned but space-filling volunteers yells to all non-essential personnel to leave or get out of the way, and some medical students including myself are rounded up for other emergency tasks. Five of us headed out to the front of Bellevue, where we establish a makeshift triage-crowd control-patient care group. Some of us escorted the patients who were showing up for actual appointments, others joined the cops in keeping the hordes of people who were pouring into the hospital trying to find out news about loved one, and others helped the literally thousands of blood donors get in an orderly line and begin the process for blood donation.

By the time noon hit, the word got out that the hospital only wanted O+ and O- blood because there were too many people in line. With the situation stabilized and the hospital emergency network more established, some of us medical students ran back to Tisch Hospital in the hopes of being more useful…the terror and fear is finally starting to hit all of us, and I began to feel like I was in a war zone. I tried again on my cell phone to reach my friend Jon in the World Trade Center and got his answering machine. In despair, I yelled a quick prayer of hope into the phone, begging Jon to call me back and praying that he was safe and got out before the collapse. Then when I arrived back home to change into hospital scrubs for the certain emergency ahead, I had a sheer moment of panic, realizing I still didn’t know where my brother Stan was. “Where the hell is he….please God tell me he didn’t go down to look at the World Trade Center,” I prayed as I ran out the door to join the medical students assembling outside the medical center

2 pm – 8 pm

We found out an emergency triage/holding area had been set up at Chelsea Piers on the West Side of town, but sketchy reports about whether they actually needed volunteers and whether a security shuttle would pick us up to bring us over there came in. Some medical students became frustrated at the inability to actually help out, some decided not to wait for the the shuttle and set out on foot across the city, and others like myself stood there helpless, staring at the growing black cloud of death that grew higher and higher above Manhattan. All the medical students shared their fears, their dreams, their frustrations at being completely useless right now, and slowly (almost as if a movie set was being assembled around us) a setting of near martial law developed around us. Ambulances screamed up and down the street, cop cars were everywhere. A fire truck flew down the wrong way of a one-way street as people were crying and hugging on the street. A nearby radio blared that the only way to currently leave the city was on the Outbound George Washington Bridge, and I quickly began to realize that we are all living in a state of military lockdown.

As I was feeling most helpless, my brother finally appeared out of nowhere. Stunned, I hugged him as he told me that he had been walking southward towards the World Trade Center to get a better view of the disaster. My brother told me how he watched in horror as he had a close-up view of the last remaining Twin Tower becoming a 110-story twisted metal fireball bending to gravity and killing thousands of people. He told me how he ran away in fear with a mob of New Yorkers beside him as the dust cloud from the impact grew larger and larger, and how as he got far enough away he got into an argument with a hysterical New Yorker who immediately wanted to go and bomb every Arab country.

Speechless, I hugged him again and tried to decide whether I was angry at him or so thankful to God that he was safe….I quickly decided on the latter, realizing that thousands of people across the city would never get that luxury of knowing their loved ones were safe. And so my brother and I went home, with the phones finally working, and stayed transfixed to the TV as the scenes of death unfolded over and over again. My inbox began filling up, my answering machine filled with messages from worried friends. We finally got in touch with our family and were lucky enough to be able to call a few select friends on our unreliable land line. AOL Instant Messenging became the saving emergency communication method for the time being

Just before I headed back to the hospital to see my last patients, even though the Pediatrics Residents/Attendings told me I didn’t need to be there, I got an AOL message from my friend Katie:

“Albert, Jon’s okay…they are all okay, they are staying uptown right now with friends.”

Quietly thanking God (since I was too tired to do anything else), I headed back to Bellevue Hospital, even though the city was already filled with emergency heroes and I didn’t need to be another one…..I knew that half the firefighters who walked into that burning mess would never come home, and it nauseated me to my soul knowing that their bodies were definitely obliterated beyond belief. It was easy to be thankful for the smallest things after knowing the unbelieveable horror others were going through. My brother was alive, my parents were alive, and my friend who had been closer to hell than I will ever be managed to get out of a monstrous steel death trap after a plane had crashed just meters above his head….I allowed myself to be content for a few minutes.

Then, I quickly crossed First Avenue going back to Bellevue Hospital, where I helped out briefly supplying blood bags and helping phlebotomists deal with the overwhelming crush of donors who were desparately trying to do what little good they could during a time where everything seemed meaningless. Hundreds of people were still in line when I left, and I was overwhelmed by this sea of human courage I was seeing right before me. After helping out in Bellevue, I headed back four blocks north to Tisch Hospital to at least say hi to my pediatric patients for the day. As I used my stethoscope to listen to the heart of one sick girl with a high fever, I glance over to the TV and was horrified to see clips of person after person falling stories to their death, screaming in shock, and the wave of helplessness hit me again. Finally, I said goodbye to my patients and my pediatrics team at sign-out session, and as I left Tisch Hospital I immediately headed north to the safe house where my friend Jon was staying after escaping from the World Trade Center. With the great black cloud of carnage hanging high in the sky to the south, and sirens blaring everywhere I turned, I was glad that I could finally be of some use, however minor, to at least the stable pediatric patients in the hospital.

8 pm – 12 pm

Leaving the hospital, the entire city looked like a ghost town. Besides the occasional police barrier and occasional speeding set of police cars, the streets of NYC, or at least First Avenue, were deserted. It was impossible to catch a cab or bus, since the streets were pretty much deserted, and I ended up walking 30 blocks north on foot. Passing the United Nations, I again began to feel like I was in a war zone as police barriers and the Men in Blue of NY walked by on patrol. I again gave a silent thanks that my parents had not come to the city today, since they had been planning to come to the UN to rally for Taiwan’s right to have representation in the UN. Arriving at my friend’s house, I finally meet up with my friend Jon and one of his other displaced roommates. Normally one of the most social, outgoing, kind-hearted and friendly guys I’ve ever met, Jon was pretty much withdrawn and pensive. I had never seen him so somber, his eyes were glassed over, like he had seen Death itself, and he almost seemed to be seeing his life flash before his eyes in a continuous loop. We all joked around a little bit about how Jon and his buddies probably would not be renewing their lease for their amazing penthouse on Greenwich St, which had been the location of many memorable parties. However, it also happened to be one block away from the World Trade Center, and seeing as how their home was now covered in a layer of soot, ash, and God knows what else, it was definitely not fit to live in. From all descriptions, it sounded like their apartment looked similar to what something would look like if it had been next to a erupting volcano.

Jon and his friend were drinking shots, and I didn’t blame him…I was almost tempted to drink one or two myself but remembered that I would be in the hospital in a matter of hours and thought better of it. Jon and my other buddies gave me the good news that all our friends were safe, and that everyone had been accounted for. With my spirits lifted a little higher, I said a somber goodbye and hopped a free bus down 2nd Avenue to go back home (all buses and pay phones were free on Tuesday to help people deal with the emergency).

I arrived exhausted at my apartment around midnight, but still watched in tired shock as more scenes of heroism and tragedy were broadcast on CBS. My other roommate Rick came in from his own personal journey, and sat down with me at the TV. We realized that our third roommate Dan was still out there in the city helping out as a volunteer in some emergency area somewhere. As I was about to pass out for a paltry amount of sleep, I learned something gruesome on the news: The general identification morgue for all the bodies, body parts, and crushed remains was being set up right outside my front door, across the street at the Chief Medical Examiner’s office (who was also located across the street at Tisch Hospital/NYU Medical Center). Looking out my window I saw a number of large refridgerated trucks rumble by and realized that they were hauling hundreds of bits and pieces of NYC human flesh and organs towards the morgue. I hit the bed, and instantly fell asleep, glad to be able to escape out of the nightmare of September 11th, if even for a few hours. With my last waking thoughts, I prayed that the trucks cooling systems would work, and that the stench of death and decaying body parts would not overwhelm me when I woke up in less than four hours.

(To Be Continued in Aftermath of a National Tragedy: A Personal Journal from 9/11 (Part 2) )