Travel Cuba

Posted in Travels with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2017 by eclecticlemonadestand

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Cuba is perfect for an inexpensive weekend getaway if you plan it right. Here’s how:

Before You Go

1. The Visa- You’ll need a visa which is an additional cost to your flight. Most airlines sell the visa only to customers with booked travel on their airline and visas range from $50-$100 depending on the carrier. There are also charter companies that provide visas. You will only need to purchase the visa before departing from the US. An additional cost is not incurred to return to the US. Be sure to account for this cost when booking tickets. When filling out your visa, there are several areas that ask you to indicate the type of visa and/or purpose of travel. While your trip may be for tourism, it is HIGHLY SUGGESTED that you classify your travels as “educational” to avoid complications with customs. As a tourist, you will be educated on the culture, religion and history of Cuba so this is the most accurate and accepted classification.

2. The Currency- Make sure to withdraw sufficient funds for the duration of your stay as you will not be able to use your US issued debit or credit card anywhere on the island. It’s better to take out slightly more than you need just to be safe. To get the most bang for your US buck, you can convert your dollars to euros before leaving the US. The euro converts 1:1 but the dollar converts at a slightly lower rate. Another option is to convert on the “black market” for a lower rate. Don’t worry; this is not a sketchy, illegal back-alley. Basically, a number of Cubans have use for the dollar (generally if they have family in the US or travel to America). They are more willing to exchange the Cuban CUC at a 1:1 rate. You just have to ask around, so brush up on your Spanish. Whatever you decide, make sure you have cash on hand before you leave the US.

3. The Incidentals- There are wifi hotspots in specific locations throughout the island. You can buy a wifi card for access or check with your cell phone provider for available plans specific to Cuba. Don’t rack up hefty data charges like I did and regret your decisions when you see the bill… Another option is to disconnect from it all and immerse yourself in culture. Be sure to download “Maps.Me” for offline maps and my favorite language app “Learn Spanish” by Codegent if you’re not from Miami and your Spanglish is rusty.

4. The Lodging- I would recommend staying in a private rental property (such as Airbnb) rather than a hotel. Since commercial travel bans have been lifted, the hotels have taken advantage of this and significantly increased their prices. You can get a great rate and a comfortable stay by occupying a private rental. Now, pack your suitcase and head over to Cuba! (Be sure to bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer because the public bathrooms in the city aren’t always stocked with these necessities.) Ready, set, go!

Once you arrive; get ready to explore on foot, hop in old world cabs and get lost in a city that is a blast from the 1950s past. The government hadn’t encouraged much renovation over the years but whatever Cuba lacks in modern, aesthetic appeal; it makes up for in culture and community. Spend your days walking through Old Havana and spend your evenings dancing the night away. There are a couple of gems you don’t want to miss…

During the day:

1. Start at La Bodeguita del Medio and have a mojito from the place where mojitos were born. Here, you are in the heart of Havana.

2. Wander through the various parks, plazas and street shops like Parque Central or Parque de las Palomas.

3. Stroll the Malecón or ride down in a classic convertible.

4. Smoke a Cohiba cigar from the rooftop of Hotel Ambos Mundos (where Ernest Hemingway once stayed) and enjoy 360 degree views of the city with a delicious piña colada or your drink of choice.

5. Take a cultural tour of Havana’s rich religious and political history.

6. For the best beach near Havana, everyone will recommend that you skip Guanabo and instead visit Playa Santa Maria.

7. No trip to Havana would be complete without a classic car tour to highlight the sights of Havana.

Nightlife:

1. Fábrica de Arte is a trendy nightlife spot reminiscent of Art Basel meets nightclub meets food trucks and all under one roof

2. For a night of salsa dancing to a live band, be sure to visit 1830 (mil ochocientos treinta).

3. If you’re in the city, every night at 9:00pm (without fail) you can hear “el cañonazo” from Fortaleza de San Carlos de Cabaña. If you have time, you can also visit the fort.

Where to Eat

1. Doctor Cafe is a paladar in Miramar (just outside of Old Havana). There is no menu as the offerings change. The portions are suitable for sharing so order a few items at the recommendation of the house and try something new! I definitely recommend the sea turtle and swordfish.

2. La Guarida is a very well known paladar in Havana. I’m not one for making plans too early, but make a reservation way in advance if you want to eat here. And trust me, you want to eat here.

3. El Guajirito was a restaurant recommended by our cab driver. The restaurant was expensive by Cuban standards but very inexpensive by American standards. Where else can you have drinks and eat a full meal of lobster tail, fish and shrimp for under $50?

4. Ask around for local restaurants with authentic meals at non-tourist prices. Full breakfast plates and enormous dinner portions for under $5 CUC… You can’t beat that. The best local dinner option was a restaurant on Calle L between Calle 19 and 21 near Hotel Nacional. For an amazing breakfast, cross the street from Doctor Cafe in Miramar.

Water was replaced with mojitos and there was a chance to drink a great mojito or Cuba libre at every turn. Come thirsty, leave happy.

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2017 WanderList

Posted in Travels with tags , , , , , on December 31, 2016 by eclecticlemonadestand


To satisfy my wanderlust in 2017 and in no particular order:

Cuba

India

Bali 

Cambodia

South Africa

Zambia

Spain

Morocco

Japan

Brazil

Check back throughout the year to see where I go!

#onebrowngirlaroundtheworld

China in 5 Days

Posted in Travels with tags , , , , , , on December 28, 2016 by eclecticlemonadestand


Two days of travel and five days in China were just enough time to experience Chinese culture and visit to the many historical sights that China has to offer. In many ways China is so richly diverse but also significantly cloistered. For instance, there are over 56 ethnicities in China, but the sight of white or black skin is still very foreign to most. If you are not Chinese, be prepared for unsolicited photo ops: these photos are not optional, trust me.
In my travels through the country, I was most proud of my broken Chinese as I navigated my way into asking for the check at a local restaurant by sheepishly uttering “măidān.” When the waitress smiled brightly because she knew exactly what I was asking, I knew I was a natural (not really, but I was convinced). And at the end of my 5 days, I could say “nĭ hăo” like a native speaker. It’s safe to say that was the extent of my Chinese conversational skills, but the “Learn Chinese” travel app by Codegent really came in handy and is my favorite travel app for international language translation abroad (the app is available in a variety of languages).

To maximize a limited time schedule, I decided to book a tour company so I wouldn’t waste time getting lost in the country while trying to translate directions and read road signs. I did a simple internet search for tour companies operating in China and, without much research, decided on China Odyssey Tours. Their prices were reasonable and their tour options were perfect to accommodate my travel needs. For around $700 US, they arrange airport transfers, lodging, 2 meals a day, a private guide who speaks both English and Mandarin and a private car to transport you throughout the duration of the tour. They can also help you secure the required visa but I chose to do so on my own. Once my itinerary was finalized, they provided me with an invitation letter/itinerary for proof of travel that is a requirement for obtaining a visa.

Day 1: Arrival and Airport Transfer

After a quick connection out of Miami and an almost 15 hour flight out of Dallas, we arrived in Beijing. Tired does not even begin to describe it!

Our amazing guide, Jin Jin (whose name means double Gold), was waiting as we exited customs to take us to our hotel. Our evening was free which obviously meant settling in and catching up on sleep. The Novotel was a nice, clean hotel with standard US amenities and a personable staff. The hotel is an international chain and I have not been disappointed in any country.

Day 2: National Center for the Performing Arts, Tiananmen Square and HouHai


The morning of Day 2 started out with a tour through the National Center for the Performing Arts, an opera house that also houses exhibits displaying Chinese performance art. The opera house itself is a work of art. After a self guided walk through the vast building, we strolled through Tiananmen Square; full of history and historical landmarks. Our visit to Tiananmen Square was followed by a demonstration of the legendary Chinese silk making practices at a silk factory then a traditional Chinese lunch of Peking roast duck. No trip to China is complete without sampling the nation’s signature dish. After lunch, we arrived at Tiantan Park and reveled in the majesty of the imperial Temple of Heaven. We sampled local tea before we were escorted back to our hotel for the evening. With the evening free, I decided to explore the streets of Beijing via cab using my remedial Chinese and my lifesaving translation app. I met up with a friend who was also traveling through Beijing and we wandered through the lakeside neighborhood of HouHai for an abbreviated nightlife experience and a traditional dinner at NanMen Hotpot. As an important note: whenever traveling without a translator, be sure to keep the name of your lodging and directions to your hotel/residence (written in Chinese) with you at all times for the cab drivers.

 

 


Day 3: Summer Palace, Hutongs, Forbidden City and Acrobatics Show

 

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Today’s tour started out with a visit to the Summer Palace and a cruise along Kunming Lake. You could easily spend a day here taking in the beautiful architecture and lush foliage but we were off to tour the Hutongs with our personal rickshaw guide who explained the historical significance along the way. At the end of our tour, we were invited into the home of a local Chinese family who prepared a delicious lunch and were most welcoming hosts! With our stomachs full and happy, we made a quick stop at a pearl factory to pick up China’s famed fresh water pearls. Next stop was the Forbidden City; another grandiose structure housing regal artwork, artifacts and a wealth of history dating as far back as the Shang Dynasty. Before ending the day, the early evening was spent in wonderment at the high flying stunts and amazing feats of the performers in the Beijing Acrobatics Show: a must see spectacular with a barrage of talent!

Day 4: Ming Tombs & Great Wall

 


On the 4th morning, we visited the Ming Tombs and learned of the history of the emperors from the Ming dynasty. After touring the mausoleums, we were finally on our way to the Great Wall (my main reason for traveling to China). The wall was as breathtaking and magnificent in person as it is anywhere else. To stand before the massive wall constructed hundreds of years ago and withstanding the tests of time was an awe inspiring moment. Walking along the wall, you come to understand why it is so great as it seems to be a never ending expanse. This highlight was the opportunity of a lifetime and well worth the long haul flight even if only to see just this wall!

Day 5: Free Day

 


The 5th day was a free day for exploration and my guide made a few recommendations. I really wanted to see the Beijing Zoo and that was how I spent my day. At some point, I thought I was the attraction because I spent most of my time posing for photos or as the subject of paparazzi type pictures, but it was all apart of the cultural experience in realizing that melanin was as foreign to them as mandarin was to me. The pandas made the paparazzi encounters worth the trip! I ended the evening and my trip with an upscale dinner at Chynna restaurant in the Hilton Hotel with a more Western flare added to their delicious, Chinese fare.

On the 6th day, we were transferred to the airport as we said our final goodbyes to our outstanding driver and our amazing guide who really was golden!

5 Tips for the Budget Traveler

Posted in Travels with tags , , , , , , , on December 7, 2016 by eclecticlemonadestand


1. Travel off peak or slightly off peak. September, October into early November, late January and February (excluding the days preceding and following Valentines Day) are all excellent times to travel.  These months fall just before or after major travel times and are periods when flight loads are particularly low, which translates into lower costs.  Also, find out when peak season is at your chosen destination.  If October is a busy month then look to travel slightly before or after peak season.  You’ll avoid the crowds but still enjoy what the location has to offer.

2. Search for the lowest price such as glitch fares or promotional rates. Airlines will often offer promotional rates if they add new routes or at certain times of the year to generate revenue.  There are also websites dedicated to glitch fares, where an airline mistakenly creates a loophole that allows you to book flights to certain destinations at well below market rate. A simple web search of “glitch fares” will generate numerous websites teaching you the ins and outs of error fare booking.  These glitch fares are not always honored by the airline once the mistake is realized, but if they are then you just scored a sweet deal!

3. Remember the law of supply and demand. If the demand is great, the prices will increase. Look to travel mid week when the demand is not as great and avoid traveling on holidays.  Midweek travel such as Tuesday or Wednesday tends to be less expensive on a consistent basis.

4. Use frequent flier miles. Once you start booking flights, keep the perks rolling with frequent flier programs. These are free to join and rewards are generally based on the miles you travel or the amount you spend. An added bonus is that many airlines have partnerships that allow you to travel on their carrier, but earn travel miles on the airline of your choice. The more you travel, the more you are rewarded.

5. Know before you go. Read up on baggage fees, exclusions, and allowances before you travel. For instance, low cost carriers will sell inexpensive tickets then inflate the cost of other optional services to recoup costs whereas some airlines will have non-standard policies such as limits on carryon baggage weight or size.

 

How I Boosted My Credit Score by 100+ Points

Posted in That's Life with tags , , , , , , , on November 23, 2016 by eclecticlemonadestand

 

This brown girl hasn’t been around the world lately and it’s because I’m working on my master plan (my fortune cookie told me to move in silence so I’ll just say “stay tuned”) and I’ve got some ideas for the new year and beyond. Before I move forward with my plans and goals, I want to make sure that my credit score is top notch. Although my credit score is now considered excellent, which took about a year of work, I’m trying to join the elusive 800 club. There’s no quick fix to credit fatigue, but with patience and dedication; you can take your credit score from poor to perfect! I will never forget going from not being able to open any line of credit to approval for my first AMEX card and having Rooms to Go tell me they needed to ask a few questions to verify my identity since my credit was so excellent. To this day, I’m still impressed when I can command extremely low interest rates and higher lines of credit. Here are 5 ways to see improvement in your score:

1.  Pay your bills on time. This may be the most obvious and will require the least explanation, but it is also one of the biggest impacts to your credit score and a heavy hitter that lowers the credit scores of even the most fiscally responsible.  Even ONE late payment could significantly lower your credit score for several years. Set up automatic bill pay so you don’t have to worry.

2.  Open a credit card intendend for those with poor credit. This generally means high interest, high fees and low limits; but if your credit score is distressed then this might be your only option at first.  The credit card I used to rebuild my score was from First Premier bank with a $250 limit.  I also had to pay around $250 in fees just to open the card plus a monthly maintenance fee of $7 and an additional yearly service fee.  I basically paid and overpaid for my credit, but since my score was so low; I didn’t have very much leverage at the time.  Don’t lose heart: with consistent usage and on time payments, your credit score will improve. I still have my First Premier account open solely for the fact that it is my oldest account and thus improves the age of my credit history. If you’re just starting out on this credit improvement journey, age of credit has a minor impact that can be evaluated once you get a handle on your debt and credit.  However, if you do have older accounts; keep those open, eliminate overwhelming balances and ensure that the minimum is paid on time every month.

3.  Eliminate overwhelming balances.  Sounds easier said than done, right? Wrong!  Credit card companies often offer low interest rates on balance transfers combined with promotional, no interest grace periods.  Use these offers as a way to consolidate your debts and eliminate high interest rates that only add to your mounting bills.  Repeat this step as often as needed to minimize your debt, but be sure to avoid racking up additional debt while trying to lower your debt.  That’s just counterproductive! Some credit card companies do limit the amount of transferrable debt.  If you have significantly high debt, you may consider taking out a lower interest personal loan to pay off all your debts and make repayment more maneageable.

4.  Challenge anything and everything on your credit report. The process to successfully dispute items on your credit score is simple yet complicated. If you have the time and patience to research and understand the processes then you can challenge ALL items on your credit on your own. If you’re like the many people who just don’t have the time, there are companies who will do the work for you. The price tag is around $100 a month for a recommended minimum of 6 months, but the long term results are worth the expense. I used Lexington Law and saw significant improvement in just 3 months and had all but 1 item removed from my credit within the year.

5.  Open MORE and MORE credit cards! That’s right, I said open more lines of credit. I didn’t say spend more, but have more available credit. (You SHOULD use your credit cards for small purchases to show activity but carry a balance that you can completely pay off at the end of each billing cycle. Having zero utilization is not ideal and neither is being maxed out on every card.) Any new credit lines open will drop your score in the short-term because the application process will appear as an inquiry on your credit report, but responsible usage in the long run will improve your score.  Your credit report considers: number of lines of open credit, credit utilization, available credit and number of inquiries.  Ideally, you want to have 21 or more open lines of credit (which can be a mix between credit cards, personal/educational loans, mortgages, and auto loans), a debt to credit ratio of below 10%, at least 50,000 in available credit and 0 hard inquiries.  Since it is impossible to open credit without inquiries, something’s got to give.  My method was to open multiple accounts within the span of 1-3 months so that they all fall off of my credit report at around the same time.  They are generally reported for around 2 years so if you open multiple lines over a year’s time frame, it will only take that much longer for them all to be erased from your report.  Another way to increase your available credit and decrease your debt to credit ratio is to request limit increases on already open accounts.  If you are approved or denied, there is no negative impact to your score.  Also, it’s ok if you fall short in some areas because you can still achieve excellent credit.  For instance, I do not have 21+ lines of open credit and I have several inquiries on my report, but my utilization is low and my available credit is high.

As a final note, check your credit score frequently.  Credit karma is a free, non damaging way to monitor your score and track your progress.  Now go and get the credit score you deserve!

Into Africa: 11 Days in Kenya & Tanzania

Posted in Travels with tags , , , , , , on April 9, 2016 by eclecticlemonadestand

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Day 1: Arrival in Kenya and Lake Nakuru

What I Did: I arrived at the airport at the start of the morning (and after around 30 hours of travel).  East Africa Adventure Tours was the company scheduled to whisk me through Africa and I was met by my guide and a tour manager who reviewed the itinerary for my journey and secured final payment.  We then set out on a 3 hour drive to Lake Nakuru, but to set the record straight; all proposed drive times turned out to be longer than indicated because of traffic and rough roads.  If you suffer from motion sickness, plan accordingly.  Even if you aren’t normally affected by motion sickness, plan accordingly because some of the roads are intense.  The experience is still altogehter worth the lengthy drive times and nausea inducing roads.

We arrived at our hotel shortly before lunch was expected to be over, but the wonderful staff gladly accommodated us and extended the lunch hours.  After lunch, a small wash up and a quick nap; we set out for the afternoon safari.  On my first afternoon in Africa, the breathtaking sights were giving me an unexpected case of sensory overload and I was awestruck.  To see monkeys bouncing around above grazing zebras and buffalos while giraffes slowly stalked past lounging rhinos nearby to sly hyenas observing it all was much more than I expected for my first afternoon.  That was just the beginning!

Where I stayed: On the first evening, I stayed overnight at Sarova Lion Hill Lodge reminiscient of a summer cabin.  The staff was welcoming and the amenities left nothing to be desired.  None of the properties included televisions, but I hadn’t even noticed because I was wholly interested in these new interactions and experiences.  Before dinner, there was a show featuring African ladies and gentleman demonstrating local dances.  All meals were included in the tour package and this property provided buffet style meals with a variety of options including local samplings and standard items (such as chicken, fish or beef).  Also, the properties are able to accomodate dietary restrictions and requests.  The tour company indicated this lodging option as a 5 star accomodation and I was completely pleased.

Day 2-3: Lake Nakuru to Masai Mara

What I did: In the morning, we went out for another game drive at Lake Nakuru.  The morning sightings included an assortment of birds, monkeys, warthogs, gazelle, waterbucks, buffalo, hyenas, zebras, giraffes and our very first lion spotting although the lioness was almost camoflauged by the tall grass. We departed Lake Nakuru for the 4 hour journey to Masai Mara with a stop for lunch and gas along the way.  The roads for most of this journey were paved but uneven, so when our guide announced that the last bit of road would be rough then proceeded to buckle his seatbelt; I knew I was in for a wild ride.  At some point, I figured that my guide was a Nascar driver in his former life. In case you were wondering, Nascar drivers and rough roads are not a good combination. And so for 2 hours, I prayed for deliverance from those unruly Kenyan roads and came very close to leaving the chewed up contents of my lunch on the side of a dirt road. But when I arrived at Masai Mara, all was forgiven…

On the afternoon game drive through Masai Mara, silouttes of elephants appeard on the horizon before they were right upon you.  They moved along with no urgency as they watched us watching them; passing by so close that you could reach out and touch them but resisting the urge because of the respect they command on sheer size alone.  Ostriches flocked by and jackals darted through the brush.  Masai Mara presented numerous wildlife gems including: a baby leopard sighting on our first evening, a cheetah family looking full and relaxed during a morning game drive, families of lions throughout the day and our only up close sighting of a hippo out of water on one evening.  Not to mention the many other sightings of fowl, wildebeest and different species of giraffe (who knew there were different types?)

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Self drive safaris are permitted, but personally, I would not recommend it as navigating the expanse can be quite challenging and there are no road signs, road maps or even real roads for that matter.  Traversing the area is better suited for the experienced and guides communicate via radio to share information on wildlife sightings. Unless you are fluent in Swahili or thoroughly familiar with the terrain, I would highly recommend a guide.  There were several occasions where our guide made radio contact with other guides then relayed to us that there had been a sighting at a certain location.  He would zoom off to the location sans GPS and thereby solidifying my faith in his navigating skills because in every direction, all I could see were flatlands but he knew exactly where he was taking us. There was an incident where another guide pointed out a problem with the tire of our vehicle and I couldn’t help but think that this was about to be an experience straight out of the game Oregon Trail. I just knew we were going to have to grab a buffalo, caulk the wagon or ford the river and buy a wheel at the nearest town… Basically, a set up for failure! But our guide examined the faulty tire and we continued on without incident.

While in Masai Mara, we visited a Maasai village where the tribes have historical claim to the Motherland and have held fast to their traditions and nomadic lifestyle.  They continue to be resourceful, living off the land and they breed warriors who (at the age of 15) spend 3 years in the wilderness to learn the skills that turn boys into men and men into warriors. The children are educated in traditional schools learning both English and Swahili, but they do not abandon their culture and are cultivated in Maasai customs outside of the classroom.  I had the privilege of taking part in the traditional Maasai dances and toured the village; witnessing traditional fire starting, home building and cattle herding.  They tutored me on their age-old customs and their daily routines.  I was humbled to learn how far the children walk to get to school and how everyone makes a daily journey for clean, drinkable water (I soon learned that these lengthy walks for water and education were common throughout Kenya and Tanzania, but it made me all the more ashamed of the things I take for granted and the privileges to which we are so accustomed in the Western world).   I met the medicine woman of the village and was adopted as granddaughter by a skilled toolsmith.  That just means I’m family now! This was a cultural experience that I highly recommend to all visitors of Kenya.  There was a small cost associated with the visit, but the monies are pooled together between the villages and are used to better the learning facilities for the local children.  In other words, money well spent!

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On my last night in Masai Mara, as the sun began to set; the moon looked as if it were standing atop the mountains.  I have never seen a moon as beautiful as the Kenyan moon over Masai Mara.  It was almost as if I could reach out and touch it.

Where I stayed:  In Masai Mara, my accomodations were at the Mara Sarova Luxury Tented Camp.  The rooms were exactly what the name suggests: luxury tents.  The bathroom was the only solid structure about the room. I embraced the novelty and enjoyed every minute of it.  In Masai Mara, the weather was slightly cooler in the evenings during February.  Being that the room was a tent, heaters were not an option.  While most of the guests were at dinner, the room attendants would bring hot packs for the bed and would enclose the beds in the mesh mosquito netting and zip up the tent “windows.”

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Several of the properties observed a lights out, power off period to conserve energy and provided flashlights and candles in the absence of power.  This generally occurred very late in the evening when most guests were fast asleep so it went unnoticed.  This was another 5 star option that aimed to please.

Day 4: Masai Mara to Serengeti

What I did: After a long and rough 7 hour drive, a stop at Kenyan immigrations then at Tanzanian immigrations and a guide swap; we arrived in the famed Serengeti. The long drives will really wear you out until you realize that you’re surrounded by beauty and majesty everywhere you look. We saw many more of the same animals, but it never seemed to get old.  We saw types of birds that we had not yet seen, crocodiles and a strange little animal called a “Dik-dik,” which I didn’t know even existed and had to get clarification on the spelling because… well… I’m sure it’s obvious! On that day, I also saw first hand why self-drive safaris probably aren’t the best option. Let’s just say that “wheels up” is a term that should be reserved for planes and not vehicles on safari.

 

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Say no to self drive

 

Where I stayed: Serengeti accommodations were handled by Mbalageti Lodge.  This property was a mix of wood cabin meets luxury tent.  The lodge provided no fencing as some of the other properties had so we literally slept in the wilderness.  At check-in, we were informed that guests should not walk the property alone after 6:30 pm as animals may approach and the rooms had walking sticks for daytime walks.  We were also notified that armed escorts would be provided to accompany guests to dinner and it was also recommended that no food be left in the room to avoid scavaging animals.  Dinner was served in the hotel restaurant with outdoor seating providing amazing views of the Serengeti.  Never had I felt so close to nature, even after spending days on safari.  The one drawback of this property was the minimal wi-fi provided.  Up until this point, all other hotels provided wi-fi in the common areas which sometimes extended into the rooms.  However, the wifi provided by Mbalageti was only capable of handling emails and minimal usage.  No social media or wifi calling was supported, but I suppose this was only a minor shortcoming.  This property was considered a standard option as compared to a  5 star property by the organizing tour company.

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Day 5: Serengeti to Ngorongoro Crater

What I did: After a morning game drive on the Serengeti, we were on our way to Ngorongoro Crater with a stop for lunch at a small picnic site.  We were joined by a multi-colored lizard and an odd, giant bird.  Before arriving at Ngorongoro we stopped for a visit a the historic digging site known as Oldupai by the locals and incorrectly termed Olduvai many years ago.  We received a history lesson from one of the excavators and had a glance at some of the archealogical findings before making our way to the Sopa Lodge for the evening.  On our way, a young child flagged down our vehicle and our guide translated that he was asking for water. How can you not be humbled when so many among us desire just the basic necessities that we take for granted on a daily basis? Of course, we gave him bottles of water and I only wish that I could help with a more permanent solution instead of a temporary band-aid on a gunshot wound.

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Where I stayed: The Sopa Lodge was one of the more modern properties throughout the trip and was more comparable to standard Western hotels and lodging.  The Ngorongoro area was increasingly cooler than anywhere we had been thus far and the hot pack was a welcomed addition to the bedding.  One quirk about this hotel was that the hot water was turned off around 8:00pm but the lights and power remained on all night.  The excellent service and luxury accommodations at this 5 star property were just what I needed after activity full days and long drives through Tanzania.

Day 6: Ngorngoro Crater

What I did: In addition to the poitns of elevation that provided spectacular views of the crater, it was at Ngorongoro Crater that I was able to get my first up-close views of the elusive African rhino.  My guide informed me that the park rangers encourage Rhinos to keep their distance from humans by scaring them away from vehicles.  This may seem slightly disruptive, but since poachers have almost completely eradicated Rhino populations throughout the world; it is a necessary measure.  I was also told that if park rangers see you attempting to kill an animal, they will shoot you on the spot. No jail time, no questions asked.  So, in order to get a decent picture of the Rhino, I had to focus my camera through my binoculars: Resourceful!  It was also at Ngornogoro Crater that I saw my first adult male lion with a fully grown mane and paws large enough to forever reinforce his place as King of the Jungle.  I saw Wildebeest herds with week old calves and flamingos were so abundant that the waters looked pink tinted.  For some reason, we asked the question: “How can you tell the difference between male and femal wildebeest?”  The answer was As Simple as Snow: “You can have a look at the balls.  The males have balls and the females have tits.” <– Well, there you have it!

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Where I stayed: My overnight was at Eileen’s Trees Inn.  It was a quaint property tucked away amidst a bustling city.  It was almost as if you had walked into a Secret Garden where blooming flowers and fruit trees abounded.  Most of the properties had impressive pools, but it was at Eileen’s where I first sat by the pool for just a few short moments to revel in the beauty of my surroundings.  At dinner, we enjoyed a few laughs with our guide and, despite my aversion to hops, I sampled the local beer: Tusker.  If I had to give this property a rating, it would definitely be 5 stars!

Day 7 and 8: Ngorongoro to Moshi town and Mt. Kilimanjaro

What I did: From Ngorongoro, a relatively short drive brought us to the town of Moshi where we met with our next guide. On that first afternoon, we visited the Kinukamori waterfalls and learned of the legend behind the name.  We toured the ancient Chagga caves and became aware of the tribe’s resourcefulness in times of war. We also discovered that the Chagga and the Maasai were once enemies who fought over land and resources.  We visited traditional Chagga homes and learned of customary practices before heading to our lodging for the evening.  On the following morning, the ascent to Mandara Hut was underway.  Mandara Hut is a stopping point on Mt. Kilimanjaro at 2720m.  This is the common stopping point for a day hike, but it is no small feat.  This test of my limits only made me want to come back and conquer the beast mountain! As an added bonus; my guide was extremely knowledgeable, exceptionally experienced and particularly entertaining.  By this time in late February, he could boast 6 successful hikes to the summit for this year.  This is not to mention his 15+ years of experience climbing this vastly challenging mountain. I’m certain that when I return for the summit, I will undoubtedly call upon the same guide.  When I completed the 8 hour, 35k step, leg burning, sweat pouring hike; I felt like I had conquered the mountain (well, a portion of it at least) even though I looked more like the mountain had conquered me… It was an accomplishment for which I am still most proud!

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Where I stayed: Over the 2 day span in Moshi, accommodations were at the Marangu Hotel.  The staff was most welcoming, but there were a few drawbacks to this property that left more to be desired.  For one, the absence of wifi was a major peeve.  There was a sign that indicated that their wifi was awaiting repair, but that sign aided me none the more…  You can take the girl out of the city, but don’t take the wifi away from the girl! Also, meal services were below average and although the meals were filling and appetizing; service was slow and sluggish.  On the evening after the Kili hike, I opted to skip dinner but was awoken in the middle of the night when the staff realized that I hadn’t come down.  I’m not sure whether to count this as a positive or a negative so I’ll just leave those facts there and let you decide.  Another downside was that this property did not accommodate the guides with meals as did the other properties and the “to go” lunches provided were poorly packaged and caused a bit of a mess.  The property itself was great and the staff was helpful, but I would definitely recommend an overhaul in service to earn this property the excellent ratings secured by other properties.

Day 9: Amboseli

What I did: In the morning, we set out on our way back to Kenya where we met with our original guide and said our goodbyes to an incredible experience in Tanzania.  It was at this point that I realized how much I preferred the Tanzanian roads… A few hours drive brought us to our hotel and we decided to skip the game drives and opted for an afternoon of relaxation and rejuvenation after a long week.  Monkeys littered the property and a hippo was spotted in the distance from our porch as we settled into our hotel.  Views of Amboseli National Park and Mt. Kilimanjaro at were clear at every turn.  We relished the wifi access from the lounge as unobstructed views of Kili became visible through passing clouds.  Aching feet and sore muscles prompted us to enjoy a full body massage and a touch-up pedicure from the hotel spa, which was just what the doctor ordered. Sleep came easy after a day of unwinding.

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Where I stayed: The Ol Tukai Lodge provided 5 star service through and through.  From their attentive waitstaff to their excellent spa services, every need was met.  The food was exceptional and the grounds were beautiful with outstanding views in every direction.  The rooms had an attendant (identified by name on a welcome card), who was always ready to assist in any way possible. The simplistic luxury was most welcomed after days of rough roads and difficult hikes!

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Day 10 and 11: Amboseli to Taita Hills and departure

What I did:  An early morning game drive through Amboseli provided picturesque views of Mt. Kilimanjaro as a backdrop for wildlife roaming the lands.  In this park, over 60 families of elephants take residence so there were ample sightings of the massive beauties.  Hippos, hyenas and other wildlife grazed the lands which are relatively free of big cats and seemingly a paradise for the hunted. From Amboseli, we made our way to Taita Hills for lunch and an afternoon game drive.  As our time in Africa was coming to an end, I took one last opportunity to revel in the majesty.  On the following morning, we made the 6 hour drive to the airport (luckily on paved roads). By the time I boarded my plane back to the states, I had learned how to say “hello!” in Swahili and Maasai, I had learned several words and phrases in Swahili and I enjoyed a thoroughly humbling cultural experience that cannot be aptly described with words.

Where I stayed: Sarova Salt Lick hotel was an interestingly designed property in the middle of the wildlife reserve.  This was my first experience with bats in Africa as they swooped overhead on an evening stroll… Needless to say, I panicked until I assessed the situation.  Comical at best.  The staff at the reception desk were mostly oblivious and apparently distracted, but all other attendants provided exceptional service.  This property had an assortment of craft cocktails (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) and their desserts were mouthwatering! Another 5 star lodge to wrap up an amazing journey.

 

Through my experiences, I have decided that the beauty of God IS Africa. God lives there.

#onebrowngirlaroundtheworld

“How can you afford to travel?”

Posted in Travels with tags , , , on March 16, 2016 by eclecticlemonadestand

IMG_3950With airlines competing for your business (yes, YOUR business), there’s no reason why anyone can’t afford to travel. In the world of ultra low-cost carriers and dirt cheap fares, you can buy an inexpensive ticket to just about anywhere in the world. Gone are the days of air travel being exclusive and elite and now is the time of travel opportunities for every budget. Of course, you can still purchase a pricey plane ticket if you’re into that or splurge on first class if you’re feeling fancy.

When people talk about not being able to afford travel, I have to avoid rolling my eyes right out of my head. Take for instance my most recent trip to Africa: For the price of $829.16, I was able to fly round trip to Kenya and back. This was not a discounted fare, an industry rate or any type of special kickback. I purchased my full fare, round trip, economy ticket for a 15,000+ mile journey at less than $1,000. And while it was a coach fare (I have been completely spoiled by my non-rev, first class flight experiences) with over 20 hours of flight time and around 10 hours of connecting time each way, it got me there at a price I was willing to pay.

If you looked at the price tag and felt faint, consider this: if you eat out 3x a week at $15 a day for 52 weeks, you would spend $2340 in one year. If you cut back on your fast food consumption, your health and your passport will thank you. Maybe eating out isn’t your thing, but unless you’re a part of the small percentage of the population who never splurges, pinches pennies and has a perfectly balanced budget then I’m sure you can pinpoint one, two or a few weekly budget blunders… Manicures, pampering, shopping, electronics, candy crush upgrades? There are even apps to help you figure out where and how you spend most of your money!

I recently read an article that answered the question of how world nomads finance their travel. Although the article was a bit crude and written in the style of a true travel snob, I understood the essence: You pay for your passions whether it’s hundreds of dollars on MAC makeup or the newest electronics or designer labels. With that in mind, travel can be affordable for everyone (or everyone who wants it)! If you have no interest in leaving your hometown, ever, then so be it. I personally would encourage everyone to see the world or at least some of the world, but don’t let new age travel elitists convince you that you’re not on their level because you have varied interests that don’t include traveling. I also get that life happens and not everyone will be able to afford travel at every point in their life; but before you go buy the newest iPad, Google search trip ideas and you may be surprised where your pennies can take you!

Once you’ve picked a place, see how “user-friendly” the destination. Some places are ideal for tourists on self led excursions and some places might be better experienced with a knowledgeable guide, but always shop around for the best price! Tour guides also understand that you can take your business to one of their abundant competitors so they will almost always work with whatever budget you propose (don’t have champagne dreams on a beer budget). I generally base my need for a tour guide on the level of difficulty navigating the particular area, my comprehension of the local language, the amount of time I have to travel and, of course, my budget. If I’m going to a place where I don’t speak the language, I won’t be able to read any of the signs, I’m staying for a short while and I want to maximize my experiences without getting lost then I generally opt for a tour guide. Then again, sometimes the best part of the experience is getting lost in where you’ve found.  Off-peak or slightly off-peak travel also makes a huge difference in the costs associated with travel. As a general rule, I prefer to travel off peak or slightly off peak when it makes sense to my itinerary and my pockets.

Whatever the destination, whenever the time, whatever the budget: Travel more.

Ready, set, travel!

#OneBrownGirlAroundtheWorld