It’s Not All a Box of Chocolates

Some of our best blog posts come about because of the questions posed by friends and family. Often, these questions make us pause and discuss the things that we may be processing in a quiet way; at other times, the questions raise subjects that we have mulled over in our heads or in discussions between us and they give us a chance to be a little more transparent about things that arise during our travels.

The other day, a friend asked a question that invoked the problem we often debate about transparency. She asked: “Ok. What happens on the “challenging” days of your trip? Ups and downs, sickness, food too strange to eat, getting lost? I mean even Anthony Bourdain regaled us with some of the low points! Give it up!”

For those of you who have been following (some or all) our BootsandCoffee.com blog or FB posts since 2016, you will know that we have described some of the ups and downs along our travels. But in full transparency, we haven’t been as forthcoming about some of the trials as we have about the tribulations. Mainly, this is because we have had many debates and discussions between us about how to describe the challenges in a way that doesn’t portray the experiences, peoples or places in a negative light. Both of us are very easy going and cheerful, glass-half-full people by nature and we have a tendency to see life through that lens and so you see our experiences through that lens as well. Neither of us enjoy the divisiveness and negativity we see on Facebook groups, particularly the expat ones, that portray a place as undeveloped, corrupt, inefficient, or incompetent and so we try to stay away from anything that could have the potential for joining that scrum. But, we can see how our avoidance of some of these topics can paint a skewed view of our travels and things that have challenged us.

When we set out to blog about our travels, we did it primarily to pay it forward to folks, perhaps like us, who thought that they were too old, too inexperienced, too nervous or too whatever to do the kind of travels that we were setting out to do. So, in that vein, transparency is important and we will do our best to be as respectful of ourselves and our places as possible while discussing some of our travel challenges.

How do we deal with sickness?

Amazingly, over the combined 24 months of travel between the Pan Am and Asia trips, we have rarely been sick. Early into the Pan Am trip, Roque had the symptoms of a very bad cold that kept him in bed for days. By then, we were in Wolfie and had the luxury of a real bed (and not the cots in our original tent). In the end, the cold turned out, we think, to be a really bad case of seasonal allergies that we didn’t accurately diagnose because the heavy pollen came much earlier in the south than we were used to in DC. Once we figured this out, he started to take allergy meds and while the pollen counts through the southern states of the US were super high for a very prolonged time, he eventually got some relief as we left these areas.

We have both remarked on many occasions that we must have stomachs of steel. Generally, we try to be careful and avoid anything that seems risky, but we have often eaten at street stalls, roadside food stops, and more without many negative consequences. and mostly, we haven’t had any stomach problems. During our time in the Yucatán, Mexico, following our return from Cuba, Roque had intestinal issues that required us to call a doctor. We were lucky to be in Playa Del Carmen at that time, in a condo where we had friends and we were able to get a referral to a physician. The doctor made a house call, took samples from Roque and we learned he had a bacteriological and parasitic infection. Both were treated with easily obtained medication that was affordable. And because were were staying in the condo for 5 weeks, the time out of commission was, thankfully spent in a comfortable, air conditioned place.

Other than these instances, we have only an occasional day with any ailments. Once in a while, a headache or something minor will slow us down and we listen to our bodies and just stop for the moment, or the hour, or the day. One of the beauties of traveling with a very long time horizon is the ability to stop in place because we are not booked on an itinerary that keeps us moving.

It is possible that homesickness has been more of an issue than physical illness. On both trips, we experienced periods of missing people and places. During the Pan Am trip, the transition between worker to retirement to traveler was difficult as we tried to figure out who we were and having rid ourselves of nearly all of our earthly possessions, we didn’t even have our familiar surroundings to ground us.

Roque tells the story of when, in the days just before we left in late December 2016, the full import of being “homeless” struck him like a lightening bolt, shaking him to his core. Because he is ordinarily so unflappable and easy going, and untethered to “stuff,” Sharon thought he was joking until she realized that he was really having a bout of cold feet. Similarly, Sharon wept more than a few tears when she set about as a full time camper, grasping for some sort of purpose and meaning, in the months that followed retirement. We are lucky to have partners that always provide the yin to the other’s yang. It is just part of who we are – when one is weaker, the other turns even stronger. And we regain our balance.

It helps us that we have the ability to stay connected to our loved ones by electronic, nearly instantaneously, communications. We have friends and have met others who traveled in similar ways as we are but at times when there were no GPS devices, when internet was available only in expensive internet cafés (if at all), when there were no smart phones and inexpensive SIM cards at every turn and when hotels, airlines, tour operators, lodgings and more didn’t have online booking options. We are so lucky to have the electronic resources to remain connected to people and to make our travel arrangements on the fly. This has really grounded us and allowed us to overcome bouts of homesickness in so many ways.

Hanoi Airport

Have we encountered food too strange to eat?

Absolutely. We have looked at some foods and declined. But, generally speaking, we have never been presented with no choices or choices that do not include something recognizable and to us, palatable. Everywhere we have traveled, we see rice, or potatoes, or chicken. There is usually a fruit or a package of crackers or a Coke that we can identify. Often as not, we have seen Starbucks, KFC, McDonald’s and Subways in many places where we have traveled. In fact, there have been moments when we eat fast food – not only because it is familiar and sometimes scratches the itch but also because we are endlessly fascinated by the local twists on the US branded fast food chains. (Spicy kaffir lime KFC chicken, anyone? Here, it is served on real plates with metal cutlery.)

Still, we have admittedly broad palates and we enjoy (relatively) spicy food. We eat fish, beef, chicken, goat, duck and lamb. We’ve eaten elk, and caribou, and bison, and water buffalo as well as rabbit, eel, alligator and likely others that we cannot remember. We’ve tried fried grasshoppers (Roque likes them; Sharon ticked that box and needs no more) but didn’t eat from the tables filled with various insects we saw in the markets of Thailand with water bugs, grasshoppers, crickets, ant larvae and more. We declined to add water buffalo bile to our Lao dishes during cooking class (which is sold by the bag in the markets) but we tried the Lao tripe. We sampled the Lao-Lao rice whiskey but didn’t bother trying the one with the snakes or scorpions submerged within (made mostly for the Chinese market, we were told).

If we approached our travel like Andrew Zimmern, we certainly could have made a few episodes of Bizarre Foods. Mostly, we stick to things we know and that we hope we will like.

More challenging is the fact that we have now eaten out for every meal within the past 3-4 months. There are a few ways that we are coping with this “problem.” One is that we will often sometimes eat just two meals a day. Another way is to eat lightly for one of our meals. We rarely, if ever, have 3 “sit down” meals a day. When we stay in hotels, we’ve opted, more often than not, to choose a “breakfast included” option. This allows us to 1) experiment with how the locals eat breakfast and 2) not to have to deal with finding a meal when we first arrive in a new city. For lunch and many dinners, we will eat at a market stand, or a street stall, a hawker or food court or counter of some sort, eating local food.

We always carry instant coffee and creamer because in Asia, all the rooms come with an electric teapot and many lodgings offer instant Nescafé in the rooms. We often visit grocery stores to wander through the aisles and we will buy soft drinks, water, snacks and other items as needed. If we cannot locate a grocery store, most convenience stores sell the basics.

How do we deal with getting lost?

Shortly after we met in 2009, we visited Puerto Rico for a destination wedding of a colleague of Roque’s. We had reservations at a Sheraton hotel that was located an hour or so south of San Juan in Caguas. A taxi transported us there upon arrival and the next morning, we decided to rent a car so we took a bus to San Juan to arrange for the rental. We opted to rent the GPS device offered even though we had two Blackberry devices (with Google maps) with us.

When we left San Juan for our hotel, we made turn after turn, relying on all three GPS devices/applications, and we just could not find the hotel. We stopped and asked for directions but we could not find the hotel. We were into the third hour of being lost when we stopped again for directions and a man said that he would show us the way and asked us to follow him. With more than a little trepidation, we did. Shortly later, we arrived at the Sheraton, intact and safe, and grateful for his help.

During the three hours that it took us to find the hotel, we never once had a cross word for each other. We worked and worked and worked together, never losing our cools, and never raising our voices in frustration or anger.

In the intervening 10 years, we have been lost again and have been in pretty dangerous situations at least a couple of times but we have never really lost our cools. While pulling the trailer on our Pan Am trip, we ended up on a single lane, unpaved mountain road, while looking for a camping space, that barely allowed Roque to turn the rig around after we realized we were at the proverbial end of the line. But he made it. Once, near Mt. Rainer National Park, Roque executed a U Turn over a bundle of bramble that caused a tire to flatten in the middle of nowhere that required us to purchase new tires. There was the time when because of contaminated gasoline, our truck was misfiring and we got stuck on a sharp incline in Guatemala, unable to move farther up the hill (but we were resumed by a Guatemalan who helped tow us uphill). Trying to save a $4 camping fee, we found ourselves stuck in sand in Baja California, south of the town of Todas Santos, needing to dig out both truck and trailer with the incoming tide threatening us. And on an unimproved mountain road in Costa Rica where we had no business being, we had a blow out of a tire on the camper that revealed a large “rip” in the steel undercarriage of the camper and a bent axle that ultimately caused us to shorten our time in Costa Rica so that we could just make it to Panama safely. (We had been told by friends that the road would be ok for us but we later learned that they transposed the route numbers, making the road the one that they meant to advise against!).

We’ve also dodged political unrest in Honduras, Nicaragua and Jakarta.

Some of these experiences have been quite scary and a few, more than a little traumatic. Usually, we do not outwardly freak out during these experiences even though we have later confessed to a great deal of inner turmoil. We have the kind of problem-solving temperaments that allow for adrenaline to flow to all the right places — meaning, in our case, our brains. When we are in real emergencies, like the situations mentioned above, we usually get very determined and logical, and if one is doing a little flipping out, the other usually steps up to the plate. It is a dance we have experienced and that we rely on as the safety net that catches us when we feel like we may be falling.

In other situations, where the situation is problematic but not urgent, we have a pattern that involves 1) the freak out, 2) the throwing of everything up against the wall to see what sticks, 3) the time of contemplation and distance from the problem, which always results in 4) some sort of natural resolution that suits both of us perfectly.

What works for us is the time we take between identifying the problem and the finding of the solution and brainstorming as a team. Usually, we work best when we allow things to percolate a little and when they do, the best solution emerges.

And at the end, we always have a great story to tell and a lesson that we have learned. And this is what builds further resilience.

So, what has challenged you?

We feel so blessed by our ability to travel freely, safely and without hassle through the countries we’ve transited since 2016. And we are grateful that we, even though not rich, can afford to travel. We have enjoyed some places more than others but have yet to visit a country to which we would refuse to return.

Grateful as we are, not everything has been perfect along our way. Here are a few of the challenges we’ve encountered during our prolonged travels:

~It is hot here (as it was in many places during our Pan Am trip) and we cannot remember a day here in Asia when an outing did not result in sweat-soaked clothing and the feeling like we are soggy to the bones. The heat and humidity can also suck every last joule of energy from us. We have learned that because of the temperature and our ages, we just move slower and accomplish less in a travel day here than we might like to admit. Slowing down and pacing ourselves is a constant work in progress.

~Finding a place to lay low when you are just too tired or hot to go out. Not all hotels and lodgings are equal. Many rooms are small or smallish and do not have comfortable chairs, places to lounge and few allow you to do it with minimal clothes on. While we were traveling on the Alaska Highway, we traveled with a couple from Florida who periodically said that they were going to have a “home day.” This was their phrase for a day without sightseeing; a day to catch up on stuff like writing postcards, doing maintenance things, doing laundry, paying bills and the like. Whether you are in a camper, a motor home, a hotel or an AirBnB, sometimes we just needs a “home day” to just catch up on the stuff of life or just to do nothing. Having a home day is always better with a comfy place to sit.

~Not having access to ice.

~Changing beds and pillows every several days can be a pain in the butt. Literally. We are pretty good sleepers yet some of the mattresses have been super firm/hard for us and while hotels often are able to provide extra pillows, AirBnBs rarely have spares.

~Sometimes, the places where we are have bad smalls. Sometimes, the smells come from those sitting next to us at a restaurant. Or those serving us in those restaurants. Sometimes, the smells come from us.

~It can be exhausting being in places where pedestrians do not have the right of way. Here, pedestrians NEVER have the right of way. Four eyes are never enough to feel that we have accounted for the vehicles that come from every direction and rarely honor traffic lights or marked cross walks. Because of the thousands and thousands of motorbikes, many sidewalks are packed with parked motorbikes, requiring us to walk in the streets, dodging and weaving parked and moving vehicles of all sorts as well as pedestrians. Motorbikes rule the roads and the sidewalks here, cutting in front of you and backing out into you. If it weren’t so comical at times, it could drive you crazy.

~Sidewalks that are uneven and too narrow to allow for the many purposes to which they are put – here, sidewalks are for parking vehicles, for making and serving food, for the displaying and selling everything and more. But not for walking.

~Tourists stopping and taking pictures right in front of you so that you have to remain at least a dozen steps behind people in order not to run smack into them. And can you please give us the name of the person who invented the selfie stick and the speaker function of the cell phone?

~Another challenge has been learning that tourists of all nations can be ugly. Ugly and poor behavior knows no geographical boundaries.

~Another “low” of sorts is realizing that there are not many true handmade handicrafts anymore . . . Nearly everything is made by machine and nearly everything is rather cheaply made. There are places where we’ve stopped to buy something local and found that same item elsewhere (even everywhere) along our travels. This doesn’t mean that some things aren’t still beautiful – they just cannot be counted on to be handmade.

So, yes, there have been some challenges. We have not made a corresponding list of the “highs” because they are the stuff of all of our photos and Facebook posts – the sights and places and people and food and experiences that we have celebrated and enjoyed. So, while there are things that have gotten under our skin, the longer we are here, the more we find ways to laugh about or work around them.

When we arrived in Asia at the end of April, we had a difficult time dealing with some of the differences, with pacing ourselves and slowing down. Now we are faced with the other dilemma – having enough time in places in which we would like to linger. And just about the time when we start getting the hang of it, it will be time to leave.

It seems to us that our learning curve during this trip is less steep than the last trip and so the lows are all worth it. They make us wiser and more patient and better able to manage the future challenges. This is the joy of travel. Because to us, travel is nothing if our learning is only about others and not about ourselves.

Halong Bay, Treasure Junk deck, at night
Vientiane, Laos – Patuxay Park
Cooking School – Chiang Mai, Thailand
Long Bien Bridge, Hanoi
Long Bien Bridge, Hanoi
Imperial Palace, The Citadel, Hûe, Vietnam
Trâng An, Ninh Binh, Vietnam

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Dime (Spanish for Tell Me)

Playa (del Carmen) With A Full Deck

Happy (belated) Mother’s Day from Playa del Carmen, Mexico!

We returned from Cuba on Friday, retrieved Wolfie from storage near the airport and moved into a lovely 2 bedroom condo in El Cielo in Playa del Carmen where we will stay until we return to the States in late June for a wedding. Since campgrounds in the areas near Cancun/Playa del Carmen are pricey and because we decided to extend our stay in Mexico in order to accommodate our travel plans for the wedding, we decided to stay in a brick-and-mortar home here after we learned we could do so nearly as affordably as staying in Wolfie. In our condo, we have all the comforts of our former home in the States (internet, satellite TV, oven, dishwasher, washer/dryer, ac) plus swimming pools and nearby beach. With apologies to Wolfie, she just didn’t stand a chance by comparison. So, we will see how it feels to stay put for a little more than a month as we live the gringo life here in Playa.

Dime*

About our time in Cuba —  Spoiler alert: we were not huge fans. For those of you who have been and who loved it, we will try to explain more about our reactions and why ours might differ from yours.

It is important to understand how we decided to travel to Havana and how those decisions may have affected our time in Cuba. We chose to stay in an AirBnB in a private room with a Cuban family. Ordinarily, we select AirBnBs only when we have the entire place to ourselves but for Havana, we thought it would enrich our experiences to have access to the insights of locals. We selected a neighborhood called Vedado based on our research. We think that both of these decisions were good ones for us. Our AirBnB host turned out to be a real gem – she is an 86 year old who has clear recollections of time before and after the revolution and who inhabits a grand home of many rooms and a gorgeous back yard on a street where the late Fidel Castro once lived. Her home was very large and several family members lived with her, as well as a couple of household staff members. The home now boasts of 2 AirBnB rooms, each with a private bath and a tiny kitchenette. Our hosts did everything they could to make our stay comfortable.

Cruise or Tour?

It’s likely that most US citizens who have traveled to Cuba have visited on an organized tour or by cruise ship – in fact, this was the only way a traveler from the States could go during the “early” days of the Cuban Thaw. For those, the charms of Old Havana (Havana Vieja) are obvious – the old architecture, the charm of the horse drawn carriages and the convertible antique automobiles, the gorgeous, gleaming white Capitol building and downtown museums are undeniably captivating. Restaurants in Old Havana are cheap by US standards and serving sizes are almost embarrassingly large. The areas near the Malecon (waterfront walkway), the old forts, renovated train station and cruise terminal are walkable and lovely.

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Hotel Nacional sans Mafia
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Che’s image near Plaza de la Revolución
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Havana Vieja street
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Near John Lennon Park
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Havana Vieja
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Melia Cohiba rest room
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Havana Vieja
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El Capitolio
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Antique cars aplenty
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And more
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The Prado, Havana Vieja
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Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón
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Wonder if these tourists thought we were Cubans?
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Templo Beth Shalom Synagogue

When you move just a couple of feet beyond this area – in fact, just a couple of blocks within Old Havana, you begin to see the deterioration and decay of this once obviously-thrilling city. Buildings are literally crumbling and streets and sidewalks are pocked with large gaps, holes, cracks and more. And while there are clearly new building or renovation projects underway (or so it appeared from the signs displayed on scaffolding), much of what we saw all over Havana looked like it had not been touched since 1959 — everything needed a coat of paint, some significant patching, replacement window panes and more. The furnishings in our AirBnB house and in the places we visited were similar – kind of frozen in time. Things were old and out of date, and out of style and often in need of significant repair. This is not the “fault” of our hosts or the average Cuban. We learned that nearly every space is furnished with something recycled and the Cubans impressively recycle everything from furniture to linens to plumbing parts and clothes. In the end, the “your junk is my treasure” approach results in an aging and tattered sort of ambiance to nearly everything.

No Credit Extended

US citizens traveling to Cuba must do so with cash only – US credit cards are not accepted and banks and ATMs will not dispense cash so we needed to take what we thought we would need for the week. (Beware, as well, that when we attempted to access financial information from our Charles Schwab account, our account was locked, apparently required by US regulations rather than in reaction to a fraud concern).  We found this to be a significant challenge, at least emotionally, since we didn’t want to run out of money and our budgeting was based on scant information about how much various things would cost. Our budgeting concerns were exacerbated by being thwarted from some of our standard travel practices such as making our own breakfasts in the mornings; typically, we go to a market and pick up fruit, eggs, coffee, etc. and eat and sip leisurely in the morning as we consider the day ahead. But shopping in Havana in local markets is unlike anything we have experienced over our time on the road. In Cuba, families are given rations for many food staples (eggs, sugar, rice, beans, milk, etc.) and sources of those kinds of food do not appear to be available for sale to tourists. The markets had little on the shelves other than jars of instant coffee, cans of beer and lentils, Barilla pasta, rum and cigarettes. Panaderias (bakeries) existed but the bread and “pastries” were flavorless even if cheap. In short, we were out of luck with an attempt to cook breakfast in our room, despite the thoughtfully provided kitchenette there. We opted instead to pay our AirBnB host for morning breakfasts consisting of coffee, reconstituted powdered milk, eggs and ham.

Our need to budget our cash affected our choices while in Havana. While we were offered overnight trips to the countryside, the $60 an hour price tag for a car and driver or the $180 a day rental car rate meant that we yielded to our concern about running out of cash. Additionally, in a country where the average person earns about $20 a month, we couldn’t help but be concerned about whether these touring options would isolate us from real Cuban life. So, we stuck to exploring Havana only. And nearly all of it by foot.

Information Void

Havana has a bus system but no published bus routes or maps or signs at bus stops. Further, while we told that while the bus was a cheap travel option, they were so jam-packed that many passed us at bus stops. It seems that Cubans deal with this frequently – we saw huge numbers of people waiting (and waiting, and waiting, and waiting) at bus stops (and nearly everything else). Lines are omnipresent — everywhere and for nearly everything. So, off on foot we went, walking an average of 7-10 miles a day, leaving droplets of perspiration from one end of Havana to the other. It is, after all, tropical and hot and humid. When we had walked our last centimeter and our legs could barely carry us onward, we did relent a couple of times and took cabs – because they are unregulated, we learned quickly (after one disaster) to negotiate an agreed upon price before we entered, whether it was a tiny mototaxi, antique convertible, or falling-apart Russian made taxi.

Other things that we have come to rely upon on our travels were also largely unavailable to us in Cuba. Access to internet is very limited and quite expensive. Whether tourist or local, one must buy an internet card from the national telecommunications provider, good for an hour of internet ($4.95 an hour) and usable only at designated wifi spots in the city (mostly near hotels and public parks). Those spots became instantly recognizable because there were always large numbers of Cubans glued to their phone screens, gathered in these locations. We learned that Cuban cell phone “plans” do not include data – only voice and text; to use them for access to the internet, Cubans need to purchase internet cards at the same price as tourists. For us, not having the ability to use the internet or phone data for research, museum addresses and hours, cultural events or just random questions felt isolating. We have to admit that we have become, like nearly everyone we’ve seen along our travels, from large Canadian cities to small Mexican towns, reliant upon the information superhighway and we didn’t love being virtually without this resource.

It was, therefore, little surprise seeing folk clustered around wifi spots, eyes glued to screens. We are not sure how many bona fide TV channels exist on Cuban televisions but we saw only 2: one with general programming and the other with sports (including, on one night, a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game). The general programming station had some children’s entertainment, some Cuban history, a Fred Astair-Ginger Rogers movie on one occasion, and some of what seemed to be “news” programming. We never saw a news stand or a magazine and we saw only one Cuban newspaper being sold on one particular morning at one particular bus stop. Clearly, information is at a premium. When we did access the internet, we were able to read the Washington Post, NYT, and other news outlets so we assume that Cubans may as well, but we are not completely sure. When we went to buy a local SIM card to have in our spare unlocked phone for emergencies, Roque waited in line for over a half an hour, was put through a rigorous set of questions by the national phone company worker, had his passport photocopied and the SIM card registered to him as well as the phone with strict instructions limiting outgoing calls to one a day. We tried using it once but the call failed.

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When you see a cluster of people such as this one near John Lennon Park, wifi must be nearby

What We Loved

There were some things we liked about our time in Havana. Inexplicably, we ate an amazingly delicious and completely authentic-tasting French croissant that we bought at the Union Francesa de Cuba, a gathering place and series of French eateries staffed by Cubans of French origin. We loved the Cuban art on display at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and that there was a whole national museum dedicated to Cuban artists, even those who had painted anti-Revolutionary works. We loved our hostess, L, and her “daughter,” M, together with their staff, Miriam and Maria, among others – warm, lovely and generous people who shared friendship, hospitality and some information with us during our stay. If we were to ever return to Cuba, it would only be to visit again with these wonderful people.  In addition to our hosts, we befriended a waiter at the local corner Cuban cafeteria, who shared more information about life in Cuba with us than everyone else combined, as well as a waiter (likely related to the owners) of Beirut Schwarma, the surprisingly authentic and tasty Lebanese restaurant near the Melia Cohiba. We loved the sounds of the school children in the yard that bordered one of the walls of our AirBnB garden and their noises were as energetic, lively and unguarded as any would be in an elementary school in the States.

 

 

We also considered thoughtfully the idea, shared by nearly all the Cubans with whom we spoke, that while life in Cuba is not necessarily easy, it is sufficient. They are clearly proud of the fact that there are no homeless people in Cuba – everyone has a place to live and a subsistence level of food rations, as well as free medical and dental care and free education. Most expressed that they prefer the simple life in Havana to the lives they observe in the US where it’s all “keeping up with the Joneses.”   We take them at face value when they talk about their travels to Mexico, the US and even Russia but have a difficult time wrapping our heads around how the average Cuban could afford a $1000 airline ticket to Russia.

Cubans boast that Havana is an extremely safe place and indeed, we walked on abandoned, often dark streets at night with little concern for safety. But we were scammed a couple of times on the street – once by a taxi driver and once by a woman who implored us to buy milk for her baby (which we did) only to see her reselling it minutes later on the street. The Cubans with whom we shared these stories just shook their heads knowingly – they’d heard these and similar stories before and acknowledged that tourists are often targeted by locals.

It was difficult to tell whether life is really  “sufficient” for Cubans. While medical and dental care is free to all Cubans, we were told that pharmacies are without even basic analgesics, all surgeries other than essential ones are basically nonexistent, and doctors are leaving the country in droves. We are not sure how work works in Cuba – we saw a lot of idle people and those who seem engaged in work were those working in entrepreneurial activities, the economics of which are still unclear to us, since we were told that the government receives all income from all activities and distributes only 20% of the entrepreneurial fees to the worker (as in the AirBnB fees). And while our hosts made various restaurant recommendations and even made reservations for us, we later learned that our hosts have never eaten out at these places and cannot afford to dine out except at the local cafeterias.

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New desk – $2000 (!)
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New sofa – $3000 (!)
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Choco-crack? Are sugared cereals now the opiate of the masses?
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We discovered by so many people walk in the streets . . .

How will all of this work out for Cubans? We have no idea. Cuba was certainly neither the first or last place we’ve visited where there is a significant divide between the life of the average citizen and that of the average tourist. Perhaps what makes Cuba different from these other places is that in Cuba, this divide is necessitated by its economic/political system and to us, it seemed that the Cuban people would not experience personal gain with new enterprises. Time will tell.

But it is not likely that we will be returning to see how the story unfolds.

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The iconic mojito
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Amazing croissants!
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“Our” backyard garden
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“Our” AirBnB room
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Recycled decor on display at this French restaurant
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Wonder what’s beneath all of this shrouding in this downtown restaurant?

* the phrase Cubans use when answering the phone, often said with the accent on the first word/syllable

Cooking On The Road

(Or, given the timing of this post and today’s holiday, Happy Thanksgiving to all!)

Initial Camping Kitchen Set-Up

Camp set Up
Original Camping Set Up

You will recall that when we left Maryland on December 26, 2016 on this road trip, we were tent camping. At the time, we were carrying a fairly sophisticated arrangement of camping “rooms” – a traditional dome tent for sleeping, a screen tent for our outdoor living area and tarps to frame and shield our outdoor kitchen, usually “built” around a park-supplied picnic table. We had long before dispensed with the traditional Coleman-type 2 burner camp stove and had upgraded to a more powerful 2 burner Mr. Heater Basecamp camp stove which is rated at 15,000 BTU per burner.

 

In addition to the camp stove, based upon an ingenious idea obtained from Pinterest, our camp kitchen was housed in a Stanley Tool Fatmax rolling toolbox. Within it were utensils, foil, baggies and plastic wrap, spices, cutlery and silverware, pots and dishes alongside our dishwashing and drying necessaries. We also had one large bear-proof box (creatively named the “bear box”) that housed other kitchen items such as charcoal and fire starter, larger pots, cutting boards, pantry items, etc. We were traveling with a 63 quart ARB 12-volt refrigerator which we powered using the cigarette lighter adapter while driving and our 100 watt solar panel and Goal Zero Yeti 400 solar “generator” while stationary.

We brought as many spices, sauces and pantry ingredients as we could fit into the Kitchen and Bear Box because we wanted to continue to cook and eat as we did in our brick-and-mortar home. While it is not completely clear how other overlanders cook and eat on the road –- whether they stick to basics or bring a little of home with them – we thought that since we planned to be on the road for well over a year, we wanted to eat the same (or similar) broad range of foods that we ate before we left on the trip. This included cooking with flavors from the Mediterranean, Asia, India and elsewhere.

This all worked pretty well. It was cumbersome but workable. We packed an amazingly large amount of sauces, condiments, spices and pantry items as well as kitchen utensils, including an electric coffee/spice grinder and a small electric chopper/food processor (in addition to a manual coffee grinder). We scaled down to several pots and pans – a cast iron skillet, cast iron Dutch oven, cast iron plancha (grill/griddle combo) and small pot with lid.

Before we left on the trip, we added frequently used recipes to the Pepperplate app for easy access along the road.   Pepperplate is a website/app that allows users to upload recipes (user generated or obtained from other websites) and create menus, from which shopping lists can be generated and more. It’s a powerful and handy app for anyone who enjoys cooking, recipe collecting and entertaining (the shopping list feature is worth its weight in gold as it aggregates ingredients — so handy for holiday meal preparations!).

Life After Wolfie 

When we acquired Wolfie, we moved our kitchen from the Kitchen and Bear Box inside. Wolfie’s kitchen has a 2 burner propane stove, a small sink, a microwave and a small fridge that runs on propane or electric. Of course, the microwave works only when we have electricity. (More on electricity below). We also have a small counter space next to the sink and a couple of storage areas above, below and next to the sink/stove areas.

Roque very cleverly used one of our 3 door plastic “dressers” (previously used for clothes when we were tent camping) inside one of Wolfie’s storage cabinets which now houses spices, pantry items, some canned goods and sauces. A $2 tin bucket from Michaels’ houses our most frequently used utensils – wooden spoons, spatulas, whisk, knives and cutting boards have a place alongside Wolfie’s 2-burner stove. We house our pots and pans under the sink with our dishes (plastic and paper) and our additional pantry items are in a cabinet or under the benches at the dinette (together with all sorts of other stuff). Prep space in Wolfie is extremely limited now that we are using our counter space for a dish drain so most of our food prep is done on a cutting board placed on the sink.

Despite the compact space we live within, we have added a couple of kitchen gadgets along the trip including a dehydrator for making jerky (ours is better, more healthy and less expensive than from the store), a small electric drip coffee maker (the French press uses too much water to clean when we are wild camping), dish drainer and a couple of extra cups for when we have “company” but otherwise we are using the same equipment as when we were in a tent. The Stanley Fatmax tool box was returned to its originally intended function as a tool box and the bear box is being used for hoses and Wolfie-related items. Wolfie’s fridge added a tiny freezer that allows for some ice and additional fridge space.

Note on Electricity:

Electricity for us is a bit like other technology in that it’s a work in progress kind of thing . . . For those familiar with RVing, you know that RVs have a “house” battery (usually some form of 12 volt car or marine battery) that charges when you are driving and that runs some of the RV’s essential functions such as lights, water pump, USB power outlets (for newer models), RV fridge, hot water heater, kitchen and bathroom fan and perhaps a little more. The battery does not supply sufficient power to run AC, microwave, or “regular” power outlets. You can add batteries to the RV battery bank but that will only extend the amount of time you can run essential functions without recharging UNLESS you also add a power inverter that will “convert” (which is really inverting) 12 volts power into AC power to run small appliances such as drip coffee makers. Many modern RVs are sold with solar connections that allow for solar panels to connect into the RV electrical system and then recharges the battery when the RV is stationary and not hooked to electricity.

In order to run a powered appliance, you need either an inverter (which simply converts stored power from DC to AC) or a generator, which actually creates usable electricity for power-hungry functions like the microwave or air conditioning.

Many in RVs never sweat any of this because larger RVs usually come with generators built into the rig, drawing gasoline directly from the gas tank of the rig, or they just rely on campground-supplied power. It’s great to have power supplied at a campsite but camping only in campgrounds supplying power limits you to certain kinds of camping.

Our Goal Zero solar “generator” is really just a beautifully packaged battery with an inverter attached . . . The model we bought was the Yeti 400 and the “400” denotes the watts that are “generated” by the inverter. Our Goal Zero produces enough power to power our ARB fridge and to recharge our phones and tablets. It can also be used for our small coffee grinder or tiny food chopper but that is about its limits.

After we wild camped a few times, we realized that there were times when we were going to want more power so that we could recharge the house battery, or we could run the coffee maker or we could run the air conditioner. For these needs, we knew we needed a generator, which we decided to purchase while on the road to Alaska, ordered online for store pick up in Anchorage.

We opted to purchase a Champion generator that can produce sufficient watts to run the air conditioning in Wolfie because it seemed to make little sense to have a generator that supplied some but not all of our needs. We believed, as well, that the generator might come in handy for future non-RV applications and we could, therefore, justify the purchase for several reasons. The one we bought works well but it is quite loud – the much quieter Honda generators are extremely costly so while we would have loved less noise, we couldn’t justify the additional cost.

To counter the generator noise issue, we later decided to add a 1500 watt power inverter into our set up. The inverter is silent because it is not generating electricity but just inverting power from 12 volt to AC. It is connected to Wolfie’s house battery (which is now chained to an additional AGM marine battery that we were using with the Goal Zero in Gertie) and allows us to run an extension cord to the coffee maker or coffee grinder in the morning without starting up the generator.

Most Pan American Highway overlanders do not appear to be traveling in any sort of RV and are likely doing just fine with a solar panel and battery plus some type of inverter. Most RVers are likely fully self sufficient with factory-supplied generators connected to the RV’s electrical system and gas supply. We are kind of in between. The sort of “hit and miss”-learning by experience that has emerged over our time on the road has probably resulted in a hodgepodge of solutions that might make others howl with laughter but it seems, finally, to be working for us.

Our Eating Repertoire

Our breakfasts and lunches are simple affairs – most of our thought and energy go into planning and making our dinners. On average, we will cook 6 out of 7 dinners – or 20 out of 21 weekly meals. They are also mostly simple affairs consisting of a grilled source of protein and a vegetable or salad or a fruit. Keeping fresh veggies and fruits around is a challenge – they take up a LOT of refrigerator space and spoil easily so often we have one or the other with dinner but rarely both. Roque is a master at grilling, whether over gas, charcoal or firewood and we have enjoyed many meals of grilled whole fish, steaks, racks of lamb, pork of all sorts and more. Grilling is not always possible, particularly when parks restrict fires and charcoal grills and grilling over a propane heated, cast iron plancha does not always produce excellent results. So, when we are not grilling, we have enjoyed pan seared Pacific halibut, pan seared steaks, freshly shucked local oysters and more. We have learned how to “bake” mini pizzas in the Dutch oven, made stews, prepared curries, scrambled eggs, blackened salmon, stir-fried Asian meals, “doctored” ramen packets with veggies, pork belly and aromatics, and created chicken lettuce wraps just like when we lived in DC. On Passover, we prepared a small sedar, complete with gefilte fish (store bought), hard-boiled eggs, matzo and homemade matzo ball soup. We have learned that much is possible with a bit of thought and a healthy dose of creativity. Still, we have also de-emphasized meal prep over the course of this trip largely because the therapeutic value of cooking was significantly reduced after retirement and because we just didn’t feel the urge to spend a lot of time in the kitchen/fire pit when there was so much other stuff to do.

Our Shopping Regimen

A friend asked us about our shopping routine one day and the question stopped me in my tracks: what WAS our shopping routine? Earlier in our trip, we learned from shopping trips to grocery “stores” in Terlingua, Texas (on the western edge of Big Bend National Park) and in Springdale, UT (on the western edge of Zion National Park) that while there is often some source of grocery items, the selection and cost for “our” staples made it essential that we ensure these items were stockpiled, when possible.

After passing through tiny towns with little more than convenience stores within gas stations as a source of procuring grocery items, we learned to take mental stock of “meals” on hand – eggs and cans of salmon and tuna as well as PB&J were always in our pantry. After spending substantial time in Canada, we learned that sugar-free beverages were scarce and that we had to make adjustments when it came to our preferred non-alcoholic drinks. (Note: alcoholic beverages in Canada are HIGHLY taxed and much more expensive than in the US – we learned to stock up on liquor in Alaska before heading back through Canada).   In short, as long as we could count on at least 2 meals within our pantry and fridge, we knew we wouldn’t go hungry.

When in new towns, one of our great pleasures is to visit new grocery stores. Within the US, grocery store chains are often more familiar than not and we learned that our store courtesy card/phone numbers worked in stores where we had NEVER shopped before, making clear that some chains are linked whether we are aware of this or not. For example, Albertson’s, which we have visited throughout the western US, is a chain related to Safeway in some manner.

In short, we shop when necessary – when we are out of essentials or when we have “nothing to eat.” This pattern is not unlike how we shopped when we resided in a brick-and-mortar home – we shopped nearly daily for dinner items and bought our staples at the same time. While we cannot, as a general rule, purchase Costco-sized packages, we buy our racks of lamb only at Costco and have made many batches of curried chicken salad from the rotisserie chickens we buy at warehouse clubs.

What We Crave

Despite our expansive cooking repertoire, broad palate and willingness to eat what the locals eat, there are things we don’t get to eat often enough to fulfill our inner (eating) souls. Among these things are good sushi. Bagels. Dim sum.   Good fried chicken. Chopped liver. Anything braised. And a delicious piece of cake or pastry. The take-away is that it is worth waiting for the right place (or kinda-right place) before trying to satisfy the craving, even if it means waiting 6 months for sushi. Or learn how to make it yourself. (Ask Roque about shucking Pacific oysters – a topic for another day.)

Cooking in Mexico

Since we just arrived in Mexico, it is not clear how our eating and cooking will change. The first several days felt like we were on vacation and we succumbed to the temptation to eat out – one late lunch at a beautiful vineyard, El Cielo, in the Valle de Guadeloupe, an early lunch of tostadas on the street at La Guerrerense, and a fabulous early dinner at Manzanilla in Ensenada. The meals were each memorable and, frankly, better than most of the restaurant meals we’ve eaten along this trip. They were also, predictably, much less expensive than most of the meals that we have eaten (in or out) over the past year of travel and so, the dilemma, both in terms of pocketbook and waistline, for us will be in finding some balance.

We have already learned, from visits to local markets and grocery stores, that we will not be without good (and familiar) food, however, meat is butchered differently in Mexico than in the US and the broad selection of cuts and types (lamb has been absent from all of the stores we have visited including Costco and Sam’s Club) may limit what we purchase until we become more familiar and, perhaps, more adventurous. It is exciting to find huge bins of different dried chilies, unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, and ones that we recognize but do not know how to cut or prepare (prickly pear being among them). And the spices! We replenished our ground cumin the other day with a 40 gram packet that cost under $1; the same was true for aji molido (garlic powder).

Our favorite beverages are not available in any store so we will need to make adjustments but we are flexible and are sure we will adapt. And when we are able, we look forward to cooking classes and more research on how to use some of the local ingredients and, perhaps, will find the courage to learn to cook things we love to eat but have never cooked. Pulpo anyone?

 


 

In case you are interested, here is a list of what we have and try to keep on hand:

Spices

Salt, white pepper, black pepper (whole and ground), garlic powder, onion powder, cumin (whole and ground), Montreal steak seasoning, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, mustard powder, Old Bay, curry powder, garam masala, sumac, ras el hanout, ginger powder, cinnamon sticks, ground cinnamon, whole nutmeg, allspice (whole and ground), cayenne, bay leaves, fennel seeds, and celery seeds.

 

Sauces and Pantry Items

Oil (canola and extra virgin olive oil), soy sauce, vinegar (champagne and balsamic) chicken and beef bouillon, Tabasco and 2 other hot sauces, Worcestershire sauce, sesame oil, oyster sauce, Asian fish sauce, Chinese rice wine, hoisin, flour, white and brown sugar, splenda, dried whole milk, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla, rice, canned sardines, canned tuna, canned anchovies, canned salmon, Rotel, peanut butter, maple syrup, mustard, ketchup, mayo, grape jam, Naomi Benzil’s mango chutney and peach mango honey, fresh garlic, minced ginger, lemons, limes, tomato paste (in a tube), panko, bread crumbs, various dried beans and legumes and some other items that we’ve likely overlooked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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