I Left My Heart in Varadero

I’ve been debating even writing about this on my blog, because I try to stick to my “theme” as much as I can: traveling solo as a woman, fighting my anxiety disorder, and attempting to accomplish my dream of becoming a teacher through teach-abroad experiences. But then I thought:

  1. It’s my blog and I’ll write what I want to?
  2. In a way, it is sort of travel-related
  3. I have way too many feelings not to write about it

So here it is, and I’d love some feedback/advice/ideas from anyone who has ever gone through the same thing that I am right now.

I didn’t just leave Varadero in November with a new sense of bravery and another country ticked off my list. Amid the beaches and the cobblestone streets, the guava juice, the salsa music, I found something better. I left Varadero with a boyfriend… a Cuban one.

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We met at my hotel (which I swear I’m going to review sometime, I’ve just been really busy), where he worked at one of the souvenir stands. I was inspired by one part boredom because my friend had fallen asleep by the pool, one part attraction to this guy I’d seen sitting there for the past couple of days and exchanged nothing but smiles with, and one part egging-on of my brain to practice my Spanish skills after a dry spell of no Spanish interaction for several months. Whatever the reason really was, I ended up talking to him for a short time, leaving after realizing my Spanish skills had really deteriorated after not living in Spain. Although, I can’t blame just myself, because the Cuban accent is a really difficult one laced with local slang and “swallowed” ends of words, like talking to a Quebecois. Still, I had to pat myself on the back for trying.

We ended up exchanging Facebook handles the night before I was to leave, because on the actual departure day, he had his dia libre. I have to admit that our conversations didn’t become especially riveting until I was back in Canada and could just type in Spanish, rather than talk poorly and try to understand the Cuban tongue. Reading and writing slang-filled text messages became the highlight of my day, and not just because I was learning. I began to really fall for the person I was talking to, who seemed so genuinely kind and easygoing.

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My boyfriend’s grandma’s porch in Varadero, pretty much where I spent every day

Without going into too much detail, I definitely had some personal turmoil when it came to talking to him. Every Canadian gets the warning about Cuban people just wanting a visa or to escape their island, and while it’s a stereotype that’s really overdone and gross, I have to admit that I felt it sometimes too. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I think it’s important to say, because my relationship has given me an insight to the real life of Cubans, not just what they show on TV about Che and Fidel-worshippers, poverty being rampant, and an ignorant understanding of the rest of the world. I’m not saying there aren’t jineteros out there (hustlers that try to bring foreigners good food, trips, and yes… sex… and then get paid a lot for it) but since I was the one who approached my boyfriend in the first place, it didn’t seem likely that he was part of that, and he definitely is not.

Needless to say, our daily messaging and occasional video chats sparked passion on both sides, and it wasn’t long before I was planning another visit to Varadero, specifically for him. The days counted down and I got more excited, but also more nervous. I hadn’t traveled truly solo since 2014, and I was going to Cuba mostly to hang out with a guy I’d only met a few times at my hotel. Was this absolutely crazy? Some of my friends and family said yes, while others were more encouraging. I stepped on the plane in early February, heart racing, with no turning back.

My week in Varadero felt like a dream. It was lovely to spend time with my boyfriend, who was just as happy to see me, and took me to meet his family and friends. I spent a lot of time in his home with his grandmother, eating  great food and learning more about the fascinating dichotomy which is Cuba. Cuban laws prevent foreigners who aren’t married to Cubans from staying in a Cuban home, and they are not permitted to stay with foreigners overnight in hotels. He worked every single day, and I have to admit that staying in an all inclusive hotel and hitting the beach daily isn’t nearly as fun when you’re traveling solo. Still, I had a wonderful, yet bittersweet, time in Varadero, knowing  I’d have to leave and being unsure about when I’d return. I’m still planning to go to Spain to teach if I get the job, and he knows it. There’s the question of money and time off, schedules, the lack of internet access on the island, long distance, cultural differences. I sometimes ask myself what the heck I’m even doing.

But here I am, back in Ontario for a month now, reflecting on that time in Varadero. I still have my boyfriend, and hope to return to see him before I go to Spain, maybe in June or August. I want to bring my mother next time if I can. I have a great deal of faith that somehow, despite all of the odds, this could just be something great. And if not, I’ll always have fond memories of my time in his city, watching stars on the roof, eating delicious ice cream.

Have you ever met someone special abroad? What do you think? How do you handle a long distance relationship?

xoxo Cady

Pre-Trip Anxiety and How I (Sort of) Deal

It’s around 11pm on a cold Sunday night here in Ontario, and I’m feeling fear again. I’ve been sipping tepid water and brushing my teeth like mad. Tomorrow, conveniently timed 5 days before my trip to Varadero, I have my very first root canal scheduled. Every single person I’ve told has said the same thing: “It’s going to hurt.” The right side of my mouth throbs intermittently.

I’m not afraid of the dentist in the slightest.

I truly am not. I’ve sat through fillings and deep tooth scaling like a champion ever since I was old enough to even see a dentist. I have friends who won’t sit their bum in a chair until heavily medicated with laughing gas, whereas I could just as easily walk into a dental office as I would walk into work every day (disappointed to be there, but not uneasy…hahaha). It’s not that I’m looking forward to a root canal per se, it’s just that it’s not what’s driving my nervous feeling.

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Fearing no heights in Varadero 2016 – Photo credit to Victoria Chiasson

Nope, I’m feeling the fear for five days in the future. On Saturday I’ll be taking my first solo plane ride since China and my first solo trip since China, and while I’m majorly excited about it, my old travel anxiety is creeping back up as well. If you’ve never read my blog before, you may be wondering why often it always goes back to my experience in the Far East, which I detailed here.
Well, I just think of how awful I felt at that time. I was so panicked and on edge at every moment of the day, and couldn’t even enjoy sharing time with new friends without worrying about what was to happen to me. My anxiety disorder tends to focus specifically on my health; I’m always concerned when and where I can find a doctor, a hospital, my medications… the list goes on. I never want to repeat my China disaster, and cut a cool trip short for a fear of nothing in particular.

To be honest, I know that my trip to Cuba will differentiate from my trip to China in many ways. I’ve already been to Varadero and am somewhat familiar with the hotels and the airport. I speak Spanish semi-fluently, at least well enough to let someone know if I’m hurting and where in my body. I take my anxiety medication steadily, I’ve been eating well, and I’m going to meet someone in Varadero that I already know. I’ve got it planned out; I’m staying at a resort. I’ve read countless articles about solo travel in Cuba for girls, and it seems like it will all be okay.

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Does my fear trump my wish to be here again? No way!

Still, I have that impending fear. I know I’ll have to fly, which is something I’ve dealt with enough times to become somewhat okay with, but still don’t love. I always think: “What if? What if I have to go to the hospital? What if the plane goes down? What if I get food poisoning?” (That last one is very unlikely for me, as I have an iron stomach, but even that can’t get past my anxious mind sometimes.)

But I’m determined. I read accomplished travel blogs by men and women alike, and I continue to be inspired by the various hiccups that people overcome in order to travel: money issues, long distance relationships, processing visas, etc. Also, given the current situation in the United States right now, I feel blessed to even be able to travel freely with my passport to so many different countries. I know I’m privileged to travel to Cuba as often as I am, and I have high hopes for this trip.

Do you get nervous before a trip? What worries you most? Tell me!

xoxo Cady

Packing

An important part of any trip is what you’re going to bring with you. Obviously, this depends on many things: destination, length of stay, method of transportation, etc. Still, I decided to make this post because I’m a reformed over-packer, and I hope to convert you too! (Just kidding, bring as much as you want, but here are some tips anyways.)

My trip bag

My trip bag

Before You Pack
1. Check your baggage allowance. Obviously if you’re going on a road trip you have a bit more wiggle room with fitting things, but on any bus, train, or plane, there are usually restrictions to how many bags you can bring for free and how much they can weigh–especially in the air.
2. A good rule I’ve heard is to pack everything you think you’ll need, and then take half of it away. I tried this and while I didn’t quite eliminate half of my luggage, I did make a dent. I still could have made a bigger one, but it’s progress!
3. Research your climate and prepare for changes. If you’re going for a week in Cuba, you don’t need to pack much more than shorts and bathing suits, but it also can’t hurt to pack a sweater just in case it gets cool by the water at night. If you’re going for a longer amount of time, such as a study abroad semester, you’ll need to pack more than just clothes.
4. Consider what you’ll be doing. It baffled me how many “backpackers” I met in Europeans hostels who were carting around huge rectangular suitcases half the size of my dining room table. That’s fine if you want to do that, but you probably won’t need half of what you bring. I always asked them, what do you have that I don’t have? Wheelie suitcases may seem like a good idea at the airport, but if you’re going to be hiking, traveling a rural area, or walking around on cobblestone streets, you may want to rethink your luggage.
Additionally, if you’re staying in hostels, the lockers/cubbies they provide for your luggage are usually small, and you’ll want to be sure your luggage stays safe! Consider a real backpack for backpacking, or get a very secure lock for your bag.
5. Make copies of important things–passport, visa, etc. and leave them with people that you trust. If you happen to lose something when you travel, having a copy can make it easier to get a new one!

In Your Carry-On
Your carry-on is the piece of luggage (usually a small bag or suitcase) you can bring with you onto a plane, train, or bus. Most have an overhead rack to put your bag in when you’re not using it, or space beneath your seat. You’ll usually be asked to store larger luggage under the vehicle. If you’re at an airport, the check-in area often has a little cage-type thing to test your luggage in, to see if it will fit. If not, it goes under. I usually bring my backpack and my purse, and keep the rest below. Here’s what I keep in mine!
(I tried to take one of those cool, artsy pics of everything I usually put in a carry-on laid out neatly in piles, but I’m not a very good photographer so it just looked silly.)
1. Passport, copies of important documents, boarding pass
2. A book or two for longer trips
3. My (charged) iPod + headphones—even if you don’t bring a music player, bring headphones, because some airlines will charge you for them and you need them to watch movies and shows in the air!
4. A notebook and pen—good if you’re a journaller like me. Also, even if you don’t journal, bring a pen for filling out customs forms if you’re flying to another country!
5. A sweater—you never know if it’s going to get cold on the bus or plane. If you’re flying, consider an extra outfit in your carry on, in case you lose your luggage.
6. A pillow. I never go on a trip without my MEC travel pillow, which cost me around $14.00 and conveniently fits into a small tote. Long-haul flights will hopefully provide you with a pillow and blanket on red-eyes (shoutout to KLM!), but if you’d like to nap during the day, you’ll be helping yourself out by bringing a pillow!
7. A snack! You may have to buy it after you go through security at the airport, but it’s nice to have some chips or a bottle of water in your bag while you’re waiting between meals. Most trains and buses don’t even serve food, so this is a must for those trips.

Most airlines are pretty specific about bringing liquids in your carry-on, so unless you’re really attached to your shampoos and hand sanitizers, you’ll probably have to put them in your checked bag. You can usually find a list of regulations for things you can bring on the website of your airline, train, or bus.

Another great packing tip: Get luggage you’re going to recognize when it comes down to the carousel. You don’t want to be standing there with dozens of other people trying to identify your generic black suitcase, so pick something that stands out! Another option is to keep your luggage neutral, but tie a brightly coloured ribbon or attach a unique keychain to your handle. This way, you can grab it and go, and won’t make the mistake of grabbing the wrong bag.

My very ugly but easily recognizable luggage

My very ugly but easily recognizable luggage

Finally, if you’re going through security anywhere, here are a few ways to make it go smoothly:
1. Wear chill clothes, preferably with few pockets because you’ll have to empty them. Don’t wear too many layers if you can help it.
2. If you’re bringing your laptop in your carry-on, keep it in the top of your bag, because it has to come out separately.
3. Double check those liquids. I got stopped in Stansted because I forgot I had a roll-on deodorant in my bag (I usually don’t buy that kind so I didn’t think about it). You never know!
4. Don’t wear too much metallic stuff like jewelry, belts, etc. Those usually have to come off too.
5. Slip on shoes are a must! Some airports will make you remove them.
6. Have your documents ready. It makes everything go nice and quick! Security can be a pain, and is one of the worst parts about air travel, but once you’re done, you can breathe a sigh of relief!

I hope this helps anyone who is worried about what to pack. My best advice is that less is always better, but if you want to bring everything with you on a trip, more power to you. Travel your way! What’s your best advice for packing? What can you not travel without?

xoxo Cady

Planning to Study Abroad

Studying abroad is more than a vacation or a “trip”—it will be your life. When you embark on a student exchange, you not only study at a new school, but you live in a new town, in a new home, with new friends, and sometimes vastly different customs! I’d like to start by saying that there’s nothing wrong with those who choose not to study abroad, because it can be very difficult to get there financially, mentally, or even academically. Still, if the only thing holding you back is your fear that you won’t enjoy yourself, I say go for it! I’ve never met one former exchange student who wishes that they didn’t go. This is a huge topic, so I’ve split my posts into two categories. This post will be about how to study abroad, from the first information session to stepping off the plane. I’ve included this post to detail life as a student abroad, what to expect,  and how it differs from being a tourist!
**Please note that this is a general guide based on my experience in a Canadian university, and all of what I say here may not apply for every exchange program at every school! Ask around at your school and see what the requirements are!**

Who Can Study Abroad?
This is a pretty loaded question that varies from across schools, provinces, and countries, but generally, a student with fair academic standing (usually a grade average at C or above) can study abroad with permission of their institution.
Most colleges and universities have exchange programs between other schools, so you often have a list of partner schools you can choose to study at and receive credits that count toward your degree at home. Some offer short term exchanges, like summer only, that may count toward a credit or two. Check out the website or international students’ office at your school!
Some high schools offer international programs as well, but it is usually more competitive than the college/university level as less spots are available. You can check with your local high school to see! A friend of mine did a short term exchange in New Zealand in high school through AFS International, which she loved. You can find their website here.

How Much Does It Cost?
This depends on your school too, but it can also depend on your host institution and what you’ll need to pay for. For example, I lived in a moderately sized (300,000 people) city in Spain while I was studying abroad. I came from a Canadian city which is roughly the same size. Some prices varied, but generally, the costs between our medium-sized cities were very similar and I ended up paying about the same for rent and food in Spain as I did at home. Transportation cost less in Spain, but clothing cost a little more. It evened out nicely! In contrast, if you end up studying abroad in, say, Paris…your rent and food costs are likely to be way higher because you’re in a large and well-known city! This is something to keep in mind when choosing which schools to apply to.
Excluding city price differences for a minute, these are things you’ll probably have to pay for:
1. Airfare/transportation to your new city
2. Rent or residence + groceries or meal plan
3. Textbooks and other school supplies
4. Visas, special documents, or vaccinations if needed
5. Medical insurance (sometimes, it may be included in some exchanges)
Don’t forget, you’re living abroad, so you’ll need to pay for most things that you pay for in your day-to-day life at home. If your school has a partnership with another college or uni, you don’t usually have to pay tuition to your host school; you just pay to your home uni.
Some schools offer study-abroad scholarships to students with low income or specific grade achievements, so don’t forget to apply for those!

What Is The Process?
Step 1: Information. Schools usually host sessions where you can learn more about the program, how it works, and if it’s right for you. Because the application and approval process can be long, info sessions and initial sign ups will often be held a year or so before you’re actually leaving.
Step 2: Research, research, research! At my school we had to narrow down a list of almost 100 schools across 30 countries into only three choices for our final application. This involves a lot of looking into course calendars and schedules at your prospective schools, to make sure that you can get some credits abroad! It’s easier than it sounds though… some partner schools only host students from certain faculties, like Business, while others may not even have your degree program at all! Talking with your professors is a good idea to match up course requirements, as well as an academic advisor. It can also be helpful to contact students who previously studied abroad at certain schools. Students who wish to give out advice to new exchangees often have their contact info somewhere on the school’s website.
Step 3: Apply, and wait. My school had us fill out an application, write a letter about why we wanted to study abroad, have a list of prospective course choices picked out, and a fee ($25). This process usually takes a few weeks to get done if you’re juggling school and work and everything else, so get those academic meetings over with ASAP!
Step 4: Acceptance. We waited to hear which school we would be admitted to. In our case, we were told that unless we had a really low academic standing or something, everybody would be accepted to a school, if not their first choice.
Step 5: Prepare. I was accepted in February, and had 6 months to prepare to go to Spain. The school will usually send you information about how to apply for residence/an apartment, signing up for classes, getting a visa (if needed), and so on. It’s good to get things done as early as you can so you’re not doing things at the last minute! If you have trouble with anything, your school as well as the host school should be able to assist you by email or in person. Don’t be afraid to ask about an application or something… you don’t want to mess that up!
Step 6: Pack. I’m working on a post about packing for a trip, but this will be a bigger and longer trip than you’ve probably ever packed for before! You’ll need things like your laptop and books for studying, not just beach bikinis and your camera. Also, make sure you research your new city, and find out what the climate is likely to be for the entire duration of your exchange. Don’t show up with shorts and t-shirts for four months only to have the temperature dip, forcing you to buy sweaters and sweatpants!
Step 7: GO! Once you make sure all of your documents are in order, board that plane and jet off to your new home! After such a long wait and so much preparation, this is just the beginning, and it’ll be one of the best experiences of your life!

Flying to Spain!

Flying to Spain!

Helpful Tips
1. When choosing a school, be realistic. It’s great to imagine living in London, England, or Sydney, Australia, but could you afford the miles-high rent in a big city like that? As with any experience abroad, it is going to cost you some money, so try to think about what you can afford. I like to use Numbeo to roughly compare costs of living between my city and others.
2. As well as price, think about the customs and culture. Maybe you’d love to study in Italy to be close to great food and romance, but… do you know Italian? Are you at all interested in learning it? I studied abroad in Spain, but I was an English/Spanish major with a couple of years of language study under my belt already. Make sure your host school has classes in your language if you don’t speak another. If not, it may be wise to apply somewhere where English is the primary language (England, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia) or where a lot of people speak English (Scandinavia, The Netherlands, Germany).
3. Reach out! A student who’s been to your school of choice already is a great resource for all of your questions and concerns. They’ll tell you the best study spots on campus, cool clubs, and more! My school has time slots where you can meet with students who’ve been abroad to certain countries, or you can usually email them.
4. Take a chance! If you’ve been studying German, don’t play it safe and go to England. Find a school in Germany and practice! My semester in Spain drastically improved my skills in Spanish, because I was forced to speak it daily with cashiers, professors (sometimes), and new friends! Most people are happy when you speak their language, even if you do it poorly, and they’ll usually try to help you too!
5. When choosing classes, most people I know took all of their electives abroad so that they could worry less about it. Yes, you still have to do schoolwork while you’re over there, but if you’re taking just bird courses, it can be a lot easier. It’s hard to have fun when your course might transfer over as an important required course! It’s also hard sometimes to match course equivalents across schools, so it’s easier if you just try to do miscellaneous credits. Finally, like anything else, take a chance with a random course for fun! My school offered a course in the Basque language, which was incredibly difficult (it was also taught in Spanish…), but it was often hilarious as most of the class struggled all together. See what kind of neat courses your host institution has to offer!
5.5. Course requirements are often different abroad too. In Europe, one class is worth 6 ECTS, which meant I needed 30 altogether to transfer to 5 credits at my school. Some classes may be worth two at your home school! This can all be discussed with international staff or academic advisors.
6. Remember your own comfort level. I was happy to live in an apartment off campus with two random international students as my roommates (we got along great though!), but another girl who went to my school was more comfortable in the residence building that was close to campus. She also had an excellent time and made a lot of friends, so just remember to stay true to your own feelings!

Have you ever studied abroad? Where did you go, or where would you like to go? I wish you all the best on your journeys!!
xoxo Cady