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

Where to? Not there… The reality of traveling with Anxiety Disorder

It’s taken me a while to come to terms with this and even longer to be able to write about it, but simply put, there are places in the world I may never be able to travel to as long as I have anxiety disorder.

Travel anxiety is a real thing. It has to do with the worry one experiences when going away for an extended period: How will my friends and family be? What if something happens to them? What if something happens to me? What if my credit cards get stolen or my luggage lost? From some of the travel horror stories we’ve all surely heard, it’s not difficult to see why travel anxiety can take over even the most experienced travelers at times. The anxiety I have, however, is a bit different.

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Posing with a common sight in El Salvador: the armed guards

Generalized anxiety disorder can manifest itself in different ways, but for me it can go from vague unease to full blown panic attacks, especially in situations that trigger my biggest fears (which are personally airplanes, and anything to do with my health being compromised i.e. heart attacks). For these, I take a daily sedative that helps to control my anxiety. For more intense situations, I rely on Ativan (Lorazepam), which I take a low dose of before hopping on a plane. Yoga works for some, exercise works for some, and these meds work for me. I’ve been on them for about three years now, and dealt with all of the stigma associated with. I didn’t want to be that person who “relied” on pills, but you know what? They’ve helped me a lot, and I’m no longer ashamed to have them for daily life.

I’m talking  daily life in Canada though. When I travel, my fears still run wild, and it can start before I’ve even left my country. I’m constantly thinking:

  • If I have to go to a hospital/clinic/emergency room, do I speak the language?
  • Are ambulance services reliable (or do they even exist)?
  • Are they at the same standard as my home country?
  • Would they be able to help me if I had *insert medical condition I am very unlikely to contract here*?
  • Are buildings up to code? What if there’s a fire? What if it collapses?
  • What about smog? Will I develop some kind of respiratory infection or lung cancer?

Some people might read that list and find it kind of funny, but mostly nonsensical and irrational. Surprise! It is, because that’s what anxiety does. It makes me worry about things that aren’t occurring and are not likely to occur at all. These worries don’t tend to come when I’m in a place I’m well aware of the health care standards (USA, UK, etc) or I speak the language (Spain, El Salvador), but if you read my previous post regarding a very short trip to China that was cut short by my anxiety (note that during that trip I was not on anxiety meds), you can see why my list of worries grew. I know everyone experiences culture shock, and I know countries around the world have great health care even if they’re not in North America or Europe. For me, it’s more about the unknown, and how culture shock maximizes with already-present anxiety that I can’t control completely.

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Paris’ catacombs — not for the claustrophobic

In addition, you might think that hopping a plane to Japan or Dubai–two modern, developed countries–would be less of a concern for health-worried me. Unfortunately, travel to certain countries is and will continue to be restricted for me because of one very important thing: drug import laws. Every country has them, and some are a lot stricter than Canada or the USA. Sure, most countries would frown upon you bringing in cocaine or meth, but what about prescription medications, especially those considered narcotics? Even with a prescription, doctor’s explanation, and original packaging, many countries don’t allow certain types of drugs in. My long term anxiety medication is an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) which I’ve seen on the restricted drug list for Japan and Dubai, unless you contact their embassies weeks before you travel and even then, you could be in trouble (even jailed! for bringing in certain amounts of these medications. Forget about the meds I take for planes; they’re in a whole other category of even stronger drugs sure to be off the “possible” list for a lot of places. Even if I did get them in, what would happen if I was teaching English in Japan for a year? A year’s worth of medication is rarely prescribed, and since it’s on the hard-to-get list, I highly doubt I’d be able to grab it at the local pharmacy for a refill. There goes one of my potential TEFL dream spots…

This is just a personal post detailing my own experiences, of course. Some friends I have are completely fearless. Some of them have other conditions that require medications that have nothing to do with anxiety or being afraid. Others have fears of things I don’t consider “rational,” like snakes or spiders, but they shrug at the idea of taking a plane, while I shake. Sometimes we just need to get used to things to be more comfortable. I know other people deal with their anxieties in different ways. I’m not a doctor, and who knows? Maybe one day I’ll be able to forgo my anxiety medications and have an easier time traveling. That would certainly be the dream. That being said, has anyone ever gone to a place where it was difficult to get the medication you needed? What did you do?

xoxo Cady

Learning to Fly

In an effort to promote something positive, I’ve decided to write a post about something that’s gotten better for me in the past four years: my fear of flying.
I didn’t get on a plane until I was 20 years old, meaning I had many years before that to build up a terrifying idea of planes in my mind, including crashes, bombings, drownings, and just plain disappearances. Everyone knows these things are rare, but when you have a fear, it always seems like your flight will be the unlucky one-in-a-million.
My first flight was to Orlando with a friend of mine in the first year of university. I was so scared, I almost felt like cancelling the whole trip to avoid it. But I got on the plane, watched a movie and some TV for 2.5 hours, and landed in Florida, where I’d never been before. It was a revelation! Just a few hours prior, we were in Canada (in February), where it was snowing and -20 degrees, and now we were in Florida at 85 or whatever it is in Fahrenheit. Amazing! My flight back was great too.
The second trip I ever took was to El Salvador, which involved changing planes and a long (8 hour!) layover there and back in Texas. I’ll always count this as the beginning of my general anxiety, because on the way back, we had a delayed, turbulent flight landing in snow that freaked me out. In retrospect it wasn’t a bad flight, but the combination of fear, the pressing want to be home after such a long layover, and the delay for “mechanical issues” made it so much worse in my mind. I never wanted to go on another plane again after we were safely back in Canada.

That’s when I knew that I had to do something about it, because I had an insatiable wanderlust, but I was afraid to fly. How could I be a traveler if I was terrified to take the first step… getting there?!

I watched videos, I talked to friends and family, and I thought about the destinations, hoping the final outcome would trump my fear if I thought about why I was flying. Nothing really worked, so instead, I talked to a doctor.
Obviously I’m not a doctor, so I don’t claim to know what’s best for everyone, but sometimes a little help in the form of meds can go a long way. I got prescribed some to take just while on planes, and it was great. I took trips to El Salvador again, over to Amsterdam, Spain, England, and more, without feeling much fear. I even went med-less on a very short flight to Barcelona!

What I learned most about my fear of flying, however, was that it wasn’t just about meds. It was just something I wasn’t used to. Why does the intercom keep beeping? Why is the plane tipping at an angle? Is turbulence really dangerous? Why is the flush in the bathroom so damn loud? I gradually came to understand these annoyances by asking flight attendants or just surviving through them over and over, and it really wasn’t as complicated as I’d believed! I also regularly watch this video made by Virgin Airways before I take a flight, which explains a lot of the noises I was uncomfortable with before.

The more I learned about flying and the more I did it, the more I… gained appreciation for it. I won’t say that I’ve learned to love it, but I do understand that it’s necessary for someone who wants to go around the world someday, and it sure beats taking a ship for a week to cross the Atlantic! After flying from Vancouver to Shanghai, and back through Seoul to San Francisco (both 10+ hour flights), I can tell you that I’m relatively comfortable with flying. It does get easier. It’s not always pleasant, smooth, or resting, especially if you have trouble sleeping on planes like I do. However, you can overcome anything if you want to be a traveler! I’m happy to say that despite a lot of my other fears, planes are one I can handle with a smile.

xoxo Cady

Are you afraid to fly but love to travel? How do you deal? What’s your favourite flying tip? Tell me!

“Safe” Travel & Anxiety: What It Means

What does it mean to call oneself a “traveler”?

I suppose you could say that it means, simply, one who travels. But I also know that there’s often pressure (even from ourselves), as travelers, to push our own limits when it comes to where we go. My friend and I joked about how we had come to China after already taking the “Europe exchange” step, while our other friends hadn’t been much outside Canada, except for a couple of shorter vacations. But did our “Europe exchange” step really make a huge difference in our preparation for what was supposed to be a year in China? I can’t speak for my friend (you can instead follow her blog over here), but I can tell you that it didn’t for me, because in my opinion, Europe is a “safe” place to go. I’m learning more and more about myself, especially since I’ve come back from my very short stint in China, and that it may take a while for me to step outside my bubble of “safe” travel.

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What is “safe” travel? When I say this, I don’t necessarily mean “safe” as in “you will never be hurt here.” I can’t exactly define this, but I’ll try to explain what it means to me in this short list:
1. Language ease — When I lived in Spain, I knew two things; the first was that I could speak good enough Spanish to help myself and others if they needed it, and the second was that if I didn’t know something, I at least had the basics. I didn’t consider how hard it was going to be to start out in China without knowing the local language. I can’t stress this enough… learn some basic phrases at least. Call it my English superiority, I will admit that, but I thought more people would speak at least a bit of English. This is where my anxiety really kicked in. If I needed help, how would I call 911? Who would understand me? What would I say to a doctor? Could I trust that my Chinese friend was translating accurately? This doesn’t mean I haven’t gone to places where I knew nothing of the language (Germany… yikes), but Europe tends to have a higher concentration of English speakers, which put me at ease when I was traveling through there.
2. Safety regulations — Are there unsafe drivers everywhere in the world? Definitely. Could you get in a terrible car accident upon arrival back in Canada, without ever having a scratch on you in China? Of course. This isn’t a knock at the way other countries do things, but simply another form of culture shock: having to watch what you eat, drink, how you cross the street to avoid cars, traveling in seatbelt-less taxis. Now, you might be thinking, “But you’ve traveled in El Salvador!” And it’s true. But I did travel with Habitat for Humanity, who we could trust to make sure that all of our meals were prepared safely, with clean drinking water, and that our drivers were reputable. Now, you can just as easily get food poisoning by eating at a McDonald’s in Canada or the USA. But in China I had no knowledge about anything and, as #1 states, I had no way to ask. I almost exclusively had wrapped bread and bottled water for my meals, because I was scared of getting some kind of stomach trouble or something.
3. Rules of a country — All countries do things differently. Even in the USA, I was terrified to get sick without health insurance (did that actually, would not recommend), because of the way their government system is, while in Canada our basic health care needs and hospital visits are generally free. In China, I was afraid of the government. This sounds silly and irrational (which is what anxiety does to you, of course), but I was afraid I might find myself trapped in the country if I tried to leave my teaching placement early. I couldn’t shake the thought from my mind, and even as others told me it wasn’t possible, I didn’t feel convinced until my plane leaving China landed in South Korea.

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4. Familiarity — Let’s be real, studying abroad in Spain or Sweden might be a minor culture shock, but it’s still pretty easy to find the shops, restaurants, brands, etc. in Europe that you enjoy in Canada or the USA, to a certain extent. There’s also a very good chance that you’ll encounter other English speakers somewhere, especially if you’re doing the backpacker trail and definitely if you’re studying abroad with others on Erasmus. In China, I had a small amount of English speaking people in my school bubble, but outside of it, there were none. The city I was in was not a tourist city, not a big city, and definitely not close enough to somewhere like Beijing or Shanghai to make foreigners want to stop in. I felt isolated, and very lost. I had such struggles even finding something as simple as shampoo, which really stressed me out.

This isn’t meant to make you say “Poor foreigner in big China, we should pity her,” because what I actually want is the opposite. I was not ready to go to China, in any way, shape, or form, and I was clueless to think that my anxiety about health issues and safety had just gone away. I will admit, I became xenophobic in China, and I was very disappointed in myself for it. I didn’t start to dislike Chinese people, but I was terrified of China itself, and longed to be back in my home country where people could understand me in a hospital and I could receive assistance whenever I needed it. Anxiety doesn’t excuse this behavior, but it’s forced me to ask myself: Will I ever really be able to travel somewhere that isn’t Europe, or English speaking? Will I be so afraid of getting mauled by a lion in Tanzania or misunderstood in Brazil, that I’ll never let myself go to anywhere not thought of as a “safer” place to travel? And what will this mean for someone who wants to consider herself a traveler, but is afraid at every turn?

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I have been honest in this, and I also hope that my anxiety about my health doesn’t hinder me in future adventures. I’d love to return to China and experience its cultural sights, delicious food, and warm people without worrying about anything. I’d love to go to countries that aren’t in Europe or the Australia area… remote islands and jungles and safaris and villages. I want to see it all, I want to do it all, and maybe I’ll even decide to give teaching abroad another shot someday. But until then, I’ve been forced to really think about how I can deal with my anxieties and where I can go (or stay) for now.

P.S. Did you ever get anxious going to a country for the first time? Why? How did you prepare, or handle it when you got there? Tell me!

xoxo Cady