Urbantravelista | Reykjavik, South Coast, and beyond

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If anyone ever told me I would grow up to become a fan of cold weather trips, I would have told them they were lying.  No sir, no ma’am.  I loathe winter and find nothing enjoyable about it (except for the occasional days I’m snowed in and get to play hooky from work). I’ve spent 99.9% of my life as a resident of Chicago; a city that enjoys about 3 good months of hot summer weather per year. And couple that with the fact I was born just shy of the summer solstice, it would only make sense that I denounce all things cold. Well, I did until I traveled to Iceland back in April of 2016.  Over the course of 4 days and 3 nights, I fell in love with a new territory.

Iceland is a destination that completely contradicts itself.  At first glance, it’s cold, dreary, and melancholy on the surface.  But once you start to peel back it’s intricate layers and immerse yourself into it’s culture, you will be pleasantly surprised by its beauty, warmth, art, and joy. When I visited last year, I KNEW I would return and did just that a few months ago. Coming back the second time offered me the opportunity to dig deeper into its beauty and gain an even greater appreciation for Icelander life. During my first visit (you can read about it here: Don’t sleep on Iceland), I explored the Blue Lagoon, the Golden Circle, and the Northern Lights.  The second time  around, I added sightseeing in Reykjavik, whale watching, and South Coast to my itinerary.

Reykjavik

Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, is a city that is very near and dear to my heart.  Its art beauty, and culture captured my spirit the first time I came to visit last Spring. The city is adorned with eclectic street art and is home to significant landmarks, museums, and quaint restaurants and shops, collectively known as “city center”.  Most tourists explore it by foot and it’s a short walking distance should you choose to stay at one the bordering large chain hotels.  Reykjavik truly reflects the heart of urban Icelandic culture. For this reason, many tourists opt to stay at one of it’s many Airbnbs, as opposed to the large chain hotels located on the outskirts of city center.

 

Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja church is one of Reykjavik’s best known landmarks and its tower is visible throughout the city. The structure was erected in 1986 and took almost 40 years to complete from start to finish. Entry into the church is free.  However, there is an entry fee to enter the tower of the church (Adults: 900 ISK, Children: 100 ISK).  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to capture a view from the tower as it closes promptly at 5 pm. But no worries, I have an excuse to visit next year!

 

The Icelandic Phallological Museum

Yes, you translated that correctly.  Also known as “the penis museum”, The Icelandic Phallological Museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to ahem…penises and houses more than 215 penis and penile parts from land and sea animals. Its collection also contains 4 human penile parts that were “gifted” by certified donors.  Admission is 1500 ISK and the museum is open daily from 10am to 6pm. They also sell really cool penis related gifts.  It’s located right in the heart of Reykjavik.  I highly recommend a stop there during your visit. I mean,  how cool is it the be the only person in your circle that has visited a penis museum? Not many people share those bragging rights.

 

 

Whale Watching

If you want a break from land activities, Iceland offers activities by boat such as whale watching and the Northern Lights chase. I recommend the tour company Special Tours. They offer round trip pick up service at your hotel (or Airbnb) and the guides are very professional and informative. Exploring Iceland by sea offers captivating views of the Reykjavik city center district and the calm beauty of the Arctic ocean. The boat departs from Old Harbor (located in city center) and the tour lasts about 3 hours.  The boat provides free wifi (gotta post those selfies on social media) and a has two lower cabins that sells souvenirs, refreshments, and coffee.  The lower cabins also provide needed warmth if becomes too cold on the main deck.  Actually, there is no ‘if”.  It WILL become too cold. While floatable overalls to wear over your clothes are provided, I cannot stress the importance of dressing warmly.  Warm hats, gloves, and footwear are your best friend. If you are prone to sea sickness (which 75% of us found we were by the time we made it out to sea), anti-sea sickness tablets are available free of charge.  Sea sickness and the unpredictable (and sometimes low) probability of seeing any whales are the downside of this tour. We never saw any whales, but we did capture some amazing views of the dolphins. Overall, it was a great experience.  The cost of the tour runs about 9.890 ISK.

 

 

Skógafoss Waterfall

The next five landmarks I will cover are located in South Iceland. For this tour, I utilized Geoiceland, the same tour company I did last year when I toured the Golden Circle.   The tour costs about 13.900 ISK and lasts a full day, approximately 10 hours. Our first stop landed us at Skógafoss Waterfall. This waterfall is situated on the Skoga River and is about a 2 hour drive from Reykjavik.  It is considered to be one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland and there is no entry fee.

 

 

Sólheimajökull Glacier Walk

Next, we made our way to Sólheimajökull (don’t worry, I can’t pronounce it either), one of Iceland’s most popular locations for glacial walking and ice climbing.  There is no entry fee. The hike starts off moderate, but becomes challenging against the cold, strong winds. I mean, the wind literally takes your breath away.  But the challenge and frost bitten face and fingertips are totally worth it once you reach to summit. It’s the most peaceful, yet coldest area I have ever visited.  I never thought it was possible to feel both at the same time.

 

 

Eyjafjallajökull

Due to inclement weather, our South Iceland tour was cut a little short. To make up for it, we made a stop to Eyjafjallajökul (nope, I can’t pronounce this one either).  This glacier is actually the site on an active volcano.  Its last major eruption occurred back in April of 2010. Seismic activity is common and it’s frequently monitored by the Icelandic Meterological Office.

 

Seljalandsfoss

Yep, you guessed it, another waterfall; but not just any waterfall. Seljalandsfoss is one of the best known waterfalls in Iceland. What’s so special about it?  Well, it’s one of the only large waterfalls in the world that you are able to stand behind. This landmark is popular for many tourists and offers breathtaking views year round.

 

 

Urridafoss Waterfall

Our final stop was an impromptu visit to Urridafoss Waterfall.  Again, this stop was to make up for the portion of the tour that was cut short. This beauty contains the largest salmon stock in Iceland and is a popular site for fishing…I guess when it isn’t completely frozen?

 

 

This sums up my visit to South Iceland.  Following the unexpected of death of my mom just a couple of months prior, this visit offered me a much needed retreat.  I think that’s what connects my heart and soul to this destination: it’s my retreat from the outside world.  As soon as I step off the plane, I feel a million miles away from all that plagues and stresses me at home. It’s the perfect destination to disconnect and regroup.  It’s calm.  It’s peaceful. It’s serene. Iceland is my sanctuary.

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Until we meet again…

Girls Trip: Which Urbantravelista are you?

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Finally, the long anticipated film Girl’s Trip debuts in theaters today (I know, it seems like we’ve been seeing the trailer forever).  In case you’ve been living under a rock, the film features Jada Pinkett-Smith, Queen Latifiah, Regina Hall, and newcomer Tiffany Haddish . The plot is very near and dear to my heart.  It follows the shenanigans and debauchery of four lifelong girlfriends during a New Orleans trip to Essence Festival. Now I’ve had my fair share of girlfriend getaways, a couple that also included Essence Festival.  As I reflect on those memories, I can’t help but think about the various personalities I’ve come across over the years. I also wonder how my girls have perceived me during our getaways.  My reflections led me to identify 10 common personalities you might come across on a girls’ trip.  Disclaimer: This piece is not intended to stereotype anyone, it’s all in jest. I found myself in a couple of these personalities. Which one(s) resonant with you?

 

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Complaining Travelista

Nothing will ever be good enough for this travelista.  She will complain from the time you narrow down a destination until you return home.   She’s going to complain about her seat assignment at check-in.  She’s going to complain about the turbulence during the flight,  the person sitting next to her, and the movie selections.  When you finally make it to your destination, she’s going to complain about her room assignment, the hotel/resort staff, and the food.  The beach will have too much sand , the ocean will have too much water, and her television won’t have enough English speaking channels.  If this travelista won a million dollars in the lottery, she would complain that it wasn’t a two million.  By the time you make home, you’re happy the trip is over to get a much needed break from her constant whining and complaining.

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Passive Aggressive Travelista

This travelista will have an attitude the entire trip.  Why? Is she upset because the resort didn’t look like the pictures? Does she have PMS? Is she upset because her boyfriend didn’t respond to her text messages?  Who the hell really knows because she won’t tell you. Don’t even waste your time prying. Because every time you inquire she will insist, with one word replies in between awkward silence, that she’s good.  But she’s far from good.  And she is pissing you off. Don’t completely write her off though, she makes an excellent companion on should you decide to book a getaway to the Twilight Zone.

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#TeamNoSleep Travelista

No one on your team gets the party stared like this travelista.  She STAYS in turn up mode.  She is truly the life of the party and can go non-stop. She has the best playlist on her iPhone.  Her outgoing and boisterous personality draws people in. When things go left, she’s the one to get everyone back on track.  She will not allow anyone (nope, not even you) to ruin her joy. She lives life to the fullest and is the queen of hook ups.  Your squad will never have to buy a drink or pay a cover with her on your team.

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Wandering Travelista

This free spirit breaks away from the group and does her own thing.  You might bump into her in passing with “new” people.  If it weren’t stopping by the room to shower and change, you would forget she was even a part of your squad. And when you all meet in the lobby for your airport pick-up, she’ll say with the most confused expression on her face, “I barely saw any of you”.

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Inexperienced Travelista

This travelista requires a lot of patience because the ink is still wet on her passport.  She’s the one that contacted you (the group leader) a million times with the same redundant questions.  Her carry on will be oversized and will she will have to check it.  She’s not familiar with TSA check-in policy and will be flagged for bringing prohibited items through security. Be nice though, we all have to start somewhere.

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Boring Travelista

There’s no way to make it any plainer, this travelista is just plain boring.  She doesn’t have a streak of adventure in her blood.  She doesn’t want to get her hair wet. She’s afraid to go jet skiing.  She wouldn’t be caught dead on the beach without a full cover-up.  And, since she’s afraid to try the food, her diet consists of burgers, chicken fingers, and fries.  She spends A LOT of time in her room.  Don’t bother pairing her up with #TeamNoSleep Travelista because she’s in bed by 8pm.

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Attached Travelista

This is the travelista that brings her work, home life, and problems along on every trip. She spends most of the trip Facetiming her partner and/or children and emailing her coworkers.  She’s attached to every single one of her communication devices.  She gives Facebook and other social media outlets a play by play of all of her “vacation” activities.  If the wifi is spotty at your destination, there will be hell to pay.

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Drama Travelista

This travelista can’t hold her liquor. Her drinking binge started in the Sky Lounge before boarding. This is the travelista that will embarrass you and get you held up in customs.  It’s not that she’s inexperienced or foreign to travel etiquette, she doesn’t give AF.  She’s prone to making a scene and loves attention, both positive and negative.  And, before you know it, she will turn your grown and sexy girls’ getaway into a college girls’ gone wild excursion quicker than you can say first class flight.

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Broke Travelista

I was going to use  the more politically correct term “frugal” to describe this travelista.  But, let’s keep it real. This travelista that had no business booking anyone’s trip and should’ve stayed home. If you coordinated the group trip, you probably had to track her down for each payment.  This is the one that probably compromised the entire trip for everyone else because of her slow payments.  She’s down to room with 6 other people in a single occupancy room.  She never tips the staff. She won’t participate in any excursions and she skips a lot of meals. She’ll order an appetizer and nibble off everyone else’s plate.  Advice:  Don’t invite her again.

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Runway Travelista

Also known as “Selfie” Travelista and “Can You Take My Pic Every 2 Minutes” Travelista. This travelista has over 20,000 followers on Instagram.  Her luggage is Gucci and LV. She does photo shoots in Agent Provocateur swimwear and her pictures are flawless.  You wore yoga pants, comfortable shoes, a baseball cap, and your favorite travel tee to the airport.  She wore Louboutin heels, 7 For All Mankind skinny jeans, with a beat face and her hair up in the perfect bun. And don’t bother jumping in her pictures, she will crop you out.

Looking back at these descriptions, I think I most definitely can relate to Attached travelista.  I mean, if it wasn’t posted on Facebook, it didn’t happen right? Hopefully, this piece brought back some great memories from your girl trips (I know it did for me).  If not, I hope it inspired you to plan a getaway soon with your inner circle.  My past girl trips have been a staple in my travels.  Over the years, I’ve strengthened friendships, created new ones, and even lost a few.  And regardless of where life and circumstance has taken us, I value and cherish those experiences.  In parting, from New Orleans to Iceland, I’d like to share a few memories from my many past girl trip adventures.

“Friends may change, but memories last forever.” ~Unknown

 

Celebrating mothers and travel…Happy Mother’s Day

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I’m not a mom and at this stage in my life, I doubt I will ever wear the title.  As an outsider, motherhood seems like one of the most challenging yet rewarding roles that a woman could ever take on in their lifetime.  It’s a gift and a blessing to ever be entrusted with such a role.  I admire mothers.  I admire their strength, courage, resilience, selflessness, and unconditional love.  I was lucky enough to have a mother that exemplified those qualities and more.  She loved her family without limits and no sacrifice was ever too great.  Growing up, she was always the first to wake up and the last to go bed making sure every need was met.  I miss her dearly.  If this blog seems like I’m rambling, it’s because I am.  My words aren’t very fluid today, as this is my first Mother’s Day without her in the “physical” sense.  I miss her presence.  I miss her making me laugh.  But, instead of being sad today, I wanted to immerse myself in things and memories that bring me joy.  And one of the things that brings me joy and seeing photographs of moms introducing their children to travel. Leading by example, mothers show their children that all goals are attainable and nothing is impossible. This blog entry is a dedication to mothers around the world, including my very own watching over me.  Here’s to mothers giving the world and showing their children world all at the same time.  N’joy!

 

Not travel related but…April is Sarcoidosis Awareness Month

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I was all set to hit you all with a write up about my recent trip to Iceland. Yep, I went again. I told you when I wrote about it last year that I would be back. I don’t know what to say, I just can’t seem to get enough of Reykjavik. As much as I would love to recap and reminiscence about my most recent adventure, I must devote this blog entry to something more important. While the subject matter at hand isn’t travel related, it is very near and dear to my heart. It’s a subject that receives very little recognition, until it claims the life of someone very dear to us or someone with celebrity status. It has claimed the lives of notable figures like Bernie Mac (actor/comedian), Reggie White (NFL), Sean Levert (singer), and Michael Clark Duncan (actor). And on November 10th, 2016, sarcoidosis claimed the life of my mother, Belinda Arnett.  April is National Sarcoidosis Awareness Month. So let’s talk about it.

What is Sarcoidosis

My first introduction to sarcoidosis began sometime in 1993. My family and I had just relocated from Chicago to Kansas City. Prior to our move, aside from an occasional cold or a flu bug, my mom had always been generally healthy. She was in her late 30’s and never had any significant health issues. But shortly after our move, she started to develop these random symptoms. They were symptoms you really just couldn’t put a finger on. Initially, the disease presented itself as painless skin nodules. Over time, she developed a hacking cough and shortness of breath that would come and go. Later on, she developed visual disturbances. From the internist to the dermatologist to pulmonologist and ophthalmologist, the road to diagnosis was a tedious one. She was misdiagnosed many times before she ever received appropriate treatment. One physician even concluded that the skin nodules were due to a reaction from drinking too much grapefruit juice. Looking back, I certainly wish that were the case.

When we think of autoimmune diseases, we tend to immediately think of lupus. Auto-immune diseases are kind of low on the totem pole when it comes to knowledge and research, but lupus is the most well-known.  Sarcoidosis is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and affects different systems of the body. It is characterized by the formation of tiny clumps of inflammatory cells (also called granulomas), in one or more organs of the body. When the immune system goes into overdrive and too many of these clumps form, they can interfere with an organ’s structure and function. If left untreated, chronic inflammation can lead to “fibrosis”, which is permanent thickening or scarring of organ tissue. Sarcoidosis can affect almost any organ in the body, including the heart, skin, liver, kidneys, brain, sinuses, eyes, muscles, bones, and other areas. Sarcoidosis most commonly targets the lungs and the lymph nodes, which are an important part of the immune system. When it affects the lungs, it is called pulmonary sarcoidosis.  As in my mother’s case, ninety percent or more of people diagnosed with the disease have lung involvement.

So what causes it? Well no one knows exactly what causes sarcoidosis, which is why diagnosis and management is so difficult. There is still so much unknown about this disease and there is no objective test which can easily diagnose it. Numerous exams and tests are required to confirm a diagnosis. However, experts theorize that one or more exposures in people who have a specific genetic makeup can cause cells in the body to react and start to recruit inflammatory cells to involved organs, basically an immune response. Some research also suggests that bacteria, viruses, or chemicals might trigger the disease. There are theories that the immune response may be overactive or in some cases inappropriate, and that this results in ongoing inflammation, the formation of granulomas, and in some cases, for scarring or fibrosis to occur.

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Credit: American College of Chest Physicians

 

What are the risk factors?

Sarcoidosis was once thought to be rare, but it is now known to be common and affects people worldwide.  The disease can affect people of any age, race and gender.  However, it is most common among adults between the ages of 20 and 40 and in certain ethnic groups. My mother was diagnosed at the age of 38. In regards to race and ethnicity, in the United States, sarcoidosis is most common in African Americans and people of European “particularly Scandinavian” descent. The disease is slightly more common in women than in men and manifests differently in different groups of people. While the lungs and lymph nodes are affected in almost everyone who has sarcoidosis, African Americans and people of Japanese descent are more likely to have eye involvement than Caucasians. On the other hand, skin lumps are most likely to affect people of Northern European descent, and those with a Japanese background seem prone to sarcoidosis-related heart problems. Research also shows that risk appears to be elevated to some extent if someone in his or her close family has sarcoidosis, although researchers have not yet found a gene or genes linked to the development of sarcoidosis.

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Credit: American College of Chest Physicians

 

Belinda’s course

Over the years, my mother learned to manage the disease and would go through bouts of remissions and relapses. Treatment initially began with steroids and other medications to suppress the immune response. Most times, the medications would work. And sometimes, the disease would go into remission on its own giving her months to years of relief. But during the last few years of her life, after each remission, the disease would return back worse than before. Because of its mystery, the course of sarcoidosis is unpredictable. My mom’s last battle came out of nowhere and we never expected it would be her last. In fact, we were under the impression that she was getting better. But that was further from the truth.

About two weeks before my mother’s death, she complained of a sudden severe headache. Then she experienced generalized weakness and loss of appetite. These were vague symptoms that even the healthiest of people can experience. We usually chalk it up to a flu bug or “maybe I ate something bad.” With no improvement in her symptoms, we made the decision (against her wishes) to take her to the emergency room.  My mother was stubborn and hated hospitals. After being examined, having lab work drawn, and a chest x-ray, the doctors discovered she had abnormally elevated calcium levels, a condition referred to as hypercalcium. Because this condition requires IV therapy and monitoring to resolve, she was going to be admitted for a couple of days. No biggie right? She’ll be home back in time to watch her favorite TV reality shows right? Wrong. While waiting in the ER for a bed assignment, my mother began to complain of the same severe headache she experienced a couple of days prior. Except this time, the headache returned with greater intensity. The nurse promptly came in to assess her and found her blood pressure to be in 200/120 range (yikes, NOT good). As I tried to comfort my mother, she whispered to me, “make it stop” as she touched her head. I said, “it’s going to be alright” and tried to comfort her. But it wasn’t alright. Seconds later, she went into a seizure. I promptly pressed the code button on the wall and yelled for the ER staff. The seizure never resolved so she was intubated (put on a breathing machine) and transferred to the Neuro Intensive Care Unit for further evaluation.

The first week of her course seemed promising. She was followed by an extensive team of doctors and kept in a medically induced coma. Initially we didn’t know what we were dealing with. Was this related to the sarcoidosis? Was this a new issue? After ruling out infectious diseases like meningitis, it was speculated that my mother had an reversible neurological syndrome that causes seizures in response to elevated blood calcium levels. The treatment plan involved keeping her sedated for a couple of days to give her brain a chance to “quiet down” while they corrected it. She would go on to receive a couple of rounds of dialysis. It didn’t work. The calcium levels remained elevated. After further evaluation by the endocrinology team, it was theorized that the sarcoidosis was more than likely the culprit. She was started on high doses of steroids to suppress her immune response, the process that was causing the elevated calcium levels. But, by the time that intervention came into place, my mother developed an entire new set of problems. While her calcium levels improved, she would go on to develop pneumonia, a blood infection (sepsis), and went into complete multi-organ failure. Each organ system shut down one by one. Even after stopping the meds that were used to induce the coma, she never regained consciousness. She had minimal brain activity. Because of her very poor prognosis and quality of life, we were forced to make the difficult decision to end any extreme life saving measures and allow her to pass peacefully. Mom didn’t come home this time. Sarcoidosis finally won.

What the hell happened?

Looking back, I’m not sure what we could’ve done differently. My mother kept up with her doctor’s visits and treatment regimen as instructed. Sure, my mom was stubborn and sometimes frustrated, but she was never negligent. For myself, I often question if getting her to the hospital day sooner would’ve made a difference. I question if I should’ve been more involved in the treatment plan she had with her physician. Yes, I blame myself sometimes. But I guess its human nature to question if we could’ve prevented a loved one’s death. And, I carry the blame burden the heaviest because I’m a nurse.  I have a health care background; I should’ve been able to see this coming. But the reality is, we don’t know and will probably never know.  Sarcoidosis is a sneaky disease. We thought she was getting better and meanwhile, it was quietly destroying her organs, so much so that they couldn’t fight or bounce back once compromised.

How can you help?

Most you reading this will probably never be directly impacted by this sarcoidosis. But if you have this disease, the best advice I can give as a person who has been affected (and also a health care provider myself) is to be very proactive in your care and treatment plan.  Be very vocal and persistent with your physician(s) if it feels like your symptoms are not being managed well or dismissed all together.  If your needs are not being met, change you provider if possible. Everyone’s situation and circumstance are different, so I know this isn’t always easy or possible. And talk to your family. Keep them in the loop regarding your symptoms and treatment plan. If you have a loved one with sarcoidosis, try to educate yourself as much as possible (see resources below).  Be sensitive to your loved ones needs and symptoms. Auto-immune diseases present very differently than other common diseases. A person can feel completely miserable, even when they “look” very well.  And on the other hand, some people can look and present very well, but there are NOT well at all.

 

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Credit: American College of Chest Physicians

 

Resources

  • Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research: Based in Chicago and provides basic information about sarcoidosis, research information, patient information, patient support, and other resources.
  • National Sarcoidosis Resource Center: Based in New Jersey and provides links to other sites, videos and books for purchase, and microscopic images of sarcoidosis.
  • Sarcoidosis Network Foundation: Based in California and provides general information on sarcoidosis and related events and meetings.
  • Sarcoidosis Networking Association: Based in Oregon. Provides basic information on sarcoidosis, links to support groups and other sites, upcoming sarcoidosis meetings and events, and a newsletter.
  • FSR Physician Directory: A directory to help patients identify a specialist best equipped to develop and manage sarcoidosis.
  • Sarcoidosis | CHEST Foundation: Organization raise sarcoidosis awareness through clinical research, community service, and patient education.
  • The Bernie Mac Foundation: A nonprofit organization established by the late comedian and actor, Bernie Mac, to raise awareness and raise funds for sarcoidosis research.

Hopefully my personal story can help someone and raise awareness to bring this disease to the forefront. I implore you to also share your stories and experiences. Until we find a cure, be well.

My beautiful mother, Belinda Arnett (August 13th 1955 – November 10th, 2016). Until we meet again…rest well. #findacure

@urbantravelista

 

 

 

Urbantravelista | Cuba: Everything I expected and more

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So my first adventure of 2017 kicked off in Cuba.  Over the summer, a good friend of mine propositioned me to join her group trip she was organizing.  Cuba had definitely on my bucket list, especially with the travel restrictions being lifted for US tourists.  If you follow my blog or know me in “real” life, then you know I had to derail my travel and adventure when my mom passed away back in November.  Needless to say, this trip was well deserved and long overdue.  Initially, I started to cancel my travel plans. My heart just wasn’t in it. But I’m glad I went against myself.  Cuba did not disappoint.  It was everything I hoped for and more. As you scroll and read further, you’ll understand why.

Preparation

Even with travel restrictions being lifted for US travel, there are still a few thing you need to be aware before booking your trip to Cuba. First and foremost, travel strictly for tourist activities is prohibited.  When you book your flight, you will need to certify the reason for your visit and meet the regulations and conditions of a general license.  The most common condition used is “educational activities or people-to-people exchanges”.  To apply for a license or for an extensive list license conditions, you can visit  the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) License Application  Page.

  • Visa Requirements: Visas are not a requirement for regular tourists who plan to spend up to two months in Cuba.  Instead, you get a (tourist card) valid for 30 days, which can be extended once you’re in Cuba.  Tourist cards can be purchased for around $25, at the gate from your carrier prior to boarding.
  • Travel Insurance: As of 2010, health insurance that is accepted by Cuba is mandatory for travelers visiting abroad.  Proof must be presented at the time of flight check in.  Policies range from $25 to $50 per person and can be purchased through an agency that specializes in travel insurance.  It can also be included in the cost of your flight through carriers such as Delta, United, and Jet Blue.  Check with your carrier at the time of booking.
  • Currency: The standard currency in Cuban is the Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). The exchange rate is 1.00 CUC = $1.00 USD.  US currency and debit/ATM cards are NOT accepted in Cuba at this time. When you arrive, you will need to convert your money into Cuban currency before leaving the airport. The Cuban government levies a 10% penalty followed by a 3% financial transaction charge when converting from USD to CUC. So, for every $100 you exchange, you will only receive $87 CUCS. To avoid this penalty, some travelers will convert from USD to Euros (or Canadian currency), then convert to CUCs upon arrival.
  • Internet Access: Internet access and cellular access is VERY LIMITED in Cuban. For internet access, wifi cards can be purchased at local hotels for about 4 CUCs per hour. Cellular service is very random. Some people are able to get access and others are not, depending on the type of phone or carrier. Check with your cellular provider beforehand.  But don’t be surprised if your phone still doesn’t work, even if they promise service.

Accommodations

In Cuba, accommodations fall into two options: Hotels and Casas Particulares (private houses).  Hotels are usually state owned and can cost almost four times what you would pay in a private casa. In my group, we took advantage of what Cuba had to offer and stayed in a private casa.  Choosing a casa and living with the locals gave us the opportunity to experience Cuba’s beautiful culture. By the end of the week, I felt like a resident. Private casa range any anywhere from 15 to 50 CUCs per night. Some offer single, double, and triple rooms.  So the cost can decrease drastically if you have a roommate. Many of the hosts offer breakfast (home cooked) for 5 CUCs. The hosts are very responsive and helpful.  They also enjoy sharing their culture with you and making you feel at home. This satisfies to license requirement for Cuban travel for “educational activities or people-to-people exchanges.  Hotels are state owned and can cost almost four times what you would spend for a private casa.

Transportation

Taxis, bus, and walking are the most common modes of transportation. Most people navigate Havana by foot and use a taxi to travel outside Central Havana.

 

Things to Do

Before the trip, I wondered if I would have enough to do being in Cuba for 7 full days. But there is so much to do that I’m planning a return visit before the end of the year. Cuba has plenty to offer inside of Havana, as well as outside.

Havana

  • Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market: This is considered to be Havana´s largest flea market. Hundreds of booths are housed here and offer clothing, paintings, tourist souvenirs, ceramics, and other creative wares. It is open daily 9am-5pm.
  • Floridita: This spot is a historic fish restaurant and cocktail bar in the older part of Havana (La Habana Vieja).  It’s known for its daiquiris and for being frequent hangout of Ernest Hemingway.
  • Plaza Vieja: This area makes up one of the seven wards of Old Havana.  The plaza was the site of executions, processions, and bullfights.  Today, it is adorned with shops, restaurant, and  nightlife with live music and salsa dancing. Think of the Vegas strip, Cuban style.
  • Museo del Ron Havana Club: The Havana Club Museum offers daily tours tracing the origins of rum in Cuba’s history. You can learn about it’s history, production, and exportation. They also have rum available for purchase under their trade name, as well as cigars and other souvenirs.
  • Callejon de Hamel: This area is considered to be the artistic headquarters of artist and muralist, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona. Callejon de Hamel offers beautiful displays of Afro-Cuban art and cultural education on Afro-Cuban religion, traditions, and spirituality (Santeria).

Excursions/Day Trips

  • Valle de Vinales: We explored the countryside and tobacco farms of Cuba with a day trip to Vinales. We had the opportunity to visit one of the tobacco plantations where many of the cigars are harvested.  The photos don’t do the lush greens and mountains justice.  You will take a lot of pictures!
  • Santa Maria Del Mar Beach: This beach is one of Havana’s most popular beaches, probably because it’s the closest. It’s located at 25 km from Central Havana (about a 20 minute ride by taxi). Santa Maria offers full beach activities (jet skiing, diving, and sailing), massage, Cabana service, souvenirs, and a restaurant. The taxi ride from Havana was about 30 CUCs.
  • Las Terrazas: This is an eco-village community located about 2 hours outside of Havana.  It’s a very rural town, similar to Vinales. We had the opportunity to go zip lining and  to visit the home of the late Cuban singer Polo Montañez.

 

Other Tips

  • Go with an open mind. Don’t expect the same modern accommodations that you normally find in the states or all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean. Traveling to Cuba is like traveling back in time. And what it lacks in convenience, it more than makes up for in culture and aesthetics.
  • Remember, internet access is VERY limited. You will need to purchase a wifi card to access the internet. Cards can be purchased at hotels for around 4 CUCs per hour.
  • Pack toilet paper/disposable wipes. Many of the public bathrooms (even the more swanky establishments) do not have toilet paper in the bathroom stalls.  Some even “charge” for toilet paper. Make sure you have some with you when you’re out and about. Also, although your casa or hotel will most likely provide toilet paper during your stay, it is often rationed out.
  • Pack antibacterial sanitizer or hand soap. Again, some restrooms do not have it available or charge for it.
  • If you decide to stay in a casa, pack as if your going to stay in a dorm for a few days. Bring your own towels, hand soap, etc.
  • Some restrooms don’t have toilet seats, even in the casas. Don’t be alarmed, this is normal. Remember what I said about keeping an open mind?  Don’t worry, you’ll live.
  • Budget your money accordingly. After converting your currency at the airport, you won’t have much opportunity to convert again. US issued ATM and debit cards do not work in Cuba.  Converting your money multiple times causes you to lose money when you add in the transaction fee.
  • Meals:  Average meals dining out ranges from 10 to 20 CUCs. Most of my meals were under 20 CUCs which often included an alcoholic drink and dessert.
  • Safety: I never had a safety issue in Cuba.  In fact, I felt safer there than I do at home in Chicago. I walked through dark alley at night, with other females in my group and a couple of times alone.
  • Cuban people are very friendly and take pride in their culture. They love Americans and enjoy sharing and talking about their culture and history. They also have interest in our way of life and enjoy hearing about our customs, too.
  • Tipping is customary. Make sure you factor this into your spending budget.
  • Cuban men are very flirty. Keep this in mind if you’re easily offended by cat calling, blowing kisses, and other unwarranted advances. Whether you smile and say thank you or ignore it, they’re still gentlemen about it and will leave you alone.
  • Visit the Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market for your souvenirs first. They prices are a little cheaper and they have a wider selection of wares.
  • Bring an EU power adapter. Some outlets accommodate the North American standard and others do not. It’s pretty mixed.
  • Bring a copy of your travel/health insurance. You will need to present it when you check in for your flight.
  • If you’re a cigar aficionado, check out Partagás. Thank me later!
  • Make sure you experience the Classic City Car Tour.

My group spend 7 days and 6 nights in Cuba and this barely touched the surface.  Hopefully, you will find these tips useful and be motivated to visit before the year is over. Travel to Cuba is not as complicated as it seems.  It’s very affordable and you will get more than your money’s worth.

 

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In Memory of Mom

Don’t fear travel, fear NOT living

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A new year, new U.S .presidency, and new travel concerns.  It’s no secret 2017 has ushered in new and uncertain times.  A couple of weeks ago, when our president (yeah, I’m in still in shock too) issued the first travel ban against immigrants, many fellow travelers expressed concern and even panic.  With an upcoming trip to Cuba and Iceland, many people hit me up inquiring about my thoughts on traveling abroad.  Am I going to cancel?  Is it safe?  Am I afraid of experiencing any anti-American sentiment when traveling abroad?  Well, yes and no.  There will always be a fear that something could happen when I crossover into international territory, but it’s no greater than the fear I experience when I drive to work every day.  Looking at the data and statistics, I probably have a greater chance of being killed in a mass shooting at my local shopping mall or movie theater, than being killed in a terrorist attack abroad.  So what will I do?  How will I proceed?  I plan to do exactly what I’ve always done:  be aware, stay informed, and practice common sense.   While others are hesitant, I plan to continue to live. And there is absolutely no judgment towards those that choose to pull back on their travel experiences.  At the end of the day, you have to do what is best for you and your comfort level.  Hopefully, the following tips can help guide you in your decision making and ease your fears when it comes to traveling abroad.

1. Enroll in the STEP program

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The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service that allows U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.  As a participant, you can receive important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country, allowing you make informed decisions about your travel plans.  Participation can also help the U.S. Embassy contact you in an emergency, whether natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency. And you can also help family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency.

2. Travel alerts/warnings

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The U.S. State Department issues travel warning and alerts and updates information on their website regularly.  This site is helpful in guiding your destination choices.  A travel warning is often long term and in place until the situation resolves itself. A travel warning can include unstable government, civil war, ongoing intense crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks.  A travel alert is short term and usually related to an election season or a health alert, such as an influenza outbreak.

3. Turn off the Television

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Stay informed, but don’t become obsessed.  I am a firm believer that the very thing we focus on the most shapes our reality. Constantly watching the same negative news reports over and over again only reinforces the very thing you want to avoid.  It incites and fuels fear.   If I governed my life based on the news, I’d never leave my house…and I’m just talking about the “local” news.  Be aware of what’s going on around you, but don’t let it overwhelm you or take hostage of your life. There is always the risk that something can happen.  It can happen abroad or right in your own back yard. Life is risky, live anyway.

3. Communicate/Check-In

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Communicate your travel plans to your family.  Provide them with a copy of your itinerary, flight/lodging information, excursion information, and copy of your passport.  While I’m a proponent of remaining unplugged and disconnected when traveling, it’s a good a do to check-ins, through social media.  If something happens, your loved ones will have a time line and information on your last known location.

4. Roadtrips/Domestic travel

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If you’ve decided that traveling abroad isn’t for you right now, it doesn’t mean you have to stay grounded. There are a plethora of things you can do right here on U.S. soil.  Take a road trip and visit some of those landmarks that remain unchecked on your bucket list.  Spend a weekend in New York and catch a Broadway play. Consider catching a flight deal and attending a music or film festival in a city you’ve never been visited before.  The possibilities really are endless.  Last summer, I launched the Tourist in My Town campaign.  This campaign provides tips on how to take advantage of the tourism opportunities right in your own backyard. If you didn’t participate last summer, this is the perfect time to put it into practice.

Safe travels and wishing you the best in 2017!

 

@urbantravelista 

A dedication to my Sorors and Sistergreeks…yes, We TRAVEL!

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Last week, my intention was to post this blog as a dedication to my beloved sorority’s Founders’ Day.  But this adulting thing just won’t let me be great.  With most black Greek sorority’s celebrating Founders’ Day last week (the founding anniversary date of our respective sororities), I wanted to recognize my beautiful sorors and fellow sistergreeks making strides and globetrotting all over the world. We’ve come a long way in opportunities since our founders set the path for us over a century ago. I’m sure they never fathomed that sisterhood, service, and excellence would be reflected all over the world today. Actually, I take that back.  Of course they knew.  Our founders were pioneers and visionaries. They dreamed big without limits.  They saw beyond the mental walls and ceilings of defeat and “it can’t be done”.  And not only am I happy to be part of such a glorious legacy, but I’m happy their legacy can be seen around the world today. So, without further ado, I bring you the ladies of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, and Sigma Gamma Rho. Young, black, educated, and TRAVELED.  Note: If one sorority seems more represented than others, it wasn’t intentional.  I “pinky” swear LOL.

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@passportprissy at Big Red Sand Dunes, Dubai (Alpha Kappa Alpha)

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@tanzamerican1920 at the Colosseum in Rome (Zeta Phi Beta)

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@starrdevereaux at the Chichen Itza in Mexico (Alpha Kappa Alpha)

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@esha_diva10 at the Eiffel Tower in Paris (Delta Sigma Theta)

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@ms_nicky at Los Cabo Mountain Top (Alpha Kappa Alpha)

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@raegaddy in Pont de l’Alma (Sigma Gamma Rho)

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@sassybebe30 at The Hamptons, New York (Alpha Kappa Alpha)

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@alexisaifa13 at Koh Phi Phi Beach, Thailand (Alpha Kappa Alpha)

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@jasheceo in Costa Rica (Delta Sigma Theta)

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@viva.la.vina at Christ de Redeemer in Rio, Brazil (Alpha Kappa Alpha)

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@blktraveladdict at the Taj Mahal (Alpha Kappa Alpha)

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@chakalate_mamihlapinatapai at Copocabana Beach in Rio during the 2016 Summer Olympics (Alpha Kappa Alpha)

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@curlsandcouture in Indonesia (Delta Sigma Theta)

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@poshandpumps, Chacchoben Mayan Ruins (Delta Sigma Theta)

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@jorilacour at the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Rome, Italy

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@queennadiaa in Capetown, South Africa (Alpha Kappa Alpha)

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@pearlsofarabia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, UAE (Alpha Kappa Alpha)

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@tydomo_45 at the Royal Palace in Seoul, Korea (Alpha Kappa Alpha)

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@i_carlii at Skogafoss Waterfall in Iceland (Sigma Gamma Rho)

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@encassilating at the Cathedral-Basilica de Nuestra in Spain (Zeta Phi Beta)

@urbantravelista