Things to Know Before Going to Cuba for Americans

by Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Big changes between America and Cuba have come since President Obama and President Raul lifted the embargo December 14, 2014, with plans to normalize relations after more than 55 years as adversaries. The news intrigued curious Americans who wanted to be the first to visit, before this frozen in time, island country in the Caribbean, is morphed into a modernized version of its former self.  Although it is now legal, with restrictions,  there are things to know before going to Cuba for Americans.thewanderlustyogi.net

I just returned from my first visit to Cuba and I wanted to share what I learned while it was still fresh in my mind. Cuba is so much larger than I had imagined so I wasn’t able to see even one-fourth of it, but I did spend time in Old Havana and Varadero, which are probably the two most popular areas to visit.

Here is a list of some things to know before going to Cuba for Americans.

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ENTRY REQUIREMENTS

Just because it is now legal for Americans to travel to Cuba, doesn’t mean any American can just jump on the next flight from Miami with a suitcase and passport in hand. There are still firm restrictions for travel to Cuba for Americans and tourist activities remains prohibited. Americans who wish to travel to Cuba must fall into one of the 12 category reasons authorized by the Cuban government.

  1. family visits
  2. official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain governmental organizations
  3. journalistic activity
  4. professional research or professional meetings
  5. educational activities, including people-to-people exchanges open to everyone
  6. religious activities
  7. public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  8. support for the Cuban people
  9. humanitarian projects
  10. activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  11. exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
  12. certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines

I used journalistic activity because of my travel blog, but most use educational activities or people-to-people. When getting the visa documents at the airport, the reservationist handed me the paper to fill out and told me to just choose #5. I thought it was strange because she clearly had no idea if I fell into that category.  The airline workers seemed as if it was just routine to choose that category for literally everyone and it was all very informal.  I, on the other hand, was kind of freaking out that I should have not used journalistic activities now, but instead used educational activities. I was going to change it, but I already used journalistic activities when purchasing my plane ticket online and was told to “stick with your story”.  And most importantly, whatever you do, to never, ever say your visit was for tourism, if asked. My husband kept joking that if they asked him he was going to say for smuggling.  I was going to kill him! This is not a joking matter, especially in this still sensitive time of transition. I also wasn’t aware that the visa for entry into Cuba was $100.00. I did know that they require everyone to get Cuban health insurance, which is $25.00, but most airlines cover the cost in your ticket price.

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Before I left, I spoke with a lot other travel bloggers and friends and family who have already gone to Cuba and they all said its super easy to get in, the only issue may be coming back into the United States, that you could be questioned by customs and immigration, but most likely you won’t. Lucky us, on our return, we were asked!

 

This is how it went;

immigration officer: “What were you doing in Cuba?’

me:  “journalistic activities”

immigration officer: “What were your reporting on?”

me (gulp): “my husband and I run a travel blog.”

immigration officer: “Okay, did you bring any tobacco or alcohol back with you?”

my husband: “Yes, a box of cigars (starting to open his suitcase to show him)

immigration officer (to my husband): “No worries, you don’t have to show me. Welcome home.”

 

Phew.  I nearly shit my pants! Within those few seconds thoughts spun in my head, “I should have just changed it to educational activities, damn it!”, ” I’m going to be fined!! Ahh!”. “OMG! I’m going to Cuban prison!!” But thankfully, I was just freaking out for no reason. He was just going through the customary questions and wasn’t making a big deal about it.  I was! So, my tip to you, just choose category 5, everyone else does. Since it’s the most common category chosen (seems like the only one), you probably won’t get asked a thing.thewanderlustyogi.net

 

 

MONEY

When it comes to money, cash is king. You won’t find any places in this country that will accept American credit or debit cards, so keep your VISA and MASTERCARD at home. With that said, keep in mind that when you try to exchange USD to their currency (CUC), they will charge you a 10% fee. The best way to avoid this is to exchange your USD to CAD or EURO before you leave the States. The conversion rate is better and you won’t be slammed with that fee on top of it.

Another thing to consider when it comes to money is because plastic or USD isn’t taken in Cuba, you have to carry the amount of cash you will need for your entire trip with you. I admit, this was very difficult to figure out how much to bring since we didn’t really know the prices of things and the amount can vary so much depending if you stay in hotels or casa particulars, if you like to go on tours, if you want to buy souvenirs like cigars and rum, if you want to travel to a lot of different areas, if you dine in hotel chains or paladars, if you want to sip on mojitos everyday? All of these things need to be considered so you don’t end up penniless and stranded for a ride back to the airport on your last day. Lots of planning and budgeting must be done beforehand.  One valuable tip to help alleviate bringing large sums of money is to book accommodations in advance. Although you could save money by just showing up and renting a casa particular for around $30 CUC/night, which are virtually everywhere,  for added peace of mind, this can be done through AirBnB and a few online companies. You won’t find hotels on your normal go to travel websites such as http://travelocity.com, http://priceline.com or http://expedia.com (not yet anyway), but in my research I did find a few that will work with US credit cards.  We booked through http://elvoline.com and http://skoosh.com through a website all about Cuba called Cuba- Junky(http://cubajunky.com).  Make a point to browse over their website before you go. There is so much great information in it.  Please note, hotel rates in Cuba are extremely high and if they have a 5 star rating in Cuba, they most likely will more like a 3 star in the US, Canada or Europe. In Old Havana, they run between $400-$500 USD/ night for a standard room, bare minimum with no view. Ouch!

SAFETYthewanderlustyogi.net

After reading the last section you may be thinking that it could be unsafe walking around Cuba with a bunch of cash on your person. I instantly thought of that too. I thought that by being an American, the locals would know this and we would be a walking target for getting pick-pocketed. Thankfully, from word of mouth of other Americans, talking with the locals and my personal experience, that was not an issue at all. In fact, Cuba is extremely safe and has hardly any crime. The first few days while strolling along  alleys of slum neighborhoods, I had a hard time not thinking the worst, especially at night.thewanderlustyogi.net However, once the culture shock wore off and nobody harassed us, I understood this to be true. Oddly enough when speaking to the many locals, they would ask us why we have so much violent crime in our country and boasted how they are such a safe country with no gangs and a very low crime rate. The irony.thewanderlustyogi.net

 

ACCOMMODATIONS

I traveled to Cuba with my husband who is not as an adventurous traveler as I am. In other words, he is a bit on the high maintenance side. This means he prefers hotel living over AirBnB rentals or homestays. In Cuba, the best and the cheapest way to stay is renting a casa particular, which is a phrase meaning private accommodation or private homestays in Cuba, much like a bed and breakfast. You don’t even need to book them in advance, actually you can’t with most, but some use AirBnb to advertise their place.

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If you are new to AirBnB and want to save $40.00, use this link to book http://www.airbnb.com/c/jedith

There are signs virtually everywhere you look for rooms for rent and they will only run you about $30 CUC/night in Old Havana, and even cheaper outside of the city. On the other hand, if you want to stay in hotel, you are looking to spend easily $400+/ night. These extremely high western prices for hotel rooms don’t exactly give you western standard accommodations. Most hotels are very run down and out-dated and only have the bare essentials.

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This is the symbol for casa particulars where you can rent a room. They are everywhere.

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The pool at night at Parque Central, Havana, Cuba. We would have loved to stay here, but there was no availability. We waited until last minute to book because we weren’t sure what kind of accommodations we were going to choose.  I think it’s the nicest hotel in Old Havana. It is an Iberostar property.

  • The positive of staying in a casa particular is saving so much money and experiencing the true culture of Cuba. Most casa particulars offer dirt cheap meals too and you get to immerse with the locals.
  • The negative of staying in a casa particular is you will not have wifi, won’t have a television, and probably wont have air-conditioning either.
  • The positive of staying in a hotel is you will usually get breakfast included, television, wifi (with a charge of $2.00-$4.50 per hour), air-conditioning, restaurants, and maybe even a pool. Also, if you prefer booking ahead of time, this is the best way to do it. Furthermore, if you book ahead you will now only have to bring spending money with you.
  • The negative for staying in a hotel is the high cost for subpar standard rooms and not getting to know the locals.

In hindsight, I wish we would have stayed in a casa particular. Maybe if I go again without my husband, I will?

FOOD AND HEALTHthewanderlustyogi.net

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If you visit Cuba, you may have a hard time finding foods you like if you are kosher or a vegetarian. Their main source of protein is pork, with more pork on top of pork. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but the menus have numerous pork dishes and you will find whole roasted pigs at every restaurant and paladar you visit.  A paladar is a restaurant run by self-employers, unlike a hotel chain or a government-run restaurant.

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Eating at my first paladar called Europa. The location was great (right on a main tourist street called Obispo), and had extremely low prices, but the food was just okay.

If you have a sensitive stomach you may want to avoid them, or only go to ones that are recommended, because you will not be positive of food handling safety. However, if you aren’t too concerned and want an authentic, cheap, Cuban meal, it may be your best option.  If you don’t like pork, you may like one of the national dishes of Cuba made from beef (more commonly lamb at paladars) called ropa vieja.  It is made with shredded meat, a tomato based sauce and vegetables. It’s usually served with rice and beans.  I tried this at two places. The first was at a paladar and it was very chewy and tasteless, but then I had it again at Parque Central Hotel (http://hotelparquecentral-cuba.com) and it was delicious. (Make sure you visit this hotel and go to the rooftop pool and restaurant. It’s a great way to take a break from the heat and chaos down below and it has an amazing view of the El Capitolio and the city. This is true for the Saratoga Hotel(http://hotel-saratoga.com) as well, which is where we stayed on our first night.) 

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my husband at the rooftop pool of Hotel Saratoga (where we stayed our first night)

Vegetarians may be disappointed with salad offerings. Most of their vegetables are canned and salads are mainly made of chopped cabbage, some shredded beets, green olives and ham. So if you do order a salad, make sure you mention,  no meat. The same goes for the fruit. They generally have canned fruit and the fresh fruit doesn’t look too appealing.  We saw this at all of the hotels and restaurants we went to and were very surprised. I would have thought in a tropical location there would be an abundance, but this wasn’t the case. They did have some street vendors selling fruits and vegetables but there were very slim pickings.

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vegetable stand in Cuba

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If you like protein bars, snacks or nuts, you will not find them anywhere. Same goes for hair conditioner and sunblock.  If you can find them, they will be super expensive. If you know you will want these items, make sure you pack them with you.  Also remember like any 3rd world country, it is not safe to drink the water. Always use bottled water, even for brushing your teeth. Keep in mind, if you are drinking coffee with milk in a paladar, they use unpasteurized milk, but hotels will have pasteurized milk. Same rule applies to ice as with water in paladars, so stick to no ice or canned drinks, but in hotels you will be fine.

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ropa vieja

TRANSPORTATION

Just like any big city, Old Havana has taxis everywhere you go. What’s so special about Cuba is you may end up in a classic 50’s car. These cool cars make you feel like you are in a time warp. The reason they are still around is because of the embargo with the United States. Since 1961, during the Cold War, the United States blocked any US companies from trading with Cuba, leaving Cuban people holding on to their vintage American cars, patching them up and using any parts they can get from other countries to keep them running.  Walking around Old Havana you feel like you are in a classic car museum. It was one of my favorite things about Cuba. You will see newer Japanese and German cars, but Fords and Pontiacs will be from the 1940’s and 1950’s.thewanderlustyogi.net

If you are spending the day strolling around Old Havana, you find out quickly how large the city is. For a fun and inexpensive way to get around you can take the hop-on-hop-off bus for $10 CUC/ per person/per day. They also have them in Varadero for $5  CUC per day/ per person. It’s especially fun getting on top of the open air double-decker bus. Keep your eyes peeled for low branches.

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Cuba coco taxis

They also have horse-drawn carriages and little yellow taxis called Cuba coco taxis, prices range depending on how far you go.thewanderlustyogi.net

There are many places to visit in Cuba, each with its own unique charm. People don’t realize until visiting Cuba, just how large it really is. I surely didn’t. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and it is a little smaller than Pennsylvania. It is 760 miles long and 55 miles wide.  It will take you 12 hours to drive from one side to the other. Because of this, I wasn’t able to go to two places I had originally planned on.  Trinidad (a colonial town that was highly recommended and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988), which was 4 hours away by car, and I could have gone to Vinales (the valley where they grow tobacco and was told how gorgeous it is) since it wasn’t too far from Old Havana (could be visited for a day tour), but we ran out of time.  We were also shorted by one day due to snow and delays from de-icing our plane.

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Old Havana, Cuba

Besides Old Havana, we split the week in half, spending three days in Varadero at their pristine white sand beaches and perfectly turquoise ocean water, which was a two-hour drive from Havana. Going there you will not find any culture, as it is void of locals, but full of Canadian and European tourists and all-inclusive resorts. I knew this before visiting the area, but we wanted to spend a few days relaxing on the beach and getting some much-needed sunshine, especially coming from two major blizzards in our home state.

 

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swimming at the beach of Royalton Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Cuba

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Walking on the beach at Royalton Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Cuba

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My husband taking it all in, sitting on a beach bed at Royalton Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Cuba

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Waiting hours for check-in at Royalton Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Cuba. This is the running theme everywhere in Cuba. The service is very slow, or otherwise known as “island style”. We waited for 4.5 hours to check into our last hotel in the Miramar area of Havana (this is the fancy area where all the embassies are and where Obama stayed on his visit), at a place called Memories Miramar, La Habana. I won’t even go into the details about that place. Let’s just say an Australian couple we met at check-in told us they call it “bad Memories”

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If you weren’t prepared with some knowledge on the distance of places, not to mention the high expense for the transportation to and from them, you could be very disappointed. Mapping out your itinerary ahead of time may help you organize your trip better.

Here are a few examples of typical cab fare from Old Havana to popular cities:

Old Havana to Varadero is $120 CUC one way

Old Havana to Trinidad is $160 CUC one way

Old Havana to Havana airport is $30 CUC

Old Havana to Vinales is $100 CUC one way

Old Havana to Santa Clara is $140  CUC one way

To save money on transportation, you may choose to use their bus system. Taking the Viazul bus from Havana to Varadero is only $10.00  CUC, from Havana to Trinidad its only $25.00 CUC. (To see their schedule you can check out their website at http://viazul.com, they leave  four times per day to many cities nation wide.) This is a huge difference, but don’t forget that you need cab fare to and from both bus terminals and they are not always right where you want to be when you get to your destination. Also, it takes longer and you will not get to make any stops if you see anything of interest on your way.  We were going to take the Viazul bus from Havana to Varadero, but once we got to the bus station, we were approached by a cab driver who was willing to make a deal with us and another couple. We ended up sharing a cab for $20 CUC each ($80 CUC total), and was delivered straight to the front door of our hotel.  The cab driver was also kind enough to help find a casa particular for the other couple who didn’t have a reservation anywhere. It was high season and at first he had no luck finding a room at the first few places we checked, but low and behold, he found something for them. So remember this if you have no hotel booked ahead of time and need a place to stay. The cab drivers always can find a room for you and are happy to help. I think they get a finder’s fee for it too? (another way to help the Cuban people).  It may have been a little more money but when we figured the $25 CUC we would probably spent to and from each bus terminal and the $10 CUC each for the bus equaling a total of $70 CUC, what was another $10 CUC for the convenience? Plus we made friends with a really nice Serbian couple and talked the entire ride. They may even come for a visit to stay with us in New Hampshire. They love skiing and are planning a trip to New York City soon.thewanderlustyogi.net

One place that is a must-see on your visit to Cuba is the hottest new spot in Havana. It is Fabrica De Arte Cubano (www.fac.cu), which is an art museum/club/ restaurant.  There is no dress code and you will find people of all ages there with a mix of locals and tourists. It’s super trendy and seems like something you would find in New York City. The place opens at 8:00 pm, but be sure to arrive early because the lines get extremely long.  Also, we didn’t get to do this, but there is a restaurant right next door that is supposed to be good, and if you dine there beforehand, you get VIP entrance. It is an old peanut factory that offers Caribbean, Latin and Cuban food and it is called El Cocinero (elconcinero.cuba). Reservation is needed. thewanderlustyogi.net

Another thing worth mentioning, (even though I didn’t try it myself) is La Guarida restaurant (laguarida.com). By word of mouth, it is supposed to be the best restaurant in Havana. I heard about this and knew it was going to be very popular so I would need a reservation. I booked it for the last night of our trip.  During our visit we weren’t having the best of luck with food, so I was even more excited to end my week with a delicious meal.  When we arrived the hostess said she could not find my reservation. I told her I booked it online last week and she went back to check her computer. Still nothing.  At the same time there was another couple from Ireland who ran into the same issue. We were all so disappointed. We talked to them and they told us about a cool new art place and restaurant they were told about (you know the one).  Then, we bumped into a young American girl from Minnesota who asked if we were eating there. We told her our story ad she said the same happened to her, but she ended up getting a table on another day.  She was visiting Cuba for 18 days and will be spending quite some time in Havana with her husband and baby, Juddah. She said the meal was so good and they only one she really enjoyed since she has been there, that she booked lunches for the rest of the week there, since they are much easier to get.  She loved the place so much, she changed the location of her casa particular purposely to be next door to it! If that’s not a good recommendation then I don’t know what is? So, obviously booking online for a reservation is a joke, but if you go there in person right when you arrive, they will probably have availability to dine there at least once on your visit.

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on the stairs of La Guarida before we found out we didn’t have a reservation

I didn’t cover a whole lot on Varadero, Cuba and the reason is because its your typical all-inclusive beach resort area.  You really wouldn’t know if you were in Cuba, Bahamas, Dominican Republic or Mexico. If you love white sand beaches and crystal clear blue water, this is a perfect stop for you. If you want a ton of culture and history, you won’t find it here.  We spent three days at the Royalton Hicacos Resort( http://hotelroyaltonhicacos.com). It was said to be the best resort in Varadero. It was nice, but if this was the best one, I can’t even imagine the worst one. It used to be a Sandals property, but they sold it to Blue Diamond resorts company. Our time there fell on Valentine’s Day, so it was really romantic at sunset on the beach.

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Sunset on Valentine’s Day at Royalton Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Cuba

They even offered a special Valentine’s dinner on the beach for an added fee.  We didn’t do that because the food at the resort wasn’t good.  I actually was supposed to teach yoga there through a company called NRG2GO (http://nrg2go.net) two years ago, but at the last-minute the company cancelled because they had a problem getting me a work visa.  I was so disappointed because this was right at the beginning of Americans being able to travel to Cuba and I thought this was my in, but due to this, it was too complicated for them to want to deal with. They ended up hiring a Canadian yoga instructor instead.

After a few days of eating the lackluster buffet-style meals at the resort, we wanted to get off the compound and find a restaurant in town, and explore Varadero a little. We took the hop-on-hop-off bus to the center. There were shops and horse-drawn carriages, a few restaurants and bars and of course, the beach.  We stood in front of a restaurant reading it’s menu and we were stopped by a nice Canadian man who is always there for business.  He noticed that we were looking for a place to eat and suggested the best place called Varadero 60 (http://varadero60.com). He said it may not be as good as food in the States, but it’s the closest you will find in Varadero. I’m so glad he suggested it because he was right and if he didn’t tell us we would have never found it since it’s location was on a back street a few blocked away from the main road. Also, we would have never gotten a reservation because it is so popular, but because we went so early, at 5:00pm, the dinner crowd hadn’t come yet. Their reservations start at 6:00pm. We had a lovely meal and at the end, they gave me a red rose. It was a nice touch.

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Varadero 60 restaurant in Varadero, Cuba

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After we ate a nice meal at Varadero 60, we went to the Beatles Bar to hear some live music.  It was a really cool place and if you are a Beatles fan, you will love it!

 

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The Beatles Bar, Varadero, Cuba

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hanging out at the Beatles bar in Varadero, Cuba

Then, we obviously had to go check out the beach. It was just as pretty as the beach at our resort.

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town beach in Varadero, Cuba

Cuba is an amazing place to visit. It’s like nothing I have ever seen.  It is a mix of old-world charm, rumba music, dance, art, history, culture, classic cars, cigars, beaches, valleys, colonial towns and friendly people, but, there are things to know before going to Cuba for Americans. I hope I covered the most important ones in this post.  If you are planning on visiting Cuba and have any other questions I’d be happy to help if I can. My biggest piece of advice I can give you,  is to go now,  before there are McDonald’s and Starbuck’s on every corner.

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Varadero, Cuba

 

 

 

 

Gap Year Kids go Off the Grid with NOLS

by Monday, September 26, 2016

Week one of the Winterline Global Skills program was their official orientation. It was designed for the kids to get to know each other better. They spent time in Denver, Colorado at Estes Park (aka the YMCA of the Rockies), attempting ropes courses, engaging in team building activities, problem solving, critical thinking and sharing personal stories.

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Winterline orientation (Daniela, Michael, Noah, and Rochelle)

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Leo on the ropes course!

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Emily taking photos of Ana Paulina, while Chandler is throwing up deuces

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Lilly, McKenzie, Chandler and Gabbi all in deep focus, while poor Susie needs a nap. (planning a Gap Year is hard work!)

This week was in preparation for their first big challenge at Winterline; an eight-day backpacking trek off the grid, and into the Rocky mountains of Wyoming.

But first, they needed to be trained by NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School).  They took a bus from Denver, Colorado to Lander, Wyoming, which was where the base camp of NOLS was located.  They spent a few days at the NOLS hotel for training.  They took very intensive classes on wilderness first aid training, leadership skills, outdoor skills, environmental studies and risk management.  Once they have passed their in-class tests, they were ready to put their new skills to use.

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NOLS wilderness first aid training…not funny when you’re sent a snapchat of this with no explanation!

They broke the cohort into two groups of ten. Each group was equipped with NOLS issued tents, sleeping bags, a camp stove, food, and even a bear fence. Yikes! Each group also were accompanied by two, highly trained  NOLS instructors. What couldn’t fit in their, close to 50 lb. backpacks, (and also NOT allowed),  was their smart phones!

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The two teams for the NOLS backpacking adventure. (my daughter Maddie is the little one at the bottom, center)

This meant zero contact with the outside world for eight days!

This second week would prove to be a challenge for the Gap Year Mom’s too, as we were at home worrying, and had no clue on how they were doing.  Thank goodness us Gap Year Mom’s have united and formed a chat group. This was a great idea from a mom from Columbia. She uses the app called Whats App to stay in contact with her daughter. I have used that app and Viber while traveling abroad.  They are both great apps to stay in contact with friends and family while traveling abroad, and what’s even better is that  they are FREE ( as long as you have a WiFi connection)!! We also have a private group on Facebook (created by Winterline) and all follow each other, our kids, and Winterline, on Instagram, snapchat and twitter.  The reason for us using the Whats App more is because some of us don’t have Facebook or other social media apps on our phones.  Many of us haven’t had any prior experience with social media at all. The gap year learning is extending onto the parents.  Gotta love social media! It really is a lifesaver through this!

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food prepping for their 8 day NOLS expedition

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Maddie and Michael (both from NH) all ready for their eight day backpacking expedition in the Rocky mountains

The first week for the Gap Year Mom’s was hard adjusting to our kid’s absence.  The second week was even harder, because they weren’t only gone, but we couldn’t talk to them either. It almost felt like they were in boot camp. And in a way, they were.  Each of us from our “Gap Year Mom chat group” checked in from time to time, seeing how we all were holding up. It was like a virtual lifeline for us when we started to worry. Even with our busy lives, working, doing our routine errands and the such, we always made time to pop in and check on each other.

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camping food doesn’t look half bad…who knew?

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Elise, Michael and Emily setting up camp

The Gap Year Moms had our share of ups and downs during this week. Every day was the countdown, ” eight more days”, “seven more days”, and so on…. When someone expressed a thought of worry in the group such as;

“What if they are freezing?”,

“What if they are homesick?”,

“What if they are scared?”,

“Do you think they came across wildlife?”,

“I hope they don’t get lost!”,

“What if they have a medical emergency?”,

to, you name it, (we thought of every possible scenario), the others would talk that mom down.  It’s like we took turns being the strong one, and the weak one.  Even though we couldn’t talk to our kids, to know what they were going through, it was nice to talk to other Gap Year Moms having these same concerns. Also it was nice knowing that we weren’t alone.

That eighth day came and we were all on the edge of our seats waiting to hear from the kids. We knew that they had to hike to the base camp, but didn’t know how long it would take. We were all on high alert, checking our phones in between patients, at our lunch breaks, during down time at work, or whatever else we were occupied with, each promising to immediately report when we’ve made contact with one of the adventurers.

 

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We’re on top of the world! Wind River Wilderness, Pinedale, WY (elevation 12,500 ft. )

They made it!!

Each of us got a call, some sooner than others, but we were all so relieved to hear their happy voices.  I was afraid that my daughter might be complaining about how hard it was and how much she hated it, but no, it was just the opposite! She was breathless while excitedly speaking about how amazing and life-changing her experience was.  She said it was one of the most challenging things she has ever done, but felt so accomplished for sticking it out and completing it. She spoke of the extreme mountain hiking, totaling forty miles, with elevations reaching 12,000 ft. and up, the beauty of the Rockies, the cooking shifts,  setting up camp, scaling the Continental Divide, some cold and wet nights, not showering, the bathroom situation and how exhausted and sore she was, but most importantly, having a feeling of self-satisfaction and an increase in her self confidence.

I was so happy and so impressed that my little 90 lb. daughter was a bona-fide BAD ASS!

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My little backpacker!

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The campers keeping each other warm.

The Gap Year Moms chat group was buzzing with awesome stories of their happy campers. So many of the kids shared the same sentiment, that it was so hard, but life-changing.  They were not only challenged physically but also mentally and emotionally.  Some kids even lost some weight, which they had made as a personal goal for this year.  There were tears of happiness shared by all the moms and a good night’s sleep to be had that night. Winterline is already impacting us all in so many positive ways and we are only two weeks in!

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taking in nature’s beauty

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Emily, Michael and Maddie taking it all in!

This week solidified my decision to let my daughter go on a gap year. As many of us in the Gap Year Mom group have confessed, we at times, doubted ourselves if it was a right choice.  Not because we didn’t know what an amazing, life changing experience we were giving our kids, (we all knew that) but because of the naysayers in our lives that don’t understand what a gap year can do for young adults.

I hope that by sharing these stories of my daughter’s gap year, it can help enlighten others to be open to the idea of how awesome this can be for kids transitioning from high school to college.  We aren’t saying that college isn’t important. We all agree that it is.  It’s just that, we recognize, that learning through life experience while being fully immersed in hands-on education, instead of only in a classroom setting, can be even more beneficial. To be able to first begin with a gap year traveling the world, in ten different countries, learning one hundred new skills and becoming more independent, and then going into to college the following year, we believe, it will only make them that much more prepared for college and adult life.

This journey has already proven to be reaping so many benefits in its first twenty days for our kids. Winterline has impressed me from day one and has continued to throughout this entire process, thus far. I can only imagine how transformational this will be for them in nine months! What I wasn’t aware of was the friendships and journey the Gap Year Moms are going through together is just as transformational for us.

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After 8 days without a shower. She has dreadlocks!

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They Passed! On their return from the wilderness, they all received their diploma of completion through NOLS

Next stop, Costa Rica!!…..PURA VIDA!

 

 

 

 

Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone

by Tuesday, September 6, 2016

As I lie in bed on a dark and rainy September morning, my two Boston Terriers by my side, I feel numb. Earlier today, while many moms and dads have sent their kids on the bus for their first day, back to school, the day after Labor Day, I sent mine on a plane to travel the world for nine months. Without me!

I knew this day was coming. Hell, if it wasn’t for me, I don’t think it would have ever happened? You see, I am in love with travel. This is something I passed down to my daughter.  Being able to travel the world, visiting exotic places and meeting people from foreign lands, for an extended period of time, is something that many only dream about.  Many, including me. Now, my daughter is living that dream. This is her reality and the thought of it is so surreal that it  gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

I am over the moon with excitement for her, knowing that she is able to see the world in this unique manner.  This traveling style will allow her to fully immerse in different cultures, will expose her to new people, new foods and new traditions, in such a way that is very rare for a person to achieve on a typical two-week vacation.  The program she is traveling with is called Winterline Global Skills  This program has created an extraordinary hands-on approach to learning.  Therefore, she is not just visiting 10 countries, hitting a few tourists spots and leaving. She is visiting places such as Costa Rica, Panama, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, Austria, India, Cambodia,  and Thailand and while she spends time at each location, she will be learning 100 new skills as her journey progresses. The thought of how such experiences will positively impact her life in so many ways makes my heart sing.

So why am I so sad then?

After returning from the airport and driving up my driveway the first thing I see is her car with her Winterline bumper sticker proudly displayed on the back of her beat up Lexus RX300 SUV, that used to be mine, and used to be nice, but through the years it has aged, as did she, as did I. Thoughts ran through my head, “That car will no longer have Maddie coming and going in it”. “That car won’t move for months on end.” “It may even still be there when it snows and she still won’t be back!” My heart pounded and my eyes filled up again, right when they finally dried up from my drive home. “Take a deep breath Jess. She is going to be okay. You are going to be okay. She is so happy and that makes me so happy!”

But I’m going to miss her.

I proceeded to walk into the house, greeted by my fur babies, that thankfully “will never leave me”, I thought to myself,  and then saw her shoes by the doorway. I tried to ignore them looking at me, as they whispered, ” She is gone. It’s time to let her go.”  I contemplated on going in the kitchen for who knows what? I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t thirsty. I decided to instead to go upstairs and lay in my bed. I did wake up at 3:00 am to drive her, so I was really tired, but in reality, it was more a feeling of loss than fatigue that I was feeling.

I made my way up the stairs with Gabby and Bernie following close behind and in my peripheral vision I saw her clothes hanging to dry on the railing from the night before. ” I don’t know why she washed them if she wasn’t taking them?” I thought, “but if I don’t put those away in her room after they are dry, they won’t be touched or worn by her for at least three months, and by then, the shorts, crop tops and rompers won’t be in season. “

I need to get away from her stuff. At least for today anyway. I don’t dare go near her bedroom although I project images of myself laying in her bed on days I’m missing her.

My husband knows how hard this is for me, so in between his jobs he came by the house to check on me and to bring me a pumpkin spiced iced-coffee from Dunkin Donuts to cheer me up. It did temporarily. He knows that I am genuinely so excited for her, but have to transition to the empty nest stage of life. He also knows that this will be especially hard for me because she is “my person” and he isn’t even remotely jealous in that fact. He thinks we are clones, especially when we sweet talk him into things. We always eventually get our way with him, but I know he secretly loves it.  I wonder if now I won’t get my way without her added persistence? She is good. Really good, but  I digress.

He is a man a few words. He shows his love by his actions and has a hard time expressing his feelings verbally.  Before she left he wanted to add patches to her backpack of all the places she has already gone.  This is something we talk about on every trip we take.  We buy the patches, intend to put them on when we get back home, but never get around to actually doing it.  His goal was to have hers complete by her trip.

It started out rough. Some of the places we visited, we didn’t get a patch, so he ordered it from Amazon Prime. (I love Amazon Prime btw! You can get virtually anything!)  We were waiting for them to arrive and it was getting very close.  Then, the patches we thought were iron-on were actually sew-on. Trying to sew these heavy-duty stitched patches onto a nylon Northface backpack seemed nearly impossible.  It was a grueling nightly task that he would make his chore for a week or so until it was complete, finger pokes and all. This was his way of saying good luck and a send off gift, “Brice-style”, not to mention the hefty contribution to this Gap Year he made. She loved it!

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Maddie at the airport with her backpack adorned with country patches on her way to her Gap Year

It’s now the afternoon and I’m still here on my bed writing my thoughts as I hear my dog loudly snoring next to me. As I finish off the last sips of my melted down, now less sugary, pumpkin spiced iced-coffee, I allow myself a day to mourn.

Today, I am mourning the end of her childhood.  I am mourning our times chatting all night about all the drama at her school. I am mourning the unbearable wake-up calls for her before school meetings for FBLA.  I am mourning seeing her pretty face smiling at me as she walks in from wherever she was that day.  I am mourning the nights I couldn’t fall asleep until I knew she was home safe.  All these things and more, will no longer be.

However, tomorrow, I will be celebrating her journey into adulthood. I will be celebrating the amazing experiences she will have exploring the world.  I will be celebrating all of her accomplishments.  I will be celebrating the obstacles that she has overcome.

I will be celebrating HER.

As a mother, letting go is hard. So hard. But when you know that by doing so, you are giving your child wings to fly, it’s all worth it. This is what I believe that being a good parent is all about.  You can love them, nurture them, teach them, guide them, and hope you’ve done you’re best. BUT, you have to let them go. If you’ve done well, they will never forget where their nest is.

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The first group has arrived in Colorado!

 

 

 

 

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