Munich

Upon arrival in Munich, I got my rental car (an orange, manual transmission, Mitsubishi Space Star) and proceeded to freak out trying to drive from the airport to my hotel. 

I had google maps to help me (hooray for free data from tmobile!) but as soon as I got on the freeway, the GPS in the car started talking to me in German telling me to go somewhere else! I couldn’t figure out the road signs, plus the directions, plus turning off the GPS (turning the radio off didn’t stop it!), so I did what anyone would do – continued driving while laughing hysterically. 

I was able to ignore the German GPS enough to get to the hotel and park but he first thing before getting out was to reset the language. Then I figured out it had been set to the parking garage at the airport, so the whole drive it was trying to tell me to go back to where I started!

Anyway, got to Munich where I was staying in a Novotel, and immediately set off in search of another vegan restaurant: Max Pett. 

While walking, I discovered that I was staying in a beautiful area right next to a park by the river. The city folks were all swimming at the beach – so interesting how it’s right in town. 

  
I found the restaurant and had an amazing meal – though the matcha latte had banana in it…not to my taste.

  
I had only a few hours to kill before heather arrived, so I meandered to my hotel, grabbed the car, and headed back to MUC. 

We settled in for a quiet night as we were going to Vienna the next day by car, a 4-hour drive. 

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Düsseldorf 

I arrived in Düsseldorf after the long flight across the pond and found it very easy to get around. I stayed in the hotel that was actually at the airport, called the Maritim Hotel – surprisingly quiet for being at the airport. After taking a long hot shower, I decided to try and find the Gehry buildings, a set of buildings on the Rhine made by an American architect. 

The train was pretty easy to figure out but when I arrived to the area, it was maybe 90 degrees and the sun was beating down. I walked a little bike trail to the waterfront only to find that there was no breeze or relief from the heat by the water. I found the buildings, took some photos, and got back on the train for the more downtown area where I was in search of a vegan restaurant. 

  
The vegan restaurant turned out to be a bit of a bust as it was mostly a dessert cafe. I got a pesto, cheese, and tomato sandwich and a chai ice tea (no milk, more like iced tea with spices). 

Got back to the hotel and crashed for the night, ready to get to Munich where it was supposed to be less hot. 

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Germany and Austria plans

My friend Becca and I were talking about travel and I said how I’d like to go to Europe this summer and Dave didn’t have enough vacation time to go with me. Becca was thinking of going to somewhere in Europe to meet up with her dad. While mulling this over, I asked my (German) friend Franziska where I should go and she heartily recommended Bavaria. So…I bought my ticket. Then Becca posted this to Facebook and my friend Heather said she’d been wanting to go and could she come along. Hell yeah! Road trip!

My packing list was for hot weather – shorts, tshirts, (totally forgot my sandals), sneakers, and jeans just in case. 

The basic plan was: me alone in Düsseldorf for 1 d/1n, then Munich in the morning. Heather arrives in Munich that night and we go to Vienna for 2 days. We then return to Munich to get Becca and drive north to Rothenburg ob der Tauber for 2d/2n, then back to Munich. Then on the last day go to castle Neuschwanstein.

Next up, how it really went🙂

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Money in Cuba

There are a lot of articles on the internet already about Cuban money, here’s a 10 cent version:

  • The national money is called Moneda Nacional, or MN, or CUP, or peso. Tourists don’t use this.
  • The official currency is Convertible Pesos, or CUP, or dollar, or peso. Tourists use these.

The exchange rate is approximately $1 = 1 CUC = 25 CUP.

If someone is selling something that should be very cheap (like an orange) and the cost sounds very expensive (like 10), then it’s in CUP. If you don’t have CUP, you either need CUC coins of less than 1 CUC or you’ll get ripped off, especially if you don’t know the look of the different bills.

Example: a bottle of water may be listed as “$25.” You give them a 5 CUC note and they give you back 4 CUPs. That means you just paid ~$5 for a bottle of water and got back about 1 penny.

How do you convert your money?

Since you can’t exchange into Cuban money outside of Cuba and your US bank card won’t work there, you have to carry cash with you into the country. I did some research and found that in Cuba, they charge a 10% surcharge to convert from US dollars into CUC, but only 3% from Euros. So we exchanged $800 into Euros in Miami (3% fee), then exchanged it to CUCs in Cuba (another 3% fee), thus saving 6%. (Though of course we had 100 Euros stolen, so it was a wash.)

DO NOT CHANGE MUCH MONEY AT THE AIRPORT! If you need a cab, change only enough for that and change the rest at a reputable hotel in Havana.

How much money do you need to bring?

This was a challenging question to find the answer to.

First, we had prepaid for most of it: the tour, our flights, visas, rides to and from the airport in Havana, and the extra night in Havana.

Second, for spending money, we changed $800 into Euros and then to CUC. We split that between the 2 of us. Then we brought about $500 in USD that stayed strapped to us at all times. We broke into that on the last day in order to tip and buy a few souvenirs.

There weren’t many souvenirs to buy and the cost of most of our meals was included. Check with your tour but you may need to bring less than you think.

Things we learned

We found out later that what we paid for the ride to/from the airport was about double what we would have paid in-country.

Booze, cigars, and coffee at the airport is the exact same price as anywhere else. You may as well buy it there. And it’s a good way to use up the last of your currency as it’s completely worthless once you leave the country.

 

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Cuba – Gifts

We had been told in all of our documentation (and in articles online) that the Cuban people have a lot of trouble finding and affording some basic things like: soap, hand creams, notepads, pens, etc. So I had gone to a dollar store and brought with me a small bag of these things, along with candy for kids.

We asked Tony, our guide, over and over about how to give these gifts. He would say things like “give them when someone has done something nice for you.” But the problem is we didn’t have a ton of reason to interact with people who weren’t: A) our guides, B) our hosts, or C) people selling us things. We were told that the hosts tend to be among the wealthier people in the town, so they don’t need these things as much. And of course our guides are getting huge tips from us at the end. And then people selling us things are already getting a potentially largely marked up price. So, then, who??

We started leaving our gifts to the hosts and hoping that they would get distributed somehow. But it felt wrong. Like one of our hosts just watched as Tina, Deepak, Dave, and I sortof unloaded our bags of dollar store stuff onto her table. But it felt almost disrespectful as her home was well-equipped and she was clearly not poor.

We saw beggars only a couple times, asking for soap and pens. I gave one beggar a notebook (I didn’t have a pen) and she pocketed it quickly and went back to begging for a pen. Again, didn’t feel right.

Also, Barbara had asked me when we left for the bus trip (knowing that we would be back), “You didn’t leave anything in the room, right? Nothing like soap or money?” I answered no, wondering if she meant that I should be leaving something…

There were 2 things we brought that ended up being useful.

One was guitar strings. My dad mentioned it right before we left so I grabbed a couple packs the day before our flight. Dave gave them to a guy who let him play the guitar and he seemed genuinely happy.

The other was over the counter painkillers. I talked a bit to Barbara about gifts and told her I’d like to find a clinic to give pain relievers to. She explained to me that medicines were incredibly hard to find and then were very expensive. She said that “Motrin” specifically is around $1 per pill. So I ended up giving her some individually packaged Tylenol and Ibuprofen. She and her brother looked so happy and hugged me.

In a funny coincidence, I had brought some stickers I found that had Mickey Mouse on them. It turns out that Barbara loves Disney, so when she told me that, I pulled out the stickers and she lit up! And then as we were leaving, I gave her some money and then pulled out a single US dollar. She smiled and kissed it and put it on her altar (presumably to bring more US money to her).

Also, at Barbara’s house, we had a miscommunication with the agency about where we would be staying. Barbara was able to convince the agency to let us stay at her place even though the room was taken, so we stayed in her bedroom and she slept with her daughter. In her bathroom, I noticed she was not lacking for soap, cream, razors, etc. All the things we had been told them couldn’t get!

On the last day, we were alone, the tour having ended a day earlier, we went to an alley that was beautifully painted. On this last day I decided I would carry candy around with me to finally find somewhere to leave it or gift it. The alley was right by a playground, so I saw tons of kids. But how do you approach them? I can be a little shy, especially when I don’t really understand the cultural implications of literally being a stranger who is giving free candy to kids. So I saw a sweet 8 or so year old girl and just handed her a whole bag of jawbreakers and walked away. Her eyes lit up and she ran away with her friends to eat it.

I found this fantastic article about gifting, I wish I had read it before we went to Cuba. In the end, I wish I hadn’t brought those things with me. The Cuban people are not as poor as we think. They have their basic needs cared for and those who are enterprising have much more than the basics.

So if you’re going to Cuba, bring: things useful to a specific type of person (musician=guitar strings, artist=paints, student=dictionary, reader=literature in Spanish) and pain relievers in small packages.

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Cuba – Carteras

Instead of advertising, the billboards all had nationalist sayings on them. Everything from eschewing the US blockade to pride in sports, and of course, lots of Che.

This one is about the US blockade:

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This one is about Cuban sports:

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This one is about socialism:

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This one says “Ideas make us a nation of fighters”:

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This one _____

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This one is about the CDR:

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“Socialism or Death”

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Che:

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About the blockade:

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At the Che Memorial

At the Che Memorial

The People:

At the Che Memorial

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Saving money, it’s in your hands:

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How beautiful is Cuba:

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The revolution is invincible:

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Cuba – the flight out

We had to leave at 5:30 AM to check in to our 9 AM flight. Barbara was very sweet and woke up to send us off. We gave her 20 CUC as a tip and I gave her a $1 US bill. She put it on her altar and gave us big hugs goodbye.

When we arrived at the airport, it wasn’t even open yet! Note for next time, find out when the airport opens…regardless of when the flight leaves.

We got through immigration with zero questions. They stamped our passports with an entry stamp (which they back-dated…is that legal?) and an exit. Security was a simple metal detector, but you had to take your shoes off.

When the duty free shop opened, everyone rushed in to buy their rum. We bought 3 bottles, each was about $5. We also bought a few more cigars with the last of our CUCs, they were the exact same price as in the hotel in Havana. Note: if you go to Cuba, just buy your rum and cigars at the duty free.

We arrived in Miami and were pretty much waved through customs. They asked if we had bought anything and we just pointed at our duty free bag. Of course we had more and had receipts and it was within the limit, but this seemed like the easiest answer.

I took some notes about some things to bring on a trip like this next time:

  • a sports bra
  • a fleece for each of us
  • acidophilus
  • a smaller backpack
  • anti-itch cream
  • download more music!
  • candied ginger
  • more Clif bars
  • emergen-c or something to change the taste of plain water

Also, everyone boiled their water in their homes and offered it to us. We weren’t sure if it was okay at first. Once we started drinking it, it turned out to be fine. So maybe next time I’d use my water bottle more.

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