Friday, May 17, 2019

There's more to Travel than Meets the Eye. There are Lessons to be Learned!

Lesson Learned? Don't trust everything you read on booking sites.

I've noticed that booking sites are sometimes inaccurate, especially when listing amenities or, in some cases, the hotel itself.  I arrived in Glasgow, Scotland to stay at a Ramada hotel near the airport.  I booked it online and had all the information, which I even took with me.  I was on foot, so once the bus from downtown dropped me off near the airport, I set out on foot to find it.  I walked around for two hours with no luck.  Did I mention that it was a cold, rainy night?  I finally found it but instead of a Ramada, a Marriott Hotel stood in it's place. I learned that they had changed their name and didn't bother to tell me even in the emails we were sending back and forth during the booking process.
The hotel website also forgot to mention that they were under renovations.  The fire drill went off every ten minutes and my key card wouldn't work resulting in me being locked out of my room every time I left.  Did I mention that the restaurant they had listed was a pantry room with packaged goods which was closed the entire time I was there?

Lesson Learned? Don't Turn Down Once in a Lifetime Opportunities or you'll Regret it Later

I was tired the first night I arrived in Montezuma, Costa Rica so when the other girls staying at the yoga retreat I was staying at decided to attend a beach party happening that night in the village, I turned it down to catch up on sleep instead.  That was six years ago.  I still regret not going with them.  All I heard them talk about all week was the amazing night they had on the beach with live music and friendly locals.
I was sick the day I was supposed to go on a boat tour to Cozumel, Mexico.  I wish I had of just stuck it out and went anyway.  I heard it's a very nice place.
Upon arrival to a show at Harbour Lights in Bridgetown Barbados, I was ushered to a table where some women from Manchester, England were already sitting. We shared conversation, dinner and drinks throughout the night and just when the party was getting started, it was announced that the bus I had arrived in was leaving for the night. The women from Manchester offered to drive me back to my hotel later in the night but I declined and went on the bus instead.  Half way back to my hotel, I regretted the decision but it was too late to go back.
While in Varadero, Cuba, all I heard everyone, tourists and locals alike, talking about was this Cave bar that everyone went to in the evenings. I was traveling alone and thought it best not to venture into night clubs alone so I stayed away.  I found out later it was actually a pretty great place to go and was a bar in a real cave.
A popular way to get around in Montezuma Costa Rica is by ATV.  Many of the other people staying at the Yoga Retreat I was staying at ventured off on adventures to places unreachable by car because they could drive ATV's.  I wish I had of at least tried to learn or had someone show me or take me around on one.  The others found a beach that they claimed was so beautiful, it was indescribable.

Lesson Learned?  Expect the Unexpected

My first day in Barbados was nothing short of disastrous.  Upon arrival at the airport, my shuttle driver was nowhere to be found.  I turned on my phone and logged into my email to send her a quick message to let her know I had arrived and BAM!  I was hit with a thirty dollar charge for 15 seconds of data usage.
Upon arrival to my accommodation an hour later, I was advised to wear bug spray at all times to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes as an outbreak of Chickengunya was affecting the region.  Of course, I neglected to check my governments advisory page where I would have seen this advisory beforehand and therefore would have packed copious amounts of bug spray.
That day was topped up by a gas leak which forced me to move myself and my belongings to another room where I spent the entire first two nights wondering if I was going to die in my sleep from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Venturing onto the highway was interesting in Cuba.  Horse carts? Farm animals? Bicycles? Overcrowded buses and truck beds? Motorcycles?  Pedestrians? Farm equipment? You name it, it's on the road!
After a much-needed nap in a hammock overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Montezuma, I awoke to find a strange creature sleeping underneath my hammock.  To this day, I have no idea what it was.  I waited patiently until it awoke and sauntered away before making any sudden movements.
My arrival to Juan Santamaria Airport to catch my flight home from Costa Rica went without a hitch until I started to board the airplane.  That's when passengers were stopped at the gate and made to surrender all carry on so it could be searched before moving forward.  My carry on bags were pretty much ripped apart and left in a pile of rubble on the floor for me to pick up and repack.  I didn't find out until later that the reason for this impromptu  bag search was due to a terrorist attack that had just occurred at the Boston Marathon.
On a road trip to the Magdelan Islands I decided to camp instead of wasting money on hotels.  Had I read up on the weather in the area, I would have known that camping is not the best idea.  The wind knocked my tent down the first night and it was so windy the next night, I wasn't even able to set up the tent.
In Costa Rica I was a little freaked out by the Geckos that were plastered all over the walls of my room.  Looking up from my bed first thing in the morning and seeing a reptile right above me was kind of unnerving.
I knew it got very hot in Death Valley, California but I didn't know just how hot it could get until I left my air-conditioned car and literally felt the sun cook my skin.
Death Valley National Park
While sunbathing on the beach in Barbados, I young vendor approached me and without speaking a word, started to rub some of the aloe lotion he was selling on my legs.  Mildly disturbed but not wanting to be too rude, I laughed and brushed him away stating I wasn't interested. He backed off but not without wondering if I was interested in seeing what else he had to sell.  I wasn't but he showed me anyway and I couldn't help but wonder if just looking at a pile of illegal drugs was enough to put me behind bars in a Bajan prison for the rest of my life.  Again, I politely said I wasn't interested and got up and quickly left the area without looking back.
If you plan to travel to Scotland, be prepared to pay to pee.  Have no change?  Be prepared to hold it!
Need to use a public washroom in Cuba?  It'll cost you a peso for one square of toilet paper provided by an attendant who will chase after you if you leave without paying!

Lesson Learned?  Be Prepared to be Blown Away

While unexpected negative things will happen while traveling, some of the most magnificent things happen too.  Within minutes of arriving to my hotel in Barbados, I was informed that I was the only guest at the entire complex. But that wasn't all.  I didn't just have an entire hotel to myself; within minutes of my arrival, I was handed a key to a gate that led to a private stretch of sandy beach across the street.  I initially didn't believe this was an actual private beach because all beaches are accessible to the public in Barbados.  Upon seeing this beach, I realized that I would indeed have it all to myself.  While anyone could walk onto it, the little section inside that locked gate, was guarded on both sides by sharp rocks and coral that was virtually impassable.  Imagine!  I am the only person I ever met who had en entire Caribbean beach all to myself for an entire week. Did I mention that I enjoyed home-cooked meals three times a day at that hotel?  Talk about being treated like royalty!
My very own stretch of Caribbean Beach
Anamaya Yoga Retreat in Montezuma, Costa Rica was paradise on earth.  The saltwater infinity pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean was just the start.  My room featured a bed that faced a patio with glass doors overlooking the ocean.  The first thing I saw every morning was the sun coming up over the ocean.
The Saltwater infinity pool at Anamaya
I arrived at the Arenal Observatory Lodge late in the evening and decided to relax with a late-night swim in the pool and dip in the hot tub....that I had all the myself and that had a perfect view of Arenal Volcano.  What a magical night I will never forget!
The swimming pool at the Arenal Observatory Lodge
While visiting the Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico, I followed an old wood road with a sign pointing to a beach called "Playa Santa Fe".  When giant sand dunes and a little beer hut appeared in front of me, I knew I found something special; a deserted beach more beautiful than any I've ever seen before.
Playa Santa Fe in Tulum, Mexico
I was blown away by everything in Costa Rica but it was a memorable and life-changing conversation about Pura Vida I had with a young man working at a smoothie bar that really hit home! I'm telling you, you just never know what life-changing experiences you will encounter while traveling.  These memories are things I will never forget!
The smoothie that lead me to learn more about a Costa Rican way of life
Lesson Learned?  Be Prepared to be Disappointed

Just as much as you will be blown away on your travels, you will be disappointed.  You know that iconic and famous "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign?  Well, it's not quite as you expect in person.  For one, it's very hard to get a good picture of it because there are large crowds gathered around it at all hours of the day and night.  There was a long line-up when I was there.  I wasn't expecting that. The sign certainly looks good in pictures but in reality, it's just a regular sign on a traffic island in the middle of a large highway. Want to have your picture taken?  Better wait until the line clears and take your own unless you are prepared to pay a hefty fee to have the on-site professional take the picture for you.
The epic sign that well, isn't so epic in person
I always pictured Las Vegas as this smallish city that just appears out of the desert with a two-lane road along The Strip and ending back in the desert.  Not quite.  How about multiple lanes of traffic at all hours.
The Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada
Want to grab a bus in Cuba?  Remember that you are on Cuba Time!  Expect long waits well passed the time the bus is supposed to arrive.
While in Playa Del Carmen, I thought I would get an afternoon of shopping in.  I wasn't aware that most places close for a few hours during the mid-afternoon for Siesta.
I failed to research Waverley Station in Edinburgh, Scotland and was overwhelmed by how large the station was upon my arrival.  I spent more than an hour running around in circles trying to find my way to the street.  

Lesson Learned?  Don't listen to Online Reviews

I always read hotel and restaurant reviews and I suggest you do too.  However, only use them as a vague guideline because everyone has different tastes, different expectations and different opinions. I was excited to be staying at a top-rated resort in Varadero, Cuba.  The pictures looked beautiful, the reviews spoke of luxury amenities, lovely grounds and friendly staff.  Within five minutes of my arrival, I knew I made a mistake.  I arrived late at night and was greeted by cranky staff who were fed up dealing with wild guests acting like animals. People screaming and running around throwing things and people into the pools and smashing glass.  I was horrified.  I woke up the next day and opened my door to the site of a half-naked, drunken, passed out middle-aged man. This went on for the entire week. Fortunately, I spent most of my time off the resort where I felt much safer.
The hostel I stayed at in Barbados got terrible reviews but it was the only affordable place I could find. I was worried about what awaited me because other travelers said the staff were mean, there were dogs running around everywhere and the entire place was horrible. I arrived to a large building that was nothing like a hostel, the dogs were pets and served as both my new friends and protectors as they watched over my room the entire week. The food was incredible and the rooms were cozy and well-equipped. The place was the complete opposite of what I had read.
Almost every review I read about the food in Cuba was negative.  Every meal I had in Cuba was well-prepared and delicious....except for some of the meals served at the resort I was staying at.  In other words, if you venture away from the gated resorts, you will find delicious, authentic meals that are not buffet-quality food left out in the sun all day.

Lesson Learned? Even When Traveling Alone, you are Never Really Alone

The first time I traveled alone, I was terrified.  I wanted to go somewhere so badly but no one was available to travel.  I decided to go alone because if I wait around for everyone's schedules to align with mine, I might wait forever.  I went alone to Cuba and had a fabulous time.  I met people, I went on tours, I wandered around Varadero and Havana alone and nothing bad happened to me.
I met wonderful people on my tour of the Scottish Highlands who, upon discovering I was traveling by myself, took me under their wing and made sure I never ate alone.  I bonded with one woman in particular over late-night pizza and a rainy misadventure trying to find our bed and breakfast in a rain and wind storm.  I've traveled many times alone since and nothing bad has ever happened to me.  In fact, I now prefer to travel alone!  Yes, bad things happen but hey, they happen at home too!  Research, common sense and a keen sensitivity to those spine-tingling butterflies you get when something just doesn't seem right will go a long way in keeping you safe while traveling.
I was having trouble trying to find my hotel in Glasgow, Scotland.  I stopped at a service station to ask for directions and a nice man in a company vehicle offered to drive me there as it was quite a distance away. 
In Cuba, a teenage boy selling seashells on the beach approached me, the intriguing and approachable foreigner, on the beach and in broken Spanish, starting to inquire about my life in Canada.  He asked things about snow, my job, whether I was rich and what it was like up north.  In a mix of broken Spanish and English, I answered these questions and was greeted with a look I can only compare to one a deer might have when caught in headlights.  That's when I realized he didn't understand.  The rest of the afternoon was spent having a comical conversation via charades and sand drawings.
In Costa Rica, I enjoyed one of the most enjoyable dinners I ever had.  I entered the room alone and sat down at a table with 20 other people from all over the world who knew nothing about anyone else around the table.  Within the hour, we were eating, drinking and being merry as if we were old friends.  

Lesson Learned?  The World isn't as Bad as I was Led to Believe

If I took everything I heard on the news to heart and based my views of the world it, I wouldn't leave the house, let alone travel.  Yes, bad things are happening.  Yes it can be dangerous out there.  But no, the world is not nearly as bad as we are lead to believe.  News networks have us thinking that Mexico is a very dangerous place and they are right.  It is dangerous.  But not all areas are full of drug cartels and criminals looking to hurt tourists and the regular, local everyday people are some of the friendliest I've met on any my travels.
Before I traveled to Cuba, I was warned by others that women are not treated very well and the men are very forward and aggressive.  The only aggressiveness I experienced from Cuban men was having them approach me to shake my hand, ask where I am from and slide a pretty flower into my hair before going on their way.

Lesson Leaned?  Fear is Overrated. 

From the outside I look like a fearless, adventurer ready to tackle anything but, in reality, I experience fear just like anyone else.  I learned that the key is to not let that fear control my life so much that I never try anything new or take risks. And you know what?  Every single time I pushed my fear aside and jumped into something that scared me, I ended up having the time of my life.
While in Costa Rica, I was offered the chance to take some surfing lessons.  I always wanted to try surfing and was super excited until a few hours before my first lesson.  Fear took over and all I could think about was Jaws, undertows and rogue waves.  With some persuasion, I went in the water.  To this day, learning to surf ranks high on my list of best things I've done.  When I stood on that board and rode my first wave, I forgot all about man-eating sharks and drowning.

During that same trip, I was also offered a chance to go ziplining.  Again, excitement and than fear of falling hundreds of feet to my death or crashing into a tree at high speeds.  I did it anyway and have no regrets.
Jumping off the edge of a waterfall that same day came easy despite some fears.  And no, I didn't sink the bottom and drown or land on any rocks or break any bones.

Lesson Learned? Watch out for the Unseen Dangers

Travel should a relaxing time to let loose and be care-free but be aware of the dangers that do lurk! In Barbados, I learned the hard way that coral is not fun to walk on with bare feet!  I also learned, with almost tragic consequences, that coconuts are a common danger in Barbados and anywhere they grow.  I was taking a leisurely stroll through a public garden with tall coconut trees when that leisurely stroll was shattered by the sound of a loud crashing sound only a few feet behind where I had just stood.  I whipped around to see that a coconut had fallen and smashed on the ground, narrowly missing me and the guy walking a few feet behind me.  Had I been there a few seconds earlier, I would probably be dead.
I knew I would be staying in a remote area of Costa Rica and had I researched the wildlife of the area, I would have known that Jaguars lurk all around the area and I wouldn't have wandered alone down a wood road at twilight.  I ran for my life when something big rustled the trees next to me and it was only after I returned did the locals inform me about the presence of the big cats in the area.
In Canada, we drive on the right of the road.  In the UK, they drive on the left side.  It took nearly being hit by a bus for that to be drilled into my head!  Now, I make sure to always look BOTH ways before stepping onto the street.
Walking on the side of the road in Barbados is terrifying.  Sidewalks are almost non-existent and drivers are oblivious to tourists who are literally hanging onto tree branches on the side of the road to avoid falling into traffic.
A street in Barbados
Coming from a very small town in Atlantic Canada meant I was not used to driving on sprawling interstates like the I-15 outside of Las Vegas where I nearly got my sister and I killed trying to get into the correct lane.

Lesson Learned? Getting Sick while Traveling is an Unfortunate Reality

In Mexico, I thought I did everything to avoid ingesting the tap water.  I drank bottled water only, I asked the bartender to hold the ice cubes and closed my mouth in the shower.  I did well until I ordered an ice tea from the cafe across the street and didn't ask the barista to hold the ice cubes.  I spent 3 days of my vacation in bed, so sick I could barely stand up.  In Costa Rica I neglected to use sunscreen and drink lots of water while at the beach one day and ended up with heat exhaustion.

Lesson Learned?  Poverty and Suffering are all Around
The world is a beautiful place with beautiful people but, unfortunately, some of those beautiful people live in extreme poverty.  You will see things that will break your heart. Roofs caving in, buildings falling in on themselves, people eating from garbage cans, people walking the streets with no shoes and children asking strangers for spare change are some of the things you might encounter while walking through residential neighborhoods away from the touristy areas.  While you might be tempted to swear at or swat at an annoying street vendor, it's important to remember that they are trying to make enough money to feed themselves and their family.  Be nice and if they are selling something nice, why not buy an authentic locally-made item from a local rather than a souvenir made in some other faraway land! 

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