The Cartagena Journals: Playa Blanca

Wednesday

As fate would have it, Wednesday didn’t go as planned. I was supposed to catch an 8:00 am bus to Playa Blanca, but something weird happened. When I booked the tour through my Airbnb host, she gave me clear instructions about the meeting place and that I should arrive early. I arrived at the meeting place at 7:40 am, but never saw a bus arrive to pick me up. My Airbnb host said they called her at 8:00, 8:05, and 8:07 looking for me. I never saw them and they never saw me, but I know I was at the right spot. So my Airbnb host rescheduled me for the 11:30 am bus tour instead. This time the meeting place was at a closer, more precise location and I showed up right on time.

I was the last person on the bus, and there was only one seat left. The bus pulled away before I could even take a seat. As we headed to the beach, the guide stood to greet us all in Spanish. I could translate parts of what he was saying, but I was waiting for him to begin explaining everything in English. A brown-skinned man seated next to me leaned forward to ask his friend in English if he understood what was being said. The friend, like me, could only interpret some parts. When the guide ended his introduction and asked if anyone had questions, I raised my hand and said in Spanish that I needed an English translation. There was none, silly American girl. The two men near me and I quickly realized we were the only ones non-fluent in Spanish on the bus. In that moment of uncertainty, the three of us became friends who vowed to stick together for the day. If we were going to get left at the beach, at least we’d get left together. One band, one sound!

During a short rest stop, the tour guide found an 11-year-old boy to translate the details about the day for us. After confirming all of the information, I was comfortable for the rest of the ride to the beach. We arrived at our drop-off location and had to walk fifteen minutes before we got to the beach. A few vendors were already there when we arrived, but none of them were bothersome. Playa Blanca has a reputation for aggressive vendors selling some of the most random items, but my Airbnb host eased my worries by saying it would be less hectic because it was a weekday.

We were served lunch once we arrived to the beach, and I chose the fried fish. I finished my plate before the open bar opened for business, so I chilled with my two new friends until it opened underneath our shared umbrella and chairs.

The rum and coke flowed until they ran out of coke and orange juice. Then I just had rum on ice. Once that was gone, I tried two coco locos. Before I left for vacation, my doctor told me no drinking and no swimming for two weeks. I survived for one week.

lunch at Playa Blanca

Playa Blanca wasn’t the most beautiful beach with the clearest water, but the water was warm and the day was fun. My original plan was to do some journaling at the beach for most of the day, but my new friends had better ideas. We spent half the time taking photos for social media along with two female flight attendants we met at the beach. We chatted for a while, and the fact that we communicated well with our limited Spanish and their limited English was quite impressive. The group spent the rest of the time riding on jet skis and and a banana boat, while I drifted in the water peacefully. At the end of the day, all five of us agreed to meet up later that night for dancing at Bazurto Social Club.

It was dark by the time we arrived back in Cartagena. I took the short walk back to my Airbnb, but stopped for some dinner at an Italian spot named Di Silvio Trattoria right on the corner. One of the ladies from the beach messaged me on WhatsApp to say she wasn’t meeting us tonight. After a little convincing, she changed her mind. Then she changed it again. I had it set in my mind that I was going whether the other ladies arrived or not. The other ladies eventually flaked, and it was just me and the two guys at Bazurto. We had drinks there, but left soon because there wasn’t much of a crowd. Instead, we walked to the Old City for more drinks and conversation at two rooftop bars.

During the conversation, I discovered that both of the guys were Morehouse men, and one is my frat brother. He and his father are members of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., and his mother and I are members of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. What a small world! We were family!

Our last spot of the night was at Eivissa. The music wasn’t touching my spirit at first, so I went to the restroom to freshen up a bit. While I was there, they started playing Beyonce. Well, that was my queue. I got so excited that I washed my hands in a hurry and ran out of the restroom without realizing I left my iPhone on the counter. The song was over by the time I reached the guys, but the DJ started playing a great set of back to back jams. At some point, I calmed down from dancing a bit, and reached in my purse to grab my phone. That was when I realized I lost it.

I started looking around, and noticed a group of women who “fit the description” of sex workers staring me down. I just knew they had it and were watching me to see my reaction once I realized it was gone. As a flood of assumptions and panic came over me, two gorgeous women with beautiful skin and perky boobs walked up to me and returned my phone. They had found it in the restroom. They knew it belonged to me because my photo was the lock screen, and there weren’t many black women in the building. God bless them forever because I certainly thought some sex workers took it for keeps.

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The energy of the DJ never picked up again, so we walked up to the upper level rooftop bar, to hang out for the rest of the night. The DJ at that level was playing EDM. EDM wasn’t our preferred genre, but we stayed anyway because the weather wasn’t that miserable and the view of the Clock Tower was nice. Once things starting dying down, we all decided to leave after agreeing that we would meet sometime again tomorrow.

The Cartagena Journals: Salsa Lessons and Yellow Fever Vaccines

Tuesday

When I woke up Tuesday morning, my plan for the day was to eat more. I hadn’t been eating enough food and drinking enough fluids since I’d been in Cartagena. I made a sandwich with the groceries I purchased the day before and drank a cup of tea before departing my Airbnb for the first stop on my itinerary – the health department for a free yellow fever vaccine. The yellow fever vaccine was required for a lot of the countries on my top 10 list, including Brazil, Rwanda, and Ghana. The U.S. was charging nearly $300 for the vaccine, and I refused to allow Big Pharma to profit off me with that exorbitant markup. In many Central and South American countries, the cost of the vaccine is minimal.

I headed straight to the Departamento Administrativo Distrital de Salud (DADIS) around the corner from my Airbnb. In broken Spanish, I told the woman at the front desk I was there for a yellow fever vaccine, and she asked for my passport. She wrote my passport information on a form, handed me a number, and told me to take a seat. There were a handful of people already in the small waiting area, and I sat waiting about an hour before my number was called.

I went into an exam room with three nurses. One asked if I was allergic to anything, how old I was, and where I was staying. For people with limited Spanish, there was a cheat sheet with the English translation. Meanwhile, another nurse had already put the vaccine in the needle, wiped an area of my arm with alcohol, and stuck me. The vaccine was manufactured by Sanofi Pasteur, the same manufacturer of the yellow fever vaccine in the U.S., and the shot wasn’t painful at all. The nurse confirmed the vaccine was good for life, gave me the yellow fever card along with a white slip, and sent me on my way. I gave the slip to the woman at the front desk, and I was done. The entire process was simple and free. I walked out of the health department grinning while thinking about all of the countries I could visit since I now had a yellow fever card. This might have been the highlight of my trip.

 

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The Cartagena Journals: Zumba and a Chiva Bus

Live from the Miami Airport! I’m headed to Cartagena, Colombia, but doctor’s orders prevent me from having any fun. No drinking, swimming, or sex. I’m pretty sure that mud volcano is off limits as well. I’m not complaining about being unable to visit that mud volcano, though, because I never really wanted to do it anyway. It just seemed disgusting and a cesspool of bacteria with everyone’s bodily fluids. Still, how am I supposed to be on holiday without liquor? I think I might just take my chances after a few days.

Sunday

My flight arrived three hours late, so I didn’t have any time to get acclimated to the city. I went directly to my Airbnb in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena, settled into my room, got money out of the ATM around the corner, and accepted an invite to Zumba in the park with my Airbnb host. When we arrived to Plaza Trinidad in Getsemani for Zumba, it was filled with locals and tourists. I hadn’t taken a Zumba class since college, and I was certain my moves weren’t up to par, but I was going to try anyway. I made it through three songs before I decided the moves were getting a bit too advanced for me. I gave up and watched the regulars do their thing for nearly two hours. Once it ended, I took the short walk back to my Airbnb and got some rest for the next day.

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30 Things I Learned by Age 30

1. Self acceptance.
I spent most of my late teens and 20s feeling like a failure because I had these highly ambitious expectations for myself. By the time I was 18, it was clear that I wouldn’t accomplish a lot of those goals and it shattered my world. Rebuilding an image of myself as someone I never expected to be – never wanted to be – was daunting for me. Embracing all of me has been a struggle, but thirty years of life has shown me how phenomenal I am on my most basic days.

2. Life is for living, not merely existing.
My grandmother had both legs amputated this year, and our family made the difficult decision to place her in a nursing home. Despite our undying love for her, we could no longer care for her in the way she needed. I am witnessing her life slowly deteriorate, and I am also witnessing her strength and will to live and not just exist despite the circumstances. So much of what my family has weathered this year with my grandmother has made me value the things beyond going to work and going home. I want to have good stories to tell my nieces, nephew, and their kids. When my life is reaching is final days, I don’t want to dwell on all of the things I missed in life. Much of that is why I stopped waiting for others a long time ago; I’ll go on a solo adventure in a heartbeat.

3. People are multifaceted.
I didn’t quite comprehend this until Fidel Castro died, but it makes sense. There seemed to be a 50/50 split between those who despised him and those who loved him. I’ve been to Havana and I’ve seen the effects of the Castro regime. I’ve seen the effects of socialism. Upon news of his death, I reflected on how I felt – how I was supposed to feel. Should I rejoice that the evil dictator was dead or should I mourn for the man who loved his country so much that he overthrew the Batista government for it? It made me realize that good people can do bad things. Bad people can do good things. Humans are complicated creatures and we all have our Achilles’ heel.

4. I have trust issues.
Thirty years of life has taught me to show skepticism toward everyone, and I hate it. I hate that I allowed enough people to betray me to the point that I don’t even trust myself with judging someone’s character. I’m taking small steps to build a healthier level of skepticism by allowing people to earn my trust with time and consistency, but I have a long journey ahead of me. There must be some balance, and I’m understanding that there will always be a risk of being hurt because people are not perfect.

5. I can’t do it all alone.
My mother birthed two children, but I felt like an only child because my brother was ten years older than me. Since he was uninterested in all of the girly things I wanted to do, I found contentment in my own company. As a result, I have always been fiercely independent, but I’m learning that some things in life require the assistance of a friend or family member. I’m making a greater effort to stay in contact with the people I know and love. Continue reading

A Desert Safari in Dubai

As a first-time visitor to Dubai, I was adamant about including a desert safari on my itinerary. I went with Platinum Heritage based on a personal recommendation from a friend, but it was one of the more expensive tour options. There were several companies that offered these safaris, many of which could be found on Groupon, Viator, and Cobone. I wasn’t interested in the adventure of dune bashing or sand boarding, and preferred a more authentic experience in the desert. Platinum Heritage offered that, so I have no regrets about choosing them.

I received an email from them the morning of my tour that provided the exact pickup time from my hotel. When I arrived at my hotel lobby, the guide was there already waiting for me. He guided me to a Ford Expedition, where there was another guest inside. We all went to another hotel to pickup four other guests, so our group included six people and a personal guide. We rode about 40 minutes to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, and received a swag bag with a refillable water bottle for the day. We took a short break to don headscarves to protect our faces from the desert sand. From there, we transferred from the Ford Expedition to a vintage Land Rover and began our drive through the Arabian Desert.

Platinum Heritage Dubai

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A Day Trip to Abu Dhabi

For whatever reason, none of the tour companies I researched offered day trips from Dubai to Abu Dhabi that included a visit to the Louvre. A trip to Abu Dhabi without seeing the recently-opened Louvre was a dealbreaker for me, so I decided to visit the city on my own. The wealthy version of me that doesn’t exist wanted to use a private driver, but the actual factual Jessica had to get around via public transportation.

I started early in the morning from my hotel in Downtown Dubai and took the metro down to Ibn Battuta Bus Station for 5 AED. From there, I hopped on a bus to the Abu Dhabi Central Bus Station for 25 AED. From there, I crossed the street and waited 15 minutes for the #94 bus that took me on a lengthy ride to the Louvre for 2 AED. The ride allowed me to view a bit of the city, which was not as stunning in appearance as Dubai. Abu Dhabi tends to be more conservative than Dubai, and it was easy to see.

Including me, there were about six people who got off at the Louvre bus stop. All of them were Louvre employees except for me. At first glance, the place was dead and there were no other people at the site. As I got to the entrance, I realized that there was another parking area and there actually were quite a few visitors there to indulge in the art and architecture. Continue reading

Dubai: A Long Time Coming

Dubai is the reason I began my journey of international solo travel. It all started on a warm Louisiana Christmas Day in 2014, when something known in history books as Christmasgate occurred. Etihad Airlines, one of the “big three” gulf carriers along with Emirates and Qatar Airways, had an unheard of “glitch fare.” They were pricing flights from the U.S. to Abu Dhabi for less than $200, and I wanted to be in that number when the saints went marching in. It can be difficult to get to the next state for $200, so that was mind-blowing for me. Adding to that, there were no blackout dates. Typically expensive travel holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years were available!

I wasn’t a member of any travel groups back then, so I don’t even remember how I found out about it. I sent a message out to all my friends to see who was coming. No one took the bait. A few responses were positive, but no one actually booked. I got pissed because I knew this was a once in a lifetime airfare. I considered going solo but I had not yet developed comfort with the idea of solo travel. The fare lasted for several hours before it ended, and I regrettably did not book.

It was at that point that I realized I couldn’t sit around waiting for someone to travel with me. The world would go by and I’d still be sitting at home waiting for a travel partner to make up her mind. Never was I going to allow someone else to decide my travel fate. Exploring the world didn’t require another person, and I wasn’t going to miss out on another journey because I didn’t have a travel partner. It was then that I began my journey to solo travel. It took me a while, but I traveled solo to the country of Panama for the first time eight months later. I didn’t even take the time to ask those same friends if they’d like to join because I knew I would have been disappointed. Years later I still get upset when I reflect on that missed opportunity to travel to the Emirates. How could I have allowed my travel life to be dictated by others?

There has been lowered pricing since then, but nothing as good as the Christmasgate pricing. Every damn person that was interested in travel and interested in UAE took their trips while I sat at home twiddling my fingers.

My interest in the country waned after seeing so many people post pics of their visits. Plus, my travel tastes had changed over time and I didn’t think I would enjoy a place like Dubai with all of its glitz and assumed pretentiousness.

When I began planning my annual birthday trip, I decided I wanted to go to Egypt, and was considering another country to add to the trip. I narrowed it down to UAE. I wasn’t even excited about it, and tried to fit in Jordan instead before I decided on the Emirates.

And I went. Continue reading

A Travel Nightmare in Cairo

Getting around Cairo in a car was an experience. No city that I have visited thus far would compare. Most of the street lanes were unlined, and drivers somehow turned two lanes into four. Cars were going in the wrong direction, and it didn’t appear that anyone obeyed the light signals. Honking was continuous, and traffic was around-the-clock. Donkey carriages and pedestrians battled with cars for the right of way, and small scooters squeezed between cars and sped ahead. I was amused by it all. Thankfully, I had a skilled personal driver included in my tour of Cairo, so everything went as smoothly as it could have in a city of 20 million people where four million cars are on the road. Things were hectic, but I felt safe in the back seat with my driver handling it all.

On my last day in Cairo, I had a free day to explore on my own. I decided to spend my day in the Zamalek district visiting a few art galleries, doing a bit of shopping, and having a nice dinner with Nile River views. Uber and Careem were available in Cairo, so I used those apps to get to Zamalek instead of a regular taxi since I feared getting ripped off or having to argue forcefully with a regular taxi. Careem seemed to take longer to arrive, so I used Uber both times.

On the way to Zamalek, I had to close my eyes and believe I would make it to my destination unscathed. It was a long and excruciating drive from my hotel in Giza. At some point the driver entered onto this weirdly designed ramp that looked like it was a one-way. I stared ahead confusedly as he drove up the curved ramp only to see two large trucks speeding down the ramp toward us. I immediately realized the reason the ramp looked like it was weirdly designed. We were ENTERING the highway from the one-way EXIT ramp. Had we gone in the right direction, it would have looked perfectly normal. Somehow, we avoided a collision and the driver entered onto the main highway and proceeded like we didn’t almost die.

That wasn’t even the worst of it. Continue reading

Interactions in Cairo

The hustle in Cairo is no joke! Be careful.

That was the warning I heard constantly from others who had previously visited the city. They told me stories of Egyptians pretending to assist them, then flipping the script and demanding large sums of money for doing almost nothing. Hustles were at the airport, restaurants, tourist sites, souks, and hotels. I couldn’t trust the children. If I handed over my camera to get anyone to take a photo of me, I might not get it back without having to pay a large fee. Painted wood and other cheap materials were being passed off as authentic alabaster. There would be a fee to use the bathroom in the airport. They would attempt to charge entry fees multiple times for places that should be free.  I was expecting people to be rude, aggressive, and aggravating.

Part of me understood. Egypt relies heavily on tourism, but the impact of terrorism has plummeted the industry. The media coverage hasn’t been positive since the Revolution. Many people in the tourism industry weren’t able to support themselves and their families in the same way they previously could. Tourism was down, but those bills didn’t stop. Money needed to come by any means necessary. My tour guide dealt with the questions of safety so much, he started his own #EgyptIsSafe campaign to attract visitors.

With all of those warnings in the back of my head, I walked off the plane wearing my resting bitch face in preparation for the shenanigans that would ensue. In addition to this, I had lots of single dollar bills for tips in my wallet. The concept of handing over money for the most ridiculous reasons wouldn’t feel so annoying since I added “tipping for existing” to my budget.

My interactions in Cairo were mostly pleasant, but I won’t pretend it was all great. When I left my hotel on the first day to buy juice and snacks at the convenience store a few blocks away, I was followed by a man who was trying to get my attention. Continue reading

Welcome to Egypt

It took me three hours to make it out of Cairo’s airport. It was the longest time I have ever spent upon arrive in an airport, and an unexpected reality after traveling for 21 hours. My Emirates flight arrived from Dubai at 11:45 PM, and several other international flights landed within an hour of that time. That meant there were hundreds of people gathered in lines trying to get through immigration. It doesn’t appear that Cairo’s airport has established a method to expedite this process, but there was a separate line for diplomats and other VIPs that had zero wait time. There were over 30 lanes available, but only five officers working. I felt like I was at Walmart.

The wifi in the airport is limited to 30 minutes, and one has to provide an access code that is sent via text in order to connect. Well, my phone was not working in Cairo at all so there was no way for me to receive a text with a code that would allow me to connect to the airport wifi for 30 minutes in order to let my driver know that things were moving very slow at passport control. I was so afraid that he would leave after assuming I didn’t show up. Then I would have to fend for myself and negotiate a taxi to my hotel, a thought that gave me anxiety. Continue reading