Tuesday 4 November 2014

10 reasons to visit Cuba

Edit: We didn't get shortlisted :( but if you are a friend of Tiva or me then we can get you a 15% discount off the Cuban Adventures tours - just get in contact!


More specifically 10 reasons why my friend Tiva and I should be selected to visit Cuba with Virgin Atlantic and Cuban Adventures. Yes it's a competition and yes I will be expecting you to vote for us!

Help complete our dream! 

I've known Tiva since we were teenagers and probably for about as long as I've known her, she's been wanting to visit Cuba, help complete the dream of a lifetime and give us this opportunity!

We are multicultural, seasoned world travellers. We have both backpacked around the world (separately, 14 years apart!) and been on multiple trips together, but we've never made it to Cuba. I've been blogging about food and travel for years. Tiva is obsessed with history & culture and speaks fluent Spanish (mine is definitely more beginner, but I have done some lessons!)

We are great travel buddies and have been to a dozen countries together over the years. Some of our highlights have included onsen in Japan, a music festival in Spain, skiing in France, mud bathing in Turkey, white water rafting in Fiji, beer drinking in Prague and festa-hunting in Malta.

So why should you vote for us? Well these are the reasons why we want to go to Cuba....

1. Listen to the music!
We discovered Jehro singing about Cuba in a hostel bar in Istanbul.

We also love the music of the Buena Vista Social Club and would love to see the grassroots places where that music originates. 

Old gentlemen in guayaberas playing guitars like they are an extension of their hands, laughing, smoking cigars and telling stories, and perhaps some.....

2. Dancing in the streets of Old Havana

We both love dancing and Cubans are world famous for their salsa moves. We can't wait to learn from the best, on a hot night with live music and free-flowing Cuba Libre! This song by Gloria Estefan always got Tiva dancing in the street and is all about longing for Cuba.

Maybe we could make a Cuban version of this crazy, inspirational and utterly uplifting video:

3. Learn about Cuba's history and culture
Tiva's an archaeologist and fascinated by history and I've got the travel bug, big time – I've just spent the last year travelling the world and blogging all about it. 

We would love to visit some of the oldest colonial sites in the Americas and learn about Cuba's fascinating and turbulent history, from its discovery in the 15th century by Christopher Colombus to its recent relations with the US:

4.  Meeting the locals
We know full well that the best way to get to know a place is to get to know its people, and how better to do that than in a homestay? In the last year I've stayed with families in Laos, Cambodia and Ecuador, and its the best way to learn the culture, eat the food cooked 'homestyle' and learn the language - especially if you're playing with the children!
Cambodian homestay last year
With my Quiteño family in Ecuador this year whilst volunteering with UBECI.

We both go out of our way to welcome visitors to London with open arms through Couchsurfing and AirBnB. I had the homestay experience in Cuba highly recommended from other travellers who have done it - and we won't forget some Western products as little luxuries to thank our hosts :)

5.  Eating Cuban Food!

Both of us are keen cooks. I love to blog about my food adventures (both cooking and eating!) and Tiva especially loves Caribbean food – she always has a bottle Mojo in her fridge and her favourite sandwich in the world is a Medianoche. (By the way, London may be an incredibly diverse and international gourmand's city, but you CANNOT get a decent Medianoche here!) 

We can't wait to sit in the Cuban morning sun sipping cafe con leche and sampling a selection pastelitos de guayaba and freshly picked tropical fruit.

Enticing Cuban dishes

We'll try everything - at least once!

6. Vamos a la Playa!

Let's go to the beach!

Cuba has plenty of beautiful Caribbean beaches to relax on, something that we'd both like to take advantage of, although I have to be careful with my pale English skin,Tiva can get away with it with her Mediterrean olive complexion! 

Sun screen? Check! Hats? Check!

8.  Diving: seeing Cuban sea life from under the water
We're both qualified scuba divers (Tiva to PADI Rescue and me just to PADI Advanced) and we would love to explore the beauty of Cuba's wildlife under water.

Me getting ready to dive in the Red Sea in 2013.

Tiva on a dive during her travels

Yep we are water babies :)

8.  Revelling in Havana's historic architecture

Tiva with her professional experience in archaeology, heritage and conservation is supremely interested in the architecture of Havana - a UNESCO world heritage site. Havana has all styles of architecture - from Baroque & classical to the crumbling faded grandeur of the colonial buildings - something to interest everyone and definitely a place to take atmospheric photos!

9.  Pay our respects to El Che
Iconic shot of the Argentine socialist Che Guevara.

Tiva's got some Argentine ancestry so she's particularly interested in learning more about El Che, the hero of the Cuban Revolution.  Che is an important historical figure for the whole of South America so we want to learn more at the Che Guevara museum and visit his mausoleum.

10. Drinking the rum - Cuba Libre!

Rum is a big part of the Caribbean culture and Cuba is no exception. Rum is made out of the sugar cane molasses - the cane is grown all over the region - so rum is made everywhere!

A selection of the different Cuban rums we want to try!

Not sure about Barcardi's claim, but we want to try the Cuba Libre cocktail and the Havana Club rum :)

I'm a big gin fan so I would be interested to see how rum is made and how different flavours are incorporated into it.

Now you've read it all - vote for us! Stay tuned for details! :)

Sunday 2 November 2014

Tuesday 24 June 2014

What's Katie Doing Back in London?

Want to find out what I'm doing now I'm back?

For London focused gin, wine, fun in the sun follow my new blog What's Katie Doing?

Friday 6 June 2014

13 Backpacking essentials

After travelling the world for the last year I've learnt a few things about backpacking.

There are some essential items and top tips that I've either learnt from experience or have picked up from people I've met:

1 Backpack

The main thing is to have a backpack (doh!) - but a really good one for travelling will be:
- Large enough to live out of, but not to large that it'll be too heavy to carry when full; 
- It will have a front opening zip - i.e. It will open like a suitcase enabling packing and finding things quickly (Unlike a top opening hiking backpack)
- And it'll have a waist strap so you'll be supported when carrying 20 kilos of stuff home!

You'll need more space if you are doing a trip with multiple climates - otherwise try to get away with the smallest bag possible. 

My trusty backpacks - the little one was good for 2-4 week trips and the large one was perfect for my 5 months in South America - thanks Susanna for lending it to me - now I just need to figure out how I'm going to get back to you in New Zealand....

2 Packing cubes

This might sound like overdoing it for some people, but for me it really helped with packing stuff quickly (vital when you need to catch that bus NOW!) and keeping things in order, so clean clothes separate from dirty and everything flat so less creased and ready to wear without looking like you're living out of a bag.

My best purchase from the post office in the last year (they really do sell random travel crap there - check it out next time you're queuing!) Also the travel storage bag is good if you are taking jumpers or bulky items. You put your things in the bag, seal it and then roll to expel the air - so it takes up less room in your bag.

Top tip - put some tumble dryer sheets in your packing cubes/bags to limit the musty smell / cross contamination from dirty clothes!

3 Antiseptic hand gel

I know everyone knows about this one - except I would include you need one that attaches to the outside of your bag. This enables you to use it without touching everything with your dirty hands to open the bag and locate the gel. I saw this first with a Canadian couple on my Morocco trip and then stocked up for me and my friends when I was in the States -  now I see them everywhere!

4 Sewing kit & duct tape

These are invaluable to fixing any of the rest of your stuff - from clothes to bags, to engineering a solution to hold your water next to your bunk (thinking particularly about the duct tape now...). Very worth having around - I used the sewing kit lots.

5 A day bag that doesn't look like a handbag

I would add that it shouldn't look or be expensive either. I had a great little ripstop nylon bag from Kathmandu that was used so much during my year that it's effectively died (even after I sewed it back together - see above). It was a cross body bag that doubled as a beach bag (big enough for a towel), a shopping bag and a carry on bag.

But most importantly it didn't look posh or that it contained anything valuable. It also allowed me to be hands free, but because it wasn't a backpack I could access things without taking it off - useful on public transport when you want to keep an eye on your stuff but hide your camera away.

This seems particularly more important given the few stories I've heard about muggings or potential muggings during my time in South America. The best advice for that is to not carry anything valuable with you and for girls - hide your purse in your bra!

There's no picture as unfortunately Kathmandu has stopped making these bags - RIP!

6 Flipflops

Invaluable in any hot climate - potentially the only shoes you'll need if they are nice enough and your not climbing mountains!

My lovely Havianas!

7 Medication

Always take a medical kit - it doesn't need to hold much, but those plasters, paracetamol and rehydration sachets will be great when your ill, whether it's self inflicted or not! If you can get them, take a course of general antibiotics too - if you go to Asia you can buy these cheap there. Definitely what you need when stuck somewhere without a proper pharmacy when you are ill enough to need them. 

(Ps lack of pharmacies doesn't appear to be a problem in South America - they were everywhere! But maybe not up a mountain...)

8 Pack valuables in your hand luggage

After a couple of friends lost bags or had them go walkies when flying this advice is more relevant. Pack your valuables in your hand luggage. So that's your phone and charger, your jewellery, any irreplaceable souvenirs and if you have space a change of clothes. That way if your main bag doesn't turn up at least you have something clean!

9 Neck pillow, earplugs and eye mask

Even if you aren't doing mega long bus rides (although if you are travelling as a backpacker you probably will - the savings compared to flying buy many beers!) a blow up neck/head pillow will allow more comfort anywhere. On the plane, train, bus or even in the tent or hostel bed.

Ear plugs and eye masks are the best way to ensure a good nights sleep in the dorm room - so even if your roommates are being inconsiderate you won't get disturbed when they chat and turn the light on (well hopefully - depends exactly how loud they are!)

10 Washing line, sink plug & hand washing powder

Only really relevant in hot countries where you'll have space to hang stuff to dry - so ideal for the beach! However I did leave my washing line in Cambodia and didn't need another one for the last 6 months of my trip. Most places if you need to get washing done will be cheap (exception was Brasil but it was the cleanest any of my stuff had been in 7 months!), however if you only need to do your swimsuit or knickers then this is useful. 

11 Padlocks

To secure your stuff - e.g. your bag when you chuck it on that overnight bus, or to lock valuables in a locker when staying in a dorm room. Get TSA approved locks if you transit through the US and take a few - I found the combination locks most useful. 

12 Chargers & travel adaptors

If you have USB charging cables take a dual USB travel adaptor with you. If not at least make sure you have travel adaptors that work in the countries that you are visiting. Universal travel adaptors can be found at the airport, the post office, that random shop on the high street - you get my drift!

13 Caribiners

Absolutely vital for attaching stuff to you or your bag. 

The lipsalve sling was also useful!

And finally take less stuff!

The old adage goes that you should organise everything you want to take with you and lay it all out. Then pack half the amount of stuff and take twice the money - you can always buy stuff when travelling and this might be a good way to double up the usefulness for souvenirs. Although I don't agree with wearing things before giving them as gifts (you know who you are!)

Also taking less stuff leaves room for those souvenirs - you don't want your bag full before you leave, athough the holy grail moment when you can arrange your bag to get those trainers to fit in is amazing!

Now I'm back from my travels what am I going to do?

Well you can find out on my new blog - What's Katie Doing? - and follow my exploits in London and attempts to get a job :)

Wednesday 28 May 2014

Best travel apps

One of my essential pieces of kit - after a camera of course - was my iPad mini.

The size is similar to a kindle and with the kindle app I didn't need to pack both and could keep my reading addiction up to date easily (not sure how much I spend downloading books but it was a lot even with amazon vouchers!)

So I've decided to share my favourite apps for travelling:

Kindle - for reading and saving/viewing documents

As mentioned a great app for ease of use downloading amazon purchases or even their free books (many classics are free).

You can download books to read on your iPad and iPhone and sync the two if needed. Also you can read and save PDFs and other documents.

This was indispensable for me, I saved my travel insurance policy, my itinerary and lots more!

Cost: Free to download to both Apple and Android devices from Amazon 

Blogger - for writing and publishing blogs to blogspot.com

The blogger app from gmail is a great way to get started with blogging and this app makes it easier to write offline and add photos etc without needing to use third party computers with all the attendant virus risks.

I've used this for the past year to keep my blog up to date and the only caveat I have is that I didn't create my blog on it so I can't comment on that. The app has really come a long way in development in the last year although I still can't load videos through it.

Cost: Free to download, anyone with a gmail account can create a blogspot.com blog via gmail and from conversations with other bloggers it's a lot more straight forward for beginners than word press

Twitter - for communicating with the wider world ;)

This is a multi functional app for me - I post my blogs on twitter so they are searchable and accessible by people I'm not friends with on Facebook, and twitter posts this info to Facebook too, I don't have to do it twice.

I use twitter for information and events, to share comments with others and to get inspiration.

It's also a great way to contact companies - e.g. I recently tweeted United to ask about leaving the airport during a layover (I didn't leave the airport in the end but United answered super quick!). I also used it to contact the British Embassy when we thought we might get stuck in San Agustin, Colombia, due to strikes and road blocks! The Embassy answered fairly quickly but were unable to help much - never mind we got out alive...

Cost: Free to download

Moldiv - for editing your photos 

Got a lot of photos and want to share but don't want to post them all separately? 

Need to photoshop someone in/out of a photo?

Well Moldiv is the app for you! 

Being able to combine photos in different ways is Moldivs strong point. Having only discovered the 'photoshopping' function - being able to cut people out of one photo and then add them to another - I haven't made full use of this, but I think Facebook will appreciate it in times to come!

Here's an example of what I've managed to do with it - imagine what you could do with lots of time & practise...

Cost: Free to download

Dropbox - for sharing photos

This is a good app for sharing photos with people you meet on your travels but perhaps aren't Facebook friends with (or when one or the other of you is trying to hide the fact that your travelling when work thinks you're sick!).

Unfortunately I filled mine pretty quick with backing up photos from my iPad (not enough capacity when you're filling up 16 GB SD cards!). The app allows you to share folders of photos, view other peoples folders and download photos from them.

Note: if you have a google/gmail account then you can use picasa or google plus to backup photos. You can also share these with other people and post links to the albums to Facebook etc, however it's a web based access rather than an app and downloading photos to an iPad seems impossible (you can't expect android to talk to apple!)

Cost: Free to download 

Touchnote - for turning your photos into cards

Still talking about photos - I love this app! It enables you to turn a photo into a postcard or other type of card (birthday, random occasion etc) and sends it to your friend/ family member in whichever country they are in.

I've used it for my Dad's birthday card and postcards to friends in several countries and I'm sure it will come in handy for the future. You can also order in bulk - e.g. Design a Christmas card and print lots to be delivered directly to you to then send out, or to send directly to a group of people.

Cost: free to download

Skype - for video calling and cheap calls

A great one for keeping in touch with peeps back home - like the bank when your mobile doesn't work and your card details have been stolen...

You can video call anyone with Skype, you can phone any number with Skype credit and it's away cheaper than using your mobile abroad.

Does require a wifi connection though and sometimes the video can freeze if the connection isn't fast or strong enough

Cost: free to download

FaceTime - to video call other apple users

The Apple only version of Skype - you can video call or message people who are also on an Apple product (as long as you have the email address their device is registered to in your contacts). I use this a lot to talk to family - especially right now given that my phone isn't working :s 

Cost: free with apple devices, works with front facing cameras only

My Orange/My EE - to keep track of your mobile phone credit

Now that Orange is basically EE (but not quite - I'm not sure what the rebranding was about at all!) these apps try and do the same thing, which is to let me know how much I've spent on my phone. 

Great for PAYG customers trying to keep track of their credit without having to use it to phone Orange from abroad. Not the best app for monthly contracts - I was never able to register properly...

Cost: free to Orange/EE customers

Google maps - to get around in foreign parts!

Not always better than just googling a place - but useful to get directions and see what else is nearby. 

The only downside over using this rather than just taking a screenshot of the web page is that it shows the maps in local script, unfortunately I don't read Arabic or Thai, but this was useful when showing taxi drivers where to go.

Cost: free to download

FairFX & other credit card apps - to keep track of your money

I've particularly mentioned FairFX as these prepaid credit cards are super useful when travelling (especially after I got my barclaycard details stolen). 

The app makes the experience even better - the transactions are updated real time so you can check exactly how much credit you have left, you can set up payment options to load money onto the FX card simply and quickly and you get a decent exchange rate for foreign currencies.

I've also used the mobile/iPad apps for my other credit cards and they've also been useful to keep track of your bills whilst travelling, but none are as easy as FairFX!

Cost: free to download - you'll need to apply for the card first to be able to use it

Trail Wallet - to budget your trip and keep track of expenses

It looks like this app can no longer be downloaded, which is a shame as it's a great budgeting & expense tracking application.

I particularly like the feature of being able to set up multiple currencies and it translates these back to your home currency. It's flexible so you can set up your total budget or budget by day and it'll show you both, it averages your expenditure against the total so even if you go over one day you can be reassured that you haven't broken the total trip budget.

The pie chart of expenditure also appeals to my inner accounting geek and the sarcastic comments when you go over budget are funny!

Not sure what to recommend in its place - there are plenty of similarly functioning apps out there, so google travel budget & expenses to see a selection.

Cost: This one was free to download but only allowed 30 transactions to be entered before you had to pay and upgrade - but for around £1.50 this isn't much and that seems to be the going rate for similar apps on the app store at the moment

Banking apps - for checking you've got the money!

Sorry for the generic title - I don't want to big up anyone bank in particular. A mobile banking app is invaluable for being able to access your account information and transfer funds quickly and easily. 

I wouldn't use your normal debit card when abroad for a long period of time - this is where FairFX and similar cards should come into play - but being able to access your current account &/ savings account is key.

Cost: most banks have free apps to download to mobiles and tablet devices

Xe currency - For converting currencies

How much does that cost in real money? Just check it out on xe currency converter - you preset yr currencies and then enter the amount of the relevant one and it shows you how much that is in all the rest. 

E.g. £65 is 205,900 COP or 889 Argentine Pesos (top tip never change money officially in Argentina - you'll get a way better rate on the 'blue' market).

The only thing to be wary of is that the rates that xe source are interbank - you are unlikely to get such good rates as a tourist, however it's great as an indication and even better if you're FX trading!

Cost: free for the basic one - the pro version costs but you'll only need this if your trading FX. Don't pick the wrong one!

itranslate - to translate from one language to another

This one is a good app for translating from English to Spanish or vice versa. This is better than just using google to translate as it keeps the translations in the history - allowing you to show the pharmacist exactly what you need when offline (Nb the old school way to do this is to use a pen and paper...)

Cost: free

United app - for all your United airlines needs

This one doesn't have to be specific to United - any airline app would be useful as long as it's the one you've got flights with! I like the functionality of this one - your reservations, electronic boarding passes, mileage information are all in one place. 

Even better it has free sudoku!

Cost: free

Airstash+ - for extra storage and sharing films when used with the Airstash USB stick

If you like to watch films etc on long bus journeys this is a perfect app. Rather than filling the memory of your iPad you save films, TV shows, music, photos on the Airstash USB stick (you need to plug it into an actual computer to load stuff on).

Then the inbuilt wifi in the Airstash USB means you can access from any device - including iPads that don't have USB ports. Even better you can share films etc with up to 3 devices at once via this app and the wifi function.

The only drawback with this is that when working with iTunes you can't share content :(

Cost: the app is free to download but the wifi Airstash USB does cost a lot - check out Amazon for latest prices and be aware that you usually have to buy an SD card separately.

Games - Solitaire, Marble Mixer, Flightctrl HD:


For when you want to be alone and play alone.

Cost: free!

Marble Mixer

Great for playing with kids of any nationality - I've played with children in Cambodia and Ecuador!

Cost: depending on version free or $1.99

Strangely addictive - just don't play it too much on the plane with the crash sounds turned on!

Cost: not sure how much I paid for it - but it may have been £1.50 and it was totally worth it!