Packing for 5 Days in Cuba

Two weeks ago, I had the chance to return to Cuba on a mission trip to a town outside of Havana. We were there to participate in several outreach activities with the local community served by the church we partnered with back in 2015.

We visited several churches, led or participated in children’s ministries, and played soccer and softball. All this was done in the Caribbean summer, with no air conditioner. The heat and humidity was nothing new, as it was about as pleasant as daily life in Louisiana, but it did influence the packing list somewhat.

I will preface my list with a blanket statement of disappointment: I failed to achieve One Bag status yet again.

I brought my Ful Underseat Roller and my Outdoor Products 29L Odyssey backpack that I currently use as a fishing bag. I didn’t want to bring my North Face Vault and throw it in the dirt every day. Below is the list of things I brought and where I think I went wrong.

Travel Day Clothes

  • 1 short sleeve button down shirt
  • 1 t-shirt
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 boxer brief
  • 1 pair of socks
  • 1 pair shoes

Ful Underseater/Outdoor Products Odyssey Backpack

  • 3 t-shirts
  • 3 boxer briefs
  • 3 socks
  • 2 shorts
  • 1 pair flip flops
  • 1 packable rain jacket

Non-Clothing Items

  • Toiletry kit
  • Liquids kit
  • Electronic bits
  • Travel documents
  • Snacks
  • Flush-able wipes

Problems and Rants

The biggest problem I had was the combination of the snacks and bulk of the flip flops and the lack of trust in the sturdiness of the backpack.

Technically, I could fit everything but the snacks in the backpack but the result was a tighter fit than I was comfortable with. I did not want a zipper failure mid-trip. I also wanted a few snacks for the crazy hours of our transits.

After separating my things between both packs, neither was too full or heavy. However, it was a still nuisance to deal with travel documents, shoes and security lines with multiple bags in hand. I always felt like I was going to leave the roller behind.

After three trips now with 2 small carry-on bags, I have determined it would be easier with just a roller or a backpack – not both. I want one place for my travel documents. One thing to put through security. Preferably nothing to nearly leave behind in the bathroom. I digress …

Overpacked

For this trip, I followed a wear 1/pack 3 approach (1+3) for all but my shorts, which used 1+2. This was the final straw in illustrating why the 1+2 method should work in every case when sink washing clothes will occur.

Due to the oppressive heat, every shirt needed to be washed at the end of the day and due to the fact that many of the Cubans we were around seemed to rotate the same attire, wearing the same shirts repeatedly was perfectly fine.

I took home an entire change of clothes I did not wear. However, if given the chance to shower before heading to the airport, I would have changed into them just to have fresh clothes for the plane and car rides.

I did not use the packable rain coat. It only rained once during the day, and it was such a welcome relief that I chose to get wet instead of have a sauna in a rain shell. That will be replaced with a disposable poncho or umbrella next time.

I also didn’t need the snacks I brought, save for maybe two protein bars.

Overall Results

I did not have much electronics on this trip. I did have two phones: a busted iPhone 5 that I used as my offline Google Translator and camera, and my backup phone for stateside communication. I had USB and Lightning cables, one wall plug and a Euro adapter (they have combo outlets).

I regret nothing except maybe a better camera, like a mirror-less or something similar.

My bag and shower flip flop situations are still the biggest limiting factors to achieving one-bag status. I need some kind of minimal flip flop for sketchy showers.

I also think the 1+2 method of packing will be standard moving forward since I do not mind shower-washing my clothes.

My goal is still one-bag only, and while I didn’t achieve it, I have only confirmed the need for it and built my confidence to do it next time.

Cane River Creole National Historic Park

During the Christmas holidays, the family piled into the car and spent an evening in Natchitoches for their annual Festival of Lights and fireworks. While that was nothing to write home about, the slight detour to one of the few National Park areas in Louisiana was more entertaining.

Due to timing, we were only able to picnic at one of the sites – Cane River Creole’s Magnolia Plantation in Derry. This site was mainly grounds and the well-preserved buildings of tenant quarters and general store.

Unfortunately, the other site had the actual home that you could tour, so we just did the brief self-guided tour and talked to the park ranger for a bit.

For a small stop and picnic place, it was worth the leg-stretching walk to get a glimpse into pre-Civil War Louisiana. Here is a brief pictorial tour:

West Ship Island

At the western edge of the Gulf Island National Seashore sits the Mississippi units of Davis Bayou and West Ship Island. Ship Island is part of the barrier island complex protecting the Mississippi coast from Mother Nature.

West Ship Island is the only island accessibly by public transportation, as the others can only be visited by private small craft. With this as the backdrop, my family made the two-hour drive to Biloxi to ride the ferry to check out the desert island.

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The ferry ride was a leisurely one-hour affair, aboard a double-decker, fully-enclosed boat.  There were plenty of seats available given the weekday we chose – especially during the school year and the fall.  It was comfortable, and featured restrooms and a snack bar.

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The post-hurricane weather and gulf cooperated with us and trip was very pleasant. We even spotted a few dolphins each way! On the deck, you could actually walk around the perimeter of the ferry and stand on the bow for the best views.

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Obligatory National Park Sign picture.

After docking on the north coast of the island, a boardwalk took us through a marsh, past a pre-Civil War fort, restrooms and a small food shop and deposited us on the southern coast, where the best sandy beach is located.

During the fall, you have about three hours to enjoy a stranding on a deserted island. We rented two beach chairs and an umbrella and spent the early afternoon relaxing why the kids played in the sand.  Lunch at the snack bar was not terribly expensive – about $20 for four hamburgers – considering they have you trapped.

One disappointment was that a hurricane passed through the area only days before. It actually closed the island for a few days, and the island only just opened the day before we were set to arrive. However, the fort was still flooded from the storm surge and was still closed to the public.

Fort Massachusetts was actually the primary reason I wanted to go, so this was quite disheartening. Nevertheless, we listened to a brief ranger-talk about the history of the island, all the while plotting our return to get inside.

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Reveal your secrets.

All things considered, I am very happy with the little island getaway. The fact that it is a National Park and day use-only meant that it was nearly pristine. The time of year we choose, while on the cold side, ensured that the crowd was on a fraction of the normal summer size.

As for the fort, well, there is always next time!

A Day on Henderson Lake

If you ask any person what the first thing that comes to mind when you mention Louisiana, you will like get one of three things: New Orleans, Cajuns, or swamps.

As a born- and still-raised South Louisianian, I can say that there is not much else besides these things. However, it cannot be overstated just how awesome these things truly are.  After all, Louisiana’s license plates once read “Sportsman’s Paradise” for good reason.

A few weeks ago, we went and checked out one particular swampy area in the heart of Cajun country – Henderson Lake. This lake is part of the massive Atchafalaya Basin and the jumping off point of numerous swamp tours.

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We choose an airboat to cruise the lake, weaving through the semi-submerged forest of cypress trees. The airboat was actually superior to the other conventional boats, as we were able to ride on top of weeds, muck, and extremely shallow spots that would have wrecked even a kayak.

Our route took us from Henderson all the way to Butte La Rose. Our guide pointed out nesting osprey along the way. The piece de resistance, though, was the alligators that we spotted in a remote bend of on of the waterways.

After the guide killed the engine, several gators swam toward our boat – waiting for the guide to toss bits of meat into the water.

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There were a few “small” ones and one rather large alligator. There was also a brave spotted gar that swam between the reptiles.

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Being on a flat-bottomed airboat, surrounded by alligators, was certainly a humbling experience. Both you and the gators knew that they could be in the boat as quickly as they pleased.

Thankfully they stayed in the water, happily munching on the bits that were tossed out to them. After growing tired of the ogling, the alligators swam off and we made our way back to the landing.

It was a relaxing swamp cruise, with a covered boat and an early summer breeze. Despite this trip only being my second official swamp tour, I grew up with a family fishing camp and access to a boat or two. It certainly brought back fond childhood memories for me.

I can certainly see why land-locked tourists come down to the bayous of Louisiana for a tour like this.

Percy Quin State Park

This past spring break, we hit the road for a small weekend trip to visit a nearby Mississippi state park – Percy Quin. The park is less than 1.5 hours from our home, so it made for a very pleasant and quick road trip.

As children, both me and my wife camped at Percy Quin – in either tents or campers. However, campers are not really in our budget at the moment, and I cannot convince anyone to try tent camping with me yet.

Percy Quin provided a quiet and beautiful getaway, and although we stayed in a cabin, you spend all day outside anyway.  Our accommodation was called a cottage, though it was technically a mobile home. It was spacious and newer than the smaller cabins and had one extra bedroom, which made it much easier on sleeping arrangement (kids will fight about everything).

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Our front door opened to a small covered patio and a great view of Lake Tangipahoa. We actually had lake views on two sides due to being on a small peninsula of land with three other cottages.  Great for privacy, safety and solitude.

Activities at any campground are the same: exploring, bike riding, fishing, and lounging.

The fishing from the bank was disappointing, despite a pier and quiet cove. But their were fish around if you had a boat or kayak. The freezing cold front did not help matters any.

The bike riding and exploring were two areas where Percy Quin did not disappoint. The park is quite hilly and fully surrounded by forest, so there was not a boring spot to ride anywhere in the park. We rode from one end to the other, found more piers, toured the actual campsites, located the mis-mapped playground and found the hiking trail.

After the one night of rain we experienced, we took a vehicle to the furthest point of the park to the dam and walked around the spillway and nearby hills.

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The absolute gem of the park is the scenic nature trail – an 8 mile path from the top to the bottom of the western border of Percy Quin. My wife was not amused at the thought of getting lost in the woods, but to her defense, we did not find the trail until it was too late. What portion we did hike was very nice, with a mix of raised boardwalks over swamp and traditional marked dirt paths.

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Part of the trail had been damaged and re-routed over the years, but the ruins left an eerie reminder of who is actually in charge of the great outdoors!

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State parks can offer an affordable weekend getaway. Sure, it may not have been “real camping” but if I am in the woods and spending my day outdoors and unplugged, then I am definitely one happy camper!

Chalmette Battlefield

As part of a concerted effort to visit more National Park sites – especially those within my home state of Louisiana, I started off 2018 with a short hop to the outskirts of New Orleans to visit a historic battlefield with my children and parents. My kids have proven to be fairly receptive to this new endeavor, thanks to the National Park Passport and Junior Ranger programs.

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The Chalmette Battlefield is a National Park site within the Jean Lafitte Historic Park and Preserve, which encompasses some other random sites throughout south Louisiana: cajuns, swamps and the War of 1812. Turns out that there may actually be a connection to the infamous Jean Lafitte at each of the sites, but I have yet to visit any of the other sites to learn what that may be.

The Chalmette Battlefield is the place that cemented Andrew Jackson’s status as a national hero and the site where a relatively new state defended its crown jewel, New Orleans, from a British invasion.

This particular weekend was the 203rd anniversary of the battle, and I thought the living historians in attendance would capture my kids’ fickle attention more so than staring at an empty field (we will work on that).

The Park Rangers and volunteer historians did not disappoint. The interactive campsite setups where all decked out in period gear – from clothes, sleeping arrangements, cooking and dining, and last but not least, soldiers and weaponry.

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There were musket firing demonstrations as well as field piece (cannon) demonstrations by teams of historians who drilled with the same techniques as the soldiers of the time.

The talks and interaction with the historians brought the displays to life and it was very interesting to see a fraction of just how difficult it would have been for the people during those times.

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While Louisiana can not compete with other states with the traditional National Parks, like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, we make up for it with some interesting history and war-related sites.

I can not say I would fly to New Orleans just to visit this site, but if you are in the area – especially when re-enactments are taking place – I wholeheartedly recommend checking out this picturesque battlefield.

A Day in Ohrid

I imagine many travelers argue that one day is hardly enough time to experience a place. I definitely agree with this sentiment, even though I admit to enjoying cruises with their singular port days.

However, given the opportunity to explore an area for one day or shrugging a place off because there is not enough time to get an “authentic experience” – I will always take what I can get.

This is a continuation of our day that started out by visiting Saint Naum Monastery, just inside the North Macedonian border. In an ancient city and UNESCO World Heritage Site like Ohrid, it turns out that there is quite a good deal you can see.

Old Town Ohrid

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We arrived at the City Square of Ohrid, near the port and made our way into the old town. Our first order of business was to eat lunch before heading up the hillside to the remains of a fortress that once protected the town. We meandered through the cobblestone streets, peering into shops where artisans carved intricate wooden designs or created parchment from scratch.

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We stopped for pizza at a little restaurant that was situated in the courtyard of a Middle Age-era Orthodox church. I regret not going in but photography was strictly forbidden anyway, so I would have had no way to preserve the visit. I did walk around the building though, and the exterior was amazing in its own right.

Saint Sophia

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After eating, we continued our winding trek uphill toward the fortress. Along the way, interspersed among the shops and houses stack on top of each other, were the remains of the old city walls or other ancient structures, like this Roman theater from around 200 BC. Not sure what the cover is doing there, but perhaps they still use it for something.

Ancient Roman Theater

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At the top of the hill, we arrived at the the massive fortress of Tsar Samuel of Bulgaria. This was a turn of the 10th century structure that surely looked imposing in its prime.

Tsar Samuel’s Fortress

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Quite simply put, there was not a place to stand that was not breathtaking. The views were outstanding and the history that was underfoot was humbling.

After a self-guided tour of the grounds, including the fortress walls and turrets, we made our way down the hill to yet another ancient church on a cliff – these sights never got old.

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On the way back to the our car, I happened to notice a small plaza with another castle-shaped structure – I thought perhaps it was some quaint decoration, but instead learned that it was actually the lower gate and wall of the outer city. This structure was part of the old city for which the fortress was the centerpiece!

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This was our one “tourist” day, and without a doubt was an amazing experience and trip back into history.