Let’s be honest, traveling with children opens the door on lots of shit potentially hitting the fan. I mean sometimes simply making the mile trip to the grocery store and back can be a f’n nightmare. Throw in long flights, delayed flights, missed meals, changed time zones, water you can’t drink and puddles that ought not to be jumped in, not to mention entirely new surroundings and I think it’s fair to drop children from the equation all together because that shit ain’t easy for even us adults. If it weren’t for my whining children (and, at times, husband) I know I would have gladly worn the whining crown, but someone’s got to carry the team and dammit, more times than it, you better believe I throw on my big girl jeans. Albiet reluctantly. Because dammit, I wanna whine too sometimes.
In any event, this post isn’t about what went wrong – I’ll save that for a follow-up post. Instead, right here and now, you’re going to hear about what went right. Because with all that can go wrong and with the limited bag of tricks you seem to have when away from home, it’s pretty amazing – to me anyhow – that anything goes right. Or even close to it, for that matter.
We were sitting in a restaurant in Havana, nearing the end of our stay in Cuba, when I turned to Willy and said, “Taking everything into account, I’d give the boys an ‘A’ for this trip”. He scoffed, nearly spit out his food, and said “I’d give them a ‘C’, at best”.
It’s always interesting to me how two people can experience the same event so differently. His reasoning for his ‘C’ grade had to do with things like their (at times) constant bickering. Sure, they’re at each other constantly, but that’s pretty much the norm. I had no expectations of them sitting quietly anywhere. So, when they sat relatively quietly throughout the flight, you better believe I was throwing some proverbial gold stars next the mental image of their names I held as a pretty little chart in my head.
Shit, I was just grateful they never drank the water. Because who wants to deal with cholera ever, let alone in Cuba… where locals have a hard time purchasing tylenol. Tylenol. Minus a lingering cough that, sure, made a few nights of sleeping all in the same bed (errr, two twin beds pushed together) absolutely sleepless and miserable, no one required any real medical care. And for that, more gold stars. Especially when considering a wet soccer ball hit my leg and the next day I had a small itchy rash in that area. Point being, it wasn’t the cleanliest of places and our boys are definitely of the let’s-touch-and-step-in-everything variety.
Speaking of cleanliness, let’s talk for a moment about stray dogs. Because here in America if you see a dog loose on the street the better human beings will pick that dog up, take it to some vet clinic or shelter, and hope that said wandering dog has a chip inserted somewhere under it’s skin to solve the mystery of who it belongs to. A chip, people. Strays in the States are unheard of. Perhaps we have Bob Barker to thank for that. And going back to the fact our kids are of the let’s-touch-and-step-in-everything variety, let’s just say they came away from the trip knowing what a street dog is, learning to both look for a collar and/or leash before reaching out an all-too-eager petting hand and learning to navigate the streets by making quick maneuvers that included fancy footwork and/or strategic skips and hops to avoid the plethora of stray dog excretions. They also learned that stray dogs are not necessarily best described as male or female, but more accurately characterized as mamas or papas; perhaps my favorite quote from the trip being, “Mama, dat doggie has a lot of peeps”. And by “peeps” he meant penis’ and by penis’ what he was actually observing were nipples. And to think Hooper’s teacher sent along a school packet of schoolwork for him to work on… the lessons are in the nipples lady, the lessons are in the nipples. I kid. Kinda. In any event, gold stars to us for always having hand sanitizer on us despite being the parents that don’t typically regulate the cleanliness of their kids’ hands as well as they should.
Did I mention we slept in two twin beds pushed together? Oh, I did. Well, it’s worth mentioning again because, again, it worked out. The boys fell asleep each night just a bit before us and, to our never-engaged-in-co-sleeping surprise, actually stayed asleep while we watched something on the iPad or took a shower or cleaned up. And Hooper, who dropped his nap sometime ago, chose to nap most days in the same room – in the same bed – as his brother. Sure they share a room at home but never, ever, have I ever had the luck of getting them to nap in the same room. Not even when Hooper was still napping. If that’s not some sort of miracle, I don’t know what is. More gold stars. And lots of them. Because we all needed that afternoon break / rest / regrouping.
We flew to Cuba via Miami and flight times were never in our favor. It was impossible, for example, to get a flight into and out of Miami the same the day. So we spent one night in Miami on our way there and one night in Miami on the way back, which – sure -was far from ideal from the travelers perspective but worked out wonderfully in that we got to stay with my friend Carolyn. Carolyn has two boys as well and I’ll be honest when I admit there were times both boys were disappointed with the, um, lack of toys in Cuba and downright demanded to go back to Carolyn’s house to play with the ‘bad boy toys’. Just yesterday, in fact, Van mentioned it again and we’ve been home from Cuba now for months. Needless to say, it was the perfect place to leave from and to return to and I think that speaks volumes when all you want to do after traveling hard is walk in the door of your own home. It was nice for all of us and I really enjoyed the short time we got to hang.
When I mention to people that we’ve gone to Cuba the most common question (aside from how did you get there, which is asked by people more-or-less up-to-date on their political or global issues) is “was it safe?”. And the answer to this remains a big huge YES (albeit my follow-up post will highlight some of the annoyances and depending on how you rate your annoyances, some may verge on the line of safety to some degree). Kids walk home from school independently, they play in the streets independently, and all-in-all there is a great sense of community. We made several friends on our block alone (and by “we” I mean Willy because truthfully he’s the social butterfly between the two of us) and were invited in homes; the boys loved playing with the boys next door, which I spoke to briefly on the post I wrote for Childhood Unplugged. The people, in general, were incredibly inviting; the boys’ blond hair drawing much attention and walker-by comb-throughs by hands that just couldn’t resist to determine if it felt as different as it looked. And the boys’ embraced it, all of it, and took to giving their “free hugs” (something they took to doing this past summer but has weaved it’s way into our lives so that oftentimes we are stuck at a restaurant because Van has not yet hugged every patron in the establishment). Even Hooper, who tends to be a little bit more on the reserved side volunteered to join in the free hug movement. They clearly felt the warmth and reciprocated it appropriately and watching them interact and trust made for more-than-enough proud mom moments (insert gold stars here — five of them, to be exact).
The people made the streets come to life. In fact, the street life is the very thing that drew me back to Cuba and helped me rationalize staying in Havana for the full duration of our time there (last time we traveled around to numerous cities and towns). It’s one of my absolute favorite places to photograph (before having kids, travel photography had my heart) and minus the few that yelled at me or the little old lady that gave me the finger, all were keen to having their photos taken and excited to get a glimpse of themselves – stopped in motion – on the back of my LCD screen. I couldn’t always give it the attention I wanted as I usually had at least one kid’s hand wrapped in mine and one eye on oncoming vehicles, but I’m happy with the shots I did get and grateful for having a second chance at photographing such a dynamic country.
Other things that went right:
-You could walk out for what felt like miles in the water at the beach we frequented. It’d have passerby’s think our boys were water babies and they are, well, not. It was the perfect reprieve from city life and a nice break from having to watch their every move and step.
-We returned to our favorite pizza joint that was off-the-beaten track five years ago when we visited and is still off-the-beaten track today but just as yummy and with a newly adjacent makeshift zoo (insert question mark) that consists of a caged ferrets, iguanas, chickens, rats, and other sort of odd pairings. An old man that worked there took the boys to look at the animals while Willy and I enjoyed complete peace and quiet, so that was an additional highlight and I swear made the pizza taste even better.
-Considering traveling anywhere while pregnant can be a bit of a risk, nothing of concern occurred while in Cuba. And that counts for something when prior to leaving it felt as though my entire insides were going to fall out of my vagina. I invested in a female jock-strap of sorts and am only willing to admit it because I never ended up needing it as the pain and swelling seemed to go away after my OB suggested treating it as a yeast infection despite any of the typical symptoms. But, lo-and-behold, it worked. And if bringing a female jock-strap that you didn’t end up needing doesn’t count for something, then I’m done keeping track all together.
-The second Cuba more-or-less succeeds at beating you down, a perfect stranger will hand your kid a banana from his fruit stand and you’ll hate yourself for even thinking what he’s going to ask for in return when he instead says, in broken English, “On me, enjoy your holiday”.