Other posts on Cuba:
Cuba | The Bad
Cuba | The Good
Cuba | Childhood Unplugged
Cuba | Video
Cuba | Part I
Cuba | Part II
Other posts on Cuba:
Cuba | The Bad
Cuba | The Good
Cuba | Childhood Unplugged
Cuba | Video
Cuba | Part I
Cuba | Part II
“It happened by chance. In 2000, I tagged along with a good friend on a two-week trip to Cuba. I took my 35mm camera and a bunch of film. The first thing I noticed in Havana was that the city was dark at night. There were no streetlights, porch lights or living-room lamps. It was pitch black except for the faint colorful glow spilling out of open doors everywhere, and it came from the TVs. The light captivated me. For the next two weeks I wandered around, slipping in and out of strangers’ living rooms. Each time I came across an open door and a working TV set, I would ask if I could take a picture of it. The answer was always yes. Nobody seemed to think it was an odd request and it was usually accompanied by a Cuban coffee or rum.
There were some fascinating developments in the living rooms of Old Havana. Many of the sets that I saw in 2000 — 1980s Russian models and mid-century TVs from the U.S. — had been replaced with shiny new imports from China. The cheap, new TVs were surrounded by the same vintage fans, rickety ornaments and faded family photographs. It seemed the only thing that had changed was the TV itself.
In Cuba, TV seems to carry even a weightier cultural role than it does in the U.S. During broadcast hours in Cuba, all TVs are on. The TV is on during the day, when it is background noise or the main event. At night, each airing of the latest telenovela is like a sacred viewing party when friends and neighbors gather. My sense is that watching TV is a cherished activity that everyone looks forward to, especially when favorite telenovelas and Hollywood movies are aired. …
The stories that I take from Havana are mainly in the photographs. I was welcomed without hesitation into so many living rooms, which is telling of the openness and generosity of the people I met. My living room stays were often brief, as I don’t speak much Spanish. The encounters consisted of animated gestural exchanges fueled by the ubiquitous cafe Cubano, almost always offered by my host.
People introduced me to family members in framed photographs who had left for the U.S., and who remained perched on top of the TV set. I often watched a little TV with my hosts in between making photographs, because it was a shared experience and almost a form of communication, as we could all react to the broadcast. After a final smile and thank you, I would take off down the street in search of another glowing TV set and an open door.”
I feel like any gosh-I-hate-this-term “mommy blogger” has at-some-point written a post filled with advice about traveling with kids. I’m pretty sure if I dug through my own archives, I’d find one that I even wrote prior. But if time and experience has taught me anything about traveling with kids, it’s that the key – the secret ingredient – is not something you can fit in your suitcase, forget at home, or buy when you get there. What makes or breaks traveling with kids is nothing more than your attitude and the perspective and expectations you use to funnel your travel experience.
Because what parent is going to forget the bag of snacks or to download their child’s favorite cartoon on the iPad or your iPhone? No one. We all have a similar bag of tricks and there’s no secret trick that you can buy, other than maybe Benadryl – and sure, I recommend that, too – that’s going to make your trip go as smooth as can be. Except, that is, for your attitude.
When we first brought Jimmie home, life sucked. He’s not an easy dog and there were times Willy and I both wanted to throw in the towel. Those that have been reading my blog since the acquisition of Jimmie know that his anxiety is through the roof, so-much-so that he’s on prozac and still looks as though he’s going to have an aneurysm should we even use the word “go” or “leave” in a conversation. In any event, the boys picked up on the tension in those early days and were not so nice to Jimmie. They’d hit him and speak mean to him; behaviors that, in hindsight, mirrored how Willy and I were affected by his behaviors.
Point being, kids notice shit. And they mirror what they see. If you’re calm and relaxed, they’re calm and relaxed.
So how do you keep calm and relaxed while traveling with kids? You take care of yourself and nurse that attitude I’ve spoken so highly of. Little things, like making sure you stay fed and hydrated. Other things that help facilitate a good attitude:
-Realistic expectations. Traveling is never easy. Airports suck. People can suck. Spending money you didn’t expect to spend sucks. Changing time zones suck. So planning on and expecting the worst sometimes makes it so the little victories – like a plane that’s not full and a free seat next to you – really shine through. I set myself up for such grand disasters so that when the plane lands and we’re all still alive, I smile. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but you get the point.
-Talk with your spouse before the trip about your concerns and fears. When you can know what’s really going to throw a wrench into one another’s trips, it’s easier to navigate and avoid such. For example, I’m not one to make many plans when I travel. Before having kids, I’d go wherever and find a place to stay when I got to wherever “wherever” was. Prior to leaving for Cuba, Willy expressed concern about the potential of running into difficulty finding a place to stay once we arrived in Havana. And trust me, finding a casa particular (home to stay in) before actually arriving in Havana is in no way as simple as booking a hotel. I had made reservations with one only to be told weeks later it was no longer available, with no reason provided. In any event, I found us a home just two days before we stepped foot on the plane. Crisis averted. Fear squashed.
Really though, the point is to be on the same page with one another; to communicate and act and support one another as a team. Because nothing wears you down faster than having children. Oh wait, that doesn’t have anything at all to do with traveling, does it? Are you sensing my point? Traveling makes those little rascals wear you down even faster and to a even smaller entity than you ever thought possible. So build the trust in your partner to hold you up when you need a little lift and vice versa. And if you’re both being worn down at the same time – go back to my hydration plan and grab a beer. Sometimes a little break with a cold one in an outdoor eatery where the kids can run around in circles like crazy lunatics is a game changer, an energy recharge.
-Slow your roll. If you’re the type that travels with an itinerary, loosen it a bit. If you’re a planner, schedule time to do nothing other than relax. Because sure, seeing King Tuts tomb while in Egypt is certainly important, but so is that 2 o’clock nap. And arguably, the former may only be enjoyable if the latter is accomplished. Catch my drift? Don’t fill your plate, fill yo’ cup.
Have other tips you’d like to recommend to one another? By all means, sharing is caring.
Going through video footage and piecing it together is a lot like editing images from a wedding; by the time I’m done I know every image – all footage – better than I’d like and I’m not pleased with any of them… a direct result that comes with looking at anything too long. In any event, I’ve started and restarted the making of this video more times than I care to admit due mostly to user error, followed in a close second to user dissatisfaction. I’m happy with the final result, but it’s hard to view it without knowing the downright struggle, errrr challenge, it was to make. In any event, here lies a small glimpse into our time in Cuba… A place that’s unlike any other and is changing in so many ways. I have a few more posts on Cuba to share but if you want to see what I’ve already shared thus far, here’s some links:
Past posts on Cuba:
I’ve traveled enough to know that certain countries are simply more difficult to travel to than others. I remember walking the streets of India with Janet years ago and literally turning around to tell a beggar boy that if he didn’t stop following us and harassing us that we would never come to visit his country again. Admitting that makes me think of myself as so evil, but when you’re in that heat and you’re dirty and down-trotten and the same little boy has been following you for blocks trying to sell you something you already told him you have no interest in from the get-go, your patience tends to waiver. I loved India… but I’m also not ready to return there with my family… these boys of ours are enough of a test to our patience.
Cuba is a hard place to travel to as well, but for different reasons.
For us, it started when we took a closer look at our plane ticket. We flew out of Miami (offering flights to Cuba from the US is a relativity new thing given the history of the ban on US travel to Cuba). Rather than an airline, we took a charter and having got into Miami the day before, I wanted to call and talk to someone to confirm our flight time and the charter we were taking. My friend Carolyn picked us up from the airport and as Willy waited for our luggage, I confessed that I was just a bit nervous that our tickets were totally bunk and that our agent (whom I refer to as our ‘Cuban hook-up’ as we’ve used her twice now to get to Cuba… both before the lift of the restrictions and, now, after) could possibly have taken our money and ran.
As a side note, the first time we went to Cuba involved lengthy instructions that included things like, “you’ll see a man in a red shirt at the airport in Mexico… give him your envelope of cash and he will return with your tickets” as well as “keep your humanitarian licenses until you get to Cuba, then you need to rip them up”… needless to say, it was sketchier than what was our current situation but nevertheless the last thing I wanted was to be stuck in Florida for two weeks instead with my whole family looking at me like a moron for wiring our money to a woman I refer to as my ‘Cuban hook-up’.
I never was able to confirm the legitimacy of our tickets, nor the departure time, so when we left for the airport I crossed my fingers and complied with the ticketed instructions that suggested we get to the airport 4 hours before our flight, in the wee hours of the morning, before the airport actually opened.
I should back-up and mention that none of the flight times worked in our traveling-with-kids favor. We had to get the kids up at 3am to make our first flight to Miami and then, when taking the time change into consideration, we had to get up the following morning – errr night – at 1am to get to the airport four freaking hours ahead of time.
As soon as we got to the Miami airport and worked our way past the seldom individual sleeping on the non-sleep-friendly airport benches and to the area of the charter planes, it became evident that four hours was exactly what we needed in order to make our flight. It was so disorganized and the communication was lacking in such a way that made me look over at Willy and ask, “are you sure we’re not in Cuba already?”. It’s a different experience than traveling to countries in, say, Europe, where there are several other tourists. When you go somewhere like Cuba, you stick out like a sore thumb because nearly everyone else in line is either from there or visiting family that lives there. Which is fine, and actually a preference of mine when picking places to visit. It just makes the experience a little more intimidating and a little harder to navigate as it’s not necessarily set up so conveniently for tourists.
In any event, we waited in long lines and paid over a hundred in taxes (in cash because not even the airport in Miami will take credit cards when dealing with their Cuba customers) that we didn’t even understand. I think we were also the only ones that opted not to have our luggage wrapped in that weird blue cellophane that we presumed serves no other purpose than to protect your luggage until someone behind the counter clued us in that people do that instead to protect what’s inside their luggage because apparently once you get to Cuba, the airport employees there will go through your luggage and take what they need. Hard to blame them when what they need cannot necessarily be bought or found, for that matter. We opted for zip ties instead and worried the entire time that our shit was gonna be stolen.
There’s a herding factor that seems to occur when traveling international and Cuba is no exception. Personal space goes out the window and as soon as that plane touches down, people are practically climbing over you to make their way to aisle only to pile into a bus you’re all going to be on, packed like sardines. I can’t explain it except to say that Americans follow a very orderly life whereas there’s a certain free-for-all-without-purpose in many other countries.
When we arrived in Havana, we had to quickly put our guards up. Obvious tourists basically scream dollar signs and given the fact the other obvious tourists are traveling mostly in guided tours, you’re kinda the lone ranger… the sitting duck… and everyone – and their mom – wants to give you a ride. I’ve learned to get out of the crowd and separate myself from the hysteria and find the lonesome taxi guy patiently waiting in the background to give us a lift instead because more times than not, the ones that are all up in your face are also the ones that are going to try to talk you into staying at this fabulous place their friend or brother or cousin owns and it’s all some sort of scam in some way.
We gave the driver the address to the casa particular we had arranged to stay at (a casa particular is basically a room within a local’s home that they have been given permission by the government to rent out to tourists). We had rented two rooms, as there aren’t any rooms that we could find to accommodate a family of four. Upon our arrival, however, the women we’d come to call ‘crazy Olga’ shuffled us all into one room and communicated (with her broken english and our broken-ish spanish) that the other room wouldn’t be available for another day or so. We glanced into the room that was available and looked at each other a little weary when we noticed two twin beds pushed together to resemble a large king bed.
We ended up sticking with the room for the duration of our trip because it worked out… but that’s not to say accommodations in Cuba are top-notch or first-world-friendly. For twenty five dollars a night we got: a private room with a private bathroom (many have a shared bathroom with other guests or with the family you’re staying with), two twin beds with horribly bad bedding (the kind of sheets that are so thin they never stay wrapped around the edge of the mattress and pillows that are literally stuffed with cotton balls — not to mention that there are no extra pillows available… that means the boys had to sleep on the presumably dirty decorative square pillows and my pregnant ass had to make due with none of the creature comforts I was used to at home), and hot water but only at certain times throughout the day, which really translates to mean mostly cold showers with a few delightful surprises here and there. Someone also comes in, each day, to tidy up your room which sounds wonderful in theory until you notice $100 missing from a pocket deep in your bag and have to accuse someone who probably needs that $100 way more than you do – someone you probably would have tipped very nicely at the end anyhow – of taking your money. Kinda leaves a sour taste in your mouth and the feeling of ‘coming home’ / aka back to your room a little less inviting. Without going into much detail, I’ll say that there was a lot of finger pointing and a lot of “that never happens here” said and a lot of yelling amongst themselves but ultimately, the money was returned. The sour taste never went away though.
Five years ago, when we first visited Cuba, we couldn’t get over how bad the food was. We felt bad for passing judgement given the fact that much of what they have to cook with is rationed and, well, that makes for a lot of baked chicken with little more than salt and pepper on it. And a lot of fried chicken. This time, the food improved. Since Raul Castro has been in power, they’ve had a culinary revolution and restaurants are provided more ingredients to work with. And you can tell, for the most part… though I still wouldn’t suggest traveling to Cuba for the food. Accompanying the more vast menus, however, is a much steeper price tag. Considering that a room for the night cost all of $25, it didn’t seem to make sense that some dinners, which like I said were good but not great, ran us upwards of $70. I justified our trip to Cuba by making the argument that “it’s not that expensive” but really, it wasn’t that cheap either.
The old cars are fun to ride in and a joy to photograph but after a few days walking the city streets the idea of smoking three cigarettes at the same time actually sounds like a breath of fresh air to the ol’ fume engulfed lungs. I can’t tell you how many times we rode in a bicycle taxi only to get behind a bus or 1950’s Cadillac and be spit on by exhaust.
Speaking of old cars, car seats are not a thing in Cuba. All seven of us would pile into a cab, no problem. It sure is easier and more convenient and certainly freeing in a lot of ways. I’ve always believed that we’re a bit overly anxious and protective in the States, but lingering in the back of my mama brain was always the tormenting thought of “what if”… a fear that was so grand I couldn’t even bring myself to verbalize it for further fear of the whole jinxing mentality that thrived in the third grade. Trusting drivers we did not know, roads that were a bit precarious, cars that were a bit tattered, and two crazy boys – that I love with every bone and cell in my body – who flat out refused to sit still.
Cuba is obviously well known for their cigars and when we were there 5 years ago we learned quickly that to get a legit cigar, you have to buy directly from the factory. The honest Cubans will support this truth as well. The price is a bit steeper than buying off the street, but buying off the street is not synonymous with buying a true Cuban cigar. While the cigars in the factory are top quality and rolled with true tobacco leaves, many sold on the streets or out of people’s homes are rolled with crappy banana leaves. Willy’s hot to trot when it comes to cigars so we made the walk to the factory several times and each time we were stopped more than once and informed that “the factory is closed” and encouraged to buy in the alley behind the factory instead. By the second time we were told this lie, I just wanted to respond with “uh-huh, and pigs are flying, LOOK!”. To make matters more annoying, smoking cigars on the street would lead to being approached by at least five different individuals who want to know where you got it and how much you paid for it and then try to persuade you to buy from them, or their cousin, instead. It made the whole smoking cigar experience less than enjoyable.
We also got hit with the oldest trick in the book, a scam that’s prevalent just about anywhere I’ve traveled, which is when you agree on a price for a cab only to arrive at your destination and be told that the price is actually per person, not total. This happened with a bicycle taxi on one of our last days in Cuba; day after day of paying the same price and more-or-less knowing how much fares to and from our place should be. Point being, we weren’t fresh off the boat and when the taxi driver started getting hostile, we paid him half of what he was asking for (which was double what we had paid for any other fare), rolled our eyes, and kinda looked forward to returning home.
We opted to keep The Bee & The Fox open while we were in Cuba. I changed the allotted shipping times to reflect the time we’d be gone and intended to answer emails via etsy while there. To our surprise, however, our shop was shut down and the inability to communicate with heated customers proved stressful. Ultimately, we learned that because Cuba is a sanctioned country, we were unable to conduct business from there. Meaning, simply logging in to etsy from a sanctioned country is prohibited. Certainly we were not shipping any items from there… just managing the shop and keeping up on emails n’ such. And in the whole scheme of threats against the US (other sanctioned countries include Iran, Syria, North Korea), Cuba seems rather outdated and miniscule. In any event, we managed to work things out with etsy despite the shotty internet access, but it was certainly time spent and stress endured that we did not intend on.
All in all, when considering the good and the bad and the fact we’ve been to Cuba twice now, I don’t think we’ll be returning anytime soon. I’m grateful that we got to see it when we did and to compare that first time with this second time and to note the many changes already taking place. It’ll always live in my heart as one of the most unique places I’ve ever traveled and I hope this is just the beginning in terms of international travel for our family.
*You can read my previous post on Cuba, ‘Cuba: The Good’, but clicking here.
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”.
Delving into my images from Cuba feels like a daunting task given how many images I snapped while there. But starting here, with some childhood unplugged (the abroad edition) feels like a good start. In fact, this is the very reason taking the boys – despite the possibility they may never remember such a trip – was important to me.
An excerpt from Lonely Planet (my go-to guide book for all international travel — not sure how anyone functions without it): “Welcome to a culture where children still play freely in the street and wait staff unconsciously ruffle your toddler’s hair as they glide past your table on their way back to the kitchen. There’s something wonderfully old-fashioned about kids’ entertainment here, which is less about sophisticated computer games and more about messing around in the plaza with an improvised baseball bat and a rolled-up ball of plastic”.
Five years ago when Willy and I went to Cuba sans kids (well, Hooper was growing in my belly), we brought an assortment of baseball cards, balls, and t-shirts. We had less room to bring such niceties this time around, but we did manage to bring some coloring books and matchbox cars. Both kids were rather disgusted about giving away brand new cars, but Hooper quickly came around when he witnessed the joy it brought other little boys. Van… not so much. And that’s okay (he is 3, after all).
There is so much life and energy on the streets of Havana; women sitting in simple lounge chairs on the sidewalk, men playing dominos on the street corner, and kids – tons of kids – kicking soccer balls around or playing a game of stickball. It’s so different from the sterility that fills the majority of neighborhoods here in America and perhaps the number one thing that will always draw me to Cuba.
All groups of children were inviting and allowed the boys, despite the inability to speak the same language, to partake; the older boys actually bringing balls over to the boys to give them more of a fair chance at play.
I’m always amazed by the stray dogs and their ability to navigate the streets; their know-with-all and ability to survive the same streets that has me holding my boys’ hands a little tighter despite the fact I most always trust them to walk independently. The kids of Cuba are the same way — street smart; they’re little hearts don’t even seem to miss a beat as they hop barefoot over a pile of who-knows-what, collect their balls and their makeshift wooden goal posts, and move to the side to let some exhaust blowing classic car zoom by. No parents rushing to their rescue, no parents even overseeing the fairness of the game nor the safeness of the field.
The boys also had a blast with the kids that lived next door to the house we rented a room in… crazy, again, how not a word spoken is understood and yet they all run and slam their cars into one another the same. Those boys that lived next door were so warm and inviting and it was Hooper’s favorite pastime during the few hours when Van would nap. And, perhaps the part that warms my mama heart most, he was always invited. Always (as was I – and my camera, for that matter). And each time, the group of kids seemed to change… cousins or other neighborhood kids added in or taken away from the core few.
I’ve always more-or-less advocated for the free-range childhood movement and Cuba seems like the epitome of such; only without the stupid gimmicky title. Over there, it’s not some sort of renegade parenting cliche, it’s just the way.
I’m not sure what the boys will remember of Cuba years from now, but I hope images like these joggle memories and remind them that their parents put up with a lot of the hardships that come with traveling (do I even need to add “with children” because shit, traveling alone is hard) because we believe in it’s importance.
More from Cuba to come… no promises on how soon because, well, the house is an absolute disaster… we have construction that seems to start and stop whenever our super great (please read my sarcasm) contractor decides to start, stop, and restart again (I won’t even mention the fact that we had an upstairs bathtub leaking into our downstairs kitchen), piles and piles of laundry, a growing list of things that need to be sold / donated / thrown away, and the ever-present upkeep with The Bee & The Fox, which following the weekend holiday has me wondering if I can stay afloat.
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Surely I may come back from this trip screaming at each of you to never partake on such an adventure with children of this age. But I do have a game plan. And I’m reminding myself often that there are several way more daring than me. I mean there are people that travel in recreational vehicles across state lines, with children, permanently.
So my game plan is this:
-Return to a place you have been before. This way, even if we miss out we don’t really miss out. No patience left to hit up that museum you visited 4 years ago? No problem, you saw it 4 years ago.
-Pick a place worthy to return. I’ve always traveled under the guise that I would never go anywhere twice and this is nothing more than a testament to the fact that I love to travel and see new places and returning to somewhere I’ve been before feels a bit lacking in purpose. But Cuba? There is no where in the world like Cuba. And when Castro is officially six feet under, things will change. It’s already in the process of change. But man, so much has stayed the same. A lot of people feel like they should have been born in another generation; sometimes I feel the same way. Well guess what? Taking a trip to Cuba is like taking a time capsule to decades past.
-Convince your friends to go with you. Thankfully this wasn’t a hard sell. Janet and I have traveled all over the world together and she, too, has been to Cuba before. Convincing her to come along with one of her babes (she’s leaving the little ones with family) and hubs in tow was as simple as sending a few screen shots of Havana to stir up old memories and borrowing a few quotes from the trusty ol’ guidebook, “Cuba is like a prince in a poor man’s coat: behind the sometimes shabby facades, gold dust lingers. It’s these rich dichotomies that make travel here the exciting, exhilarating roller-coaster ride it is. Trapped in a time warp and reeling from an economic embargo that has grated for more than half a century, this is a country where you can wave goodbye to Western certainties and expect the unexpected. If Cuba were a book, it would be James Joyce’s Ulysses: layered, hard to grasp, serially misunderstood, but – above all – a classic”.
I’m envisioning a date night with Willy, when we can leave the boys with Janet’s gang (and vice versa), best friend time while the guys either sleep or smoke cigars along the malecon (boardwalk), and plenty of group hangs where despite tantrums from hungry and sleep deprived kids we feel that camaraderie that only seems to come along with being in the company of others who are suffering right alongside you. I know it won’t be easy… I don’t like travel to be easy, but I do know it will be memorable.
Added bonus: Spanish is Janet’s first language (she’s part Cuban, part Guatemalan and despite looking ‘white’, her mom doesn’t even speak English).
-Limit your itinerary. We took this to the extreme in that we have no plans. In fact, at the time of writing this post I’m not even sure where we’re staying. But I also know Havana has loads of warm and friendly families that are happy to invite you into their home and I’m kinda looking forward to showing up and figuring it out. We’re limiting our traveling around to no more than two different places and we’re not even sure, aside from Havana, where else we’ll go. And even while we’re in Havana, we have nothing on the itinerary other than ‘hang out’.
-Shorten your stay. Typically I won’t go through the hassle of flying somewhere far away and spending money on a hefty plane ticket unless I can stay at least two weeks. We’re staying shorter this go-around and I think we’ll be glad we did.
-Prep your husband. Attitude is everything when you’re traveling with kids. This will be our first time traveling international with kids and international travels brings a whole new set of annoyances: time changes, language barriers, pillows literally stuffed with cotton balls, the list goes on and on. And so, we’ve talked a lot about being patient with each other and with the kids. I also think having friends there as a buffer will help. Struggles are always lessened when shared.
Not sure what kind of cell service we’ll get, if any, but if I have service I’ll be sure to post a few images via instagram along the way. I have a few posts scheduled during the time we’ll be gone and loads of photo sessions I hope to get caught up in sharing once we get back… along with laundry and shop stuff and now I’m getting stressed about coming back. Wish us luck. And for those who have done a lot of traveling with little ones, got any tips?
images found on Pinterest
Aside from the struggles and the suppression, there is something very magical about Cuba. And while the US has so much of what Cuba lacks, there is a great deal we can learn from the Cuban people. The comparison, in my opinion, is like an organic apple to a genetically enhanced apple. While Cuba may appear a little rough around the edges and while you may expect the people to be moping around with their heads down, what the people possess on the inside is pure beauty and a spirit strengthened by survival. Though the streets are filled with potholes, dog shit, and dilapidated buildings, they are also full of life. As a photographer, you know you are in a special place when you can walk down the same street ten times and each time photograph ten different scenes.
When you walk through a shopping center in the US, you are bombarded with advertisements attempting to sell you on a way some major corporation can profit on you living your life. Walk anywhere in Cuba and you will not find advertisements. Not even commercials on the TV. In fact, I’m told the commercials are instead educational tid-bits about how to breast-feed, for example. I walked through a local market and found nothing more than things sold to fix things: nuts and bolts, replacement roof tiles, and a watch repairman. Life in America is about consumption. Life in Cuba is about sustainability. I mean check out those cars they keep running after all these years.
We travelled there legally with humanitarian licenses. Ironically enough, we were responsible for bringing medical supplies to a mission in Havana. Ironically, these supplies included things like prenatal vitamins. Yes, you are understanding me correctly. We, US citizens, supplied Cuba with prenatal vitamins. Yes, Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than the infant mortality rate in the US. Interesting, no?
In any event, when I research birth I look for information as it relates to me. If I happen to go into preterm labor at 20 weeks, my midwives will certainly not support or participate in a home birth. I would be in the hospital kissing the fetal monitor and thanking the doctor for any interventions that could potentially save my baby. But if my pregnancy remains low risk and if I remain healthy, I feel strongly that delivering at home is safest for me and, perhaps more importantly, for my baby.