Surviving Ten Weeks of Vacation with Two Little Kids

A typical American playground -- the type of thing we dreamed of from Cuba. 

A typical American playground -- the type of thing we dreamed of from Cuba. 

I haven't written in a while because we're on a two-and-a-half month vacation in the United States. The idea of such a long vacation sounded exciting, until several months ago, while we were still in Cuba, I started thinking about the logistics. A few weeks of vacation is great, but ten weeks of it meant a lot of unstructured time – not just for my husband and me, but also for our three- and five-year-olds. It would take them out of school and their normal routines. Frankly, it sounded like it was going to be a disaster. And even though we live a fairly unconventional life overseas, I'm still a person who likes routines, especially my daily writing habit. The more I thought about it, the idea of bouncing around the U.S., with two children in tow, sounded less and less appealing. 

We also had to figure out exactly what we would do on such a vacation. We’d lived right near the beach in Cuba for the last two years, so the ocean didn’t appeal. I’m a city person, whereas my husband loves the mountains and nature – the more trees there are, the happier he is. I’m a southern California native, and my husband is from Massachusetts. We had family and friends spread out between California and the East Coast.   

The key to surviving this with two young children, I realized, would be to minimize our movements, limiting ourselves to two places. My husband and I, after several back-and-forth conversations, came up with a compromise: we’d split our time between a small, rural mountain community in California called Mammoth Lakes and a big city on the east coast, Washington D.C. We chose homes that would have access to safe playgrounds, book-filled libraries, and kid-friendly activities – all of which sounded exotic to us after living in Cuba for two years. Both places would be experiments – what would it be like to live in each place with two kids? Would we prefer rural America or life in a big city?  

Still, the idea of entertaining and keeping the kids occupied for days on end sounded daunting -- until we decided to ask our nanny in Cuba, L, to come along with us. She said yes in a heartbeat. She loves the children as if they were her own, and the kids affectionately call her "abuelita," or grandma. We also realized that this would help ease the transition out of Cuba for the kids. (After our 10-week holiday, we would be moving to Beijing, China).

There were plenty of obstacles ahead of us -- including getting L a work visa to the United States, packing up our entire house, and saying good-bye to all our friends in Cuba. But, as the pieces came together, I began feeling less fearful of the idea of a ten-week-long vacation.  

You know you’re no longer an American tourist in Cuba when …

Three of us are different from the others ... 

Three of us are different from the others ... 

After my two years of living in Cuba, here's what separates me (and my kids) from all my recent friends and family who have visited us. 

You know you're no longer an American tourist in Cuba when ... 

1. You can sing “Hasta que se seca el malecon” without tripping up the words. 

2. You know that you’re not supposed to be charged $5 for entering the Hotel Nacional. 

3. You start bargaining for things in Moneda Nacional.

4. You start leaving less than 10 percent tips for your meals. 

5. You call people who are not your mommy or your poppy “mami” y “papi.”

6. You know how to eat a mamey (and know what that is). 

7. You go to the bathroom and use only two squares of toilet paper at a time (if you have toilet paper).

8. You get mad at your spouse for throwing out plastic cups and paper plates. 

9. You don’t blink an eye when your supermarket checkout lady tells you to pay her on the side for half of your groceries. 

10. When you get in a line, you ask very casually for “El ultimo?” before going off, doing 10 errands, and coming back to take your place in line. 

Driving the Dream in Cuba

Old classic cars on Havana's Malecon.

Old classic cars on Havana's Malecon.

I love driving in Cuba. On a normal weekday morning, Havana’s Quinta Avenida (or Fifth Avenue) fills up with a cars, but they all glide smoothly down the avenue without a snarl. It takes me no more than 20 minutes to get across town, from our home in the suburbs of Miramar to the Capitolio in Old Havana. Cruising down the oceanfront avenue called El Malecon at sunset with the windows down — my husband’s commute between work and home — is at the top of the list of Cuba’s most unforgettable tourist experiences. 

There are certain downsides to driving in Cuba: I have to contend with horse-drawn carts, old Chevys that belch dark clouds of exhaust, and enormous potholes we’ve dubbed piscinas, or pools, because they fill up with water when it rains. I have to deal with weird traffic laws that make cars come to complete stops in traffic circles and prohibit left turns, so we’re constantly making right turns and U-turns to get to where we need to go. But having grown up in Southern California, where one must plan one’s life around traffic, driving in Cuba is a dream. 

My husband and the view on his commute to work. 

My husband and the view on his commute to work. 

Driving in Cuba is a dream in many senses. For one, when you talk to Cubans, they’re shocked at how many cars are on the road these days, even if it’s just a smattering from my point of view. That’s because during the during the early 90s, nearly all cars ceased to move because of the Periodo Especial, when Cuba fell into a massive depression after losing $2 billion worth of subsidies from the Soviet Union. Cubans began riding cheap Chinese bicycles and walking long distances. (A friend told us she often walked four hours a day between her home and her job; once or twice, she was so tired she slept on the side of the road.) To this day, some Cubans do not look when they cross the street. Some fix their broken cars in the middle of intersections, even as traffic has gotten increasingly heavier. 

Driving in Cuba is a dream to me because, nowadays, there is no other city in the world with a such an interesting mix of transport. The old cars aside, I drive alongside rusty John Deere tractors and old yellow school buses imported from Canada. Watching the classic cars chug by is a brief lesson into Cuba’s history. The rare Ford Model-T’s of the early 1900s and the more common Chevy, Pontiacs, and Buicks of the 50s arrived at a time when goods flowed freely between the United States and Cuba. The Russian Ladas and Moskvitches came after Cuba moved into the Soviet sphere; the newest cars on the road, the Chinese Geelys (pronounced Gee-Lees) and the Spanish SEAT sedans, show which countries have nudged in to do business in the face of the continuing U.S. Embargo and waning Russian influence. 

Driving in Cuba is a dream to most Cubans because it’s such a luxury. New cars are taxed at something like 800 percent. As such, there are few new models or luxury cars of any kind circulating. Very, very occasionally you’ll see a Mercedes or other luxury model with a license plate beginning with a “B” (which signifies that it’s a government-owned car) or a “P” (which means “particular” or private).  That aside, there are a few BMWs and Land Rovers owned by diplomats bearing a “D” or an “E” plate.  

When I first took to the roads a couple of years ago, I was surprised to get the occasional honk, hoot, and smile from other drivers. Several times, people have rolled down their windows and yelled in admiration of my wheels. I drive a 2013 KIA Sorrento sports utility vehicle. Yep, that’s right: a KIA, a vehicle that a car snob back at home would never be caught dead in, and one that has 60,000 miles and two children’s car seats, to boot. 

You see, owning a KIA is a luxury, the equivalent of driving a BMW in another country.  We’ve been told that if our car could be sold on the local market, it could fetch at least $100,000. Maybe even up to $150,000, if we found the right buyer. (It can’t, because Cuban laws make it impossible for cars owned by foreigners to be sold to locals.)

 I’d never thought I’d know what it felt like to be Christy Brinkley in a red Corvette in National Lampoon's Vacation, but that’s what I am in Cuba, even if I’m neither young nor blonde. And that’s yet another reason why driving in Cuba is like a dream. 

Our KIA Sports Utility Vehicle, the envy of the roads in Havana. 

Our KIA Sports Utility Vehicle, the envy of the roads in Havana. 

What I've Learned from Farming in Cuba

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My biggest source of gardening inspiration is the Orgoponico Alamar Vivero, one of the largest urban farms in Cuba. One recent morning, when my kids’ school was closed for vacation, we decided to make a field trip there ...