Cuba Calling

Our 10th wedding anniversary was in 2016 and we wanted to celebrate with a trip, but weren’t comfortable leaving Camp behind. We also wanted to take advantage of travel while he could still fly as a lap baby. Where could we go that was somewhat adventurous but still a good family destination? The trip got postponed a year as we worked to figure this out. We first looked at various European itineraries but then decided against subjecting Camp to such a long flight. While he’s been a great traveler, having joined us on many flights and long drives, we just decided it would be more fun for everyone if we kept it shorter.

Aminda was getting restless to use her passport and to see a new country, which really limited our options for shorter flights.  When direct flights to Cuba became available up, we were ready to be among the first U.S. citizens to take advantage of it.

The timing felt opportune. Restrictions on Cuban citizens have been easing over the past few years, resulting in better services for travelers but not so much as to result in a complete character shift. Neither Starbucks nor McDonalds can be found in the country (open to civilians at least; there are said to be several U.S. chains located within the Guantanamo naval base), but who can say how much longer that will be the case.

Cuba was Cameron’s first international trip – a place with inconsistent WiFi where hardly anyone speaks English. To keep it easy (this was our anniversary celebration after all), we spent most of our nights at an all-inclusive resort. We’re normally not the all-inclusive types but this worked perfectly. The resort we chose was older, laid-back and un-crowded. We only had a couple days which filled easily at the beach and pool.

Booking our Cuba travel was a much different experience than we’re accustomed to. To book our domestic airfare we reserved flights with a tour agency based in Madrid who then booked the flight for us with an operator in Havana. The price of the domestic flight included airport transfers both directions at both the arrival and departure site.

They charged our credit card and in return e-mailed us a “voucher” with instructions to hand it to the “rep who will meet you at the airport.” The body of the e-mail instructed us to call the operator the day before the flight to reconfirm our airport transfer time and flight time. It all felt a little sketchy.

We flew from Ft. Lauderdale to Havana and then from Havana to Cayo Coco that same day. We thought we’d be stretched to kill time in the airport during our four hour layover, but that time was easily filled. First, it took an hour and a half to get our luggage. Then we had to load up the bags for a $10 taxi ride from the international to the domestic airport terminal.

Once we arrived at departures, I nervously handed my “voucher” to the agent, half expecting her to shove it back at me tell me it was bogus or I had failed to complete a few booking steps. Instead, we were quickly checked in and presented with a hand written boarding pass. Our waiting time passed quickly as Cameron was very popular with a couple of Cuban moms at the airport. Thankfully, our flight was the only one of the four departures that afternoon that was on time.

Ten of us debarked at Cayo Coco with the rest continuing on. We were promptly greeted by a friendly guide and five minutes later our luggage was hand-delivered. We boarded a comfortable, air conditioned sprinter van for the ride to our resort, where they knew our name upon arrival. All of my nerves dissipated, freeing us up to relax and enjoy our resort living. Cayo Coco boasted beautiful white sand beaches and warm ocean swimming. A private snorkeling tour cost us only $40 and we all enjoyed the Hobie Cat sail boat cruise out to the reef.

The resort was refreshingly kid friendly. Our snorkeling guide had a two year old daughter of his own and when our boat returned to shore, he expertly scooped up a sleeping Cameron and gently carried him safely to the beach.

Too soon we were back at the airport, jockeying for position in the chaotic boarding area as three departing flights were announced out once. The gate signage was a mess, leaving hundreds of passengers crammed into the departures area with no idea where they were going.

Finally, we arrived in Havana. With only 24 hours, we had to start exploring. Not being city people, we found one night to be plenty of time. The combination of heat, humidity and diesel fuel was draining.

First up was a walking tour of old town, wandering through grassy promenades, music-filled plazas and narrow cobblestone streets mirroring those of other Spanish colonial cities. Cameron got a reprieve from the stroller at a local playground, running and climbing with local families.

Our Air B&B was located in the residential neighborhood of Vedado, a short 10 minute drive from Old Town. Sunday morning was Mother’s Day and by 8a.m. the neighborhood was bustling. The street adjacent to our apartment was lined with flower vendors at the entrance to a large cemetery. Hundreds of families had come by foot to bring flowers to the graves. Other families were using the morning to grocery shop, loading huge bags of rice onto scooters and sorting through through the produce stands.

Our taxi rides included a couple of vintage cars, like a 1978 vintage Russian Lada with broken handles. We admired the beautifully maintained classic American Chevys and Fords (available at an additional cost or as a rental). We were fortunate to hang out with a couple of English speaking locals who gave us some insight into the complicated nation (yes, embarrassingly our Spanish is pretty minimal). While restrictions have been easing, such as the ability to travel out of the country and more opportunities for private business, these endeavors are hindered by restraints, particularly with the internet. Currently, internet is only available in hotels and public parks, complicating any travel or business arrangements. Locals are able to purchase new vehicles but are shut down by inflated prices.

Cuba was both a relaxing vacation and an exciting cultural experience. While our trip was short, we were happy for the opportunity and also excited to be heading back to Florida to finish our vacation in the Keys.

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Camping with a Baby: Adventures with our Happy Camper

Cameron just turned 18 months and has spent more one month of his nights camping. We’ve dragged him along on our journeys and our happy Camper has risen to the challenge. Those 33 nights in six states have taught us a lot, and we’ve had to change our sleeping arrangements a few times along the way as Camp grows.

Tenting It

Cameron was about 5 weeks old when he spent his first night in the great outdoors, camping in a big 4-person tent. Unfortunately, it started raining as soon as we arrived at the campground, so we all spent a couple hours crammed into the truck before we even had enough of a break to get out and set up the tent.

Once we did get settled in the tent, Cameron slept comfortably. The tent was large enough to set up the Pack & Play, the bassinet of which made It easy to bundle him up nice and warm. Our battery operated white noise machine made it easy to bring along this important sleep cue.

Tent Camping Pros

  1. Pack and Play fit, so it was a roomy space for all three of us

The Cons

  1. Difficult for mom to nurse with no back support
  2. Risky in the heavy rain and wind, as tents are prone to leaking and collapse

Truck Camper Version 1.0

The camper, up and ready for living
The camper, up and ready for living

About three weeks later, we set out again in our new-to-us truck camper. The camper is unique in that it has a soft top, which is raised when in use. This feature makes it lighter weight and lower profile. The camper has a queen size upper bunk and lower bench seat that folds out into a bed.

On this first trip we actually attempted to squeeze the pack n play into the camper. It was a tough fit, given the PnP pretty much took up the entire lower bed, leaving about 6 inches for Josh and I to squeeze past to get to the upper bed. That wasn’t going to work.

So, with Cameron still being just a little 10-pounder, we all piled into the queen sized upper bunk together. This worked pretty well for our next three camping trips, until Camp was about 10 months old. By then, he was bigger and didn’t fit as well with us. Plus, he had moved from his bassinet into his own room and crib, so he didn’t react very well to regressing back to co-sleeping. It was time to change our setup again.

Pros:

The camper filters out the noise and provides protection from the cold and rain… less variables mean less stressful trips.

Can keep a lot of items already packed in the camper, for faster departure

Cons:

The upper bunk of the camper has soft siding, so there still no back support without climbing down to the bench seat.

The combined kitchen/sleep space feels more cramped than a big open tent with outdoor cooking.

Truck Camper Version 2.0

Camping with kidsOur camper is designed to sleep 3-4 people, so there had to be a way for all of us to fit. Doing it safely and comfortably is another story. Even the lower bed leaves a gap, creating potential for Cameron to fall off if left alone.  Aminda could sleep on the upper bed with Cameron, and Josh on the lower, but she would pretty much have to stay up there with him from the time he goes down to the time he wakes up. Then, we stumbled upon a product called the PeaPod portable travel bed. The peapod is a fully enclosed zipper tent. So, we can set it up on the top bunk for Cameron and zip him in, giving us the space and flexibility we need.

The downside is that little Cameron’s tent pretty much takes up the entire top bunk! Josh said big “no way” to squeezing into the bottom bunk and decided to voluntary set up his own little man cave tent outside the camper. At 18 months, Camp is just about big enough to handle the lower bunk on his own, which will soon allow us all to once again comfortably share our cozy camper space together.

Any tips for camping in the toddler years? Please share!

5 Fears of Flying with a baby (and how to get over them)

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Happy baby on his first flight

Of the billions of people who have walked the earth, most of them have never traveled more than a few miles beyond their birth place. If you are reading this, you are among a very privileged few with the opportunity to explore all of God’s great earth and meet so many beautiful people. So save your pennies, plan your time and don’t let fear hold you back from giving the gift of travel to your children.  The thought of traveling with a baby can be daunting for new parent so here is some encouragement from our own experience, with help from an online community of moms.

  1. Screaming baby on the plane

So, there’s no guarantee a baby won’t act up on the plane. However, babies are

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Ready for takeoff

more likely to fuss during takeoff and landing, when air pressure changes cause discomfort. The easiest way to alleviate this discomfort is through sucking: nursing, bottle or pacifier. With any luck, a younger baby will simply fall asleep. Older babies requiring more entertainment benefit from a small assortment of new toys. So, make a dollar store run in preparation or, like Josh prefers to do, simply make new toys out of convenient objects like a bag of airplane peanuts. Also bring some antibacterial wipes so baby can explore his/her surroundings.

  1. Security will be a huge hassle

Nobody likes to wait in those endless, snail-paced security lines, so a baby can actually give you (and others nearby) a pleasant distraction from the wait. Use a baby-wearing carrier to keep your hands free for easier removal of shoes, liquids and laptops. As a bonus, the family will even be invited on a special trip through the old-timey metal detectors, in lieu of a body scan. Did baby distract you from fully separating your liquids or emptying your pockets? Fortunately, nothing cracks the exterior of even the sternest TSA officer like a smiling baby.

Traveling with breast milk? No problem. Just set it out as you would other liquids. At international airports, agents don’t blink an eye – they’ll simply have you step aside with them while they scan the bottle. If you don’t have the milk packed in something obvious like a bottle, consider alerting them to the contents as your bag is going through the scanner, rather than waiting for them to dig it out and attempt to identify. (I have been told that traveling with milk can be a little trickier when traveling without the baby, so prepare to be patient and maybe with some baby pictures)

  1. Managing Mountains of Luggage

Not only are you travelling with an extra person who’s incapable of carrying their own luggage, you have to carry the person!

The bad news when packing is that babies require frequent clothing changes. The good news is that baby clothes are small and compressible. Instead of a ton of extra cloths, pack bibs and layers that can help minimize clothing changes.

But what really creates the mountains isn’t the tiny baby clothes, it’s all those big, bulky car seats, strollers and beds? Baby-wearing is an easy way to eliminate the stroller (We’re still traveling sans stroller at 10 months). Many other items can be rented, borrowed or purchased cheaply at your destination.  Consider keeping a Pack N Play at a frequently-visited family member’s home, renting a car seat along with the car and using a crib from the hotel. If little one will be flying as a lap baby, the car seat can be checked at ticketing (for free), meaning you can at least move through the airport with a light load.

If you end up traveling regularly, a variety of lightweight, portable baby gear is available from inflatable beds to gadgets that allow your carry-on bag to easily carry your carseat or even your child.

  1. It will all just be too stressful

Babies pick up on stress. The more you stay relaxed, the better chance baby will too. It helps to make sure you are prepared. This could mean creating a check list, packing in advance, getting up extra early the day of the flight – whatever it is that will help you personally to feel more prepared. Nothing creates stress like running late, so definitely plan extra time.

I always assume we’re going to leave half an hour late. When planning our departure time, I set a goal time ½ hour earlier than needed and work backwards from there to determine our pre-departure schedule. For example, if we need to get of house no later than 11:00a.m., than I plan to put the baby down for a nap by 8:30a.m., so he is awake by 10a.m. and we have time for a snack, diaper and clothing change before a 10:30 departure. Which will be 11a.m. in reality, because the baby will, off course, immediately poop his diaper. Then we end up shoving last minute items into our bags and double-checking that the doors are locked, and the air conditioning is off. (Oh wait, I was supposed to be explaining why family travel isn’t stressful. Oops!)

  1. Travel will be a waste of Money

Children under two fly for free or reduced price, making the investment easier to stomach. So that means you don’t have to question going because “baby won’t remember the trip.” You’re only paying for mom and dad’s memories. Yes, travel with a baby will be different than solo travel. Days will be shorter and the pace will be slower. Sights will be missed. But even though your baby may not fully understand what they are seeing, it is always a joy and a gift to discover the world through a child’s eyes, whether near or far.

What did we miss? Please share your tips or travel success stories!

Go Big AND Go Home

IMG_20150705_100808149_HDR A new chapter of our life is upon us— traveling with a baby on board.  Camp celebrated his fifth week of life with his first adventure (outside the womb), which had us going big – 20-hours, 1300-miles, 4-states – up to Aminda’s home town in Oregon. Here’s are some highlights.

The Highs

  1. First day was a confidence booster. We braced ourselves for the worst, got an early start and planned our shortest distance for day one. Camp was not yet taking bottles, so we assumed our frequent stops would necessitate double the normal travel time. We were pleasantly surprised when our happy camper slept for hours, and we reached our destination shortly after lunch.
  2. Camp’s first night camping! Thankfully, the rain stopped soon after IMG_20150706_061956201_HDRpitching our tent, so we could sleep without fear of a flood. (more on camping with baby later)
  3. Five weeks into parenting, we proudly pulled a veteran move with a middle-of-the night departure. Our third driving day was our longest, nine hours at a normal pace. After Camp’s night feed, we hit the road at 3a.m. Our plan was successful, as we arrived 13 hours later.
  4. After our long, desert drives, watching the sunrise in northern California’s Lassen National Forest was a refreshing treat.
  5. We fully broke in our “new to us” truck. (more on that later)

The Lows

  1. Our first stop was Mt. Charleston, a sky island north of Las Vegas where we were looking forward to walks in the cool piney air. Instead, we arrived just in time for the afternoon thunderstorm. After hours of driving, we then spent hours inside the truck waiting out the storm. We couldn’t even get a break to set up our tent (we didn’t really want it sitting out getting soaked, anyway). At least with the truck parked, Camp wasn’t confined to his car seat.
  2. The thunderstorms dumped hail — on our “new to us” truck.
  3. On day two, Camp revolted against his car seat. We were lucky if we could drive more than half an hour at a time. The route between Las Vegas and Reno is bleak… with very few places one would want to pull over and feed a baby. At one point we found ourselves in the parking lot of a brothel. Ick.

So, that’s traveling with a baby. I wish we had some words of wisdom or tips and tricks, but there really isn’t much else to do but stay flexible and patient with a baby whose needs are constantly changing. (and with each other!)

We did work out a pretty good system at our stops, with Josh would take the baby first for a diaper change, while Aminda used the facilities and situated herself to take the baby for feeding. We both became very efficient and skilled at performing our tasks in a confined space.

We’re grateful to Aminda’s parents who are allowing us to hang out for a few weeks and give us break before we have to turn around and do it again! Any advice for a successful second part of our road trip?