Our New Year’s trip to Cuba was a lot of things for me, my husband, our kids and their grandmother, Abuela Ana, but by far the most fascinating to me was the evolution of our six-year-old son, Marcos, in a matter of days.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, he talked about Cuba a lot, noting he needed to practice Spanish and did with us in the house more than usual. With only three television channels in Cuba, none of which would be Cartoon Network or Disney, and no Internet at Abuela’s, he worked it, wryly asking for extra time allowances on both before we left town.
Following crazy travel to Miami and an inane check-in process that is exclusive to Cuban flights, Marcos remained cheery and notably patient through all. He helped us with his sister whose feet moved too fast for her little body, carrying her precariously through the jammed airport.
Mercifully, she passed out on the plane while Marcos jabbered non-stop for the 40-minute flight. Just before touch down, his little eyes grew large: “Are we in Cuba?”
Yes, I said.
“We are? In Havana?”
“So we’re not in the United States anymore?”
A head shake no.
Fist pump and then, “Yes!”
Off the plane, palm trees bent from warm weather gusts were welcomed, as were designated immigration lines for families with children.
Yet, at baggage claim, it was a mess. The display of 32-inch LED televisions, gifts for Cubans that are taxed upon entry, that snaked along the luggage belt was impressive, as was the fact that they had sent these on the plane instead of most passengers’ personal items. Those were put on a flight that trailed us by hours. The kids and I finally went outside to meet Abuela Ana while Luis stayed at the airport waiting for our things until early evening.
Among the masses at the exit, Marcos clung to me instantly. We spotted Abuela, I gave her a good, long squeeze and got us all into the car with her and her friend, Abel, who drove. Marcos was unusually quiet as she talked and I translated.
American adults new to the island are mesmerized by billboards, full of socialist slogans, that start to appear upon leaving the airport, but a 6-year-old is oblivious.
After going to Cuba for the better part of 13 years, I don’t feel culture shock anymore, but I was interested by a new message present. The older, typical sort, bright colors faded next to a Che Guevara silhouette, tout classic socialist rhetoric: “Te vemos cada día …puro como un niño o como un hombre puro. Che Comandante, amigo.”
|Photo by gpparker/flickr|
Translated: “I see every day…pure as a child or as a pure man. Commander Che, friend.”
However, new images are market savvy, tapping into the world’s fascination with Havana’s old school vibe, alongside its history, beaches and culture.
A few minutes into the ride, Marcos communicated, not in Spanish, but in gesture, offering gum to all and then Skylanders, his beloved game figures, came out in full animation, making their way into Abuela’s hands. She had no idea what they were, but loaded attention on them and simultaneously looked often at little Ana. Not only was this their first meeting, but their similarities, in both facial and body structures, are uncanny.
We hopped out of the car in front of Abuela’s building and heard calls from above. Two women waved and greeted us from the top balcony, Abuela’s floor, as a dog alternately bounced and pushed its nose through the railing. The elevator that never worked in all the years I used to visit now does, gratefully, and piling off we were all smothered in besos, Cuba’s customary kisses. Marcos, notorious for avoiding all smooching contact, even from relatives here, tried to burrow into me and then the wall, but they got him anyway. Defenseless, finally, he smiled, pink from embarrassment.
Down the hall and inside, the two-story apartment had been painted a happy turquoise color below and pink up the stairs and on the second floor to welcome a baby girl. Affection through the walls.
Abuela had a chicken and rice dish, with chunks of calabaza (squash/pumpkin family) and malanga (a root vegetable), warm on the stove and the kids and I devoured bowl fulls in minutes. Then Ana’s coffee (!) and playtime.
Marcos here with Abel. They spoke to each other in their own languages, but it didn’t matter. Cuba is all about kids and little ones feel that, even if they don’t understand every literal word spoken.
The next morning, we peeled Marcos, hovered in a chair in the corner with his Kindle, to walk to Hotel Nacional, a World Heritage Site and previous stomping grounds for the American mob, Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, Ava Gardner and just about every high-ranking international diplomat and celebrity to visit Cuba, which was only a few blocks away.
I have spent uncountable hours at the hotel and every time I go, it impresses. It’s magical overlooking the city’s seawall, the Malecón, as well as the Havana Harbor and much of the city. Peacocks graze, birds flutter in thick, green coverage overhead and a trio of musicians play in and around the back gardens. And yes, a cappuccino alone is reason enough to go.
I couldn’t wait to share this special spot with Marcos and point out the salon where we had our wedding reception, but only a couple minutes into the walk, he became pale and exhausted. My wildly energetic child wasn’t going to make it another minute.
It was a beautiful, slightly overcast day, but the climate got the better of him. Or maybe exhaustion. Or the language mix-up. I don’t know. Whatever it was, the last stretch, up a hill, was a tough push, but a sandwich, cold juice and ice cream under Nacional’s awning managed to perk him right back up.
As we wound around the garden’s oceanside, we discovered an exhibit, dedicated to the Missile Crisis in 1962. Castro and Che set up headquarters at the hotel to ready for a possible aerial attack as the U.S and Soviet Union threatened nuclear war.
A guide led us through a maze of tunnels, pointing out a bed of unopened explosives that ran underground. It was a fascinating detour for us, the adults, and an even better one for Marcos, whose imagination took off. Following, every night in Havana he asked for a bedtime story about tunnels and pirates, also a threat in the city at one time, a request that has rolled over into Savannah as well, threading his roots in a fun way.
Back at his grandmother’s Marcos went quiet again, curling up with his electronic game set. I knew it was a safety net, his familiar, and I left him alone. Little Ana messed around in usual fashion, playing in the kitchen, stealing spices and climbing on furniture and stairs. To my surprise, she understood more Spanish than I realized and quickly picked up more while there, including her new favorite words – bueita (for Abuelita, an affectionate take on Abuela) and baila (dance), highly appropriate for our little dancing queen, who shakes it any chance she can.
That night, New Year’s Eve dinner prep began, cleaning Bok Choy, carrots and scallions and rinsing and drying a large pork leg.
The next morning, when I came down with Ana, Abuela was already peeling garlic at the kitchen table and later Luis cut the pork into large slabs, which were lathered in a cocktail of lime juice, garlic, herbs and oil and popped in the oven on low for several hours. It smelled amazing.
The kids were bonkers by 9:30 and Marcos wanted to see the large display of flags in the plaza below, which was in full view from our balcony. On the street I took a pic of the banderas and then aimed left at the U.S. consulate, only feet behind. Luis calmly told me to put the camera down or the police lined outside the gate would ask me to. Too many photos makes a Cuban guard jumpy, something I had forgotten in my 5-year absence. In some sort of denial, I tend to forget that there are block patrols who watch and listen too closely, though I learned long ago to never talk politics and to take Luis’ advice with heed. I quickly slipped my iPhone in my pocket and put my arm around Marcos to observe only.
We continued on again to Nacional, a safe place for foreigners to eat, plowed around and munched on barbequed chicken, malanga chips and fried moringa (a cousin to basil) while we sat outside with rain drizzling a foot from our covered table. Marcos was fascinated with the pigs fitted on spits, propped next to large bags of coal for New Year’s Eve’s roasting.
Nearing nap time, the rain hadn’t let up so we lined in front of the hotel for a cab. A stately, black car pulled up and showed vast seating capability on the inside. One row had been pulled and there were a few fabric openings, but overall quality was evident. Turns out this had been Castro’s personal limo in the 80s, according to the driver. Retired, the car’s engine had been changed for one that doesn’t guzzle so much gas, making it less powerful but still efficient.
Nuts, but not any more so than having to buy the several dozen eggs we wanted from a black market vendor for about three bucks because there weren’t any others officially for purchase. Or the fact that my mother-in-law receives about two tablespoons of coffee for the month with a ration of food that stretches two weeks at the most. And when we bought groceries for the house it was expensive — no Cuban could ever buy what we did — though it wasn’t anything extravagant at all.
Getting out of the car, Luis and the driver exchanged comments and Marcos chimed in: “Too much Spanish here! Just joking, Mom, just joking….” with his hands up, as if on the defense. I felt for him, as I knew he was trying to get a grip on it all. A kid’s version of culture shock.
Later I asked Marcos if he liked Cuba. More or less, he said. He would like it better the last day. Why? Because he would be able to speak Spanish better by then.
Luis and I encouraged him to let loose and not worry about the perfection of it all.
And like a light going on, he did just that following an afternoon boys’ trip to the Malecón where waves splashed over them and a crab chased Luis’ foot. He joked that she wore heels with her ticky-ticky-ticky clicks on the cobblestone walkway and they howled laughing as Marcos connected, almost instantly, to his father’s country sitting on the wall where locals hang, play, flirt and fish. In follow-up, Luis bought DVD’s of his childhood cartoons on the street and gave them to Marcos, who giggled non-stop that night watching them.
From there Marcos took the language gap by the reins, hand signing to his grandmother when words failed; he confidently repeated questions he had been asked in Spanish to others. With a box of dominos, Cuba’s national game, in hand: “Quieres jugar?” he asked Abuela.
“Si,” she said and they sat and played for the better part of an hour.
When the neighboring older women came around again and again with kisses, he absorbed them without a flinch. Milestones here. By then, Ana was officially stalking their dog, Yara, whose name she called 50 times a day, insisting on the short walk to their place, in pursuit.
We were treated to a New Year’s meal fit for kings, an exquisite and impromptu salon concert at Yara’s home where we gathered to listen to a guitar and a soulful female voice as we sipped tart sidra. I made it to midnight and was prompted to pinch salt and sugar, which we threw over the balcony. Water was tossed over by many as well and I was given a piece of ice to rub all over me. Clueless and amused, I followed instruction.
On the trip there was also a fantastic day at the beach, though I nearly had to be committed after the half-hour rides to and from Playa Santa María sans car seats in Cuba, and a couple of visits to Havana Vieja (Old Havana), as well as a get together with Cuban friends who live in the States, also on holiday break with family.
By the trip’s end, the kids were snugly wrapped in their Cuban heritage and Marcos announced he didn’t want to go.
I didn’t either.
In Cuba there is a lot of work with young children – bath water has to be boiled and cooled, Ana’s milk had to be made, as did most of the food from scratch – but the country’s physical beauty is matched by a culture of warmth, fun, ingenuity and now, hope. My next blog will touch on pockets of real change that are happening, which is an incredibly exciting thing to see, as I never have before.