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How to Take a Work Trip across Three Countries with Your Three Kids–and No Partner–without Losing Your Mind

I’d been planning a Cuba trip for a while–I had work to do there and in-laws to visit, and I hadn’t been since early 2013–but for one reason or another, dates just weren’t lining up. Finally, the calendar cleared and I secured multiple assignments that would help pay for the trip, so it was game on– time to book flights.

Except I wasn’t traveling alone.

Four passengers = four passports and four visas. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

Four passengers = four passports and four visas. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

My oldest daughter, who would turn six during our trip, had been to Cuba twice, but the youngest, ages 2 and 1, hadn’t yet met their abuela and tias and tio. With a mother-in-law who’s in her 90s, it’s not as if I have the luxury of putting off a visit with the grands. Yes, I needed to work–covering everything from the papal visit to restoration projects and new entrepreneurial ventures–but I also needed to make sure my kids and their father’s side of the family were getting some quality time together.

Only my husband wasn’t going to be a part of the equation.

A complicated immigration status would keep him at home in New York while I sat on airplanes and hauled two suitcases and as many strollers through three airports in three different countries with three children, starting out at 4 AM in New York City and ending up 15 hours later in Havana.

“Are all these kids yours? Are you a sadist or something?” That’s what the US Immigration officer asked when I came back to the US 10 days after I’d left. I just gave him the evil eye. My kids are great travelers.

My two-year old looks out the window on our approach to Mexico City, our layover on the way to and from Havana. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

My two-year old looks out the window on our approach to Mexico City, our layover on the way to and from Havana. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

That being said, enough people asked how I managed to make the trip alone that I thought it might be worth sharing my clutch tips about how to travel alone with three kids on a work trip without losing your marbles.

1. Pack light.
Yes, you’re traveling with kids, but trust me: kids don’t need nearly as much stuff as you think they do. I managed a single carry-on for all the in-transit essentials: diapers and wipes for the youngest, a change of clothes for each, passports and all other IDs, plane tickets and documentation, my laptop and wallet, a camera, a book, my phone, and a coloring book and pack of markers. Kids–even kids who travel a lot, like mine–can be entertained for a good long while with seat back safety cards, barf bags (make puppets!), headphones, and tray tables (sorry, passenger in front of us; I’ll try to keep it gentle).

Don’t pack the entire toy box. And as for all those things you think are essential: My rule of thumb when traveling is to not pack items you can buy at your destination. A caveat for Cuba is that you probably should pack all the diapers you’ll need; diapers can be tough to find and are expensive and of poor quality. Ditto wet wipes.

2. Stay organized.
Keep all the paperwork you’ll need in airports close at hand, organized and accessible. Bring along a notarized letter from your children’s other parent–even though many airlines don’t require them–in which that parent gives her or his consent to take your children abroad. You probably won’t need the letter, but you don’t want to be in a situation where you need it and don’t have it. Because my children carry both my husband’s last name and my last name (and because this confounds so many officials), I also carry birth certificates, a copy of our marriage certificate, and vaccination records as evidence of our respective identities and relationships.

3. Accept help if offered and ask for it if it’s not.
The toughest thing about a 14-hour day of travel was–I kid you not–finding a way to go pee without worrying that my one year old would tumble head-first out of her plane seat and onto the floor. Pressing my five year old into service worked for much of the trip and those tasks where I needed an extra set of hands, but never when I needed to go to the bathroom. I searched for a trustworthy-looking adult and asked them if they could watch my kids for a few minutes.

4. Trust your oldest with age-appropriate responsibilities…
… and reward them with praise (and, if you can, a special treat) for shouldering an extra load. My five year old pushed one of her siblings in a stroller through all three airports and even operated a special elevator by herself when we couldn’t all fit into the elevator for a single trip. I knew that she was a little scared, but I also told her I was totally confident in her abilities and that I was watching her the whole time (which was true). When we had a free moment, I bought her a small bag of chocolate-covered coconut as a thank you.

5. Know your danger zones.
I wish I’d thought to ask whether my airline, Interjet, had milk on its afternoon and evening flights, as both of my youngest children drink milk from bottles. It does not– it only has milk available on morning flights. On the last leg of our return flight home, I had no milk and kid #2 spent the last 20 minutes curled up in the fetal position on top of his tray table.

6. Ease your reentry.
I scheduled in a two-night layover in Mexico City on our return trip, mainly because I love Mexico City, my former home, and because I had some reporting work I needed to do there. But it also ended up being a welcome way to transition between Cuba and home, what with a comfy hotel bed, running water (which we did not have in Cuba), and a room service splurge. If you can break up your travels into more manageable bits, it will be easier on kids… and on you.

7. Take advantage of Trusted Traveler, Global Entry, and similar services.
When booking your tickets, make sure you elect for TSA pre-check if you’re eligible, and take advantage of your trusted traveler/Global Entry memberships if you have them so you don’t have to wait in line for ages when you return home.

8. Bring snacks. Lots of snacks.
Cheerios, fruit chews, apple bars… these are my go-to snacks for kids when we’re on the road or in the air. A snack produced with a parental flourish at the precise moment preceding a meltdown can prevent crisis.

Also, if traveling in areas where you’re not the one in control of when, what, or how you’re eating (as was the case at my in-laws’), bring some breakfast basics for your kids. Instant oatmeal is the best choice; it packs flat, weighs practically nothing, is easy to make, and is filling.

9. Have a clear work plan.
I had A LOT to do in Havana, and while I had my sister-in-law and niece to help care for the kids, I was still the one who had to fit all the usual parenting tasks in at the beginning and end of the day. Being organized before I landed and staying organized each day by following a work plan I’d set for myself was essential to not losing my mind.

Book Fests & Bookstores: September Appearances

Yes, yes, I know: Pope Francis in His Own Words was published two years ago.

So why am I starting a book tour of sorts right now?

Well, as you’re probably aware, Pope Francis will be visiting Cuba and the United States next month, and it seems like a prime time to reintroduce the book to English- and Spanish-speaking audiences (did you know the book has been translated into about 15 languages?). Plus, I received a few lovely invitations to do so, and I couldn’t turn them down.

If you’re in one of the cities below, I hope you’ll spread the word and join me at one (or more!) of these events:

Decatur Book Festival: Decatur, Georgia, USA
I’m grateful to my alma mater, Emory University, for inviting me to participate in this beloved book festival. I’ll be signing books in the Emory tent from 3-4 pm on Saturday, September 5.

Brooklyn Book Festival, Bookend Event Series: Brooklyn, New York, USA
Before I head out of the country to cover Pope Francis’s visit in Cuba, I’ll be talking about the book and signing copies as part of the Brooklyn Book Festival. My generous host is the delightful Hullabaloo Books, and I couldn’t think of a better bookstore to have a conversation about Pope Francis. This is an Official Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend Event.

This event will take place at 8 pm on Tuesday, September 15.

Cuba Libro Bookstore: Havana, Cuba
I’m so excited that I’ll have the chance to talk about the book the day before Pope Francis will be giving his mass at Plaza de la Revolución in Havana.

This event will take place at 5 pm on Saturday, September 19.

Would you like to add Pope Francis in His Own Words to your bookshelf or inventory? Need a speaker or expert to interview about the Pope? Get in touch by emailing me: writingjulie[at]gmail[dot]com!

Last Call! Tickets for “How to Report on Cuba (Responsibly)” Available til Thursday

This Friday, Havana-based journalist Conner Gorry and I will be co-facilitating “How to Report on Cuba (Responsibly)” at CUNY’s School of Journalism. You can register for the full-day workshop here.

NewsroomNotinChina

How to Report on Cuba (Responsibly)

Tickets are now on sale for the workshop “How to Report on Cuba (Responsibly),” which I’ll be co-faciltiating with Havana-based journalist Conner Gorry at the Cuban Art Space in New York City on April 27. You can learn more about the workshop, which is intended for professional journalists and journalism students, and buy tickets here.

Register Now

We are also working with Tracie Powell of All Digitocracy to make the workshop available via webinar for those who are not in New York City. Details will be posted about the webinar soon.

Cuba Reporting Workshop: Save the Date

What started as Facebook venting about my frustration with the majority of reporting on/about Cuba has turned into what’s going to be a powerhouse workshop offered live in NYC on April 27 with my friend and colleague, Conner Gorry, who has lived in Cuba for more than a decade.

More details coming soon (we’ll post them all here), but for now, mark your calendars and spread the word. Space is going to be limited!

Save the Date

How to cover an international sporting event

This week, I’m in Guadalajara, Mexico covering the Pan American Games. Think of them as a mini-Olympics, smaller than the main event, but requiring the same kind of massive coordination across multiple countries and multiple languages.

I applied for my press credentials months ago, but beyond being granted press access (which only came a week and a half ago), I have largely been left to my own devices by the organizers. Figuring out the most efficient, effective way to cover the Games has required a quick study. Though I won’t be able to benefit fully from all of my trial-and-error learnings during these Games, I’ll definitely keep them in mind for my next major international sporting event (Rio, anyone?), and thought I’d share them with you.

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1. Expect disorganization.

Coordinating an event of this magnitude is an effort that requires the heads and hands of hundreds, if not thousands, of staffers and volunteers, few of whom have event coordination experience. Expect that there will be disorganization and don’t fight it. Focus on your reason for being there, determine a single point person who can get you what you need when you need it, and steer clear of the negative vibes of other journalists who entertain themselves by complaining ad infinitum about the lack of organization.

2. Prepare as much as possible beforehand.

There are lots of logistics you won’t be able to figure out until the last minute, especially as teams get eliminated and the field narrows. Make a list of priorities- what are the sports and teams you want to see? Where are the sports venues located? How far are those venues from where you’re staying (and from each other)? In Guadalajara, the volleyball venue is an hour from the main media center and about 75 minutes from my hotel. Had I not done my prep work, I wouldn’t have made it into today’s headliner game between Cuba and Canada.

3. Check in at the media center and find a contact. 

Don’t make the mistake of picking up your credentials and the media guide and then jetting. Stick around for a bit and talk with staff. Who’s a point person you can count on (via email, mobile, or both) if you get to a venue and have problems getting admitted? (And even with a formal credential, it happens). What services are available to journalists? Here at the Pan American Games, both Canon and Nikon have booths where accredited journalists can get their gear cleaned and have minor repairs performed. Nikon is even distributing loaner gear for some journalists.

And to wind down at the end of the day (or, for some journos, at the beginning… ahem), there’s a tequila tasting stand in the journo cafeteria… free shots.

Also, confirm what your credential covers. It may (or may not) cover all events, but does it cover opening and closing ceremonies? Are there any special media parties (Bebel Gilberto is playing here, for example, at a press-only event).

4. Document everything.

By this, I don’t just mean the Games, but also your communications. If someone tells you, for example, that you’ll need an event ticket on top of your credential (which is the case for today’s volleyball games), get that person’s name and email; then ask for the name and email of the person who is responsible for distributing tickets. Make sure you always have someone accountable to trace information back to.

5. Dress appropriately.

Journos showing up in sleeveless shirts and open-toed shoes won’t be admitted to a venue at the Pan Ams. Be sure you know what the dress code is for the events you intend to cover.

6. Eat well when you can.

You’ll likely be out all day at a venue that serves chips and beer, so eat a heavy breakfast. Many of the main event venues are on the outskirts of cities, not inside them, so your options for a snack or a meal tend to be limited.

7. Pack for the day and keep your stuff close. 

Don’t assume you’ll have the chance to go back to your hotel for your back-up battery or memory card. Bring all your gear and keep it close at hand. Because there’s so much gear, so many people, and so much moving around, try to keep everything as compact and close to you as you can.

8. Make friends with the media.

Grumpy journos notwithstanding, chat up the other members of the media in the press box. This morning, I’ve met AP and Getty photographers from Spain and Germany, respectively, as well as Olympic historians. It’s good to keep in touch with these folks to share future opportunities, but it’s also got an immediate benefit- they can watch your stuff for you while you go pee.

Cuban women's volleyball team

Cuban women's volleyball team

 9. Bend the rules. 

Journos who are not credentialed as photographers can’t shoot photos from the press box at the Pan Ams. As I was looking for a way around this, I realized I could take my DSLR into the stands and shoot from there (which general population can’t do- they can only use small point and shoots). Nobody told me this; it was one of the many things I had to figure out on my own.

Notes on writing in Cuba

My mother wants to visit an antique store.

“All of Havana’s an antique store,” I tell her, which isn’t exactly true. There were at least six brand new flat screen TVs on our flight from Miami, destined for living rooms around Cuba’s capital. “Ridiculous, right?” Brayan says, when we tell him. “Your roof is falling in on your head, but you’ve got a flat screen TV.”

This–visiting an antique store–is the only thing my mother has said she wants to do in Havana. Coupled with the fact that she has gamely put up with Havana’s traffic, its grime, its heat, its noise, its unpackaged chicken, and my in-laws, the very least I can do is make sure she gets to one.

Brayan charges himself with the task and one afternoon we sneak away from the family to go antique hunting. I’m not sure what my mother or I was expecting, but I’m certain it wasn’t what we walked into–a generous-sized home that could reasonably be called a mansion, where the matriarch of an entrepreneurial family (some might have other choice adjectives) guards the door with a fan, a begrudging cordiality, and one hell of an evil eye.

“People call her five-dollar-Dora,*” Brayan whispers, referring to the daughter of the matriarch. Dora is watching my mother finger through a tangle of rosaries draped on the hand of a Virgin statue, chain-smoking Populares and tugging on her Lycra shorts. She’s nervous, Dora, circulating from one room to another, keeping an eye on her stock.

At first, I think “This is it,” just this little chaotic warren of religious ephemera, which, my mother points out, is terribly suspect. “I don’t know if the rosaries are real,” she says, counting the beads on the ones she likes and wondering why some of the strands come up short. When I turn around, though, I realize there is a maze of rooms left to explore. A corner of the living room is the display area for a towering collection of humidors. The hallway between the living room and the dining room–neither of which is truly habitable–holds several cabinets so bloated with china that their doors won’t close. A collection of clocks hangs on one wall. Above the hallway, a staircase, which is itself backdropped by a 3/4 length stained-glass window, which, in turn, is surrounded by dozens of small, framed, black and white portraits.

The dining room, though, is what leaves me in complete wonder. Five-dollar-Dora’s tableware is stacked higgledy piggledy on a solid wood table that is almost the length of the room. Several buffet tables and more china cabinets do what they can to contain the rest: Bacardi cocktail glasses, china services from China, France, the Netherlands, vases and sugar bowls and creamers and salt and pepper shakers and….

I’m floored by all of it–the sheer volume, which (disturbingly) evokes scenes from “Schindler’s List.” The lack of organization and care with which it’s being kept. The Cubans circulating through the rooms, one couple looking for an affordable wedding gift. Five-dollar-Dora and her nervous smoking. The fact that the mansion hasn’t been claimed by the government and sectioned off into housing for multiple families, because it’s certainly large enough. The profit five-dollar-Dora must be making (though she seems to be either unaware or unconcerned about each item’s respective value), and what she does with it. How she acquired all this stuff in the first place… though I have a couple hypotheses.

I’m dying to ask Dora about it all, but I don’t. I’m also dying to snap a photo, but I’m conflicted–I know that what’s going on here is part of the underground economy; Dora’s neighbors let her get away with it, but none of them exactly want this story shouted from the rafters. Not to mention I’m terrified of Dora’s mother and the men who wander in and out of the scene, making phone calls. They all seem taut with a nervous energy that I sense could be venomous. I manage to get one photo by coughing and simultaneously clicking from the hip.

We leave the house, my mother with two rosaries and me with loads of questions.

*name has been changed