If you can read this sentence, you have a moral obligation to read at least one ministry curriculum or policy document, and get actively involved in your child's schooling. More specifically, you need to engage your child's teacher. Yep, even if your kid is doing well at school. (Actually, maybe especially if!)
Are you a parent?
If you can read this sentence, you have a moral obligation to read at least one ministry curriculum or policy document, and get actively involved in your child's schooling. More specifically, you need to engage your child's teacher. Yep, even if your kid is doing well at school. (Actually, maybe especially if!)
As my school-board colleagues were sending me "happy summer" texts this past week, I got thinking back to my first few years of teaching, and the sincere but often misguided efforts I made to promote equity in my classroom...
"What colour?" asked the lady at the chocolate shop (I was buying some treats to go along with the gift cards I had gotten the kids' teachers, and she wanted to know what colour ribbon she should tie the little boxes with).
When I hesitated, she helpfully offered, "male, or female?" as though a particular gender "owns" any particular colour scheme.
The best part was when I challenged her by asking nonchalantly whether we were really still asking those sorts of questions in 2017, she responded completely unfazed with, "well, I just wouldn't want to put like a pink ribbon if it were for a boy, you know?"
I didn't bother to tell her that one of my boys regularly wears pink yoga pants.
Someone I work with was telling me last fall about their experiences in the middle east, and about how "deviant behaviour" (they were referring to anyone who loves someone of the same sex as themselves) was looked down on.
Although my colleague is not violently homophobic, and tries hard to say the "right" things, they are blissfully ignorant of their heteronormativity, and of the general annoyance (at best) and internal pain (at worst) caused by some of their comments.
Recently, another colleague -- who also identifies as LGBTQ+ -- and I were debating the merits of "tolerance". I don't want to be tolerated, I explained, because someone thinks they're "supposed" to be "okay" with who I am because some law says so, but really they think there is a problem with the fact that I am gay. Rather, I want to be accepted as I accept others, the same as any straight person is accepted, because I'm a human being same as they are, with human rights same as they have.
To be "tolerated" stinks of "deviant behaviour". And while my thoughts and actions as Vera may be deviant, who I love is not!
Aren't We There Yet?
A colleague of my partner's scoffed at me last December when -- tired of the small talk in the kitchen at the holiday party, and eager to forge richer conversational fodder -- I raised the issue of oppression in Canada.
We were discussing pay equity (men and women getting paid the same -- or not, as the case still often is, shockingly -- for similar jobs), and he was surprised that I would suggest such a thing is still an issue in Canada in 2017.
This white, male, straight, able-bodied colleague went on to suggest the usual "gender/racial/LGBTQ, etc. bias isn't really a thing anymore" line, that allegedly we'd solved all these problems, at least in Canada.
My partner tried to engage him in data-based conversation at work later in the week. She soon gave up. Like white people of privilege in response to last year's Black Lives Matter protest at Pride, he could not be convinced with facts and logic.
We're into July now, and I've been meaning to write a post about Pride Month all through June. But every time I sat down to write, I just get so darned tired of how far we still have to go... despite how far we've come.
Not sure how, but suddenly three months have passed since the glorious week Simon, Alex and I spend on this warm island, and I still haven't found a few minutes to blog about the experience, despite posting both Alex's and Simon's impressions soon after our return in early Feb. Tonight, though... tonight!
I should preface this post by confessing that any photos herein are pilfered from the Internet. Wifi being sketchy, and me wanting to completely unplug and focus on the kids and on the cultural experience, I did not bring my phone (and therefore not my camera, watch, calendar, etc.)
It was a freeing if sometimes frustrating exercise, and while I marginally regret not having captured some personal experiences "on film" (digitally), overall I am glad I left my screen addiction behind in Canada that week. After all, for nearly a decade, my mother traveled to Cuba every year, long before Smartphones and personal computers, and survived every time to tell the tale, so I figured we could, too, and we did!
It was delightful to witness the boys processing their first impressions of Cuba, and make connections to other Latin American countries they have visited... it wasn't long after we stepped off the plan in Varadero that they began reminiscing about Argentina; certainly the climate felt similar to Buenos Aires, the palm trees, warm, humid air... and the fact that the officials all spoke Spanish and the announcements over the loudspeakers were in Spanish, too!
The Varadero Airport is considerably bigger (and more touristy) than the smaller one my mother, grandmother and I landed at years ago on the other side of the island, and while I felt a bit inauthentic introducing my kids to Cuba in this fashion, I knew that the rest and relaxation of the tourist resort would form only part of the trip (more on that later), so I forgave myself!
We boarded a bus along with several other tourists eager to get whichever destination they had booked from a number of resorts along the Varadero strip and -- after a bit of a delay due to a fellow passenger who succumbed to the temptation of the overpriced airport carts and bought a cigar and a cerveza -- we were off to the hotels.
Playa de Oro
Our own destination was Playa de Oro and -- while dated -- it was nevertheless larger than any resort I'd been to before: Two large, multi-floor hotel buildings flanked a giant pool with a walking path/bridge, several bars and small restaurants dotted the property, and the main lobby building featured an enormous dining room with buffet, a health centre and stage.
The rooms themselves were simple, and the paint in the hallway was peeling in many places, but truth be told, we spent more time at the beach anyway, as the pull of the ocean was strong. Swimming, playing cards, reading together... and in the evenings, a card game in the lobby, while listening to some Cuban Jazz that the local house band played after dinner.
One of our intended highlights was an overnight trip to Havana. I had never been there before, but I knew it was an important cultural hub to introduce my children to, and since AirBnB had very recently become legal in Havana, I booked a Casa Particulares through that familiar platform before leaving Toronto and took my printed out confirmation along with a Lonely Planet guidebook that featured a whole section on the capital, and included a pull-out map!
The plan was to visit the Museo de la Revolucion, walk along the Malecon, and just generally take in the atmosphere of this incredible city of 3 million people. I had also intended to check out Hemingway's house, but that was not to be, as it was located too far on the outskirts, and our time in the city was simply too short.
The first step was getting there. On a cash budget and wanting to put more money into the hands of locals and less into the already overflowing coffers of the tour agency, I booked one-way transfers on a bus, through the hotel. My lonely planet guide suggested I could hire a local car once in Havana to take us back.
Havana is divided into three main sections: Habana Veijo (or Old Havana), Centro and Vedado. Our Casa was an apartment upstairs in a private home on Gervasio, in central Havana, about a block from the Malecon (and, as it turned out as I later discovered, literally up the street from the Paladar now located in the home featured in the movie Fresa y Chocolate).
The trouble was that I actually had no idea where we were going, and of course, no way of contacting the Host, what with being internet- and device-free for the week! I came to this realization about two thirds of the way to the city, and started hurridly and more than a little panic scouring the fold-out map in my Lonely Planet guide... Irritatingly, the Veijo map seemed to end where the Centro map began, without overlap at precisely the spot I needed.
So we trusted our luck with a taxi outside of the museum (well, first we had to argue with a driver who saw a helpless woman with her tourist map, two kids and a lost look on her face; I soon ditched that guy and used my pathetically limited Spanish to charm my way into a half-the-price-but-according-to-my-guidebook-still too-much ride in another car, and thus we experienced our first of several short rides in the world famous and ubiquitous antique Cuban cars!)
Once we found the building where our Casa was located, we run the doorbell by the metal gate to the upstairs apartment, and the hosts' father let us in, and took us up another flight of stairs, a rickety old staircase, and into our top floor flat. Two large terraces impressed us, but remained largely unusable during our one night visit, due to the rainy weather. Instead, we dropped off our bags, claimed our beds, and headed out for a slice of pizza at a nearby corner stand our host recommended to us!
After our bite to eat, we wandered the streets and took in the ambiance, which was thick with art, music and culture, despite the pervading drizzle.
Havana, like most of Cuba, has relatively few cars, given its population. Most of the cars on the road look like they belong in a 1950s mobster movie... at least from the outside. The other ubiquitous make and model is the Soviet-era Lada. A few European and other "modern" motorized vehicles are starting to find their way onto the island, but these are well beyond the financial possibility of the average Cuban. Many walk or bike, and those who do own cars have become adept at creatively maintaining their vintage models!
In addition to cars, a number of covered bike- and moped-taxis serve smaller groups of tourists. Collectivo taxis offer a sort of Cuban "Uber Pool" solution, with many locals heading in roughly the same direction cramming into a larger car.
As in Varadaro, there is a "public" bus for tourists (5 CUC, about $7 CAD), and then there is the really public bus, which tourists do not use, which one pays for in local pesos unobtainable to tourists, at a rate of about 10 cents a person, and which we totally rode, I having wisely brought a few toys and some hard-to-get decent chocolate with me from Canada (in Cuba, it is not uncommon to see a local bus driver with his kid on his lap, and this was the case with the driver who's bus we happened on, and so I supplemented my offering of pesos with said Canadian chocolate and everyone was happy).
Two long-haired blond boys stood out like sore thumbs on the bus, and the locals looked at us with a mixture of curiosity and mild annoyance, but we took it in stride, and rode for as long as I dared, keeping one eye on the window to assess the surroundings, and the other eye on my guide book map, as I did not have a bus route map, and knew therefore that wherever we went, we'd either have to walk back or use some of our dwindling funds for a taxi.
Quite possibly my favourite part of riding the public buses (which we ended up doing about three times in total during our 24 hour sojourn in the city) was the insight we got into Cuban "collective" culture, in terms of child minding: At one point, a lady got on with her baby. In general, one gives up one's seat to a mother with young child, and also to the elderly. An elderly lady was sitting nearby; she reached out to the mother, and without a second's hesitation, the mother passed the infant off to this complete stranger, who held the child on her lap until it was time for the mom to get off, at which point she passed the baby back to the lady, who then got off.
It was such a non-issue, just a matter-of-fact occurance; the baby was heavy, the old lady wasn't giving up her seat, but she was taking the baby so the mom didn't have to balance the kid on her hip throughout the jostling bus ride. Amazing!
Then there was Copelia, the ice cream parlour named after the ballet. Our Casa was about a 25 minute walk from the park, and we visited (though, too shy to join the local line, we went obediently as directed by the park guards to the tourist counter).
No trip to Havana is complete without checking out the Mafia connection... the morning of our departure, we took advantage of the free tour at the Hotel Nacional, site of the Havana Conference, a "business meeting" of the Sicilian and American Mafia some years ago.
The hotel also boasts an impressive. star-studded, international guest list, and we got to soak up a little of this history thanks to our knowledgeable and detail-oriented tour guide.
Simon, who had been somewhat cranky due to the lousy weather (it was raining when we arrived in Havana, which curbed our ability to walk everywhere) and a canker sore in his mouth, insisted we go snorkeling. He had never gone, and decided we needed to go.
I had planned out our finances quite carefully, but had not considered connecting the snorkeling adventures to the Havana trip. In the end, however, doing just that seemed like the most feasible way to ensure we squeezed some off-resort snorkeling into our week-long trip, and so, at Simon's insistence and with a little negotiation on the part of our Casa host's father with the driver, we managed to combine our drive "home" (to Varadero) with a stop at an out-of-the-way little spot I had read about, regardless of the fact that we had not brought bathing suits with us to Havana.
While our driver and I enjoyed non-alcoholic piña coladas and played with the mangy beach dogs wandering around the bar, Alex and Simon stripped down to their underwear, put on the battered old life jackets the guide handed them, and set out to experience their first ever snorkeling adventure, led by a young man who showed me photos of his own children as well as his snorkeling guide license to assure me my kids were in good hands.
Asked later how they liked it, Alex dreamily responded, "it was magic"!
After our return from Havana, the overcast skies continued to plague our beach holiday, so we determined to travel off the resort strip, and into the little tourist town of Varadero for the morning. We packed some snacks and water, as well as a few tradeable items, just in case, and wandered out to the main road to wait for the $5 tourist bus.
It wasn't long until the local bus, headed into town to pick up a larger group, pulled over and offered us a ride for less than it would have cost us for all three on the "proper" bus. After some haggling, we negotiated an even better price, and the boys and I got onto the bus, celebrating our unexpected luck at finding this better deal. (In the end, we didn't pay a dime for our ride, as it turned out the driver had grandkids, and happily accepted our offer of toys and chocolate in lieu of cash!)
After hanging our with some freely wandering chickens in the main square, we walked across a bridge into an industrial part of town. It was sweltering, so we soon headed back to the tourist zone, and ended up on a secluded part of the beach, where we buried our water and bags in the cool sand, and stripped down for another underwear swim in the ocean (albeit this time sans snorkel gear)!
The boys wanted to ride what Simon called a "helmet cab", so after drying off while walking along the beach a little, we hitched a ride for a few blocks in one of the so-called "coco cabs", again trading hard-to-come-by-in-Cuba goods for services.
We ate our snacks, and also visited a local rum outlet so that I could pick up a few souvenirs. Then we caught a ride in a vintage taxi back to our hotel resort. Simon said it was his favourite day; he loved the "helmet cab". (When I pressed him, he said he enjoyed the snorkeling, but that "it was stressful", hehe.)
All in all, I found our day trip to Varadero less eventful than our Havana adventure, but I am nevertheless glad we got to see the town.
As is often the case in Cuban resorts, you go for the sunshine, the sandy beaches, the ocean... not so much for the food! Playa de Oro is no exception. The buffet was repetitive but manageable; we'd brought our own syrup, ketchup and peanut butter. Bringing our own teabags turned out to have been a wise idea, too! Black pepper was frequently in short supply as was any kind of decent salad dressing, but we did not starve.
The pasta bar was a hit with the kids (we learned to line up early for dinner to avoid long waits later on), and there were three a-la-cart restaurants, where one was served a variation of the food available at the buffet. We made reservations at the Cuban beach cafe and also ate at the pool-side Italian restaurant one night, where we were given what I thought were fancy virgin drinks, but which turned out to be alcoholic beverages, which I did not discover until the boys had already taken two generous swigs. (The end of that story is that after refraining from imbibing for nearly the whole week, I found myself drinking THREE drinks in one sitting!!!)
Our room, while fairly comfortable, was average at best; the bathroom smelled of mildew, and the towels were rarely changed (though upon leaving a tip for the cleaner, we came back to our room to find the old towels had been creatively fashioned into swans and sea monsters).
In the evenings, various sorts of entertainment were offered: Circuses, dance bands and live concerts. Most of the shows ran quite late, but we did stay up to catch the pool show, which featured synchronized swimming acts, each introduced in five languages -- Spanish, German, English, French and Russian -- by one of the hotel staff.
The resort's main attraction was of course the beach. The ocean was amazingly warm, and so many shades of blue and green (such different shades than in PEI, I marveled!) Alex commented that he finally understood how some people could just sit around on the beach all day, which is exactly what we did on two or three of the days... coming early, I would tip the beach guy to wipe down and reserve a spot for us, and then we'd leave a few items on our lounge chairs, and he would look after them if we went up to the buffet for lunch or whatever.
We would swim, nap, read, play cards, chat with the locals (the boys traded some of their t-shirts and shoes for seashells)... one time we even saw a fellow with a pelican following along behind him!
For those of us lucky enough to be tourists on vacation, it was a little piece of paradise.
As we found out while wandering about on one of our final days in Cuba, our resort was located right next door to a delfinario. We saw and heard the beautiful creatures swimming in the lagoon while we were out walking one evening (the delfinario keeps its dolphins in what is called "semi-captivity"), and decided on our last day to go and catch a show.
Although the place is a bit dated, it's pretty cheap if you don't actually go swimming with the dolphins and just watch the show instead, and it was amazing to interact with these social creatures even from afar.
Still To Do...
Cuba is changing rapidly. With the Americans arriving on the scene, the economy and culture is already shifting. I am eager to visit again while some of the "old Cuba" is still preserved. Next time I would bring some dog and cat treats (for all the strays) and add black pepper to my arsenal of home comforts. I also want to visit Habana Veijo, which I did not get a chance to do. And I will definitely catch the Buena Vista Social Club show the next time I go.
Sitting here in my Apt in Toronto on an unseasonably cold, rainy, miserably May evening, I think back fondly to our short by poignant week in warm, sunny Cuba this past January. I am hopeful of a return visit sometime in the not too distant future!
You might think that in a lesbian family, Mothers' Day is kind of a big deal. Two moms, right?! But having come out later in life, I never got to experience first-hand that lovely, two-mom relationship I often admire with some envy when I come across a young family lead by two women.
My co-parent didn't arrive on the scene until my kids -- who still have a regular relationship with their dad -- were 6 years old. (They're 13 now!)
And although they often joke that she is the best "Second Mother" (not "second best", they explain) around, and even tell her that she is the only step-mom they have ("no questions asked", as one kid affirmed in writing in his mothers' day card to her this morning), she is, still, after all, "just" a step-parent, with all the self-imposed guilt and other emotional drama that entails.
In terms of my relationship with my own mother, that also comprises its fair share of emotional drama: Orphaned at 21, I don't have any instagram-worthy photos to share of my beautiful adult relationship with my mother, because I don't have one.
So I'll spend today's blog post instead sharing my reflections about some observations I had the unique opportunity to make this weekend, while attending a Girls CAN Fly event at a nearby airport.
Canadian Aviation Pride, an organization I volunteer with, had been asked to set up a booth in the hangar.
We did our usual assortment of pre-made rainbow airplane necklaces to sell, and also set out other beads so that kids and their families could make their own necklaces, rainbow or otherwise, before or after their flight. This afforded me the opportunity to observe how families would "help" especially their youngest children with a self-chosen task.
With so many colourful beads on display, most children wanted to string their own necklaces, and it was remarkable how many parents simply could not let their 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds do the fine motor practice until they worked it out. Each necklace included a chain and 6 beads, and barely a child got to the third bead before a well-meaning parent took over the task and just did it for them.
The first steps to the learned helplessness I witnessed so very often in my middle school classrooms!
Watching a child struggle with a task is hard, no question, but with encouragement and time, most children can complete many "difficult" tasks on their own or with limited support, and the research shows that it is actually good for them to engage in this struggle.
The other thing that amazed me was how many of the parents basically vetoed their kids' choices of bead colour, style and placement in order to make the necklace as they (the parent) thought it ought to be, rather than how the child herself envisioned it. I kid you not, I witnessed one parent keep telling his kid to choose different beads than she was choosing, because that would "look better", and watched in amazement while another dad fully removed four of his daughter's six beads, and replace them with different ones, to make a pattern he thought looked better!
It's easy to watch and judge, of course, and so I spent the rest of the weekend pondering my own influences on my kids... of course I want to guide them and expose them to things I deem "valuable", but am I making sure to honour their individual choices as well, even if they differ from my own?
Working so much with the Kindergarten Program this year in my new job, I am well familiar with how important it is for teachers to support students' development of their own identities as learners. I wonder how well I have done with this as a parent? I am determined to renew my commitment to developing my own children's resilience, strength and confidence!
Anyone in the know when it comes quadricycles in the GTA has heard by now that (after 32 years) the Toronto Island Cycle Rental is going out of business. Just this past week I read that they would be selling off their inventory -- including over 40 quads -- over the Easter weekend.
On a whim, I decided we had to have one!
I mean, really, who wouldn't jump at the chance to own a little piece of Toronto Island history? And hey, we live right on the lakefront cycle path -- what an opportunity!
Even the kids were game to contribute a significant chunk of their own money, and once I had convinced my partner and our family friend that we'd be able to actually get the thing home and not get stuck and kick it into the lake after the first km pedaling back, I began planning my strategy.
Easter weekend begins on Good Friday. Lots of people off work; there was bound to be a line-up!
After a bit of googling, I discovered that there seemed to be some sort of a pre-sale the Sunday before, weather permitting, from 2-4 p.m. I vowed to be there promptly at 2 p.m., cash in hand.
I knew that the older quadricyles that were 4-seaters were going for $800 - 1000, and that was our budget (there was also a handful of new ones, a year old, for $3000, but that was too rich for our blood).
The Early Bird
Imagine our surprise, then, when we arrived at the ferry dock an hour beforehand and were greeted by the sight of multiple disembarking passengers already riding their "new" quads off the Wards Island Ferry (winter schedule still, no Centre ferry yet) and into the city!!!
How had these people found out about the secret pre-sale and snuck their way in early? Outrageous!
Undeterred, I led the way onto the boat, the dog (we had elected to bring her along) eagerly sniffing to the air beside us, delighted at the unfamiliar but not unwelcome smell of adventure.
Alas, as we got off the ferry at Wards, we observed an additional quantity of the much-coveted rachity old machines now belovedly being pedaled by their jubilant new owners, and my heart began to sink. Maybe we were too late, I worried, doing some quick mental calculations about what we had seen, and how many -- roughly -- I knew there to be for sale.
My fears were confirmed when I chatted with a single rider in a faded canopy-covered two-seater who pedaled slowly past me down the way as she confirmed that the only rides still being peddled up the path were three of the newer 4-seaters at $3000 a piece, and several single bikes.
Having come this far, we marched on towards Centre, where my informant's facts were tragically upheld.
After looking longingly at the $3000 machines (there were only two left now), and briefly considering a splurge, I defeatedly slumped onto a bench along the path across from the bike shop, next to my partner and our doggie, and watched other hopefuls equally disappointed as they eagerly approached the stand and then became aware that their whimsical dream was not to come to fruition today.
Lunch, Playground and Ferry
By now, the boys had also arrived on the Island (they'd come down and met our friend after a morning commitment elsewhere in the city), and my partner, our dog and I walked back along the path towards the Wards Island Ferry Docks to meet them for a quick stop at the pirate playground and the picnic lunch we were supposed to have enjoyed while pedaling back on our new and unusual treasure.
We then joined other early spring island visitors for the ride back to the city, quadricycle-less, but $800 richer than we would have been, had our venture been "successful".
We took some comfort in knowing that at least the dawg had fun!
Some might say we dodged a bullet, and I agree that after the initial excitement of riding with friends around the neighbourhood bike path, a quadricycle would likely have become an underused toy, challenging to store and maintain.
But I would be lying if I said I wasn't just a wee bit sad about not getting one!
My kids have their first "part time job": Recently accepted as part of an ongoing nutrition study at Ryerson, Alex and Simon have committed to trekking downtown for the next several weekends to spend 4 hour stretches at the nutrition lab.
When I was their age, I was pushing a coffee cart around the basement of a smoky bingo hall... Instead of drawing coffee, the boys are drawing blood samples -- their own; 2-3 drops every 40 minutes or so -- and filling in mood and hunger surveys over the course of their 4 hour visit each week to be analysed by a team of researchers.
The monetary compensation for their efforts is comparable to my bingo hall coffee cart adventures, if one accounts for inflation. Only, while I would try and sneak a chocolate bar here and there, they actually get fed breakfast and an all-you-can-eat pizza lunch as part of their "work". These are the kind of perks of the job I did not experience until a few years later, when my Sunday mornings were spent opening the breakfast shift at my local McDonald's!
It's intriguing how much money drives their desire to participate; when I was 12, I was still deep into my sticker collection. My minuscule paycheques primarily supported my junk food addiction and visits to the just-emerging dollar stores in the neighbourhood to buy new stickers or sticker albums. Theirs will be dedicated towards more lofty goals: Simon is saving for his own computer, and Alex wants a "Toronto Marijuana Leafs" jersey. Whereas I wanted a part time job less for the money and more for the social aspect of things (all my "cool" friends were getting jobs), it was the idea of a big chunk of coin at the end of the study that prompted Alex and Simon's interest in giving up large portions of their "free time"!
Like I was at their age, the boys are involved in innumerable extracurricular adventures, from various instrumental and vocal musical endeavours , to rock-climbing and dance, to making art and reading books.
Unlike me at their age, they also have 2-hour commute to and from school each day, and access to an iPad, video games and the internet. It will be interesting to see how these additional demands on their time influence the choices they make when it comes to part time jobs and social commitments in the years ahead.
Alex and Simon are at the cusp of adolescence; they turn 13 in about a month. As I have since they were born, I look forward to the next stage of firsts, and will inevitably compare them to my own increasingly-distant experiences in kind.
Although Alex was less resistant than Simon about working on his journal daily while in Cuba, the gig was up when we got home. The working copy of the journal was all I ever got out of him!
Thankfully, he did manage to capture quite a few details of the trip enroute, for example, his write up about La Habana, below...
There was also his commentary (albeit brief, i.e. "fine") about being unplugged:
(For the record, I do NOT "yell" at him "all the time" -- or ever, really -- to get off his device, lol!)
There was also his recount of the snorkeling adventure at Playa Coral...
His review of the resort was Trip Advisor worthy!
On the plane ride home, Alex summarized the trip nicely, but skipped the parts he decided he wouldn't be doing. Oh well, at least he's an honest writer!
During our recent stint in Cuba, I asked my two kids to complete a reflective journal each day. Simon, who had been the less delighted of the two about this prospect, wowed us all with his write up on return. In addition to typing several pages worth, he requested feedback and willingly returned to the project to to make changes based on that feedback.
His final results are below...
When we first got to Cuba, I saw a lot of green (plants and shrubbery). Because of these plants, I smelled extremely fresh air. However, during the trip I got used to it so I didn't notice it as much, but when we got back to Toronto, I could smell the difference. In Toronto, the air smells more industrial. Saying this though, I have to remember that the taste of the food in Cuba was a bit bland but the food at the resort was terrible. All the food was hard, bland, soft, etc etc... . They even ruined chicken!
One thing I noticed was that there were many different races. There wasn’t really one noticeable majority because there were many colours of people, black, latino, white; you name it! I was surprised by this because I thought all the Cubans would be Latino.
So those were my first impressions on Cuba but let me tell you more about the Resort. Our room was pretty cold (colder than the air outside). Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that we could just change the temperature of the room until over halfway through our trip . Uggh!
The room had two double beds and a cot that the cleaning staff brought in for one of us to sleep on. The walls of the room were dark blue.
The pool was cold so we didn’t really swim in it other than the first day. However, never mind the pool, because the beach was almost perfect(the only problem was the salt water). I quote Alex when I say “the beach was very salty and it was disgusting to accidentally swallow water. There were also lots of straw umbrellas and plastic chairs to have relaxation at its best.”
I already talked about how bad the food was so never mind that, however, let me talk about the lobby. The lobby was very big. To plant a good picture in your mind, let me describe how it looked. It had three levels, the main level which has the front desk, washrooms, cafe, gift shop, entrance, seating area, and other smaller details. The second level has a stage for the band (which was one of the best ones I’ve ever heard) and seating area. The third level has two restaurants, a bar, and seating area. The place didn’t have a roof but rather a huge, green covering un attached made of stone and wood with beams supporting it. The lobby also had a green ramp coming down from the third level all the way down to the main level (the ramp also opened up at the second level) and a lot of potted plants.
Before we got there I thought the city would be really old because Mom kept saying “Havana is an old historical city.” However, when we got on the tour bus going to Havana, I learned some real facts. I already knew that it’s the capital city but I didn’t know that the city is home to three million people which is about one fourth of the country's eleven million residents.
When we got there, i realised that the city was crowded and LOUD! Forget New York, this is the real city that never sleeps. People were up partying all night.
Soon enough we met our host. They had a really nice house (they were probably pretty rich for Cuban standards). Everything was neat, tidy, and they even had a balcony with a nice view of the street below. I thought “Yes, Score” until they showed us the rickety spiral staircase behind us. At the top of those stairs was our place (the place ended up being nicer than, or as nice as, theirs with three beds spread across two bedrooms, two balconies, other living necessities, and a microwave that might explode at any moment so no need to worry). Dam!
The Town of Varadero
Other than Havana we also visited the town of Varadero although, we did not stay there overnight.
While most of our rides to places cost money, we ended up getting a free ride there after haggling with our bus driver (we did give him toys, hygiene items, and clothes though so it wasn’t exactly free). When we got to the town of Varadero, the first thing we did was buy my friend Muneeb a mini Baseball Bat tourist item because he loves bat sports. Then, we walked around an industrial part of town that my Mom said was allegedly a residential area. Heh, heh, No! Next, we went to a local art market (really it was just kind of a tourist market, in fact, the whole town was infested with tourists). After that, we rode in a taxi shaped like a helmet to one of the local beaches and swam in the clean and clear water there. The taxi was one of my favourite parts of the entire trip partially because of all the fresh air in my face as we zoomed through the streets. Finally, we took an old fashioned taxi car home, which we payed for (something different about Cuba compared to most places is that most of the cars there are old fashioned and most of the people who own cars there are cabbies because very few people have a car there).
Other Fun Activities
Some other things we did were snorkelling and seeing a dolphin show. First, I’m going to talk about snorkelling. This was the first time I've been snorkelling. I really enjoyed it. We saw lots of fish and various different colours and types of coral. Our guide even showed us a starfish! He also gave us a sea urchin but in return we gave him clothing. One thing I didn't enjoy about snorkelling was that I had to keep my legs super stiff in order for the coral and sea life to not rub against my legs.
While Alex and I were Snorkelling, our Mom had her own adventure. Allegedly she bought herself and our driver a pin encalada then watched us snorkel.
Later, we went to a dolphinarium to see a dolphin show. The dolphins did cool stuff like dancing and balancing things on there nose. They also jumped through hoops, shot basket balls, and gave high fives to the trainers. All of that aside though because the star of the show was a little baby dolphin that kept smiling, laughing, and overall just being bad.
Life without Internet
It was very difficult for me not to have internet for two reasons.
First of all, I couldn’t watch youtube or do a lot of things I like to do. However, my second reason was that I felt like I couldn't show my Mom my full potential for documenting our trip. As it is I type as slow as Molasses but writing, OMG! I was being sloppy with my work because I felt that it would be bad anyway. I’m hoping that after reading this my Mom will see my full potential (I know she does, but it will still feel good to complete this).
All of that aside though, what I did like about not having internet was that I was more observant because I wasn’t just thinking about getting back to my screen. I felt like I enjoyed this trip more than any I’ve ever gone on before.
To conclude this part, I would like to say that I think people should take a break from internet for a straight twenty-four hours every two months.
Before I end off this article I would like to give anyone planning on going to Cuba a huge tip. GO SOON because times are changing. The leader of Cuba Fidel Castro has just passed away meaning anything can happen (including the price of things in Cuba) so go now!
When my mother and grandmother used to travel with me a hundred years ago before the omnipresence of smartphones and social media (heck, the Internet was not even a “thing” yet!), we’d pack our bags and head out of the country for two weeks or longer.
The only contact we’d have with the folks back home was a postcard here and there, and sometimes maybe one long distance phone call just to let everyone know we’d arrived safely or something. There were no Facebook updates, Instagram photos or Twitter hashtags - people back home simply had to wait for the in-person update when we got back home at the end of the trip.
The payoff for this was that while traveling, we were fully immersed in the moment, conscious of the experiences we were having and the people we were having them with.
Unless you want to spend silly amounts of time and money surfing ridiculously slow internet the lobby of your dilapidated hotel, Cuba offers an opportunity to go “old school” for your vacation, as ubiquitous and accessible wifi is still an emerging concept here.
And that’s just what we did, my boys and I.
Alex and Simon and I left our devices at home when we headed out the door to the airport at 3:30 a.m. last Friday morning, and I’m grateful that we did so.
I should preface my praises for disconnecting with an admission that I had some pretty significant anxiety the first 48 hours without my smartphone.
For starters, feeling for that little key to the world in my pocket at all times has become almost a subconscious habit. I literally would reach for my iPhone multiple times a day: While standing in line at the airport, while waiting for the hotel shuttle bus to arrive at the airport, and at many other times once at the resort, just to check email, texts or update my Instagram feed. It was a surprise to me every time at first that the phone wasn't there!
Another thing I missed was the ability to look things up in a flash:
With the exception of the latter fact, which we were able to find out fairly quickly by looking at one of the maps in our Lonely Planet Cuba Guide and by simply walking around after checking in with our Casa owner, all my “need to know” questions had to wait until I could find someone to engage with who spoke enough English and knew more about Cuba than where the nearest bar was at the all-inclusive resort. Or wait until our return to Canada and the relatively fast, free wifi we enjoy here.
Finally, being out of text, phone or email range from my partner for a full week was a bit unnerving at first, since we’d never been apart for any length of time without some sort of digital access before. But “absence makes the heart grow fonder” as they say, and in the end, it was probably a good and healthy thing to have such a clearly demarked break from one another.
Being without my phone also meant having relatively little idea of what time it was, most of the time. Our resort lobby had a clock, as did the living room in the Havana Casa Particular where we spent a night, but other than that, we basically had to gauge what time it was by estimating the passage of time since our last confirmation, or checking -- in the morning and early evening -- by how bright it was outside.
That was a bit of a strange feeling at first, since I am so used to living by the clock (10-o-clock meeting, 2 p.m. deadline, 6 p.m. dinner, “family time” 7:30 - 8:15, kids’ tuck-in at 9, and so on).
But it didn’t take long to let go of the stringent schedule, and just respond to our mental and physical sense of what we “should” be doing at different points throughout the day.
Being free from daily reminders of all the lunacy going on in the world due to limited access to news of the latest racism, homophobia and misogyny in governments nearby was a welcome break.
After the initial awkwardness of feeling like we had to constantly know what time it was and whether anyone had texted us or updated their Youtube or Instagram feeds in the past three minutes, things started to get a whole lot better.
I began to read the book I had brought with me, and got so into it that I felt compelled to read aloud sections to the boys. They in turn became fascinated by Trevor Noah’s coming-of-age tales from Apartheid South Africa and demanded I keep reading more. This became a daily ritual, at the beach, by the pool, in the hotel lobby…
Cards were big, too: On the bus to Havana, in the brief moments we spent in our hotel room during transitions, and under the shade of our beach umbrella, the boys played everything from 21 to Crazy 8s to President, and I was obliged to join them.
We played more cards this week than in the past 12 months!
The best thing about being disconnected was that the daily digital distraction of the device was replaced by an ever-increasing, in-the-moment appreciation of the sights, sounds and other sensual flavours all around: The azures and aqua-marines of the Atlantic mesmerized me, and not just for a moment while I grabbed my phone to snap a photo to post on social media.
Nopes, not having the temptation of my digital device at my fingertips for a week meant I had the freedom to just stare out at the ocean and enjoy the view for a full ten minutes, or an hour, or all day, as I basically did at least once during our time in Varadero. It also meant that I would often glance up from my book, rather than being sucked in by the endless labyrinth that a screen and internet access provides, and enjoy magical moments that my 12-year-old twins were sharing with one another in the ocean, on the beach, doing card tricks, or engrossed in a good book together.
One facet of leaving my phone at home that had made me particularly nervous was the absence of a camera. But once on vacation, the boys and I quickly adopted the habit of capturing moments in our memories by pausing and holding our hands up to our face and making a “click” sound whenever something especially wondrous caught our eye.
We also spent some time each day completing the travel journals I had prepared for them ahead of time, though truth be told, Alex and I were considerably more enthusiastic about and committed to this little project than Simon was.
I am hoping to blog my own travel journal notes when I have some time over the coming week, so that the wonderful memories don’t fade too far into the mental abyss -- while more comprehensive than photos, memories do tend to have a far shorter lifespan than digital images!
I recognize that the Internet provides access to a global network of knowledge and perspective, and that these things often translate into power, and in general I am in strong favour of access as a fundamental human right in the 21 Century. Nevertheless, given our privileged position as westerners not living below the poverty line in a country where we have the luxury of consistent access, I feel that our brief hiatus from the world wide web was a beneficial one for us. The peace and reduced sense of urgency facilitated by the absence of constant connection to the outside was a feeling I'd not had in a long time.
All in all, I am in favour of such regular unpluggings, and am thinking of practical ways to make purposeful internet and social media breaks a part of our family’s regular routine.
After writing for several teacher and multiple birth publications, including ETFO's Voice Magazine, Multiple Moments, and the Bulletwin, Vera turned her written attention to prolific blogging for some years, including BiB, "Learn to Fly with Vera!" and SMARTbansho . Homeschooling 4 was her travel blog in Argentina. She now spends more time on her Instagram (@schalgzeug_usw) than her blog (pictures are worth a thousand words?!) Contact Vera by clicking the photo above.
The views expressed on this blog are the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of her family members or the position of her employer on the the issues she blogs about. These posts are intended to share resources, document family life, and encourage critical thought on a variety of subjects. They are not intended to cause harm to any individual or member of any group. By reading this blog and viewing this site, you agree to not hold Vera liable for any harm done by views expressed in this blog.