- Southwest Florida is better for a short family vacation than Maui, conditional on the family not owning a private jet.
- Florida sand is superior to Maryland and Delaware sand. For one, it doesn’t collapse as easily; second, it is much easier to clean; third, on Sanibel and Captiva islands it is mostly made of quartz and broken down shells and is there anything cooler than that?1
- More bird diversity makes for happier humans and while D.C. has a respectable population of birds, it doesn’t come close to Florida with the ospreys and the fish hawks, brown pelicans and roseate spoonbills, white ibises and snowy egrets, sanderlings and sandpipers, woodpeckers both pileated and downy, and not a robin in sight.2
- Is it just me or is sunscreen really so much better now than it was 30 years ago? With UPF swimwear you need less of it anyway, and the little that you do need is easier to apply, lasts longer, and just works better than whatever smelly Coppertone slurry we used in the 90s.
- Beach towels are useless.
- Spending a week in a zip code with no Instacart, no DoorDash, no Uber or Lyft or ad hoc taxis of any kind was refreshing, but I wouldn’t recommend it long-term. Although there was still Amazon next-day delivery and plenty of UPS trucks, so not all was lost.
- Physical books continue being better than e-books; the calculation will change for me as soon as e-book readers solve quick note entry — emphasis on quick.
- Where are all the Nightingales is a great way to start the day, on or off the beach.
The decade in which one’s three children are born will have to rank among the best ones ever, no matter what else happened. But then add marriage, a move to America1, completing 25 years of training2, getting a dream job, becoming an uncle — twice — and not to forget, starting this blog, and, well, it is hard to imagine things getting any better.
So yes, it has been a good ten years. Certainly better than any other ten-year span I’ve had. A good test would be imagining the ten-year-ago me learning the outcome of the single decision he’s made back in 2008 to go for residency training in the US of A instead of a PhD in Germany, and I’m not one to pee their pants from excitement but I do imagine myself coming close, even without knowing the counterfactual.
I’m 12 and the family is taking a summer vacation in sunny Pomorie, Bulgaria. It’s on the Black Sea. The ~400-mile drive in my father’s VW Golf (Mk2) takes close to 12 hours, border check and an interlude in Sophia included. It feels longer: it’s a 3-door hatchback and I’m sharing the back seat with my brother and a suitcase. There are enough groceries in the trunk to last us a week.
We arrive in the early morning and look for a place to stay. Airbnb is 16 years away, but there are vacancy signs posted on private residences all around town. We find one that’s half-built: gray building blocks still visible on the outside and concrete stairs with no railings, but the rooms are actually quite nice and the apartment is self-contained. The owner-slash-proprietor is financing the finishing touches by renting it out. My father approves.
The weather is nice and the beach is crowded. I have a perpetual sunburn. We visit Burgas and Nessebar. Dad almost gets scammed out of all of our German marks by a street money changer. I get a photo taken with a yellow-white python around my neck. We eat at home and take evening strolls up and down what goes for a boardwalk in Pomorie. We ocasionally catch a glimpse of live music from accross a hedge. A few people climb a hillock to watch the concert. I try it once and climb right back down: do I want to spend the evening listening to a Boney M. tribute band?
The drive back through Bulgaria feels faster, but that’s because Dad is speeding. We get caught and the policeman pencils something in on a lemon-yellow card. The next time we stop for gas Dad tries to erase it. He succeeds but the card is now a paler yellow where the marking used to be. They notice this at the border and we stay an extra few hours until they let us through. But then we’re in Serbia and close to home and soon I’ll get back to playing Civilization II and Duke Nukem 3D and Quest for Glory IV so who cares what happened and how we got out of it?
It’s 2019 and I’m the Dad. The family is taking an early summer vacation in sunny Wailea. It’s on Maui. My wife and I take two new credit cards to get enough points to get three tickets for the four of us. A week before the trip we realize I can’t have a 35-pound toddler on me for two 5-hour flights and we buy the fourth ticket. The airline charges for food, so we stock up on snacks to bring on board; I have a Costco membership card in my wallet.
We are in a one-bedrom two-bathroom condo that is bigger than my family home in Serbia. A decorative bowl full of glass balls greets us in the hallway; a large ceramic vase is next to our bed. My wife glances at our jet-lagged toddler, then at me, and I spend the next half-hour lifting fragile items up on top of kitchen cabinets. I go to bed around midnight, which is 6am Eastern Time.
The condo sits next to a golf course and some tennis courts. I don’t play either. There are five beaches within 5 minutes’ driving distance. They are virtually empty save for one, which has a steady stream of snorklers and divers parading up and down. The Costco-chosen guidebook says it’s the best spot on Maui for snorkling lessons, but 18-month-olds can’t snorkle.
The older sibling collects seashells and runs away from waves and builds puddles for the younger one to jump on. She chats up the adults and can carry a conversation better than her dad. We all wear UPF shirts and go through five bottles of Coppertone. We visit Lahaina and Paia and Kihei. We eat at home and take evening strolls through beachside resorts. There are Luaus on every night. The one at the Marriott is there for all to see from a public walkway. It’s the one we attend one night — the pork is good. There is audience participation: children learn the hula, adults blow into a conch shell; one man proposes to his fiance while up on the stage, in front of all us people — it’s a bit corny.
We wake up at 3am and wake up the kids at 4 to drive up a mountain top to see the sunrise. It is 10°C and colder with wind chill, and the sunrise lasts for all of five minutes; the children are not impressed. The other 100 people looking at it seem quite happy. One man proposes to his fiance, on top of that inactive volcano, in front of all us people — it’s quite romantic.
We sign up for an 8-hour van ride up and down a rainforest highway. It takes 12 hours. We are sitting all the way in the back: the older one is sick but doesn’t vomit, the younger one doesn’t say anything but vomits twice. It’s mostly juice and water and doesn’t smell like acid at all so we wipe it up with tissues and wet wipes and don’t ask the driver to stop. The young couple in front of us asks for more air.
The last flight back is a red-eye and the younger one screams for the first hour of the last leg of the journey because i don’t let her play with the restroom faucet. The attendents are out serving drinks so we let her roll around in the back of the plane, head close to the emergency exit door which I eye nervously. They serve us apple juice which she drinks and falls asleep. The older one is excited: there is an Amazon delivery of one toy or another waiting for her back home. She is still tired enough to be sleeping when the plane catches turbulence — the last 3 hours are bumpy. I watch a movie and try to fall asleep.
Finishing up our world tour/airplane passenger torture project1 was a trip from Baltimore to Havana, via Cancun. Before you scream Embargo!, neither my wife nor I are American citizens. Our daughter is, but it is fortunately not illegal for US citizens to visit Cuba as long as they don’t spend any money there, at least according to America’s most esteemed journal of law, medicine and gastronomy.
If for whatever reason you want to travel to Cuba from the East coast, you might find our experience helpful.
We took the United flight from Dulles to Cancun, went through Mexican customs and immigration, then took the Cubana flight to Havana after checking in again. Inbound, layover time was more than 3 hours so we could have comfortably checked a bag or two for those large bottles of sunscreen and other essential liquids. The trip back, however, was tight at 1h 55min, so we decided not to risk waisting time at baggage claim, and only brought carry-ons.
In retrospect, it was half of a good move. On the way back, going through customs, immigration, then walking from Cancun’s Terminal 2 to Terminal 3 and checking in for the flight to Dulles is barely manageable in those 90-ish minutes after leaving the plane. However, we could—and should—have checked one of the carry-ons on the inbound flight, as sunscreen, diaper cream, and other toiletries are ridiculously expensive in Havana.
NB: You can easily walk from Cancun’s Terminal 2 Arrivals to Terminal 3 Departures (or 3 -> 2 inbound). There is a shuttle that leaves every 30 minutes and goes Parking -> T1 -> T2 -> T3 -> Parking. The Cancun airport staff told us it would take us 25 minutes to walk from T2 to T3—and that it would take the shuttle at least as much since it makes those other stops—but hey! there’s this van that magically appeared which would drive us to T3 for the low low price of $20. Google maps said it’s less than a kilometer between terminals 2 and 3 so we smiled politely and walked away. It took us—three adults with a carry-on and a large shoulder bag each, plus a toddler in tow—less than 10 minutes. Kudos to United for letting us skip the long check-in line and making it to our flight without issues.
Serbian citizens don’t require a visa, but Dora had only her US passport. We got her a visa in Cancun at check-in for 20 euros.
Cuban entry stamp is bright pink. They asked us before putting one in Dora’s passport, so I can only assume they occasionally get US citizens who’d rather not have their passports stamped for whatever reason (cough, cough). The visa also gets stamped, so there is still proof of entry.
There were no issues going back through Dulles. The customs form asks you which countries you visited on the trip, so we did write we were in Cuba. The immigration officer at Dulles just asked if we were bringing any cigars back with us—of course not, we hadn’t even smoked any while there!—and finished the fingerprinting in record time.
Bring euros, and bring more than you expect. You can convert USD to convertible pesos (CUC) in any exchange office, but with their rates it’s better to change dollars to euros in your own bank, then change euros to CUC once in Cuba. Also, convert some CUC to the peso nacional (CUP), if only for the ridiculously cheap ice cream you can buy on the street.
As for how much to bring, count on at least $20/person/day, not including the room or the 25 CUC exit tax. This would cover lunch, dinner, and a daily trip to the beach or a visit to a museum, monument, etc. Since you cannot use American credit/debit cards anywhere on the island, it pays to take more than you think you would need.
The highlight of the trip! We booked this room on homestay.com, and could not be happier with how it turned out. Centro Habana, the neighborhood it’s in, is definitely not for everyone—very safe, like the rest of Cuba, but also with dog poop and open trash cans everywhere you turn2. Our casa particular was the opposite—clean, well-maintained, gaudy, but cute. Between our large air-conditioned room, the patio, and the open rooftop terrace, we could easily have spent a couple of days just hanging out there chatting with the friendly hosts.
Don’t count on being able to get online at any point. We tried checking in online a day before the trip back, but none of the Havana Vieja hotels we tried had any prepaid cards available. Even if they had, there are no printers to print a boarding pass. Unless you’re staying in a hotel, don’t even think about wi-fi. Just bring a good book or two.
So, if someone’s vacations response email tells you they’re going to Cuba, don’t count on them having any access, no matter what some self-important douche bag tells you.
The only resource we used—and we used it multiple times per day—was the Havana Good Time iPhone app. Some of the information on working hours and prices is slightly outdated, but it is all still relevant, and it comes with an offline map of Havana that is—duh—much easier to carry around than the paper version.
Other DOs and DON’Ts
- Do take the Havana tour double decker bus at least once.
- Do go to the Revolution Museum—the clunky propagandist English translations alone are worth the 8 CUC admission fee.
- Do try the excellent Coppelito ice cream.
- Don’t waste an hour standing in line to pay for it with CUP—support their economy, and pay for it in hard currency like the tourist you’re pretending not to be.
- Don’t give any CUC to street performers, especially the kind that chases you down the street with a guitar.
- Do throw CUP at them.
- Don’t drink the tap water.
The torture device being our 19-month-old girl—or rather, her vocal cords. ↩
I could say the same about the part of Naples we stayed in this January. In fact, with laundry out in the open and being able to peek into people’s living rooms from ground level it looked very much like Naples, just with wider streets. ↩