Monday, April 12, 2010

Malanga Baby Goes to Cuba

There is no way to easily summarize the whole experience of taking Malanga Baby to the homeland. Malanga Mama is still a little overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude that this trip came together with relative ease so that Malanga Baby could meet her Tia Ali for the first time. While I continue to process how AMAZING it was to be able to give both my daughter and my sister this gift, let's focus on the specifics of traveling with an active toddler off the beaten path.

Cuba poses a few challenges to even the most seasoned traveler. The first is the chronic shortages faced by a country cut off from Soviet aid for nearly two decades now and still subject to the US embargo. While the black market economy is thriving, and while there are a few upscale shops designated exclusively for tourists, it would be foolhardy to think anything you need toddler-wise can be obtained if you're willing to pay enough or go through enough effort. Oh, yes, I did see a pack of 8 disposable diapers for $15 in a glass case near Havana's Plaza de Armas, but did they have them available in Malanga Baby's size? Not a chance. I also spent one rainy, miserable afternoon visiting seven different grocery shops in search of a stick of butter after Malanga Baby licked the last of my sister's butter off a cracker the night before and then immediately asked for more. I will never again take butter for granted (or eggs, which were also notoriously hard to find).

The second challenge is that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to come by ready-made or snack food while one is out and about. There are restaurants, but they require time and patience while the food is prepared. (In some cases, your patience will also be tested by the waiter telling you absolutely everything you just tried to order from the menu is not available that day and that, in reality, there is really just one dish you can have.) As such, it is prudent for any parent to always, always, always pack several snacks for daylong outings. And, given the shortages referenced above, don't assume you can stock up on said snacks at a local grocery store when you arrive in Havana. Unless, of course, you don't mind your child eating nothing but potato chips and strawberry-cream-filled cookies during your entire stay, since this was the extent of the snack food I saw available at local grocery stores. Even fruit was in rare supply. (I know, I know, how is this possible in a Caribbean country? I have no idea. But I hear from other friends that if you stay in a five-star hotel, you have your choice of fresh fruit from gleaming platters every morning at the breakfast buffet. Perhaps this is where all the country's fruit goes?)

Challenge number three is that if you're American, even if you are traveling to Cuba legally (as we were), you cannot use credit cards or access your US bank accounts via an ATM card while in Cuba. So, even assuming you were willing to shell out the $15 for 8 precious disposable diapers referenced above, isn't it easier just to pack the things you absolutely know you will need and use in Cuba and save your limited cash for anything else that might come up? Here's where my master packing lists come in.

I made three different extensive packing lists while preparing for the trip to Cuba.

List one- items to take to my family

I will not post the full list here, but highlights of it will give you a sense of things that are difficult to find in Cuba that you might want to take for yourself.

Throat lozenges/cold remedies

List two- baby gear/big items

Passports/visas/notarized letters (if you are traveling with your child but not with the child's mother or father, you need a notarized letter stating the other person is aware of the trip)

Diapers (I took about 50 for 7 days)

Wipes (I took 150)


Teething remedies (Hyland's teething tablets travel exceptionally well)

Infant Tylenol & Infant Motrin

Gentle Naturals Tummy soother


Diaper rash cream

Hand sanitizer

Bodywash & shampoo

Toddler toothbrush & toothpaste

Sun hat

Sippy cups

Plastic plate to eat (I like IKEA plates, they are very flat and easy to pack, I always have one in my diaper bag for eating out)

Tupperware or small bowl with lid (for snacks or leftovers- restaurants in Cuba will often just give you leftover food in a plastic bag)

Clothing, including pj's

Toys & books (I am sad to report I didn't find any good toddler books at Havana's main bookstores)

Ergo or other sling/carrier (I preferred this to a stroller since Havana's streets are not uniformly paved, but you might want to bring your own stroller in addition)

Car seat *see note below*

Also, I wish I had brought something for heat rash.

List three- food/snacks

Gatorade/pedialyte (in case of diarreah/vomiting)

Materne Gogo Squeez Applesauce pouches (3)

Peanut butter crackers & Cheese crackers (8 packs)

Cheddar bunnies (in the small, individual packets, avail. in boxes of 6)

Back to Nature Honey graham sticks (also in small, individual packets)

Raisins & other dried fruit

Happy Baby yogurt melts (2 packs)

Cereal bars/granola bars

Whole Foods 365 brand peach bits in pear juice (4)

Gerber Infant pear juice (for constipation)

Rice cakes (for flight, in diaper bag, not checked luggage)

Mini cereal boxes (2)

Horizon boxed milk (or you could bring powdered milk)

A final note: car seats are not required by law, not used at all by the general population and not compatible with cars lacking seat belts in the back (which is the majority of cars on the road in Cuba). If you find yourself a bit squeamish about your small child riding here and there on your lap, know that you will have to both pack your own car seat for the trip and either rent a car or hire a driver that is known to have seat belts in the back. Do NOT assume that all taxi cabs have seat belts in the back.