Cubans and New Year

loren3.jpgChristmas was celebrated on Noche Buena, the 24th, mainly by eating, drinking and being with family. We travelled 7 hours by road from Havana to arrive just in time to be with family on the 24th. Since then we’ve been preparing our baby’s 1st birthday.

Meanwhile, the rest of town is prepping up for the New Year. As they basically coincide, it’ll be a large party, that baby will no doubt enjoy but not one day remember. I get all stressy about needing to wind her down and get her to sleep, but she is basically Cuban and will probably learn to sleep anywhere, whatever the noise. If she thinks she is missing the party, and I take her off to sleep, she complains. As she has no sleep issues and has slept through the night since 2 months old, I cannot complain.

So how do Cubans celebrate New Year? Well, it’s the anniversary of the Cuban revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro and his revolutionary army declared victory and marched into Havana, not just the start of the year, so it is a VERY BIG DEAL.


Taking your suitcase round the block…means you’ll travel this year (quite a luxury for Cubans)

Eating grapes at midnight…a former tradition from Spain, eating a grape on every count of the clock.

Throwing water out of the water, to symbolise ‘out with the old, in with the new’, saying goodbye to the year and purging bad stuff that happened.

Drinking looooooooots of rum and ideally roasting a pig or pay someone to roast you a leg joint. That plus congri (black beans with rice) and yucca and some salad, and you have a great party meal. Throw in super-amplified music, preferably reggaeton, some instruments for people to play and some very keen singing, and you have a party.

So, before it gets all too crazy, HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!




A year of raising baby in Havana…the trials and tribulations

It’s nearly Christmas 2018 and the first birthday on January 1st of my baby girl Loren (I wanted to say little baby girl but stopped myself as she is now in the 90/95th percentile for height and is well above average on weight too. #proudMum

My blog has fallen woefully by the wayside these last months and it’s time to pick it up again. Many reasons..the lack of home wifi in Havana means taking baby girl out to a hotel lobby or local plaza in hot temperatures and nowhere to properly sit so I can log on to wifi. By the time I’ve ordered my lobby bar coffee, or found a shady spot in the local plaza, Loren gets grouchy or wants attention or throws her toys on the floor, and the blog gets abandoned again.

The hardest thing about being a first time mum in a country like Cuba (and there are many) is the total cutoff I feel sometimes from my support network back at home – friends and family and other new mums. Most communication is done offline, so I write messages ready to send, log on and they send and messages to me get uploaded, which I read once offline, so communication is a lengthy, never immediate affair. Then there’s the time zone issue…by the time I get out of the house sometimes, what with meals, naps, playtime, housework etc, it’s too late to call Europe and I’m too bloody knackered anyway. 

Other issues to contend with are:

food and item shortage – for example, potatoes are currently only selling on the black market at US$4 a small bag, they are hard to find most of the year round. Now eggs haven’t been seen much for weeks and a local cafe owner friend is actually offering a free breakfast to the first person to WhatsApp them a photo of eggs for sale somewhere in Havana. They do great breakfasts, but with no eggs…? I was doing some physio at the foreigner hospital in recent weeks and had taken to eating my breakfast there after physio because they had dishes with eggs (albeit the ‘Spanish’ omelette turned out to be a regular omelette with fried up frozen chips chucked in the middle). Now that hospital menu board has been wiped clean, one half is missing, and all there is is ham and cheese sandwiches. Or just ham. Or just cheese. Anyone who has been to Cuba will just groan knowingly. 

When you have no eggs or potatoes you realise how vital they are to so many dishes and when you add the fact that now flour is impossible to find, you can see we are all just royally screwed. 

Just as I took time off to have a baby, tourism dropped massively following the election of Trump and hurricane in 2017, both events with seismic aftershocks. Now I am at work again, designing deluxe itineraries for clients with cash to spend and a desire to see Cuba in style. I am grateful to be working again and have the money I need to raise my child. But these are uncertain times in Cuba, with the military heavily present, transport and infrastructure on its knees, and new regulations affecting everyone doing business on the island or just trying to get by. 

This is a gorgeous island with so much scope and such wonderful inhabitants – warm, gregarious, strong and generous. Everyone has their limits though and I worry about what 2019 will bring. I wish for only the best.

Where is the power?

And the lights went out…

Finally, I get round to writing my next blog post. This is because the power has gone from my building and surrounding area, not for the first time this week, and I can see the policeman down below at the junction directing traffic. While I can still hear their whistles blowing, I’ll know there’s no power. I won’t be able to get down to take a closer look however as we live on the 5th floor, really like the 10th floor as each apartment is duplex. The narrow windy stairwell to downstairs is never lit, even when there is electricity, and there aren’t always rails to hold on to. The two elevators are obviously not working, and thankfully baby and I weren’t inside one when the power went out, as our friend Juan Carlos was last week. The building’s maintenance guy knew our friend was in there, but he was away from the building at the time, and though people were trying to get him out (my visiting friend Dan together with the guy who’d come to install our wifi), he called the Bomberos (Fire Service) from the elevator and pretended he was an asthmatic and had claustrophobia. He claimed to hear trapped voices from the neighbouring elevator (which was empty). He reckons calling the bomberos sped things up (he was only in there an hour).


The point is…when the power goes out, I am stuck up here with baby, looking out on an incredible view, the fruit market where I need to go and buy my provisions today, the bank where I planned to buy my stamps to extend my visa once again, the Malecon seafront where I hoped to stroll with baby after her nap. Today I won’t do the washing in our Chinese-brand top loading washing machine. Today I’ll bath Loren in her plastic bathtub on the balcony, where I have enough light to see. Today I’ll eat a random mix of whatever I find in the fridge and be able to thankfully cook it by torchlight in our dark, interior kitchen because we cook with gas. I won’t get on the internet as the router has no power (at least we usually now have home wifi!), and the local hotel where I used to always go probably does have power, but I can’t get there. Today I will spend more time playing with baby because I can’t rely on any baby videos to keep her entertained and get round to doing some jobs in the house I keep putting off. I won’t suffer too much.

Ironically the fact of having to work around power cuts and occasionally having no water for hours – when we forget to fill the tank (the mains water supply is off in my building between 12 and 5pm) – is forcing me to be more effective at creating a routine for 5 month old Loren. Whilst we live daily with unpredictability in this country – the only thing certain is that nothing is certain – I want Loren to not feel that. She is the anchor around which we moor, the compass around which we swing, and at times I wonder if it is the right thing for her to be here.

I have little to complain about though, now, in the year 2018. In the early 90s, a period too painful for Cubans to think about much, the power really did go out…a lot! After the Berlin Wall fell and the former Soviet empire crumbled, the enormous subsidies and cooperation the Soviet Union had given for decades to this Caribbean island nation just disappeared overnight. The Cuban economy was decimated. Then in March 1996, the US congress adopted, in addition to the pre-existing embargo against the island, the HelmsBurton Act imposed further penalties on foreign companies doing business there.

In this ‘Special Period in Time of Peace’, as dubbed by Fidel Castro, the country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34 percent. Fuel disappeared (the country was entirely dependent on these fossil fuels for everything), blackouts went on for hours, transport ground to a halt, food supplies dwindled, people survived by drinking sugared water but still lost a ton of body weight, households managed with little refrigeration and air conditioning in a humid Caribbean island where temperatures in summer can reach up to 38 celsius. Then to turn the screw a little further, in March 1996, the US congress adopted, in addition to the pre-existing embargo against the island, the HelmsBurton Act, which imposed further penalties on foreign companies doing business in Cuba. Cuba still didn’t crumble. Although the future was looking bright under President Obama’s administration, with an improvement in relations, the embargo is still in force and the US under President Trump actually has a travel advisory against the island. This is the current state of affairs.

So where is the power?

Baby, baby, baby

Finally, a month after landing in Havana and my husband going back to work, one day on and one day off, I have been shipped off to the in-laws in the countryside to be looked after and to get some rest. What a treat! I was nervous about spending 2 weeks alone at my sister-in-laws house, with her husband and son, and the other sister and their mother and various other family members regularly popping in. but its going very well so far. I feel a little spoilt. I haven’t had to think about cooking, cleaning, washing up or sterilising bottles for a week and I am feeling rested. I can breastfeed all I want as I have nothing else I need to do. It’s my babymoon finally, 3 months late. Just in time too, as baby Loren has already ‘lived’ in 4 different places in her short life – Peckham, south London, each of our apartments in Havana, and now the in-laws in Camaguey.


Everyone keeps reminding each other not to hold Loren all the time or else she’ll get used to it. I didn’t think of that but most Cubans don’t have all the costly equipment we have in other countries that allow us to conduct other chores during the day. They have instead lots of family and lots of arms to hold.

Loren clearly adores all the attention and one reason for us to live in Cuba as a family is for her to enjoy that sense of family that she’d lack in the UK.

I wake to the sound of the cockerels and peace of the countryside, there is no traffic, and round this neighbourhood people move on foot or bicycles or bicitaxis. Its only 10 minutes walk into he centre of Camaguey, a beautiful Unesco-protected city, famous for its windy Spanish colonial streets, no grid system like in Havana. I head to the shops daily to buy something, meat or vegetables or coffee or drinks, something to contribute to mealtimes. I’d like to buy eggs, but there are none in Camaguey at the moment. I’d like to buy fish but you find little fish officially for sale in this Caribbean island, despite the waters around being full of grouper, snapper, lobster and much more. I’ll take the family out for lunch this weekend to repay some of their kindness, but they say they are just delighted to have us and get to know the little one.


I miss my husband but am enjoying being surrounded by women who are mothers and know how to help one and other out. It’s the Cuban sisterhood. My mother-in-law lost her mother aged 13 and had to raise all her younger siblings. Then she had 5 children of her own and raised them mainly alone after her husband left. She is an inspiration and full of energy still. Her kids had to beg her to stop dancing at our wedding, fearful she’d wear herself out. She is nearly 79 years old and goes to senior classes at the university. They call her Mima but her name is Umelina. Baby Loren will know her as Abuela. I wish Mima could have known my mother. My mother was just as switched on at her age, but her body didn’t want to play ball. I think had they existed at the same time and speaking the same language, they would have made good friends.

Life in Cuba is certainly complicated and complex and bewildering, but with a family so full of love and compassion as this one, I feel better equipped to navigate the maze.

Bringing baby to Cuba

I dreamt of online grocery shopping the first night I got back to Havana. And Asda and Argos ‘click and collect’. It came after the realisation of how different my life would be now that I came armed with a 3 month old baby. If I thought the first 3 months of caring for a baby in London were hard, with sleepless nights and breastfeeding struggles, it so far feels like nothing compared to moving back to Cuba with a 3 month old and to a flat with nothing in the fridge, tap water I need to boil and clean before using it for baby formula, a baby who knows the bottle too well to accept breastmilk alone by now, and shops containing no milk, butter or at present washing powder. Yes, welcome to paradise.

For the first 3 months of little Loren’s life, we stayed in my little flat in an area of London full of late night stores, breastfeeding-friendly cafes with costly cappuccinos, baby massage classes and yoga for mums. I met some lovely other first time mums and enjoyed support and good company through pub lunches, park walks, home visits and WhatsApp at any hour. It was mostly freezing out but there was a park nearby, a pool for when I could manage it, friends easily accessible by bus, train, on foot and by car, and the odd music gig to play at for dear musician husband when he could manage it. I had Amazon Prime for next day deliveries (nipple shields, pumping bra, pumping flanges, jumbo nappy packs, travel cot, books on motherhood) and ebay for bundles of baby clothes, a nursing chair, replacement buggy parts, a baby sleeping pod, and more.

We spent New Years Eve in the labour ward of a top public maternity hospital in London, where Loren was born. Cuba has great health and maternity care but I am not yet resident (and we applied over a year ago), so services for me are not free. As a British citizen, maternity care for me in the UK cost nothing, and Loren got to be born with a British passport – on January 1st , the anniversary of the Cuban revolution. Over those crazy first weeks, we lost sleep, worried when she sniffled, disagreed over how and when to feed her, went a little stir crazy, but also had help from great friends and fell in love, with baby Loren, but also a little bit more with each other.

The night we got back to Havana though, I cried. Hormonally, I’ve been an unpredictable waterworks for most of my pregnancy and every since, and I get the feeling Cuban women are made of tougher stuff. They need to be..they grow up in Cuba. Communist ideals are lovely, but they don’t put food on the table and life here for most is tough, with or without money to spend. Money counts for little when what you need is not for sale.

So I suddenly realised how hard this would be. We have my husband’s family and friends here, and an apartment much bigger than that of London, with a sea view and rooms we usually rent out, but essentially I am alone with my baby while hubby works. He plays in his bar with his musician friends in lively Old Havana and I stay home, with no internet, no multi-channel TV, no mummy friends to pop round, no car to go out in, and few food deliveries to the door. I have a sea view though while I breastfeed on the couch!

My days of riding round Havana on the back of our moped look to be over, and Loren and I will get to know the local neighbourhood with walks in the buggy and the sling, and little by little we’ll build up the grocery supplies, as things appear on the shelves and we buy in bulk. I need to give this time and enjoy the slow pace of life. I am sure there are many benefits to life with a baby here, and I hope to share them with you as we proceed. Onwards y adelante!

The Trump effect on travel

flight arrivals jan 2016
Havana airport arrivals board January 2016
Havana airport arrivals board April 2017
crowded airport
Arrivals busier than ever in 2016/2017

Virgin Atlantic is my preferred airline to travel between the UK and Cuba, which I have done many times since 2011, and our baby due at Christmas will have her first taste of Virgin travel in March next year, when my husband and I bring her home to Havana to meet all the family. So while I am in the UK, waiting to have the birthing experience that suits me best (see later blog post), I see that I have missed Richard Branson’s visit to the island.

I sincerely hope that changes in the US airline industry, together with current US politics towards Cuba, do not affect Virgin’s flight schedule to the UK, our lifeline from home to home!

Alaska Airlines took over Virgin America last year in a $2.6m merger, and this year it was confirmed Alaska will take over all Virgin America flights.  Today I read that Alaska Airlines will stop flying to Cuba as of 22 January 2018. Its inaugural flight to Cuba – Los Angeles to Havana in 5 hours – was in January 2017 and I had the privilege to tour lead the first passengers, a plane full of Alaska Airlines employees excited to experience the result of their hard work to win that potentially lucrative route.  I also made use of this new direct route to attend a college reunion this summer in Los Angeles, delighted to find old friends within such easy reach by plane finally. When JetBlue finally opened up direct New York – Havana flights last year, I took the first opportunity to catch a plane for 3 1/2 hours and visit old friends, having missed out on years of seeing these friends because I was based in Cuba. It all proved a little too late, as I just used one of the still remaining direct flights to attend the funeral of one of those friends, who died early in life of cancer apparently related to the effects of 9/11. Before the easing of travel restrictions to Cuba under Obama in 2015/2016, and the first regular commercial flights between the two countries since the Cold War, the only way was to fly to a third country, very expensive and over 20 hours travel time.

new routes

However, President Trump brought in new regulations last week that put an end to independent travel by Americans to Cuba, and Alaska Airlines estimate that 80% of their passengers were just that – curious-minded Americans travelling not in a tour group, which has made up the bulk of my work for over 5 years, but individuals keen to explore this once-forbidden territory. Well, it’s forbidden again, folks, and because of some dumb-ass politics that make sense to no one.

Sun Country, Spirit, Frontier Airlines and Silver Airlines have all ceased travel to the island, and America, Sunwest and JetBlue have all reduced their flights to Cuba. After a year of uncertainty around Trump’s proposed rolling-back of Obama’s measures to improve relations with Cuba, plus a summer of hard-hitting Caribbean hurricane activity, this is no surprise, I suppose. My husband experiences this drop in visitor numbers to the island first-hand as the director of a music group playing in a restaurant in Old Havana. There were many days in August to October where not a soul entered the restaurant, yet the band has to keep on playing. Our fledgling AirBnb business is also not seeing the amount of interest yet that I feel sure it would have seen a year or two ago. Most of the enquiries we have now are from Latin Americans, Cuban Americans or Europeans, but a year ago you couldn’t walk in the streets in Havana without hearing excitable American accents around you (they weren’t Canadian, I checked, plus the Canadians tend to stick to the all-inclusive resorts). Cubans with 5 year US visitor visas have also been travelling to the US in lesser numbers, waiting to see what would happen with new regulations. When those visas expire, those Cubans will now need to travel to a third country to renew those same visas, following the US government’s indefinite suspension of visa processing in Cuba, blamed on a spate of alleged ‘sonic’ attacks on US embassy employees in Havana. The overall picture then is not looking good…

Cuban baby on the way!

What I love about being pregnant in Cuba…having a beautiful sea pool in which to swim where I see fish and feel weightless, I get cafes, taxis, the airport..

Ordering an omelette I get served first when they spot the bump, I get given the front seat in communal taxis so I can stretch out my legs, people feel.quite free to touch the bump (which I enjoy). And my husband tells everyone with pride I am pregnant in case they didnt notice.

What I love less… being big in 80-90° humidity, the constant advice however to not swim in the sea even though its calm, or at least enter backwards to avoid waves on the bump, to stay at home and relax, to eat no bread, pizza, pasta or flour to avoid swollen feet (at a post-hurricane time when eggs, cheese and vegetables are hard to find), having swollen feet!

Havana after the rain


(Lines to buy the toilet roll after shortage in hurricane)

I arrived back in Havana just some days after Hurricane Irma ravaged Cuba and created the most severe flooding ever seen in Havana. Our basement was flooded and my husband’s friends have come over to take apart our electric scooter to wash and de-rust and hopefully bring back to life. It’s our lifeline, that bike, and the only way we could have achieved all the things we did over the last year – fetching pieces to furnish our new apartment, running errands prior to our wedding, finding me lettuce or tomatoes or potatoes or cheese or milk in my earlier pregnancy, when I was desperate to eat a balanced diet. Now we are back, and I am 6 months pregnant, I am concerned again about eating well and enough. From the UK I brought cheese, nuts and raisins, cereal bars and peanut butter, cous cous and quinoa, and when we go to Panama this weekend, we will bring back even more supplies. The local market has very few fresh vegetables, as transportation and the farming was severely interrupted by the hurricane, and in the supermarket this morning, over 20 people were in line to buy frozen hot dogs. It looked like a shipment just came in. They are cheap and a good way to filler a meal, and no one had less than 4 packets in their hand.

After two glorious months of eating all the food I like, convenience shopping, Amazon, having anything I want delivered to my door, internet when I want it, etc etc, it’s going to hard to re-adapt and remember why I love it here. Especially as it’s still raining some every day, still humid as hell, the Malecon is closed for post-hurricane repair and the tourists have disappeared (my Virgin flight was under 1/5 full and many of those were Cubans going home to visit). Tourist season has yet to start.

Today we tried to find a carpenter to put up shelves and build cupboards as we have no decent storage in most of the rooms or bathrooms that we want to rent. We have wardrobes with rails but no shelves, bathrooms where you can’t put anything except your toothbrush, a kitchen where I have get on my knees to retrieve pots and pans and food from under the sink. Many carpenters are however out of work because there’s a shortage of wood, and any storage units bought in a government store comes imported from China or somewhere and costs a fortune. Forget IKEA, Ebay, thrift stores, pound shops, car boot sales, garage sales etc. This is Cuba, you have to invent or it doesn’t exist. Short of chopping down some trees myself, I don’t know the solution. It’s just unfortunate that at a time when I am desperate to create some kind of nest and prepare for our baby (which we will have in the UK), put down roots, finally unpack my case and settle down, we’ve got no furniture to be able to do it! So much so that we are heading to Panama this weekend to try and buy lots of necessities like furniture to be shipped back to Cuba, which will hopefully arrive before we arrive back with our baby in the New Year. They might not arrive though in time for the high season when we want to fill our rooms, despite the spartan decor thus far. My husband gets sad when I get so despondent, but now he’s seen a little of the life I’ve led back home, he understands better how challenging this can all be.

(Our kind friends protected our windows, and heavy rains still create drainage problems).

Hurricane Irma


My heart absolutely breaks as I watch the images from Havana and the rest of Cuba from the comfort of my UK hotel room as I work on a tour this week. Cuba prides itself on hurricane preparedness, and my husband has been through many, including his first while still in his mother’s womb, but this is the worst he can remember. We could so easily have happened to be there right now, but selfishly, in my 6-month-pregnant condition, I am so grateful we are not. Our Havana apartment is located 2 blocks from the Malecon and I have seen from the images that the water has come in much further inland that that, up to half a kilometre in places. There is no currently very limited electricity in this city of 2 million, though I am happy to hear from my stepdaughter that essential buildings like the hospital where she works have power. Anyway, I don’t want to be walking around pregnant knee-deep in flood water, nor suffer the humidity of September with no electricity, or walk up the 4 floors to our apartment because the elevator doesn’t work. I am lucky though to have that choice.

No doubt our  electric motorbike is floating around in the basement of our building, and though my husband is hoping a little grease and anti-rust treatment will bring it back to life, I am doubtful. There is no insurance available in Cuba, and with a baby on the way, the $2,000 needed to replace it cannot be a high priority right now. For our family-to-be, a car would obviously be a better option, but at $15,000 minimum spend (for a 20-year-old Russian Lada) that isn’t an option either. Thankfully L’s family are safe and their houses are still standing, with no damage that we know of. We have friends though that live in sub-standard accommodation at street level, or in buildings that should be condemned but there is nowhere else for them to go. Buildings collapse all the time in Havana after heavy rain, as the weak building structure dries out after a soaking – a young guy we know lost his whole family while he sat on the toilet one night and his building fell down around him. This is a city where the resources are not there to maintain the 60-year old housing stock, where building materials are expensive and hard to come by.

So my heart really breaks as Cubans struggle already to find the resources to live on a day-to-day basis, and the continuing grip of the ridiculous embargo from the US, which is unlikely to be removed during the Trump-era, will just make recovery from this harder. This island depends on tourism income to keep afloat, and the severe damage done to Cuba’s northern cays will serve a flow to tourism for now. My husband also warns me that agriculture will be severely affected and we should expect to struggle to find many food items when we return in 2 weeks time. I am already planning the food items I want to pack to keep us and the bump sufficiently well-nourished on our return. As well as the nappies and wet wipes we are already packing in preparation for baby, we also want to bring extra supplies for those friends who have suffered and need help. We’re going to need a bigger suitcase.

Cuba, my love

Wow, life has sure been busy since our wedding in February. As I write, I am sitting in a hotel in the UK whilst working on a tour, and my husband is in London, making new friends and learning on his own how to navigate London transport and getting around with limited English. Our home is in Cuba, (actually 2 homes, one place to live and one to rent out on AirBnB), but as I am now not only a newly-wed but also 6 months pregnant, we decided to leave Cuba for the summer. Pregnancy in the humid summer heat of Havana was unbearable and so we have been enjoying a 2 month long ‘baby moon’ in Europe. We are missing family and friends in Cuba, and watching Hurricane Irma unleash her fury across the Caribbean has left us worried for those on the island. Cubans also need to resort to more creativity to protect themselves from the damage of a hurricane, lacking basic materials like plywood or stepladders, as these two photos of Florida and Cuba compare…

Thankfully, it seems Cuba was spared the ravages inflicted on Barbuda and the Virgin Islands, although Hurricane Jose is of course following in her wake. I’ve not experienced a hurricane and will surely do so in years to come, but for now, I’m grateful for an easy pregnancy and to be fully in my comfort zone, in the UK. Treatment earlier on in the pregnancy at Havana’s ‘foreigner hospital’ was excellent, and not expensive, and I don’t doubt giving birth in Cuba would be a good experience. Cuba has an excellent record in maternal care. Giving birth in Cuba would also make good material for this blog (yes, I did consider this point!). However, in terms of comfort and convenience – the hospital near me in London, with its birthing pool and mood lighting, everything in my language, my sister close by (well, Spain, but closer to the UK than Cuba!), the range of supermarket choices available for pre and post-birth meals, the home delivery options,, my car to get us around when needed, NCT classes to meet other local mums, and the wonderful cafes in my neighbourhood with coffee and cake – delivery in the UK won hands down. The blog will just have to wait for tales of bringing up a baby in Havana. And we will welcome visitors/babysitters anytime!