Writer on the Road: Cuba, Cooking & the Hustle
By the time you read this, I will be en route to Cuba. Sure, this sounds like just another winter vacation, albeit to a country that Americans haven't been allowed to visit for a long time. For me, though, it's much more than that.
See, I don't take vacation for granted.
After spending my 20's working as a cook and moving from the East Coast to the West Coast, I made life changes that would allow me to work less, earn more, and create a life that allowed me to travel.
Cooks like to say, If you want a vacation, quit your job.
It sounds funny but it's sadly true that cooks don't get benefits most full-time employees take for granted. When I worked in the industry, we had to stick with a job for 6 months to get access to employer health insurance (let me add, this same insurance was being "offset" in cost through a tax on restaurant patrons, so you were paying for insurance I wasn't getting yet every time you ate out). In addition to health care, you could forget about sick days or vacation days or even a set schedule from week to week.
You could get a coworker to cover a shift for you if you were lucky, but you could not take a week off to go anywhere, or if you did you could definitely forget about having a job when you got back!
The hustle of it inspired my novel, A New Set of Rules Every Other Day. For years I worked side by side with folks young and old, legal and "illegal," born cooks and career changers, gay and straight, all in it for the pure love of food. Too often that love gets polluted by fame - temperamental chefs, another cliche for a reason - or desperation on the other end of the scale - another day of coming home to pasta with butter after working all day at the farmers' market where you can't afford the seasonal organic produce you moved to California to cook with.
Set in San Francisco (where I picked up and moved to so I could learn to cook seasonally), Rules follows a gay Latino restaurant manager and drug-addicted female sous chef as they try to find success at work and in love while resolving long-held family conflicts.
While I loved cooking I was sick of struggling to make ends meet and grew to realize that even though I loved cooking, it did not leave me time to do anything else I loved. To have a full and rounded life I needed to find another way to support myself.
So I transitioned into freelance writing, which gives me plenty of time to write fiction and essays. I still don't get vacation days... but I can give myself a week off and pick up where I left off when I return grateful for the privilege and refreshed from time off.
Once I pay off my student loans, I plan to celebrate with a big, long trip - until then, I'm staying home, saving up and working hard. I paid off my MFA student loans in 2016 (now I'm working on loans from the *other* Masters degree I got to "support myself while I write").
For the last three years I've been able to take at least one international trip per year and oddly enough they've all fallen on the day I returned from the previous trip. So, one year and a day after a 40-day SEA trip, I went to Iceland to see the northern lights, and low one year and a day after my Iceland return I'm going to Cuba.
The timing of the trips is coincidental, but the ritual makes me feel excited that I've taken steps to building the type of life I want and finally putting writing and travel as priorities for me.