Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Cuba In My Real View Mirror

So even tho our trip to Cuba was officially called a people-to-people trip, it only worked one way.  They talked, we listened. Except for that first day when I asked, "Is there anything they want to know about us?"  That soooooooo did not happen again. 

Were they not curious?  or was asking "Hey, how's my cousin Mario doing in Miami?" frowned on?  

I learned some things:

1.  From Tim:  Leave some money on your pillow every morning.  The maid who cleans your room may be off the day you leave, and someone else will get her tip.  Thank you Tim.  If you keep this up you're going to lose your reputation for being cheap! and we can't let that happen.

2.  Some foreign policy is just silly.  Or we don't know the real reasons behind the policy (more likely).  I mean, is this whole country still mad about something that happened 55 years ago?  In another country?  What's really behind our Cuba policy?  The official party line (US and Cuba) makes zero sense.  'S'up?

3.  We are so lucky to live where we do.  We take so much for granted, so much that other people are fighting and dying and going to jail for.  Being able to speak your mind, being able to go where you want and rant at will.  Being able to bitch about the government - we're all doing a lots of that lately, and for good reason.

4. We can buy pretty much anything that's available in the world.   We can choose what we want to be, what we want to do with our lives. We can amass wealth.  Or start some quirky company just because.

5.  Travel.  Moving.  Never take it for granted.  

6.  Great food.  Enough food.  Choices.  Did not occur to me how privileged we are.  Off to make pork roast - without beans and rice.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Blue Jay Bath Day

It must be Blue Jay Bath Day - this guy frolicked in our birdbath so long I was able to get my camera and take these:
He splashed about until the water was almost gone, spilled onto the primroses and ferns.  Then he hopped up the stem of the feeder:
jumped onto the top of the bird feeder and set it swinging, shook himself, settled his feathers, gave one mighty squawk that sounded like "Who's there?" and took off.

I love the birds in my garden - the pygmy nuthatch that creeps upside down around the old oak trees and is shy of his own shadow: 
The bashful bush tits, the hummingbirds that swoop like dragons. The Nuttall's woodpeckers - husband and wife - who take turns spinning on the suet feeder.
The mockingbird whose clock is off, who wakes us at 1.  In the morning.  The bashful owls we never see, only hear.

But I love the jays least of all.  Maybe it's their voices, that raucous rasp.  Maybe it's their reputation for eating other birds' babies. 

But this morning, looking out the kitchen window at the clown in the birdbath, I was glad there are jays in my garden.  

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Life Lessons From Paddle Boarding

1.  It's hard to keep your balance if you're not in the center

2.  The farther you are out on the edge, the more unstable you are

3.  If you're not moving forward, it's hard to stand up

4.  The wind and current will take you off course, unless you keep your eye on where you want to go,  and make adjustments

5.  It's always easier with the wind at your back.

6.  You might get hurt.  So what?  You might fall off the sofa.  Get out there, do something.  Do something scary, something you're not good at.  Live! 

That's not me (just in case you couldn't tell...) we were too busy having fun to take photos.  But the water was like that, turquoise and crystal clear.  

Grace Bay Club, Turks and Caicos.  Go.  It's heavenly.  And who knows, you may come home with your perspective changed.

Monday, February 17, 2014

There Are Faces I Remember...

They are what I remember most from Cuba.

The little girls, some happy, 
some wary and grown up too soon.

Some looking like they're auditioning for the Copacabana.  Or Las Vegas.
The boys playing marbles, so serious...
The sad little boy on the fence,
the bored women on crumbling balconies.
The brides - one radiant,
One not.  Both hoping they don't end up on a crumbling balcony. And the groom - put the phone away, dude,  it's your wedding day. 
(And son,  you better not be calling your mother.  Or your mistress). 

The Cuban Marlboro man,
The musicians keeping the old music and the old instruments alive.
The particular form of delivery, the angle of pontification that all the party faithful have when they are lecturing us...

The Chinese African singer/drummer
Delin, radiant in her Yank Tank:
Hector, our wonderful Cuban guide.  
 It's hard to draw on a bouncing bus, but I wanted to capture the sadness I saw in unguarded moments.  
And the people with whom we shared this adventure.  Thank you.
There were so many stories.  What's yours?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Alive and Well

Saturday, February 1

Havana has a spectacular cemetery, along the lines of the Recoleta in Buenos Aires.  There are as many people in the cemetery as in Havana (2.5 million).   But not quite as healthy.
Our bouncy guide leads us down the First Class Section, and says: "This is the only place in Cuba that has a class system.  Here in the First Class Section are buried Presidents and famous people."  

Cuba is all about equality, altho if you've been reading the paper some Cubans are apparently more equal than others...

"Families own the mausoleums, often a miniature of their own mansions."  Before TTOTR, of course.  Still own the tomb, small problem with the mansion.

"After the revolution, the cemetery was the only place you could own property - too late."  He laughs and points at a statue.

"An exact replica of The Pieta.  Have you seen the Pieta?  In Rome?"  When several people answer yes, he says, "Lucky you!  I have never been there!" and he laughs like crazy. 

Capitalism is alive and well here - in the cemetery.

Some of the statues look like they could talk, or get up and walk away:
Bodies are left in the tomb for two years, then the bones are removed and put in a ossuary.  That's how they fit 2.5 million in such a small space.  

Ibrahim Ferrer, famed for being a member of The Buena Vista Social Club is buried here.  Artists and musicians are about the only people who can get rich in Cuba (I don't know about the politicians and party faithful - you're on your own there) and Ibrahim Ferrer made enough money to buy a tomb in the first class section.  We can see where the old family's name was sanded off.  Don't forget to pay your rent!
Someone's family and friends, dressed in their Sunday best are filing into the chapel.  A hearse pulls up:  
I don't think it will catch on in the US.  Well, maybe among the Subaru crowd...

Abelardo's family tomb is here - after some discussion with our guide, he and his wife and daughter go in search.  Hector is on the phone, spelling the name, trying to find someone in the Cemetery office who knows where the tomb is.  

Laredo Bru was President of Cuba, and was Abelardo's great uncle. We are silent, respectful, emotional, waiting.  They come back crying and laughing, their words tumbling over each other.  They found it.  I think: these are the only relatives they were able to visit in Cuba.  

Delin stands in the aisle and thanks us for sharing this very emotional trip with her, and her family, and invites us all to her house.  Tears are rolling down my cheeks, and I look up and everyone is crying.  What an experience, what a privilege to share this journey.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hemingway's House

We have a friend who is a major Hemingway fan and scholar, so we are excited to visit Hemingway's Havana home, Finca La Vigia, or lookout house.  Purchased in 1940 for $12,500, sitting on about 12 acres, and nationalized after Hemingway's death in 1961, the house is (like so many things in Cuba) run down but under restoration.

The bus turns up a rutted road, thru an overgrown weedy garden, and stops next to some men crushing cane, two souvenir shops and a bar.  Wouldn't be Hemingway without a bar.  And a handsome smiling bartender.
The house is peaceful, inviting, on top of a hill. 
I could see living here.  Or being a houseguest here.  Bright, open to the breeze.  Frozen in time, the living room (and bar) is just as Hemingway left it...

Down the hill, the pool is inviting, even empty.
His boat, Pilar, is in a shed.  I think it's to preserve it, Wally says it's so it doesn't end up in Miami.
You can feel him here - in the bedroom (I don't think I'd sleep with those horned monsters in my bedroom, but apparently it didn't bother him),
in the dining room,
in the tower where he wrote.  It's said he wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls, The Old Man And The Sea, and A Moveable Feast here.  But every place he's spent time in Cuba lays claim to some of those titles.   A Cuban version of our "George Washington Slept Here".

In the tower his typewriter still stands on his desk:
his chair is ready for daydreaming, or for a nap.
Back in Havana proper, the Floradita bar.  Hemingway said they made the best daiquiris.  We take them for a test drive. 
Abelardo says he makes the best daiquiris.  I believe him.  We're going to his house for a taste-off someday.  But we've had enough daiquiris for one day.


Friday, January 31

Cuba has free health care for all.  Lots of emphasis on prevention. Clinics within walking distance in every Havana neighborhood. More doctors than drug stores.  Longer life expectancy than we have (but if we lived on mostly rice and beans, and walked everywhere maybe our life expectancy would go up?)

We visit one of the clinics and have another power-point style presentation - they're like a bad rash, they've spread everywhere. This one is on an old CRT monitor.  Like from an Apple II.  Two women in white coats talk, one grim humorless woman in a navy top does not. Just watches, her head swiveling back and forth.

"Looks like the population dropped right after the revolution" Craig says, and is met by stunned silence.  Theirs, not ours.  But a lot of people died, a lot of people left.

Then someone asks "Are people encouraged to have more children?  Due to the aging population?" and we get an earful about how Cuba Is Not China, and the government does not regulate the number of children.  Spectacular misunderstanding, and it hits a nerve.  We were just wondering with an aging population how they pay for all this.  Oh right - the government own everything and sets the prices.

  We ask where they get their medical equipment - third and fourth hand, mostly.  She says "from Russia" and it gets translated as "We make it here."  Okay...but they have a bio-tech industry and have invented a diabetes drug (apparently not available in the US.  That embargo thing cutting both ways.  For a change.  It's not just the cigars anymore).

Leaving to march thru the treatment rooms full of patients (can you imaging that happening here?) we are told it's okay to take photographs, just not of the people.  

As we are heading out I notice Miss Humorless Navy Top has a shiny new iphone sticking out of her pocket.  First one I've seen that wasn't attached to a tourist.  Hmm.....

On the way out I take a photo of a spartan kitchen, and Miss Humorless sweeps down and starts shouting at me, "No photos of people!!!"  I try to show her the photo - without any people (this isn't my first rodeo) and she gets snarky and threatening.  I can walk away and write her off; the people who live here cannot.  I feel just a little of what it must be like to live like that, and it is terrifying and stultifying.  Why would you ever take a chance?  

I say a silent prayer of thanks for where I am lucky enough to live. And a prayer for those who live here.  If there was ever any doubt, it's clear now that she's here to keep an eye on us - and she must be pretty high up the food chain to have a shiny new iphone.  

We go to a model day care center, but all but two of the kids have been sent home: power is out.  Apparently it's not that uncommon, and it's a big problem for the families who need day care.   This is a very poor neighborhood.  An in Cuba, that's saying something.
A few well-worn books, 
some well-loved toys.  
We have brought stuff - crayons and paper and art supplies.  They give us each a sweet drawing by one of the children.   On paper, which we know is precious.  I am framing it and hanging it in my bedroom.

This must have been a family home:
The kitchen hasn't been remodeled since the Revolution.

Abelardo takes a photo of a little girl with his ipad and shows it to her.  She is fascinated by the ipad.  
There are lots of posters on the walls - we joke that this poster is "Twelve Ways To Get To Miami".
Off for a cooking lesson and a visit to Hemingway's house.  More later.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Buena Vista Social Club

Still Thursday

It is pouring rain when seven of us pile into two taxis and head across town to see some of the surviving members of the Buena Vista Social Club play with some of Cuba's other famous musicians.

We get there first, largely because Delin told the driver "I was born in Havana."  Which means "I know my way around, so don't be taking us for a ride," both literally and figuratively.  

While we are waiting for the other taxi to arrive at the club, and trying to stay out of the rain by standing on the sidewalk in front of  the two huge doors to the club, a little car turns in towards us, gets halfway across the sidewalk and loses traction in the rain-soaked gutter.  The driver is gunning the engine and pointed directly at our knees, so we scoot to the side, just as he gets traction and stops inches from the door.

A jowly old woman in a sparkly headband, flowing flowered blouse and skin tight white pants slithers out of the car, growls at the driver, and disappears inside.  Delin says "That is one of the singers for tonight!"

The rest of our gang arrive complaining about the crappy Russian Lada taxi they got put in.  "It was Hell!"  I think they're exaggerating; I will learn otherwise later.

Inside we climb three flights of wide marble stairs, cantilevered over a tiny courtyard and so slanted toward the courtyard I pray they don't snap off before we reach the top.  Prayers answered.

A tall-ceilinged room, lots of columns and open to a big courtyard, which is helpful because when the dancing starts, it gets hot in here.  We are led to a table in the center back with a direct view of the band.  
At first I am disappointed to be so far away, but Delin says "Just wait - Cuban music is really loud."   She is so right (as we discover when the Conga line starts, and we do a lap past the speakers), and besides, the singers come into the audience to sing and clap and dance, to get us fired up.  We're close enough.

They are old - we have apparently come on oldies night.  The place is packed, the band is wearing fedoras in red and black and white and decked with jeweled hat bands.   It looks like a Cuban version of a Rat Pack reunion.
One of the singers looks like our friend Peter Godsick.  One looks like the actor Chris Noth from The Good Wife. The winner of the Hugo Chavez look-alike contest is on flute.  I lean over to Wally and yell (it's loud, remember?) "That female singer is the Cuban Peggy Lee!"
Wally yells back "Yeah, but she's not dead."  Good point.

We can't drink the mojitos; not sure about the ice and not willing to take a chance.  So we drink beer and clap, and eventually get up to dance.
Even the servers are dancing.  And man, all Cubans can dance. Watching, I alternate between inspiration (Hey, I'm gonna try that!) and deep despair (Who am I kidding?  I don't bend that way.) Eventually I stop thinking and just dance, and I have a wonderful time.
The singers ask the other tables "Where are you from?"  In Spanish, of course.  Chile, Holland, Argentina, Mexico, Italy. Remembering those billboards about the blockade, and the lecture about America's bad behavior we got from Carlos, I ask Delin "Where shall we say we are from?"  She grins from ear to ear, points at herself and shouts: "U. S. A. !!!"  

I learned something tonight about standing up for yourself, about being who you are even if it's not popular.  But no one asks us "Where are you from?"  I think they know, and they don't want to deal with the fall-out.

Delin yells "I think I am the only Cuban born person here!" and I think she is right. 

We leave just as the Conga line is having its last trip around the room, peeling off at the stairs, dashing down and snagging taxis (it is still raining) before the rest of the crowd spills out. 

Our driver leads us around the corner to the most beat up Lada I have ever seen.   The springs stick up out of the cushions, there are no handles to roll down the windows, and the exhaust vents directly into the car.  But the show is over, taxis are being snapped up, so we decide to go with it.

When Wally asks "Can you please roll down a window?" the driver answers "No.  They don't roll down."

I am convinced we will all be overcome by the fumes, including the driver, and when we all pass out we will crash into the sea wall along the Malećon and end in a fireball.  But we make it back to the hotel with only headaches.  
When the driver drops us off by the dumpster, outside the basement disco, we realize this is one of the rogue taxis we have been warned about.  

The sticker in his back window reads "No Fear".  Obviously not put there by a passenger.

Surf's Up!

Thursday January 30

This morning there are waves breaking on the beach below, and a dozen surfers bob just outside the break.  We watch for a while: they're really good.  The border patrol doesn't seem to be bothered by them - guess you can't surf to Miami.

Last night after our officially sanctioned activities, Abelardo and Delin went out by taxi to try to find her family's city house and his grandfather's home.  They found them - in what is known here as a frozen zone.  That means military. They were stopped three times by the police on their hour ride, and they had to show their photocopies of their passports.  And answer lots of questions.

It must be hard to visit your memories and find them nationalized - and crumbling.

Except for Embassy row - It's not crumbling, it's gorgeous.  Wrap-around porches just begging for a porch swing and a book, well tended gardens, orchids dripping from trees. We learn as we head out of town this morning that the government rents out some of the rich people's nationalized homes as embassies.   Capitalism alive and well - in the government.  

We are headed for Las Terrasas, a biosphere reserve.  (Along with half a dozen other buses full of American tourists.  Who knew they were here too?)  Cuba did not want to turn to organic farming, but after 1990 and the collapse of their fertilizer supplier (read USSR) they had no choice.  

When Columbus landed, it was said you could walk from one end of the island to the other and always be in the shade of a tree.  The image of Columbus clanking along-  in his armor, in the humidity, thru 600 miles of jungle - boggles the mind.  

It is said if you want to see the finest Cuban cedar and have to go to Spain.  It's in all the grand houses and palaces there.  

After the revolution Cuba was 86% deforested; Las Terrases is a response to that.  Vegetation is now dense; there are pines and cedars, orchids and tropical ginger blooming below.  There is a small hotel (we don't visit), a model coffee shop (Cuban frappucinos, or as Miha puts it, "Coffee!  Another reason to drink rum!")  It's called carajillo, that coffee with rum, and it must be pretty popular if it's been named.   Starbucks, take note.

There is a pre-school with paiper maiche toys (so sad) and a little boy trying to climb the fence.  
The despair and sadness in his eyes will haunt me forever.  I want to tuck him under my arm and take him home.  Even as I write I am teary.

There is an old folks' home we drive around but don't stop to visit.   I feel like we are looking at Cubans in a zoo.  The old folks must have been acting up?

We visit the home of Polo Montañez, a musician who died in a drunk-driving accident.  His drinking, his driving.  
And an an artist, Lester Lamas.  Polo and Lester have lovely homes on a lake with a fresh breeze.  
So different from the shacks we saw along the railroad tracks, so different from the crumbling squatters' abodes in Havana.  We ask "How do you get to live here?" and are told you just have to ask.  I'm guessing you have know the right person to ask, or be related to that person.  And not have demerits from the Committee For The Defense Of The Revolution.   I bet fame helps too... 

Free enterprise is alive and well here; Lester has paintings and prints and postcards for sale.  Have you seen an American artist's studio? With the piles of paint tubes and coffee cans full of brushes?   

The embargo affects art supplies too.   I have more brushes and paint than he does, and the only thing I paint is the bathroom.  

There is zip-lining and a ration line:
Even the dog has to line up.  Rations used to include rum, cigars and cigarettes.  No more.  Rice and beans, sugar, a little meat, and hopefully something for the dog.

We lunch at the edge of a ravine surrounded by birds calling from the trees...
And as this is Cuba and there is music everywhere, Group Polo Montañez plays for us.  And has their CD for sale.  They were nominated for a grammy in 2003.  Like the Buena Vista Social Club only younger and more hip-hoppy.   More on the Buena Vista SC later...
Did I mention every street and rest-stop band has a CD for sale? We buy lots of CDs.  Come over this summer for Mojitos and Music.

CDs are one of the only things you can bring back from Cuba.  No t-shirts, nothing manufactured.  Music and art and handicrafts are okay.  What weird foreign policy gets down to the shopping level?

Tonight Delin, Wally, Judy and John, Miha and Robert and I are going to see what remains of the Buena Vista Social Club.  But that really is a whole 'nother Oprah.  Next post, I promise.  It's worthy.