Tag Archives: Cuba

My Name is Anne, and I’m a Travelholic

I’m house sitting again, this time for a friend who has a huge apartment and two cats who need minding.  My friend is Peruvian and collects art and artifacts every time she goes home.  Here are some of my favorites:

Maria y MuertoMariaTrabajo

My last post about the road trip, and my anxieties around it, brought to mind the only other Big Road Trip of my life.  I’ve driven to Chicago a half dozen times but that’s nothing compared to the trip where I never once got behind the wheel.

My friend Rebecca and I met at an Alanon meeting in Oxford.  AA and Alanon meetings vary greatly from one culture and location to another.  In St. Paul meetings, people go around at the beginning, say their names, and the crowd responds, “Hi Anne!”  The meetings are pretty squirrely.  There’s lots of laughter and disorder.

Not so in Oxford.  The meeting was in an 18th Century church.  The ceilings were low and building was cold, cramped, and crooked.  The chairs were hardwood with no cushions and the backs were a 90 degree angle from the seat, making for maximum discomfort, especially since the tilted floors meant your chair teetered to one side.  I regret I never brought a marble to set in the middle of the table so I could see which direction it would roll off.

At my first meeting, the introductions started and the first person said slowly and with perfect enunciation, “Hello, my name is Roger”—or “rwah-jah” as he pronounced it.  I exclaimed, “Hi Roger!”  Just me.  No one else.  Everyone stared at their hands, neatly folded in their laps.  I’m sure they were thinking, “Bloody Americans, they’re so enthusiastic about everything!”

I heard a barely-stifled guffaw and a snort on the other end of the table just as a woman introduced herself, “Hello, my name is Rebecca.”  She looked straight at me and laughed.  The rest of the group carried on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.  It took a while, but Rebecca and I would become good friends.

A year later my work visa had expired and I was back in St. Paul.  I job hunted for seven months, taking the bus everywhere because I had sold my car when I moved to England.  It was a painful stretch.  As soon as I landed a job I bought a Mini Cooper.  Maybe it was a foolish thing to do, since I hadn’t even started the job yet, but I thought of my Mini as sort of like the greatest souvenir / consolation prize I could have from my time in England.

And did you know?  There are Mini events going on all the time all over the world.  I learned that there would be a “Mini Festival” in England the following spring.  It was as good an excuse as any to go back and visit.  So I Skyped with Rebecca and she was in.

“Let’s go to Wales though, too, okay?” she proposed.  “We can visit my brother the sheep farmer and camp on the cliffs overlooking the sea.”

Was that okay with me?  Was it!  Oh boy!  I bought my ticket and started looking at maps.    

We would drive from Oxford to Wales, then slingshot back to Silverstone racetrack for the festival.  It doesn’t look that far on a map but … I’ll get to that.

Map

If you’ve read this blog from the beginning, you know I started my adult life on welfare, in subsidized housing, with no car.

Here’s how I afford trips—my two indulgences—on a nonprofit salary: I live below my means.  I make do with small living spaces.  I have a dozen pairs of shoes—which is nothing for an American female.  I shop at thrift stores and get my haircuts at Cost Cutters with coupons.  I make my own coffee and cook from scratch instead of going to coffee shops and restaurants.

I hope I don’t sound smug.  My intention is to encourage you—if you love travel but don’t have a lot of money—to consider offbeat adventures like the volunteering, language immersion, and medical missions I’ve described in the last few months.  Or even just every day adventures like house sitting for a friend.

Feelin’ the Bern

Before I leave the series on Cuba that started here, I have to tell you about the Bernie Sanders rally I attended last week. I was vaguely aware that it was happening, when my cousin called and said her two youngest kids (ages 14 and 18) were begging to go. So they drove the one-hour drive from Wisconsin to see Bernie. We bumped in to another nephew; he’s 18, too. The 18 year olds are looking forward to voting for the first time, mainly because of Bernie.  Vince won’t be able to vote for at least seven years.

The rally was at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in downtown St. Paul. I was also vaguely aware that Roy Wilkins had been an African American civil rights leader but was wowed when I Googled him later and read his bio: He was a leader with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 40 years, where he succeeded W.E.B. DuBois as editor of Crisis Magazine. He was an advisor to the War Department during World War II and a consultant to the American delegation at the United Nations conference in San Francisco in 1945. He led the fight to end school segregation. Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the US’s highest civilian honor. When he died, Ronald Reagan ordered all government flags be flown at half-staff.

What a cool guy. And what a perfect venue for Bernie to hold his rally, since he’s way behind Hillary on support from African Americans.

I wondered if many in attendance had ever heard of Roy Wilkins. When I walked in, I must have lowered the average age by about 20 years. Bernie drew a crowd of almost 15,000 people, and my guesstimate is that 90% of them were under the age of 30.

We found seats in the overflow room and watched on a big screen while Bernie was introduced by a young Somali American woman. Then, Bernie himself walked into the overflow room—and the crowd went wild. We were on our feet, chanting, “Ber-nee, Ber-nee Ber-nee!” and “Feel the Bern!” I hadn’t been paying much attention to the race until now and was hesitant to stand up and cheer a candidate I knew next to nothing about, but the enthusiasm was irresistible.

Bernie delivered a brief but fiery speech, even though he was clearly on the verge of laryngitis. Then he headed for the main auditorium to the accompaniment of more stomping and cheering. Back on the big screen, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison was introducing Bernie to the main room. I was surprised. Endorsing Bernie was, in my opinion, a move of conscience, one the Democratic Party will not be happy about. But Ellison, who is the first Muslim member of Congress, seems to be a man of principle. I’ve heard him referred to as the Muslim Paul Wellstone—our beloved, principled Minnesota Senator who died in a plane crash a decade ago.

Like Wellstone (and me), Bernie is a Jewish Atheist. I didn’t think anyone in the crowd would be put off by that, but having Ellison and the Somali woman introduce him can’t hurt with African American and Muslim voters.

Bernie’s message was loud and clear: We need a revolution! We need to stop all the money flowing to Wall Street. College should be free for everyone! The minimum wage should go up to $15 an hour! And so on with a long list of drastic reforms.

As usual, I’m skeptical. Bernie’s ideas tap into a deep anger among many Americans who feel they’re being screwed by the system. I get it. But would he be able to accomplish much, pitted against an oppositional Republican majority in Congress? Also, economics is complicated. You pull a string out of a tangle and you can’t necessarily predict what other strings are going to become more tangled or come loose as a result.

The day after the rally, I read this article about US relations with Cuba which laid bare our opposing systems: the US wants to do business with entrepreneurs and small businesses, while Cuba insists that we deal only with their government. Bernie calls himself a Democratic Socialist. Is that some sort of hybrid system? I need to educate myself more.

Via con Dios, Cuba

This is the eighth post in a series about Cuba that starts here.

We flew back to Havana without incident and checked back in to our dark, quiet-as-a-graveyard hotel.

Here’s another thing I didn’t get while I was there and I can only make up an explanation for you now: I attended a Passover Seder in Havana—Seders remained legal after the revolution. I also attended an Easter mass—and was told that masses had just been legalized. Why would Seders be legal but not masses?

It could be because almost the entire Jewish population of Cuba fled the country after the revolution. After all, we’d seen this movie before. Why wait to find out the ending? Only 1,500 Jews remain in Cuba, compared with 60% of the population that is Roman Catholic, or 6.5 million people. Which would you find more threatening?

The Seder was a community one at a synagogue. It was packed, as Seders always are; there were Jews from the Bahamas, Texas, Israel, and lots of American students. I sat across from a pudgy, red-headed oaf from Indiana or somewhere in the Midwest who was married to a Cuban woman who looked like Bianca Jagger in her heyday. I’m sorry to say that my people are not immune from the syndrome where misfit western men snag beautiful wives in the developing world. But that sounds mean. I only sat across from him for an hour. Maybe he was usually courteous and kind.

On our last night, we were invited to a “Defense of the Revolution #62 Block Party.” Other members of our group had been to these before and told me that neighborhoods organized them to thank visitors for their donations. This in no way prepared me for what I saw when I stepped off the bus.

I thought there must be some mistake. Had we stumbled upon a protest? A wedding? A baseball game? No, these hundreds of people were waiting for us. There had to be at least 200 people out on the street, with precious, expensive electric lights strung up festively, a band and a dance area, and tables laden with food.

Ed and some of the other guys unloaded the medical supplies we had brought; I have no idea where they had been stored all week. Our donation consisted of bandages, cotton balls, and Q-tips—granted there were crates of them, but still … here were hundreds of people lined up to greet us as though we were foreign dignitaries or rock stars.

I was stunned and embarrassed. Our donation was puny compared to the effort they were putting out. Plus, I had agreed to interpret Ed’s remarks into Spanish. I had pictured half a dozen people, not hundreds.

Mi en Cuba

I managed to stammer out a few remarks into a microphone. Everyone applauded as though they had understood me. I fell back into a chair and they brought me a plate of food. It all tasted like dessert because even the savory foods were loaded with sugar. The music and dancing started, and our group was forgotten. I realized this wasn’t about us—it must have been the case that Cubans are allowed to hold big gatherings like this if they had a patriotic reason. I don’t know for sure, but maybe we had given them that reason. Bringing gifts gave them an excuse to show us their stuff, and stay up all night having a good time. Who knows?  Another mystery.

On our bus ride back to the hotel late that night, our guide explained that there were no extremes of rich and poor in Cuba. Yeah, I thought, because all the rich people skedaddled to Miami. He kept referring to “the special period” and I asked Ed to explain. “That’s when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost all its subsidies,” he said. “It can’t survive under the U.S. embargo without a patron.”

When we checked out the next day, the guy at the desk offered T-shirts for sale, as modeled here by Vince. It’s an extra large. Right—for a Cuban, maybe.

Cuba Tshirt

I hope this series has been food for thought as Americans consider electing Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist, for President.

Gittin’ in Trouble

This is the seventh post in a series about Cuba that starts here.

Before we left Santiago de Cuba, we took an excursion to the nearby Parque Nacional de Gran Peidra—a sort of national park. I love the outdoors and got excited that we might go on a hike, but we only skirted the park on our way to our real destination, Guantanamo Bay.

If you look at Google maps, it’s really confusing. What you would think was the U.S. territory with the detention center is marked as Cuban territory. Google has steered me wrong before, mostly memorably in Nairobi where it sent me to a slum instead of to the Ford Foundation’s offices, so I would never count on it except for a rough approximation.

Guantanamo

There was excitement on the bus as we got closer to Guantanamo. “Get out your OFAC letter!” someone exclaimed. “We’re being tailed by the CIA!”

As I mentioned previously, we were required to carry letters from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control at all times to show we were there legally. I couldn’t imagine we would get anywhere near Gitmo—you didn’t have to see it to know it would be surrounded by 20-foot razor-wire fences and heavily-armed guards. What were we going to do, ram the gate? That would put a crimp in my plans to apply for jobs with the CIA and the Foreign Service!

But then the bus stopped, and most of us waited while a couple of Interfaith Task Forcers got off and held an animated conversation with the driver and our guide. Then we turned around and went back to Santiago. I will never know how the leaders of the Task Force talked our guide and the Cuban bus driver into driving to Guantanamo Bay, or how close we really got, or exactly where its limits are.

That’s the thing about travel, if you’re doing it right. You’ll come home shaking your head and laughing to yourself because there was some mysterious situation for which you’ll never have an explanation. That’s assuming no one got hurt or arrested, of course.

Now that I am working for the Center for Victims of Torture, it would be hugely prestigious to be able to say casually, “I was arrested at Guantanamo a couple years ago.”

CVT has been active in advocating for the closure of Guantanamo. First—obviously—because we, torture people there (yes, we, if you’re an American). Half the American population (and I think we can guess who their presidential candidates are) believe there’s nothing wrong with torture. “How we gonna catch the bad guys if we don’t torture people, huh?”

I could write 10 posts about why that’s a dumb statement, but for now I’ll just say, if you think torture is okay, go read someone else’s blog. And even if I thought it was okay, it’s still illegal.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which came about in response to the WWII and specifically the Holocaust, outlawed torture. Ronald Reagan signed the international Convention Against Torture in 1984. President Obama issued an executive order on his second day in office banning torture. In November last year, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which “placed all U.S. government interrogations under the United States Army Field Manual on Interrogations, and requires that the International Committee of the Red Cross have prompt access to all prisoners in United States’ custody.” In other words, there are grownups in charge now.

Very few people know everything that’s gone on at Gitmo, but we do know that people have been detained indefinitely, without charge or trial. If you imagine yourself in one of those prisoner’s paper slippers, you will understand why they go on hunger strikes. We then subject them to another form of torture, forced feeding. If you wonder, “how bad could that be?” watch this video of the rapper Mos Def being force fed; he volunteered to show us what it really involves.

Back in Santiago, none of this was on my mind. My biggest concern was finishing my master’s and getting a job. Vince’s time in prison, and researching prison for this blog, changed all that.

Sig Heil, la Revolucion

This is the sixth post in a series about Cuba that starts here.

I was in Santiago de Cuba with my 82-year-old new best friend, Shirley, and the Marin Interfaith Task Force on the Americas.

We went to hear music, the ostensible reason we had flown over 500 miles in a Russian rust bucket of a plane with pilots who worried about funny noises. The music happened in a very decrepit but charming sort of open hall with cavernous ceilings and rickety benches for seating, if you could find a space to sit. The walls had peeling layers of old paint in different colors; I knew people in the states who would have paid big money to get that look.

“These guys are famous!” exuded Ed. “I can’t believe how lucky we are to hear them live!” I had never heard of the band and couldn’t tell them from the ones that preceded or followed them. Not that they weren’t great—to my unsophisticated ear they all sounded marvelous. There were no CDs or T-shirts for sale, and no posters I could take a photo of to help me remember who they were.

The next day we toured Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, a 17th Century Spanish fort. All I remember about that is how hot, hot, hot it was, and how I kept trying to find a sliver of shade to stand in while the guide yammered on about history.

We went to a (thankfully) shaded glen to listen to a priestess speak about Santeria, an African religion practiced in some parts of Cuba. There were endless gods and goddesses of wind, water, fire, battle, fertility, and so on. It was all very interesting but I forgot all of it by the next day. I have friends who can recite historical dates and names—in which year the artist Diego Blahblabla painted that Madonna with child in that old church in such-and-such a small city. But not me. If I hadn’t jotted notes each night in my hotel room I would never have remembered as much as I have here. And of course the great goddess Google has helped me reconstruct a lot as well.

We toured a primary school. Our guide explained that education was compulsory to 9th grade, so everyone can read and write. Well education is compulsory through 10th grade in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean everyone can read and write. There are things you hear on tours in other countries that are just best to keep your mouth shut about.

The guide told us about the Cuban emphasis on arts—painting, music, dance, literature. Everyone played a musical instrument, wrote poetry, or could illustrate a point with interpretive dance. Then there was the love of baseball. All boys played baseball and loved it. So much for women being full comrades. I figured there were at least a couple boys who did not love baseball and would have preferred to be ballet dancers. In my head I heard my friend Bette, the one who is married to a Cubano who has made documentary films about baseball, saying “They promote the arts and baseball because they are disciplines. They distract people from how hunger, and their lack of basic rights.”

Our guide paraded the children out onto the playground for us, where they sang a patriotic song and made a disturbing gesture very much like the Hitler salute.

Cuban Kids

We went inside and viewed an empty classroom, which had rows and rows of new computers. “These were donated by the Spanish government,” our guide said proudly.

This was when I forgot to keep my mouth shut. “So the kids can surf the Internet?” I asked.

“These computers are state of the art,” the guide continued, ignoring my question.

“Do you get a fast Internet connection?” I kept on, cluelessly.

“They have the highest memory capacity available in the world.”

Oops, I finally got it. There was no Internet. Nowadays Cubans can buy “access”—meaning the government blocks many sites and monitors what users look at—for $2 an hour, a huge expense for the average person who earns $20 a month.

Beinvenidos al Hotel California

This is the fifth post in a series about Cuba that starts here.

After a few days in Havana we packed our bags and flew to Santiago de Cuba, a city on the other end of the island. The plane took off as soon as the last passenger stepped on board, half an hour before our scheduled departure. What if that person had been half an hour late? Would we have waited for him?

The plane was basic. The little signs you see in planes, the ones that say, “Fine for Tampering with Smoke Alarm” were in Russian. At least, I assumed it was Russian, and that they said the usual things. The seat tray in front of me was a piece of plywood held in place by chains and hooks that would have cost $5 at Ace Hardware. As we ascended, mist seeped into the cabin. No one else seemed alarmed so I tried to stay calm.

About an hour into the flight, the co-pilot came on to make an announcement. I could understand his Spanish perfectly; maybe he wasn’t Cuban. I was happy to be able to tell my group what was going on. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I translated, “We are hearing a strange noise somewhere in the aircraft and we can’t figure out what it is, so we’re going to turn around and go back to Havana.” Everyone laughed nervously, then fell silent as the plane banked steeply.

We sat on the ground in Havana for a while before taking off again. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the co-pilot said as we took off, “We apologize for the delay. The pilot is new and neither of us has flown this kind of plane before.” What “kind of plane” did he mean, I wondered? A Russian plane? A run-down plane? There was no mention of the funny noise. Presumably whatever had been rattling had been fixed, or determined to not be life threatening.

The first thing you notice about Santiago is that it is HOT. Hot as hell and humid. I don’t mind heat to a point, but if it’s too hot, this Minnesota-bred traveler’s brain and body become lethargic. We had flown almost 550 miles to experience “real” Cuban music that could not be heard in the capitol. I’m not a music connoisseur; most music sounds good to me unless it’s horribly out of key or country (which seem like the same thing to me), so I was skeptical.

We were transported to our “hotel”, which seemed to be some kind of abandoned camp compound with whitewashed, cement buildings spread out over several acres. I checked into my room and collapsed onto the bed, so out of it that I wondered if I was being drugged. Of course there was no air con, not even a fan, and no window screens, which allowed clouds of gnat-sized mosquitos into the room. The walls were bare and white, there was a bare bulb overhead and a double bed with a thin white sheet. The bathroom was the same as in Havana, with one threadbare towel and transparent toilet paper but instead of a flimsy toilet seat there was no toilet seat. Nice!

I turned on the black and white TV and there was only one channel; I believe Bonanza was on again. I groaned and attempted to wrap myself in the sheet like a giant burrito to keep the mosquitos at bay.

I woke up to knocking.

“Come to the pool!” a woman’s voice called.

Pool!? I detangled myself from the sheet and saw that my left arm, which had fallen out of the burrito, was covered with hundreds of tiny red welts. I flung the door open and there was one of my fellow travelers, an 80-something lady who had been subjected to a strip search at the airport upon our arrival and had taken it all in stride. She had a bottle of rum in one hand and a cigar in the other. Ten minutes later we were floating on a life preserver in the deserted but clean pool, sipping smoooth rum out of the bottle and smoking an even smoooother cigar. Cuba was heaven.

Cigars? Cigarettes?

This is the fourth post in a series about Cuba that starts here.

I was in Havana with the Marin Interfaith Task Force on the Americas, which has a tour coming up in April if you’re keen to visit the island.

Before the U.S. began its rapprochement with Cuba, Americans either had to go there illegally by flying from Canada or Mexico, or were required to have permission from the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC. And on these government-sanctioned trips, it wasn’t like you could just do whatever you wanted; the itinerary had to be vetted and approved and you couldn’t go off leash from your tour group. We carried OFAC letters on us at all times and, according to Ed, our Marin Task Force leader, OFAC probably had someone tailing us. And our Cuban guide was probably reporting back to his masters about … what? As I wrote in the first post, the Task Force was composed of a bunch of old hippies and me. But maybe the Task Force had been infiltrated by the CIA, and Ed was a plant?

I think in 10 years we will look back on this period and laugh about it. It was very cloak and dagger, and needlessly so.

I know, I know, you want me to stop going on about the politics and write about the rum and cigars and food and music, right?

Okay. First, the food. Everywhere we went, it was pretty much the same. Chicken, rice, and cabbage. Rice, chicken, and cabbage. Cabbage, chicken and rice. Obviously they had no problem providing themselves with these staples. According to Ed, the CIA had purposely introduced a swine plague that killed all the pigs on the island; that was why there was no pork. Why they couldn’t have grown something colorful–a little Swiss Chard or some carrots, I don’t know.

If you like sugar, you would love Cuba. Every drink is loaded with it, and we were offered desserts galore. The Cuba Libre was the standard drink, and it seemed to contain rum, mint leaves, and about a half a cup of sugar.

We toured a rum factory, which looked like something out of Victorian England. It appeared to have been built and hundred years before and never updated. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that—they certainly cranked out some smooth rum. We all bought bottles “to support the economy.”

We toured a cigar factory. The images here are from the Great Google but look similar to my tour, during which we weren’t allowed to take photos.

Cigar FactoryCigar Factory 2

The cigar factory is the single most vivid memory from the trip because the aroma was like nothing I’ve experienced before or since. Heavenly.

I bought a box “for a friend.” This is one of the reasons I love travel. I spend money on things I would never buy at home, and I can tell myself they’re gifts or that I’m supported a developing economy. And then I can enjoy them myself.

The cigar factory was also notable because it was a multistory, rickety, wood frame building. It reminded me of a barn inside, with bales of tobacco leaves piled around the perimeters and men standing at wooden tables in the center rolling the cigars (and cigarettes) by hand. One match and the whole place would have gone up like a roman candle. The workers were allowed a cigar allowance, we were told.

This seemed contrary to the anti-smoking campaign I’d heard about, in which Fidel was lauded for quitting and everyone was encouraged to follow the example of el Comandante Jefe.

When I returned to my hotel room and went to put my bottle of rum in the fridge, I found two eggs inside, wrapped in an embroidered handkerchief. Were they a gift, or had the maid forgotten her lunch? If they weren’t a gift, maybe the dancing lady hadn’t been a gift either. Maybe I should leave some money for it? I left a $10 bill with a note in my execrable written Spanish that this was for the beautiful dancing lady. I hoped the same maid came every day so there wouldn’t be an unfortunate misunderstanding.