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Cuba

Heartbreak and Betrayal

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Dos Gardenias, two gardenias, is a poignant Cuban love song. The haunting lyrics tell of a lover who fears losing his beloved to another. He will know this has happened when the gardenias in the garden die. In the 1999 Academy Award nominated documentary about Cuban musicians The Buena Vista Social Club, Ibrahim Ferrer, Jr. sings Dos Gardenias with such emotion, the song breaks your heart.
In Cuba you don’t need a lover or an old song for that to happen. The island’s beauty can break your heart. So can the people.
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This crumbling paradise beckoned me for years. Forbidden, seductive Cuba enticed me with its culture, music, food, politics, old American cars, architecture, and historical significance. Throughout my adult lifetime, it was illegal for me to visit. Thanks to a people to people program, I was finally able to go through a legal, licensed agency. I visited in the fall of 2014; months before President Obama opened the door to re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Verdant, rolling hills are surrounded by sapphire, turquoise, and emerald waters. Eden. The cities and small towns feature the best of Moorish and Spanish architecture, punctuated by Roman and Greek influences. Decaying buildings are replete with intricate tile designs, elaborate wrought iron, scrolling stonework, and ubiquitous balconies where laundry hangs drying in the sun. Ropes tied to baskets are attached to pulleys. They dangle over balcony railings and wait to deliver merchandise purchased from street vendors who happen by, hawking whatever meager goods are available that day. No one wants to climb stairs in the heat and humidity. The humidity, along with sea air, and years of neglect has ruined most of the glorious architecture.
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I have traveled. I’ve been to pretty places. Places I’ve liked a lot. Places I’ve gone back to. But there is no where I’ve been that got to me in the inexplicable way Cuba did. In part, it is guilt. I feel responsible, somehow, that my government has helped to cause the poverty and the utter lack of resources I saw while traveling through the island in September. I am not uninformed nor am I naïve. Cuba’s domestic and foreign policies are disturbing. Their allies are not our friends. I know the politics. I know there were missiles pointed at us six decades ago. We forgave Japan for Pearl Harbor. They forgave us for Hiroshima. We moved on. It is perplexing and confusing to me why we can’t do the same with Cuba.

I understand that the Castros, Fidel and his brother Raul, have their own issues and accountability for past decades of Cuban struggle and poverty. But that is theirs to sort out. As an American, I am embarrassed that eleven US presidents found it acceptable to isolate a country that is ninety miles from our shores. The Cuban people feel related to us. Many of them are. Nearly everyone I met has a relative living in the United States. Yet, Cuba and the Cuban people carry the label of terrorists according to the United States State Department. Sanctions which accompany the label combined with the trade embargo, in place since the 1960s, have helped cripple the Cuban economy. Our goal was to humiliate the government and force a collapse. We have attempted for years to force a two-party system on their country. We have tried to influence their foreign policy and to limit Cuba’s friendship with Russia and anyone else we didn’t like. Clearly, it’s a failed policy. After more than fifty years, the Castros still reign. When Fidel resigned as President in 2008, his brother Raul took over the title. The embargo and sanctions have failed to depose them. The most significant contribution of the embargo is the dire economic effect it’s created for Cubans. They have shouldered the burden of doing without basics like food, electricity, and a decent transportation system, not to mention conveniences such as air conditioning. I am well aware that the Castros have responsibility for bungling their economy in numerous ways. They have made bad choices. But in my opinion, the attempts on the part of the US government to impose our will on Cuba has contributed to the poverty and ruin you see in Havana and everywhere throughout the island. And for that, I feel guilty and apologetic.
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Cubans tell you they harbor no ill will towards US citizens. They are able to separate the people from the government, but you have to wonder how they can do this. They are taught to read using primers that explain the triumph of the revolution. In order to move from middle to high school, they must pass exams which include Cuban history. Cuban history as taught by the state run schools using state published texts. Yet, Cubans who are raised in a culture of lies, half-lies, bent truths, and fifty-year-old phrases like “the triumph of the revolution,” don’t hate us. Quite the opposite. Not only don’t they hate us, they don’t seem envious of us, or bitter about how little they have. They don’t want much, apparently. They definitely don’t want capitalism, at least the ones I met don’t. I met many Cubans during my trip, not all of whom were people who were arranged by my tour. Although much of the time was spent on pre-arranged visits to schools, cultural experiences, senior centers, and nursing homes, during my down time I was free to go anywhere. I had unmonitored conversations with taxi drivers, bartenders, hotel workers, and people who were out enjoying what few cool breezes they could find in the evening along the waterfront. Cubans want simple things, like food at reasonable prices that is available when they need it. Often they can’t find chicken, eggs, or milk. Or toilet paper. Let me be clear. It is not that they are too expensive, which is also a problem. Availability is the bigger obstacle.
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The continuing embargo with the US keeps other countries at bay and affects imports as well as exports. If countries trade with Cuba they run the very real risk of fines or worse; the wrath of America. If cruise ships want to continue to have ports in the US, they cannot stop in Cuba. Since few countries will purchase Cuban goods, Cuba has virtually stopped producing.
And still, the Cubans don’t hate us. They should, but they don’t. That, too, breaks my heart.
They don’t hate the Castro brothers either, it seems. They just accept that things are, for now, the way they are. When you ask what they envision after the Castros are gone (Raul has stated he will step down from the presidency in 2018) no one knows. No one can imagine, or even speculate about what happens next. For most, this is all they have known. Ever since 1959 and the triumph of the revolution, a Castro has been in power. For a Cuban, trying to imagine a Cuba without a Castro leading them is akin to imagining an alien life form taking over the Earth. It could take any shape, or it could look very much like we do. The future of Cuba is filled with endless possibilities. Or not.
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Cubans agree things could be worse. They were much worse after 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed during, as they refer to this time, “the special period in time of peace.” Russian money stopped flowing and the single greatest export, sugar, ceased to have a market. Sugar factories still lie dormant. “The owner of the product is the owner of the country” is a phrase you hear repeated. At this point, there is not much product. Supplies, always scarce, became more so. All those miles and miles of fertile land lie fallow. After the long, harsh special period, in the late 1990s Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez offered some assistance in the way of mutually beneficial trade and things got somewhat better. But since Chavez died in 2013, the economy slowed once again. Now, the nation is not being held together by much, although China has an obvious presence. Tour busses and most appliances are made in China. While vendors deny it, some goods sold in craft markets that are offered as hand-made, have the distinct and all too familiar appearance of mass-market products, although they are missing the “Made in China” labels.
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Aside from all the humanitarian reasons the US should drop the embargo, if the United States doesn’t find a way to resume an economic relationship with Cuba, China is visibly waiting in the wings. China's President Xi Jinping visited with Fidel Castro in Cuba this past July. His visit came shortly after one by Russian President Vladimer Putin a few weeks earlier. Both Putin and Xi are said to be actively cultivating investments in Cuba. Even more disturbing, earlier this year a North Korean ship was photographed in Cuba’s port. The ship was later found to be carrying obsolete arms dating as far back as the 1960s. Opinions vary as to the purpose of the weapons, but that is not the main point. Our isolation has encouraged other alliances. Will lifting the embargo and cultivating a relationship change Cuba’s foreign policy? No one knows. What is clear is we stand nearly alone in our belief that sanctions and the embargo are effective.
On October 28, 2014 the United Nations General Assembly, as it does each year, voted on a non-binding resolution to repeal the sanctions. The resolution received 188 favorable votes. Three countries abstained. Two countries voted no: Israel and the United States.
Before the vote, the Cuban foreign minister gave a brief speech. He requested that the United States and Cuba attempt to “…live and deal with each other in a civilized way…”
Cubans don’t complain much about their poverty or about their leaders. They accept hardship and scarcity. They don’t know anything else. Cubans think standing in line for an hour to get ice cream is normal. Some admit to wanting to leave in order to pursue career opportunities and a better income, but they assure you they love their country and it makes them sad to think about leaving. I am not suggesting there aren’t dissidents within the country. There are groups of anti-government Cuban activists who are promoting a more free and democratic society.
Cuban privileges are expanding. They can now own businesses, restaurants and hotels, if they can afford to buy them. I ate in several privately owned restaurants, or paladars. One seaside paladar near the infamous Bay of Pigs had the best food I ate in Cuba, although the menu was limited and based on available supplies. Black bean soup, fried plantain, yucca, and succulent pork were seasoned and cooked to perfection. Speaking with the owner, he told me his wife is the chef and the recipes are traditional, passed down through her family. He pays taxes on his profits, but is allowed to keep what he earns. Since most Cubans have no computer, he keeps a careful, handwritten ledger of all his transactions.
Cubans can now grow produce on land that is leased from the government and they can keep the profits they make. But a lack of equipment such as tractors and irrigation systems limit the ability to farm.
These are small signs that Cuba is changing. The way of life the Castros sustained for so long is dying a natural death. I hope the future brings prosperity to the people. Caribbean countries have a hard time with this. Look at Cuba’s neighbor to the immediate south, Jamaica, to see what can happen when Eden falls into the wrong hands. I’ve visited Jamaica numerous times over more than thirty years. Corruption, over development, and squandering of resources are rampant and have ruined the natural beauty of the island. Jamaicans are exploited and are even poorer than most Cubans. I refuse to go to Jamaica anymore because tourist money doesn’t help Jamaicans. My heart would break if that happens to Cuba.
The lover in the song Dos Gardenias fears betrayal. Maybe that is what the Castros have feared all along. Given a choice, given a free election, the Cubans may choose to love another. But like the gardenias, the leaders are, inevitably, fading away. Even in tropical Cuba, in the fall flowers fade and die. The roots lie dormant over the winter, gathering energy in order to bloom again in spring. Cubans are waiting in the garden for another leader to bloom. One they can fall in love with, one who will protect them and keep them safe, but will let them thrive. They deserve all the help they can get. We need to lift the embargo and the travel restrictions.
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Posted by teethetrav 09:48 Archived in Cuba Tagged food architecture travel cuba havana embargo Comments (1)

A Month in Paris in Winter

Day 1: What was I Thinking?

The east coast of the US had a terrible winter in 2014. Freezing cold, lots of small snow storms. In other word, not fun. So this past summer, I decided to get away for the month of January. Most people go to Florida. Snow birds, we call them. I decided to fulfill a lifelong fantasy and go to Paris for a month, rent an apartment and just be. An English major and a romantic to the core, I had notions of writing amongst other writers and artists and living like a local in a corner of the world I had lusted after in my imagination.image.jpg

I researched scrupulously (or so I thought, but more about that another time). I've stayed in apartments before with good to excellent results. I found one in Montmartre that seemed to fulfill all my needs; one bedroom, sleep sofa in case I should have guests, a beautiful looking bathroom and a functional kitchen. And oh yes. A terrace with a view of the whole city. Even though I was going in January, a terrace for me was de riguer. A must.

What was I thinking? This is a refrain you will hear from me often if you follow this blog. Montmartre is hilly. Very hilly. With many stone, steep stairs that cannot be avoided. I had only been twice before, Both times were many years ago and I did not stay in Montmartre, just visited on day trips. My memory had failed to remind me of how difficult it is to navigate here. The day I arrived was challenging. My apartment was in the middle of stone steps and there is no way to drive up to the apartment. One must lug luggage up (or down) these steps, depending on which way you arrive. There is no good way. See the photo.

In addition, the key pick-up was far away and up four flights of stairs. The rental agent wanted to charge me 50 euros to deliver the keys to my door. I rented from Parker Villas in Italy and loved the entire process. They met me, delivered the keys, showed us how to use the apartment and left us notes for where to eat, shop, go, etc. This was the exact opposite of what I had come to expect from rentals. I will trash them further when I get my deposit back, but they were not pleasant nor easy to deal with.

Posted by teethetrav 07:24 Archived in France Tagged food paris france travel apartment montmartre monet hemingway picasso Comments (1)

A House in Sicily

A Book Review

A House in Sicily

I haven’t blogged for a long while. I’ve been working on some other projects and (of course) travelling. I thought I’d resume the blog with a review of a book about travelling. The charm of this memoir, A House in Sicily, is its delightful narrator and her storytelling ability. Daphne Phelps tells the story of how she happened to inherit a home on a hilltop in the Sicilian town of Taormina. With virtually no money to care for the house and property, she turns the place into a small hotel and invites her friends from England to come and stay for a small fee. These friends include artists and literary luminaries such as the cranky Roald Dahl, Bertrand Russell, and even Caitlin Thomas. Rumor has it that Greta Garbo once stayed in the house for a summer, although Phelps was too classy to admit this. The book is a series of vignettes about her guests, the struggle she had to keep the house and navigate through the Sicilian legal (or not so legal) system, and about the characters who inhabit Taormina. If you have been to Taormina, the book will make you want to go back. If you haven't, the book will entice you to go. Either way, it's worth reading. By the way, Casa Cuseni is still a hotel where you can stay. I, for one, am planning to do just that.

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Posted by teethetrav 14:28 Archived in Italy Tagged travel italy books sicily taormina memoir Comments (0)

New Year's in NYC

New Year’s in NYC 2012
Although I would rather swallow red ants than go to Times Square on New Year’s Eve, I did go traipsing about Manhattan on January 30, 2011. The day was mild and sunny and the crowds were out and about. You would think they were giving away baubles on the streets there were that many people.
I love New York in all seasons. It would be impossible for me to pick my favorite. Every year during the Christmas season, my daughter and I revisit some of our traditional favorite spots and we try to add at least one new one. As many years as we have been doing this, there is always something new to try. This year, we added the Plaza Hotel where the lobbied is adorned with pink decorations and a glorious pink tree, all done by the delightful and inimitable Betsey Johnson. DSC03798.jpg
We love Todd English’s food so we waited for forty-five minutes (after being told it would be a mere 15!) to eat at the Food Court in the Plaza. Although the prices are absurd, we splurged and his food, as always, was delicious. I had a fig and prosciutto flat bread pizza cooked in an open fire oven DSC03803.jpgand my daughter had a tuna burger that was cooked to perfection. DSC03799.jpgWe were seated in the Ocean section of the Food Court. There are eight possible seatings, but you can order from any of the stations no matter where you sit. We got to watch as an intense young chef sliced gorgeous tuna into gorgeous slices. DSC03802.jpgBut the highlight drama was when a purveyor from Urban Truffles showed up, opened a cloth napkin to reveal more than a dozen black truffles. That got the chef’s attention and he stopped everything to make a purchase. It was like watching a high end drug deal go down. I don’t understand how the young purveyor trots around Manhattan so casually with such expensive merchandise. I’d have a minor breakdown. Then again, I probably wouldn’t part with those truffles in the first place. There is no flavor that is more incredible than fresh truffles.
Of course we saw all the windows. Of course we saw the tree. We stopped inside Bloomingdale’s to use the ladies lounge and bought cupcakes at the fabulous Magnolia Cupcakes. My favorite was the Hummingbird. No idea why it’s called that, but it was light and airy and filled with pieces of pineapple. Yum.DSC03806.jpg
I hope everyone had a great 2011. I had two fabulous trips to Europe and a few smaller ones within the US. Happy and Healthy New Year to all!
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Posted by teethetrav 08:07 Archived in USA Tagged food travel nyc times_square tourist_sites new_years todd_english magnolia_cupcakes food_court plaza_hotel Comments (0)

Avignon, France

A Pope, A Palace, A Saint, & Les Halles

Avignon

Avignon is a good base for side trips to smaller towns in Provence. From here I took a day trip to St. Remy, Les Baux, Uzes, Villeneuve-Lez-Avignon. I had planned to visit Nimes but was blocked from seeing it because there were bullfights at the time I was there and was told the roads were impassable.
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The significant structure here is the Place du Palais, the Pope’s Palace. I’ve been to Siena, Italy a number of times and I knew the story of Saint Catherine, the patron saint of Siena, and how she convinced the Pope to return from France back to Italy. In the 13th century things had gotten dicey in Italy and Pope Clement V fled to Avignon. A few Popes later, the Palace was built and Avignon was the de facto capital of Christendom. Young Catherine had a vision and traveled from Siena to Avignon (no easy trip even now) and somehow convinced Pope Gregory XI to leave this lovely place and return to Italy, ensuring her fame and sainthood.
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Popes knew how to choose real estate. The Palace sits on the highest point of Avignon and is still a stunning spot. The views from the Popes Palace are miles long and are still unspoiled. From the Palace and the surrounding gardens you can see the Rhone River, the mountain, and the famous Avignon bridge. statue_in_the_garden.jpgIn_the_Pope_s_garden.jpggrotto_in_.._garden.jpgAvignon_bridge.jpg

I enjoyed strolling through the gardens. They are serene and beautifully kept. The view from there is spectacular. The square in front of the Palace is lively and full of street performers and places to have a snack or a drink.
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Speaking of food, my favorite place in Avignon is the famed indoor market Les Halles. I bought breakfast there early one Sunday morning. I took it outside and sat facing Les Halles in the little square. Me, a few old men chattering in French, a couple of pigeons, and my panecone. I was blissfully happy. I’d rather be sitting there than inside a dusty Palace, even if it was the one where Catherine persuaded a Pope to come back home.
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Posted by teethetrav 08:22 Archived in France Tagged food markets france travel avignon tourist_sites saint_catherine_of_siena_les_ha Comments (0)

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