Monday, April 30, 2007

¡Feliz cumpleaños a mí!

Friday was my birthday, and even though I tend to do birthdays "low-key", and don't broadcast them beforehand, I am always surprised and touched at how many people remember and mark the occasion. The folks at work gave me a plant, which I am working very hard to murder (apparently it cannot be left alone, even for a weekend, even if watered at 4:30 pm on a Friday); my folks had sent me an e-card a few days earlier in the week, and my sis sent one, too (thanks!).

My best friend in Ontario sent me a snail-mail card and my former-coworker-now-very-good-friend in Manitoba sent an absolutely charming postcard featuring a cat in a tiara which just seems perfectly appropriate; my co-worker "Mo" gave me a sweet card from his family and a gift; my Dad and my mother-in-law both tried to phone me on Friday but my cellphone was having a bit of a nervous breakdown.

Husband gave me an upcoming special trip to my favourite salon for highlights for my hair (at my request - something I love doing but feel dreadfully guilty about spending money on) and a Hostas plant (his idea) to replace the one the dunderhead gas installers dug up last autumn (they didn't tell us they were coming, and we arrived home to discover they'd completely dug up a quarter of the back yard, including a Hostas which I loved and which pre-dated our residence in this house. I actually cried about it, I was so upset, and replacing it is nothing less than a stroke of genius on my dear Husband's part.) Also the cats got me a card with a hilarious signature that includes thanking me for "taking care of us, with the food, and the roof, and everything."

Last night (Sunday evening) my dear mother-in-law, Mom O, made me a special birthday dinner (roast beef, which she knows is my favourite), and one of my favourite brother-and-sister-in-law-and-their-son-my-Godson were there and he had a handmade card for me; and we had birthday cake (lemon icing - which she knows is my favourite) with ice cream and my Godson helped me blow out the candles.

And tonight I called my Dad back ('cause of the cellphone problems on Friday), and we talked and laughed a bit and then I told him and my Sis I loved them and they told me they loved me, and I felt very, very, lucky and blessed.

So Happy Birthday to Me.


Saturday, April 28, 2007

Clear and present anger.

Earlier I promised to blog about my last-minute souvenir purchase in Cuba (it very nearly caused me to miss my plane - I hadn't counted on the glacial pace of Visa transactions over Cuban lines). It was at an airport book counter and is titled "Cuba, the untold history". A glance at the cover immediately indicated that this was no run-of the mill bit of sentimentalia as so many of the other books there are, and upon glancing inside I knew immediately it was going to be worth the $16CUC they wanted for it.

It is an astonishing propaganda piece, a full colour several-hundred-page book listing dozens and dozens of purported terrorist attacks against Cuba, beginning with the Bay of Pigs invasion (which is not identified as a terrorist attack, per se) and running through a litany of alleged attacks by "terrorists of Cuban origin" operating - with impunity, it is alleged - out of the USA in general and Miami in particular.

The allegations and supporting evidence - or lack of same - is all over the place. In one or two cases, declassified CIA documents are cited and photographically reproduced to support these claims; in many, many others, it is just alleged that such-and-such a person "said", "admitted" or "declared" that they'd taken part in these attacks, which include bombings, hijackings of fishing boats and planes, an airplane bombing (Cubana de Aviación Flight CU-455, which blew up between Barbados and Jamaica in 1976 with a loss of 73 lives), murder of Cuban civilians and diplomatic staff, and other incidents, in Cuba and in Cuba-related incidents around the world.

The most horrific allegation other than that of the aircraft bombing is that "terrorists of Cuban origin" imported Dengue Fever into Cuba, resulting in three mysterious simultaneous outbreaks in various parts of the island in 1981. 158 people died, 101 of them children. It is alleged (without supporting citation) that years later in a trial, a "Cuban terrorist" who is identified by name "confessed to having introduced the contagious virus to Cuba". Many pages are devoted to this incident, with copious photos of ill children and statues of angels in a garden devoted to the victims. The book alleges that that old demon the US, "applying the precepts of the blockade, delayed authorization for the sale and transportation to Cuba of the insecticides specified for combating the vector responsible for the disease... Cuba had to purchase them from third countries at an additional cost of millions of dollars and with a vital delay in the arrivlal time in the country, which was, undoubtedly, a key factor in many of the deaths that took place."

Think of the recent Virginia Tech shooting which claimed the lives of 32 mostly-young victims and wounded many more, and its impact in America. Imagine, as a resident of Cuba, experiencing an incident which you were told by your government was a terrorist act, which stole 101 of your children, your babies - how that would resonate. And imagine you've been taught, probably right from school, who to blame.

The final chapter in the book is taken up with, you may have guessed it, Elián Gonzales, who became such an effective propaganda tool in Cuba that he has his own logo. His "kidnapping" is included as yet another outrage against the Cuban people. You sort of can't believe that the Miami anti-Castro activists didn't see this coming.

In the chapter, Elián's father, Juan Miguel, is portrayed as a noble soul who had maintained a cordial relationship with his ex-wife until she was lured out of Cuba (why? why?) by a ne'er-do-well playboy. Elián's mother is both a mother, and, well, dead, so it seems imprudent to blame her. Instead she is presented as being "more to be pitied than blamed", a tragic figure (as she indeed was) in the whole saga.

In an unintentionally funny passage, the book notes that "Following the divorce, and with the child... [Juan Miguel and Elián's mother] continued living in Cardenas, with the brother-sister relationship still intact... until she fell in love with a man who would cost her her life, Làzero Rafael Munero, an unemployed flashy type, a womanizer who learned judo not as part of a physical education program, but rather to fight..."

(Elián's Miami-based great-uncle, who fought to keep him in the US, is represented by a photograph which makes him look so sinister I said to Husband, "He looks like Saddam Hussein in a South Park cartoon!")

Long story short, it became clear through this book, if not through everything else we experienced, that Cubans live in a sort of state of continual siege; that the threat of attack, whether imminent, real, exaggerated, wholly or at least partly manufactured, is a very real presence in their lives, from the omnipresent military presence to propaganda pieces like this book or the documentary I saw on the Bay of Pigs invasion.

We happened to be there on the anniversary of the invasion, and I went back to the resort room and turned on the tv and saw all these older folks reminiscing about their war experiences. It looked like nothing so much as your average History Channel talking-head veteran talk doc about WWII or Korea; but then I realized these were veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion, remembering the event. Tellingly, the documentary was subtitled in English. ("I was a medic," said an old man who today is head of the Cuban Center for Oncology, or something like that. "I recognized these people we had kicked out of medical school for being bad students! But they had fled to the US and now were invading their homeland in support of the invaders supposedly as medics. I was embarassed.")

At the end of the beach at the resort is a now-abandoned observation post. On the way to the resort we passed a military base, protected with tank traps (I didn't know what they were until I asked Husband.) Men in military uniform turn up at various intersections, although we never actually stopped at a checkpoint, per se. We saw anti-aircraft guns at the airport, and Husband heard shelling practice daily at the resort (my hearing wasn't good enough to catch it). None of these things are secrets - they are part of everyday life in Cuba.

So Brent McKee, who cited the German population's weary unity behind its leadership during the height of Allied bombing, or the spirit of Britain during the Blitz, in WWII, in an earlier comment, is not off the mark at all. Give people deprivation, real fear, and a common enemy to blame both on, and you have a formula not for dissent and revolution, but for stubborn unity.


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Friday, April 27, 2007

Email woes fixed.

Turns out to have been the fault of a bunch of automated files (such as spamtraps) which gradually got bloated over years and ate up all my server space. Fixed with the rapid and polite assistance of the nice techs at (I do recommend them). Whatever email all y'all have been using to contact me before will work again now. Word. Respec' Pronic.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Pensamientos dispersados (Scattered thoughts)

So what was I saying about Cuba? Oh, yeah - expect the unexpected. One morning we had been lying on the beach for about an hour when a black dot appeared offshore. As it got closer and closer, it began to look less like a black dot and more like a spear fisherman in a black wetsuit with a facemask wading ashore from... somewhere. In a net bag he had a large octopus and a fat grouper - both of which turned up in the buffet that night. Now that's fresh seafood. We didn't get a picture of him, but we did get a picture of another fisherman bringing in what would be that day's lunch (grilled to a golden brown) and dinner (poached) options.

Husband made an interesting observation; not one single time did anyone ever ask us, or did we ever hear anyone ask, the most prevalent conversation-starter back in North America: "What do you do?" Instead people ask "Where are you from? How did you find out about this resort? Have you been to Cuba often?" The result, he noted, is an erasure of a lot of class distinctions that exist back in Canada based on occupation and social status.

There are, however, no matter how friendly and respectful we may try to be, significant distinctions, if not of class then of material wealth, between the turist(o)(a)s and the resort workers. As a result, an informal but now traditional custom of tipping staff, either with convertible pesos ("tourist money" which is worth much more than the Cuban peso) or with gifts, has become common. We were made aware of this before we went by friends who'd been there, and from there did a lot of research on what to take to "gift" friends and workers. Simple toiletries like deodorant, toothpaste and moisturizing cream are available in Cuba but priced beyond most ordinary peoples' means. Ditto pantyhose, which some women are required to wear to work but which are incredibly expensive. School supplies (pencils, notebooks, crayons) are prized. Children's clothing and toys are very hard to find and when you can find them, again, they're expensive. (I read in an article that a pair of adult blue jeans costs approximately one months' salary for a Cuban accountant.) Little "extra treats" for these hardworking women (we took nail polish and pretty hair clips, for example) are also much appreciated. Anything is helpful - that which isn't wanted or used by the recipient becomes barter, just as good.

These gifts are left for housekeepers each morning on the pillow of the bed; they would never assume anything else in the room was a gift for them, but it is understood that anything left on the pillow was for them. Liannes, the housekeeper taking care of us, was so earnestly grateful for our small gifts that I was quite embarrassed.

I got a great tip when I read on that taking a good-quality baseball for a special friend is a great gesture in this beisbol-mad country. I picked up a couple of authentic MLB balls at the local Wal-mart for under $2 apiece. Isela, the woman who is taking care of Lucky the cat, has a young son; and before she left for her own vacation a few days before we left, I took her one of the baseballs. What a commotion! The two male resort workers who were visiting with her grabbed the ball, speaking Spanish enthusiastically and inspecting it - carefully. "Is real!" declared one approvingly, after carefully scrutinizing the Authentic Major League Baseball logo. Isela was very pleased with it, and I hope her little guy plays with it happily for a long time. The second ball I left for Liannes on our last morning there.

As you can imagine, this whole system feels a little bit weird; there is, I suppose, a danger of beginning to get some kind of Lady Bountiful complex if you are that sort of person. As for me, I was torn between feeling weird about it and genuinely wanting to share things with these good, friendly, kind people, and that, along with the understanding that there was no "me" to it, this was the system that evolved and it didn't make me anything special, balanced out to a general nice feeling of sharing with people I'd come to like. Finally, I was relieved to not see a single incident of people being rude, disrespectful or condescending to staff. I was afraid these inexpensive vacations might encourage some reg'lar folks back home to start thinking of themselves as landed gentry in Cuba with the serving class there to wait upon them. Instead, it seems everyone saw the staff for exactly what they were - people at work, doing a job and earning a living, just like we are when we're back at home.

Regarding the Cubans' homes and home lives, Sherwood noted while looking at the photos that there are overhead electrical wires. Private homes are wired, however, brownouts and blackouts are extremely common (and I understand there is some eyebrow-raising at the fact that the resorts miraculously seem to shine brightly while lights dim all around). You are not allowed to bring any heavy power-drawing appliances into the country - no irons, hair dryers or curling irons - and must use the resort's low-draw ones. (I called our room's hair dryer "The Bart Simpson Hair Dryer" because, to paraphrase him, "I didn't believe it was possible, but this thing blows and sucks at the same time.") I wasn't inside any private homes so can't speak to water and sewage, but most public places have modern bathrooms (the resort had surprisingly modern European fixtures). Toilet paper, however, is a very scarce commodity, on-resort and off; and the smart traveler is not caught without her purse pack of Kleenex [tm]! Some public washrooms have washroom attendants who hand you a few squares of paper before you go into a stall. Usually female attendants - even in the men's rooms. ("Did that freak you out a little bit?" I asked. "Yep," Husband replied without hesitation.)

In fact the whole trip, like many peoples' first forays into the developing world, made us extremely conscious all of a sudden about our consumption; how much paper (even toilet paper) we were using, how much water (only bottled is safe to drink for tourists) we were drinking, how much we were running the air conditioning, how much food we were taking from the buffet. Leftovers are recycled into new dishes or put out for a second meal, something which some other visitors to this resort complained bitterly about in online reviews; in a country where even the resorts are on rations and shortages are everywhere, it seemed the height of reason to us.

A final observation about Cuba is the place of Ché Guevara in Cuban life, culture, and tourism. Fidel is quoted here and there, cited now and then, but Ché - Ché is idolized in Cuba. It is his image that people have painted on their front porches or stone gates; his picture that hangs on office walls; and his quotations and image that grace everything from t-shirts to tote bags to an entire series of "images from the life of Ché" postcards in the gift shop.

His prevalence in the souvenir stores is understandable - he is embraced and adored by middle-class European and North American leftists with a greater or (much) lesser understanding of the story behind the iconography they're sporting. But it is his presence in the homes and offices of ordinary Cubans that impressed me - he is someone they look to, here, even those too young to remember him personally. (An American newspaper article I read before leaving echoed in my mind while I was there. When someone complains about conditions in Cuba, it said, the most common response is, "We need another Ché.")

Even in the tourist shops, the nature of the Ché sentimentalia is telling; a book available in French, English, Spanish and German is entitled Fidel and Ché; a Great Friendship and feels distinctly like there might be some... coattail-riding going on there.

(Speaking of books, remind me to tell you about my last-minute souvenir purchase - a remarkable propaganda piece which goes oh, so far in explaining why the Cubans' stubborn fidelity to Fidel and the current regime is so deeply entrenched in spite of great deprivation.)

I mentioned the overwhelming public face of Ché as compared to Fidel to Husband. "Fidel got to survive," he said wryly. "Ché is John Lennon. He didn't live long enough to become Ringo."

Those of you who have traveled much more extensively that we have know that this kind of "first" trip is a life-changing experience. You come back a slightly different person - nobody else can see it, but you can feel it inside. It's a good feeling, like you grew a little bit as a person. It also makes you hungry for more, you bet. So the only questions for us now are: Where next? Cuba again? (Probably - as a co-worker warned me, "Be careful. You'll love the Caribbean, but you'll fall in love with Cuba.") This resort, or someplace else? And one week again, or two? (We've already answered that: two. For starters.)

We've already started re-filling the ol' vacation account.

Now, if I could only figure out why there is half-a-bag of Tostitos in the living room. I don't remember buying Tostitos - ever.



Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Holiday snaps

I've put some photos of the trip on Flickr. Just hit the small photo to the right of the one you're viewing to move through them in order. There are also embedded comments - if you mouse over the photos, you'll see a small square box. Mouse over the box itself to read the comment.

Hope you like them as much as we loved taking them.



Email woes

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the small pestilences of real life continue. I am over-quota on but unsure of the reason, since I haven't uploaded any new data there lately, so any emails sent to are being bounced back to the sender. I've submitted a support ticket but for the moment, any variation of @ is not a workable email.

I'll let you know when it's straightened out, but in the meantime if you need to email me you can use ronniecat1 [at]


Monday, April 23, 2007

Being There

The instant we got to the resort, of course, we headed straight for the beach. That was, after all, what the trip was all about - the beach. It didn't disappoint. It was astonishingly clear, with just a hint of turquoise that deepened as the water itself deepened, and was warm enough for bathing from early mid-morning. By late evening, it was as warm as a soothing bath.

Something I had never realized - but I should've - is that there are colours that you have never seen before. I mean, you'd think with the dizzying array of consumer goods and manufactured and natural things we have on offer for us every second of every day, you'd assume that you'd seen every colour that existed, right? At some point? But standing that afternoon on the beach, looking at the bands of different colours in the water, I suddenly realized that there was a colour in there that I had never, ever laid eyes on before that second. What an amazing feeling.

The resort was just as you'd imagine it in your wildest Parrothead dreams. The beach bar, one of four on-site, was particularly charming.

It was the kind of place where you could dreamily imagine Hemingway drinking Cuba Libres (ironically, rum and Coca-cola, although these days the local KoCola has to do).

If there is one piece of advice I'd give someone traveling to Cuba, it would be "Expect the unexpected, and be patient." North American and European stressed-out conventions about punctuality, formality and conformity don't hold much power in a country where everyone gets around by hitchhiking and what was abundantly available two weeks ago might be as scarce as yellow diamonds this week. The Cubans we met have a strong work ethic - the resort staff obviously work very hard - but it is fairly loosely tied to formal schedules or structures.

A good example was my trip to a kiosk in the resort one morning in order to buy stamps for postcards. The place seemed to be closed. I looked at the official license in the kiosk's window.

8:30 am - 16:30 pm
Todas los dias

Hm. Coulda swore today was one of todas los dias. I went into the gift shop next door.

"Perdone, do you know when the stamp lady will be open?" I asked.

She nodded sagely. "Tomorrow."

"Tomorrow" is also when the artisans' shop selling local arts and crafts seemed to be open. I joked to Husband that I fully expected to see a sign on one of the local shops before we left that said:

8:30 am - 16:30 pm

Fortunately, we did catch the artisans' shop on one of the "tomorrows" and were able to get some nice gifts and souvenirs.

But who cares, anyway? As soon as we were able to let go of our own expectations that opening times were precise and not estimates, and understand that you struck while the iron was hot because you might miss an opportunity to do or buy something until "tomorrow", we didn't mind at all. When in Cuba, you learn to do things the Cubans' way.

The Cubans have some significant challenges to deal with, in terms of resources and infrastructure. We learned to do things their way.

And they've learned to do things well. An example is the ubiquitous cola, the queue, the line. Cubans line up forever for everything, from bus tickets to movie tickets to service in government offices to lines to get into shops to... well, you name it. And they've struck one of the most sensible ways I've ever heard of to manage life with colas.

Rather than "take a number" in a country where paper is scarce, or standing uncomfortably in line, Cubans have developed a relatively comfortable system of fair queue management. When you arrive at a place with a queue, you inquire, "¿Último?" ("Last [one in line]?") The last person to arrive before you identifies him- or her-self. Then you become "último" and make yourself comfortable somewhere, and when the next person arrives at the cola, and says "¿Ultimo?", you identify yourself. All you need to remember is who was in front of you when the bus arrives.

How positively civilized.

There is a colony of semi-feral cats that roam the resort freely, tolerated for their value as exterminators, one would presume. They are lean but not starving, and I suppose as far as feral cat-life goes, these fellows have it pretty good. I say "semi-feral" because they have the run of the place and will sit right next to your chair, but will back off if directly approached. One night after the main restaurant closed we saw a staff person come out and give them some food. As the photo shows, they gather at sunset outside the restaurant waiting for the big event. One night I counted 7 sitting here, with many more roaming nearby.

As for feeding them or giving them treats, no matter how tempting we did not, since going from "hanging around" to "actively begging from tourists" would no doubt spell disastrous consequences for them.

However, there is one cat, appropriately named "Lucky" who was adopted as a small kitten by Isela, who works in the resort's towel exchange hut (where you can also drop off your finished paperback beach reading and borrow another from the extensive library she's collected over time). We'd learned about Lucky from a Canadian woman I'd been corresponding with who'd reviewed the resort on, so went to drop off some kitty treats Mojo and Ronnie had sent him and to meet him and Isela on our second day there. Lucky has food, clean water, and his own towel for sleeping, plus Isela's care, so you can see why Lucky is an apt moniker indeed for this little guy.

Well, Lucky clearly knows cat people when he sees them, because not only did he take warmly to us, he followed us all the way back to our bungalow, in spite of us trying to shoo him back. I got rather alarmed because I don't know how far he is used to roaming from the resort center. Then imagine my horror when I opened the door of the room - Lucky was at the bottom of the porch steps on the front walk, next to Husband - and Lucky zipped past me like a gunshot into the room! I started screaming, "Oh my god, oh my god, he's in the room! Oh my god, he'll hide somewhere, we'll never get him out, they'll think we let him in here on purpose!" Sure enough, he holed up under the bed, and I had nightmarish thoughts of being clawed to ribbons as we tried to pull him out.

Eventually, with all the panache of a cat, he strolled out on his own and coquettishly posed for us for awhile. Then, pleased with all the commotion he'd caused, he followed us right back to his towel hut where he had some breakfast.

From there, our days settled into a blissful pattern of food, drink (the local beer, Cristal, brewed nearby in Holguin, is excelente), beach, snorkeling, kayaking, beach, sleep, Cuban music, beach...

Our neighbours were mostly Canadians (English and French), Germans, Dutch and Italians, with a surprising (again, to my naive eyes) number of Latin Americans. And why not? It was probably a very affordable vacation and change of scenery for a family from a nearby country. There was one very sweet family of Latin Americans, Mama, Papa, Grandma, and five bambinos ranging from babies to a girl of about thirteen. The whole family was so happy and demonstrative they were a joy to watch, from the teenager proudly marching her charge of little ones to the washrooms behind her like a string of ducklings to the whole family watching the Cuban band playing at 10:30 pm, the littlest ones wrapped in beach towels and asleep in the grown-ups' arms. (On our last night there, Papa gamely took part in the ridiculously cheesy and campy "Mr. Covarrubias Competition", and the whole family nearly collapsed from hysterical amusement and laughter watching him onstage.) The language barrier is non-existent here. "¡Hola!" works for everyone, and everyone greets everyone, 'cause everyone's so happy to be here in paradise for a little while.

And naturally, my second night there I end up sitting at the bar next to a guy from Newfoundland. "We're like cockroaches," I said cheerfully. "Ubiquitous. After the nuclear holocaust, there's gonna be left cockroaches, twinkies, and us."

Well, he'd drink to that. You'd drink to most about anything, here, wouldn't you?
more later,


Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Road to Villa Covarrubias

Shortly after arriving home from Cuba, I got a "welcome home" email from my friend Sherwood. In replying to him, I said, "I haven't blogged anything about it yet because I am still trying to figure out how to put my thoughts and impressions into some kind of coherent order."

Having relatively recently come home from his own month-long trip to Ireland, he wisely replied, "If my experience with that other island can be any constructive guide, just ditch the 'coherent order' business and get on with the pieces as they come to you. There's just too much to try to distill into a junior-year term paper!"

He's right. You can't write an essay about Cuba, you can only tell stories, describe vignettes. Not only the vastness of the gulf between my daily existence in Canada and daily life in Cuba forbids any kind of comprehensive description of a trip there, the very nature of the culture there - the informality, the overwhelming sense of "expect the unexpected" defies order and structure.

The traffic alone gives an impressive snapshot of the casual chaos of Cuban life. Everyone in the country, apparently without exception, drives like a mad bastard, and the cabbie who drove us the hour-and-a-half from Holguin to Puerto Padre and then our resort was the King of the Mad Bastards. We got in the cab and pulled seatbelts across our chests only to find there were no anchor buckles. The cabbie waved his hand airily. "Is not necessary," he said. (What he meant was, "Is not possible.") Then we were off at 80 km/hour through some of the twistiest, turniest, bumpiest road I have ever seen in my life, weaving through the unbelievable diversity of vehicles and people that populate the city streets of Holguin, through the countryside, into the heart of the town of Puerto Padre, through a large agricultural district (its unfortunately scrawny livestock collateral victims of the chronic shortages, no doubt), past a military installation and then to Villa Covarrubias.

Our determined driver passed everything he encountered at breakneck speed, demanding everyone and everything in his path give way with an impatient "beep beep!" of the 4-wheel-drive cab's horn. Some of it was not-kidding white-knuckle scary time. But as I whispered to Husband, "If I gotta check out, I'd just as soon it be this way - on an adventure in a foreign country - as any other!"

If someone asked me what side of the road they drive on in Cuba, my response would be "All of them." Hundreds of 1940s and 50s-era "Yanq tanks", most dented, painted, and patched almost beyond recognition (although a few we saw were in stunningly well-preserved condition) jostled for road space alongside Soviet-Union-era cars (notably Ladas) and large Soviet-made trucks and vans, newer and older European vehicles (Volkswagons, BMWs, Mercedes), tractors and farm machinery, many horse-drawn wooden carts, motorcycles and scooters of every description (many customized or modified with jerry-rigged sidecars or extra seats), the occasional brand-new European car (rentals, for tourists - which was a bit like seeing a laptop in the middle of the Sahara), and vehicles which seemed to be entirely unique creations made up of bits and pieces of other vehicles; and bicyclists and pedestrians weaving in and out of all the above.

And when I say "pedestrians weaving in and out of all of the above" I'm being literal. Cadging rides to and from work, school and errands seems to be every Cuban's second vocation. Large clusters of people gather in the shade of trees at crossroads, hitchhiking or negotiating rides with those in vehicles. Hopeful would-be passengers dash into traffic to shout out destinations, and if a driver is going in that direction and feeling charitable, he'll offer a ride. The entire country seems to get around on this system as much as on the bus system. Our cabbie, to our initial alarm, stopped to pick up a young woman at the side of the road and drop her off a few kilometres later. "She is student," he explained, shrugging.

How we made the trip without killing ourselves or anyone else, including the dogs, turkeys, chickens, goats, cows, pigs, ducks, horses and oxen which seem to wander about with no type of containment at all, is still a mystery to me. But what an incredible glimpse of everyday Cuban life.

I had no idea what private dwellings in Cuba would be like, but they were revealing. Most are small, square and modest, and the louvres over the windows meant to let in air and keep out the sun's light and heat initially lent an undeserved air of utilitarian shabbiness to the spoiled northern eye used to double-glazed picture windows.
What I noticed most is that most of the houses are very run-down, very faded, and very clean and neatly kept. Houses where the door is nearly falling off its hinges and where the paint has long ago faded to a memory will have spotlessly scrubbed doorsteps and tidily arranged chairs, and nearly every single home we saw had decorative plants carefully tended in the front yard.

Many also had surprising personal political expressions - "Viva Fidel" tidily written in small white stones in the front yard, the iconic portrait of Ché Guevara painted next to the front door, or short revolutionary slogans painted on the front porch. One had a statue of José Marti in the front yard. It all spoke pretty clearly to the lack of resources and supplies for home repairs as opposed to the effort people put into the upkeep of their homes where they were able.

Halfway to Villas Covarrubias, we passed the only gas station we'd see for the whole trip - "Oro Negro". "You want something? Water? Beer?" the cabbie asked amiably. No - we were good, thanks. Getting to the resort alive was pretty much our main goal at that point.

Everything after that amazing slice of Cuban life would be a bonus.

more later,


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Wordsworth Rap

Bruvvahs and Sistahs, on a much lighter note, I give you, courtesy the tourism board of Cumbria, the Lake District, The Wordsworth Rap, performed by MC Nuts, the hip squirrel who guarantees you'll never wander lonely as a cloud.

Respect Wordsworth.



Monday, April 09, 2007

N.B. base in mourning as soldiers' names released

N.B. base in mourning as soldiers' names released
Monday, April 9, 2007
CBC News

At least five of the six Canadian soldiers killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan on the weekend were from Atlantic Canada, while the family of the sixth soldier has requested the name not be released.
Five of the six dead soldiers were members of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Canadian Regiment, based out of CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick.

All day, yesterday, after the news broke that six Canadians were dead in the deadly southern region of Afghanistan, an unease seemed to fall over everything. They were almost certainly to be from the local base, CFB Gagetown, attached to the nearby community of Oromocto (pop. 9,000). Almost certainly. But unconfirmed. It was like the community was mourning-in-waiting. It would be such a huge loss in such a small community.

This morning they confirmed it.



Saturday, April 07, 2007

Meet Harriet

After my post about my Royal Doulton flapper, I got a couple of comments from a couple of ladies who know something about either Royal Doulton or Googling or both, and who commented that a) she was unusual for a Doulton (I agree - the slightly risqué pose seemed quite unusual for staid old RD) and b) there doesn't seem to be anything online about her.

Well I love a mystery so I turned my flapper onto her head in a box full of newspaper and studied her, um, bottom.

Her name is Harriet and her Royal Doulton number is HN 3177. Even that information hasn't turned up a great deal of information on her. I did find her for sale here, and I now know that she was issued between 1988 and 1991. She was designed by Douglas V. Tootle, who seems to have done a thriving business designing Toby Mugs and plates as well as figurines (links are to auction sites so may not last forever.)

So the mystery of who Harriet is has been resolved. The mystery of what she is thinking about, with that faraway expression on her face, will have to remain her very own secret.


Friday, April 06, 2007

The Flapper

My mother-in-law, who I've mentioned before many times in this blog, is (as I think I've also mentioned a few times in this blog) divesting herself of as many material things as she can. Not willy-nilly - she's been - for some years now - emptying the surprisingly small house she raised Husband and his four brothers in, of the impressive collection of family heirlooms and added gems that she and my much-missed Father-in-law gathered over the course of a long marriage and life.

So some days, marvelous beautiful gifts just fall from heaven. Like last weekend, when Husband took Mom O shopping like he usually does on Sunday. And he came home with a couple of plastic crates. It's, well, the family china. Well, not all of it. Half of it, maybe. Like, alla sudden we have a lovely place setting for ten, plus a lot of extra serving pieces, should we ever find ourselves in the situation of inviting 8 of our closest friends for a formal dinner.

It's gorgeous and I feel grateful, as usual.

But that's not the gem.

The gem is the Royal Doulton.

Mom O collects Royal Doulton figurines. Now, it's not the kind of thing I could really get into, but I've spent a lot of time with her talking about her Royal Doultons and discussing - in particular - the change in quality between the older, truly hand-painted figurines and the modern figures, which are poorly painted at best.

And we've talked about her individual figurines, and what is charming about them, and so on.

So imagine my pleasure last Sunday when Husband came home with all that gorgeous china in tow, and also, he mentioned, "Mum gave you a Royal Doulton. You know, the girl with the garter."

She's a flapper in a sunbonnet with a dreamy expression on her face, absent-mindedly adjusting the top of her stocking. She charmed me the first time I saw her.

"She remembered," Husband went on ,"you liked the girl with the garter. Mum said, '[Ronnie] always liked this one.'"

Oh, I still do. Thanks, Mum O.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Handy foreign phrases...

Our Latin-American Spanish phrasebook is proving very enlightening. It contains all the following useful phrases. Just in case.

"I'm only here for the weekend."
"Solo estoy aquí de fin de semana."

"This is my husband."
"Éste es mi marido."

"We're separated."
"Nos separamos."

"I need to see a pharmacist."
"Necesito ver a un farmacéutico."

"I need the morning-after pill."
"Necesito la piladora del día después."

I'm sure Husband is collecting his own set of phrases, which may include these useful samples:

"Her? She is my sister."
"¿Ella? Ella es mi hermana."

"Would you like to go for a drink?"
"¿Quieres ir a tomar?"

"I need to see a doctor."
"Necesito ver a un médico."

"Is it serious?"
"¿Es grave?"

"It itches!"
"¡Me pica!"


What M.E. heard

Get thee over to the Xtreme English blog where Mary Ellen is posting fascinating stuff about what she is hearing with her just-activated cochlear implant after more than 40 years of deafness.

Really, really amazing.


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