Monday, March 31, 2008

Email woes

I have been having trouble with my email... I've already decided that I am changing my ISP provider, Pronic Solutions, once my current contract with them is up. Over the past several years, they've gone from being a company I recommended to others to being unusable. Control panel and email pages that take minutes to load, a webmail program so bad that I actually have my email forwarded to Yahoo, check it there, and then reply via Pronic webmail if I need to, an email filtering system that doesn't work, and some of the worst spam detection I've ever seen have developed gradually and now gotten to the point where I'm just waiting for my contract to run out.

My current problem was, in desperation, turning on a program called "Spam Assassin", which supposedly aggressively dumps my spam into an email folder called "spam" and which must be emptied frequently so that I don't go over my quota. Well, it's no doubt full because I'm over my quota, all right, but I can find this alleged "spam" folder nowhere, and until Support responds to my requests for help, I'm going to remain over quota. I guess this is the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, and the reason I've irrevocably decided to leave Pronic as soon as my current year is up. I'm thinking Bravenet, of which I've been a free member for years, and whose services seem to be impeccable. (In fact, their free services and goodies are so fine that I've often felt guilty for using them while not hosting the site with them.)

In the meantime, if anyone needs to email me, an alternate email is at gmail dot com. (Note there's a period between "ronnie" and "cat"; back when I joined Gmail, that was a format they imposed - firstname dot lastname.)

I'm pulling together some photos we took of curiosities and oddities in Cuba for a future post. Right now I am SO BUSY, and I'll be heading to Halifax for several days later this week which will make me busier, so please stand by.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

A few more Cuba photos...

...uploaded to Flickr.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

First Day of Spring


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Well, that was nice while it lasted.

In his comments on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq quagmire, Barak Obama said that "this war has now lasted longer than World War I, World War II..."

Really? Sounds like Mr. Obama needs to bone up on his history. This war has now lasted longer than US involvement in World War I or World War II.

Unfortunately, I'd expect this mistake from someone who said yesterday "I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible."

I beg your pardon?

He has the same tunnel-vision as those he claims to be smarter than. His claims of greater diplomacy and improved foreign relations - for which I had great hope - ring hollow due to these little Freudian slips that show him to have the same Americentric blinkers as those he claims to be smarter than.

John Edwards keeps looking better every day. Unfortunately.



Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The new new job

So the new job in a brand-new branch of government comes with a new office, a new view (alas, not from my office); a new photo ID/key card; and a new Blackberry. The Blackberry takes pictures (see left) and collects my email and surfs the web and plays MP3s and has GPS and does all sorts of wonderful things; but its main role, I believe, is to show everybody else in government that my team is a Very Important Team doing Very Important Things, hence my manager asking me "Where's your Blackberry?" six to eight times a day, while he has his in his hand constantly, like a globus cruciger. It is a joy toy though, and I've coveted one for a long time. Between the ID card, the Blackberry and the latter's bulky belt holster I feel a bit like I'm walking around with Batman's Utility Belt on.

Compared to my job with the Federal government, where I was an insignificant guppy in a great big sea, this job is intensely different. Here there is a lot of scrutiny and a lot of pressure, both from inside and outside the government. We're a very small team being asked to make some pretty big things happen. Fast. Unfortunately, as much as I'd love to go into more detail about the job - which is absolutely fascinating and exciting and we're building the roadmaps even as we build the road - I won't be able to. Just take my word for it - it's the job I should've had years ago when I first applied for it and so far I love every second of it.



Saturday, March 15, 2008

La Habana

The road between Jibacoa and Havana is full of industrial works; most are the result of foreign investment in partnership with the Cuban government. Some of these sites fly the Cuban and Chinese flags side-by-side; some fly the Cuban and Canadian flags. Almost all bear the revolutionary slogans and patriotic catchphrases ubiquitous everywhere in the country.

The gateway to Havana. Above, a prominent reminder of the July 26 Movement
- the name of the revolutionary movement led by Castro that eventually toppled Batista leading to the Cuba of today.

We entered Havana through the underwater tunnel running under Havana Bay, a great surprise to both Husband and I since neither one of us had ever read or heard about it. (Here's an archival photograph of it.)

Very shortly after entering Havana, we drove past one of the greatest oddities in a country awash in them - the United States Interests Section building. Most Americans are surprised to discover that the US has an official government presence in Cuba at all; while it does not have an embassy, it does keep a "US Interests Section" office (naturally, hosted by the famously-neutral Swiss), which keeps an eye on goings-on of American concern in Cuba. "Keeps an eye on" not only figuratively, but literally; there used to be a webcam, although it's no longer operational, and in 2006, some functionary got the brilliant idea to run propaganda messages across the top of the building. The messages are huge, orange, a story high, and, as of our visit, still scrolling boldly across an upper floor of the building.

In response to the appearance of the scrolling messages, it is rumoured that Castro himself ordered the construction of an 'art installation' that just happened to be right in front of the United States Interests Section building, in the newly-dubbed "Anti-Imperialism Park". 138 black flags, each with a white star in the centre, coincidentally blocked most views of the orange scrolling messages from passers-by.

I had read about this fascinating propaganda duel but to see it with my own eyes was quite something. Unfortunately, there was no way to photograph it from our perspective in such a way as to really show you the true effect, so I offer you here, with credit, two photos taken from other sources which better illustrate both the scrolling propaganda messages and the wall of flags than my snapshot did.

Photo of US Interests Section Building in Cuba from That neon red you see up there is the actual propaganda project, scrolling messages in Spanish across the top of the building 24/7. Between us and the building? The flagpoles from the installation put up to block the messages as much as possible.

And just for some context, a photo of the 138-flag 'art installation' from

Our first stop was Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Square) for the obligatory tourist shot in front of the sculpture of Che Guevera. The buildings around this square now host government offices, including the office of the President, occupied until very recently by Fidel Castro*.

Many of the buildings are still pockmarked with bullet holes from the battles fought in the city in 1959.

Husband commented wryly that their value to tourism and propaganda means they'll never be repaired!

Traffic in midtown Havana. =>

What was being repaired was large sections of Habana Vieja (Old Havana), which has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Thank God - many of the colonial buildings on the waterfront are well past repair; but it is gratifying to see dozens of others crawling with workmen who are repairing the facades and preserving them, thanks to the large injection of money for restoration the UNESCO designation brings.

One of my favourite photos from the trip, these shops and apartments are typical of the smaller buildings that line the alleyways and streets between the huge Spanish Colonial buildings that dominate the area, some of which date back to the turn of the 15th century.

A number of the cobblestone streets in the heart of Habana Vieja have been closed to motor traffic and are instead full of people - performers, cafe patrons, vendors and tourists. As you see, horses and carts are still welcome in these areas, though.

Wandering through the meandering streets and alleyways of Old Havana we saw some beautiful architecture, as well as just some very neat things. We saw this young boy negotiating with his Mama through a window. We saw a young woman in a yellow ball gown with her hair elaborately dressed, escorted by her Madre and Padre - it was her Quinceañera, but it didn't seem polite for us, as strangers, to take a photo of her.

<= Dancers perform on stilts. We saw book markets, street vendors, performers, artists selling their works, and Cubans in colonial costume who make their living posing for photos with tourists, for which you may make a 'donation' of a Convertible ('tourist') peso or two (worth nearly 29 times what the local money, the Cuban peso, is worth, on the day I type this).

We saw a film crew shooting a movie outside the Havana Club Museum of Rum, and marveled at how all small-movie crews, no matter what language they may speak, look identical. A boom mic guy just has to wear a sweatshirt and a backwards baseball cap, he just has to.

The scene's actors - perhaps huge stars in Cuba, although unknown to us. Husband snapped this shot.

We had lunch at the beautiful El Patio restaurant, one of Havana's most famous. The restaurant is in the courtyard of an 18th-century mansion, the Palacio del Marques de Aguas Claras.

A colourful window overlooking the courtyard restaurant.

The Palacio is right in the Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square), so-named for the Catedral de San Cristobal which dominates it.

After lunch, we wandered around Old Havana for a couple of hours. We navigated - that's the best word - a chaotic artist's market 2 km long and several lanes wide, chock-a-bloc with Cubans and international tourists from the world over.

We admired the hundreds of "Yanq Tanks" that were everywhere - cars from the 1940s and 1950s in every state of repair, including hot-rod pristine factory-floor shape - well, unless you were looking under the hood, probably, as they manufacture many of their own parts for these beasts.

We wandered along Havana's famous seawall, where everybody comes to hang out and gossip and which is a favourite spot for young lovers to spoon.

Husband took this photo of a soldier on duty at the seawall with the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro (the castle that guards the entrance to Havana's harbour) in the background. This was taken mere seconds before the soldier told Husband in no uncertain terms that he was not to take pictures of the soldiers with the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro in the background.

The last neighbourhood in the city we visited was that surrounding El Capitolio, The Capitol Building. The Capitol Building was built to echo the US Capitol Building, but the dictator who oversaw its construction, Gerardo Machado, was apparently fond of pointing out that it was slightly bigger. The building used to be the seat of government; after the revolution, Fidel Castro, who already had an extremely firm grip on the power of symbolism and propaganda, refused to take office from the building and instead turned it into a public library, conference and meeting centre, and, in the 1960s, the offices of The Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment. (The seat of government was instead relocated to Revolution Square and the Capitol given back to the people, get it? Get it?) The steps on this fine day are full of Cubans, students and others, reading and writing and talking.

A view of downtown Havana from the Capitol steps. Note at the base of the steps there are several photographers with antique cameras who will take sepia photographs of you sitting on the steps if you like and print them for you on the spot.

Husband noticed a coin lying on the ground behind one of the cameras in this area and instinctively stooped to pick it up before being almost run over by a short, buxom Cuban woman, a photographer's assistant, who snatched it out of his hand. "That's ours!" she shouted briskly, in English, before turning on her heel to put it into the cash container. "Y- yes, it is," replied Husband, slightly shaken but certainly impressed with her vigorous pursuit of every coin meant for her coffers.

Gran Teatro de La Habana (Great Theatre of Havana), an absolutely stunningly beautiful building which is quite nearby the Capitol.

Although the US government makes a great show of not allowing most ordinary Americans to visit Cuba, one of the handfuls of exceptions they make is for church groups. While their agenda for doing so is pretty transparent, what initially surprised me more is that the Cuban government allows these groups to come. (There are severe restrictions on what these church groups are allowed to do while in the country.) However, the groups often come bearing donations; and, as we saw during our visit to the Capitol, some also come bearing sweet propaganda value. This bus was the transportation for Pastors for Peace and was painted all-over with anti-blockade slogans and messages in favour of improved Cuban-American relations. Tragically, the group was off somewhere when we encountered the bus. I would dearly love to have seen whether the group looked like a bunch of fierce Southern Baptists here to pry the rum and cigars from Cubans' hands and their pro-sex attitudes from their very souls, or (judging from the bus) a bunch of Metropolitan-Church-going hippies who'd played bongos and sung folk hymns to pass time during the trip. Judging from their website, a wee bit more of the second than the first, probably :)

On the drive back to Jibacoa, we watched the small pumpjacks that dot the shoreline swing slowly up and down, bringing Cuba's newest source of wealth to the surface. Cuba has oil, but no refining capacity; thus the partnerships with countries like China, Canada and Venezuela to develop the resource. As always, the trip reminded us of what an enigmatic blend of riches and poverty, potential and peril, unbelievably rich history and uncertain future, Cuba is.

This post is already way too long. I'll put some more pictures up on flickr and will link to them when they're up.


(*Mentioning Fidel's retirement reminds me - Raúl Castro was named President on Sunday, February 24. We caught our flight to Cuba on February 25. Cuba has been under constant threat of - and has suffered numerous - terrorist attacks by anti-Castro factions for decades, and for years there has been speculation - ramped up considerably by Castro's recent illness - that activists might take advantage of his eventual death or retirement to stir up trouble and perhaps even incite counterrevolution. As it turns out, the political fox Fidel Castro, by retiring as President before the parliamentary elections in a very low-key manner, and then by having Parliament name Raúl President several weeks later, denied his enemies a defining 'moment of action' when such a terrorist strike would be poised to incite counter-revolution.

Nevertheless, it became clear that in the wake of Raúl taking on the mantle of the Presidency, the airlines had been sent a security memo, because our luggage has never been scrutinized to the degree it was when going through airport security in Moncton for that flight to Cuba. Ever. Even flying out of Pearson in Toronto a few weeks after September 11, 2001, I didn't have every single item in my cosmetic bag opened up and checked.

As for Cuba post-Fidel (sort of), the mood is overtly (it was stated outright to us) pride in the transition having gone over with little reaction at all. "Everyone has been wondering what Cuba will be like after Castro," a Cuban named Raphael told us. "Well -" he gestured toward the working-class Havana neighbourhood we were passing through and the Cubans going about their daily business - "here you are. You're in it." A CBC radio commentator based in Havana described the city as having an atmosphere of 'determined, benevolent calm' in the face of the change, and that is certainly the atmosphere we saw, although the poorest neighbourhoods we saw would be middle class by Cuban standards. Any hope for counterrevolutionary uprising and unrest has been met yet again with the carefully-cultivated Cuban propensity for seeing the world as "Us vs. Them" (and I'm afraid we all know who Them is), and a patriotic, stubborn pride in not giving those who said the revolution would fall apart after Castro's passing any satisfaction.)

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Thursday, March 13, 2008


Snowfall records are falling

Province running out of salt, sand

Gatineau gives up on snow removal

Incidents of snow rage on the rise

Insurers brace for deluge of claims over snow, floods




Sunday, March 09, 2008

Water World

One of the reasons we chose Jibacoa for this trip was its reputation for great snorkeling. There's a large, vibrant coral reef just a few dozen metres offshore, and the photos posted online by people who'd explored it went a long way in convincing us to put it at the top of our list.

Maybe if I'd never gotten the cochlear implant, I'd say that SCUBA diving should be the official sport of the deaf; as it is, the implant means that I'll never be able to SCUBA dive, so I am content with saying that if there were a competition for Official Sport of the Deaf, I'd be happy to nominate, and campaign on behalf of, snorkeling.

Down there, just under the surface of the water, sound means nothing. Vision is everything. You are the richer for not being distracted by water in your ears. You are completely at one with the water, and the coral, and the fish, and the slanted beams of sunlight shafting past you to the coral and flora and sand below.

The deep and jagged coral reef is full of dark caverns which go straight down below you and which look like they go on for kilometres and could host terrible, terrible sea creatures of mythological origin. (And not only does one of those deep dark crevices possibly host some mythological beast; one of them now hosts my wedding ring, which slipped off as I snorkled and which was gone when I returned to the beach. I'm almost sure, as it tumbled end over end into the depths, unnoticed by my distracted eye, I did hear Gollum whisper, "My preciousssssss!!!")

Dozens of different kinds of fish come out of their nooks and crannies to curiously and fearlessly peruse you; the school of fish in this picture were especially persistent, circling me patiently, swimming round and round me like a single organism, moving with me as I moved, so that I felt I was at the very centre of a very slowly locomotive carousel...

...their tiny brains probably thinking, "Oh, this is a big one... it'll kill something for sure... and when it does... there'll be leftovers!"

And then - about 50m offshore - just as you've been flying forever over this complex and beautiful carpet of coral and sea plants and fish - there is suddenly a breathtaking drop-off, some 10 metres or so straight down, to a bare bed of sand.

<= Much steeper than it looks!

I admit it - I couldn't bring myself to swim out over the drop, seized by an irrational fear that somehow, if I swam past that ledge and over the little abyss, I'd suddenly fall, be dragged down and be unable to get back to the surface. Totally irrational, as I knew at the time - yet it totally made for a thrilling and slightly frightening psychological experience, toying with that ledge as if it really were a gravitational drop straight down.

Husband saw SCUBA divers below him... a nearby fish seemed as surprised by this as Husband was.

(These photos were all taken with Fuji disposible underwater cameras. Last trip we took two Fujis and one Polaroid underwater disposibles; both Fujis provided good pictures, the Polaroid yielded nothing. This time we stuck with the Fuji brand and are again thrilled with the results.)

How we were able to drag ourselves out of that beauty and peace to return to the real world, I'm still not sure. All I know is that we're already plotting how to return to it as soon as we can.


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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Jibacoa (updated)

Jibacoa Beach is situated almost exactly between the Cuban tourist mecca of Varadero and the capital city, Havana. It's immediately bordered to the east by Matanzas and to the west by Santa Cruz del Norte, the closest town and the home of many of the employees who worked at the handful of resorts and campgrounds in the region.

These included a number of Campismo Populars, the public campgrounds used by Cubans when they vacation.

<= A nearby Campismo Popular, a resort / camping area for Cubans.

The proximity to the towns and the campismos meant there was a lot more opportunity to mix with ordinary Cubans, including on the grounds of the resort where we were staying, as opposed to the isolated Covarrubias, where the only Cubans we met were generally resort staffers.

The physical environment was much different that the flat region we visited last time, and lush hills surrounded our hotel. Impossibly tall palm trees towered over us. The bushes and trees were alive with birds, moving with birds; woodpeckers, hummingbirds, blackbirds, tiny tropical dilletantes; they sang incessantly.

<= The beautiful, beautiful beach.

As they do in the south, great sober turkey buzzards circled slowly overhead, very high up; I got a much better look at these impressive and creepy creatures one day at dusk, when I walked past three of the great ugly things having some sort of a consult under some palm trees. (They are massive things close up, probably coming to my mid-thigh or higher. ) It was evident that these three were standing in a circle around... something, a recently deceased rodent or bird or somesuch; and none of them quite had the nerve to out-and-out claim the prize and risk the consequences, so they just stood there, eyeing each other and their treasure jealously; every few minutes, one would screw up his courage and sort of make a feint for the coveted item, whereupon there would be much screaming and flapping of huge black wings, and everyone would fall back, the bluff having failed, and the prize still unclaimed. And that's how I left them, glaring at each other, wondering who would win this peculiar Cuban standoff.

<= Our Villa. The rooms were comfortable and scrupulously clean and once again we could only marvel at the modern European fixtures designed to save water. This is the second time we've come back from Cuba vowing to do some major renovations that take advantage of what we continue to learn there about conservation. (Each villa had solar-heated water collectors on the roof.) (Our first reminder that we were undoubtedly back in Cuba was during dinner the first night when ... the power went out. We must have been a fairly seasoned group of Cuba travellers; there was not even much of a group expression of surprise, more a collective sigh of resignation. Then everyone pulled out any light-producing source they had, and very shortly the waitresses were good-naturedly serving wine under LED flashlights and novelty glowsticks provided by their guests. It was the damndest thing. And after a few minutes, well, the lights came on again. They always do, don't they?)

The people in the area were like all the Cubans we've met - intelligent (they are some of the most quick-witted people I've ever met), funny, warm, creative, curious and proud.

The young woman who made up our room quickly upped the ante on the "towel art" game played in Caribbean hotels, using found objects in the room to create fabric sculptures that made us howl with laughter when we returned in the evening.

There were two outstanding experiences on this trip - the snorkeling, and our trip to Havana, the latter the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for each of us. Each deserves its own dedicated post, so that I don't drown you in pictures.

Before we leave, however, let me introduce you to two of the resort's several felines. Unlike Las Tunas, where all the stray cats have d/evolved into tabbies, on this end of the island many cats still bear distinctive markings, and several dominant ones rule specific territories on the resort. This big calico ran the lobby and the lobby bar. When not sitting up at one of the tables at the lobby bar as if waiting for her drink to be served, she could be found sunning herself on the patio or wandering between tables, deigning to accept scritches and pats from her subjects. A large orange and white striped tomcat similarly lorded over the pool bar and patio at the other end of the resort.

This is Roof Cat. Roof Cat spends most of his time on the roof of one of the resort restaurants, waiting for people to (I kid you not) throw food up to him. Which they do. (Air conditioning units and a stucco wall provide a handy path up and down.) He is ferociously vocal, and I had many long conversations with him, although we stuck to our policy of not feeding the local strays. Roof Cat (word is still out on whether he is Ceiling Cat's Caribbean cousin) has a pretty sweet schtick going and appears to be making out like a bandit.

The whole trip is still being processed by both of us physically and mentally (we both slept through our first day back; Husband had to return to work but I slept through much of three more days). But I hope that's an attempt to give a sense of place, from which we jumped off into some remarkable sights and sounds.

UPDATE: Mike reminded me, in the comments thread, that I'd neglected to mention what the mix of fellow-tourists was this time around. It slipped my mind mostly because there really was no mix; all the other guests at the resort without exception seemed to be Canadian. I'm not sure why, except that a couple of related Canadian tour companies, Nolitour and Transat, seemed to have the whole place booked up. This was a slight disappointment, for while Canadians are nice fellow-travelers as a rule, and while we met people from Ontario and Vancouver and PEI and elsewhere, it's always more fun when you're meeting people from around the world. It was fun to get to Havana and feel yourself in the middle of a distinctly international vibe.

The nature of Cuba's business and tourism interests can be gauged by the satellite television stations available at any given time in the hotels. This year we had Dutch, German, French, Italian, French-Canadian (TVA), English-Canadian (CTV), and a couple of Cuban domestic channels; HBO, CNN and ESPN in English and Spanish; and no less than four different Chinese state (CCTV) channels, reflective, I think, of the degree of Chinese investment and involvement in Cuba right now. We saw a lot of Chinese flags on the industrial developments outside the town centres.


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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Volver a Cuba

(Habañeros catch up on political gossip and important baseball argument outside a fabrica de tabacos in Havana.)

More - much more - later.

First - sleep.