¿Cuba? Si!

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Shortly after I moved to Canada, I was having a chat with a new friend, and we got to talking about the upcoming winter vacation.  She referred to it as “holidays”—here, people “go on holidays”, they don’t “take a vacation.”

Of course, I knew what she meant, but to me holidays meant actual specific days—like Thanksgiving or St. Patrick’s Day or New Year’s, and vacation was the thing you did that usually had a holiday in the middle of it.

Another one that use to get me was “going to the hospital” and “going to hospital”.  My interpretation of that one is that the former means a specific location—a physical building with a name, whereas the latter is a more generic term when you don’t know where the ambulance will take you.

Also “gone missing”, which I guess is more of a generic term when you don’t know if someone’s wandered off, been kidnapped, or just isn’t where they’re supposed to be.  I do hear the US news stations use this phrase now…but maybe those are the ones close to the border.

Last one: eh. Canadians say “eh” in place of “you know”…as in “It was really cold out there, eh?” Just replace the “you knows” with “ehs” and most times it works out.

But I digress. (Frequently, I know)  This week’s entry is about Cuba.

So my friend tells me her mom is going “on holidays” to Cuba, and I have two reactions, after my initial shock (remember this was 30 years ago and I was very new to Canada):

The first: You can’t do that.

The second: Why would you want to?

And then it hit me.  I couldn’t picture the country on the map.

Now, I’m a bit of a map geek.  If I won the lottery, I would probably buy old maps—Manhattan in the 1700’s, the U.S. west in 1850, older maps of the world as they knew it.

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Pretty big,  isn’t it?  Makes for quite a hole.

But try as I might, I could not picture Cuba.  At all.

 

I had to get an atlas out and look it up, and its position still didn’t seem to make sense to me.

What had they taught us in school?  What hadn’t they taught us?

Keep in mind that this would have been just years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, but was it actually on our maps? Or were they designed and presented so that they cut off right at the tip of Florida? Or was it there, and did no one ever talk about it?

I really don’t know, but this revelation (not revolution-haha), really blew me away and for years I thought about how I couldn’t place Cuba on a map.

Fast forward a couple of decades and the opportunity to visit the island comes up.  It was just about to open to Americans in some limited capacities (and I know it has—maybe not  as freely as originally planned), but having a second passport with a country that was open to allowing its citizens to visit gave me access to check it out before it got crazy busy….or there was a conspicuous coffee shop or hamburger stand on every corner.

Here’s what I can tell you: just like with any resort in the Caribbean, if you don’t get out of the resort, you are destined to spend your vacation sunburned and overfed on a starchy, low-flavored diet of the endless feeding-at-the-trough buffet. You don’t see the real world.

Now I’m not sure how much of the real world we saw in Cuba, and how much they DSCN4452 (3)wanted us to see.  Yes, we stayed in a resort, quite a distance from Havana, so the one day we spent in the capital required some longish airplane flights (which also meant very early starts and late arrivals back at the DSCN4404 (2)hotel).DSCN4390 (2)

Sadly, it was raining, and so it was tough at times to tell just how much of what we were seeing appeared that way because of the weather and how much of it was of a country that was struggling.

It’s not very often, especially in the Caribbean, that you get to experience a large city and all that comes with that.  The roads were decent; there were high rises and the newly re-opened American Embassy, DSCN4377 (2)busy restaurants in the tourist areas, half-built projects down side streets and shadowy entryways to inner courtyards.  Fidel’s boat sits in a glass enclosed room, and there are posters and billboards everywhere, reminding you of where you are.

And the cars.  It’s like a step back to that time of the Bay of Pigs. Mid-century American cruisers—any model you and can think of in pretty much any color you can dream up—they’re there.  It’s amazing.  You can book a ride in one if you like, although our tour group did not have the chance—a single day isn’t very much to cram an entire missing history lesson in, much less find time to cruise around in an old car.

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Our other excursion, the first out of the compound, was a bit different.  Here’s a passage I wrote when it happened (better to pull on my diary than my memory, for sure):

Adventures in Cuba: Jeep Safari Adventure Tour  It was billed as an adventure tour, and boy, was it ever. There were six of us in our group plus our tour guide, Lore, who also went by “Flaco” (“skinny” in Spanish, which I guess he was). We drove with Flaco in older Chinese-built 4 x 4s, with the other four in a jeep following. We visited the lovely lake La DSCN4171 (2)Redonda and learned about mangroves; we visited the town of Moron (there should be an accent there on the second o, no jokes); we stopped for lunch at a small roadside place; we climbed a mountain for the view; and our final stop was a crocodile farm. A very full and crazy day for sure.

Off-roading on the mountain–really off-roading: OK, so when we stopped for lunch at the roadside place, as we were leaving, three shiny new black Suzuki 4 x 4s screeched into the parking lot–kicking up gravel and the whole thing. We learned that this was another guide from Flaco’s company–a pretty flashy guy, with black slacks, turned up collar, and some pretty nice shoes (not exactly safari adventure attire, but whatever). We went on our way–up the mountain on a single lane road–really only a single lane which was pretty steep (certainly posed a bit of a challenge for our little Chinese 4 x 4s–as I recall, we had to take a couple runs at getting up some of the more steeper inclines). We got to the top–lovely views, take a peek, take a picture–and then headed down. Flaco told us the guard at the entrance only let one direction of cars come at a time so we’d be fine going down…until his macho tour guide friend decided his entourage would head up before we got down.

DSCN4232So the flashy tour guide decides he’s coming up the mountain whether we’re off or not. We pull our 4 x 4 a safe distance off the single lane road (keep in mind we’re on a steep slope and we’re on the outside), and the guide tries to edge his Suzuki past us. Notice I say “he tries”? He doesn’t make it–just as he goes by, he goes a little too far off the road and ends up high centeringDSCN4238 (2) the jeep on the edge of the pavement–probably about two feet down on the right–not far enough to flip on the side, but enough that the left wheels are in the air. THEN he tells the other two jeeps to go by…and guess what happens next? Yup, the second on goes off the road, in the same way. Now we have two stuck jeeps (not ours mind you, but we learned that there are no tow trucks and you never leave someone out there in the middle of nowhere). So Flaco yells down the mountain (we can’t imagine who he’s yelling to, as there is no one around for miles), and a Rey 1few minutes later, up the mountain comes a man on horseback,  galloping bareback, shirt flapping open with his backwards baseball cap–like it’s what he does all the time. After an hour and a half, much thought, a quick run down the mountain for a big chain and some very heavy pulling, the jeeps are freed–but both have sustained some pretty heavy undercarriage damage and the third no longer has a clutch. That’s when we found out they were brand new–just three days on the road. Crazy. Anyway, job’s done, tourists are thoroughly mosquito-bitten, Mr, Flash is cowed, Rey, the caballero, mounts his steed and heads into the sunset and we creep back down the hill in our trusty little Chinese jeeps. I don’t think this is what they meant by an adventure tour, but it sure was interesting!

 An interesting point here, and one I didn’t mention in my narrative, was that when we stopped in Morón, they gave us some time to wander around.  So we did and got some pretty cool pix of this small town.

I was particularly taken by one of the old cars and snapped a couple shots of it.

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Imagine my surprise, when, as we were leaving the lunch place, walking past those brand-new-soon-to-be-destroyed Suzukis, I saw the same goldfish-colored Mercury parked at the end of the row.  By then, I couldn’t tell who it was as the guests were all mingling.

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And then it showed up again at the crocodile farm.

In another life, I was taught to look for these things.  But what it was, I wasn’t sure.  Were they checking up on the tour guides?  Making sure the tourists behaved themselves, or that we didn’t ask the wrong questions? What were the odds that I would take a picture of that exact same car in Colón?

I still don’t know, but it was certainly intriguing.

All this to say that Cuba is an interesting place, but it definitely still has a feel to it…a feel of another time, another era.

Would I go back? Yes, if I could spend more time in Havana and actually have a chance to talk to people, to see a home, to sit for a meal (which I understand is done fairly regularly).

So I guess I’ll just put it on my list—like I say, once to find out what you need to see and learn, and then to go back and do it.

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Turning off the lights

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Braille…the letters D & T

I’m always up for a good (or at least interesting) adventure, and if that adventure involves a meal, all the better.

But sometimes the meal is the adventure.

Imagine placing a forkful of food into your mouth, and not knowing what to expect?

For example, if you look down at a plate of chicken parmigiana, you see the breaded cutlet, covered in a rich red tomato sauce with little spikes of garlic and flakes of basil and oregano blended in (and you can tell the sauce has cooked for hours), a beautiful crust of mozzarella and Parmesan browned onto the top; some perfectly cooked linguine (maybe, in this case, covered in freshly made pesto, the earthy combination of the herb and the pine nuts coating the pasta); some broccolini to the side, dusted with bread crumbs and garlic butter and parm, and topped with the slightest shaving of lemon zest….a glass of red off to your right and a basket of garlic knots, dripping with oil and parsley and oh-so-much-garlic-but-who-cares-everyone-is-eating-them, resting squarely in the center of the table… (uh oh now I’m hungry….)

Take a forkful–what taste will you get?

If you can see it, you know what to expect.

But now imagine you can’t see any of it.  Sure, you have your sense of smell to rely on, but how would you know the chicken isn’t veal before you taste? Or turkey?  Would you be able to tell? Would you even know it was Parmesan, that the sauce on the pasta was pesto, or that there was lemon on the veg? How would you find those garlic knots??

Imagine if every meal was like that.

A new concept restaurant came to town last year, and I had the opportunity to try it out, not once, but twice.

It’s called Dark Table, and the entire dining experience is different.

The concept is to give people who are sighted the opportunity to experience, just for a little while, what it is like to move around in a world you can’t see.

Luckily for us, it’s a contained, controlled world.

I recruited three good friends–Candace, Deni and Jim–people I’d known and worked with for years–and Jim brought his friend Arnoud, and so we were a table of five to try the Dark Table experience.

From the outside, there’s not much to look at (but if you had no sight, would that matter?).

Standard office building doors, with blackout material on them so you can’t see in; we later learned you can’t see out either, which makes sense, given the theme and all.

The doors open to a small waiting/bar area where you can grab a glass of wine or a beer, peruse the menu, and wait for your friends to join you.  I guess you could do this alone, too, and it might really lend itself to a full sensory experience, as well as the feeling of solitude—what it’s like to be alone in a world of people who are sighted–but I’d recommend sharing the meal (and probably not as a first date).

The area, as I say, is not large, and not very brightly lit, and it’s a little jumbled as the other groups arrive and are settled.  But once your party is complete, everyone is asked to put everything—keys, jackets, phones, purses, everything–in individual lockers, with the key being the only thing you need to bring in.

Before heading in, diners select their meal choices (two courses or three—appetizer and main, main and dessert, or all three) from a menu that includes all the regular selections—beef, chicken, fish, vegetarian—and a daily surprise.  Who knows?  On my first visit (I’ve been twice now) I ordered a mushroom risotto with prawns.

Our server then came to take us to our table (all wait staff and kitchen workers are visually impaired). Placing right hands on the right shoulder of the person in front, we were led to our table.

The server described the space, guided us to our chairs, directed us to where the utensils and glasses were, and generally got us oriented.

Because it is dark.  Pitch dark.  Little eye masks are handed out, but there’s really no need to use them as it is virtually completely dark (ok, there is an exit light somewhere in the room, but my back was to it, so I saw nothing but darkness).

It’s a little disconcerting at first.  There’s noise coming from everywhere. A lot of noise.

But once the five of us were settled, we were able to spend some time listening to the people around us and trying to figure out what the room layout was by following the voices around us. Where was the kitchen?  Who was the loudest? Were the kids in the room? How many tables in front of us, how many behind? How big was the room?

Then we set about exploring.  We all touched the table, to feel its smooth and slightly curved edges.  Was it glass? Possibly, because it stayed cool to the touch.

I asked Jim, who was seated directly across from me, to place his hand in the middle of the table, so that we could get a sense of how wide the tables were.  We met in the middle and we rested our fingers on each other’s, discussing where our elbows were and how far we had to lean in. We moved them from side to side and then back to the middle. It was comforting to feel the warmth of a friend’s hand—a friend whose hand, I guess, I hadn’t so much as brushed against before this. Someone I had worked with for several years, yet here we were, connecting in this way for the first time; maybe this says more about workplace protocol and the friendships that develop than anything else.

So, at a few minutes into the experience, I would say the other senses kicked in…

Sounds: Some really interesting insights into how we hear, and more, importantly how we listen to each other.  When there’s so much else going on in your environment, you have to listen more closely to the person talking to you.  And you have to say their name, which immediately makes the conversation more personal.

It’s hard to tell what’s loud and what’s not.  Was this dining room especially loud, or louder than others? Or was it just because we were relying more on what we could hear? Were we yelling, or speaking quietly?  I didn’t know; I still don’t know.

Touch: It felt somehow more intimate to touch my friends out of need or desire to understand something. Like when Jim and I connected, when Deni passed my wine to me, she and I had to first find each other’s hands before she could pass my glass over.  Now, Deni and I have known each other quite a while, and we had seen each other a few months earlier and had a big hug to greet and another as we said our goodbyes, but this was different.  I needed to touch her, and so, in a weird way, it was a much more personal connection.

Smells: We had chosen a slightly later seating so as we were getting settled, some tables were being served their meals.  As plates passed by, we would get whiffs of incredibly rich meals, but, using the menu as we remembered it from outside, we still had difficulty assigning the options to the aromas.

A nose dropped into a glass wine took it well beyond the simple sniff-and-taste game that gets played when a bottle is uncorked at the table; layers of scents—oak, berries, earth—seemed more intense than ever.

Taste: Holy cow. Either the chef is a master (I’m sure he’s excellent, but…incredible? The best ever? I dunno) or simply the sensory experience of not knowing what to expect is enough to blow you away.

We started with a surprise appetizer, which we think was vegetable crisps with a dip—possibly a garlic aioli.  Every one of us inadvertently put our fingers into it at some point.  Tip: make sure everyone washes their hands before going in!  By then, we were all so into this that I don’t think any of us cared.

Salads were next, and while they were standard (you know, lettuce, some carrot shreds, cukes and a tomato), it’s still quite fascinating to follow your own reaction as you work to recognize the taste of the thing you’ve just put in your mouth, based not only on its flavour but also the texture, and to try to identify the ingredients in the dressing.

The main course? To die for.  The risotto was creamy, full of garlic and parmesan; it was buttery too, and the prawns were bursting with flavour.  I wanted to eat every bite, but was having trouble finding all the grains of rice and the last piece of shrimp, so I simply put down my fork and used my hands.  Who was gonna see? Tip: make sure to keep your napkin well-tucked; you are going to need it.

Dessert was good—not as great as the main course.  Some of us had tiramisu and others a lemon cheesecake (I got the cheesecake, which was good because I am not a big cold-coffee-taste fan).

Oh yes, and that wine with the lovely bouquet?  That was pretty good too.

So, by the time we finished, we were the last table in the dining room—we could tell, by then, that the sounds of the kitchen were different than those of the diners, and that, beyond our conversation, they were the only other sounds to be heard.

Just before we went out, we discussed how long we thought we’d been in there—remember we didn’t have our phones or watches.  Our guesses ranged from two and half to three hours…we went in at 7, so figured it to be 9:30 or 10 pm.

It was 9:10. So although our other senses were heightened, we had lost track of time.

I did this again, with another group of friends, and although I ordered the “Daily Surprise” (they don’t tell you what you’re getting), I wasn’t very surprised by any of it.  I knew what to expect, and I think that changed a lot of my perceptions, and my perspective. It was seemed very busy and much, much louder—again, I am not sure whether this was because the concept had caught on and the room was fuller, or if how I was listening and hearing things was different. I can’t say. I know my dining buddies all loved it.

Would I do it again?  I’m not sure…but if you haven’t done it, give it a try.  By losing your sight for a little while, you’ll open your eyes to a world you might not ever have the opportunity to experience and understand.

 

Remembering…and thanking someone I’ve never met

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Kissing Rock on Shelter Island, NY

I was five when President Kennedy died.

I don’t remember the actual event itself, exactly, but I do remember sitting cross legged on the floor of our house in a Chicago suburb, watching the black and white images of the funeral cortege, and later the funeral itself, and thinking that all of this was making my parents very, very sad.

I remember the little boy—his son—who stepped forward and saluted his father’s casket.

And I remember when that little boy died, decades later.

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Springing into Fall

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Well, here we are…..the end of another season, and the beginning of the next.

I usually find that, right around now, I begin to think of the things I didn’t do/didn’t get to do over the summer:

  • I didn’t lose weight; in fact; I gained;
  • That means I didn’t get into the handful of “goal” outfits I brought out as incentives. Now they’ll get shoved back into the back of the summer closet. Again;
  • I didn’t stick my toes in the sand. Not once, and I was near the beach too.
  • I didn’t get all the photos scanned from my photo albums (I had planned for a
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    My bro & me, circa ’63

    “Grand Scan” to be completed by now—I’d say I’m about 25% there…but I will also say it’s been a lot of fun to look at all the photos);

  • I didn’t manage to avoid the forest fire smoke from British Columbia (but can only imagine how bad it is/was there when it was at the top of the scale here).

What did I get done?

 

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I saw the light

 

(be patient and don’t blink or you’ll miss it)

It’s dusk on a steamy August weeknight.  The day had been overly hot and overly muggy—and I feel hotter and clammier than I can remember in a long time—like there’s a sheen of sweat all over me.  I’m walking across the backyard in my bare feet, and I know I’m going to regret this when I start to count the mosquito bites on my ankles in the morning. God, they’re gonna itch—but they’re better than ticks, which I’ll have to check for as soon as I go back inside.

I step on the occasional stick and the occasionally sticky thing as I make my way to the woods in the deeper shadows at the back of the yard. The moon will rise over the ocean soon, and it’s going to be full, casting a whole other light onto the night.

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By the time we got to Woodstock….

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

Four days and 49 years ago, a festival dropped in on upstate New York.

Depending on who tells the story, somewhere between 400 thousand and half a million people turned up to watch three days of music, get a little high (a little?!) and wallow in the mud in a summer that had seen, just a few weeks earlier, Chappaquiddick and then a man walk on the moon for the very first time. (Later that year—a year in which Richard Nixon was serving his first term as president, the New York Mets would win the World Series.  That’s the sort of crazy year it was…)

But what’s a hundred thousand when you’re all there for the same reason?

Continue reading “By the time we got to Woodstock….”

Elegy to a furbag

She had perfect hair, and that’s saying something.  It was medium length, mostly medium brown, with highlights of grey-black and ginger and even some light…light that could have been blond or could have been white.  And, soft?  It had the most flawless texture—hard to imagine hair so soft.

Her eyes?  The most beautiful eyes, almond-shaped and a shade of green like the colour of emeralds that sparkled in the right light.  Her eyeliner, a think black rim around the top and the bottom, was perfection.

Her feet were tiny by anyone’s standards and her nails were most always clean, neat and dainty.

Until she dug them into your knee or the leather couch.

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Yoga in the barnyard…..or…you have goat to be kidding me.i

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(sorry, that was the best pun I could muster—it’s not as easy as you think)

It was late on a Sunday morning climbing towards noon as I drove up a rural highway I hadn’t traveled in years.  The sky was light blue and tinged with wisps of high white clouds, and the first hints of the forest fires on the other side of the Rockies obscured the mountain range and brought a haze to the fields surrounding the road as I headed north.

The fields themselves were mostly varying shades of green, alternating from bright to dark to something in the middle; scattered about was the occasional patch of dirt or an incredibly bright yellow triangle highlighting the canola flowers just beginning to bloom.

It was hot, and going to get hotter, but I shut off the AC, turned down the radio and opened the windows to take in the sounds and the smells of the countryside.

Continue reading “Yoga in the barnyard…..or…you have goat to be kidding me.i”

He’s the Man: Watching Joe Jackson, again, for real….

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I can’t believe I’ve lived in Calgary for as long as I have and have never, ever been to the Folk Music Festival.  Not sure exactly why–time of year, crowds and the inherent hassle that comes with a big event (not that that’s stopped me before), a lineup that hasn’t stopped me in my tracks–you know–the kind of acts where you say–that’s nice, but is it worth the effort?

So this year, when the lineup was announced, I took a look, as I always do, and one of the headliners caught my eye.

Joe Jackson.  No, no relation to Michael, as I had to explain to my mother.  Joe Jackson, the British blues-jazz-new wave-all around talented musician.

It wouldn’t be first time I’d seen him…

Continue reading “He’s the Man: Watching Joe Jackson, again, for real….”