Rubber Duckies: Back at Sea

Note: This post was first published as “Rubber Duckies and the Road Ahead” in August 2016; it has been revised slightly and updated to reflect new information about the continuing duck craze!

Several years ago I wrote a column about rubber duckies, discussing the pervasive fascination with that familiar childhood bathtub toy. Who doesn’t love a rubber duck?

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A personalized rubber duckie was one of the first gifts I bought for my grandson — that turned into a progression (and a collection) of rubber duckies of various colors and costumes. The obsession spilled over into gifts for my then high-school-teacher son (Professor Duck) and various other family members, and ducks for each succeeding holiday. Then, like other enthusiasms, my duck-gifting phase ran its course to echoes of “Enough, Mom, enough.” 

Rubber Duckies are available in all sizes, a few varied shapes, numerous colors and with all sorts of “costumes” and personalities.  However, the perennial favorite is still the yellow version, with bright orange bill and black eyes. Many collections feature “one of a kind” or limited-edition duckies; Stories are circulated about duck adventures, and tales are told of lost or rescued ducks.  Ducks are used in NASA glacier-tracking experiments, and there are still sightings of some of the group of “globe-trotting” ducks that “jumped ship” in the Pacific in January of 1992.  Really.

Rubber Duck Races, generally to benefit local charities, are held from Seattle to the Ozarks, from Washington, D.C., to Crested Butte, from Texas to Tahoe.  One of the largest duck races is in Hawaii, and some of the most informal are held in small town creeks, canals and even in swimming pools.

I am still tempted when I see an especially appealing little duck in a store window. And I gasped with delight at news photographs of a giant rubber duck making its way through Lake Superior at a Tall Ships Festival in Duluth, Minn. In August of this year, a 25-foot-tall mystery duck with the word “JOY” emblazoned on its chest appeared mysteriously, to the delight of local residents, in the harbor in Belfast, Me. Then, just as mysteriously, it disappeared.

So, imagine my surprise when I encountered a stylized rubber “duckie” with mane and tail in the middle of Virginia horse country during a summer road trip.

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I was immediately smitten, not only with the little rubber horsie that perched on the edge of the Lexington motel room bathtub, but with the motel itself. After the whoops and the grins — and the picture-taking — I thought about the marketing genius that played to the playfulness of tired travelers.

The clerk was accommodating, more than willing to let us pick a mate for our little rubber traveling companion, only exacting a promise that we would honor the commitment to snap pictures as we traveled on. That we did, and the little horsie-ducks happily sat on the dashboard — a pair of cute mascots — for the next 3,000 or so miles of our journey. They traveled through city traffic, along country roads, into Quebec and Ontario, skirted along several of the Great Lakes and sat under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. It proved, I think, that we are never too old for a little silliness in our lives.

Our little companions abandoned their perch on the dashboard when the temperature soared regularly above 100 degrees back home in Texas. But they accompanied us on several other adventures; today they spend most of their time perched happily on a shelf in my office, joined by a sizable “paddling” of ducks collected from many places over the years.

Just recently, during a quick weekend visit to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, The Bridgeford House, a charming B&B, had a pair of ducks perched on the edge of the jetted tub in our bathroom. I was delighted, but I allowed them to stay to greet future guests.

Rubber ducks on cruise ships, some with “passports” and others with “tickets” and messages from previous owners were regularly hidden on cruise ships prior to the cessation of cruising in early 2020 due to the pandemic. They had gained a large following aboard major cruise lines. Now, we understand, the craze has gained new life, and there are numerous cruising ducks pages on Facebook. It’s a phenomenon of the times, with a number of spinoffs — crocheted ducks, duck jewelry and key chains, duck towels and duck art — for fun-loving “adult children” at sea and on land.

Some cruise lines have embraced the fun, selling ducks and duck-themed gifts in onboard shops. And some crew members are enthusiastic collectors as well! Rubber duckies don’t take up much space or make a mess; they are exceedingly patient and compliant travelers, requiring no special accommodations or food. But they did, do and will continue to make us smile! So, if you come across a duck in your travels, feel free to to befriend it and take it home. Or let it remain in its hiding place to bring a smile to another face. Post a photo on one of the online groups, if you choose, or rehide it to give someone else the pleasure of finding it. Release your inner child, and just enjoy the experience. I have only found one duck on board a ship, but you can bet I’ll be keeping my eyes open next time I sail.

*Multicolored duck photo by Jo Naylor/Flickr; others by Adrienne Cohen; The motel was the Comfort Inn Virginia Horse Center, Lexington, VA, and The Bridgeford House B&B is located at 263 Spring St., Eureka Springs, AR.

Ring those bells . . .

A random Facebook post from a faraway friend captured my imagination this past week. And now it has become a “cause” because I can’t seem to help getting caught up in grand ideas that are designed to bring people together in quirky, frivolous ways. Great things often come from small and simple acts. This time it seems a lot of others have joined in with enthusiasm. I hope it lasts, and I hope it grows.

It has been reported that the effort was begun by a housewife and “mum” in the U.K. who thought it would be a good memory for her children in years to come. I learned about it via several Facebook posts, among them one from a relative in Norway; and the word is spreading fast!

Just as the balcony singing across Italy seemed so spontaneous and emotionally uplifting in the terrible, early days of the pandemic, this recent request for citizens of the world to gather on their front porches at 6 p.m. Christmas Eve strikes an emotional chord with me. I want to be a part of it. I want to hear bells ringing from every doorstep on my street. Then I want to watch the television news coverage of bells ringing in other time zones and in other nations. It will restore my faith that people everywhere — from Capetown to Chicago, From Anchorage to Ankara, from Dublin to Denver are more alike than they are different, in the words of Maya Angelou. I want to celebrate with those people on apartment balconies and front porches all across the world. I am gathering up my bells!

Does anyone remember Hands Across America?

It was 1986. It was a BIG IDEA. Organized by USA for Africa, the same organization that produced the star-studded video concert We Are the World in 1985, Hands Across America was designed to underscore the need for funding to fight devastating famine in Africa, and also to address hunger and homelessness in the U.S.

The thought of people from all walks of life clasping hands to form a human chain stretching from the West Coast to the East to highlight the plight of those who needed help was more than I could resist. I became an early supporter. It was conceived as a benefit effort, not only to address problems but to be a ray of hope for those who had little else to sustain them. The 80s were difficult times for many Americans and for the world, although the sting of those years has faded over time.

The route was designated and mapped, and for a small donation, individuals were assigned a place to be at a specific hour — 3 p.m. Eastern time, May 25, or noon Pacific time. It was a Sunday. I gathered up my family, including my husband and young son plus several equally spirited friends. We drove about 30 minutes to be at our designated spot along a highway not far from our suburban Dallas neighborhood. We arrived shortly before 2 p.m. to find only a few others scattered along the roadway. I remember being somewhat disappointed that the crowd wasn’t as large as I had hoped.

But, as happened in other communities, we joined hands at the appointed hour and stood in solidarity under the Texas sun for a cause that was born from a dream, a cause we believed had the potential to change the world. We stretched our line along the roadway as far as possible. It was reported that there were breaks in the line throughout the nation, but in a cornfield in Iowa, in the geographic center of the United States, 16,000 people gathered. There were throngs in New York, in California, and in Indianapolis, where the Indy 500 was rained out but people stood in the rain for another reason.

It is said that long-haul truckers honked as they passed the lines along the country’s highways. It is said that a few stopped and joined the chain for brief moments. In some small towns, church bells rang out as neighbors gathered along their streets, one hand in another. And anyone who participated felt uplifted by it all.

President Ronald Reagan joined hands with others at the White House and then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill brought the U.S. Capitol into the chain. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton joined in in Little Rock, and scores of entertainers lent their names and their support to the effort. A theme song, Hands Across America, was broadcast simultaneously from radio stations coast to coast. For 15 minutes or so on one day in 1986, millions of people came together in a most unusual way.

Even though the actual human chain did not span the 3,000 plus miles as intended, it is estimated that more than five million individuals participated, perhaps as many as 6.5 million. Though there were empty spots along the route, it is also said that if those who joined the effort could have been equally spaced, the line would have stretched from coast to coast, and the effort was termed a success by the organizers, raising more than $15 million after expenses. Many of the participants donated more than the stipulated fee for the privilege of joining total strangers to see an audacious idea take shape.

So it is this year. It’s an outrageous request to ask people across the globe to step onto their front porches Christmas eve to perform a symbolic act — “to spread Christmas spirit and help Santa fly his sleigh” — with no thought of reward. But it’s also inspiring, isn’t it?

I want to hear bells echoing throughout my neighborhood the evening of December 24, and I want to see news reports of millions of people in scores of other countries shaking their own bells with an energy that could change the world.

Is that too fanciful a dream? Perhaps, but I hope not. Even if it doesn’t shake the world, perhaps it can open hearts, spark a new hopefulness, contribute to a happier holiday, and become the source of lasting smiles for many who have precious little to smile about this year.

So, enlist your neighbors, spread the word to friends and family, join neighborhood and online groups that are springing up to support what has become known as “The Christmas Eve Jingle 2020.”

Get those bells ready!

At the very least, perhaps it will be a fond memory, and provide a unique story for future grandmothers to tell their grandchildren in years to come.

We all know that 2020 has been a tough year. We all want the coming year to be better. And, no matter what holiday or holy day one celebrates this December, the year is coming to an end. Each of us must now look ahead to 2021. We cannot escape the passage of time, and we cannot turn back the calendar to a date that was more pleasant or more “normal.” All we can do is move on, so why not begin the process of moving ahead with a bell in each hand and new purpose in our hearts? It’s up to each one of us to make a difference.

I believe in hope and I know that we could all use a new measure of hope this season.

I remember Hands Across America, I remember We Are the World, and I want to be a witness as another Big Idea comes alive!

The art of sipping port

The mention of Port Wine has always, for me, prompted a vision of wood-paneled rooms filled with leather settees and impeccably-groomed men holding a glass in one hand and a cigar in the other. It’s a movie-set vision, I know.

Port still seems a bit mysterious. Like sherry, it has never really been a mainstream experience for most Americans. I was aware that port was produced in Portugal, while sherry is associated with Spain, but I knew little else. So, when my traveling companions and I had the opportunity to take part in a port tasting on a rainy day, we seized it. We were in Cascais, a delightful seaside city not far from Lisbon.

Port is produced only in a specific region in the country, and its designation is strictly regulated. Bottled in several varieties, there are expensive aged ports and sought-after vintages, but surprisingly smooth, rich and reasonably-priced options are also available. Stringent standards govern a port’s bottling and labeling. But all true port wine comes from the Douro Valley of northern Portugal. It bears what is termed a “controlled” appellation. Although other regions produce liqueurs and similar fortified wines, true port is distinctive and distinctively satisfying.

My brief experience in the tasting room certainly does not bestow expert status, but I feel confident that I would not embarrass myself by ordering an after-dinner port in a restaurant. For me, that’s a triumph. I also know now why so many people enjoy sipping port. I have a favorite, but the four different varieties we sampled were all pleasant. To my surprise, I learned that there is white port; and that it is, indeed, very good.

The cool, drizzly day presented us an opportunity to cozy up in a wine bar in the all-but-deserted marina area of Cascais. The proprietor beckoned us in, offering temporary shelter from approaching dark clouds. Within minutes, places were set, bottles arranged, and the learning commenced.

The tasting became a highlight of our two-week driving trip through Portugal. When we returned home, one of our first purchases was a bottle of Tawny Port. We savored it, both for its taste and for the memories it evoked.

A European trip the previous year filled in some gaps in my knowledge about sherry during a tasting and cooking class in the Spanish city of Jerez. I remember that experience fondly as well. Today, bottles of the two unique fortified wines share space in my home’s cocktail bar, offered as complements to good food and good times shared regularly with friends.

One of the best reasons for traveling, of course, has always been to experience new things. The tastes of new and previously unfamiliar food and drink rank every bit as high on my list as visual adventures. Even though, today, there is a temporary hold on my travel plans, the enjoyment lingers, the memories are sweet and fresh, and sharing past experiences keeps every recollection alive.

Oysters . . . and other Adriatic adventures

I had never developed an appreciation for raw oysters; nor for oyster stew or oyster stuffing at Thanksgiving, for that matter.

I have been known to order Oysters Rockefeller because that seems a “classy” choice at an upscale restaurant, on the same culinary level as escargot or whole artichokes. I love showy foods, and I admit that I enjoy demonstrating that I know how to deal with such dishes. I have, on occasion, skewered a salty, smoked oyster for a cracker.

But as for raw oysters. No, thank you. I do not love oysters.

My husband, on the other hand, enjoys oysters any way they’re served, but preferably right in the shell, cold, salty and fresh from the sea.

It was a preference he worked hard to cultivate, ordering oysters on the half shell several times in his early 20s. He initially discovered that the slippery oysters didn’t slide so easily down his throat, no matter how much he tried to disguise them with cocktail sauce and and Tabasco. Those first few times, he admits, were less than pleasant experiences.

But he persevered. At a tiny cafe in Brittany, with a view of the oyster fields just out the window, he ordered an oyster. One fresh-from-the-Atlantic oyster. The lone half shell on ice, accompanied by lemon and course sea salt, was brought to the table with a flourish by an ever-so-proper French waiter. It prompted curious smiles from those seated at nearby tables.

The waiter stood by expectantly, awaiting a reaction.

I was there, cheering him on.

Other diners also waited, and nodded approval as he downed that first cool slippery oyster. It was a personal triumph. And it started a trend. He has since ordered oysters in Maine, in numerous Gulf Coast eateries, and in fine restaurants in cities across the globe. He does, you see, love oysters.

After many years, we returned to that same restaurant in Cancale, France. It had changed a bit over the years, but the oyster fields are still the same, and this time my husband ordered a half dozen and enjoyed every one. In fact, he considered ordering another half dozen.

Today, he rarely passes on the opportunity to order oysters on the half shell when we’re near an ocean that allows them to be delivered fresh and cold from their habitat. He still asks for extra horseradish and hot sauce.

I resisted for the longest time, until we visited the Adriatic three years ago. Sitting on the open deck of a vessel anchored only feet from the oyster beds, I was prepared to enjoy the local fare along with the white wine promised as part of a half-day excursion from Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I had planned to say no to the oysters. But I was curiously enthralled as I watched the servers expertly open the shells and plate up the briny treats. Before I took much time to think about it, I was repeating “I can do this” to myself. I accepted my plate with a bit of trepidation, but I knew my mate would help me out if I couldn’t finish my share.

I sprinkled the smallest oyster with lemon juice, added just a drop of Tabasco, and closed my eyes. My first sensation was memorable. I sensed the cold, and tasted the sea. Then I swallowed. It was a whole new reality.

I actually liked the sensation. I was pleasantly surprised by the silky texture, the intense fresh flavor, and the saltiness. I felt close to the sea and its bounty in profound ways.

It was a lesson. It was delicious. It was unforgettable. Not only was it an eye-opening confirmation of the bounties of the sea, but it was the beginning of a love affair with Croatia. The time we spent there was all too short. Last November we returned to see more of the country.

I did not sample any more oysters, but I did partake, willingly, of other Croatian treats! The food is special, as are the people. To say we loved our two short visits to Croatia is an understatement. I still have no great love for oysters, but Croatia captured our hearts. This Thanksgiving I cannot help but think again of those trips.

I am thankful that we took those trips when we did. When the world is once again healed, we will return. I look forward to it.

And I am sure there will be more stories to tell.

Faraway and the here & now

As a child, I was captivated by people who lived lives very different from my own, and by the sounds of words spoken to a different cadence. The pull of the unfamiliar was strong. I do not remember a time when I didn’t want to experience far away places.  I never outgrew the wanderlust. Today, the sound of a foreign language is still music to my ears and the promise of a trip is reason enough to pack up.

And speaking of music . . .

I knew the words to this popular song from the 1940s from an early age, and I still hum the tune occasionally.

“Far Away Places” has been a kind of theme song for me for as long as I can remember. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the name of of my blog!

And those strange-sounding names; oh, yes! They still beckon, more now that I realize my traveling days have been temporarily suspended by the nasty Coronavirus.

A chance mention recently of Dame Vera Lynn brought back all those early memories. The wartime “darling” of servicemen and their families during WWII just celebrated her 103rd birthday. She used the occasion to take to the airwaves, releasing a video urging British citizens to “keep smiling and keep singing.”

It’s quite extraordinary!

The haunting melodies and poignant words of her music characterized wartime separation, with words such as “Please say hello to the folks that I know. . .” and “don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again.” Also, “It’s so hard to say goodbye.”

Classics of the time include “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “A Nightengale Sang in Berkeley Square,” “When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World,” along with “We’ll Meet Again,” “Far Away Places,” “Lili Marlene” and many others. So, today, when we face a future with a different kind of uncertainly, and we are newly and unhappily physically separated from family and friends, it seemed appropriate to play a lot of Vera Lynn melodies as I sit working from home — alone — at my computer.

Vera Lynn is still strikingly attractive and, from all reports, still healthy. She’s a remarkable lady, as I learned, topping the UK Albums Chart at the age of 92 with a new release of old favorites entitled “We’ll Meet Again.” At the age of 97, in 2014, her music once again scored a Number One hit with the collection “Vera Lynn, National Treasure.”

During the war years, Vera Lynn had a radio program and toured India, Burma and Egypt to entertain British troops. In later years, she became involved with various charities, including those benefiting ex-servicemen, disabled children and breast cancer. Her last public performance was outside Buckingham Palace in 1995 as part of the golden anniversary celebration of VE Day, and she sang again that evening at a public performance in London’s Hyde Park.

If you want to see her in action at a 1990 Royal Variety Performance, just click here.

In addition to a long list of honors for her efforts, in 1975 she was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.

So, here’s to Dame Vera Lynn for taking me on a trip today, not only down memory lane, but also into a world of hope, just as she did for so many during those long ago war years. Let’s all act with the conviction that all will turn out well, and that we’ll all meet again in better days, to share good times and good food in faraway places.

After the storm . . .

Our Boater’s Diary, dated Sunday, April 12, 2009, contains the following entry:

We did 512 [nautical] miles in the Abacos from the time we left here — quite something! We’re back where we started one month and two days ago — oh, the stories we can tell.

The “here” in that entry was Old Bahama Bay Marina, West End, Grand Bahama Island, then a frequent first stop for Bahamas-bound boaters. Our journey had begun in Palm Beach on March 10, as we set a course east across the Gulf Stream at 7:30 a.m. and left the beachfront high-rise condos of Palm Beach behind. We arrived a little after 3 p.m., and our adventure in a completely different world began.

It has been more than a decade now since my husband and I cruised the northern waters of the Bahamas. Our history with the island chain extends back further than that, however, and our memory bank is full of the good times we had, the places we traveled, the people we met.

And then Dorian pummeled those places that we enjoyed so much and remember so well.

I cannot even imagine the force, power, and destructive energy that accompany a Cat 5 hurricane. We were there during some heavy rainstorms; we weathered some rough seas, with stronger winds than were really comfortable, even on a sturdy motoryacht. But never did we face hurricane force gusts; no storms pounded us with heavy rain for more than 30 hours without a break, nor did we encounter flooding.

I have never personally experienced a major disaster, natural or otherwise. But over the course of many years spent on the water, in vessels small and large, I have seen weather in many forms, and I know how quickly conditions can change. I have known fear, and weathered unexpected squalls with high winds, rough seas and accompanying discomfort. But I have never experienced raw terror.

The sparsely populated, small northern islands of the Bahamas are isolated and uniquely beautiful. Surrounding seas have unpredictable currents, and are generally shallow. Boaters must be diligent when plotting courses, selecting anchorages, and navigating shoals. And then there is the weather. Squalls form quickly in the islands. Typically, they pass quickly as well, but not always.

And, sadly, islands have distinct limitations for leaving quickly when weather conditions turn threatening.

Today, hearing the names of the cities and towns, cays and harbors that have been largely destroyed brings tears: Green Turtle Cay, Treasure Cay, Great Guana Cay, Baker’s Bay, Hope Town, Marsh Harbour, Freeport, West End. And then there are the outlying islands whose names I did not note in the log. Which, if any, of those have survived unchanged?

The wonder of it all is that other islands of the chain suffered minimal damage. Nassau, the capital and currently the staging center for evacuation, damage assessment and recovery efforts, was spared the brunt of the storm. The world is responding to the need for assistance.

Chef Jose Andres has set up shop in Nassau to prepare meals needed by survivors and rescuers. As we have witnessed following other natural disasters, generosity is once again apparent], with private vessels, individuals, governmental agencies, and non-profits all offering aid in diverse forms and limitless amounts.

The U.S. Coast Guard, as always, is on the scene, and major cruise lines have pledged not only money, but ships and crew to help deliver relief supplies, food and medical necessities.

As news photos of the destruction become available, I cannot help but review some of my pictures of the time we spent cruising those waters. The sadness grows as I realize that my images reflect a time that may never come again. But, Bahamian citizens are strong and resilient and I am certain that, in time, the cities and towns will be rebuilt. I look forward to the time when, once again, marinas will be filled with private vessels and smiling people enjoying life and good times in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

In the meantime, donations to agencies offering aid are welcomed.

I understand the sun is shining once again in Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island, and that tiny Hope Town once again may live up to its name. I have not learned the fate of the red and white lighthouse that has stood there since 1862, one of the last kerosene-fueled, manually-operated navigational lighthouses in the world. I climbed to the top of it 10 years ago and savored the view surrounding Elbow Cay. I hope it will still be there if, and when, I am lucky enough to return.

Prime Minister Hubert Minnis expects the death toll to rise over the coming days, and notes that up to 60 percent of the homes in Marsh Harbour, the largest city in the area, have been destroyed. Airports are unusable and life will not return to “normal” for a long while, if ever.

And now, the massive, slow-moving hurricane has turned toward the Outer Banks along the eastern shore of the United States. We can only hope that residents heeded the calls to evacuate and that damage will not be as extensive as currently feared.

Just as a postscript, our return to Florida 10 years ago was delayed for three full days because of stormy weather. We were relatively comfortable at Old Bahama Bay Marina, surrounded by other mariners who also longed to set sail for other places. Finally, on April 15, we did just that. On the crossing, we were boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard; but that’s another story entirely.

The log notes:

“It was quite a crossing. After last night’s storm, it was a bit nervewrackng to check the weather forecast this morning and find that the prediction was for stronger winds from a different direction and more chop than we would have liked. But the weather is supposed to deteriorate again for the next several days, so we are taking our ‘window’ and leaving — as are most other boats, whether they’re heading east or west. We made the cabin secure and watched the power boat ahead of us bob and sway — and we followed.”

Our journey back to Florida spanned eight full hours, until we dropped anchor in the calm waters of Manatee Pocket in Stuart.

We remember it well.

Excursions to the ends of the earth . . .

There is something infinitely exciting — energizing and dream-worthy — about standing on those spots that have been associated with the ends of the known world, the jumping off places for exploration, or the remote repositories of forgotten knowledge.

There are enough of those sites on our globe to satisfy even the most inveterate traveler; I confess that I harbor a penchant for visiting those spots. I especially like standing by the sea and looking into the distance, imagining what it must have been like to step into a journey beyond the boundaries of existing knowledge.

Finding the faraway

It was with that in mind that our group set off from our rental villa in Albufeira, Portugal, to visit the small town of Sagres. Located at the very tip of the Iberian peninsula, Sagres is a storied gateway to the beyond. Once home to a school run by Prince Henry the Navigator, a lighthouse now operates on a nearby point that is the most southwestern tip of land in all of Europe. In Prince Henry’s day, the navigational guiding light was still far in the future; at the time, there was a Franciscan monastery.

It’s my my kind of place, and I can imagine all the voyages, and voyagers, who have passed by over the centuries. As the waves of the Atlantic far below pound the cliffs, I thought of the dreams those early explorers must have held, and the motivation that propelled them to sail on.

The drive from Sagres to the lighthouse is a short one, and there are throngs of visitors, even on windy days. Enthusiastic, able-bodied adventurers make their way to the bottom of 60-foot cliffs to surf the crashing waves. There is little else to see, except for the crumbling walls of a long-abandoned fortification. Near the lighthouse, souvenir sellers set up temporary booths to hawk key chains, postcards, t-shirts, pottery, bottle stoppers, sweaters, baseball caps and assorted “end of the earth” souvenirs. It’s quite a spectacle.

Cabo Sao Vicente

As the travel brochures attest, the spit of land where the lighthouse sits is wild and windswept, and high above the sea. Views are mesmerizing. Built in 1846 on the lonely promontory, it is said that the light itself can be seen from approximately 50 kilometers out to sea. Today, it is automated, and the beacon still guides commercial tankers, shipping vessels, cruise ships and fishermen arriving from far away, those who travel the coastline of Europe and Africa, and those bound for Gibraltar and the Mediterranean. The former monastery was badly damaged by earthquake in 1755 and never rebuilt.

It was chilly and breezy the day we visited, but we gazed in every direction out to sea, before taking our leave. Somehow, it felt as if we had actually arrived at one end of the world!

Back in Sagres at midday, our hunger demanded that we seek out a local eatery. Once again, as always in Portugal, we were in no way disappointed by our choice! ASagres Restaurante offered just the right kind of welcome, with a casual ambience, smiling proprietors, delicious food and a friendly mix of locals and tourists. We sampled local wines, filled up on fresh-caught seafood, and had a wonderful time, perfectly happy to let lunch go on for hours!

Afterward, we wandered the small town for a bit, before heading back to our temporary home base in Albufeira.

Cabo da Roca

Later in our journey, and further north in Portugal, west of Lisbon, we had another occasion to venture out from Cascais to a different edge-of-the-world location. We went with the intent of visiting Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe. Unfortunately, the day was cool and drizzly. By the time we made our way along the narrow, winding coastal road, the fog was so thick we could barely see 20 feet in front of our vehicle.

We did see the sign pointing to the lighthouse and the Cape, but because we were unfamiliar with the road, and because we knew the point lay on another high headland above the sea, we decided to forego that particular adventure. Instead, once again, we were drawn to a tempting small cafe situated right on the highway. Again, we made a fortuitous choice. At 3 Gomes Restaurante, we enjoyed a longer-than-planned lunch, warmed by a blazing fire and a roomful of people enjoying good times and good food together.

Often, it’s the unexpected choices that are, by far, the most memorable. I had a chance to sample fresh-caught octopus, and traded bites for samples of the grilled lamb and seafood stew that my traveling companions had ordered. It was actually another perfect day, despite the fog. And it was another time we felt no need for dinner!

More thoughts about Cuba

Note: Today is Election Day; the midterm elections in the United States have been much in my mind over the last week as I attempted to gather my thoughts about my recent short visit to Havana. On my way to vote this morning, I remembered how one young Cuban attempted to explain his country’s elections. They are very different from ours. This CGTN America explanation of the recent Cuban election (and an overall view of the electoral process in Cuba) is an interesting overview. CGTN is one of many international news channels run by China Media Group.

“It’s complicated.”

I can’t count the number of times we heard that phrase during our 12 hours in Havana.

Since returning from this eye-opening trip two weeks ago, I have been talking about it frequently, thinking about it constantly, trying to organize my experience into an orderly patchwork quilt of impressions.

It isn’t anywhere near complete.

The pervasive reality is that Cuba is at a crossroads, buffeted by winds not of its making. Change is in the air, even though there is no consensus about the direction of that change, or about how and when it will manifest to create a new climate for the country and its 11.5 million people.

We asked a lot of questions. We were, in many ways, surprised by the answers, even more surprised that those we met were open about their views and willing to answer all our questions.

They were eager to speak with Americans. We were eager to listen.

But, it’s complicated.

We wanted a capsule view of what daily life is like in Cuba. We didn’t get that. What we realized is that individual lifestyles vary within Cuba just as they do in the United States. Somehow, I had not expected that. I was hoping my impressions of Cuba would be easier to sort through. I expected a sort of sameness from this Communist country. That is not at all the case.

Much of the city is beautiful, if old and somewhat unkempt. Other areas are modern. City squares and broad avenues boast art and sculpture, color and design. There are parks, and people flock to them. It’s a city made for walking; however, old cobblestones, narrow streets and many people can make it difficult. There are construction cranes, scaffolds and workers everywhere; and much of the work involves modernizing historic buildings.

The cadence of life

Fidel Castro, we learned, is still very much a force of daily life, even though he died two years ago, November 25, 2016. It was eight years earlier that he resigned as president, ceding the reins of power to his brother Raul. Now, Raul has stepped down and there is a new president, elected just last year. He had no opposition.

Fidel posters and other reminders of the revolution are still everywhere. Fidel — yes, first name only — is spoken of as a sort of  kindly uncle by some who were born after the revolution and grew up in his shadow. His presence was — and still is — pervasive. We heard alternately that he was a “tough” man, and the “savior” of his country. But his name is spoken with a mixture of awe and fondness.

We were told that he enriched the lives of farmers and city dwellers alike. We were told that he cared about the poor people, and that Cuban citizens would not be as well off today had it not been for the influence of Fidel Castro. We were told that although they are poor, the Cuban people have health and family, food, shelter and education because of Fidel.

We were told that Fidel did not seek power for himself; and it has been written that he did not want a “cult of personality” to surround his memory.

His ashes are entombed in a simple, but impressive 10-foot-tall boulder in Santiago, in a cemetery that he shares with the first president of Cuba, along with other well-known citizens. It is at the eastern end of the island near his family home, and there is a metal plaque that reads simply “Fidel.”

However, Cuban citizens, tourists and world leaders alike visit the site regularly, sometimes as many as 4,000 a day. Every 30 minutes, there is a military ceremony, a changing of the guard, that honors both Fidel Castro and 19th-Century Cuban patriot and revolutionary Jose Marti.

The reality of Cuba today

Young people we met recount the history of their country accurately and easily. Events from two or three decades before their births seem very real to them. They also speak of Cuba’s earlier history with pride, and most argue that, despite its imperfections, life is better today than it was prior to Fidel, even though those we met did not live through their country’s revolution.

Some older citizens were perhaps a bit more guarded in their responses to our questions, but still quite forthcoming about their lives.

Cuba is a poor country, as they freely acknowledge, but a proud one. Food, shelter, medical care and education are provided. Family is important. Material wealth, they claim, is not. Crime is almost non-existent; drug use is low, but punishment can be stiff.

Tourist trade in Cuba is big business. Today, we were told, Americans constitute the majority of foreign visitors. Surprised? We were! Everyone we met was welcoming — helpful and congenial, often greeting us with smiles and wishes for a good day.

One older woman asked, in Spanish, if I was American. When I answered yes, she took my hand and thanked me for coming.

It’s complicated.

Reuters reported this week that Cuba’s economic growth forecast has been lowered to just one percent for the year, and that austerity measures are to be instituted. Lower than expected revenues from tourism are partially responsible, but so is a decline in GDP income from sugar and mining. Trade uncertainties exist between Cuba and Venezuela, and economic growth is uncertain.

Additional observations and insights

English is taught in school to even the youngest children. We neglected to ask about other languages. There is no obvious language barrier.

News is filtered, according to our guides, even though it may not be directly censored. “We hear only bad news about the United States,” said one. Another told us of a relative who lives in Houston, and of how he would like to visit. Although it is not prohibited, he added, visas and monetary regulations make travel cumbersome, expensive and unlikely. Still, he said, he hopes one day to be able to travel beyond Cuba’s borders.

Cubans have cell phones, but they may often be without toilet paper. They enjoy afternoon mojitos , but they may have to do without water, for both drinking and other household use. A trip by bus between Havana and the eastern end of the island can take 20 hours.100_1303 (2)

“We do not have cars,” explained our guide when we asked about finding parking places in crowded Havana. And those vintage American cars: They are not often privately owned, said our driver. There are many ways to get around, though.

In fact, the red Thunderbird that we enjoyed during our afternoon tour is normally a taxi and will be out of service next month for repairs. That, unfortunately, means that our driver will be out of a job until the refurbishment is completed. He is not worried; his basic needs will be taken care of as always.

The state provides for those basic needs, but shelves are often devoid of even routine products to meet those needs. Rationing of food staples is a way of life. Foreign goods are rare, said another person: “What we buy is produced here in Cuba.

A number of products are exported. Rum, cigars, coffee and sugar, for sure; we guessed at the rest — citrus fruits, rice, corn and beans; fish and shellfish. However, the trade deficit is significant.

We encountered only one small street market, and a single flower seller.  But we did not have a lot of time to explore.

There are few luxury goods in Cuba. Even though smart phones are common, widespread internet is not.

The Cuban people are not exactly isolated from the rest of the world, but they are definitely not affected in any obvious way by the culture of a country only 90 miles away. Cuban culture is unique; in my short experience, it is totally different from anyplace else on the globe.

Life moves at a different pace in Havana.

Our day in the city brought us many new insights, and a lot more questions. We left with the conviction that the “cultural exchange and understanding” requirements are in place for a very good reason. Indeed, that may be the best part of the Cuban experience for Americans. Maybe it should be a worldwide travel requirement. If you’re interested in visiting Cuba on your own, there is a wealth of information available to help you plan a trip. Will we be returning? Perhaps.

But it’s complicated.

 

 

 

Time-tripping: A new perspective

My husband and I took a journey [this past week], a trip into our past.

The miles were few; and the travel time far less, because of a new highway, than it had been 30-some years ago when we made the trip regularly. We recognized some scenes along the way, and when we turned into the little town square for a drive through our memories, it looked pretty much the same, only slightly more forlorn now than then. The same shuttered buildings still seemed in danger of falling inward during the next big storm.

This is not a thriving, bustling population center. It is a very small, simple, rural area adjacent to a lake which, for the past several years at least, has faced debilitating effects of the drought and the economy. People here, from the looks of it, are not yet feeling the benefits of a recovery. And, on a rainy day in February, in Texas, there are no fragrant blossoms or green leaves to signal the promise of spring.

Experiencing life in the rear-view mirror

But we drove on. We had returned only once before, in more than 20 years, to see the retreat we had owned for more than a decade beginning in 1981. We had spent many a happy, sunny, activity-filled day there when our son was young. I have trouble, even today, calling it a “lake house.” It had floor, walls and roof. It had a kitchen, and a bath, one bedroom, and another small sleeping area. It was filled with mismatched furniture and cabinetry. We applied gallons of white paint to freshen its old walls. It had air conditioning only in one room. We added a screened activity porch, floored with cast-off multicolored tile, and graced by one banging screen door.

Oh, the times we had there in the one large room with a view of the water. We laughed; we cooked and read and played board games on the floor as a family of three. We watched mourning doves hatch in their nest outside our window, and we shuddered when a swarm of bees made a home for a night in the same tree. We did much the same — laughing, cooking, talking and playing, indoors and out, in and out of the water, on and off the boat — when we invited a crowd.

In the summer, we all cooled off under an outdoor shower plumbed to the trunk of a big tree, before putting hot dogs and burgers on the grill. On July 4th, we spread IMG_0679blankets on the lawn, and watched fireworks explode over the water.  It was a place for all seasons, and during the heat of summer we occasionally slept in hammocks and deck chairs.  Occasionally the allure of the place meant we packed up our sweaters and boots, and brought lots of hot chocolate just so we could watch migrating ducks and angry skies. In the winter, we slept soundly under warm quilts, lulled by the sound of lapping waves.

We loved the place. Our son — and our dog — learned to swim at “Camp Swampee.” Our son learned to sail, and to steer the motorboat. He learned to love fishing, and to dissect frogs, and to chase butterflies. He learned which snakes to avoid, and to watch for spiders under rocks. He learned to occupy himself alone in the great outdoors. He learned to steer the truck down the long, straight, bumpy road to the compound. We all learned to deal with the Texas heat during the searing days and to marvel at the star-filled sky at night.

We learned that the alternative to our day-to-day busy lives in the city, filled with school and jobs, meetings and friends, planned activities and regular schedules, is a cadence of life far different. We had “lake neighbors” who were equally happy to trade busy everyday lives for weekend peace and simplicity.

Our son grew up. We moved on and we moved away, but we carried with us a peculiar nostalgia for that place and time, across the miles and over the years.

Some journeys teach unexpected lessons

So, given opportunity and no set schedule, we set out to visit the past.

But it’s not there.IMG_0674IMG_0678IMG_0670IMG_0676It was almost a physical pain: My husband and I exchanged glances, without speaking. We, both of us, took slow steps onto the lot, walking with a hesitant, measured pace to where our house once stood.

Grass has begun to grow, and falling leaves camouflage bare ground. The dock still stands, but just barely. And, because of the lake level, it would be impossible to pull a boat into the sling under the shaky roof.

The shock was not so much that the building was gone. It had been old and worn when we owned it. The surprise is, rather, that what still shapes the way we are and think and feel in numerous, important ways has no physical presence in this world. We have left no lasting impression on that particular spot of earth.

We move on through life; we learn from each experience, sometimes in graphic, poignant and unexpected ways.

As we strolled back to our car, the lesson we both have learned:

Savor the present time

Note: This story was originally published on February 10, 2013 on Yahoo Contributor Network. That creative virtual magazine was taken down several years ago, but I ran across this post recently, and thought it worthy of a reprint. Except for a few minor revisions, it is as originally written. 

We think often of the good times we had on that little slice of earth on the shores of Cedar Creek Lake, and remember the place fondly, even though it no longer exists.  Perhaps, now that more than five years have passed since our last visit, we will take another ride to see if someone else has built a new home on the site.

In a way, I hope so. The lake and its lakeside communities have changed now, populated with full-time residents, and much grander weekend and summer homes. Perhaps the spot is enjoying a new incarnation with another family.

Somehow, though, in our minds it will remain frozen in time just as we knew it.