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.

 

 

 

Independence . . . a few thoughts

Fireworks over the water are a traditional part of July 4th celebrations in many parts of the country. Fire risk seems lessened, and exploding colors and sounds seem magnified by rippling water below and starry skies above. We have enjoyed such displays many times, watching with as much awe as any child.101_3074

A bit of background

Several years ago, as we made our way by boat across Chesapeake Bay and into Baltimore Harbor, we noticed an unusual buoy — not the normal red or green of navigational markers, not a warning orange — but rather red, white and blue.  At the same time, we couldn’t help but see the flag fluttering in the breeze at historic Fort McHenry, situated on a peninsula that intrudes into the Patapsco River not far away.

We later learned that the U.S. Coast Guard sets a ceremonial marker annually to mark the approximate spot where the words to the Star Spangled Banner were first written.

Gypsy-new camera-NJNYMDDC 517 (2)The unique buoy and an oversize flagpole brought home to us that year the reality of the battle that shaped the destiny of a young nation. History is like that — it sometimes takes being there to make it real.

The War of 1812, which began because of trade disputes and issues surrounding westward expansion, escalated when ongoing battles between Britain and France waned. It was a devastating time for a young country, and there were serious doubts about the ability to survive as an independent nation.

Much of New England never joined the fight. And, by the time it was over, the “second War of Independence,” as it is sometimes known, resulted in the deaths of 15,000 Americans, nearly as many as perished during the Revolutionary War. The War of 1812 actually lasted for two years and eight months.

Putting it in perspective

The fighting at Fort McHenry took place September 13, 1814. By the time the battle was brought to Baltimore, the war was all but lost. Washington, D.C., including the White House, the Capitol and other government buildings, had already been burned. Gypsy-new camera-NJNYMDDC 519 (2)

This past May, on a trip to Bermuda, those events of 1814 became even more real. It was from this Atlantic island some 600 miles offshore that a fleet of British warships was launched on August 1, 104 years ago, carrying 5,000 British Army and Royal Marines troops. Even though the colonies had declared independence nearly 40 years earlier, the British had not yet given up.

It was at Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor that the tide of war changed; defenders fought off the British during more than 25 hours of intense bombardment.

During the fighting, a young attorney was detained on a British ship in the harbor, along with a physician whose release had been promised. Francis Scott Key, sometime poet as well as a lawyer, had negotiated a prisoner exchange with the British, set to occur after the battle. As the fighting ensued, he was inspired to write the words to a poem which was set to music, with the title Defence of Fort McHenry. Later Francis Scott Key added three more stanzas, all but forgotten today.

The Star-Spangled Banner, although popular, was not used ceremoniously for another 75 years. In 1890, it was adopted by the U.S. military for play during the raising and lowering of the colors.

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Touring the Royal Naval Dockyards this spring on the island known to its residents as “the Rock” or “Gibraltar of the West,” we actually thought little about Baltimore or the War of 1812. Instead we were focused on British history and maritime supremacy, until a chance remark brought back the memory of Fort McHenry, the flagpole and the buoy.  We toured the grounds of the British naval compound, walked the ramparts, and imagined those ships sailing towards Baltimore to quash yet another rebellion. With that clarity of perspective, we realized once again that we are still a very young country!

And so we celebrate . . .

It surprised me to learn that Independence Day was not even a holiday to celebrate until 1870, nearly 100 years after the Declaration of Independence was drafted, and long after its authors had passed on.

It surprised me equally as much to learn that the song written by Francis Scott Key  National Anthem was adopted by presidential order in 1916, barely 100 years ago. Congress made it official only in 1931. The anthem made its official debut at a sporting event, a baseball game played in Chicago in 1918, during the turmoil of World War I.

And the fireworks? Well, that part of the celebration was added only after the poem was written and the song was performed.

None of that, however, diminishes the fun — or the spectacle. No matter what else occurs on the 4th of July, whether there are parades or solemn ceremonies, barbecues or backyard picnics, swim parties, bicycle runs or Days at Six Flags, it’s the fireworks that encompass the spirit of the celebration.

But, lest we forget, independence had a cost. It still has. So, as we celebrate, perhaps we should also consider just what independence means, and what price each of us is willing to pay to preserve it.

Stay safe, everyone, on this 4th of July, and enjoy your celebration, no matter what it is!

 

If you’d like to learn more, here are some resources:

http://www.sacredclassics.com/keys.htm

https://www.history.com/topics/the-star-spangled-banner

https://www.constitutionfacts.com/us-declaration-of-independence/fourth-of-july/

https://www.bermuda-attractions.com/bermuda_0002c2.htm

https://www.bayjournal.com/article/us_anthem_flag_arent_the_only_stars_at_fort_mchenry

 

Grandmother’s lessons

Thanksgiving was low-key at my house this year. Not that there isn’t an abundance of things to be thankful for, but our small multi-generational family had an abundance of plans for the extended holiday. We gathered Thursday for what was to be a simple midday meal, before scattering in different directions to enjoy the long weekend.

What was to have been a small turkey breast to serve five (with enough left for a few sandwiches) became a 12-pound turkey. (The market had no fresh breasts available, and we had not built thawing time into the schedule; the option was a “smallish” fresh bird.)

The rest of it? A mix of traditional and easy prep. One large — overly large, as it turned out — fresh from the garden salad that boasted tiny boiled potatoes, green beans and dried cranberries. Roasted yams and wild rice stood in for mashed potatoes and cornbread stuffing. Savory pumpkin gratin, recipe courtesy of Jacques Pepin, homemade cranberry-orange relish, and a freshly-baked Challah, as pretty to look at as it was good to eat, kept kitchen prep time to a minimum.WP_20171123_14_01_38_ProAs usual, “simple” morphed into too much!

Friday, we were content with turkey sandwiches, salad and television movies. Saturday was a quiet day, with only a few must-do’s, and no plans for a “real” meal. Snacking at will was the order of the day.

When faced with options, make soup

I am grateful that my grandmothers were good cooks, and that I had a chance to hang out in their kitchens many years ago, not only during holiday preparations, but afterwards as well.

I learned the truth of “Waste not, want not,” and I learned to “make do” and make meals out of what was on hand. I also learned that simple meals are best!

Those were lessons well learned.

So, for Saturday supper, soup it was. Pan drippings and turkey parts that would have become gravy had we served mashed potatoes and dressing on Thursday became the catalyst. Leftover wild rice added heartiness. Fresh celery, carrots and onions, constant staples in the refrigerator crisper, are the basis of any good homemade soup, right? And leftover Challah is still delicious!

It was a large pot of soup, enough to feed son and daughter-in-law who stopped in unexpectedly Saturday evening, with enough “left over” for Sunday lunch.

No pie, you say? Well, not exactly!

It bears repeating that our Thanksgiving was pared down and simplified in many ways. There was no pie — not pumpkin, not apple, mince or pecan. No brownies, no ice cream. Apples and oranges, yes, but even they went untouched. None of us suffered from a lack of food; desserts were not missed.

However, I had purchased pie crusts, just in case. (No, I do not see any reason to make my own!)

So, for tonight’s dinner, the plan is to have Turkey Pot Pie. Actually, I can picture it already: Colorful carrots, peas and potatoes joining small bits of turkey meat, oozing with creamy goodness and threatening to bubble up through the golden crust. Chilled (leftover) cranberry sauce will add color and tart flavor to the simple dinner. With a green salad, it will be nutritious and more than ample.

Will one pie suffice to clear the refrigerator of leftovers? I am not yet sure, but if there’s enough turkey to make two, I will be happy to have an extra to pull from the freezer.

On this weekend, especially, I am thankful to have the blessings of home and family, a warm, comfortable hearth, good health and good food.

And those leftovers!

Where to go; when to stay home

Somehow, I am out of words.

Projects call for completion; I have holiday plans to make and work to do, but I am stuck in the doldrums. The year is inching toward its close and the new one seems filled with promise. But little is happening in my world, or in my mind, right now.

I am stuck. It’s cold. Right now, a cozy fire, a good book and a hot cup of tea are the delights I savor, along with an occasional old movie on television. Just as sailors of old awaited fresh sea breezes to clear away the calm, I look forward to bursts of new energy.

There was a December trip planned — a 30-day excursion around the tip of South America. The journey would have taken us, perhaps not coincidentally, through the doldrums. Alas, the time away seemed too long, the distance too far. Home won out.

So here I am, wanting to write about good food and faraway places, but searching for a biscochito recipe instead!

A quick Thanksgiving road trip to visit family in Santa Fe was an unexpected pleasure, and it left a lingering desire for those spicy, anise-flavored, miniature treats that are holiday staples in the Land of Enchantment.

p2070090-2-516x360Even though Santa Fe is no longer home, there are elements of life there that are hard to leave behind. Biscochitos,  a dusting of snow on pinons trees and adobe walls, green chili stew, bright sunlight glistening off snow-covered mountain peaks, antelope cavorting on the eastern plains, lone coyotes standing watch in unexpected places, and the wonder of lighted trees aglow on Santa Fe’s plaza.

Pictures tell the story, even though the words won’t come.

There are more trips waiting in the wings, but right now home beckons. As does the kitchen. And that’s not a bad way to spend the rest of December.

 

Some of my best friends are . . .

I have been thinking lately about that statement. No matter how you finish it off, it somehow sounds wrong, doesn’t it? So why do we keep repeating it? The only way, I think, that statement m…

Source: Some of my best friends are . . .

The open road: Traveling tips

101_2217Fast food isn’t particularly good for the waistline or the pocketbook! And, no matter how familiar, most of it is nothing to write home about.

So, this summer, why not slow down a little to nurture your spirit as well as your body? Whether you take a quick weekend jaunt or an extended trip across the country, here are some good ways to make your next driving trip a memorable one:

Pack a picnic basket

Seriously. There was a time when a wicker basket was a staple in the back seat or the trunk of almost every vehicle. Those were the days when people planned a day’s journey based on the distance between gas stations, and pulled off the road to enjoy a field of flowers or a lakeside vista. Today, with conveniences available at every highway exit, it’s not so necessary to plan ahead, but having a picnic basket full of good food still makes sense.

Fill yours with hard boiled eggs, a package of mini carrots or sugar snap peas, cans of sardines and packets of tuna, a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of crusty French bread, crackers, and homemade granola or trail mix. Bring along either a round of Brie, a wedge of blue, or some string cheese that can stand being out of the refrigerator for a few hours. Include apples, oranges and dried fruit, and maybe some homemade cookies. Pack plastic plates, glasses and silverware, a roll of paper towels and a plastic tablecloth. Include a blanket or quilt for sitting on the ground.

If you’re taking a long trip, restock at a local grocery store; forego the chain restaurants. Forget the cooler full of soda, but bring a large thermos filled with iced tea or lemonade. In cooler weather, fill the thermos with hot chocolate, tomato soup or chicken bouillon. Invest in refillable personal water bottles and fill them with tap water. When you get hungry, get off the road and get out of the car. Park by a stream or find a city park: Walk around, lounge on the grass, walk the dog, and let the kids run!

Get off the road – go local

Turn off the interstate occasionally. Even if you want to make good time getting to your destination, you’ll be surprised how invigorating it can be to take a scenic route or venture onto a back road. Forget the GPS and the app, and buy an old-fashioned road map, the paper accordion-folding kind that you spread out on the hood of the car, the kind that shows small towns, county roads, twisting dirt paths, historical sites and topographical features. Then make time to explore.

Leave the smart phone in your pocket and teach your children map-reading skills; get lost on purpose, just so you can find an alternative way back to the highway. Cultivate spontaneity! Take a few chances. Laugh a lot!

The highways were built to move goods and people quickly from place to place, and they do that well. But, any journey can be as interesting as the destination if you take a turn through the countryside and small towns along the way. It’s a whole different world view and one you don’t want to miss. Stop to photograph wild flowers, historical markers, spectacular views, a herd of longhorns, or an old barn. Look for the unusual. Stop at farm stands and “pick your own” orchards. Buy freshly-squeezed orange juice in Florida, fresh shelled pecans in Texas, cherries in Washington or just tapped maple syrup in Vermont. WP_20160508_007 (1)

Keep a travel journal

Don’t worry about the literary quality; just make it personal and it will be memorable. Simply write quick notes to keep in an old three-ring binder and punctuate with doodles, postcards, snapshots or restaurant business cards. Or take notes on your digital device to accompany the pictures you snap: Transfer the notes and photos to an online journal when you return home. Just be sure to date (and place) the entries so that you can look through actual or virtual pages later to recall specific events.

Your kids will love reliving this part of their history, and you can tell friends and relatives about your experiences.  Write about the wild flowers or the weather; the long, boring miles of highway, or the squabbles in the back seat; add anything that describes the moment! And don’t wait for an epic two-week vacation to Europe to begin journaling. You don’t have to be born with a sense of adventure to enjoy travel. You simply have to keep your mind open to possibilities, your heart open to fun and your eyes focused on the new sights all around you.

Slow down and look around

Take advantage of state tourist information centers as you cross state lines. Great sources of information,  they are staffed with knowledgeable volunteers, and often offer snacks, coffee and cool drinks. They also provide a welcome break from sitting! Many states also have upscale, modern rest stops with clean rest rooms, playgrounds and picnic tables.

Turn off the highway and head for a small town square. Look for a local café, or a diner with lots of cars parked outside. Chances are you’ll discover friendly people, good food and good times. Strike up a conversation with your server; ask questions about the area if it’s new to you.

Travel without reservations if you don’t have a deadline, and look for local hotels in small towns rather than chain motels along the highway. Consider it a bonus if you find a charming country inn, a lakeside cottage at a state park, or a historic hotel in the heart of a Midwest city. Another way: Take day trips to other towns in your area. You’ll be surprised at the things you discover!

Walt Whitman said it pretty well:

         “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, 

         Healthy, free, the world before me, 

        The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” 

Cruises: An unending buffet of treats

It’s true. There’s a lot of food — and drink — available on the average cruise ship.

But even the cruise lines have lightened up a bit. Gone are the midnight buffets, although there are definitely ways to get food around the clock. Gone are the late night chocolate extravaganzas that were as much a feature of cruises as the welcome aboard champagne towers.

Healthy has come to cruising

Sit down breakfasts in the dining room are as apt to include healthy oatmeal and fresh fruit as Eggs Benedict, corned beef hash and fried potatoes; smoked whitefish and soft boiled eggs in addition to bagels, lox and cream cheese. Waiters still circulate with trays of croissants and pastries, and we hope that never changes!

Ever-present buffets are heavily laden with salads, fish and fruit, including Scandinavian and Mediterranean specialties, in addition to hot entrees. It’s still hard to be sensible with buffet selections, but not as difficult! There are many more choices that reflect the cultural identify of scheduled ports. A relatively new alliance between Australian Chef Curtis Stone and Princess Cruises has led to revamped menu offerings on the line’s 18 ships, as well as new a concept dining venue called “Share,” soon to be available on most of them.

Lighter, but as pretty as ever

It’s an interesting, welcome and delicious departure. Food on cruise ships has always been something to write home about — mostly, in days gone by, for its calorie-rich decadence as much as for the quality and the abundance. Today, the food is different.

It’s beautiful to look at, thoughtfully prepared and presented, regionally appropriate — and it’s lighter, fresher and healthier. An extensive array of vegetarian offerings reflects a changing culture and the global trend toward health consciousness and fitness.

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Desserts are often fresh fruit, lighter sorbets, cheese trays and sugar-free cakes. But the Baked Alaska parade by waiters is still a feature! And, although the variety, preparation and presentation are still worth celebrating, food service as practiced by the cruise lines has achieved something much more notable.

It is entirely possible to return from an extended cruise vacation not a single pound heavier, and at least as healthy as when you stepped aboard, with no hint of deprivation.

A newly enriching travel experience

Food is a part of the experience and, in the words of Chef Stone: “When good food and travel brings people closer together, you experience the world in a whole new way.”

On a recent Eastern Caribbean sailing with Princess Cruise Lines, our party was delighted by the variety of dishes, the range of flavors, and the visual appeal of every plate brought to our table. We were equally entranced with the buffets — Danish smorgasbord for breakfast; shrimp salad and fresh fruit for lunch. Lighter custards, along with tempting fresh-baked cookies, for an afternoon pick-me-up.

The food on board was so good, in fact, that I sought out some Curtis Stone recipes upon returning home. You can try some too, if you’d like!