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.

 

 

 

Cuba: The ‘after’ story

Cuba is enigmatic – especially for Americans, whose contact with the island nation so close to US shores has been forbidden for so long. But even other nationalities are eager to see this tiny Communist country that has been embroiled in turmoil for at least the past six decades.

Read my account of how this trip came about.

As our shipload of 2,000 plus passengers departed from Key West, the excitement was palpable.

Havana lay just to the southeast. A reasonably swift vessel could make the 90-mile passage comfortably in about six hours. However, in order to adhere to a set schedule that would allow an entire day in Havana, the captain of Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas slowed ship engines almost to idle. Crossing the Strait separating Florida and Cuba would take more than 14 hours. We departed Key West at 5 p.m., with no chance to enjoy either Mallory Square’s street performers or the famed sunset.

Then, even though we were on deck at first light the following morning, we did not catch a sunrise view of el Morro Castle or the lighthouse at the harbor entrance except in shadow. Our first real daylight view was of decaying warehouse structures lining the dock on our vessel’s starboard side.

It was a shock.

First thoughts about Havana

Old Havana lies just beyond what was once a thriving commercial seaport, according to our map, but out of view. We could not yet see the Plaza de San Francisco,first laid out in the 16th Century, nor its impressive fountain and ancient basilica dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. We saw a few spires, glimpsed brightly-painted buildings and followed dock workers and delivery vans as the morning dawned.

On the street, old buses, small vehicles, and horse-drawn wagons rambled along the uneven stones. We did not yet see the gleaming vintage automobiles we expected.

Our impression was of a city waking up and readying itself for the day; however, there seemed to be no urgency in the movements. We had been told that commerce progresses in Havana on “Cuban time.” We wondered if the onslaught of visitors was a welcome occurrence now that cruise ships call regularly in Havana.

The transition was immediate. We had been transported overnight back across decades to a place that we did not recognize. even from the pictures we had seen.

 

In all the magazine stories I had read about contemporary Cuba, I had never, to my knowledge, seen a picture that depicted age and disrepair in such a graphic manner. Was this the effect of being cut off from the rest of the world for so long, I wondered?

In the distance, above other roofs, two impressive gold-clad onion domes caught our attention and drew our wonder in the thin early morning light. We learned later that 100_1143they are atop the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. It was built under the aegis of Fidel Castro, as a lasting monument to Russian-Cuban friendship, according to his memoirs, and was consecrated October 19, 2008, with Raul Castro in attendance.

Across the harbor, we gazed at the impressive bulk of the white marble Christ of Havana statue, the work of Cuban artist Hilma Madera. It was commissioned in 1953 IMG_3930and inaugurated in 1958, facing east, looking over the city with one arm raised in blessing upon the land and people. Incidentally, only two weeks later, Fidel Castro brought the tide of revolution to Havana. The history of Cuba was forever altered.

The 67 huge blocks of Carrara marble used to form the sculpture, the same type of stone that also graces tombstones in Havana’s sprawling Colon Cemetery, had been personally blessed by Pope Pius XII before leaving Italy.

Stepping onto Cuban soil . . .

The ship was quickly and efficiently cleared by officials. Eager passengers began to make their way to the modern interior of the Terminal Sierra Maestra. 100_1198 (2)Heat and humidity settled upon us, but Cuban officials in the bright and airy non-air-conditioned space seemed not to notice.

We had been cautioned not to snap photographs inside the port building. Functionally laid out, the terminal is designed to process visitors efficiently, not as a space to linger, to shop or to socialize. There were no cautionary signs, but we obeyed the rules as smartly-uniformed customs and immigration officials and currency exchange personnel quickly dispatched us onto by-now bustling city streets or to waiting tour buses.

If only we could shed our preconceptions, I mused—about people and places and cultures—as easily as we shed our clothes in a tropical island setting. I thought about those preconceptions as I disembarked in Cuba. The carefree ambience of Cuba was nowhere to be seen. Somehow, I felt very American at that moment, and was mildly disappointed that there were no welcoming musicians or souvenir-sellers. 

At first glance, Cuba was not at all what I had expected.

Cuba demystified

Despite the relative ease with which an American can now visit Cuba, it is not at all routine. A visa is required, a relatively simple procedure, but it comes at a cost of $75 per person when processed by the cruise line. There are rules and specific guidelines for filling out the forms, depending on the specific category of authorized travel. Visiting Cuba simply as a “tourist” is still not a valid option for Americans. Travel as a journalist, for humanitarian, agricultural or educational purposes, and for specific other reasons is allowed, but there are strings attached.

Participation in some sort of cultural exchange is a requirement, under “people-to-people” guidelines that are well-defined and controlled. Half and full-day tours of many types can be booked through the cruise line; third-party excursions are available. We chose the latter; two separate excursions from two different sanctioned companies. We also built in a few hours of time on our own with thoughts of a museum visit or a leisurely lunch or dinner.

Discovering Havana on foot

We first strolled through Old Havana on our way to meet up with a designated guide. Our planned walking tour promised a sampling of traditional “street food.” We stopped for a morning coffee at an outdoor café where the menu surprise was espresso delivered with a cigar on the side. We opted to forego the cigar, ordering tall iced coffees instead. Served with ice cream, they were cooling and delicious on a morning already steamy with tropical heat! Service was prompt and cordial, and prices were reasonable.

This was no ordinary tour, and the conversation was as satisfying as the food samples.

 

Our group of six enjoyed typical fried treats, akin in some ways to warm American jelly-filled doughnuts, followed by pizza slices, chocolate-covered ice cream on a stick, cooling fresh fruit cocktails, and roasted ears of corn dripping with melted butter!

Our young guide, Marcos, 100_1329 a history student at University, was knowledgeable and informative, even leading us to a local B&B to see typical tourist accommodations and meet the proprietors. He gave an impromptu history lesson, answered all the questions we asked, and our time with him concluded over shared beers at a delightful local establishment on another old city square.

Walking through La Habana Vieja is quite an experience!

. . . and from the backseat of a convertible

A bit later in the day, we embarked on our second scheduled Havana experience. We had booked three hours with a car, driver and guide for a tour that would take us to many of the various neighborhoods that comprise Havana, a city that is now home to more than two million people.

Yes, the car was vintage American, a 1958 Thunderbird convertible; bright red, shiny and impressive despite its age, still with its original engine. And Florida plates!wp_20181018_14_45_59_pro1.jpgIt was a whirlwind excursion; we saw ancient forts, business and residential districts, numerous monuments and families out to enjoy the city’s parks and playgrounds. We drove past massive art galleries, the national opera house, expensive hotels, stark Russian apartment buildings, modern steel and glass office buildings, and residential areas crowded with nondescript apartments. We drove the five-mile length of the Malecon, a broad avenue and seawall bordering the bay and frequented, perhaps equally, by fishermen and lovers, according to our guide.

We returned once again to Old Havana, circling el Capitolio, completed in 1929 as the seat of government. Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the “House of the People”100_1286 had no real purpose, and today it is home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Its dome has been under repair for the past several years, but the building and its adjacent statuary are still impressive.

We both walked and drove past La Floridita, the bar that served Ernest Hemingway’s 100_1307 (2)favored daiquiri. The stool he occupied when he drank there is said to be cordoned off with a velvet rope.

So much to see and do

We also drove past former mansions and beautiful seaside estates, remnants of an age when Havana was the playground of the rich and famous; when what was characterized as “the good life” was also rife with mafia activity. Some storied nightclubs and bars from Havana’s glory days still exist, and overnight visitors have the opportunity to drink and dine in the outdoor atmosphere of the fabled Tropicana Club and former casino.

We sipped Mojitos from a street vendor at the site of el Morro, were awed by the view of the city from hilltop site of the looming Christ statue, and were mesmerized

 

by the park that has preserved remnants of the military exploits on Cuban soil, including missiles and wing pieces of American planes.

Revolution Square and those bigger than life likenesses of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara will be forever etched in memory. So, too, will the sight of the American flag

 

waving from its pole on the grounds of an embassy now staffed only by a skeleton force of diplomats. An August 28, 2018, U.S. State Department advisory once again recommended “Increased Caution” for American travelers to Cuba, following the illnesses and purported “attacks” on embassy personnel.

Toward the end of the afternoon, we visited Havana’s “forest,” a sprawling domain of greenery that winds along what is, sadly, a polluted river. Families still picnic by the river, however. Amid the overhanging boughs and grassy expanse, we sipped icy Pina Coladas, savoring a day filled with new insights and a wealth of lasting impressions, before our classic red Thunderbird returned us to the cruise ship terminal.

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The takeaway:

Cuba is a sensory experience. We sailed away that evening in deepening twilight, with100_1563 an overwhelming sense that we had barely scratched the surface of Havana, let alone the country, during our brief encounter. The next morning at breakfast onboard, our table-mates agreed that it will take some time to process the total experience. Now, after a full week to consider, my husband and I are still attempting to digest all that we saw and did during our 12-hour stay in Havana. It was not long enough. And, although not my preferred way to visit a country for the first time, it was a delicious and uniquely palatable first taste.

Its people are charming, proud, gregarious, curious, talkative, hopeful, guarded and resigned — all at the same time. Cuba cannot be easily dismissed, even after such a short stay.

Do I want to return? As yet, I have not decided. For now it is enough to report that a cruise ship call in Cuba is unlike a port visit to any other nation on earth.

It changes a person.

I have many more thoughts to share: Look for additional insights and photos Wednesday, October 31.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the people, not the places . . .

It’s good to get away, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter where the journey takes us; it’s the break from routine that’s important.

This time, though, it was all about the place. My husband and I, as those who know us (and those of you who read the previous post) know, spent the better part of a summer in Alaska 13 years ago. We traveled the Marine Highway of Southeast Alaska and numerous watery byways that led us to out-of-the-way villages and secluded coves. We went north to Skagway and Haines, west to Glacier Bay and Sitka, spent delightful days in Hoonah and Petersburg and bobbed gently “on the hook” with only stars and lapping waves for company. We visited Juneau, the capital, several times, and we had good times in Ketchikan, Alaska’s “first city.”

At the end of August we returned to the 49th state, arriving in Anchorage on a Friday evening to spend a few hours prior to embarking the next day on a seven-day voyage aboard Golden Princess. The trip would take us past impressive Hubbard Glacier and into Glacier Bay before visiting Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan on a journey slated to end in Vancouver, British Columbia, the following Saturday morning.

It was not a trip we spent a lot of time planning. It was, in fact, a snap decision, made with a “why not” attitude, but with low expectations. We sandwiched it in between short trips to other destinations during August.

Some initial observations:

What we experienced surprised us. We were less than enamored by Anchorage, home to fully 40 percent, if not more, of Alaska’s residents. But, to be fair, we spent only a few hours there and during our brief visit we encountered delightful people. The city, however, is not pretty, apart from its surroundings.

Our appreciation for the spectacular natural beauty of Alaska emerged fully intact. Looking down on the Anchorage area from our airplane and seeing snow-capped distant peaks towering above the clouds was duly impressive. The water and the coastal vistas are incredible and the vast land seems to extend forever.

And the flowers — before I visited Alaska, I would not have believed there were flowers in what I considered a cold and desolate place. How wrong I was. They were — and still are — everywhere. Wild flowers and flowers in public parks; flowers on window sills and in shops, flowers filling huge municipal planters; flowers in airports and on the docks. Wildflowers along the highway. Gorgeous, colorful flowers. Everywhere!

On Saturday, we boarded a bus for the short drive to Whittier, a year-round deep-water port at the head of Prince William Sound. The trip allowed us a glimpse of white Beluga whales in the waters of Turnagain Arm and a herd of Dall sheep navigating a craggy bluff on the other side of the highway.

It’s exciting, to be sure, to wear jackets and knit caps in August, even if we did have to don rain gear as well. We visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to see wood bison and musk ox, wolves and porcupines, bear and moose, deer and foxes.

We continued on through the engineering marvel of a tunnel that gives the only land access to Whittier. It is shared (on a one-way basis) by passenger vehicles, buses, trucks and the train!

A floating city . . .

Once aboard, we began to settle in to the life of a floating city with 2,600 other people — not difficult, actually, with the wealth of activities and the pleasant mix of public and private spaces. Every day seems a celebration on board a modern cruise ship.

What we knew we would miss was the feeling of being close to the water — the sound of the waves, the experience of cold fingers and blasts of wind as we dropped anchor or secured the lines of our vessel to the metal cleats of well-worn wooden docks. We missed the camaraderie we felt with fishing boat captains as they put away their gear after a long day; and we missed the hot coffee and good conversation that was always available in cluttered dockmasters’ offices.

We also missed seeing whale spouts and fish jumping just above the swells, gulls and eagles trailing fishing boats and circling above small docks, the occasional family of sea otters looking for refuge in a marina, and eye-level contact with those splashing waves and floating chunks of ice. Looking down on the water from a deck 70 or more feet above it, or searching for native wildlife through binoculars and behind protective glass has nowhere near the same effect.

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What we enjoyed was the companionship of other passengers, especially our delightful dinner tablemates, talking with fellow travelers from not only other states, but from Australia and New Zealand, from Germany and England, from Mexico and from Asia. We appreciated the perfectly prepared fresh fish and seafood that was offered at every meal, the smiling service of bartenders and waiters, the helpfulness of the crew, the variety of outdoor deck space from which to view changing vistas of glaciers and icebergs, mountains and clouds.

We were blessed with sunshine for at least a part of every day, somewhat unusual for this part of Alaska.

We also appreciated having the assistance of other eyes to help spot whales and otters, eagles, bears, seals and porpoises. And, yes, we did spot some, although we yearned to see more! The ship reverberated with a chorus of delight for each occurrence. We were thrilled once again to visit Glacier Bay. The naturalists and Park Rangers who came aboard were interesting and knowledgeable. It was a learning experience, and it was good to have their input.

We heard the “thunder” of glaciers as they calved, and realized anew that listening to the natural sounds of Alaska is mesmerizing.

‘Tis the season . . .

We could have done without the proliferation of t-shirt and key chain shops, furriers and jewelry stores, harborside kiosks and lines of tour buses and waiting guides. But then we realized that they were very much a part of port life 13 years ago as well.

As Alaska residents acknowledge, the season is short and it’s tourism that turns the wheels of commerce in the ports of Southeast Alaska. Life after October settles back into familiar patterns and the majesty of the land becomes once again the personal domain of those who call Alaska home.

Travel is enlightening in many ways. But it’s not the places; it’s the people one meets.

We sought out those people on this trip. And we were rewarded tenfold! Friendly residents are more than willing to talk about their lives, their cities, their families and their experiences. As always, we were fascinated to learn about daily life as it is lived outside the pages of guidebooks.

We always asked for local recommendations for food. In Anchorage, we were directed to a popular local brew pub, and were immediately befriended by a local resident only too willing to share his views on everything from oil drilling to recreational cannabis, from the Northern Lights to politics. The next morning we had cafe au lait and warm croissants at the charming Paris Cafe, a short stroll from our hotel.

In Skagway, there was a wait at “the best place in town to eat,” but the wait was worth it — and we were notified by text message when our table was ready. Skagway may be small and remote, but there’s no shortage of technology! WP_20180821_12_44_28_ProWe were rewarded with perfectly prepared fish, crispy chips and superb local brew.

We took a short bus ride to White Pass, following the path traversed by miners with gold fever, and snapped photos at the border between the United States and Canada, “Gateway to the Klondike.” We walked around Skagway for just a short time before retreating back to our ship as it began to rain. Skagway has changed little, but with four cruise ships in town, it was crowded!

That afternoon, before slipping lines and heading south to Juneau, a program by “real Alaskan” Steve Hites, one of the 1,057 full-time Skagway residents, was a highlight of the trip. Accompanied by guitar and harmonica, the 64-year-old songwriter, storyteller and tour operator charmed listeners with a 40-minute history of “his” Alaska, and the small town he knows so well.

In Juneau and Ketchikan, once again we asked for local food tips and were given the names of two eateries slightly beyond the tourist mainstream. At both, The Flight Deck in Juneau, and again in Ketchikan at The Dirty Dungee, we devoured fresh-caught Dungeness crab, and couldn’t have been happier!

About traveling to Alaska . . .

My heartfelt advice to anyone considering an Alaska cruise?

GO!

My husband and I realize that we were privileged to be able to experience the state as we did — on our own — and that trip will remain in our hearts as a unique experience.

We remember how small we felt while on our boat, especially one morning in Juneau as we awoke to the presence of a massive cruise ship snuggled against the dock directly in front of our vessel.

101_0747As luck would have it, on this trip Golden Princess occupied that slip, and we wondered if the private yacht owners felt as dwarfed as we had that long ago morning.

The allure of Alaska has not diminished for us. We shared the excitement of first-time visitors on this cruise. And we understand clearly the sentiments of those who return again and again. There are many ways to travel to this unique state, from “big-ship” cruises to private vessels, land-sea combos, fly-in fishing or sightseeing trips and active expedition cruises. The Alaska State Ferry runs north from Bellingham, Wash., year round, the the Al-Can Highway provides an unparalleled opportunity for those who love road trips. There are summer work opportunities for college students, and the tourist industry brings part-time residents every season. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for visiting Alaska.

Absolutely, go to experience the place — the stunning scenery with majestic peaks and pristine water, the wilderness, the waterfalls and the icy blue glaciers. Look for wildlife, of course, and marvel when you spot a whale or a group of bears on shore, eagles in the trees, or otters in the sea. Eat your fill of freshly-caught fish and seafood. Snap Selfies. Take tours. Buy trinkets.

But go especially to meet the people! Dinner companions often become lasting friends. At the very least, casual encounters with shopkeepers, restaurant servers, tour guides, ship’s staff, and the people you stop to talk with on the street linger as lasting reminders of the trip  even when memories of specific sights begin to fade.

Cruising is invariably a pleasure, no matter what the ports.  And Alaska still lives up to its moniker as the American “last frontier.” It’s a big adventure!

So, yes, go to Alaska!   

Will we return? Perhaps not. But we would not hesitate to do so. It’s that good!

 

All those ships; and all those seas

Note: At about 6:30 a.m., British time, on July 7, 66 years ago, a brand new ocean liner set a speed record by steaming across the North Atlantic in just three days, 10 hours and about 40 minutes. It was the maiden voyage of the SS United States. The return voyage to New York Harbor set another record. It was a feat never to be duplicated. 

My love affair with ships and with the sea began a long time ago. It continues. 100_9713 (2)

Ships old and new, large and small; sailing ships and historic steamers; lobster boats and shrimp trawlers; pirate ships and submarines, military ships and cruise ships; private yachts and fast powerboats all find treasured places in my mind and memory. And, by extension, so do airships and spaceships, classic automobiles, muscle cars, locomotives, freight trains, and the Orient Express.

If you note the recurring theme in this blog, it’s not by chance.

On May 8, my husband and I had a unique and wonderful experience. We joined a group of ship enthusiasts on a cruise to Bermuda. This group, however, was not just any old band of ship-lovers. Termed the SS United States Legacy Cruise, it was conceived and planned by the SS United States Conservancy in cooperation with the Pollin Group (travel planners) of Chevy Chase, MD. The 70 or so individuals who participated all have a connection — in one way or another — to the last of America’s flagships, the former ocean liner that now sits forlornly at a Philadelphia pier awaiting an unknown fate.

The ship that set the Atlantic speed record sailed the seas for only 17 years. The record-setting Atlantic crossing commenced in New York City on July 3, 1952. The SS United States arrived in England only three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes later, breaking the Eastbound speed record formerly held by Cunard’s Queen Mary and capturing the Blue Riband Trophy. It was an achievement never thought possible by a ship of that size, and it is still unsurpassed today.

Read about that crossing, and watch a video about that historic voyage.

What became her last Atlantic crossing, in November 1969, was an unexpected event.  Indeed, a 16-day cruise of more than 8,000 miles was on the schedule for the 1969-70 holiday season. Passengers would have enjoyed an exotic itinerary including Madeira, Tenerife and Dakar, as well as a New Year’s visit to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands on the Atlantic round trip.  Since then, a series of owners has alternately explored plans to put the ship back in service or threatened the scrap heap.

The Conservancy, led by Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of the ship’s designer, is the current owner, with a mission to see her restored and rejuvenated — not to carry passengers — but rather to assure that succeeding  generations of ship-lovers will be able to explore her cavernous interior and learn her unique story.

It is quite a story

For six days on board the Celebrity Summit, a modern cruise ship, our group heard stories of the SS United States. The ship was built in Norfolk, Va., as a luxury liner in the heady days of mid-Century Modern style. She was aluminum, fast, sleek and lightweight, powered by state-of-the-art propulsion, and said to be unsinkable.

She was, however, a heavyweight in terms of performance, function and appearance. The ship was fully capable of serving as a troop carrier, built during the height of the Cold War era. The illustrious British-flagged “Queens,” Cunard’s luxury ocean liners, ferried troops admirably during World War II. Had the need arisen, the vessel could also have been converted to a hospital ship.

The SS United States was built in Newport News, Va., funded by both the U.S. Navy and the privately-owned United States Lines. She sailed under the American flag and performed exceedingly well as a passenger ship, carrying presidents and dignitaries, film stars and “common folk.” She brought immigrants to the United States and also  carried her share of military families, along with their household goods and vehicles, to and from European duty stations. She had speed and agility, numerous luxury features, a fully-equipped operating room and a modern pet kennel with a resident veterinarian.

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Today she sits with peeling paint at a pier in Philadelphia, her interiors stripped and her props missing, awaiting her fate. One of her caretakers, Mike Wolfe, who says he is familiar with “every inch” of the old ship, notes that she still has a grandeur and mystique about her. He is protective of her because, as he says, she is still beautiful. “This ship has a soul,” he insists.

Heading to Bermuda

We watched the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline recede from view as we made our way out of Port Liberty in Bayonne, N.J., finding it impossible not to think of those long-ago embarkations and arrivals. It is said that William Francis Gibbs never missed the chance to see the SS United States as she departed and returned to pier, watching silently from shore. With two massive stacks and a distinctive color scheme, she must have dominated the view.

The ship was in many ways the designer’s obsession, although he only sailed on her once, on that record-setting maiden voyage. It had been Gibbs’ long-standing dream to design a ship that was 1,000 feet long. The SS United States measured 990 feet in length; from keel to the top of the forward funnel, she rose to a height of 175 feet.

By the end of the week, those of us on this first Legacy cruise had become “old friends.” Steeped in the lore of the ship, we shared our individual reasons for wanting to save her, and those who had sailed on the ship enthralled us all with their memories. Among our group were former passengers and crew members, friends and family, movie-makers and ship designers, scuba divers and armchair travelers, young and old.

In addition to the formal presentations that kept us all busy, we dined together and met informally, bound by joint commitment to this iconic ship. We spoke as well of other ships and other seas, and found we shared other common interests. Once we arrived in Bermuda, our group enjoyed a special tour of the National Museum of Bermuda and its park-like grounds. We enjoyed a lunch at the well-known Frog and Onion Pub at Royal Naval Dockyard. We had ample time for private exploration and time to enjoy welcome sun and warmth after rainy days at sea. Bermuda’s beaches are stunningly beautiful, its island ambience delightful, and its people welcoming!

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Serious Efforts to Save a Ship

Current work to assure a bright future for the SS United States continues in earnest. According to Susan Gibbs, it is bearing fruit. Even though she declined to discuss specifics, she noted that solid opportunities exist.

One of the highlights of this Legacy cruise was the presentation of a sizable check to the Conservancy. Dockage at the current pier in Philadelphia is expensive and there are ongoing preservation efforts. If you’re interested in learning more about the SS United States, or about ways to help assure the ship’s preservation and redevelopment, visit the Conservancy website or follow SSUSC on Facebook and get involved.

There are many ways to help: I would love to hear from anyone who has any sort of personal connection or recollection to share. In future posts, I’ll write more about the  people I met during this cruise to Bermuda and tell more stories about the SS United States, interspersed with more stories about the faraway places that the ships, planes, trains and automobiles that so spark my imagination can tell us all.

Meanwhile, if you’re traveling to New York between now and August 3, don’t miss the exhibit currently at the National Lighthouse Museum, Staten Island.

 

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

 

Elevator Philosophy

100_7263There is something immensely satisfying about traveling — even if it’s a kind of working vacation. But there is also a sense of relief, and enormous comfort in coming home, no matter how rewarding the journey has been.

That’s the state I find myself in now — in the middle of November — with business to attend to, goals to accomplish, stacks of notes to make sense of, scores of ideas to develop and hundreds of stories to tell.

Yet, here I sit at my computer, poring over trip photos and marveling at the wonders of  Mediterranean ports. Following two weeks of non-stop travel activity, we enjoyed a calm and rejuvenating week at sea. The Atlantic Ocean seemed to spread out in calm ripples in every direction, welcoming us daily with superb sunrises and spectacular sunsets. We couldn’t have asked for a calmer crossing, unlike some in the past, nor for more companionable shipmates.

Likewise, the varied cities we visited — full of profound history, beautiful sights, friendly people, enticing food, good wine, interesting excursions and fine weather. As Americans, we encountered no hint of hostility or malice; instead, we were greeted with friendly smiles and an eagerness to talk, even though our command of local languages was decidedly limited.

We never felt unsafe, unwelcome or threatened, whether we were on our own or part of a touring group. To be fair, we ventured off on our own more often than we joined organized groups. We occasionally heard some minor grumbling from fellow travelers, but not often, and mostly about logistics, not the people or the places.

We witnessed a calm and well-organized student protest (its purpose unknown) in Messina, Sicily, and we were in Barcelona the week before the Catalan parliament voted to declare independence. Tensions were running high. Catalan separatism was evident, with competing flags and signs everywhere. Now, there is scant news about what will happen. But I think the movement has not died so easily.

Our time there was limited; we were disoriented by the traffic and the sheer size of the city, and I have to admit that we were cautious among crowds in light of recent terrorist attacks. But we walked the streets, rode city buses, joined thousands of children and parents to attend an event at the former Olympics Stadium, and were willingly assisted by locals who helped us find our way about. I would not hesitate to return — to Barcelona and to any other place we visited.

As a side note, high school Spanish was of little use in Catalonia!

No matter what happens,

travel gives you a story to tell.

In coming weeks, I’ll tell many more stories about the trip, share other insights and detail personal observations about the places we visited, the meals we shared, the people we met, the experiences we were privileged to enjoy.

I’ll also refer again and again to the snippets of travel philosophy that were boldly displayed on elevator carpets throughout Royal Princess, the elegant cruise ship that became our home for this journey. Each one is a gem, and although I tried to ride each of the ship’s numerous elevators at least once, I’m sure I missed some. Therefore, I know I missed out on some of the wisdom that is so uniquely displayed.

For now, though, an observation by Mark Twain seems in order:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Samuel Clemens wrote those words in 1869, for “The Innocents Abroad.” He said it pretty well, didn’t he? His point, I think, is as pertinent today as it was when his chronicle of “the great pleasure voyage” was published.

 

 

 

A unique mystique . . .

4802076860_ce7d2a1221_bLegionnaires of the 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment based in French Guiana were transported on September 11 to the Caribbean island of Saint Martin to help with rescue and clean up operations following Hurricane Irma. I would bet that others were on high alert as Maria turned toward Guadeloupe and Martinique just days ago.

I heard the news reports of France’s quick response, and I was once again entranced with thoughts of this band of men with a long history, a somewhat dubious reputation and a unique mystique.

Somehow, the desert and the sea always figured in my childhood dreams, along with a thirst for adventure, the appeal of colorful uniforms, and the sound of military marches.

The French Foreign Legion

This elite fighting force has always held inexplicable fascination. I once had a romantic notion that I could run away to North Africa and be a Legionnaire. 4566626508_a28b277564_bI pored over pictures of the bearded Sappers with their white kepis and leather aprons, and I listened endlessly to traditional marches, and to Edith Piaf singing “Mon Legionnaire” and “La Marseillaise.”

Strange, I know. But, truth be told, the same things thrill me today,

I wanted to know someone who joined up. I fancied myself fitting in to the hard life, seeing the world, and participating in endless adventure.

There is at least one major problem, however. First and most important, it seems, is that I was born female and, to this day, the Foreign Legion is a men’s club. Only a men’s club!

Actually, one British woman joined during World War II and served with distinction in North Africa. There have been no others.

And, yes, as outdated as it may seem, The French Foreign Legion still exists.

In fact, it thrives. The Legion has changed, but it is still an elite force. Only about 1000 men are admitted to the ranks each year.

Here’s how it works:

First, if you are male, between the ages of 17 1/2 and 39 1/2, you must get yourself to the door of a Foreign Legion facility within France. Literally, you must knock on the door of the Centre de Preselection in Paris or at the gate of Legion Headquarters in the hills above Marseilles; or at one of nine “recruiting offices” scattered in cities throughout the country. They are officially open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 6550986765_d4ae3024d0_b In truth, however, showing up during normal daytime business hours would be wise.

Potential recruits must have valid documentation from their country of origin, either a passport or government-issued ID, and a verified copy of their birth certificate obtained within the last six months. Aliases and anonymity are no longer an option.

And they must not be on Interpol’s wanted list!

Although it is expected that recruits will arrive with three sets of underwear and socks, sneakers, personal toiletries, and between 10-50 Euros, those who make it in the door are immediately provided food, lodging and uniforms.

That’s it; nothing else matters

Well, almost nothing else: Language doesn’t matter; there is no requirement to speak French. Marital status is unimportant: All recruits are treated as single men. There is no discrimination on the basis of citizenship, background, race, religion, education, training, previous military service, profession or expertise.

There are some “must nots” and some “should nots.” Among prohibited items are knives, weapons of any kind, and keys — no vehicle or personal house keys are allowed! Large amounts of cash, credit cards, jewelry and other valuables are highly discouraged. Cameras, personal computers and electronic devices must be left at home or abandoned.

Recruits must take IQ and personality tests, must pass sports and fitness tests, and must meet specific medical and physical standards. Only about one in eight candidates is accepted.4566623898_3897607b2f_b

Within a few days, those who “survive” an initial interview at a satellite center will be enlisted and transferred to one of the Legion’s two pre-selection centers, either in Paris or in the south of France. Finally, those who make it through the three to 14-day pre-selection testing are transferred to Legion Headquarters in Aubagne to complete the rigorous training process. And it is rigorous.

The initial commitment is for a five-year enlistment, and the entire pre-selection and selection process spans up to five weeks. After that there is training, and more training, then perhaps specialized training. And then duty assignments; often within France today,  sometimes in French territories, but truly all over the globe. The Legion has fought not only in French wars and in two World Wars, but in most of the world’s hot spots, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.

This year, on July 14, I watched with fascination as the new French president and the new American president beamed with pride as the Bastille Day parade along the Champs Elysees in Paris reached its conclusion.  As always, a detachment of Legionnaires participated and, as always, this unique fighting force constituted the final unit in the parade. The marching cadence of the Foreign Legion is measured and impressive (88 steps per minute rather than the normal 120) and a fitting finale to a day full of military pomp and tradition. 7467186668_61d2457d6b_z

The mystery and the magic of this special force still exist. The Pioneers with their leather aprons and axes seem throwbacks to another era as they march with pride and precision; and the band sounds the familiar somber beat.

But, across the globe, other Legionnaires stand ready, as necessary, to don their fatigues and get to work to put a devastated island nation back together. Or to fight, if called. It’s good to know they still exist.

If you’re interested in learning more about the French Foreign Legion, visit Uniforms, History, or 2016 News.

All Photos via Flickr (1) Brian Farrell, 2010; (2 & 4) Marcovdz, 2010; (3) Maglegion, 1993; (5) Archangel 12, 2012