1 Jul 2020

Canada Day greetings to everyone!

On July 1, Canada's official birthday, perhaps it's time for a little national navel gazing.

I'm happy to be living here, even though I find the winters too long. No place is perfect but I think we have a pretty decent track record, in general, when it comes to environmental issues, human rights and politicians that aren't completely appalling. Our history isn't without blips but we've done reasonably well over all and, certainly, are doing better than many countries. 

As I see it, we're sort of a savory stew as a nation; some bits are nicely tender and other chunks are chewy. Maybe it needs more time to cook properly, or just some seasoning. I'm no expert so, if you disagree with my simplistic assessment, I'm sorry – but I'm not sorry to be Canadian!

20 Jun 2020

Greetings to all dads & fatherly types!


I love this photo because of the setting and the man's gentle, solicitous body language. He's actually the grandfather of the little boy, Evri-Daniel. I took this shot several years ago and, since then, have had many enjoyable visits with this busy little family. They live just outside of the Marea del Portillo village and are lovely, kind and quite religious people. 

Evri-Daniel now has two younger sisters, as well as an older one, but the father, Arisbel, has assured me there won't be any more! Their two-room hut is rather crowded already, although Arisbel plans to add on. I'm very much looking forward to seeing this family again – especially the newest addition, Betsy Ruth, who was born in early April. 

If my April group trip had not been cancelled due to the pandemic, I would have been there soon after the birth, loaded with baby clothes and other gifts. I hope I'm able to visit before she grows too much!

Hasta luego,
Jenny


2 Jun 2020

Some thoughts on current affairs

I have generally tried to limit my posts here to Cuba or other travel-related topics. However, what has been happening in the U.S., particularly the murder of George Floyd, have been weighing heavily on my mind and heart. So, I am posting a letter that I wrote a few days ago and shared on various forms of social media. What goes on there affects us all, including those interested in travel to/from the States or anywhere else.
~ Jenny


--------------------------------------------------------------


May 28, 2020

Dear America,

When you elected Obama, we cheered. You gave us hope. We began to believe that, yes, we could do anything, if we worked together. The planet could be a kinder, gentler place, with renewed concern for the environment. Real respect for others could become a new normal. World peace seemed possible.

You stood tall. You walked with confidence, and you seemed to know the right direction to go. We began to fall in love with you all over again, the way we had in your glory days, when you were truly a world leader, a pillar of strength and a beacon of light in dark times.

Then, you turned on your heel and installed that other man in your seat of highest power. We were shocked. In that moment, you dashed our hopes and ripped off the veils. You were not what we thought you were. You were not what we wanted you to be. You could no longer be our darling or a beloved, trusted friend. As the days slid by in this new age, we saw more and more clearly that you were in trouble, and so were we.

In the end, we really are all in this together. Your failures affect those around you. When you take a knee in violence, destruction, depravity and disrespect to humanity, we all feel it on our throats. Your demons will dance on our graves too.

Please stop, America. Stop going down this reprehensible path. Stop the random killing. Stop hurting people. Stop trying to deceive everyone, including yourself. Stop lying and pretending everything’s okay. It’s not. You’re not okay and it’s hard to watch you self destruct. Some of us can’t view the news anymore; others can’t stop, as if seeing a slow-motion train wreck happening before our eyes. The moment of impact is coming. We can only hope you won’t take too many of us down with you.

It’s not too late to mitigate what’s going on, America, but it’s up to you. You can be bright and beautiful again. Please try.

With concern, on behalf of the international community,
Jenny from Canada



8 May 2020

Cuba's national flower: Celia Sánchez

The Sánchez family moved to Pilón circa 1940. The original home, which included a medical clinic, was destroyed by Hurricane Dennis in 2005 but a replica was built and is now a charming museum.
 
A true flower of Cuba's revolution first took root in Media Luna, a town so named because the river curving through it emulates a half moon. Media Luna is located in the province now called Granma, named for the ship that brought Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and 80 others from Mexico to Cuba in 1956. At the time of this revolutionary flower's birth, however, that eastern region of the island was still known as Oriente. 

Celia's birthplace in Media Luna is a now a museum.
Born on May 9, 1920, Celia Esther Sánchez Manduley was one of eight children in the family of Dr. Manuel Sánchez Silveira and Acacia Manduley. She was primarily raised by her father, though, because her mother died when Celia was just six years old. After finishing high school, she began working very closely with her father in his practice, often traveling to isolated homes and communities to provide medical care, as well as assisting in his clinic. Through this experience, she learned to know many families in the rural, mountainous area surrounding Media Luna and Pilón, where she moved at age 20, with her father. 

Celia's knowledge of the local people and the Sierra Maestra mountains proved extremely advantageous when she joined the resistance movement that was developing in the early 1950s. Her exploits and accomplishments before, during and after Cuba's revolution are well documented in books such as One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution by Nancy Stout, Celia Sánchez: The Legend of Cuba's Revolutionary Heart by Richard Haney and Celia Sánchez Manduley: The Life and Legacy of a Cuban Revolutionary by Dr. Tiffany A. (Thomas-Woodard) Sippial. An abundance of information about her can also be found through Internet searches.

Another view of the Sánchez home/museum in Pilón.
For example, you can find numerous references to her assisting her father in transporting a bust of José Martí (Jan. 28, 1853 - May 19, 1895) to the top of Pico Turquino, Cuba's highest peak, although some accounts have conflicting details and dates. This 163-pound effigy was created by Jilma Madera, the same woman who sculpted the Christ figure that overlooks the bay of Havana. The sculptor has said she contacted Dr. Sánchez about this project because he was a member of the Cuban Archaeology Association and knew the area. According to most sources, the mountain-top installation was likely done in 1952 or early '53, in recognition of his centenary, when Celia would have been 32. It seems appropriate to mention that since, this year, she would have been 100 herself. 

One of my favorite anecdotes about Celia is that she liked to collect jeeps and tanks – but it wasn't a private hobby! While fighting with the guerillas in the Sierra Maestras, she used her knowledge of the terrain to aid in luring Fulgencio Batista's forces toward swampy areas where the heavy vehicles would become mired, thus allowing the rebels to successfully conquer their opponents. To this day, I would imagine, much of that tank collection remains submerged in the swamps below La Comandancia de la Plata, the secret mountain headquarters of the rebel army. 

Celia in uniform (Pilón museum).
The captured jeeps, along with others she helped secure, were used during different aspects of the revolution. Since she'd learned to drive while living in Pilón, she likely drove some of those jeeps herself. Later, in 1959 and beyond, when she would have had the means to drive a fancier vehicle, she still chose a cheap jeep. 

Another story about Celia that never fails to affect me, whether I read or recount it, illuminates what motivated her to become a rebel fighter: her profound compassion for the people of Cuba, especially the children. One incident in particular incited her to step away from her privileged position in society and join the underground movement that sought to oust Bastista, the corrupt dictator who was backed by both the U.S. government and American Mafia. 

By 1953, this brutal regime was firmly ensconced in Havana and they could do whatever they wanted. In catering to the needs of Mafia clients flocking to the city's numerous casinos and hotels, Batista's henchmen often kidnapped young women and girls to be used as disposable sex toys. A 10-year-old child named Maria Ochoa, whom Celia had known since helping at her difficult birth, became one of their victims. When Celia learned that her dear Maria had been cruelly raped to death and her little body left like garbage in the basement of a Havana hotel, she was so incensed that she made the decision to change her life. And, in doing so, she helped change the course of Cuba's history. 

Media Luna's Celia memorial fountain.
Maria's tragic kidnapping and murder culminated in August 1953. By this time, Fidel Castro and many other rebels were imprisoned, following their failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26. Celia began working with the guerrillas and, by 1954, had made quite a name for herself, thus gaining the attention of both factions. Batista put a price on her head, ultimately offering a $75,000 (USD) bounty. Fidel began secretly communicating with her from jail, commending her resistance efforts and expressing his desire to meet her. 

When Fidel was freed from prison in 1955, he immediately fled to Mexico. He returned in December 1956 but did not actually meet Celia until 1957, even though she had played a significant role in preparing for the Granma's landing. If that arrival had gone as planned, she would have had jeeps waiting for him. When they did finally get together, they were effectively inseparable for the remainder of her life. If she was not beside him, she was usually nearby. 

Pilón memorial in a small park.
During one of his first key speeches upon triumphant arrival in Havana, she was there, in the wings. As he addressed their countrymen, to everyone's amazement, a white dove flew down and rested on Fidel's shoulder for several minutes, despite his animated movements. Celia saw dove as representing the spirit of Maria, her precious inspiration for helping to reshape Cuba. I find it interesting to note, as well, that "La Paloma" (the dove) was Fidel's nickname for Celia.

"The most beautiful flower."
He also referred to her as Cuba's most "autochonthous" flower which, in the context, can be interpreted as authentic or true. I'm sure he loved her, and was her lover. It's been said that the only time Fidel cried in public was at her funeral. Celia died of lung cancer on Jan. 11, 1980, and I've sometimes wondered if her death was a factor in the country's research and development of cancer drugs. It would seem fitting. She was an advocate for the Cuban people and concerned about their well-being in many ways; perhaps her death spurred on some of Cuba's medical achievements.

I see Celia Sánchez as a woman who was complex, remarkable and, indeed, a truly authentic national flower of Cuba. She bloomed brilliantly but left the world too soon. She accomplished a lot in her role as advisor to Fidel, after 1959, and the country continues to benefit from many of the ideas she proposed or supported – from national parks and literacy programs to Coppelia ice cream and Cohiba cigars. She is also fondly remembered for her charitable work, particularly in the Pilón area, where she spent about a quarter of her life and regularly distributed gifts for local children.

Sincerely, 
Jenny

The western entrance to Pilón has a row of memorial signs, beginning with Celia.


 
Here are more photos from Media Luna, Pilón and Manzanillo de Cuba, where there's an interesting memorial to Celia Sánchez positioned on a staircase, rather than a park.


~ Media Luna ~



   

~ Pilón ~



 



~ Manzanillo ~





~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


26 Apr 2020

There are many dates to celebrate in May, even if you don't like hummus

Workers' Day parades in Cuba typically include many flags, banners, placards and signs!
 
May is a busy month, as far as Mother Nature is concerned. Flowers are blooming. The birds and the bees are busy. All kinds of reproductive things are happening. For many humans, however, it's a rather slow month regarding regularly scheduled holidays.

Sure, there's May 1st, known as May Day to some and Labour Day to others. It's now noted as International Workers' Day on many calendars around the world but it's not always avidly celebrated. Mother's Day is pretty universally acknowledged as a card-carrying holiday, of course, but nobody gets the day off work, not even mothers. Mexico's Cinco de Mayo is gaining popularity beyond the country's borders but is still really just a national fiesta. In most parts of Canada, Victoria Day is a big deal but, even though it's generally seen as a national holiday, it isn't observed in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. 

There are also several obscure, theoretically worldwide holidays, like International Tuba Day and International Hummus Day. They're not yet sanctioned by the United Nations but, perhaps, there are some tuba players and hummus eaters pushing for that. Before officially observing either of those, though, I suspect the U.N. would likely recognize International Workers' Day. If/when they do, Cuba can lead the way!

Cuba has a trifecta of significant dates to celebrate in May, beginning with Workers' Day, which is marked with great hoopla. Even in small communities in the country's rural areas, there are parades, speeches, music and much waving of flags and placards. On May 1, the party is on! My friends on the island have told me that, despite the ubiquitous marches, the follow-up activities are not as community-wide as they once were. There are still many pig roasts but, now, the festivities are more familial. But, naturally, there will be a bit of beer drinking and socializing in the streets too. Es Cuba!


In Pilón, the dignitaries are ensconced on a nice, sunny balcony to view the parade.
























The second big-deal date is Mother's Day. It only makes sense, since Cubans are so family oriented. Now that the Internet is more accessible, many of my friends send me greetings on May 10, complete with glittering hearts and flashing flowers, even though they know I'm not a mother! They tell me I'm "like a mother" to many people – a nice compliment. However, some cubanos find it hard to imagine that a woman might choose not to have children.

On one of my earliest trips, I was going from Pilón to Marea del Portillo in a taxi, which is about a 15-minute ride, depending on the state of the road. To fill the time, the driver and I did our best to chat. Neither of us was fluent in the other's native tongue, so it was a challenge. "You have...uh...niños?" he asked.

"No," I replied, shrugging. I noted that I had a cat and a dog, though – "Tengo un gato y un perro."

He shook his head sadly. "No niños. Lo siento." He was sorry for me. Holding up multiple fingers, he explained that he had several. I forget the exact number but he was well on his way to creating his own soccer team. Then, with a wink and a modified pantomime, he offered his services to me for procreation purposes. In Spanglish, he pointed out he had a proven track record in that department and he would be happy to help. "No hay problema!" 

I politely declined. "No, gracias." I'm sure I blushed but I didn't feel like I needed to jump out of the car and run away. He wasn't menacing or pushy; he just made his friendly offer and took no for an answer. However, when we arrived at my destination and I prepared to exit the vehicle, he did encourage me to call him later, if I changed my mind. I didn't. It's a funny little story to me now because I understood that he didn't mean any harm and truly believed I would want to be a mother, if I could. 

Another woman who never had any children but was motherly to many cubanos is the reason for a third important date in May. Celia Sánchez Manduley was born on May 9 and, if she were still alive in 2020, she would be 100 years old. She's such a significant part of Cuba's history, though, that I think she deserves to be featured separately. Check back for more... coming soon!

Keep smiling,
Jenny

Celia Sánchez lived in Pilón for many years, so images of her are featured in parades there.

24 Apr 2020

In Cuba, April showers bring crabs

Crabs are hot in April!



You may have heard the old adage, "April showers bring May flowers." That's true in many places but isn't accurate everywhere. In Cuba, flowers bloom all year; April showers bring crabs. 

The start of Cuba's wet season triggers the migration of the Caribbean land crab, Gecarcinus ruricola. Spring rains generally begin in late March, so crabs may start appearing in greater abundance at that point but, in April, their mass migration to the sea usually peaks. Some late bloomers, if you want to call them that, can also be seen hiking back and forth during May and, possibly, in early June. These are the crabs who had difficulty getting dates. But, for all intents and purposes, April is crab month. 

Found throughout the Caribbean, G. ruricola is a terrestrial crab that comes in a variety of colors – primarily black, red, yellow and green. In Cuba, the "red" land crab is the most prevalent but I've seen a rainbow assortment of these fist-sized (on average) crustaceans over the years. The crab's main shell, or carapace, grows at an approximate rate of one inch (25 mm) per year, it reaches maturity within five years and its normal life expectancy is 10 years... unless it's crushed by a car while crossing a road.

You might well wonder, why does a crab want to cross a road? Sex, baby! These critters need the ocean for mating, even though they're not doing it in the surf or on the beach, as romantic as that may seem to some. To understand the crabby love life, let's step back a bit. About four million years ago, they were sea creatures but, as time evolved, they did too. Now, they prefer to live in the forest, in burrows. Such damp and shaded places are important because they need a moist environment in order to breathe properly. I guess evolution only goes so far sometimes. However, reproduction still requires sea water.

Anyway, when the spring rains begin, the outside world becomes humid enough for them to emerge from their dank dens and venture forth, looking for love. First, I've read, the males clamor off to the ocean to bathe. Why not? What gal, no matter how hard-shelled, wants to mate with a smelly crustacean who's been living in a dirty hole? I would posit that the initial migratory wave that appears is really just the guy-crabs going for a nice, cleansing swim. Unfortunately, going from forest to ocean often necessitates crossing a road. Such are the hazards of modern life, evolution aside.

Hey, baby, you're looking crabby!

These crusty little dudes (and dudettes, for that matter) have an evolutionary enhancement (to use the term loosely) to their personal hydration systems that could make them especially aromatic in a hot environment. Essentially, they pee on themselves. They use a "nephritic pad" for this and, after the cleansing assistance of microbes, are able to reabsorb their own urine. This does help offset dehydration in a hot climate but I'm guessing it smells worse that sweat, although probably not to a crab. Attraction can be a mysterious thing.

Once the hot female crabs are properly impregnated, they begin their massive march to the sea, each with a payload of about 85,000 eggs, which they will release into the water and hope for the best. Their eggs will hatch in a few weeks and, if not eaten, the little ones will eventually clamor back up onto land and move in with some nice older crabs who have a spacious, shady burrow and can provide food for them. Then, the crab life cycle will continue on repeat in perpetuity, unless tragedy befalls. 

However, there are quite a few potential misadventures that can befall these crusty creatures. In addition to the potential perils presented by crossing roads, particularly in urban areas, crabs could also drown! Although the ocean was once their home, they have apparently evolved so far beyond their roots that they're not even good swimmers any more. And, naturally, there's the possibility they'll be eaten. Crabs' main predators are birds but, in some places, humans also eat them. The meat is rich in protein but, depending on the location where the crab has lived, it can be toxic. They can absorb excessive amounts of tungsten, according to my readings. So, before cracking open a land crab and dipping it in butter, you may want to find out what the locals have to say about eating it.

In Cuba, as far as I've been able to discern, most people eschew eating G. ruricola,  the red land crab. But, please note, I'm no expert on this culinary matter! When I've been in Marea del Portillo or other parts of the country during crab migration, I've often asked if these crabs could be eaten. I've usually been told "no" but, sometimes, I received a different answer, such as "why not?" That, if nothing else, intrigues me.

When I am again able to visit Cuba in April, I will likely explore this further. Eating tungsten-enfused crabs, perhaps, would be a problem if you ate them on a regular basis but, if only ingested the odd time....? I have to admit, I'm curious. Stay tuned! 

Keep smiling,
Jenny

Catch ya later!