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,

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,

Catch ya later!

4 Apr 2020

Great expectations and Cuban travel

These three kids have a new baby sister! I believe they'll be adding another room to the house this summer. I'll be looking forward to seeing this growing family and their expanded home in November!

A few weeks ago, I was busily preparing to lead a trip to Cuba, sending out information to my group members and making sure all the booking details had been finalized. Now, in what would have been the home stretch before the anticipated April 15 departure, I would have been knee-deep in packing. I would have been determinedly trying to stuff as much as I could into two suitcases weighing no more than 50 lbs./23 kg each. That's the typical pre-trip pattern.

If the world had continued as usual, I would have had my suitcases laid out on the sofa bed in the den with beach towels, bundles of clothing and an array of other things piled nearby. My personal items would come later; they generally take up only a small percentage of allowable luggage capacity since most of the things I take to Cuba are gifts. 

This time, I'd planned to take special gifts for some growing families. When I was at Marea del Portillo this past October/November, I learned that four young women I know were due to give birth right around the time of my next expected visit. For two of them, this will be the first baby, another will be having her second child and the fourth is on her fourth. 

A few days ago, I received a brief email from the excited father in the latter family to say his wife had just birthed a 7.2-lb. girl. He was rushing off to the maternity hospital in Manzanillo, about 2 hours from their home. I'm still waiting for further messages to tell me the baby's name and reassure me that mom and babe are okay. Is there more danger of contracting COVID-19 in a large hospital than in a small community? I certainly hope not! [APRIL 10 - UPDATE: I've received word that the name chosen for this little girl is "Betsy Ruth." I had suggested several names, including Betsy, which was a special nickname my father had for my mother; nobody else called her that. My friends chose that to honor her and Ruth, to honor me, since that's my middle name too!]

Instead of thinking about what gifts to take for my friends, I'm now concerned about how they're doing. Will they be okay in these difficult times? How much will they be at risk as they go out and about to get food and other necessities? Will they even have soap? [Soap had been in short supply recently, so I have bags of bars ready to pack and go!]

In Cuba, people typically need to shop more frequently than many North Americans do and, unfortunately, they must often stand in line to wait their turn to enter the shops. As well, in that highly social culture it will be a big challenge not to greet friends with kisses and hugs! So, social distancing will be difficult for people in Cuba for many reasons.

This will be the first time in over a decade that I haven't taken a trip to Cuba in the first quarter of the year. I won't likely be able to go to my "second home" in Marea del Portillo until the middle of November, even though I'm sure the travel ban will be lifted long before that. This will be a long year but I'm already looking forward to big hugs and many kisses when I'm finally able to see my friends again, and to meet all the newly minted babies!

By the time I see this young man again, he'll be a father for the first time!

Keep smiling,