Summer Heat, Music & Tramites in Cuba: My Canadian Perspective

If I had my way, I’d spend the entire summer in my home province of Prince Edward Island, Canada. This Cuban heat is insufferable! But due to an unusual set of circumstances entirely beyond my control, that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. So I usually limit myself to a month or a little more of life in the developed world every spring/early summer, surrounded by family and my oldest friends. This year’s highlights were booting around Charlottetown on a Toba electric bike (fun, fast, and affordable), hanging with and catching up with my oldest girlfriends (and especially my hula-hooping/kite-flying bff), Canada Day escapades on her daughters’ electric scooters that we “borrowed” including a perch at the Grand Holman penthouse suite to view the fireworks, and being invited into the delivery room to see my sister give birth to her second daughter. Not having procreated myself, my girlfriends all urged me to accept her invitation, conditional on my not planning on actually ever going through that experience myself. It was worth it, very amazing indeed. The lowlights were watching my parents age before my eyes while my siblings and I struggle with issues of how to manage the next stage of their lives while providing them with all the independence and dignity they deserve. That part makes me tear up a little just thinking about it, maybe because I don’t live or deal with their issues on a daily basis which, admittedly, can be frustrating. Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived in Cuba for so long that I’ve resolved that we should not resort to moving either of them into a care facility until the situation is unmanageable. But I almost went over the edge when my sister suggested a nursing home might be the best thing for my mother. My Cuban sister in law was the one that helped me deal with that blow, also agreeing that between all of us we’ll find a way to manage things for as long as we can. Between the four siblings and our families, and thanks in no small part to my sister, we’ve managed so far but two of us, including my brother and his family who live beside my father in PEI, spend the entire winter in Cuba. We’ve been lucky enough to be able to acquire a property facing our house here in Havana which we’ve been plugging away at turning into the “Old Folks Home” where we hope to be able to provide our elderly family members with a supervised place to stay close to their children, independent to a large extent, but with a support network nearby. That construction project and another one in Old Havana destined for a cooperative my husband has proposed, have been occupying a lot of our time and most of our personal resources over the last year. But more on those in a future post.

Being tied up financially and time-wise, we don’t have a lot going on in our social schedule these days. But we have managed to take in a few memorable activities nonetheless. One was a day trip to visit friends who rent a house with a pool every summer for their family mountain vacation in Soroa. When we got there our host took one look at me and told me “No te hagas la extranjera” (Don’t play the foreigner). Yes, it’s been that long that they even want to strip that away from me. We ended up having to go back a couple of days later with the trailer in tow to rescue a friend’s motorcycle that broke down on his return in La Moka. That ended up being a full-day adventure in itself with a broken wheel bearing in my husband’s car. Light on tools for once in his life, we ended up being incredibly fortunate when we pulled over close to some Pinareños who were prepared for just about anything. And who said that Pinareños were fools?! Several couples in 2 cars and an old truck had intended to spend the day at leisure in Las Terrazas but they arrived late and the visitor capacity was already full, so they just camped out roadside, opened up their cooler, turned up the music and fixed a spread of roast pork and tamales right out of the trunk of their ´57 Chev in the middle of nowhere. Luckily it was in the shade. The inner part of the bearing was stuck on the axle and after much tooling around and more than 2 hours, and several trips by myself and the other girl in our car to ask for one tool or another while my husband and his friend tried every experiment they could think of to loosen the inner part of the bearing, the Pinareño men finally wrenched themselves away from their girlfriends and hammered the old bearing to pieces so we could install the new one and get back on the road. Thank heavens for those resourceful Cubans. They had more tools in the back of their truck than most hardware stores stock in Cuba.

Since we live outside of town we don´t often take in evening cultural performances, but we have indulged a few times this summer. My favorite was visiting the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (F.A.C.) the night William Vivanco was playing. We arrived on a Saturday just before 8 pm when they open and checked out the various exhibitions of architecture, fashion, and visual art on 2 levels, snacked on octopus, and sipped iced tea while we chatted with friends on the upstairs deck. X Alfonso’s mom was even working helping to set up the upstairs bar when we arrived. She and her husband, from the Cuban group Synthesis, are probably considered among Cuba’s cultural royalty, but as with most Cuban personalities, they take all of that in stride. It’s funny how relatively respectful Cubans are of some of their best-known personalities compared to how celebrities outside of Cuba are often bombarded in public spaces. We stayed long enough to catch just a few songs by one of my favorite Cuban troubadors downstairs before we skipped out to get home at a decent hour. Although it’s open until 4 a.m., we left at around 11:30 and by then the lineup already extended around the corner. This is one fabulous space for adults of various ages.

Less culturally fulfilling for me, but perhaps more amusing in a sense was our first-ever visit to the Maxim Rock theater. A Cuban rock group associated with a motorcycle club my husband is in recently auditioned and were approved by the commission, and was making their professional debut. We sat with a photographer friend of ours who’s also in the club. While I love rock & roll, listening to most Cubans singing it with a Spanish accent and often bad pronunciation is just not my cup of tea. We are da champions my frens. You know. Our friends had (for the first time ever) invited another group to open for them. And the lead singer was actually pretty impressive. Not only because he didn’t massacre the lyrics for me, but because he was also a one-armed guitar player. I’ve never seen anything like that before. His left arm was amputated below the elbow and he had a strap-on pick to strum with. The female backup singers had decent voices, but their English pronunciation was driving me up the wall, so I headed out for a bathroom break before my shoulders adhered to my ears as I listened to them killing Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll”. The Cubans don’t know the difference and seemed to love it, so why ruin it for my husband. Grin & bear it. On the way back in I almost got whipped in the face by one of the dreadlock headbangers. His dreads reached his knees and he was swinging them around in a circle (too close to the door) as I awaited my chance to skip by him. I felt like I was on Frogger waiting for the right moment to step between the buses and cars before getting run over. It wasn’t even a heavy song. But Cuban rock & roll lovers are over the top when it comes to their preferred genre. I wanted to take a picture of all the long-haired people in front of the stage as their locks rose into the air along with the beat, but as soon as I stepped cautiously onto my plastic chair with my camera to get an elevated view, I was promptly extended a hand by the gracious security staff, caught breaking the no standing on the chairs rule. Darn! So I just kept ogling the costumes and funny dancers. Skinny jeans with an oversized belt buckle tucked into cowboy boots on a man. Just Don’t Do It. Guys overindulging in whisky dancing all by themselves like no one was watching in the middle of the room. Me thinking that this is a time warp, but even in the ‘80s when this music was popular people in Canada didn’t dress with that much leather, much less in the year 2014. And our dear photographer friend turned out to be a regular rock & roll encyclopedia. While in high school, I was the only girl in a rock band and at the time I thought those guys (all older than me) knew all kinds of rock history, but they pale in comparison to Jorge the Rock Dictionary. The bass player of a group I used to dabble with here once told me that since when he was growing up they didn’t play rock & roll on the radio in Cuba the only time they could listen to it would be on certain radio frequencies when weather would carry the transmissions from southern Florida to Cuba. As Jorge was rattling off facts to us about different musicians and groups, I was thinking to myself that being deprived of rock & roll at some point in their youth probably only served to fuel his passion. You always want what you don’t have. And I’m glad you’re sitting beside my husband, not me, because I’m trying to take in these videos I haven’t seen since the days of the Canadian show Video Hits.

How’s the weather this summer? Freaking hot. 30 degrees before the sun comes up practically. And when it rains, it pours. Some sections of town quickly flood due to clogged drains. I purchased a filter for collecting rainwater at our house for the garden (little Ms. Ecological me) but we still haven’t gotten around to finding the right materials to custom-build the gutters since no store here sells pre-fabricated gutters. But I am committed to completing that project before the next rainy season rolls around. I’m really looking forward to the cooler fall weather. We generally avoid the beach in the peak part of the Cuban summer. Too many people, too much noise, too much rum. But at least there’s some wind today which makes life a bit more bearable. And I am completely aware and ever-thankful for a/c in our bedroom and main vehicle. Last year we purchased an a/c unit for our main living area but only rarely turn it on for a short while in the morning to refresh the temperature in the house if it’s especially stuffy, then turn on the fans, open all windows and let the breeze blow through. We’re hoping to take at least 4 or 5 days off in September to get away and explore a bit. There are some great new boutique properties that have opened in Camaguey which I’m eager to see with my own eyes, and checking out a few hostels and restaurants in Cienfuegos is also on my list of things to do. Diving will definitely be tossed in there – my Cuban husband has his navigation authorization all signed/stamped by the Cuban Coast Guard so we’re ready to take the plunge back into the underwater world.

One of the best things that happened to me here all summer so far was the speed of re-registering a vehicle. I normally wake up in the wee hours of the morning to go get in the lineup of cars at motor vehicles when the registration is set to expire each August. Last year I sat for hours with a friend who was on his fourth visit/attempt, and he finally gave up around noon when the system still hadn’t come up. This year when I stopped in mid-morning to verify the amount of stamps I’d require for the renewal they asked why I didn’t just come back before 1 pm and get it over with the same day. Excited at that prospect, I immediately hot-tailed it to the nearest bank to buy the stamps. When I got there I realized it wasn’t my day. The old age pensioners were collecting that day, so the single lineup to get into the bank was at least 2 hours long by my estimation. I marked my place in the line anyway, but decided to check out another branch. The branch by the Tropical had 2 lineups, one for credit applications and another for the counter. I figured the lineup for the counter there would be just about 1 hour, so I marked my place in the line, found out who was in front of the lady before me, called my husband and told him to bring in the work car that I had to have registered since as long as it was there before 1 pm they’d promised same-day service. And then I hauled my trusty abanico (fan) out of my purse and pulled up some shade. The conversation in the lineup focused a lot on complaints about how they talk about all the problems in Cuba on local tv, but nobody gets around to solving them. When the bank staff member assigned to crowd control at the door stepped out for a few minutes to buy snacks, more than a few people snuck in to try their luck at sweetening up somebody in side to make the line shorter. That incenses sweating and elderly Cubans to no end. When you are finally lucky enough to get your foot in the door, it’s to take one of the 20 seats and wait your turn. But at least there’s air conditioning in there. People inside are even smiling and joking around. Until the lady at the door tells all the pensioners in there that she hoped they’d read the sign on the door indicating that they were only doling out pensions of up to 200 Cuban pesos that day. Anyone with a pension larger than that was assigned a different day to collect their money. Uproar by the elderly. What?!?! All this time waiting and NOW you tell us?!?! One man walked out, but came back a few minutes later when he realized he’s misunderstood what she said. None of them had a pension in excess of 200 Cuban pesos, so they were all good to go. One lady with amputated legs was carried to a waiting car (driven presumably a family member) to return home. My husband used to have an authorization to charge his grandmother’s pension on her behalf, but not all of the elderly have/trust someone to do that for them. I don’t know why they don’t just do it by direct deposit, but that might be too easy. In Cuba they like their bureaucracy. There was a big kerfuffle when one grandmother who was surely over 90 fainted outside in the lineup. Everyone inside started yelling for the woman who guarded the door to unlock it, the bank manager came out to tell everyone to quiet down while they seated the abuela inside in the a/c to wait her turn, but in more comfortable conditions. It was a bit of a circus. After 90 minutes I had my $40 in stamps and made a beeline back to the car registry office where I emerged an hour later, good to go for yet another year. This year it took longer to buy the stamps than to get the car’s specs printed by the authorities, have its serial #s and lights inspected, photos of the motor/plates taken, paperwork signed, stamped & verified in the system, and registration issued. It appears that most vehicle owners have already had the new white license plates issued and for the first time ever this tramite was super easy. There are some things to give thanks for, and this is one of them. That’s how it should work every year. But I’m glad that for once in two decades I had a positive experience registering a vehicle here. I even took a picture of the empty waiting room because I’ve never, ever seen it like that before.

Enough rambling for today though. Over and out probably until after we get to actually take a few days of well-earned vacation for ourselves.

My Latest Pet

Lucky2“Lucky” walked into my life a few months back, skittish with sad-looking eyes and dermatitis. We don’t know if he was abandoned by his owners or just got lost, but after a month of us and our closest neighbors all tossing this sickly mutt of a dog food scraps every day (which only made him want to stay around longer), I finally caved in and decided to take him in. I started by shampooing him down which didn’t seem to bother him a bit. On the contrary, I think he loved the attention. That went well, so I picked him clean of fleas and set him out in the sun to dry. My neighbor recommended a very reasonable and competent local veterinarian where we took him for an injection and some blue anti-flea liquid she massaged into his neck. She suggested some anti-itch tablets and we took him down into Guanabo for a total of 3 shots over 3 weeks. He got to take rides in the car which he wasn’t so sure about, but he was very cooperative with the shots and barely even flinched. He also basked in the daily brushing in the opposite direction of his hair growth, which lifted out all his dry flaky skin. For a total cost of under $10 and in just a few weeks of treatment his hair had all grown back in and he was a shiny new boy feeling much more confident in himself.

I call him Lucky because he’s darned lucky we took him in when I definitely wasn’t looking for or wanting the duties a dog requires. We had a dog when we first married, a Belgian Shepherd. Who died of “moquillo”. That dog loved my husband but was a little crazy and would repeatedly throw itself against the metal door in the hallway when we’d leave in the morning, so much did he not like being left alone. After a couple of weeks of treating it with shots and “sueros” the neighborhood veterinarian concluded that the dog was past the point of no return, that even if he recovered he would have suffered irreparable neurological damage and it was time to put him down. I still remember the poor thing looking at us as it died, trying to hang on and the vet telling us to move out of his vision so he would just go to sleep. And then having to figure out where to get rid of the corpse. When you live in the city and back then we were traveling mostly by motorcycle. Only more recently have I discovered an improvised pet cemetery on the outskirts of Alamar, but I’m sure disposal of dead pet is an issue for many city dwellers.

We didn’t have a dog for awhile after that but my husband’s elderly grandmother had a small white dog called Canela. She loved that dog, and it was her constant companion. While I was visiting family in Canada my husband once took Canela home with him to stay at our house for a couple of days for one reason or another. Canela also hated to be left home alone during the day; she howled and howled all day long. Until she figured out how to escape and we never saw her again. We felt so bad for his grandmother’s loss that one day when we were at the beach and an evidently lost dog approached us, we decided to take him home. We bathed and perfumed him, tied a red bow on his ears and brought him to his grandmother as a present. But by then she (or perhaps more so her primary care-giver at the time) had decided that she didn’t want the work of a dog. Oh, crap. What did we do? We brought it back to the beach close to where we found it, convinced that he was quite healthy (probably not because of the abundance of beach scraps) and must have a home near there somewhere and if not somebody else would take him in.

Before Lucky arrived, I’d acted like a surrogate mother to our neighbors’ dogs for years without having the obligation of having to ensure their daily food. But those stupid sad eyes. I just couldn’t say no. He looooooves me. I assigned him a food and water dish out back in the patio. He knows they’re his, although the next door neighbor dog Dora would like some of the action since she was always the scrap recipient before Lucky. Dora the Explorer I call her, because she spends more time roaming around in our patio than her own, even though she has a guaranteed meal next door every night. She knows how to get through our wrought iron/brick fence but none of the other mangy neighborhood dogs have caught on yet. So being his most frequent visitor, Dora’s Lucky’s best friend. Dora’s the dominant female in the relationship. When they play-fight, Lucky more often than not rolls over and gives in to Dora the Boss at the first sign of trouble.

He has good habits such as doing his duty in the garden so I don’t have to clean turds off the patio. I can’t complain there. Early on during his first month living in our yard, one day at dusk I noticed his belly was swollen up like a balloon and I asked my neighbor if she’d happen to notice what he’d gotten into. She’d given him congris (rice & black beans), nothing out of the ordinary, but as we were talking he and Dora started fighting over the “frasada de piso” (Cuban mop cloth) I’d placed under the beach chair in our covered patio where Lucky used to sleep. They’d ripped it to shreds and quite a few of the pieces were missing, so we figure he ate it. My neighbor said we could take him down for an enema. But the vet was sick, and I wasn’t about to give the dog an enema, seriously. I have my limits. And my husband? Don’t even go there. My dog, my responsibility. By the next morning he was back to his regular size and apparently he’d passed the frasada in the garden. He now sleeps in an area he’s dug out in the dirt under the cover of a trailer in our garden. No more frasada de piso, sorry buddy.

He’s recently developed a bad tendency to nip at the heels or calves of strangers as they’re walking. He sneaks up behind them and catches them unaware, not quite so brave (or stupid?) as to confront them head-on. He’s nipped my stepson and my brother, and a few other people have sent in their reports. The utilities people who come to the house usually circumspectly eye him up before coming in to see if they can trust him or not. Best that they think he can only be trusted when we’re around, according to my neighbor. I wasn’t so sure about that and the other morning when my husband opened the gate to take out the car, unbeknownst to me Lucky escaped to roam around the block and mark his territory. We live on probably one of the quietest blocks in Havana and I can usually count the people who stroll by in the course of the day on one hand. Absorbed in the computer, all of a sudden a woman across the street starting yelling and I ran out to see what was amok. All puffed up with his new confidence, Lucky thought he was doing his job protecting the block, of which thinks he’s now the boss, and he’d nicked her calf with one of his sharp little teeth. The woman turned out to be my neighbor’s doctor cousin who has blood coagulation issues. She is not a dog person and was not terribly understanding about the whole situation, but fortunately my neighbor was able to smooth things over with her and explain some of his history before I sheepishly slipped over there to apologize after I thought she’d had some time to calm down after her initial fright.

I’m not about to take him to obedience classes but I am probably going to be paying a little closer attention to Cesar Milian the Dog Whisperer on Multivision. In the meantime, Lucky’s not going to be one of those dogs who has to be tied up all the time, but he’s definitely going to have to be confined to the perimeter of our property until he learns how to behave around strangers. You can bark all you want, but the biting has got to go if I’m to stay in the good graces of the neighbors.

Cuban Harlistas 2014 Rally & Family Tales

We left off last time with me anxiously awaiting the arrival of a container ship from Panama carrying 13 motorcycles bound for our Harlistas Cubanos 2014 event in Varadero from February 6-10. The ship was late leaving Panama on Jan. 23 and the first ETA we were given was for January 31st. As that date approached, it was then adjusted to Feb. 3. But the stars and the moon and all the spirits were with us this time. The ship arrived in the Havana port at 21:00 on Feb. 3rd, they began unloading it at 23:00 and by 16:00 on Feb. 4th all the bikes were sitting in the parking lot of the Panama biker group’s hotel with everything lined up for their temporary license plates & registration with the motor vehicles office just down the street the next morning. Record time, according to the port officials. So we didn’t have to resort to my worst case scenario of me having to stay back and continue to get the paperwork completed while Abel, the main organizer of the international encounter, went to Varadero without me on the back of his bike once again (last year’s riding to the gathering on the back of the Blue Streak was disappointingly out for me due to a back injury). This year´s encounter included participants from Cuba, Panama, Norway, Germany, Holland, Denmark, and Canada. The number of foreign bikes registered for the encounter almost matched the number of bikes from Cuba, a first.

The Panama group is the first we’ve hosted on their own bikes from South America. They told us that there was a lot of talk in their part of the world that if you sent your bike to Cuba you’d never see it again. Which made us laugh, because of course it’s not true. They’re certain their numbers will grow significantly for next year now that the temporary importation/re-exportation process has been thoroughly proven. Actually, we’re not quite yet out of the woods, and that’s the funny part. After the event was over, on Feb. 10 everyone drove to the port and packed up all the bikes in the shipping container once again, and we even optimistically hoped that we could move forward their original shipping return date from Feb. 28 to Feb. 14. Mid-week we spent a frantic morning on the phone because there was a question about the Dangerous Goods Certificate, which was originally issued in Panama, but a copy of which hadn’t been received here. After much calling back & forth, the go-ahead was given from Panama and payment of the certificate on the other end was guaranteed. The container was going to be loaded on the ship. Pshew, wipe your brow and take a breath. But in the end it turns out that the container wasn’t loaded after all because the customs agency on this end hadn’t delivered the Declaration of Merchandise to the container port in time, so everything’s now in place to depart as originally planned the end of the month. I’ll take that.

Yesterday the organizer of the Panama group called us to check on the status of the paperwork and return shipment of the bikes and Abel reassured him that everything was set for departure sometime at the end of February/beginning of March. Tranquilo, no hay problema ninguno. He’s on top of this. After he got off the phone I got a mischievous gleam in my eye and I told him he should have told the organizer, “Yeah, right. And you REALLY thought it was going to be that easy? Of COURSE the importation part’s a breeze, but you SERIOUSLY thought we were going to just send all those modern bikes back to Panama just like that?!?!?!?”. Abel cracked up and started expanding on that idea, saying he should tell him that “Your bikes have already been distributed all around Cuba. That 2014 Harley Fat Boy that was making so much noise all the time? That’s already rolling the streets of Santiago de Cuba!!!”. Hahahahahahahahahaha It would be great to catch his reaction to THAT on a hidden camera. Which got us thinking that hidden camera pranks might be another great thing to do over the next year with some of our motorcycle friends here in Cuba. You’ll have to stay tuned for that and see what happens.

My parents who haven’t lived together in more than 20 years (but neither of whom has remarried) arrived in Havana last night after missing their Sunday flight through Toronto due to yet more snow in eastern Canada. The new route took them through Montreal and Toronto with an overnight before arriving in Havana. They’d shared a hotel room the night before. So 1.5 hours after touching down in Havana they were finally through immigration, luggage claim and customs. Hello, hello, kiss, kiss. And then they’re both at it. Dad complaining about Mom not being able to be left alone or she’d get lost. Mom complaining that Dad’s deaf and Dad saying, “What?” with a snicker. Probably pretending to be deaf so she’d stop rambling. Mom trying to scam $300 out of Dad. He says she already spent it all. Them bickering about the hefty $10 tip she gave to the guy inside the airport for getting Dad a wheelchair so he didn’t have to walk anymore, bringing her a pop and assisting with her luggage. Dad saying she’s upsetting the economic balance. Mom telling him to blow it out his ear. With 3 flights in 2 long days, Dad’s knees/feet were a bit swollen but hopefully in a couple of days he’ll be back to normal. He’s off to the city tagging along with Abel who’s running errands this afternoon, a wonderful climate adjustment and change in scenery. Mom’s staying with my brother’s family basking in being Grammy. And not sleeping in the same room with Dad.

We’ve made a couple of videos this season too. Getting with the social media scene. The first one we produced is of our bicycle tours of Cuba, and most recently one of the Harlistas Cubanos 2014 event which should be finished tomorrow. Once we have the finished product, getting the videos uploaded is a monumental task from Cuba since our dial-up internet connection won’t support a 100 MB upload. So our heartfelt thanks to the clients who so graciously provide the assist in forwarding those DVD’s back to our PEI office. It takes a lot longer, and is a lot more circuitous, but eventually it gets done. It was recently announced that they’re going to make internet connections available via cell phones here. But I’ve heard through the grapevine that the rates are apparently going to be in the $0.05/KB range when the service is finally activated. Ouch! Something like the unattainable car prices here. Somebody also told me there was talk about giving existing internet users triple the time for the same monthly fee. For me, that’d be welcome compensation because on windy (like today) or rainy days my connection runs between slow and stopped most of the time. But I imagine this is just wishful thinking as I dutifully paid my extra hours last month. To connect from my home office, I pay for 80 hours/month which is the maximum package you can buy and even though I have credit in my account, when the monthly allotment runs out I have to make a personal trip to the local telephone office to request the extra time. Stop work, go to office, wait in line, sign letter, go back home. Call office to make sure account is reactivated asap. For those of you who live in the wifi/hyperconnected world, welcome to 1990. There’s been no official notification of free extra hours even though I regularly let them know that my home phone line and internet connection truly suck. They know that though, I suspect.

Signing off and getting back to work. I wonder how long it’s going to take to upload this post.

Hectic Santa-Free Holidays

The hectic holiday season is here, but for us it has absolutely nothing to do with last minute shopping, thankfully. Our office flooded a couple of weeks ago and we had a big disagreement with the building management, which I’m pretty sure has all but been smoothed over now. But it was touch & go for a few days on finding a new location for January, which had my brother all in a tizzy since we’re in the midst of our bicycle tour season and he just doesn’t have the time for a move/new set-up. While most of our reservations are made far in advance, once the extreme high season dates arrive, there are almost always last minute surprises. They began to roll in on Dec. 20. One client who arrived in Santa Clara has reserved a late model Peugeot vehicle with automatic transmission with Rent Car VIA (who has the lowest rates of the 4 rental companies for extreme high season). When she arrived, they presented her with an older Peugeot automatic model which was a lower category than the one she booked. Right away, she called me and I contacted their operations office who readily recognized the problem which was due to a breakdown in the vehicle they’d assigned to her rental. She opted not to take the downgrade they were offering and later that same day (luckily) they delivered the model she’d prepaid. One down, how many more to go? The next day while we were at our end of the year motorcycle club party, I received a call from a client who’d picked up his VIA automatic transmission Peugeot vehicle in Havana but by the time he’d arrived in Viñales it wouldn´t turn to the right. He also followed instructions and contacted us for advice. I told him to contact the rental company´s 24-hr operations line and ask for the car to be towed, and have the rental company´s functionary corroborate the fact that it was no longer operational. The next day he had a replacement car, despite the fact that when he first contacted them they said they had no automatics remaining. Then I had someone else who was supposed to pick up a Geely CK from Rent Car VIA upon his international arrival in Holguin. He called me the next day mid-morning to advise that they’d delivered a vehicle whose check engine and ABS lights were lit, and the vehicle cut out 3 times before he could even leave the parking lot. The rental counter functionary made note of the technical deficiencies on his contract and told him to go to the Hotel Bosque the next day to try and get another car. For some reason the client was told not to contact us from the airport, that there would be no one working that late at night. Wrong information, but at any rate I was still able to investigate the chain of events, establish with the airport rental counter that the car was definitely not in working order upon delivery (despite conflicting information from the rental company’s operations office), and finally in less than an hour a replacement vehicle was on its way.

In the middle of all the rental car troubleshooting, I received a last minute request from a U.S. group who’d been getting the runaround from the intermediary arranger who’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to book their services for early January. I agreed to take them on, although somewhat against my better judgment this close to departure and during our busiest time of the year. I’ve secured most services but am still waiting for a quotation on their transport/extrahotel package. I was able to do a little investigative work on their booking at the Havanatur 35-year anniversary gala dinner we were invited to on Dec. 19. The intermediary who poses as a “guide” was booking their services through another agency and collecting a big chunk of cash for payment on arrival. Not much security in that modis operandi, and from all accounts the end result was a very inflated package price. Unbeknownst to me at the gala dinner they seated me beside one of the vice presidents of Havanatur where we’ve been represented in the Cuban Chamber of Commerce for over a decade now. After I asked her what department she worked in, and she told me her position I probed a little further and discovered that Havanatur has made cuts and only represents 5 foreign travel agencies now, and only three of us had been invited to their gala dinner. Presumably the other two aren’t producing sufficient sales to justify representation through their organization for much longer. We took home a plaque, a reproduction of a Cecilia Valdes painting, other miscellaneous gifts, and were enriched with a performance by a young opera group called Habana Clasicos. Their regular gig is on Friday nights @ 9 :30 at the Hotel Sevilla for anyone looking to take in some high-level cultural entertainment.

On Dec. 20 we were given Havanatur invitations to the 70th anniversary of the debut of Alicia Alonso as Giselle. The performance was at the National Theatre (the Gran Teatro is still under renovations) and didn’t disappoint. At intermission I couldn’t take my eyes off a fellow outside who may qualify for one of the biggest fashion faux pas I’ve seen to date. Zebra-striped shirt with, get this, matching zebra-striped tight pants. What was he thinking, I wondered to myself as I unsuccessfully tried to force myself to look the other way. I did think of snapping a picture but I just couldn’t do it. Tropicola and fried sweet potato chips and we were back for the second act.

On Dec. 21 my nieces were invited to our house for a sleepover. My brother’s youngest daughter is just 3 and wasn’t in our initial sleepover plans, but she made such a convincing plea that we relented and told her that we’d give it a try. As her mother was pulling her things out of the closet, Amanda instinctively knew her Mom was not altogether comfortable with letting go and she looked at her and said, “Mami, it’s ok. Don’t be scared.” Priceless, especially considering that she was really totally okay with the experience and didn’t cry one bit the whole time. After a hair, makeup & nails session with the girls in the morning we were off to take in the last day of FIART along with my husband’s ex-wife (to whom who he pointedly refers to as the mother of his children and NOT as his ex-wife) and her young son, plus their adult daughter and oldest granddaughter. We all crowded into his Peugeot Partner with the 3 oldest kids in the rear section fighting over who was going to get the stool we brought along and who was relegated to sit on the wheel wells. The kids weren’t the least bit interested in the shopping at FIART but rather dragged my husband and me down to the waterless moats where there were three big inflatable carnival attractions. He bought 5 rounds of 10-minute sessions which meant there were no kids crying to go back & do more (they were pooped and red-faced by the time they got out of there). After some cotton candy treats we called it a day. In the midst of the jumping games we received a call from a motorcycle friend whose Indian had quit in the middle of the highway. So when finally got back home after dropping off the troops, we switched cars, hooked up the trailer and headed out for a 400-km favor to bring our friend, his wife and the Indian back home to Caimito. I don’t know what he was thinking when he left home for a road trip with a Friday the 13th shirt on but both his Canadian riding companion and myself set him straight on the Fri 13/Tue 13 thing and he’s now fully convinced he must turn the shirt into a rag. They tried to force dinner on us when we got there but we still had an hour to go to get back home and had to decline. No rest for the wicked last Sunday.

Monday and Tuesday were cram days, making sure all loose ends were wrapped/tied up before the holidays. Still fielding calls from the US group who thinks I am a miracle worker. I hope I don’t disappoint, but honestly there’s only so much a girl can do with less than 2 weeks to prepare in ultra high season. Am hoping some ball games will come together for them, but still not entirely sure about that yet. One of our neighbors comes in twice a week to make lunch for us and take some of the load off. We saved the gala dinner menu to present to her on Tuesday as if that were our lunch request. She didn’t quite know what to think when my husband handed it over, and after puzzling over it for a minute finally asked us if we were out of our minds. Her speciality is home-cooked Cuban food and she didn’t even know what some of the things described on the gala menu were. Comic relief.

On Tuesday night we were invited to spend

Noche Buena with some friends. Her kids set and decorated the festive holiday table. The cake I decided to bake at the very last minute for the occasion flopped (top layer was too hot and as I was sticking berries into the top to decorate it fell apart) so off we went to our favorite sweet shop, Fontanella. There must’ve been 40 people in line to buy cake, which were dribbling out of the bakery one or two at a time. By some strange stroke of luck no one was looking for their Dulce Tres Leches which were just sitting there on the shelf , so once again the gods were with us and we arrived more or less on time. We feasted on succulent roast pork, yucca con mojo, black beans, rice, tamales, salad, fries, cider, and turron.

And yesterday for Christmas Day we spent most of the day watching the “Kidnapped” series on a bootleg dvd set. My husband made a hearty vegetable soup. Finally, a well-deserved chance to catch up on the rest we didn’t get on Sunday. I think the only person that called to interrupt my lazy day was my brother, and it was only an afterthought to wish him a Merry Christmas. I didn’t even bother hauling my 9” bonsai Xmas tree out of the closet this year.

Dad’s Cuban Walking Adventures

“Not all those who wander are lost”. J.R.R. Tolkien. My father takes that to a whole new level. My earliest recollection of him getting lost was while I was still a preschooler. He was walking in the back woods on my grandfather’s 100-acre woodlot in Prince Edward Island all day long. My mother was so worried that she called the police to start a search for him when he hadn’t returned by nightfall. Eventually he found his way out of the woods, by following a railroad if memory serves me right.

My father had a heart attack about a decade ago and took the recommendations to change his diet and exercise habits very seriously. Rain or snow, he faithfully took brisk morning walks every day, most days for 90 minutes or more. Going on vacation to visit my and my brother’s family in Cuba did not alter his walking routine in the least.

For almost the first half of our marriage my husband and I lived in the house he built above his great uncle’s home in Barrio Obrero, San Miguel del Padron, which is anything but a tourist municipality. In fact some sections of San Miguel are downright rough. Our home was only a few kilometers to Old Havana though, and very close to the train tracks. One of Dad’s first narrow escapes was when he was walking back to our place from Old Havana one day. He doesn’t speak Spanish, doesn’t use a cell phone, carry a map (or even our street address) or a watch. All he would have been able to tell someone was “Barrio Obrero”, and for him that must have been enough. He figured he’d follow the train tracks back home and he’d be able to find our place, no problem. Maybe it escaped his logic that the trains actually run frequently in Cuba because he was about halfway across a rather long rail bridge when he realized there was a train coming straight for him and there was nowhere else to go but backwards. His walk turned very quickly into an unexpected run, while the conductor of the train was having a great laugh watching him scramble. Sunburned and quite tired, he eventually wandered back home from what would be the first of his walking scrapes in Cuba.

The next time he got lost was on his international departure day. We should have known better than to let him out of the house to walk on such an important day, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20. We dropped him off in the city in the morning and let him walk back home. Thinking he was taking a shortcut, he took the ¨anillo del puerto¨ (ring around the port), the road that goes all around the Havana Bay . But instead of taking what would have been the closest route (first exit) to Via Blanca he walked all the way to Regla and came out at the traffic lights at Via Blanca, at least a couple of kilometers from our place. And instead of turning right (at this point  a compass might have come in really handy) and heading back to our place by way of Via Blanca (the main road), he kept going straight and unwittingly ended up exploring most of Guanabacoa as well. By this point my husband and stepson had each taken off in their respective cars to begin searching for him. Right in the nick of time, without even 10 minutes to spare, he wandered up our street to be whisked off to the airport to fly back home. Pshew! Nothing like living on the edge.

About 6 years ago we built a new home and moved out of the city to a fairly rural area. Our house is on a hill adjacent to a military zone with 2 large radar towers. You can see them for miles around. A few years back Dad left the house just after 4 a.m. I know this because I´d left my cell phone on the counter for him to check the time when he left, and the last time was still displayed when I woke up several hours later. Two hours would usually be the max that he´d walk in the morning, so my husband and I were just a little worried that he hadn´t returned yet.  So we gave it about another ½ hour and then decided we’d better start checking around the village of Guanabo and went as far as the fishing port with no sign of him anywhere. We were really concerned but didn’t want to alert the authorities yet. He had left the house with no personal identification whatsoever, not such a big deal in Charlottetown PEI, but a big no-no in Cuba. We drove home again and asked the neighbors if they’d seen him, but no such luck. So we left again to try looking in another direction but shortly thereafter the neighbors called us to advise that he’d finally shown up. Once again, he thought he’d take one of his famous shortcuts to get back home. It was still dark out though, so his orientation was all off. He ended up walking through field after field and came out quite a distance south of our place in Campo Florido. All the neighbors had a good laugh at that episode and have never let him forget it.

Dad’s had a rough year health-wise but with a recent pacemaker operation is feeling more energetic than ever. He arrived in Cuba earlier this month and almost immediately began to take brief therapeutic morning walks. On his first day, my husband reminded him to take i.d. and I told him not to be climbing any hills. After only about 10 or 15 minutes my husband was having a cow and took off to look for him in his car. He found him at the bottom of the very steep hill by our place and drove him back home. After that he gradually increased his morning walking time and the other day he had breakfast at 08:30, but by 10:30 had not yet returned. I was starting to get worried as I walked to the back patio to speak to my husband, and on the way back there I heart a train whistle blow, something I’ve never heard in all the years I’ve been living in Mirador de Marbella. The first thing that crossed my mind was “Crap, Dad’s on the train tracks again”. About 10 minutes passed and my husband called out for me, saying that the police had arrived and were parked out front with several other officials. My heart immediately sunk, thinking there’d been an accident. I ran as fast as I could only to see my father being assisted out of the back seat of the police car.

He says he reached the top of the hill and decided to return home but was a little disoriented on how to get to our street coming from the other direction. He knew that we lived close to the radar towers so when he was close to them and could see the water to the north, he saw a horse & cart pull into a dirt road behind the radar towers and he followed it, thinking there’d be another road from there that would take him north to our street. Little did he know that he’d unwittingly wandered in the back way to the military zone. Apparently the gate was down because personnel were constantly going in and out that morning. As he got deeper into the military zone the officials were saying “Alto” (Halt), but of course he didn’t understand and he continued on his merry way until he was escorted off the property by the local police and immigration officials who had been contacted by the military to remove him. He’s darned lucky he doesn’t look dangerous or things could have gone in a whole different direction. Because my Dad traveled here on his U.S. passport, we had to accompany him down to the police station and we were there for several hours while they assembled their interrogation team of military, police, immigration and counter-intelligence to investigate what happened and find out more about his background. I really don’t think they considered him a threat at any time; in fact they were most accommodating and did their best to make him comfortable while they completed routine procedures. Sometime after 2 p.m. we were all released and allowed to return home. As I was opening the gate I turned around and noticed for the first time what he was wearing. You see, my Dad is so modest that he only brought 2 t-shirts, 1 shirt, 2 pairs of pants and 2 pairs of shorts for a 7-week stay in Cuba. And thankfully at least a week’s supply of boxers. But I had been complaining the night before to my brother that I was doing laundry more frequently than usual. He hauled out an old Obama shirt that he’d grown out of and gave it to my father for a spare. Wouldn’t you know that was the shirt he was wearing when he got caught in the Cuban military zone?! Of all the days NOT to wear his Canada shirt.

La Bandida

My brother Danny and his lovely Cuban wife Mirley have been blessed with three healthy daughters, two of which are in school already. They have been dividing their time between Cuba and Canada since they were born and the first two are fully bilingual. Their baby sister Amanda is almost 2 ½ yrs old now and has been slow to talk, but I’m told that she’s now starting to spout quite a few words, although she was reluctant to speak in English (unlike her older sisters) for awhile. My sister in law left the girls with my brother recently since she had to travel outside of Canada on a personal matter, and of course the family was all too willing to help out with childcare while she was gone. My sister Kelley was telling me that she invited the older sisters to her house for a sleepover. I asked her if the youngest sister, Amanda, was too scared to stay overnight, or was she just too young. I haven’t seen her since March and the last time I saw her in person she was still pretty quiet, a bit of a Mama’s girl. Much to my surprise Kelley said she’s turned into a hellion since then. She said she’s wild, you can’t reign in her energy. Her sisters call her “La Bandida” (the bandit). So she got to stay home with Grammie and Dad. I’m really looking forward to seeing my nieces this fall and am really grateful that our families have been able to seamlessly blend work, study, and life between Cuba and Canada. It’s a tremendous experience for these girls to be able to fully experience two cultures, two languages, two school systems, and two completely different sets of friends as they play, learn and grow up.

My Cuban Companion

I’m not sure how I lucked into marrying my husband Abel when the odds were surely stacked against us, but despite a lot of ups & downs in our lives since we meet in 2000, he’s my best friend and the big steady rock in my life.

On the return drive from Mariel this morning I told Abel that I was going to roll up the windows in his 1989 Jetta and turn on the a/c. He told me to go for it. And started blowing on me……….As you might have guessed, although in relative Cuban terms he calls his wheels “modern”, his car doesn’t have many luxury features. And face it, honey, it’s just 2 years short of being a veritable antique. With no other alternative, we resorted to renting a vehicle for a couple of weeks earlier this summer while he had a couple of things fixed on his car. When he once again got behind the wheel of the Volkswagen he’s been dedicated to lovingly preserving for over a decade now he couldn’t help but exclaim to me that it was like driving a tank compared to the Chinese Geely CK we’d just rented.

Although he’d rather that most of his friends not be aware of the agreement that we have for dividing housework (lest his Cuban macho man identity be tarnished) some time back we made a deal. I do the cleaning, wash the dishes, and take care of the laundry. And he does all the cooking. It has a few drawbacks because if truth be known, I really don’t mind occasionally preparing a meal, and Abel’s culinary repertoire consists of a lot of fried or heavily-salted foods which haven’t been kind to our waistlines. I love him to death, but I admit that I occasionally forget how fabulous he is and nag at his very few shortcomings. Last week I was telling him that on the drive home I was thinking to myself that we were running late. I was sure he was just going to re-heat the plain white rice and calamares that we ate the night before, and make a boring tomato, cabbage and cucumber salad without even considering adding at least a special dressing to make it more interesting. Not only did he deliberately go the extra mile and prepare something different for dinner (OK, really he just stuffed some peppers with the leftover calamares), but I learned afterwards that he sometimes really does listen and absorb what I’m complaining about. We visited the annual artisan’s fair on La Rampa in Havana one rainy afternoon this week and while I was buying a pair of earrings he was around the corner buying two Cuban cookbooks – one on how to prepare rice 201 ways, and the other on how to use spices and aromatic plants and eliminate salt from his cooking.

Abel is multilingual, but English is his third language and we don’t speak English at home as much as we should. After dinner the other night I pulled out a couple of pastries from the fridge and asked if he’d like one. “No thanks, I’m fool”, he said. “Full”, I corrected him (for the 100th time; this is an old exchange for us as we work towards authenticating his Cuban English accent). “Foal?”, he asked. “FULL”, I retorted, trying to make him watch my mouth and every movement of my tongue as I said the word. “Fall” he said as he twisted his tongue around trying to make it what my Anglophone tongue had just done with ease. The game went on for a good 10 minutes and I’d explain the meaning and the spelling of each mistaken pronunciation. The odd time the word would come out right, but he admittedly had a hard time saying “full” the same way I did twice in a row. The letter “u” was his main stumbling block, but he also lingers on the double l’s. But I have to give him credit because his patience never wore out. In the end, both of us laughing as we played the Repeat After Me game for the umpteenth time, he decided that if anyone in an Anglophone country ever asks him, to avoid embarrassment, he’s just going to say, “Thanks but I’m F-U-L-L”. That’s it Abel, just spell it out for them, that’ll work for sure.

For awhile now we’ve been collecting sea glass, shells and rocks mainly from the beach in Guanabo for a home project. This week we finally began to imbed the treasures in our front walkway. While Abel did most of the heavy work preparing the cement and sand, he also has a pretty good eye for the creative part of the project and sometimes even surprises me with the novel ideas he comes up with for different parts of the design. The best part of the project is when we finish each day and sit back to contemplate what we’ve created together. The neighbors have all been popping in to check out what we’re up to and I think he’s secretly proud of our little folk art walkway, although he feigns modesty over it.

One of the things that my Dad says most touched him about Abel was how warm and gentle he was with his grandmother. Abel was his grandmother’s favorite grandson, and she made no bones about telling everyone that’s how things were. He doted on her, visited her regularly, and incessantly indulged her sweet tooth. The times that she stayed over at our house, if you can imagine he would even bathe her with my assistance, well into her ‘90’s. I’m sure that I don’t have any male friends in Canada that could claim the same. Probably no female friends either, for that matter, since by that age most elderly people in Canada have already been checked into nursing homes.

Abel is intellectual, honest, can’t forget handsome, patient, not as much of a cave man as many of his Cuban counterparts, adventuresome, and very much a family man. I’m very lucky to have made his acquaintance and even more fortunate to be sharing most of my days and nights with him. We’re mostly attached at the hip and hardly spend any time apart (which also has its benefits and downfalls), but I think that all in all we make a pretty good team. Knocking on wood as I publish this.

The New Tenants’ Compost Lesson

This is a slightly edited version of an email from Gordon to Kristen last fall (names changed, and a couple of hilarious characterizations removed…). We expanded our Charlottetown, PEI building last year and rent out several units, so Gordon’s now officially a landlord.

The new tenants moved in. It was comical. First the girl’s grandparents backed their van in next to the stairs. Fairly routine. They moved in furniture and I had a brief talk with them about taking care of sorting waste, garbage, recyclables and compost. I took them into the back yard and showed them the compost tumbler, and the grandfather and grandmother watched and understood…..I think. The young ’uns observed the lesson with glazed over cross eyes and were twitching to get away.

I asked the grandfather what the kids were studying. John, who wears a football jersey, is studying something related to recreation and physical something or other, and the girlfriend is studying “science – first year science”.

So they began to unload the van. All went well. I watched while they unloaded 3, maybe 4 huge bundles of paper towels. I reckon that there was a total of at least 36 large rolls of super absorbent paper towels that will now take up half of their living space. Maybe they have an investment in Scott Paper Company? What in the world are they planning to spill and then wipe up? They were assisted by what looked like the first string of Manchester United Soccer team who all agreed that the apartment was the best they have ever seen.

The grandfather’s van is now unloaded and the jock car is moved into place next to the stairs. Ready to unload John’s contribution. The trunk opens and the girlfriend shrieks, “There is something alive in here!” and shrinks away, waiting for rescue by the half-back football star who dismisses her hysteria and promptly removes the live toxic debris and deposits it in the green (compost) bin under the stairs. I advise him not to mix the plastic returnable bottles with the poison brew that has been fermenting in his car trunk since the end of football season. I give him a short lesson in composting and recycling, knowing that it is a futile effort…..but maybe he will learn if I repeat it often????

I really do think there is an opportunity to do a sit-com on a “back to college” theme. I could supply endless material for a 5 or 6 season run.