Category Archives: Cuba

September 11th: Sit. Stay. Enjoy.

CathywbabiescouchWhen this photo was posted on Taming Me’s Facebook page, I was struck by the ferocity of the following comment, including the capitalization of the imperative:  “DON’T MOVE!  Stay right where you are!”  I thought that Paula Booth, the follower who wrote it, must be a woman who knows the value of being in the moment, especially a moment in which one is cuddled up with loved ones, and perhaps even more so a moment when those loved ones happen to have four legs.

In this world of constant connection and a non-stop barrage of news, opinion and information, chores by the score and a plentitude of places to be and people to see, it can be difficult to stop and savor the moment – whether it’s an active moment or one like this, pinned on the sofa by pets. Lately I have found myself counting the days until something I’m looking forward to – and even as I do so, I know that I am detracting from the day at hand.  So I thought that this anniversary of one of the most grievous days in our nation’s recent history might be a good time to remind myself to Sit. Stay. Enjoy. Because who knows how many moments more there will be?

A friend was recently on vacation with her family in one of her favorite places – a house beside the ocean.  She sat on the beach, chattedJuliecropped with her sisters, enjoyed dinner with the entire clan, spent the evening teaching her little niece and nephew to play Chinese checkers and promised that they would play again in the morning.  It was a promise she didn’t mean to break, but the morning she imagined didn’t come. She was buried, dressed in her cheerful orange cardigan, on her 48th birthday. Julie had danced with cancer and its consequences for 30 years, and during those years, between hospitals, treatments and transplants, she gathered all the joy she could muster from life and spread a bunch of it around to the rest of us.

Focus Magazine photo DottieDottie – another friend – was, quite frankly, supposed to be dead by now. But she vowed, “I will be the miracle,” and she is.  Her passion in life is making homes for kids who don’t have them, kids caught up in a foster care system that doesn’t always have enough foster parents to go around.  She’s still busy raising money and building space to offer what is sometimes the most loving environment the kids have ever known.  Oh, and she also spends a fair amount of time sending little love notes out to her friends and relatives.  Dottie knows how to make the briefest moment meaningful. Karyn withmask

And then there’s Karyn.  She got a diagnosis last winter that would have put some of us under the table. But not Karyn. You’d go to visit her in the hospital and she’d give you a gift that she bought for you, in the hospital shop. She’d send you jokes via e-mail and text. KaryngreenbowlhatShe’d make funny faces and pose for pictures, sometimes with her room so packed with visitors you couldn’t find a place to sit down. Right now she’s planning a girls’ weekend and already has special bags waiting for each guest, stuffed with goodies. And she’s busy mothering her six dogs, all of them rescues; she created a special dog park at the shelter where she volunteers, for the ones she couldn’t take home.  Her household canines get hot cooked meals twice a day Kerynwithbroodand the entire pack is welcome in her bed – even if her husband has to get out of the way.  (He’s entirely good-natured about it.)

You know, my intent as I started writing this was to talk mostly about the proven health benefits of pets – lower blood pressure and cholesterol, healthier hearts, quicker recoveries, improved spirits and Lucy Fred and Willie copysocialization – and how animal companions can prolong and enrich our moments. But as I remembered the lives lost in the Twin Towers and the many souls worldwide suffering from conflicts, poverty, illness and disasters even as I type this, my fingers just seemed to want to talk about the people who endure, inspire, and continue to bless us even when they’ve passed on, as we all must do. I think I’ve been giving myself a little sermon. Thank you for sticking with me.

And please allow me one final mention of (another) friend. She recently gave me a book on mindful meditations, arranged by month.  September’s opening quote is from the Buddha:  “Be where you are; otherwise you will miss your life.”  Thank you, Buddha.  I’ll try harder. Thank you, my friends, for your generous spirits. Thank you, PAULA BOOTH! I think I’ll go round up the critters so that we can Sit. Stay. Enjoy.LucyCathyeveryday

WANDERING CUBA

I’ve just returned from Cuba, a trip endorsed by the U.S. government as a people to people educational exchange. The Cuban government (“state,” to Cubans) provided our local guide. We saw what the government wanted us to see. We stayed where the government wanted us to stay. We visited rural areas, mountains, beaches, small towns, the capital.Havana apartment building copy

The first and relentless impression is that Cuba’s clock stopped ticking somewhere circa the late 50’s or in many cases, decades earlier. Technology, modern means of production, and residential comforts as we know them seem truly foreign concepts here. In nearly every locale, the poverty is soul deadening. And that is just in looking at it, not living it.

In the country, the people live in shacks, primarily of wood. Holes gape from their sides, not all of them windows. We visit two farmhouses which by comparison are luxurious. They feature several rooms, glass windows, porches. One is the home of a third generation tobacco farmer and his family. He is matter of fact with an occasional smile. The state allows him to entertain tourists because he is a top producer. He knows that should he slip, the state might take his land. Currently, the state claims 95 percent of his crop and pays him what it wishes. As is common across Cuba, the money is not enough to live on. The other farm is open to us as a model of organic farming and Cat eating cucumberecological sustainability. Its stewards appear happy, energetic, enthused. Learning of my veganism at lunch, the wife requests a “momento ecological,” and returns holding Gato, a cat who enthusiastically crunches cucumber.

In the towns, attached single story buildings line the cobblestone streets like dormitories, housing small apartments. Doors hang open, grabbing breaths of air. We can see the interiors, windowless multi-function rooms that hold what passes for a kitchen, a table, a sitting area, sometimes a bed. Some thoroughfares blossom with modest stand-alone homes, even patches of lawn and flowers. The houses are generally uniform, box after box of the same size and shape.

In the capital, 20 percent of the island’s population crowd together in antiquated high rises, low rises, dilapidated houses. Buildings literally collapse here Havana housing2 copyoccasionally, taking their occupants with them. These are called “derrumbes,” for a giant rumbling followed by rubble and grief. Even landmark structures – museums, government agencies, embassies – are bruised and decaying, although the state is now undertaking a Havana overhaul in an effort to rehabilitate the largest tourist attraction in the country. We are driven through the grandest residential section, large homes from which we are told the wealthiest citizens fled Fidel. It resembles all the rest: the entire country seems to be crumbling, in need of shoring up or at least a coat of paint. Rotting wood and dingy cement glare through splotches of long-faded veneer. Hand-washed laundry on lines is part of the scenery from coast to coast, hanging from the yards of country hovels to the windows of city apartments.

Machines are relics, from the 1950’s American cars miraculously maintained to the Soviet era tobacco farmer’s tractor to the diesel operated water pumps that Radio copycould well date back to World War II to this radio, the property of a potter’s family. The occasional rusting air conditioner graces a window. 15 percent of the people, we are told, have access to the internet. Public phones are a primary means of Public phone copycommunication.

We actually converse with very few Cubans, shepherded through our stops. Our guide, a vivacious woman in her thirties, shares what she says is “her reality,” as she has never left the homeland. She is happy with “the triumph of the revolution,” the repetitively uttered term for the 1959 Castro coup – the state provides health care and education. She claims to be both ignorant of and not curious about where or how the brothers Castro live. She knows only how they travel: in caravans of luxury carsOld car copy with ambulance and police escorts. But she is openly frustrated at the subsistence salaries, the inability to buy or even find a car, the irony of being permitted to travel abroad when she doesn’t have the money to do so.

Food rations doled out by the state do not fill the table. Soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toilet paper are all expensive extras. Remittances – money sent from relatives and friends in America and elsewhere – prop up the official economy and fuel the black market on which Cubans depend. A good job is one that has something you can pilfer to sell on the black market in exchange for food, clothes, toiletries, household needs.

Are people happy, we ask? They’d better be, says a Cuban citizen we meet one morning at breakfast. Because people still disappear, he says. Perhaps they go to prison and then their families hear they died there in an “accident.” They never see the body, he tells us. There is no autopsy report. Nonetheless, his family likes it here. He doesn’t. He’s just visiting. He’s also an American citizen, an ocean borne escapee 21 years ago.

Cathy with street cat copyAnd then there are the animals. Everywhere. Oxen plow the fields, planted and harvested by hand. Goats work as lawnmowers. Cattle graze on the brown grass of dry season. Horses do it all: farm chores, family transportation, cart rides for cash. Roosters, chickens, guinea fowl and turkeys rake yards and fields. Pink piglets frolic on a lawn. A few doors down, a fattened adult lies on a platform being skinned. I try to take comfort in the relative freedom many open air “food animals” are given until they meet their grisly ends. (Guns are tightly controlled here. Few farmers have them. Tools are largely antiques. Your imagination can complete the slaughter scenarios.) Circling vultures are ubiquitous.

bullSaddled Brahman bulls with ropes piercing their noses offer transport and entertain tourists. Cocks are bred for fighting. Horses and donkeys are whipped with ropes and chain link. Many of their beaten backs are bony, underfed. A muscled man, cigarette in hand, simultaneously spurs and reins in his horse, sending it into a tailspin for the amusement of onlookers. Caged birds hang from doorjambs like decorations.

Dog with teats-RecoveredCats and dogs roam both rural and urban areas. Street dogs survive on scraps and handouts, grateful for the occasional ear scratch. CathyScratching dog copyProminent teats and swollen milk sacs attest to hidden puppies. Spaying, neutering, vaccinations – these are rare except for some lucky pets and in Havana, street dogs who are collared and claimed by restaurants as mascots. Cats hunt to survive. Tourist stops and table sides are fertile grounds. A lucky few make their living in open door hotels.Cat in restaurant-Recovered

We leave the plight of the land animals to spot birds in the woods: warblers, hawks, woodpeckers, the bee hummingbird – smallest bird in the world – sap suckers, the Cuban parakeet. Our hiking guide says the parakeet will kill itself if caged; it wants its independence. This is the national bird.

Lunch is an intact pig, his lively brain roasted along with the rest of his body. “It is cruel,” the hiking guide concedes to me in an aside. “But we need it.” My American companions are apparently unfazed. They stop for photos. They eat the freshly shredded corpse with gusto. I slip away and have a little cry. For the pig, for all the animals, for the poverty of the people, for Cuba, for the cruelty which spans our world from dictators to diners.

What does the future hold for Cuba? Who knows? Years more of socialism? A shot at capitalism? Official relations with America? KFCs and factory farms? The right to openly earn one’s own money? The breeze of change is whispering. Small private businesses now dot the landscape, licensed and taxed by the state. Many citizens can now travel abroad. Raul has given his presidency a deadline.

On the day we head home, the wind is whipping – toward the north. I am glad to go with it.