Cuban Diary

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Spending a week at a resort in Cuba can easily distort your view of what the country is like. People are being entrepreneurial and there is plenty on sale – tours and trinkets and, of course, rum and cigars. But make no mistake; this is still the land of Fidel and Che.

It is obvious once you leave the artificial and carefully isolated worlds of the resorts. The images of the revolution are everywhere, posters with Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s face and slogans, monuments to victories of the revolution. Travel down to Santa Clara and you are welcomed to the city of Che Guevara.

Is it a façade? Some Americans say so – they insist that the Cuban people yearn to be free of the yoke of socialist servitude. Of course, these are the same prognosticators who insisted the Iraqi people would welcome them as liberators and the wars of the Middle East would be ‘self-financing.’ Didn’t quite work out that way, did it? I sometimes wonder where those guys are now – Cheney and Wolfowitz and the rest. Back cowering in their bunkers I suppose.

Many Cubans are deeply proud of what they have wrought in the face of opposition from the most powerful nation in the world. They readily acknowledge that some of it was done with the support of the Soviet Union – but if anything they are even more proud of what they did after the Soviet system collapsed and they were left truly on their own. Many Cubans resent the interference of the USA – interference that has gone on since the days of the Spanish American war. They do not hesitate to inform you that the existence of the naval base in Guantanamo Bay (and you know, they say, what is done there) is illegal not only under international law but under American law.

Winning over Cuba to the American way will be a challenge.

One of the most moving sights I saw in Cuba – saw anywhere in some time – was the memorial to Che Guevara in Santa Clara. The external part was all monumental – a 20-ton bronze statue of Che in guerrilla outfit and rifle, gazing resolutely to the future. The friezes were equally monumental. But the interior of the memorial – where no photos are allowed and no mementoes provided is a fundamental reflection of the legacy of Che to ordinary Cubans.

It is a chamber like a mountain cave – there is a small pool and fountain with plants lit by a tiny skylight. Along one wall are life-sized cameos of heroes of the revolution – those who died in battle or like Che in the effort to spread the cause farther afield. Che is there but his face is no larger and has little more prominence than all the others. These are simple human expressions, some grim, some laughing, all intense and determined. Men and two women who died doing what they believed to be right and necessary.

This was the true memorial – human faces sacrificed to build a humane society. It’s hardly perfect. There is a lot of poverty but little inequality. Health care and education are free and access to the best universities is provided based on merit rather than money. Everybody works at something and no-one goes without the basics of life.

I wonder if it can survive the coming onslaught of American money and attitudes. I hope so.

And that’s ten minutes (Cuban time)

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Snorkeling (Cuban Diary)

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I’ve been snorkeling a few times but this week was the first time I’ve ever done it off a boat. The experience was a good lesson in the triumph of reason over instinct.

My previous times in the water were gentle – I began on a beach in Cozumel where there were plenty of fish but the water never exceeded a meter in depth. Nice gentle surf and no worries about undertows (or sharks). Later I swam off a beachside cliff – a coral wall where the water was more than ten meters deep but again I could stay close to the wall and safety. A few years later I snorkeled along a point of land in Puerto Escondido. The surf was a bit strong but the water wasn’t deep. In every case I had a strong swimmer right beside me the whole time.

This time was different. We put on our gear and then went down a ladder into three meters of water. As soon as I was in – essentially by myself, the person before already swimming away, the person above waiting for me to get out of the way— I regretted it. Having nearly drowned twice before, I was anxious. The fact I had since taken swimming lessons hardly seemed to matter. I suddenly knew I couldn’t do it. I even mumbled that past my mouthpiece.

This is instinct at play. Our primitive emotions demand that we fight, flee or freeze. Hardly helpful when you’re clinging to a boat in ten feet of water. The boat woke me up by banging into my ribs – I have a nice bruise to show for it. The shock awakened my reasoning mind. I literally said to myself – this is easy and you know how it works. You have a floatation device around your waist and fins on your feet. You have a breathing tube in your mouth. Lie flat and breathe.

So I did. I kicked a little and did a little breast stroke and moved away from the boat towards a reef. Fish – black and yellow or iridescent purple surrounded me. Large silver ones swam lazily by in tandem. A few small barracuda lurked still as sticks of wood. Coral fronds and fans waved. Sometimes I could sense the other swimmers near me; other times I felt completely alone.

The panic didn’t fully go away. A suck of salt through the snorkel brought it back; a sudden feeling of exhaustion in my arms almost sent me scurrying back to the boat. But each time my mind took over. Just float, it said. Kick with the fins; don’t use your arms. Rest and look and take pleasure in what you see.

That’s how reason works when instinct and emotion fail. We get into jams all the time as individuals and as societies. Sometimes instinct and emotion help – they at least point us toward danger. But they seldom lead us away. That requires language and reason and thought. It requires calmness and time. It is not the first tool in our toolbox but reason is always the most powerful and adaptable one. It will keep you from drowning and, ultimately, it will keep us all from disaster.

And that’s ten minutes (Cuban time).

Longing (Cuban Diary)

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The most painful of emotions is longing. It implies an irredeemable loss, a choice made that is forever regretted, a love abandoned.

I was sitting in a bar in Cuba. There was a piano player – not one of those great Cuban jazz geniuses, just a journeyman musician making a living from tips. Two couples walked by, intent for the most part of going from one place to another, intent on the next thing, supper perhaps or a better bar. But one of the women, an attractive blonde of a certain age – maybe 42 – turned her head as the rest walked on. Her eyes were fixed on the piano player, her head turning as the rest of her party — the man holding her hand— continued on, oblivious to her intense interest.

Her face was almost expressionless except for the longing in her eyes. It floated there on the surface of her gaze, almost unbearable to see. Then, with the slightest gesture of her head, the faintest of sad smiles, she turned away. And carried on with the life she had. That’s what you do. Time’s arrow flies in only one direction. And you move forward or you wilt in the dead soil of the past.

One of the songs the piano player performed was “My Way,” written by Paul Anka but made famous by Frank Sinatra. When you looked around the bar – you could see that some people didn’t know it, some did and for some it was an anthem that either defined their life or denied it. Men and women listened with smiles on their lips or shining eyes.

One of the lines of that song: Regrets I’ve had a few – is for some people unbearably sad. Regrets. Lost opportunities, lost loves, lost ways. To do it my way is often a choice you only understand in retrospect.

My life has not been without choices and, of course, I think sometimes about the other paths I could have taken. I could have been a chemist – I have a B.Sc. and could have gone much farther – or I could have been a professor – I had a full Ph.D scholarship in political science (which I turned down). I could have been a father or even a man who stayed married. I have been none of those things.

Do I regret it? How could I? I have the life I love. I’ve written books, I’ve travelled, I’ve loved and lost and loved again – never more deeply than now – and found peace with all those choices.

Do I ever suffer from longing? Perhaps once or twice. Who doesn’t wonder – from time to time – what might have been?

Time’s arrow is a prick. But the life we have is the only life we can ever have. Not much point of longing for more.

And that’s ten minutes (Cuban time).

Messing Around in Boats — Cuban Diary Feb 10

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There is nothing better than messing around in boats. Long before there were roads or even jungle trails, being on water was the closest to nature that anyone could (and can) ever get. Really. Never mind all that talk about wilderness and nature, you are closer to the earth and your fundamental nature sitting on a luxury liner in the middle of the ocean than you will ever get in a tent with a branch sticking into the middle of your back.

Trust me. My ancestors were Vikings. With a name like Trenholm what else could they be? They came over to Yorkshire in the 11th century – paid off with Danegeld, and have been wanting to get back to sea ever since. They took an ocean voyage to come live in Nova Scotia, another almost island surrounded by salt water. Boats are in my heritage in more ways than one.

Think, too, of how close sea water is to all the other essential fluids of life – blood is only the most common metaphor – full of salt and life. From the water we came, first as slugs and then as fish with legs and lugs.

You see how messing around in boats makes you philosophical, almost, if I may be so bold, spiritual? Put thirty strangers on a boat for a day and by the time you return to dock you are practically family (unless of course you are English where you become the closest of acquaintances).

Boats and the water they float in connect us to the past in deep and visceral ways. A few years ago I floated down canals in Mexico City that the Aztecs built and that are still used as a convenient highway by the people who live along them. They travel on them, they entertain on them, they shop and eat on them. It is a connection that links the people of Mexico City to the most ancient users of the city.

Everywhere I go, the first thing I ask is there a way to be on the water (in the water is a whole different story). I’ve been in canoes and kayaks, in sailboats and yachts on ferries and liners. There is something fundamental to me about messing on boats – it may be the one thing I like better than an urban café.

Messing about on boats. The call of the sea. The sound of a hull cutting water. It is the closest thing I ever get to religion.

But that’s ten minutes (Cuban time).

Disconnected (Cuban Diary February 14)

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This is the end of my sixth day of information independence. Since coming to Cuba last Sunday, I haven’t looked at a TV screen, listened to a radio broadcast, read a newspaper or been on the Internet. No Facebook, no Twitter, no nothing.

This became a conscious choice on the second day here. Internet and wireless are available for a fee – about $5 an hour. And time spent in yet another line-up to buy it. Most people do and I see a fair percentage of people staring at screens when they could be looking at the people passing by, the architecture and, most of all, the sun, the sand, the surf, the birds, the fish, the countryside.

On the first day or two I felt a little nagging itch. Was there e-mail I needed to read or answer? Were there fascinating posts on Facebook that I wouldn’t see? But it gradually came to me that this is all ephemera. If there were some disaster at home, enough people knew where I am that I could be reached. As for the rest, it a constant stream of trivia or anger inducing rants or funny cat videos. I substituted by watching real cats at play.

I suspect I’ll go right back to my old habits once I’m home – two or five visits to Facebook every day, the occasional burst of twitter activity and of course the constant consumption of news stories that are neither news nor truly stories. That is, the details change but the narrative of the media seldom varies – be afraid, be outraged, feel powerless. And all you ever get is the opening act – no follow up and certainly no resolution. Social media is even worse, stories and posts recycled endlessly between endless exhortations to ‘buy my whatever’ – punctuated by a rare burst of insight. I can track those down.

Perhaps this is hardly surprising. Life seldom has a resolution (other than death), at least not a clear cut one; we are merely fooled into thinking it does because our media has become an indecipherable tangle of fact and fiction. Crime shows presented as documentaries; news programs with a considerable amount of creative manipulation and statements or opinions barely connected to evidence of any kind.

I find my mind is more creative in its current disconnected state. My thoughts are clearer and my ability of consider and contemplate more powerful. I’ve had more ideas for stories this week than in the last month.

Distraction can be fun; it probably can even be useful from time to time. But too much is wearing; it is debilitating. For now I’m enjoying my state of disconnection. We’ll see what tomorrow – and return to my daily routine – brings.

But that’s ten minutes (Cuban time).

Transitions

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It seems the world carried on without me as I enjoyed the surf and the sun (not to mention the rum) of Cuba. More shootings by lone wolf gunmen in Europe (referred to by some as terrorists because of their religion and skin colour). Meanwhile, three nihilists (which by the way is a philosophy/ideology last I looked) in Halifax are merely ‘murderous misfits‘ according to the Justice Minister despite their plans to carry out suicide-murder attacks. Everyone knows white Nova Scotians couldn’t possibly be terrorists. There are no votes in calling them such.

In the meantime, Albertans — flush with cash — lost over $300 million in a Ponzi scheme, largely because they simply weren’t rich enough. Didn’t they read their Bible? The part where greed is a sin and is punished as such. The money is gone and some retirements are ruined. But somehow — having seen the proud struggle of Cubans to live on $20 a month — I feel little sympathy.

Remember if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Guess you should be satisfied with enough as opposed to always needing more. Is that cruel of me?

Speaking of cruel — going from +25C to -25C in a single day is pretty cruel itself. First world problem? I think you nailed it.

Back to work in a few minutes after a whole week of doing nothing more productive than reading books, writing ten minute blogs and walking on the beach. The latter was probably the most productive of all. It cleared my mind — let me build up a little shield so I can listen to stories on the radio about people imprisoned in southern municipalities for non-payment of fines. Poor people have to be squeezed of their last few dollars so rich slugs don’t have to pay taxes. Every day I don’t visit the US of A makes me more determined to likely never visit again. Too many other places to see.

If only I could visit them without other tourists. Honestly, there were days in Cuba when if I heard one more complaint about the service (slow but amazingly friendly and eager) or the food — which was excellent and endless — or even the weather: 24 degrees isn’t warm enough (it’s not snowing, moron), I would have slapped someone.

Anyone who thinks Canadians are less ugly than Americans when they travel hasn’t been paying attention.

But for all that, most people were nice and just happy to be singing and laughing and having a good time (until 4 in the morning most days — but fortunately our room was well soundproofed).

No big revelations today — just random observations as I make the not so gentle transition from vacation from the world to the endless pounding of misery and sorrow that we seem to like to serve ourselves. I prefer the pounding of the surf on my poor old body.

So as the philosopher says: Don’t worry, be happy.

And that’s ten minutes (Canadian Time)