Unless You Are A Fish

As Hurricane Sandy approaches the East Coast, citizens who live directly in its path are urged to evacuate, especially from low-lying areas along the water.  Schools are closed, transportation is virtually at a standstill.

So, East Coast residents, take heed.  Unless you are a fish, find shelter.

Good luck and be safe.

Visit Bob’s House: For A Wicked Halloween

The word is out.  K.C. Channel 5 News found him.  The news station coverage of Bob’s house begins with the wicked clown face I presented on our blog on Oct. 1.

I love Halloween.  Actually, I love all holidays.  Give me a reason to celebrate and I am happy to join the fun.  But my passion for the holidays is nothing compared to Bob’s.  While he loves decorating for Christmas, as do many of our friends, he is unique in the wealth of decorations that fill his house before Halloween.

Bob’s house is intentionally creepy.  It is filled with vampires, witches, spiders and other symbols of the holiday.

Skeletons in holiday attire, party outfits and wedding gowns are found in abundance.  The skeletons are fake–

The coffins are real.  Well, sort of.  He paid to have multiple coffins built, in the line of coffins from the early West. Like everything else, they are decorated with colorful displays of ribbons, holiday lights and flowers.  They are overrun with spiders and more (fake) skeletons.

The decorations are the highlight of a visit to his house at Halloween but he does not stop there.  I have it on good authority (Bob) that he is preparing his special homemade goodies for the trick or treaters.

Are you ready for Halloween?

Goodbye Havana

Our trip to Cuba ended much as it began. We were overwhelmed by the beauty and the poverty of this tiny island nation.  But now, after months of preparations, days filled with visual images we will never forget, and photographs that will end up in posts far into the future, it was finally time for us to pack our bags for the journey home.

As we were preparing our bags Saturday night for an early morning departure, I watched the hustle and bustle of Havana.  Neither the city’s great beauty, nor its decay, were visible in this nighttime shot.  Left to admire is just the vibrancy of the city.

It was a memorable experience.  While our visit only touched the edges of this wonderful country, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience its rich culture, wonderful people and incredible beauty.

If you haven’t experienced Cuba, put it on your bucket list!

Old World Architecture Graces a Cuban Harbor

The Palacio de Valle is located in Cienfuegos, the second largest harbor in Cuba.  Sometimes referred to at the “Pearl of the South”,  Cienfuegos was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005 as a result of the blending of old world architecture and modern urban design.

The Palacio de Valle is a masterpiece of styling, art and history.  When Amparo Suero married a wealthy Cuban businessman, Acisclo Valle, her father gave them Palacio de Valle as a wedding gift.  The couple renovated the property between 1913 and 1917, at a cost of 1 1/2 million pesos.

Italian architect Alfredo Colli, created this masterpiece, incorporating Italian and French into a building which is dominated by the unique character of Moorish style, carvings and color.  The Moslem crescent moon and the words Arabic words meaning “Only God is God” from the Koran, solidify the Moorish influence.

The construction of the building itself relies heavily on Carrara marble, alabaster, Venetian ceramics, Spanish ironwork and the carvings of renowned Spanish artist, Antonio Barcenas to blend much of the beauty of the old world  combining the best of Spanish, Muslim, Italian, French and even Egyptian design.

The exterior reflects the beautiful carvings seen throughout the Arab world.  The Sphinx guarding the main doorway reflect Egyptian symbols.

Bronze railings of Spanish design are seen throughout the interior and exterior of the building.

The art reflects the interconnections of the Muslim and Christian beliefs.  This lovely painting of the Magi, ie. the “Three Kings from the East” focuses on the Magi themselves, relying on the crown to symbolize the Christ child.

This tile Crusader depicts a Christian in full battle attire presumably prepared to fight the Moors.

There is little to explain the reasons for this combination of clashing cultures, representing the images and art of all the involved cultures with beauty, accuracy and respect.  Yet the flow of interweaving of the best of the old world, works effectively, playing the grace of Venice with the power of Spain.  It is not surprising then, that this building, now a restaurant, is itself recognized as a National Heritage Memorial.

By the standards of any religion or influence, the Palacio is a masterpiece.  While the cultural aspects of the building predominate our visit, the timeless beauty of the rooftop bar, with its view of Cienfuegos and the ocean, completed the experience for all of us.

Are the Beaches the Solution to Cuba’s Poverty?

Is Cuba’s beauty the solution to bettering the lives of its citizens?

Just look at the water and the sand and the sun.  The island is long, and narrow.  The Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean flank Cuba, offering up some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

This is good, right?

Today, the Cuban people share this beauty with only a small number of sail boats and a few tourists in space nearly undisturbed by commerce.

Cuba is, in some respects, comparable to the Cancun of 40 years ago.  Having traveled there several times, I have watched the seashore change from open land with a scattering of 2 and 3 story hotels, (as pictured below adjacent to a Cuban beach) to high rise hotels that are packed one on top of another until only the tourists share the beauty.  Today, Cuba’s resort hotels are still lovely, small and in harmony with the sea.

The walkways to the sea draw you to the water and the sand.

As we were ending our trip to Cuba, we encountered a member of another tour that had just arrived.  This gentleman explained his theory that what Cuba needs is to open itself up to investors who could bring in casinos and “a Trump Tower like Panama” to provide jobs for poor workers.  Seriously?  Cubans should be excited to have its beauty snapped up by rich “Americans” [1] so that they can earn minimum wage.  Again, seriously?

I am no fan of Cuban’s economic or political system.  I would never wear a Che t-shirt or hat.  I remember the brutality of revolution.  But surely there is more to solving the challenges of the Cuban people than to provide tourists with luxury vacations.

I am grateful for the couple of hours we spent by the water because it was such a compelling visual statement to the true beauty of Cuba’s beaches and was a reminder of the role of the beaches in the challenges facing the island nation in the inevitable post-Castro era.

Swim anyone?

__________________

[1]  I asked our guide why the Cubans speak of the United States as “America”.  He indicated that they have accepted the reality that the United States as the dominant nation in the Americas has essentially assumed the term America as its own.

The Fortifications of Havana Bay

The Havana Bay Harbor has a past as violent as its revolution.  The Spanish founded Havana in about 1519 as a part of its colonial empire.  Spain’s interest in Havana rested, in large part, because the Bay of Havana offered a secure port for the Spanish Galleons crossing from the New World to Spain.

Because of the wealth that passed through the city, old Havana was vulnerable to French, English and Dutch Corsairs. [1] The massive fortifications of Morro Castle/Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro were constructed by the Spanish beginning in 1589 to protect against attacks by these pirates.  Morro Castle sits across the harbor from another similar fortification, the Castillo de San Salvador.  With the protection of these two fortifications, and others along the Coast, Old Havana was considered to be impregnable to attack.

Considered the major fortification of the Havana’s defense system, Morro Castle stood for 150 years until it fell  during the Seven Years after a two month siege by the onslaught of English ships.

The fortifications were rebuilt and continued to protect and defend the harbor. They were used as a military base and prison.

In 1898 the USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, in sight of these fortifications, its sinking was considered a significant cause of the Spanish-American War.

In 1959 Che captured another of the series of fortifications in the harbor, La Cabana and used it as a headquarters during one of the most brutal periods of the revolution.

For the last 63 years the forts have served no military purpose.  They are, instead, powerful symbols of Cuba’s colonial past.  The fortifications which serve as picturesque reminders of past battles, are now besieged by tourists, not enemy ships.

In 1972 Old Havana and its Fortifications was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its importance to cultural and/or natural heritage.  A total of nine sites in Cuba have been recognized for inclusion on the list of World Heritage Sites.   All of these sites were founded by early Spanish colonists.  All of these designations are reasons for pride among the Cuban people and memories among the travelers fortunate enough to visit them.

[1] Corsairs were privateers/pirates and their ships.  They plundered enemy ships and communities in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean Seas. Unlike more traditional pirates, corsairs were authorized to plunder the wealth of nations with which their governments were at war.

Finca Vigia: Hemingway’s Island in the Storm

Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third (and last) wife discovered this late 19th century house and grounds in 1939.  It became their home for more than twenty years.  The villa sits in San Francisco de Paula, on the outskirts of Havana.  The lands, vegetation and imposing walls created a tropical paradise and a tranquility conducive to the peace Hemingway must have craved to enable him the ability to craft his art.

The house and gardens reflect Hemingway’s life and personality. His hunting trophies are spread throughout the house.

Understanding as she did her husband’s propensity to drink heavily, Gellhorn apparently preferred that Hemingway have a panoramic view of Havana without being close enough to the city to be subject to its many temptations.  The protection from the city may also have some responsibility for the protection the Hemingway’s seemed to have had from the violence of the revolution.

It is at Finca Vigia that he wrote seven books, including The Old Man and the Sea, Islands in the Stream, and A Moveable Feast.  

Hemingway seems to have had a love affair with Cuba as he did with Key West, Florida.  While he is reputed to have continued his heavy drinking in Cuba as well as his romantic escapades, he must have been drawn to the Cuban people with a strength that remained unabated through the revolution.

In 1960, Washington made the decision to cut off relations with Castro’s government.  During that period, the U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Philip Bonsall, apparently requested Hemingway to abandon his Cuban home as a demonstration of his patriotism to the U.S. Hemingway refused to do so.  When he did leave Cuba, he left his furniture, clothing, personal property, manuscripts and his library. Local guides suggest that the U.S. pressure on Hemingway to leave Cuba contributed to his death. I know of no support for this claim.  Nevertheless, it is, perhaps, because Hemingway anticipated returning to the island that he left his home virtually intact.

Visitors can observe the conditions in which Hemingway lived and worked through the last years of his career.  Evidence of his personality and his love of literature are everywhere. Over 9000 volumes remain in the residence.

Three buildings are situated on the property, the main residence, this separate children’s/guest quarters, and Hemingway’s office where most of his typing appears to have been done.
His ability to remain in the property despite the reality of the revolution around him suggests at least a cordial relationship with the Fidel Castro, with whom he was occasionally photographed.

He also left his beloved boat: Pilar.  It now sits adjacent to the swimming pool where Ava Gardner swam nude while visiting Hemingway’s home.

Hemingway donated the estate to the Cuban government.  The property has been restored through the combined efforts of the U.S. and Cuban governments, in one of the few cooperative endeavors in which the two countries have engaged.

Our travels continue.

Cuba: The Cult of Che

Che Guevara was executed in the jungles of Bolivia on October 9, 1967.  Forty five years later he is venerated in Cuba. He has attained something akin to “rock star” status.  His face is on Cuban money, t-shirts, banners, and tourist art.  Billboards with his image encourage the Cuban people to work hard and support the revolution.

Even in the U.S., celebrities wear Che’s signature beret.  He is featured in a movie, The Motorcycle Diaries,whose executive producer, Robert Redford,[1] has depicted Che’s 1952 journey across South America; a journey generally credited with planting the seeds for his future radicalization.

Born Ernesto “Che” Guevara, on May 14, 1928, he was educated as a physician and was already active in social reform when he met Raul and Fidel Castro.  He quickly became Fidel’s 2nd in command and played a key role in the success of the Cuba Revolution against Batista.  He is credited with his work on Cuba’s literacy campaign and its agrarian land reform.  He was a bank president and diplomat for Castro’s government.  He represented Cuba throughout the international community, speaking on behalf of socialism and against the exploitation of the Southern Hemisphere by Western countries.  Ultimately, he  became critical of the Soviet Union, also condemning it for exploiting Cuba.

Celebrated by many as an idealist, he was a lifelong, and very charismatic, revolutionary.  While revered by many for his struggle to liberate the poor, focused primarily in Africa and South and Central America, he is reviled as a guerilla leader ruthless in his discipline of his troops and brutal as the revolution’s chief executioner, instrumental in the war trials and summary executions of Castro’s adversaries.

The nature of his relationship with the Castros at the time of his death is unclear.  On October 3, 1965, two years before Che’s death, Castro made public a letter from Che resigning his positions with the Cuban government, and giving up his Cuban citizenship. Whether his actions result from disagreements with Castro or merely a belief that he should be engaged in a wider campaign of “social justice” is unclear. He returned to Cuba only briefly after authoring that letter. His death changed a questionable relationship to martyrdom.

Che and twenty-nine comrades who fought with him in Bolivia are buried in the Che Guevara Mausoleum.  It is located outside Villa Clara, Cuba, near one of his most significant military campaigns.  It is treated as a shrine, almost a place of worship.  Cameras are forbidden inside the Mausoleum, hats were required to be removed.

Nelson Mandela described Che as “an inspiration for every human being of our era who loves Freedom”.  Jean Paul Sartre described him as “the most complete human being of our age.”  Surely, Cuban exiles living in the U.S., whose family members were executed by Che’s firing squads, find no humanity in his deeds.

Such totally different images of a human being long dead seem incapable of reconciliation. For purposes of this post, I will not try.  Instead, the question may be whether those who exalt him as a hero are influenced to do good or ill. And, from an entirely different perspective, whether his veneration impacts the nature of the short-term–and mid-term–relationships between the United States and Cuba.

________

[1] Robert Redford is photographed with Fidel Castro on the wall of the National Hotel, one of the few luxury hotels in Habana, presumably taken during a brief encounter between the two men during Redford’s trip to Cuba for a private screening of The Motorcycle Diaries for Che’s widow and children.

The opinions of this post do not reflect the views of our employers, our families or–necessarily–each other.

Losing Lila

Our worst fears have been realized, yesterday morning, October 18, 2012, Lila (Lila Gail Morse) lost her battle with cancer. On November 7 she would have been two years old.  She was the joy of her parents, her grandparents and her friends–who considered themselves to be her family.  We considered her to be our family.

Lila was so young, so in love with life, and so full of the future. She was smart as a whip and charmed everyone around her.  We are assured that she passed away peacefully in the arms of her parents, surrounded by her family.

Her death, which occurred so close in time to the beginning of her life, is reason enough to rage against God.  But my feelings are not those of her parents. Miriam and Michael have chosen to affirm life. Throughout her short life, her parents, as much as it is humanly possibly, chose joy over grief, living each precious day with their child as a gift to be savored.  They filed their child’s life with joy and expected that those who surrounded her also fill Lila’s world with happiness.  Her mother sent an email to close friends (and they are many), shortly after Lila’s death, that began:  Baruch Dayan Emet. 

Like many of Lila’s gentile friends, I did not understand the significance of these words.  Another friend googled the term and based on her research pointed us to jttp://www/jewishvaluesonline.org/621, which tells us that “Baruch Dayan Emet” is a Jewish blessing to be recited on hearing any form of bad news, particularly a death.  The Mishna [1] advises that a person is required to praise God for both the good and the bad and to love God with all our heart, whether circumstances are good or bad.  It also includes an affirmation that God is just even in the face of such tragedies.

Our grief is overwhelming.  It is nothing in comparison to the grief of her parents and family.  Her family’s affirmation of faith and strength in the face of such great loss is a reflection of the values of this wonderful family in this great tragedy.

I do not begin to understand life’s great joys and certainly life’s great tragedies.  But I am reminded of the importance of holding our friends and family close to our hearts as we support Lila’s family in this time of great loss.  Lila, we will miss you.

_________

[1]The Mishna is oral Jewish law set down by Rabbi Judah the Prince, a 2nd century CE rabbi.