Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Exploring Ernesto's Island of the Vultures...

"A man has to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book." - Hemingway

The Little Boy and How He Learned to SEE

Sometimes in life one has two choices. Run inside, lock the doors and scream, " Sorry this is not for me - I only desire security." Or they may choose to walk in thru the out door, "Hola senor! Can you show me more?" This past summer Tamra's P's invited us to join them and some friends for a vacation down south in Cuba. Considering I was booked solid for 3 weeks in september presenting school talks about dogmushing I was hesitant to go. After all we have dogs to love and train up. (The hectic travel schedual was a bit much to handle as well.) The senoritas were persistent however thus this past week we discovered a place that I had never in my wildest dreams ever thought of visiting.

Like most children of my generation, I was taught that Cuba was part of the evil axis. Fidel Castro and his people had chosen to side with the Soviets and were no longer 'friends' of ours. I still don't have a clear recognition of all this Island's complete history yet being a naturalist more than a politician I was more intrigued with her beauty. Tam and I would be travelling with a group of married couples whose average lifetime spent with one another was 45- 50 years! (I know- the women even still pack their husband's suitcases- can you believe it?) Brian and Gillian, Bill and Chris, Art and Carol, Ken and Sue as well as Gord and Carol are wonderful folks who we learned much from and enjoyed a few too many cervezas with. We were to be staying in Jibacoa which is a resort just south of Havana, the capital city. Our friends are all Canadians, a few of them travelling to Cuba on an annual basis. Being an Alaskan I was on pins and needles most of the trip- might the locals think of throwing the American gringo to the wolves?

I was told that folks from the U.S. can visit Cuba via another country yet considering most humans, 'civilized societies', frighten me my apprehension never subsided until we were back on the Sun Wing flight heading up North to Toronto. My inhibitions however would not keep us from enjoying one heck of a fiesta! Initially it was a bit spooky as we skidded down the wet, bumpy airport runway into Veradero in the darkness of the night. Having been on a dozen flights the previous month I was amazed that there was only one single line of runway lights for the entire airport- talk about being energy effecient- yikes! Once we reached the hotel our group immediately filed into the bar for a quick breather. It might have been raining out but our appetite was still 'wet' for a lil' fun in the sun. The palm trees and refreshing breeze certainly had a pleasant odor compared with that of our dogyard back on Annie lake. What views would we enjoy come sun up?Agua mineral. Let me preface this by saying that as a child I nearly drowned when our canoe tipped over on a scouting trip. One of the Diagostino twins forced me to pay him 10 dollars to let me back in the canoe. Coach Stelnicki at Loyola Academy taught me how to swim and that wasn't until sophomore year, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself". Consequently swimming in deep water really isn't my cup of tea. The Atlantic, however, was gorgeous that morning as we lapped up the warmth and luxurious surroundings. In the afternoon we decided to go for a walkabout with the P's. Five minutes down the road a few locals rushed up, "We'll show you around, my name is William-buenas dias!" The trail we took ascended a steep mountain with lovely views from the cliffs. As we gazed down from a few thousand feet above the hotel the ocean stretched out forever. Flying around us were dozens of vultures, hopefully they had other varmits to toy with. We continued on and were taken to a local farmer's hacienda where we were presented w/ sugar cane to enjoy: it was hard and chewy, meant to nibble on and then be spat out. Various animals were tied to whatever was available, it was obvious that this was a 3rd world country. The farmer's family was huddled w/in a shack- wooden shudders hiding them from view. Tamra's father Brian inquired, "So what then exactly is a 2nd world country?" Most of the locals we met enjoyed working yet with the embargo there was not much for them to buy. It was no wonder they all loved to fish- they had families to feed!

During all of our various excursions there was one constant- people begging; whether it be for pesos, shoes or clothing. I have been to poor areas of Mexico before and had never seen squalor to this degree. Sometimes I would give the person a present but only if they had deserved it by putting on a good show, they'd have to 'earn it the old fashioned way'. Heck, I have an appreciation for where they are coming from. I've spent nights living in the homeless shelter in Anchorage, a week underneath some bushes over by the Tony Knowles trail. Nearly froze to death living in a station wagon alongside the Tanana river off of Peger road in fairbanks in october of '95. I have lived in various Native Athabascan villages that suffer from numerous issues- yet where there's a will, there's a way... if given the chance.

Our 1st excursion was to Havana, the historic city which is home to millions of people. Cubans call it Habana, it has embraced numerous wars throughout the ages involving the Spanish and other armadas from around the globe. Having personally never been outside of North America the ancient buildings were spellbinding, "So is this what europe is like?", I asked Tamra. The local flavor was intriguing. The smell of Catholicism was heavy in the air though tinged with a bit of local voodoo brought over from Africa during the years of slave trade. Women were dressed in flamboyant local garb begging to take pics with you in order to earn a peso or two. The flea market was filled with folks hawking all types of ware. "Hey mister- you like cigars?" Though we were only in town for the day Revolution Park as well as the endless hordes of people on the streets left an indelable impression in one's memory. The park is where all of the various government buildings are- a massive sculpture of Che Gueverra rests on one of the structures. (He's featured in the movie 'Motorcycle Diaries') His real name was Ernesto and Castro's regime has been using Che's face as a symbol for their communist/socialist state. The funny thing is they did not even like each other in the end, Gueverra would end up dying in Bolivia while seeking to start another revolution. Revolution Park? Well, it is actually a large parking lot where Castro gave 6-10 hour speeches to millions of people back in the day. Now all that can be seen are a few soldiers milling about while the throngs of city people are cordorned off away from the area. Might today's Castro be a bit paranoid of speeches in the area?

Travelling down the highway back to the hotel hitchikers were to be seen everywhere along the roads. A common joke is that, after baseball, it is their national sport- people may wait for hours, on a daily basis, just to find a ride to work! Burros pulling carts, men pushing wheelbarrows, even motorcycles with bicycles attached from behind with ropes were to be seen often- travelling down the highway! Talk about a surreal scene, all the while we're liesurely resting in the air-conditioned chinese designed bus. Though a happy people, it's hard not to feel sorry for the locals. Hopefully one day those in charge will learn to become friends once again with the americanos if they ever want to catch up with the rest of modern day civilization. (though there is still a fear that expatriots in Florida will come to take all of their land back) As for the vehicles? The majority of the cars are from the 1950's; they must have some great mechanics around to keep them in such fine running shape.
We had a renewed appreciation for the Jibacoa resort upon returning- it truly was an Island within the Island. All the workers were quite professional and kind, even leaving cigars on our pillows for us. At each dinner our waiter Joel called me Mr. Wine, Brian was Mr. Why Not? Every night we were offered delectable smorgasbords, local kittens pranced underneath our table hoping for tasty morsels. Afterwards we enjoyed vegas style shows - men were dressed in flamenco attire while the lovely ladies had on bright salsa dancing costumes. As a caucasian one realizes just how limber the folks of the carribean are. They're gymnasts with a sensuality hard to match anywhere else around. Combined with the bongos, keyboard, trumpets, etc. the energy was fantastic. It will be interesting to see if the dogs enjoy it while we are out mushing on the trail this winter. Listening to the various musicians one realizes they don't have a great hatred for their neighbors to the north just a fierce love for their land, families and friends. Can't we all just get along? The voyage on the catamaran the following day was the roughest part of the trip. The sea was mellow yet our fellow mates were wild- "Ibana!" As we climbed aboard the boat we noticed that half of the group was dressed in bright yellow shirts and straw hats, they were visitors from Spain. It was nine in the morning yet the music was cranked up loud and the cervezas were flowing freely. Was this a World Cup Soccer Match? It felt like spring break on South Padre Island! Our 1st stop was to visit dolphins at an encampment. They were quite human friendly thought one wishes they could exist in a more natural state, the water only being 4-5 feet deep. That afternoon we spent lounging around one of the local islands w/ thousands of other tourists, it seemed as if we were the only ones speaking english. The U.S. has cordoned off Cuba yet the rest of the world looks to be enjoying it quite often. I was fortunate to find a shirt of Ernest Hemingway who is idolized around these parts. A man who never held back thru his writings about his love for the surrounding landscape and its inhabitants.

Our final trip was to Metanzas where we enjoyed snorkeling, swimming in a cave, jet skiing, a river boat trip, bull riding, etc. Our host this day was a fella named Dennis who was easily our finest guide. We had much in common as we compared wolf and dog tattoos though his local Indian tat was gorgeous. (If you have ever seen the movie "Apocalypto" it resembles one of those warriors) Unfortunately all of our guides had fake 'english' names so that the uneducated visitors could comprehend and relate to them better. One amazing aspect of Cuba is that nearly 90 percent of the people have been university educated- it's mandated by the government. Dennis spoke 4 different languages. Thankfully I've actually retained quite a bit of Espanol that I learned in high school though it is a bit rusty with no one to practice with. Where's my puerto rican dogmusher buddy Jaime Vives when I need him? I enjoyed sparring w/ Dennis over 'politics'- just as every Cuban does not agree with all of their government's doctines not all Americans enjoy the state of our way of life up north as well. All of us are just flawed humans after all. Seeking to improve and evolve shall always be the greatest goal for every society around the globe.

Our final days were spent lounging on the beach catching some glorious final rays. It's ironic that our new training kennel in Tok, Alaska is on Sun Dog Trail. Much like the moon and stars - I worship the great star that keeps us all warm. Since childhood days spent lugging golf bags around Westmoreland C.C. back in chi-town, my skin has typically been quite dark- by choice. Yes, skin cancer is a worry for all of us with the thin ozone yet proper protection enables you to shine!. The strange part of this equation however is that in Cuba there is an underlying belief that one's skin color reflects their position in society. The lighter your texture the more wealthy one is- how interesting that tourists look to catch a tan while the locals shy away from old Sol. Much like most of their neighbors to the far north who hibernate indoors in the colder winter season instead of challenging the cold and embracing the northern lights of those heavenly arctic nights!

Gord, one of Tamra's P's friends had one final surprise for me. Just a few hours before we were to head to the airport he sauntered over to us on the beach, "Wanna go fishing?" Pedro, a local fisherman was our guide as we caught a few tuna fish from his catamaran. Flinging our lures out into the waters trailing behind us, I felt the true essence of the carribean lifestyle. We kept an eye out for telltale signs- scavenging birds or black spots on the water revealing the swarms of sardines below that the larger fish prey upon. At this moment I felt a true appreciation for the land, the outstretched ocean and heavens above. Gord and his wife Carol visit Cuba often for they have an immense affection for the poor people. Each visit they bring shoes for the children and paper and pencils for the local school that has no access to supplies such as these. Their small sacrifice might not solve all of the Island's issues yet with 'Baby Steps' may this small symbol of the world continue to become a more beautiful mosaic of life.

All in all our trip was quite an eye opener to a place often speculated about that holds many hidden mysteries. It was fun but to be honest w/in a day or so I was ready to get back home North to the pooches and the mountains. For a rather hyper personality such as myself mellowing out for a week just isn't an option anymore. I suppose that's why I barely sleep at all- from where my unique journey started out from just over a decade ago I have been so blessed. There's just too much to enjoy in this world to have negative views towards others. In these economic times it's easy to complain yet why waste the energy when one can be productive? On our bus ride to the airport they announced that the American flag had just been raised for the 1st time in a half a century in Havana. (the Cohiba hotel) Passing thru customs back onto the plane I stopped for a brief chat with the Cuban border guard. He asked me about our new government. I replied that with Obama things will probably be better for Cuba. His reply startled me, "Obama, Bush- they are all the same." Come on my friend things can only get better for Cuba- you'll see. Hopefully one day soon we all will have more faith in our governments which look out for our, and the world's, best interests. Politicians must be wary that the days of pursuing their own self interests over the 'will of the people' are an embarassment to humanity better left in the past.

For dreams are not an option, they are a necessity. Adios mi amigos, HHN