Hurricane Matthew – Cuba

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You probably haven’t heard about the destruction that Hurricane Matthew had on Cuba’s Eastern province of Guantanamo (called Oriente in pre-Castro Cuba).

Despite the renewed relations between Cuba and the U.S. – only Haiti exists as a Caribbean nation worthy of reporting. Maybe because there are already media embedded in Haiti – knowing that at any moment some crisis will occur.IMG_4906_2

Back in January 2010, I was in the northeasternmost town of Cuba, Baracoa, when the deadly earthquake hit Haiti. There was no destruction in Cuba, but my mother and I got to experience a tsunami warning Cuban-style (I write about that in a book I’m writing, stay tuned).

This is the place where my mother is from. This is the place I got to visit and fall in love with back in 2010. This is a place where the people are resilient and the natural beauty off the charts. It is a place that gets hit with hurricanes.

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Thanks to this article by Miami Herald reporter Mimi Whitefield, on the http://www.incubatoday.com website, we now know the devastation to a part of the island I would call home if circumstances were different.

From a distance, I can only send good thoughts and look for an organization that is accepting donations for Cuba. This article is a great start (thank you Casey Suglia of Romper.com). #BaracoaEstamosContigo

I hope you can help too.

 

Cruising near Cuba

On December 17th, 2014, I was on a cruise ship, sailing to within four miles of the coast of Cuba.Heading to the Windward Passage

I was on a cruise with my mother, my husband and best friend from high school. We just left the Bahamas and were on our way to Ocho Rios Jamaica. I knew the ship would have to travel  through the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti to reach Jamaica directly south of Cuba, but I didn’t know how close.

After lunch, while walking laps on the Promenade deck, I thought I saw land. I went to my stateroom to find our latest location, we were close to the Eastern-most tip of Cuba, Punta Maisí.

Our rickety taxi, a Russian made Lada.
Our rickety taxi, a Russian made Lada.

I was familiar with Punta Maisí because it was a place my mother wanted to visit during our trip to Cuba in 2010. Instead we stayed in Baracoa, about 39 miles away. We learned the roads out to the point were really muddy and with potholes large enough to wreck the already battered Lada sedan of our hired driver.

Perhaps now, while cruising along her shores aboard the luxurious MS NOORDAM, we would be able to see the famous lighthouse at Punta Maisí. Her decks providing us with a sturdy platform to view what we couldn’t get to on land.

I spent the day on deck squinting my eyes to see if I could see something I could recognize, I was hoping to see El Yunque – the famous geologic feature in Baracoa that purportedly led Columbus to Cuba’s shores in 1511. Clouds draped the coastline. I imagined I saw the silhouette of mountains.

If you squint your eyes you can see land in the distance.
If you squint your eyes you can see land in the distance.

The winter sun was low on the horizon, the fluffy tropical white clouds played tricks with my eyes, but finally as if commanded by my desire to see land, a slight wind picked up and – Land Ho!

My heart filled with pride of seeing my mother’s land, my eyes welled with tears, as if I was seeing a long dead relative, coming back for a brief visit. Cuba!

I continued my laps around the Promenade deck as our ship sailed even closer to Cuba’s shores. Each trip I announced to a clueless, yet curious, fellow passenger who was wondering what land we were passing. “That my friend is the most beautiful island in the world! Cuba!” I was proud of my ancestor’s land, despite her political history, it is a place of amazing natural history and made up of a resilient people.

A tiny white line in the middle of the image - is the lighthouse.
A tiny white line in the middle of the image – is the lighthouse.

The land came closer into view and upon checking our location again, about an hour later, I saw we were only miles off her coast, precisely off Punta Maisí. I squinted some more and thought I saw a lighthouse. I used my Iphone 4s camera to zoom in and steadied my arms on the deck railing. I needed another miracle from the clouds and the wind. My eyes played tricks on me, I thought I could see a small white blip in the distance. I took several images, not really knowing what I was taking a photo of. But on some level, I knew it had to be the lighthouse at Maisí.

IMG_4906_2When I got home after the cruise, I looked at all my photos and did a few searches on Google to determine that yes what I saw was Punta Maisí.

We continued to cruise past Cuba until nightfall. When lights onshore, made me wonder, again, where we were. I wondered if we were near Santiago de Cuba. I thought the lights I saw were from El Morro, the Spanish fort at the mouth of Santiago harbor. But when I looked at our location on the ship’s monitor, we were to the east.

Nighttime location when I saw lights onshore.
Nighttime location when I saw lights onshore.

I went back on deck and watched the blinking lights of what I thought would have been the runway at Santiago’s airport, the airport my mother and I flew into back in 2010, an airport slightly east of El Morro. My mind was made up, that was Santiago. Then, I saw more flashing lights, to the west of the “runway” past a dark area. I didn’t remember anything on the other side of Santiago’s harbor mouth. Then it came to me. That must be the mouth of Guantanamo Bay and the lights are from the U.S. naval base. I stood there staring into the darkness, imagining the large natural harbor of that bay, thinking about how one of my great-uncles was killed while trying to swim towards freedom and remembering my visit to the town of Guantanamo, in 2010, the place where my mother was born. Then, I had a vision.

“I can imagine our cruise ship sailing into port here.” I blurted to my husband, stunned by the break in silence.

I learned the next day, December 18th, that my vision may one day be a reality, Obama had announced his plans to reestablish relations with Cuba. A future cruise originating in the U.S., could possibly include Cuba on its itinerary. It will be a fabulous economic opportunity for the people of Cuba and an opportunity for cultural exchange for both Cubans and Americans.

Note: After several months of reading a bunch of articles about travel to Cuba, I read about an entrepreneur from Canada who has already established a cruise around Cuba. Wanna go?!

Cocina Criolla cookbook

Cooking Cuban – Arroz con Pollo

I sat at the table watching my grandmother uncover the large pot sitting on the stove. As steam billowed from under the cover, the fragrance of oregano, garlic, onion, tomato, chicken and a hint of white wine, tickled my nose and made my stomach growl. I eagerly awaited my plate of arroz con pollo piled high chicken with rice dotted with green peas, bell peppers and red pimentos. Before I dove into my dinner of this dish, that I consider my childhood favorite, my grandmother placed a paper towel lined plate piled high with tostones, twice fried green plantains, sprinkled with the right amount of salt. The tostones would serve as part food item, part utensil, helping push the rice and chicken onto my fork before I took each mouth-watering bite.

This is the vision I have of Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house. She lived in a townhouse, three blocks away from the apartment I shared in Chicago with my mom, dad and older brother. It was a  different world from my multicultural German, Cuban household. In her house Cuba was the root of everything, or so I thought in my child’s mind. Her cooking, the music she played and her language, was all Cuban. Thanks to her, I learned to cook tostones and arroz con pollo. And whenever I want to get in touch with my Cuban roots, energizing my Cuban DNA, and remember my grandmother I cook these two things.

Cocina Criolla cookbook
Some ingredients and Cocina Criolla by Nitza Villapol.

This time I needed some help to remember the ingredients. Thanks to inspiration from My Big Fat Cuban Family blog and the cookbook my grandmother left me, Cocina Criolla by Nitza Villapol, I began my journey towards feeling Cuban in Seattle.

Not only did I want to reignite my internal Cubana, I wanted to use up some food I had in the house. Nitza’s recipe calls for two whole chickens. I had two boneless, skinless breasts in the fridge, this was a problem. I recalled my grandmother loved cooking with chicken thighs, for flavor and for economic reasons, so I headed to the store to buy four chicken thighs plus strained tomatoes, plantain, an onion, dry white wine and bell pepper (red and green). The rest were in the pantry or cupboard.

chicken marinading
Marinade chicken in sour orange juice (made with orange juice with a splash of lime, since I can’t get bitter/sour oranges in Seattle).

The first step is to marinade the chicken in a cup or two of sour orange juice and several cloves of garlic (minced) for at least an hour. Since I live far from where bitter oranges grow, and have never looked to see if it is sold bottled anywhere in Seattle, my trick is to use orange juice and a splash of lime.

Charred pepper on grill.
Charring the red bell pepper.

While the chicken was marinading, I began prepping the rest of the ingredients. My grandmother never liked cooking with canned or bottled vegetables, but most recipes for arroz con pollo call for canned peas, asparagus and bottled pimentos. Since I grew up with a mother who cooked from a can, box and frozen meals, (she was a woman caught in the age of “easy food”), I too stay away from those things. So I made my own pimiento with red bell pepper (yes I know pimiento is different from red bell pepper), used frozen green peas (petite peas would be better) and fresh asparagus (which I just so happened to have in the fridge).

Peeled and sliced - reserving some for garnish.
Peeled and sliced – reserving some for garnish.

To make my version of bottled pimiento, I fire-roasted the red bell pepper to char the skin, about 10-15 minutes, turning every few minutes, to get an even char. Then I place the roasted bell pepper into a paper bag to continue steaming the pepper, about 5 minutes. Now the pepper was ready for pealing, the skin should come off fairly easily with your fingers. What I love about this method, is you get a nice smokey flavor on the bell pepper and the consistency is just like the bottled pimiento.

Making sofrito
Making sofrito.

I browned the chicken in some olive oil using a large, deep skillet. Once browned, take the chicken out of the pan and deglaze pan with white wine, getting all the flavor-filled tidbits off the bottom of the pan. The pan is now ready for making the sofrito. Add the green bell pepper and onion, stir until they are soft. The smell of the sofrito will transport you to my grandmother’s kitchen. Find an album by Paquito D’Rivera (I was playing Havana-Rio Connection album playing in the background) and you may get a nostalgic vision of Cuba B.C. (before Castro)

Rice bathed in sofrito
Adding rice.

The sofrito continues to cook by adding the tomato sauce (about 1.5 cups), white wine (1.5-2 cups), cumin (1 tsp), and oregano (hefty tsp).  Once combined, the pan is ready to add the rice (3 cups), chicken stock (2 cups), two bay leaves, and annato for color (1 tsp).

Ok, here is another place where I deviate from Nitza’s and other recipes. Many recipes ask you to add Accent or some spice pack from Goya. I don’t add these because their main, if not only, ingredient is MSG (you know the stuff you don’t want to eat at Chinese restaurants, monosodium glutamate). Instead, I add a little more salt than the recipe calls for, and then put it on the table.

beer
Adding beer!

Since I used a deep skillet, I was able to place all the chicken in the pan without having to use a dutch oven. Cover and let cook until the rice is done – about 20 – 30 minutes. To finish I added some beer I had in the fridge. I then placed the garnish of fresh asparagus, thawed peas and fire-roasted red pepper. And voila dinner is served.

finished product.
Final result.
bus stopped by roadway stand.

Lost in Analogy…

bus stopped by roadway stand.
Cuban “Dirty Dog.”

Sitting on the bus in my decaffeinated and hungry state – bleary eyed, a mild headache, and a low grumble in my stomach – I tried to absorb the scenery. We rolled through a rural landscape of fields of grass bordered with wooden fencing and second growth forest, a jumble of tropical plants in slightly different shades of green, palms, vines and a coniferous tree or two. There were no directional signs for miles and no street signs at intersections. The Cuban government did provide motivational signs in the form of large billboards with pro-revolution slogans painted with vibrant colors. The road was boring and the only thing keeping me conscious on this tourist class, Greyhound bus look-alike, was the smell of old, dried up urine from the latrine at the back of the bus, a Cuban Dirty Dog.

Did you get the analogy?

In a writing workshop, located in Seattle WA, my classmates didn’t get it. They thought there was an actual dog on the bus, or that the smell reminded the narrator of an experience with a Cuban dog. Lost in analogy was the slang term for Greyhound buses used in my hometown of Chicago IL.

With analogy being so important to storytelling, to bring the reader closer to the story, what happens if the analogy isn’t universal?

It is like being told a joke and needing it explained to you. The joke is lost, poof – lost in translation.

What is a writer to do?

My goal as a writer of memoir and creative nonfiction is to share my story. My words will reflect my experiences, my slang, bits of my personality, but what if you the reader doesn’t get my drift and get’s lost? My goal of sharing my story is lost, as the reader is adrift in an ocean of confusion. Wondering, huh?! I don’t get it…

I don’t have the answer, for now I dropped the analogy to the Cuban dirty dog. In a different paragraph I call it a porta-potty on wheels (changed from my original Honey Bucket on wheels – the name of our local portable toilet provider in Seattle) so that more people in the U.S. would understand the reference.  Or should I call it a porta-John or porta-WC…  Ugh!

A bed of roses…

Death.

No matter how hard we try, we just can’t get away from it. Nope, sorry, you too will die, your spirit will leave your physical body and go…  wherever spirits go when we die. So why do you ignore it? You know… Death?  When someone you know or love is consciously dying because they are terminally ill or they are on life support after a tragic accident – why are you afraid? Why don’t you know how to act? to feel? What to say?

uncle danny 1987
Uncle Danny with cousin Nick, 1987, photo taken by author.

When my uncle Danny was consciously dying, having been diagnosed with AIDS a year or two earlier, I visited him for 3 weeks during the summer of 1987 in San Francisco. I was 16 and in denial, how could he be dying? He was full of life, was an amazing chef, funny, caring (he had started school to become a nurse when he was diagnosed), handsome and most of all I loved him more than any other person in my life. He was my father figure, since my relationship with my biological father was not so great. He was the person who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, what I wanted to study in College, how I was feeling, he was actively engaged in my life. So how could he die when I was beginning to go through a period in my life when I needed him most?

Author and her uncle
The author and uncle Danny summer 1987.

I was selfish, “Uncle Danny, can you move back to Chicago?” I asked one morning during that 3 week visit, I  wanted him to be closer to me. “Honey” he said. “I am going to die here.” Despite my shock at his answer, I appreciated his bluntness, I respected that he was a man who didn’t mince his words, he told it like it was.  During those three weeks I was with him, the last time I would be with him on this earth, I tried with all my might to squeeze everything I could out of every day. I was  hyper-conscious of his impending death, I tried hard to cherish every moment with him, thinking this could be the last time. Despite being a warrior against death, I still had a weird hole inside of me, one that somehow couldn’t be filled with the fresh squeezed orange juice he gave me every morning. Nor with saying “I love you Uncle Danny” every night before going to sleep. I was scared that when he wasn’t around, who would care about me like he did? Who would listen to me?

The day I had to get on a plane back to Chicago, I knew it would be the last time I would see him. I tried pushing that feeling aside as I gave him that last hug before walking down the jet-way. That walk down the jet-way was the longest walk of my life, I was all too conscious of what was happening, my heart breaking with every step I made towards that plane. The worst was I couldn’t just break down and cry, I was in public for crying out loud. I had to keep it together, if not for me, for my uncle, whose eyes I did catch when I did one of those “last looks” the kind that turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt – the kind that tore an even greater hole in my heart as I saw tears welling up in my uncle’s eyes.

Journaling saved my life. My uncle recommended I start journaling after a phone conversation soon after I returned to Chicago. He also suggested I look into applying to a university I had never heard of before, called University of Chicago (my future alma mater). A few months later during a cold Chicago winter morning, I awoke abruptly, got dressed and went for a cold walk along the shore of Lake Michigan before anyone was awake. I took a long walk, eventually ending up at a local catholic church, St. Joseph’s. I was not raised religious, but I felt a need to light a candle for my uncle and say a prayer. After an hour or two I finally went back home. As soon as I walked in the door, I heard my mother on the phone, confirming what I already knew, he had passed away.

My grandmother was with him that morning, and later that year, I would share my story with her and she would confirm that at the moment he took his last breath, was the same time as when I woke up.

Author and grandmother 1971
One of the first images of the author and her grandmother, 1971.

My grandmother, Elivira Rosa Silva was born 95 years ago in Preston Cuba, where my great-grandfather worked in the sugar cane fields of an American company. She died 5 years ago, just shy of her 90th birthday in San Francisco, CA. Although she was old she had been full life: a former beauty queen, she cared about her looks to the very end, she loved eating well and sneaking a cigarette every now and again. She gave up her independence, reluctantly, about a year before her death.

On Valentine’s day 2007, I tried calling her at the nursing home. When the nurse said she wasn’t available, I called my mother to see if she had spoken with her. “No” she said. I called again the next day and still no luck, so I called the receptionist. After trying to locate her, the receptionist came back to the phone and said, “Your grandmother is not here.” I responded, “Is she in the hospital?” “Yes.” she replied, not able to give me anymore information than that. I called all of the hospitals near Alameda, CA and finally found my grandmother in the CCU of a hospital in Oakland CA. After talking with her nurse, I was able to talk with her doctor. “You are the first family member I have had a chance to speak with” the doctor said. He went on to explain to me that she had several infections in her body, her kidneys were not in good shape and her heart was bad. I asked what her prognosis was and he said 50/50. I hung up the phone and made a reservation for early the next morning to fly down to Oakland.

2005 author with grandmother
Last image of the author together with her grandmother, 2005.

I had to convince my mother that “this was it” that if she didn’t get her butt on the next airplane to San Francisco that she would regret not being there during her mother’s last days on this planet. My mother was letting her anger at her mother get the best of her. Thankfully she did get on an airplane.

I have consciously danced with death on a bed of roses, smelled her heavenly scent and felt her prickly thorns in my heart. Death opened my heart to experience life, raw, naked, intensely. So why would I want to fear this part of my natural life history as a human? Why would I want to miss out on witnessing the amazing transition from our current dimension to another?

I will be there with you as you die. I am not afraid. I consciously walk towards death every day and I have never felt so alive.

And there’s the pitch…

Version 3

Author and her mother in Cuba
If I get this book idea published, this is what I want as the book cover…

Guantanamera, a travel memoir, describes a trip with my mother to her birthplace, Guantanamo, Cuba. Upon arrival the romantic vision of Cuba I had since childhood, quickly melted away as I found myself in a military state.

“Why did I decide to take this trip?” I thought to myself as I walked past soldiers wearing surgical masks and carrying semi-automatic weapons.

“Guilt!” I realized.

She had pleaded with me. “Ay Rebecca, I want to show you where I was born before I die.”

She probably assumed I would never go by myself or that this would be another opportunity for a magical mother/daughter bonding experience.

By day two, a walk through downtown Santiago has my mother thinking she is on a death march, while I’m happily exploring the disintegrating colonial architecture. When I decline taking a taxi with her the half-mile back to the hotel, she erupts, thinking I just told her that I don’t love her.

Throughout the trip I find myself playing travel guide or camp counselor, when all I want to do is just experience Cuba. By the end of the trip and multiple “adventures” I realize how my mother’s history has influenced who she is and how it has affected our relationship.

Let me know what you think… I have to pitch this next week! Stay tuned to find out if I hit a line drive out of the ball field!

Fork you…

Sign to various locations
Sometimes the roads in life are in a different language.

When there is a fork in the road take it. Just do something for crying out loud. Don’t just stand there scratching your head wondering which is the “best” road. For some it will be the road less traveled, unpaved, muddy, with huge pot holes or ruts. For others it will be immaculately paved, well trodden, a road others have obviously taken, cookbook, zero or little uncertainty. And then there are those “middle of the road” folks, who like paved roads but are willing to deal with a little gravel now and again. But as we all know there are no road maps for life on this lovely planet Earth, don’t let Rand McNally fool you into thinking there is. So my advice to you is to have fun, be adventurous and face your fears. If you don’t like the road you chose, then tomorrow choose a different one.

Secretly, I have been searching for that well paved road all my life. You know the one with all those well lit signs, telling me where to go and when to turn left or right, to get to my destination. Every turn I’ve made in my life has left me on a road I didn’t know existed the day before. The road to my marriage, the road to my divorce, the road to my academic degrees or my career. I had no guides, written or otherwise, yet I never made a wrong turn. Because regardless of what people may say, we choose our journey, we choose our lessons and we choose to learn from them or not.

The author taking an opportunistic swim in a pool above the Rio Toa.

Traveling is a great way to determine what type of person you are. Are you an adventurous muddy road sort of person? Or do you like to do the tourist thing and have someone else guide your vacation? Me, I’m that person who reads guidebooks before a trip and then tosses them aside when I arrive to my destination. Or at least I strive to be that fearless soul. Rather I am in the middle somewhere, sometimes safe, and sometimes daring. It just depends where I go and with whom I am with. Oh yeah, when you travel, just remember who you have chosen to travel with. That person may or may not walk along the same road as you. Remember, traveling is a microcosm of life, your experiences will be colored by whom you are with and who you choose to hang around. I once heard the great travel writer, Paul Theroux speak in Washington D.C., and he shared that early in his career he traveled with his wife, but he quickly realized that his experiences were being influenced by his concern about her welfare and he felt he wasn’t having authentic travel experiences. “Brilliant!” I thought.

My mother hiking to Rio Toa.
My mother not in her element. But she got an “A” for effort!

With all of this wisdom you would think I would make all of the right decisions on how to travel and with whom to travel with. Wrong! There is this thing called guilt that has forced me, gun to my back, to take a couple of trips with my mother. Don’t get me wrong, I love my mother, but she and I travel on very different roads. Knowledge of this was thrown to the wind when she asked me to go to Cuba with her. That trip had adventures that should be in a book and if the planets align, perhaps it will be.

Lesson: Even though you may consciously choose a road that will be bumpy and uncomfortable, you may learn things about yourself that are worthy for a book.

May the fork be with you!