Bears Sighted in Cuba

“We have to get to know each other better, it makes us understand one another better, trust each other more, and live together more peacefully”

– Motto for the United Buddy Bears, an international art exhibition promoting peace among nations.

Buddy Bears in San Francisco de Asis Plaza
Buddy Bears in Havana’s San Francisco de Asis Plaza

We were very fortunate to be in Cuba when the United Buddy Bears were being displayed at the San Francisco de Asis Plaza in Havana. The brightly painted fiberglass bears represent the over 140 countries recognized by the United Nations and are designed to promote peace, tolerance, and international understanding. They stand hand to hand to represent the people, culture, history, and landscape of the different countries, not the political systems.

The design on each bear was created by an artist from the individual countries and, no matter how large or small, or rich or poor each country is, they have the same size bear and are equal in standing. It was interesting to see how the various artists choose to represent their country – many were quite beautiful, some (including Cuba’s) were a little humorous, and others inspiring. All were fascinating.

The bears were first exhibited in Berlin in 2002/2003, before moving on to Austria in 2004. They have now been shown in over 23 countries, including Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Egypt, Israel, Argentina, and India.

Buddy Bears

In March, the United Buddy Bears leave Cuba for their next destination, Santiago de Chile. I tried to determine if they were scheduled for a stop in the United States, but was unable to find anything. I hope they will not only be displayed here, but will also be embraced with the same generous, open-hearted spirit they have found elsewhere.

Cuba's Buddy Bear
Cuba’s Buddy Bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Buddy Bear
U.S. Buddy Bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BB Lineup 2

 

 

 

 

Cuba: A Nation Rich in History

On the morning of our second day in Cuba, we were treated to an unexpected scene in downtown Havana. In celebration of Jose Marti’s birth date, hundreds of school children paraded down the avenue next to our hotel. Many of them were in costume, some held signs or flags, and all participated in vigorous chants led by their adult supervisors. It was the first of many times on our trip that I wished that my Spanish was better but even so, the pageantry and the sweet, earnest faces of the children was a joy to watch.

School children celebrating Jose Marti's birthday
School children celebrating Jose Marti’s birthday
Statue of Jose Marti in Havana's main square
Statue of Jose Marti in Havana’s main square

Jose Marti is a Cuban national hero for his role in the struggle for independence from Spain in the 19th century. His writings, including poems and essays, promoted liberty and political freedom. His dedication to Cuban independence – including sovereignty from the United States — and his fight against slavery and racial discrimination is honored throughout Cuba with statues and celebrations like we were fortunate to witness.

After watching the parade, we took off on foot to discover other sights of Havana, including the capitol dome (currently undergoing renovations), magnificent old buildings in various stages of decay, and the entrance arch to a long-gone Chinatown.

The rest of the day included a tour of the Necropolis de Colon, one of the largest cemeteries in the world, a private talk given by Roberto Salas’ about his stint as Fidel Castro’s private photographer in the 1960s, and a tour of ceramic artist Fuster’s amazing compound in which he has created a spectacular and joyful “Homenate a Gaudi” (“Homage to Gaudi”).

Havana is a photographer's dream
Havana is a photographer’s dream

Colorful buildings in Havana

Entrance to Chinatown
Entrance to Chinatown

 

The capitol building under repair
The capitol building under repair
Necropolis de Colon cemetary
Necropolis de Colon cemetery
It is easy to see how the artist Fuster was inspired by Antoni Gaudi
It is easy to see how the artist Fuster was inspired by Antoni Gaudi
No day in Cuba is complete without a cool dude and an even cooler car
No day in Cuba is complete without a cool dude and an even cooler car

 

Cuba: Separated from the U.S. by 90 miles and 50 years

There are many reasons why the tiny nation of Cuba had such a huge hold on my imagination for so many years. Some of the lure was the image I had of a country frozen in time; most of the buildings, infrastructure, and automobiles pre-date 1961, when the United States began its trade embargo. What I knew of the culture and the people was also appealing; I’ve always been attracted to the Latin ethos, perhaps because it contrasted so strongly with my plain vanilla self. And then there’s the arts – especially the music and the dancing – which had a special hold over me.

The beauty of Salsa
The beauty of Salsa

Just a few years ago, traveling to Cuba as a U.S. citizen would mean breaking the law. The travel ban was relaxed somewhat in 2009, which allowed Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba. When, in 2011, “people-to-people” visits were sanctioned so other U.S. citizens were able to travel to Cuba, albeit with certain restrictions, I started to research my options. I hoped to find a tour that had a good mix of organized excursions and unstructured free time so we could explore our surroundings on our own. Last October, when I found one that fit my requirements, I signed up for the next planned trip without hesitation.

Very early on the morning of our departure, a group of 18 mostly strangers gathered together, visas in hand, in the Charter Airline terminal at Miami airport. Exhausted but excited, we began the process of getting to know one another as we made our way through the series of steps necessary for U.S. citizens to travel legally to Cuba. About 2 1/5 hours after we arrived at the airport we boarded our plane for the short flight to Havana’s Jose Marti Airport.

My first glimpse of Cuba!
My first glimpse of Cuba!

When we landed and I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac, I could barely contain my emotions. I had dreamed of this moment for so long it was hard to believe that I had finally made it. I was in Cuba!

After making our way through immigration, retrieving our bags, and going through customs, we exchanged dollars for CUCs and we were on our way. Our first day’s agenda included a short orientation walk in Old Havana, lunch, and a tour of the Havana Club Rum Museum before checking into our hotel in downtown Havana.

Jose Marti International Airport
Jose Marti International Airport
Taxis wait for passengers in front of the airport
Taxis wait for passengers in front of the airport
The first of many government-sponsored billboards and murals we saw
The first of many government-sponsored billboards and murals we saw
Catholic church in Old Havana
Catholic church in Old Havana
The Havana Club Rum Museum
The Havana Club Rum Museum
The view from our hotel room in Havana
The view from our hotel room in Havana

Stringing Together the Florida Keys

Because our journey to Cuba would be launched from Miami, my husband and I had an opportunity to fulfill another long-held desire: to drive the scenic coastal highway along the Florida Keys. Although we had been to Florida several times before, we had never tacked the time onto our vacation necessary to make the journey. This visit though, we added a few days to explore the area, which had the additional benefit of allowing us to acclimate ourselves to the three-hour time zone difference before we reached our main destination.

Although I was aware that the Keys – and especially Key West – had become a bit of a tourist trap, I still wanted to see them for myself. I was intrigued by pictures of turquoise waters and distinctive architecture, fascinated to read about the time Hemmingway spent in Key West, and inspired by the romance of the many songs written about this beautiful necklace of islands along the coral archipelago.

42 overseas bridges span the islands from Key Largo to Key West
42 overseas bridges span the islands from Key Largo to Key West

There are more than 800 islands that make up the Keys but fewer than 50 of these are inhabited (“Key” is derived from the Spanish word Cayo which means small island).  The Overseas Highway that stretches from Key Largo to Key West is a series of causeways and bridges — including the spectacular Seven Mile Bridge – and provides plenty of vistas along the way. It was built to replace the Overseas Railway that was constructed in the early 1910s and then destroyed by a category 5 hurricane in 1935. It takes about 3 – 4 hours to drive the 110 mile route, depending on traffic and the number of stops needed to admire the scenery and, of course, to grab a cheeseburger in paradise.

We only had two days set aside for our visit and, looking back, we should have allowed for more. There is a lot to see and do on these beautiful and captivating little islands.

Hemmingway's house and museum is home to 40 - 50 polydactyl (six-toed) cats
Hemingway’s house and museum is home to 40 – 50 polydactyl (six-toed) cats. If you look closely, you can see Truman’s “thumb”
The study in Hemmingway's Key West home
The study in Hemingway’s home, where it is said that he wrote “To Have and Have Not,” a novel about Key West during the Great Depression
In Key West a marker indicates the southernmost point in the continental U.S. (just 90 miles from Cuba!)
In Key West a marker indicates the southernmost point in the continental U.S. (just 90 miles from Cuba!)
Sailing into the sunset
Sailing into the sunset off the shores of Key West
The crowd at Mallory Square gathers to watch the sunset
The crowds at Mallory Square gather each night to watch the sunset
After the sun set, the crowd applauded and disbursed, unaware that the best part of the sunset occurs several minutes after it disappears below the horizon
After the sun set, the crowd applauded and disbursed, unaware that the best part of the sunset occurs several minutes after it disappears below the horizon

Kicking the Bucket List

Ever since the film “The Bucket List” came out in 2007, the phrase has become a part of the American vernacular. Whether or not the term pre-dates the movie, I have no idea, but it seems that now just about everyone has made some type of bucket list. It might be a list of things they want to do before they “kick the bucket” or it could be a list of places to visit or goals to achieve before a specific end time (going off to college or getting married, for instance).

List

When I first heard the term I thought it was a clever, light-hearted way to describe a list of experiences to be had and dreams to fulfill. I’ve used the phrase many times myself but, lately, what used to sound clever now strikes me as trite. In many cases, “Bucket List” trivializes the passion, desire, and curiosity that helped to create the collection of destinations and dreams I would like to pursue while I am still able to do so. These are not merely items on a to-do list to be checked off as I flit from one to the next, but real experiences to be lived and savored.

Recently, I was able to fulfill a dream I have had for as long as I can remember: travel to Cuba. I’m not sure what planted the seed of desire in me, but I have fed and nurtured it for many years. I’ve collected articles, accumulated books, and closely charted the political winds as they have raged, then calmed, then raged again, carrying my hopes with them. As close as Cuba is – just 90 miles from the tip of Florida – it might as well have been on another planet because of the travel restrictions placed on U.S. citizens.

Then, last fall, the right opportunity presented itself and we immediately said “yes”! The person putting the trip together had experience, passion, and a great sense of fun and adventure. We’ve never been interested in traveling with tour group before, but this one promised just the right combination of group time and free time. It would give us the opportunity to see parts of the country, learn about its culture and history, and have experiences that we would find very difficult to realize on our own.

All of the arrangements were made before President Obama’s December 17 announcement of the beginning of normalizing relations between Cuba and the United States. When we heard of the impending thaw, we were so grateful that we would see Cuba before the travel restrictions were lifted. We wanted to see Cuba before it is irreversibly altered by the deluge of American tourists that are sure to come once diplomatic relations are reestablished.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I flew to Miami to begin what would feel like a journey on a time machine, back to the late 1950s, before the U.S. imposed a trade embargo on this tiny island nation.

Next:

Key West: Separated from Cuba by 90 miles and 50 years

A Backward Glance at 2014, Part 1

Although I don’t have a tradition of making New Year’s resolutions, I think it can be helpful to take stock of the year gone by and look for ways to do more of what worked and improve on what didn’t.

2014 was a year of big changes for me because on May 16, I made the leap into retirement. Some of the changes I experienced were predictable, but some took me by surprise. I’m happy to report that most were positive, but some… not so much.

Here’s how I think I did in a few categories (more in my next post):

Embracing Retirement – A+

It's hard to predict what is around the retirement corner
It’s hard to predict what is around the retirement corner

No one can predict how well they will take to a life change as major as retirement. I remember approaching the date with a mix of excitement and trepidation. I was grateful that I had the opportunity at a fairly young age, and I looked forward to joining my husband who retired two years previously.  On the other hand, I had a good job, an almost non-existent commute, and work friends that I enjoyed and knew I would miss. My fear was that I would wake up one morning and realize that I had made a terrible – and irreversible – choice.

I know now that I had nothing to fear. I wake up every day thankful that I don’t have to go to work. I stay in touch with several of my work friends and none of our conversations that are about work make me want to dive in again.

Diet and Exercise – C

I really had every intention of putting together an exercise program and sticking to it. Nothing crazy or too time-consuming; I wanted consistent and semi-challenging. Even just walking my three-mile, hilly course around our neighborhood would have been a great start. I envisioned taking up yoga.

That didn’t happen.

The worst part is that I have no excuse. Weather – too hot or cold – is seldom a barrier in Southern California and I actually enjoy exercising once I get started. It’s the getting started that has been the problem. I’m fortunate to be in pretty good shape despite my lethargy but I know I can’t rely on my good genes forever.

Fortunately, I have been successful in keeping my weight in my target range. I was concerned that being at home with the refrigerator just a few steps away would be my undoing. Although the temptations are plenty and my husband and I go out to lunch more often than we probably should, we manage to eat fairly healthily. In addition, I continue to follow the Fast Diet, a way of eating based on intermittent fasting. After learning about Dr. Mosley’s research on a PBS program almost two years ago I lost the weight I wanted to, and have kept it off without feeling deprived. It’s not for everyone, but it works for me.

Travel – A

Birds of a feather in Abilene
Birds of a feather in Abilene

A couple of months before I retired I went on a two-week cross-country road trip with a friend. She had made this trip many times alone, traveling between her home in Pennsylvania and Southern California, but this time I decided to tag along. It was great fun and I saw many parts of the country I hadn’t seen before.

In June, my husband and I traveled to Northern California for a three-week adventure that included car club activities and visits with both sides of our family. It was the first time we’ve vacationed that a work schedule didn’t force us to come home earlier than we wanted.

In the fall, we took off for a three-week trip to the big island, Hawaii. We were fortunate to have a very generous friend who opened her home to us for the entire time. Staying in someone’s home and having the luxury of time made the trip very special. Not only was our host an excellent tour guide, we didn’t feel that we had to choose between snorkeling, relaxing, and sight-seeing – we could do it all.

 

In my next post, I’ll look at several other retirement goals I have and assess my efforts and outcomes for those.

The Klondike Big Inch Land Company: A Tale of Puffed Rice and Deflated Dreams

My two brothers and I are very lucky to have been raised by loving, involved parents who made sure we were well equipped to become successful adults. They made sure we studied hard in school, ate right, and we were encouraged to get plenty of exercise by playing outdoors with our friends.

But, they realized that all this may not be enough. Just having a good education, eating a healthy diet, and rocking at Kick-the-Can and Hide-and-Seek would only get us so far in the world. We needed something else, something that could give us the financial wherewithal to fund our dreams. Some parents might have purchased savings bonds for their children; others might have invested in Disney stock.

Our parents bought us land.

Well, they didn’t exactly buy us land. What they bought were boxes of Quaker Oats brand Puffed Rice. This wasn’t just any old cereal, mind you: nestled inside each box was a Deed of Land granted by the Klondike Big Inch Land Co. Inc.; specifically a deed for one square inch of land in the Yukon Territory.

Yep, I became a land baron before I was out of diapers.

Inch FrontInch Back

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I was old enough to truly appreciate the significance of my Deed of Land – not only for its tremendous future dollar value, but also for its ability to make my best friend jealous – I put the document in a protective plastic sleeve and placed it among my other valuable possessions. I occasionally brought it out when I wanted to dream of my future wealth or I needed to up my cred among my friends, but, for the most part, it remained tucked safely away until the day I would lay claim to my land and the prosperity it represented.

Given the significance of the document, I’m not sure how it managed to lay forgotten for many years until it was discovered when I was going through a box of childhood stuff.  There, along with my grade school class photos, Troop 202 Girl Scout sash, and Presidential Physical Fitness Award patch, was my Deed of Land.

Holding the slightly yellowed document in my hands, the dreams began again.

Maybe, over the years, someone discovered oil under my inch. Or, miners had unearthed a lucrative vein of gold running through it. Or, perhaps a developer had mistakenly built a shopping mall on my land and now I could claim a percentage of the total value (including back interest, of course). If land size inflated in the same way currency does, that square inch would now equal a whopping 8.7 square inches. Certainly that Deed of Land extracted from a cereal box many years ago would be worth a sizable sum today. Oh yeah: my ship had just come in!

Before contacting an attorney or hiring a wealth manager, I decided to do a quick Google search to get some idea of the volume of money that would soon be flowing my way. I also wasn’t quite sure where the Yukon Territory was or the location of the closest airport since I knew I’d have to venture up to the Great North to assert ownership of the square inch that was rightfully mine.

Big Inch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Only it wasn’t… mine, I mean.

It was all a gimmick. What has been called one of the most successful ad campaigns in advertising history was a gimmick designed to encourage kids to pester their parents into purchasing Quaker Oats brand Puffed Rice cereal.

Back in the early 50’s, a brilliant advertising executive, Bruce Baker, developed a promotion tied to a popular Quaker Oats-sponsored radio show about Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and his trusty dog, King. Mr. Baker convinced Quaker Oats to purchase 19.11 acres on the west bank of the Yukon River for $1,000. The company divided the land into 119,870,000 square inch parcels and printed over 21 million Deeds of Land. Each one was individually stamped with a unique lot number – mine was L-595729 – and placed in boxes of cereal.

The promotion’s success went way beyond the company’s wildest dreams.  Pretty soon boxes of the bland, unexciting cereal were flying off the shelves.

Unfortunately for the millions of us now-graying kids who once dreamed of one day laying claim to our square inch of rugged paradise, the Quaker Oats never formally registered the land. The company determined that it would be a logistical nightmare to register the deeds to millions of children. Even if it could be done, it would have cost the company a fortune.

Not only do we not own our square inches now, apparently we never owned them.

To add even more insult to injury, the Klondike Big Inch Land Co., Inc. was dissolved in the 60’s and the Canadian government repossessed all the land for nonpayment of $37.20 in property taxes.

Years ago, a Quaker Oats spokesperson explained that “the deeds were not meant to have any intrinsic value, but rather to give the consumer the romantic appeal of being the owner of a square inch of land in the Yukon.”

Yeah, tell that to my lawyer.