Conservatory across the pond at Myriad Gardens downtown
I realize this is a travel column and not a political forum. And I know raising the sales tax can be very touchy. But I have been impressed with a program promoted by Oklahoma City to revitalize their downtown area that has produced spectacular results – both in increased tourism and urban living.
In 1993, voters of Oklahoma City approved a dedicated sales tax increase of one penny for MAPS – Metropolitan Area Projects. To convince the community of this need, the City , Chamber of Commerce and others had spent much time narrowing the use of the new tax revenue. It was to fund nine projects only. And the tax would expire in five years. The taxpayers knew exactly what was to be done with the money and also knew the end date of the tax increase. It passed with 54% of the vote.
In the next 10 years, the city delivered on its promise. The Music Hall, Civic Center, and Fairgrounds were renovated. An area of town with old warehouses became Bricktown where a new ballpark and mile long canal were constructed. A sports arena was built downtown and the riverfront developed along the adjacent Oklahoma River. City readers cheered at the new four story public library while riding a trolley to get there. And, all were constructed debt free.
Voters were so impressed they approved a second five year round of the sales tax in 2009. This money will do much to encourage healthy lifestyles – a 70 acre downtown public park, senior health and wellness centers, and expansion of the city’s trail system to connect urban parks. Also included is construction of a new Convention Center and Fairground buildings.
River Walk in Bricktown
The tourist fallout from these projects have been phenomenal. Families, college students, military personnel on leave, and locals make extensive use of the new offerings. In Bricktown, many visitors ride the boats, stroll the brick streets, eat at unusual restaurants, shop Bass Pro, and in a lovely stadium watch the Red Hawks play, a AAA team aligned with the Houston Astros. Next door, Downtown sports new streets, a renovated Cox Convention Center, and the new Chesapeake Energy Sports Arena that was instrumental in snagging the very popular NBA Oklahoma Thunder team.
Sculpture at Myriad Gardens Downtown OK City
My favorite project was the beautifully renovated 17 acre Myriad Botanical Gardens. It’s easy to pass a morning or afternoon in the Gardens exploring its Conservatory, fanciful playground, a genuine hidden garden, and water sprays that cool and delight in the summer. Ice skating is available in the winter.
In 2009, only one large hotel with 400 rooms hung out downtown. According to the OKC Chamber of Commerce, $200 million of capital investment has now gone into hotels because of the MAPS success. There are currently thirteen hotels with most large hotel chains represented either in Bricktown or Downtown and two refurbished historic hotels.
Nearby areas have also prospered. Next door to Bricktown is Deep Deuce, the historic African American commercial and jazz center most recently filled with empty lots. New low-rise apartment buildings are filling that void. Young adults and empty nesters have jumped at the opportunity to live in an urban area.
Just north of downtown is Mid-Town with its brick paved Broadway, once filled with automobile dealerships but now hosting a coffee roaster, bike shops, gift stores, and much more. Across Mid-town, old apartment buildings are being transformed and new ones built. Fassler Hall and Dust Bowl, a bowling alley/beer hall just opened along with a nearby food truck park. New restaurants seem to appear weekly. None of these projects are publicly funded but they progressed naturally from the redevelopment of nearby Bricktown and Downtown. The OKC Chamber of Commerce estimates a tenfold return on the original MAPS investment.
And I haven’t even mentioned the third MAPS election that supported education. MAPS for Kids passed in 2001 and by completion, 70 schools had been renovated or newly constructed, including one elementary school downtown. $52 million went for technology projects and $9 million to replacement of the bus fleet. Oklahoma City residents have recognized the need to invest in their community and schools without saddling the next generation with debt.
View of downtown from Myriad Gardens
National Geographic Travel magazine named Oklahoma City as one of the best trips in 2015. That probably surprised a few folks out there but not me. This recognition can be traced directly back to the penny sales tax with a plan. In every election, promoters were able to demonstrate the effective use of the previous penny sales tax while including a vision of the next project. It’s a model we should all consider if ever we want our own hometown to be a premier tourist destination. Oh, and, you should go visit. How many premier travel destinations are just three and a half hours away?
Statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. at MLK Center in Dallas, Texas
Martin Luther King Jr.’s actual birth date is January 15thand this year a visit to the African American Museum in Dallas seemed appropriate. After a hefty soul food lunch at Sweet Georgia Brown’s, we decided to also explore the area for signs of MLK’s influence and presence as well as the history of Dallas’ historical black community.
Newspaper photograph from 1963
Many towns and cities have a street named after the civil rights leader and Dallas is no exception. MLK drive leads from Interstate 45 to the Fairgrounds and was lined with banners promoting events for Monday’s holiday. The street also passes other entities named for King – M.L. King, Jr. Recreation Center, M.L. King, Jr. Library, and most importantly, the M.L. King, Jr. Complex containing a tiny Civil Rights museum. There we discovered a January, 1963 photo of King in Dallas with local activists gathered to protest the Texas Poll Tax. Texas was one of five lingering states in 1963 that still charged to vote – $1.75. Abolishing this tax was one of the major goals of King’s civil rights movement. Later that year, an election in Texas was held to do just that. Even with both parties supporting the abolition, the tax survived, thus requiring federal courts to strike down the law in 1966.
Also in the community outreach center was a traveling exhibit called “the Pathway to Freedom”. Last year, a Freedom Ride Tour took 60 students and chaperones to Little Rock, Memphis, Montgomery and Selma in an effort to relive history and continue the legacy of Dr. King. As with any movement, it’s easy to become complacent and unappreciative of rights bought with blood. I’m sure Dr. King would be disappointed and sad to learn of the low turnout of African American voters in most elections. The Freedom Ride Tour is meant not only to educate participants of their heritage but also to encourage involvement in the ongoing need to protect civil rights. Outside the MLK Center, a larger-than-life bronze statue of King stands, depicting him in motion with his suit coat folded over one arm, the other arm upraised as if he were talking, convincing others of his cause.
Second floor of African American Museum in Dallas, Texas – modeled after an Ethiopia Church
A local cause realized was the African American Museum on the State Fairgrounds. It is a beautiful structure with window and floor design taken from an Ethiopian church. Opened in 1993, its mission is to preserve visual art forms and historical documents that relate to the African American community. .The entry area drew in light from windows on two levels, lifting our eyes to the wooden circular roof, reminiscent of an African thatched hut. As a small time collector of folk art, I enjoyed the museum’s folk art collection that included works by Clementine Hunter. In the fine arts section, artist John Biggers is represented with a work I thought paled in comparison to his piece at the Paris Public Library. Most intriguing was the Freedmen Cemetery Exhibit that detailed a thriving black community near downtown from the Civil War to the 1970s.
Artist LaToya M. Hobbs with her exhibit at African American Museum in Dallas
The highlight of our visit was time spent with LaToya M. Hobbs, an artist originally from Arkansas, currently living in Baltimore. Her solo exhibit filled one hall with large, strong paintings and collages of African American women, all known to the artist. As Ms. Hobbs wrote, her works are “an investigation of the point where the notions of race, identity and beauty intersect concerning women of African descent. “ A particular emphasis was on the variety of color and texture of the subjects’ hair, a common discussion in her community. It pained her that women of color would still judge others by the tone of skin and texture of hair when all should be celebrating their diversity within the race. In the center of the room were stacked paper bags printed with answers given by her subjects to the question of the color of their skin – golden, chocolate, high yellow, caramel, dark chocolate, roasted chestnut, and bronze. As my companion, Sherry Scott, noted, Ms. Hobbs’ exhibit was the most politically charged experience we had as the artist continued Dr. King’s legacy of promoting respect for those different than you.
The day ended as we explored surviving buildings near downtown that once housed parts of the prior African American community – The Grand Lodge of the Colored Knights of Pythia where George Washington Carver demonstrated his sweet potato products in 1923 to a crowd of 800, Booker T. Washington High School, for years the only black high school in Dallas but now a formidable arts magnet school, and St. Paul United Methodist church, long a political, cultural and social center. We could just detect the outline of the past African American community, now bisected by a freeway. It was a part of Dallas new to us and worth the time to explore. I just wish there were guided tours available. Maybe next time.
In Parque Central of downtown Havana, a young man of African descent carried a large blue ceramic jar decorated with shells and other treasures of the sea. Our guide pointed him out explaining the jar would hold the spirits of the Santeria religion, referred to by practitioners as Regla de Ocha or owner of heaven. We were to learn much more of this belief system during our visit.
In Cuba, slaves’ African heritage flourished more easily underground. Up top, the bonded were required to become Catholics but in slave quarters, an African could maintain his old practice while recognizing its similarity to Christianity. A god from the old country often matched up with a saint in the new world. For those of Yoruba,Nigeria origin, a statue of Saint Barbara could double for an Oricha or deity from that region. By doing this, a slave would not be at risk of betraying Christianity while maintaining old beliefs. In fact, many saw no contradiction – just a parallel way of worship.
Larry Vives Lopez and his son
Today, this double worship is most visible in Santeria, translated as a devotion to saints in Spanish. In the African community, the devotion is to Orichas or deities often paired with Catholic saints. There’s even a name for this weaving together of beliefs – religious syncretism.
During a walking tour of the Vedado section of Havana, we turned down a residential street. On the stoop of one home, a handsome, gray haired man called out to our guide. They had worked together years before at a museum but hadn’t had much contact since. He invited us into his modest home for coffee – a time honored Cuban tradition.
Julia Marino was excited for us to meet Larry Vives Lopez as he is a priest in the Santeria religion. Our plan that afternoon had been to visit the Yoruba Cultural Center to learn more of the Santeria gods and it was fortuitous to first meet a practitioner. Larry smiled easily and agreed to answer any questions we had. But first, he wanted to know our birthdays. Using a divination necklace, a priest can determine which deity is assigned to your day of birth. Both Larry and I belonged to Elegua, owner of the road, the first and last to receive homage, the one who shows a way home – very appropriate for a peripatetic wanderer like me who hoped for good travel karma. For my traveling companion, Tina Smith, her deity was the maternal Yemaya, a guardian angel and the one who was a grandmother over grandchildren – equally appropriate for a mother and grandmother of four and one indebted to a guardian angel.
We were charmed by Larry and his son, also a priest, trained by his father. As a French professor, Larry’s work had waned in recent days, allowing him more time for his pastoral duties. He chatted easily of other American visitors, one of whom had bragged of having no problems. Larry sensed otherwise and was able to identify his marital discord without the man’s disclosure. The American was so amazed he went back to his wife.
For Orisha followers, the home contains the altar. We again saw the ceramic jars on Larry’s shelves, holding his deity. When asked if a photo could be taken of him and his son, he permitted it saying he was more “liberal” than others. They put on their round hats and green and yellow beads representing Elegua, and posed with bright eyes but no smiles.
They were leaving soon for a conference in Mexico to talk of their religion and Larry needed a ride downtown to check on his visa. The Cuban government had recognized practitioners of Santeria as a religion, making it easier for its priests to travel abroad. We were going to the Yoruba Cultural Center anyway and all squeezed into a taxi.
On the second floor of the center, 29 of the 401 Orishas or gods were manifested by carved figures with explanations for the powers of each. In addition, many had references to the Catholic saint who most resembled the god. In front of some of the figures were baskets with offerings made by believers. No photos were allowed.
Store at the Yoruba Cultural Center in Havana
Downstairs, a store sold beautiful ceramic vessels, beads for the various gods, walking sticks wrapped in bright colors, dancing dolls and even a tapestry of the Virgin Mary.It was tempting to bring home the beads of Elegua but it didn’t feel right.They belonged with the believers of this historical religion, orally passed down by those who survived an ocean crossing and years of slavery.Larry Lopez was one of those and with his warm welcome and sincere sharing of Santeria, his beliefs won our respect.
Mexico’s beach resorts have long been a favorite for foreigners seeking warm, carefree vacations. Simply book an air/land package that includes hotel, decide whether to include all food and activities, and show up at the airport with your passport. No research required, only sunscreen. The Mexican government recognized a good thing when they saw it, and in the 1960’s, Cancun and Ixtapa were developed to attract tourists on the East and West coasts of the country. Not included in those developments were many private ones, including Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco. Over the years, the number of hotel rooms outpaced foreign travelers and more visitors were needed. Enter the emerging Middle Class of Mexico.
Ixtapa was chosen for a Thanksgiving family reunion as one of my brothers has had a time share there for many years. November is considered part of the off-season for Mexican resorts and during the week, the resort was quiet and space readily available. Because of the low census, the hotel made needed repairs in anticipation of the approaching high season. All employees talked of “poca gente” – few guests. But all that changed on Friday.
As we walked out of the hotel lobby that morning, three tour buses arrived, carrying families from Mexico City. More came through the morning. Some children wore sweat pants, indicative of the colder climate of their hometowns. The hotel, restaurants and pools filled up. As the closest resort to Mexico City, a metropolis of 26 million inhabitants, Ixtapa is the obvious choice for a week-end of sun and sea.
Mexico has been enjoying a surge in the ranks of its middle class.
Thanks to the booming free trade with the United States, Mexico has the 13th largest economy in the world. Education has been emphasized with almost all children between ages 5 to 14 in school. As the fertility rate has dropped dramatically to two per mother, more women are working. In a series of articles on the middle class of Mexico by Washington Post writers Nick Miroff and William Booth, they found admiration for our southern neighbor from economists. It has controlled inflation, balanced its budget and managed debt.
The middle class has also been helped by entrepreneurs who have returned from the United States, bringing saved money to start their own businesses. They were illegal in America but heroes at home – sending money back for food and shelter but saving enough to return to use their acquired business acumen. Their reclaimed lives will not look like the middle class of developed countries but they are no longer in poverty and can now be assured their children will not want to cross the northern border to find jobs.
I visited with Michael, our resort’s time share supervisor about the uptick in the week-end census. Most guests come on week-end packages costing about $300 per couple for three nights with food. Children would cost a bit extra. While economic by our standards, only the middle class of Mexico could afford such an excursion.
Beginning in December, Ixtapa’s resorts attract more American visitors, especially from the Mid-West, as well as many from Canada. The closer to Mexico a U.S. state was, the fewer visitors came. Michael laughed and said they never get anyone from Arizona. Newspapers from border states carry more drug cartel stories, scaring many away. Yet, the “tourist bubble” still holds in almost all Mexican resorts and Mexico works very hard to keep them safe.
The new crowds didn’t affect our schedule much. We’re that kind of American tourist who get up early, are the first to walk on the beach, and retire after dinner. Restaurants were often just opening when we arrived. But later, lines would be out the door as our Mexican friends enjoyed dining at their traditional, later hours.
It was a pleasure to witness a part of the transformation of Mexico. With such beautiful beaches and resorts, its citizens should be visiting them. I only wish more in the United States could realize that not every Mexican wants to come to our country. Millions are content to be a part of Mexico’s emerging economy, especially when it comes with a beautiful beach.
I never expected to travel as a disabled person, at least not yet. There was no need to pay attention to travel writers who specialize in places catering to those needing assistance. I knew the Americans With Disabilities Act applied to travel as I had seen the ubiquitous wheelchair signs for close in parking at the Grand Canyon, especially equipped bathrooms in museums and even ramps to the elephant house at the Oklahoma City Zoo. Cruises were put on hold until I could no longer travel on my own. But a broken tibia changed all that. Suddenly, ramps were important.
Parking Author’s walker at dinner
Our trip to Mexico over Thanksgiving had been planned long before the accident. I intended to still go – it was just going to be different. Quick research confirmed another statue, The Air Carrier Access Act, prohibits airlines from discriminating based on disability. Consequently, a call to Aeromexico permitted a free change in seat assignments to the front bulkhead row, allowing more space for my partly bent leg as well as my husband’s long legs. Also ordered was a wheelchair for all airports, especially the vast Mexico City terminal.
By departure time, I could bear some weight with a walker and opted to advance (slowly) on my own to our flight’s gate at DFW. At security, I had to pass the walker around a metal detector, take the hand of a security agent and hop to the other side where another agent passed her wand around me. The walker also got the once over to be sure no explosives were hidden inside.
At Mexico City’s Benito Juarez Airport, Ernesto greeted me with a wheelchair and off we went, moving quickly down hallways, up elevators, and through a special line at customs. It was quite wonderful not have to interpret signs or arrows. I noted several disabled employees in wheelchairs available to assist passengers with questions. Since 2012, an employer in Mexico with more than 50 workers has to make accommodations for a disabled worker, a law that benefited those we saw.
Ernesto came in handy as he encouraged us to “be calm” when the flight to Ixtapa wouldn’t show on the flight board. He did ask if I could climb stairs which was a negative. Since Mexico City’s Airport does not have sufficient gates for all flights passing through, some planes board on the tarmac. This requires bus transportation to the plane and entry by stairs. Before boarding the bus, I was strapped into a straight chair, without arms but with seat belts that crossed my chest. Two men lifted me on and off the bus. All other passengers had to wait on the tarmac as they pulled my throne up step by step into the plane. To my slight embarrassment, I faced outward to the crowd below curiously watching my regal advance.
Author’s walker waits at poolside
We had been assured the resort was disabled friendly and all rooms were equipped for that use. Technically, this was a true statement. Ramps were available for walkers and wheelchairs, even if the paths were far from direct. Each shower/bathtub had a seating area at the end and metal bar for balance – not exactly the walk-in experience I was expecting.
But it all worked. I could do my prescribed water walking in the resort pool as well as I could have at Paris Aquatics. I also used the walker to enter the ocean and a family member retrieved it when I began floating. Exiting the water was harder as waves were in a bigger hurry to get to shore than I was.
Author’s walker serves as clothes line at Ixtapa resort
I wasn’t alone at the resort. Others using a wheelchair or cane would nod in mutual sympathy as we passed. My brothers accused me of getting special treatment from the waiters and I would agree. At the beach, one provided a small table by my chair for lunch and added an umbrella for my personal use. And many offered to carry my plate at the buffet.
In healthy times, we would have taken advantage of kayaking, hiking, and biking. Instead, more time was spent with grandchildren in the pool and drinks served poolside – not a bad trade-off at all. Thanks to the laws protecting the disabled, the Mexico trip was doable. Different but doable.
This translate as Homeland or Death but had a more popular meaning of “We Shall Overcome”
Today, official communism remains in only five of the 46 original countries – China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea and Cuba.Communism still dominates Cuba but capitalism is gradually cracking open the door to greater economic and political freedom and Cubans are responding.
Billboard supporting the Cuban Revolution
Billboards preached Fidel Castro’s political teachings. “Patria o Muerte” translates as “Homeland or Death” but means “We shall Overcome”, a leftover phrase from the revolution in 1959. “Gracias Che’ Por Tu Ejemplo” or “Thank you Che’ (Gueverra) for your Example”. Or even a dig at the embargo placed by the United States to prevent most commercial activities between the two countries – “El Bloqueo- El Genocide Mas Grande “ – “The Blockade – The Biggest Genocide.” Most of the other vestiges of communism were more subtle and required conversations with Cubans.
A Cuban Food Booklet – all Cubans are entitled to this
Much is provided to Cubans by the government but with a catch. All have free medical care but few prescription and non-prescription drugs are available. We were asked to bring anti-acids for an employee at the Episcopal cathedral since no pharmacy has these. All receive monthly food coupons but shelves are often empty. Powdered milk is reserved for babies and mothers, making café con leche a luxury for many Cubans. Yet, we didn’t see the grinding poverty that burdens so many Latin American countries. Several Cubans confirmed it doesn’t exist there but neither does the very wealthy class.
An owner offers both a restaurant and a bed and breakfast
Signs of capitalism creeping in were everywhere. Fidel’s brother, President Raul Castro, has allowed individuals to open up their homes as a bed and breakfast (casa particular) or as a small restaurant (paladare). The latter were originally just Ma and Pa places with a limit of six tables allowed. Today, options have expanded and restaurants were varied and everywhere. In Old Havana, we walked down an alleyway and into a very small paladar with daily specials. We watched through a window as the family freshly cooked each order on a four burner stove. In contrast, across the street from our hotel, a luxurious paladar filled a penthouse apartment. During a stormy evening, we dined on white table cloth enjoying a view of the Vedado section of Havana.
Cubans are now allowed to work two jobs. The first may only pay $20 to $50 per month. The dream second job is in the tourist industry where tips greatly enhance a family’s standard of living. One of our tour guides was a photographer by day and a guide on his days off. A taxi driver supplemented his meager retirement income with fares. At our hotel, there were so many doormen, we could hardly keep track of their names. This allows full employment but most of them were also working elsewhere.
After Russia pulled out its heavy subsidy of the Cuban government in 1995, Cuba had to reach out to foreign investments. Because of the embargo, the United States could not participate. But companies from 60 other countries invested in Cuba even though the Cuban government had to own 50% of the Joint Venture. Their headquarters fill the lovely Miramar section of Havana. Cuba also exports an interesting array of goods and services – minerals, natural medical drugs, cigars, rum, coffee, fish and professionals such as physicians. Eleven thousand Cuban physicians work in Brazil and send money home.
A bakery paladar with an English name
Cubans are not dower as many people are in communist countries. They laugh easily and often tell jokes about their government but always in a conspiratorial whisper. Why did the Pope come to Cuba? Answer: To see the devil (code for Fidel Castro), to see hell on earth and to see how Cubans live on miracles. The government still has neighborhood watch groups whose job is to report on neighbors. After a driver told us the Pope joke, he looked hard at me and asked “You’re not a communist, are you?” And then we laughed together at the idea that I could report on him.
Cuban flag is everywhere
A good question was asked by a European to a tour guide. “Are you better off with communism than you would have been under America’s influence?” I thought the guide had a diplomatic answer. She said, “It depends,” explaining that her grandmother had been a talented artist from a very poor family. They could not afford for her to go to college. Yet, under communism, her granddaughter got a free university degree and is now a tour guide, making her very proud and grateful. Our guide went on to say that if you had a business that was nationalized when Castro took over power, you would not think so highly of communism. In fact, you probably fled to America.
Today, it’s not a question of whether Cuba will become more open and capitalistic but when. The government is trying to balance the benefits it has provided all these years with the need for more commercial activity. It’s an experiment worth watching.
1950’s Chevrolet convertible in front of Hotel Nacional, Havana, Cuba
Let’s start with Havana. All have seen beautiful photos of the 1950’s cars, preserved when Fidel Castro’s revolution stopped time in 1959. Havana’s close association with the United States meant almost all then existing cars were American brands. Because of the U.S. embargo, import of new cars came to a halt as did car parts. The latter was solved by ingenuity and determination. As one taxi driver told me, in Cuba, “todo tiene valor” or everything has value. Their cars were not repaired with genuine Chevrolet parts but somehow have continued to run.
Not all cars have been maintained.
There were far more classic cars than I expected. As I walked a block on a fairly busy street in a tourist area, I counted 25 passing by or about half of the cars. Called almendrones for their almond shape, many are used as taxis on a set route while nicer ones are individual taxis that cost a bit more than their Soviet taxi counterparts. The famous photos are of those in pristine shape but many look better outside than inside. These 50’s cars have been declared a national treasure and can be sold only to fellow Cubans. American collectors may have a long wait to get their hands on these.
Soviet Lada used as a taxi. This one looked nicer on the outside than the inside.
In the suburbs, the numbers of Eisenhower era cars diminish and dilapidated Soviet Ladas from the 70’s and 80’s appear. Originally used to reward workers, these make up much of the used car stock. Most looked rode hard and put up wet. It was only in the wealthier Miramar suburb, where the imposing Robocop shaped Russian Embassy stands with other embassies and ambassador’s homes, that I saw a BMW, a couple of Mercedes and newer Japanese cars. They are rare and notable.
On the highway, an array of cars, trucks, buses and horse-drawn carts make their way down an impressive set of highways. To Cuba’s credit, the Central Highway of Cuba was originally built in the 1920s and extends 700 miles on four lanes linking the island east to west. Tributaries now run off the main road to smaller towns. Yet, the amount of traffic on these nice roads was minimal, an indication of how few Cubans own cars and how expensive gas is. On a bus ride west into the Vinales province, I would occasionally wait minutes before seeing another car. But ox drawn plows and old tractors with vertical exhaust pipes still dot the landscape, moving at the speed of yesteryear.
Baby carriage in back of horse drawn cart
What was numerous on the roads were Cubans hitching a ride, lined up wherever the road widened. It wasn’t important if a bus came first or an almondrone on a set route or an individual lending a hand, or even the classic horse drawn cart. The latter was often a covered cart with benches down the side and an open back. One woman lifted her baby stroller into the cart before she hopped in. These are still in widespread use by passengers and farmers.
Taxi drivers outside Hotel Nacional, Havana, Cuba
Taxis were plentiful and we found their drivers a law abiding bunch. All stopped (or at least slowed significantly) at railroad crossings. Most seemed to stay close to the posted 60 mph speed limit on the highways. All waited for traffic lights to change. There was no passing on the hills that I’ve experienced in other Hispanic countries. They were also chatty and wanted to share their experiences in Miami or tell of their family there.
We got to know Raul, a retiree who drives a taxi for extra money. His “taxi” carries no sign so negotiations were required for each trip. Raul’s monthly retirement check is $10. He still gets a food allowance and free health care but it’s hard to make ends meet. He sported a 1957 Peugeot with torn seats, rear view mirror that fell regularly, and shoulder belts drawn over the shoulder only when passing a policeman or a security check on the highway. The car also stalled at most stops. But we managed to twice get to San Pedro de la Norte, 30 miles east of Havana, and back. We took on a hitchhiker at one point to help find an out of the way village with a small Episcopal church. But we never felt in danger on any of our taxi rides and enjoyed visiting about their other job, their families, and even politics.
Bicycles used creatively to carry passengers Santa Cruz del Norte, cuba
When the U.S. Embargo is lifted, Cuba’s snapshot in time will gradually fade. More tourists will arrive. Money will flow. New cars will be imported. Cubans will be able to purchase them. What I do hope remains is the lesson learned from Cuba’s years of scarcity, a lesson our throw-away society could use – todo tiene valor.
As travelers, Americans have traditionally been well treated by other countries. Most allow us to enter with a tourist visa obtained at the entry point – whether by land, air or sea. Occasionally, a visa must be requested prior to arriving by sending passports to embassies for processing. Because of where we entered, Cambodia, Argentina and Jordan demanded this procedure. It is much harder for most of the world to travel to the United States, requiring months of petitioning and providing verified information. Cuba is different. Getting in is not a problem. It’s returning to the United States that’s tricky.
On January 1, 1959, Fulgencio Bautista, the U.S. friendly dictator of Cuba, fled to Spain. Fidel Castro’s army entered Havana and began the rule of Cuba that continues today. Castro didn’t start as a communist but moved that way quickly when Russia offered financial support. In response, the United States declared an embargo against the island. No American companies could do business there with some small exceptions such as agriculture. And Americans could no longer travel to the emerald island. Actually, the rule allowed Americans to be in Cuba but they couldn’t spend any money – an impossibility that ensured termination of tourism.
Over the years, rules have softened. President Obama’s changes now allow those of Cuban descent to visit whenever they want. Cuba has also released its citizens to travel wherever they want as long as the country accepts them. Consequently, almost every person we met in Cuba had family in the United States and most had been to visit.
For the rest of us, there are two methods of visiting Cuba – one legal and one not. Wouldn’t you know the illegal way is easier. Simply fly to another country such as Mexico, Guatemala, or Canada, buy your Cuban tourist visa at the airport and fly from there to Havana. Ask the customs officer not to stamp your passport. Have fun in Cuba. Return to Mexico, Guatemala or Canada. Reenter the United States and simply fail to disclose that you took a detour to Cuba. Thousands of Americans do this every year. Truthfully, the risk is low. I could find only one notable case of an American being caught in the lie and having to pay a fine.
Uneasy with that approach? Worried about your passport? Then let’s look at the legal way which has been expanded significantly by the Obama administration. Before, a license had to be obtained through Washington, a lengthy process. Now, you must be able to prove upon reentry that you’ve qualified for one of the new methods. These include visiting Cuba on a cultural tour. People to People is doing a brisk business in this category as is National Geographic, Road Scholar and university alumni groups. If you are conducting a study, you can come back in. And if your church confirms you as the church’s representative in Cuba, you’re good. We worked with our local Holy Cross Episcopal Church to meet that requirement and with the Episcopal Church in Cuba to obtain the Cuban religious visa.
U.S. airlines cannot run regular flights to Cuba but charter flights are allowed out of several cities, including Miami. These companies must be sure their passengers have the visa to enter Cuba and of equal importance, meet our requirements to reenter. They also provide the health insurance required by Cuba.
We used ABC Charter which is actually owned by American Airlines. The plane had the bright new AA logo on its tail and its crew appeared to be seasoned. Judging by their accents, most passengers on the Havana flight were Cuban, either returning home or visiting relatives. Our seatmate was doing just that. Upon return to Miami, two People to People tours filled much of the plane. Leaving Havana at about the same time was a Jet Blue charter flight. I think both American and Jet Blue are poised for the lifting of the embargo, although there’s no sign of change yet.
The details of our trip took eight months to confirm. Charter flights can’t be booked until two or three months out. Email to the Episcopal Church in Havana was not always reliable. Delays in getting a Cuban visa were notable. Ours arrived 10 days before scheduled departure. But it did finally come together and we touched down on a beautiful September morning. Customs was smooth and we saw Cuba for the first time.
View of Mt. Rainier National Park from Paradise Inn
With a son living in Olympia, Washington, I’ve become familiar with the Queen of Washington’s Cascade Mountains – Mount Rainier. Its Native American name of Mount Tacoma was shelved in 1792 when explorer George Vancouver named the mountain after his friend, Pete Rainier, a Rear-Admiral in the British Royal Navy. Probably few of the two million visitors a year to the Mount Rainier National Park realize they’re climbing on a mountain dedicated to an officer who heartily fought against the United States in the Revolutionary War.
Wildflowers on the moutain
Despite its British ties, Mount Rainier is beloved in her home state. When the snow covered peaks appear in late afternoon, many citizens of Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia pause to look her way in acknowledgment of her majesty. When our family set out to visit Mt. Rainier National Park, she was covered in clouds. But since the huge volcano creates its own constantly changing weather patterns, we knew there was always the possibility of seeing the grande dame.
Dining Room in Paradise Inn
What makes Mt. Rainier unique is her 25 glaciers with 36 miles of packed ice – largest remnant of the Ice Age on one mountain in the world. At 14,411 feet, it’s only the fifth highest peak in the United States but sports more snow than any of the others. In fact, it’s one of the snowiest places in the world, getting an average annual snowfall of 56 feet. As we ate a late Sunday brunch in the dining room of 100 year old Paradise Inn, the view was of wildflowers, green meadows, and occasional 1,000 year old trees, reminiscent of Switzerland in the summer. In the winter though, the same large windows would be blocked by deep snow. On a trail, a park ranger pointed out the volcano’s own 18 foot tall weather station that snow would cover in a few months.
Paved trails in Mr. Rainier Park
Trails began near the Scoop Jackson Visitors Center, a huge gathering place for the many travelers that day. The crowd reflected America’s welcoming arms, both for immigrants and visitors with a heavy emphasis on Asians. I thought it a busy day but two employees shrugged and said it was average. A surprising number of trails were paved – steep but paved. These paths brought out the families with baby strollers and wheel chairs. All wanted pictures taken in front of the waterfall, near the wildflowers, or with the big mountain in the background. Strangers exchanged cameras to take the other’s family photo. Still, the mountain top had not appeared beneath the clouds.
Mt Rainier is a popular climbing site with about 1,000 annual attempts at the summit but only half successful. Occasional deaths are inevitable. Just in May, six experienced climbers died on the ascent. Most hike to a cabin built for them, sleep a few hours, and leave about 3 a.m. to make the top before snow begins to melt. I wondered how many were up there that very day.
River emerging from cave in Misqually Glacier Remains
A second trail through well tended forest ended with a view of the leavings of Nisqually Glacier. Bare grey rocks disguised the stream running through. Much of the water appeared to be emerging from a large cave, one of many formed by the geothermal heat from the volcano. Clouds were lifting but the mountain only teased us with an occasional shrouded peak at the summit.
Mt. Rainier finally peaks out
The day was waning as we began our descent down the mountain’s side, glancing back often. It was then that Mt. Rainier threw off enough of her wrap to reveal one of her famous three peaks. We pulled off on a widened part of the road and were quickly followed by several cars. They had seen it, too. Picture taking began anew.
There are warnings about visiting Mt. Rainier National Park.It is an active volcano – the second most active in the Cascade Mountains after Mount St. Helens.Thirty earthquakes a year occur beneath its beautiful veneer.The last eruption was as recent as the end of the 19th century.It is one of sixteen on the “Decade Volcano” list that identifies those of most concern in the world.An eruption or even a steam flow from Mt. Rainier would cause much destruction in the surrounding heavily populated areas.But still we go, by the millions, to get close to her, to feel her heartbeat, to experience her past.In John Muir’s words, we go to gaze in awe at that “noble beacon of fire”.
One of the many tugboats at the Harbor Day Festival in Olympia, Washington
From chariots in the Roman Coliseum to the Indianapolis 500, racing has provided entertainment through the ages. Faster is better. Fastest is best. I’ve seen horses, dogs, and camels rush to the finish line and sailboats and canoes hustle to be first. Even plastic toy ducks can dawdle on down to raise money for our local Boys and Girls Club. I just never considered tugboats as racing instruments – a seeming oxymoron- until visiting Olympia, Washington during its 41st Annual Harbor Day Festival.
“Think about it,” 5th generation Olympian Ralph Blankenship explained. “Large sailboats needed small tugboats to bring them into port. And before easy communication, the first tugboat out would get the job. They had to be fast and powerful.” In this case, fast is relative. Blankenship agreed the idea of a tugboat race was a seeming contradiction in terms but has loved watching the laid back pursuits that often top out at 11 knots or 12.5 mph. Fortunately, there are three motor size categories in the race to protect smaller tugs from larger ones.
Skip Suttmeir, owner of Galene with his wife, Marty
The racing tugboats gather at Olympia’s harbor, where Puget Sound ends under the shadow of Washington’s capitol building. During festival week-end, the public can explore the boats, most of which have been working for years or are retired. One of the oldest and the largest was the Galene, one of 61 boats built by the U.S. Army in 1943 to accompany battleships across the ocean. Only four remain operational. Owners Skip and Marty Suttmeir, found the Galene for sale on Craig’s list in 2007, restored it and now live comfortably on it for several months of the year on Seattle’s Lake Union.
In the over 400 HP category, the Galene came in first, winning by a mere 45 seconds over second place Shannon , owned by Captain Cindy Stahl. The Shannon is a working tugboat, guiding pulp barges to Canada. Built in 1957 and refurbished in 1977, the boat changed ownership four years ago. Captain Stahl’s trips take approximately 19 hours to arrive in Canada, making the complete journey a three day adventure. As a consolation prize, the Shannon did receive the “Spiffy” award for being the neatest and classiest boat in the race.
Tugboat owners enjoying a tailboat party
Owners of the tugs were available to chat with visitors while their family and friends relaxed at the stern or rear of the boats, creating a kind of “tailboat” party atmosphere. Large umbrellas shaded the gatherings with ice chests readily available. Old captain friends caught up with each other. One congratulated a younger captain on his appointment to oversee the Seattle Port tugboats. He would supervise steel tugs with the needed 2000 HP to guide modern cargo ships.
Steering wheel of the Sandman
Moored permanently at Olympia’s harbor is the Sandman, a 100+ year old tugboat that has been restored and can be explored anytime. Some of the original wood remains as does its massive steering wheel. With a 110 HP motor, the Sandman would have accompanied barges of sand and gravel, brought in to use in construction of many of Olympia’s buildings.
And in case you got carried away with tugboat fever, the 1967 Mary Anne was for sale. Others could find a selection on Craig’s list. One owner strongly urged bargaining as he was able to pay $20,000 for a boat originally listed for $80,000.
Since the debut of the first tugboat in 1802, progress in building has led to stronger, more powerful boats. As recently as 2008, the first hybrid tugboat was built. Only two or three tugs are now needed to maneuver even the largest of ships. They are a far cry from those used to great moral purpose in children’s books such as “Little Toot” or “Scruffy the Tugboat” who discovered there’s no place like home after exploring rivers and lakes.
The Harbor Festival also included a large assortment of artist booths, many with nautical themes. Live music entertained all. And fresh salmon smoked over an open fire was available for purchase. We knew we were in the Northwest. Each town wants a unique and appropriate festival. Olympia found one with their tugboats – our unsung heroes of the waters that slowly and steadily cross the finish line.