Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Snow When Jim and Glenn's House Burnt Down

 The last time I remember this much snow is the year my neighbor's house burnt down, in the 1970's sometime.  I don't remember the month or exact year. My daughter Maya was about three and Allan was on vacation in San Francisco when the storm came.  We were living in the small cabin we had built onto and had no phone and no electricity and I had no vehicle.   A normal life in the woods ourside of Hyampom.

I am futzing around in the small kitchen when Glenn comes driving down the driveway and in a voice high and straining for normality wants to borrow some dog food.  "We've just lost everything," she says matter of factly by way of explanation.  I struggle to get out the 100 lb sack of dogfood which she finally grabs and lifts and carries through the snow, talking fitfully about how the fire might have started and what they should have got out of the flames.  "I really hate it about the fishing poles"  "The only thing that bothers me is the boots.  I should have got them.  They cost $30."   We drive down to their house or what is left of it.  Glenn continues with heart breaking regularity to think of some small item she had left in the flames.  They have got their mattress out and the box springs out.  "We're very lucky of course.  But I am sorry about those strawberries I was growing inside."

We arrive.  It is gone.The wood pile is shooting high flames.  Smoke and steam rise from the ruins.  There are only charred remains inside the foundation and the burned out stove and frig and freezer are warped and tipped at peculiar angles, the coals glowing, ashes and charcoal melting the snow around the house a foot or so.  I can't stop staring.

Jim is slap happy.  "It went like a house afire!" he says.  "Look at that crazy woodpile!"  The woodpile is setting the electric pole on fire.  Jim throws snow balls at the fire on the pole to put it out.  Glenn says smiling, "He used to play baseball, you know."  

We feed the animals.  The five hound dogs are chained to their houses  and the cows are milling around the barn waiting.  It is cold and wet and dreary and the thought of going in the house for warmth and coffee is stopped short by a glance.  It's gone.  All gone.

Jim and Glenn decide they must go into Hyampom to be near the phone tomorrow.  Jim wishes he still drank.  "It's the perfect time for it!"  I have to agree.  Snow is now falling on top of some of the ashes.  We are chilled but an't bring ourselves to go as if we might think of something still to do which would change things.  Maya plays on the hay in the barn.  The house dogs are still waiting for a decision.

We go.  They let me out and drive on to town.  It is late already.  I hurredly feed the chickens and get wood in.  Milk the cow.   Maya plays her house burns down.  It snows harder than I've seen it here.  It is another foot deep.  After I'm in bed, I begin to worry that the kitchen roof(which we built) won't hold this much snow.  The creaks and cracks of the wood scare me.  At 1:30 I get up and get dressed deciding it is better to act than to worry.  I take the broom and push 20 or so inches of snow off the roof everywhere I can reach.  Then I sleep.

Each morning for the next week I wake hoping the snow will be gone.  Each morning I find it has snowed again.  Maya yells, "more snow"  The trees drip and hang with it.  It is beautiful.  But it's hard to walk in 3 feet of snow and the trip to the barn to feed and milk makes me realize that if Jim and Glenn can't make it and I have to walk with Maya to Jim's to feed it will take all day.  I plan to take coffee and sandwiches and dry clothes for  Maya and start the walk after an early lunch.  I wake everyday with this plan, feed and milk, get the wood in, cook lunch and wait for Jim and Glenn.  They come; every day the manage, although no one else even tries to get through the drifts.  The house remains are still smoking the first few days.  Maya accepts this routine cheerfully.  I pay attention every minute of the day.  Check the fire, check the food, check the animals.  I milk quickly and put the calf back on early, hating to leave Maya in the house unattended although she is engrossed in her building blocks and Fisher Price miniature people and they are having both burning houses and citified adventures all in good cheer.

The journal entry ends here.  Weather similar to now.  Totally different landscape, infrastructure and population but still have that since of wilderness in the midst of a storm.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Memories of Nepal Celebration


As my fiftieth birthday approached, I kept trying to think of ways I could mark the occasion. I should celebrate my survival, my good spirits, my good health. But how? Have a party? My friends and relatives were scattered far and wide across the continent. Take myself out to dinner and a movie?

How ordinary. As I pondered this problem, my mind kept being drawn like a magnet back twenty years to the time I spent in Nepal. I could see the Himalayas stretching from east to west, rising in waves from the lush jungle covered hílls through forested mountains to end in the snow-capped peaks of the highest place on earth. This was celebration! A  party for myself seemed to pale in comparison to the memories which began to well up inside me.

I was in Nepal during a period of my life when I had cut loose from my
home, my family, my culture and was wondering the earth, looking. I was on a spiritual quest, a search for Shangra-La, although I might not have copped to any of those labels. It was also the journey of a misfit who ever hoped to find an answer for all those mothers, professors, and counselors who had, with a shake of their head, said," I hope you find what you're looking for." This translated into current English meant, "Get lost. I wash my hands of you." or at least that's how it seemed to me at the time.  It is only now, from this vantage point far in the future, that I realize I can say "Yes! Yes, I did find what I was looking for, I found riches beyond compare. I found meaning for the word celebration."

Nepal was opened to Westerners in the 1950's so that when arrived there in 1967, tourists were still few enough that peasants and travelers could stare at each other with equal wonder.  It was a magic place and time. On the list of tourists names at the border, we saw several of our friends names as well as the name of Richard Alpert.  It seemed so right. Of course, everone would be here.

Katmandu, the capital, was filled with the most intricate wood carved architecture. Gods, goddesses, spirits, and imps were entwined with 'vines and symbols, in an endless dance around the cornices and pillars of the buildings. In and around these oriental structures, swirled peasants, beggars, businessmen, and hippies, sometimes walking along side monkeys and cows. Monkeys and cows were considered holy and got away with stealing food from the vegetable sellers when they could. There was constant visual stimulation on a grand scale.

When you are alone out in the world for a long period of time, you give up trying to fit your own culture and your ideas onto the strangeness of
another civilization.  You instead partake as much as possible of whatever the culture you're in has to offer.  Nepal was rich. One day led to another and weeks turned into months.

We stayed for six months. We rented the dirt-floored second story of a house in a small compound hear the Monkey Temple in Swanbunat for seven dollars a month. Our friends were there waiting for us. The landlord was a short and stocky Buddhist named Tara Bir Sing. He dressed in Nepalese style with a Neru cap and white pants which buttoned tightly around the calves of his legs. He was, as they say, a trip. Although he knew something about the world, he still brought us to his mother to introduce us to her and to get her permission before he rented the house to us. He liked to play cards and drink alcohol which was "bad" in his culture, but he kept a shrine to a goddess in his garden and let hippies stay for free in a small house next to the one we were renting.  This was his was of building up good karma. Since he spoke a little English, we could ask him our questions about Nepalese customs and traditions, but he was a man of few words and just as inscrutable as we could imagine an Oriental to be.

I clearly remember three conversations with him. One day, when we had seem workman laying bricks in the yard in the shape of clubs,
diamonds, spades and hearts, we ask him what is happening.
He says, "For my wedding celebration."

"But you're already married!" we protest.


"Yes," he answers.

"But can you marry again?"


"Yes," he answers.

"In the U.S. you can marry only one at a time," we explain.

"In Nepal if after seven years there is no issue, a man can take
a second wife.

"That makes sense," says my friend, too quickly as far as I'm concerned because I'm still considering the situation.

"Bery different," sums up Tara Bir Sing.

Another day as I am sitting in the balcony upstairs, Tara Bir Sing
walks in. He has been cutting down and pulling up all the lovely asters and crysanthymums in the yard which are in full bloom. He
now begins to pull up the still blossoming flowers in the balcony
window box.

I an horrified.  "What are you doing?!?!"

He looks at me without expression.  "Out of season," is all he says.

Once my friend and I meet Tara Bir Sing on our way out of the
compound and stand in the yard with him looking at the hills and mountains which are covered in cloudy mists and rain exactly as they
have been for the past months.

We ask, "Why are you smiling?"

He says, "The rainy season is finished yesterday." 

A light drizzle is falling on our heads and shoulders.

It was into Tara Bir Sing's compound that Michael, a self-styled guru,
brought Richard Alpert before they began their journey into India. They spent the night in the compound before they left. I didn't go visit them because of my attitude that if Richard Alpert didn't come to see me, why should I go to see him? That kind of snobbishness has probably cost me more than a few good experiences. But what matters is that Richard found what he was looking for in Nepal as did hundreds of other travelers, from the Swedish youth afraid of being alone to the musician looking for exotic music, to myself, looking for meaning,

We participated in a few of the celebrations. Diwali, the festival of lights, was celebrated at the winter solstice.  We, like everyone else with
enough money, bought firecrackers and sparklers and took them home. We played music and sang late into the night, the music punctuated by the lights and sounds of the firecrackers. There was a celebration for the end of the rainy season, and one for goddess, Kali, bringer of death and destruction. All of these holidays were accompanied with singing and music and flowers placed in the temple of whatever god's day it was. Nepal had about 165 days a year of celebration so that two or three times a week somebody was always celebrating something.

The celebration that I participated in most was the one for dogs. Dogs in most third world countries are not pets, they are scavangers who have a territory, but nobody claims them, much less feeds them. Our neighbor, however, called the dog when her baby shit to clean up the mess, and it was common to see them hanging around the streets that were used for toilets by the children who couldn't walk for to the fields like the grown-ups. We Westerners were aghast and grossed-out by it at first, but if you stayed there long enough you kind of got used to it, and it all seemed right and proper and you laughed at the newcomers disgust.  Needless to say, these animals were the scroungiest, mangiest, ugliest dogs i had ever seen. Even Western people with their penchant for loving dogs were turned off by them. They are the kind of dogs that would be shot on the streets of America and everyone would breathe a sigh of relief. In Nepal all you had to do was bend down and pretend to pick up a rock to throw and they ran.

But when the dogs had their day in Nepal, these mangy, skinny, shit-eating dogs had flowers put around their necks and a red tika on their
forehead, and their skinny bellys were bulging with food. They were allowed to lie around the streets, their eyes glazed with the fullness of their bellies, without being chased off.  We named the dog near our house Golum after the desire filled character in the "Lord of the Rings". She was just a puppy, and we put flowers around her neck and a tika on her forehead and fed her. She seemed a little embarrassed about everything except the food. I hadn't wanted to touch her because of her diet, but I broke down and petted her. In the evening she came back for more food and brought a boyfriend who we named Gentlewolf since he was obviously a wild dog just getting in on a good thing. The next day it was all over, and the dogs were back to sculking in the shadows with their tails between their legs.  And the Nepalese went on to their next celebration.

The whole country was embued with a kind of wonder that I still carry  with me because of the feeling that all life was holy and had a place in the scheme of things. I can still hear some ecstacy-crazed Nepali singing his heart out as he walked up the street in back of our house.  The kids who had  learned English from the Peace Corps would shout "Englaisy, Bye, Bye," across the grain fields as we walked the path to our home. A military firing squad was led by dancing drummers and a flutest onto the firing range which  practiced night below the Monkey Temple so you feared you would die from bullets as you climbed the stairs to the temple.  In the evenings about 4:00 the monkeys from the temple tried to sneak into the millet field next door.  An old man whose job it was to guard the millet would raise the cry for help by yelling, "Cha, cha!" which means "shame", and then all the neighbors came to help. Golum barked and pretended to be concerned. The Russians who lived  across the cobblestone walkway would stand on their balcony and yell and sodid we. The Buddhist nuns next door threw stones, and young boys came from every direction so that the whole neighborhood was a wild whirl of commotion.  Once after the shouting and chasing and running had scared all the monkeys, and the neighborhood had returned to calm and quiet once more, I saw one lone monkey sitting on the Russians roof, eating a stalk of millet, facing the

It was an incredibly organic system that worked and will continue to work until the values of the west create the conflict that will kill it. So it came to me as I thought of celebration that Nepal's culture was a celebration of birth and death and of life, that mess that falls between the two.  Its morass of street side toilets, dying beggars, the yells of the woman next door giving birth, all the contact with the profound moments of human existence, make Nepal and my experience there a celebration. And though this celebration has sent more than one Westerner scurrying home to his sterile, plastic, glass, and concrete world where birth and death happen in sealed off compartments
where you don't have to see them unless you're personally involved, it is an experience that I am grateful for because it taught me not to be so afraid of pain and suffering and death, and so has freed my feeling for wild, full-out ecstacy and joy.


Friday, December 30, 2022

There's a learning curve on vacation!

 Hanging out with teenagers has kept me in a state of flux, from soft and warm love to existential angst.    My grandson took my by the hand and wanted me to listen to some rap songs by Kendrick Lamar who I had never heard of.  He said he had cried this song was so powerful for him the first time he listened and so of course I am moved already before I even hear the song.  But hearing the song is one thing and understanding it is another.   I find it hard to follow rap music, the words are slung together too fast, there are references I don’t get, and the poetry of it is pretty much lost on me.  There is a refrain, “I choose me.  I’m sorry” which is repeated and I do understand that and say, sometimes you have to choose yourself and my grandson have a moment of empathy.    

Later in the day I google Lamar and discover that the lyrics of his songs are translated online out of rap ese.  References to other rappers and personal and worldly issues and explained at great length reminding me of my first encounter with T S Eliot’s “Wasteland” which was so difficult to follow that the poetry was lost for me.  And then I notice that Lamar has gotten the Pulitzer Prize for Literature recently.  The world is passing me by and I don’t know enough to know it.  Except now I do.  

Then we are going out to dinner and are waiting to be seated when a mid-western type family group enters and among them is a young person of indeterminate sex dressed outrageously, making me think of an 80’s pimp,  in bright pink and rainbow colors, shoes have soles four inches high in matching pink, there is glitter and sparkle and I confess to staring in wonder that anyone would want to stand out quite that obviously and feeling some compassion for her/him. 

When we have finished our meal, and are leaving my granddaughter, who is bursting out of her short shorts to such an extent that I really had hoped she would change before we went out, stops when we pass the table with the brightly dressed young person and says, “I really like your outfit”.    My head spins first one way and then another and I feel I have become my 90 year old Aunt Helen who was horrified by what the sixties was doing to my generation.  

Later, I ask my granddaughter what her motivation for the compliment was and she said, “I like to support someone who is trying alternative ways of being”.   I think about asking her  if the young person was a girl or boy, but know what the answer would be, “What difference does it make?” and  since I am at the beach in Florida, I feel I am standing on the shore looking out at the vast ocean knowing there is a land across the sea where I will never live to live.  There  the basic distinction of male/female is no longer rigid and fixed but fluid and transformable.  

I am humbled. At the same time the vastness surrounds me and I am wide open knowing that underneath the pulse of love-angst love-angst,   “we all are one.”  or  as Kendrick Lamar puts it on his website--

                                          “I am all of us.”

Saturday, August 31, 2019

On aging

I have been outside only to get wood.  The antsiness that has me wandering aimlessly around in my mind and figetting with various digital devices has subsided into the moment called now. The cloudy sky, the pattering rain, the pond clouded by pelting drops, and the grass stalled in its turn to brown by the unexpected weather come into focus.

I am settled in the easy chair by the window looking out, a fire going, a blanket across my lap like I’m recovering from an illness and in that peaceful state of mind where you have survived the assault on the body and now are thrust newly awake, stunned by a self and a world, fresh, without a story.

I am lit by a small fire within to catch the moment in a web of words.

So much has been lost recently.  Looking back at the life I’ve lived, I can see it as a series of losses. One era falling apart, a period of chaos and grief and then the emergence of a new era with a reconstructed self moving on to the next ending.  The period that comes to mind in a flood of sunlight is the child rearing years, with river and suntans and potlucks and children playing and laughter, all images that are prominent, although the era itself had its share of heartache, sleepless nights and worry.  A golden haze had covered it in memory and it has dreamy idyllic quality.  Its ending is a jumble of broken promises and dreams.   

Everyone’s life has loss, but sequence, shades,  tones and eras differ. The reader will know their own beginning and endings  The next rebirth for me was the working years, where I tried hard to squeeze myself into the mode of teacher, parts of me popping inconveniently out and getting stuffed back in, living for weekends and summer until a transformation took place and the popping out and stuffing back was hardly noticeable.  This ended in life threatening illness and surgery and grief  and after treatments which rebirthed itself into the “lucky to be alive” era which has been filled with travel and leisure and loneliness and the blessings of grandchildren.  This era is currently winding down and merging with the next.  There are some unfixable physical disabilities and the ubiquitous medical interventions  and the grandchildren have aged out of their romance with me and rightly so.  I am definitely into the end game and the body does not let me forget that for long.  The long stable plateau of the child rearing era or the working world has given way to a much bumpier ride.

All of which leaves me currently with the snarky attitude of “You Call this Luck?”  It makes me laugh to admit it.  I’ve come to see a choice point for my future.  There is the possibility of the querulous bitter old woman angry and annoyed at herself and the world taking control of the end, or the one we’re all so enamored with—the  cheerful old woman aging gracefully, feisty but not fighting her fate.  So a friend and I having dinner were speaking about this aging issue and the very real question of  ”What’s the  point?”  More and more time is spent just keeping body and soul together.  We must  watch what we eat, take the supplements, do the exercise, meditate, lube the skIn, massage the aches, be careful where we step.  Is aging and dying well the point so that we set a good example and don’t be a burden to the younger generation?  Should we all be working hard for a better reincarnation?  But really I’m exhausted with all this trying.

When we are happy, that question doesn’t arise, and when are are feeling useful, we have an answer for that question, but the rest of the time the question is unanswered, stranded as we are without our hormones and the golden haze of the urge, the pull and tug of life’s desire for its self.

Where is the refuge for me, for us?

It comes more easily for those of us who have sat quietly for long periods of time, eyes closed, or perhaps eyes open, seeing the shadows grow long at evening,  watching the sun go slowly off the mountain, hearing the chittering of little birds in the trees as they flit from branch to branch before settling in for the night, as if the day’s end was just as exciting as sunrise.  We know a peace that enters a heart in harmony with what is, a stillness that asks for nothing, and, ever present but so often occluded, a love arises which is unshaken by the tumult of the world.

Sunday, May 06, 2018


 I had been whipsawed by having to leave the trauma of the wildfire burning in my watershed to go to Arizona to help my daughter clean out her father’s condo, both heart rending events.  When I start the car  to return home and  pick up the bag of chips I left on the seat to stave off hunger, I discover the bag is chewed open and chips are falling out half eaten and crumbling.   This is a repeat of when the car was in the garage.  I had assumed the mouse lived in the garage and only visited the car occasionally.  It appears that the mouse lives in the car and  has ridden down to Sacramento with me and stayed in the car for three days while i have been gone and if it hasn’t gone out after water through the undercarriage of the car, it is still in the car and will ride back home to continue it’s garage car life.   I am both charmed and annoyed.

Charmed because, well, there’s a children’s story here somewhere. Annoyed because I really wanted the chips.  And eventually the mouse or it’s progeny will chew something important like wires and cause havoc   As much as I admire the mouse’s ingenuity, a car mouse isn’t going to work.   Since I don’t have time to hunt mice, I drive on with my fellow traveler.  But as I stop for groceries,  something much bigger arises out of this experience. And I sit in the Trader Joe’s parking lot while it washes over me.

It is this:  Life always insists on itself.

There are the green leaves sprouting through ash, and the trees buckling the sidewalk, the bacteria living off decay, the car mouse, and including both the malevolent force of invading armies marching to the benevolence of the sadhu sweeping the ground before he walks to avoid crushing a life.  All the vast spectacle of this world overwhelms me. Everything stops.  I am humbled beyond words for the gift of my life and sit quietly in the car with tears of both sorrow and gratitude flowing. 

My life also insists on itself.

As the tears and grief and gratitude subside, as if to prove the point, I find I am trying to remember where I put the small  have a hart trap.

MKR 2018

Friday, February 17, 2017

On winning

The Cuba trip got me all excited about the Cuban revolution and I started reading as well as ordering "Che", a movie starring Bencio del Toro.  It impresses me that Fidel and Che, with so little in terms of money or equipment, were able to take over the country which they did by helping the peasants and winning them over.  In that sense it was a a revolution of love as Che points out.  There were executions which he was in charge of after the victory.   They killed and advocated violence.  There's no way to avoid looking at that.  Yet there were not enormous amounts of bloodshed in that war because the populous was behind them and Batista fled and the USA was not yet concerned.  By the time Che went to Bolivia, the US was concerned and helped Bolivia kill Che.

At the end of disk one of the movie "Che", there is a scene that says so much about the revolution and about humans.   The war is won, Batista has fled, they are driving their jeeps toward Havana to enter the city victoriously.   A very shiny new red convertible zips past the jeeps and Che recognizes one of his men driving the car and he has his driver chase and stop them.  He gets out and asks his soldier where he got the car and the guy admits to confiscating it.  Che tells him he can't go the to victory celebration in a stolen car and makes him turn around and take it back.  Then he gets back in his jeep and slams the door, saying, "Unbelievable!" and the movie ends.

Supposedly the movie is taken from Che's diaries.  That story may be apocryphal but it says so much about human nature, it might as well be true.  We humans love birght and shiny objects.  Maybe 3 million years of wandering around the earth in shades of green and brown with a blue sky and thrunderclouds and rainbows for exictement does that to you.   I remember once in Morocco watching the sparrows on our balcony peck at the bread crumbs but never pay the slightest attention to the bright pink piece of paper in their midst which had caught my eye.  I had the realization of the millions of year of evolution that had taught the sparrow the pink paper wasn't important and made me attracted to it.

So my blog about Cuba was in part, seeing how that shiny red convertable speeding into this egalitarian country is in the form of tourists and  the internet, where one can hold a connection to the whole world in one's hand--now that's bright and shiny.  I love humans.  Everything that disgusts me about them and evrrything that I love about them is in me and I am both the soldier in the convertible and Che slaming the door, "Unbelieveable!"  And the question is, how are we all going to live together and be fair to each other?   We've gotten a lot of advice from aaints and messiahs but, still, wouldn't I like to ride to a victory in a shiny red onvertible to celebrate my overwhelming sense of having won.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Cuba si Yankee no

Cuba si

Yankee no

is what I first learned about Cuba on my first trip out of the country to Mexico as I read the brick walls of buildings and fences.  And there was the Cuban missile crisis when I had to tell my fifth graders that they should hide under their desks when the bomb fell although I had been told or read that the ground so close to Indianapolis would be building.  And then the sixties came into full swing and Che t-shirts and banners were ubiquitous. 

So unexpectedly I get a chance to go to Cuba fifty years or more later and I go.  Denise did all the planning, reading studying and I figured I would just tag along and make do with whatever traveling Spanish was retrievable from my deteriorating brain.

Our apartment was in Old Havana, nicely located near two good cafe restaurants and a central plaza.  The apt had been redone inside with tiles and the balcony jutted out over the street which was alive with action from about 10am until 10pm.  It was a neighborhood and in this part of town a life without cell phones so people are chatting, shouting to each other from windows above, laughing together sitting on the stoops, talking to passersby in doorways.  Hawkers go by yelling out their wares.  CEBOLLA  PAN  and even a cleaner with brooms and mops following his/her yeller at all hours of the day into the evening. All of this in and around horse carriages and wagons, bicycle rickshaws with radios or tape players tied to the back of their rigs. and cars and motorcycles, their music thrumming and echoing off the narrow walls of the street.   Standing  on the balcony and staring was satisfying entertainment in itself.  

The above photo is at dawn; below midday

You know how it is after a red eye across the country.  There is a kind of zombie mode, but simultaneously less defended.  We feel clever in having  an agenda to keep us on track the first day.  A map; a Spanish English dictionary; butter for our newly purchased bread.  We meet a distressed American who feels he is living in a crack house which was advertized as modern and hates the noise.  We find the map, but the hunt for butter—it took me half the day to remember the word in Spanish—takes us all over the fringes of old town into the supposed uptown areas and each store which is a super mercado is a revelation in scarcity. Shelves are sparsely filled with a few cereals and crackers and no canned goods and our “ Hay mantequilla” is answered by a head shake until finally we are shown to a glass case where three little pats of butter which are given free in restaurants in the US  are taped together and priced at $3.50.  Whoa!

The richness of the streets; the meagerness of the super mercado.

We discovered the cute loose slipover dresses were made in India.  We found shop after shop with art and wished JA was with us to choose.  In one artist shop, the owner, an older woman, began dissing Trump and admittedly I had practiced my Spanish phrases commiserating with her about a “corazon pequeno” and she told us to have courage and be strong women to keep marching. 

Back at the apartment for the night, we discover that a small yapping dog and a parrot enjoy arguing with each other from about 7pm to 11pm.  They are on the bottom floor in the inner courtyard where the laundry hangs out and our windows open onto. 

On the second day we are a Floridita cafe across from the bank when I get a major cramping call to the bano and my spirits sink as I see the little old lady sitting by the door with a saucer for change, shades of Spain emerge,  and she hands me a wispy piece of tissue which is going to be worthless.  Fortunately I have my pack and notebook paper to use.  Scarcity underlined.  

We take the Havana tour on the hop on hop off bus which lets us see most of the city, but the heavily accented guide is useless.  We get off at a super mercado in a suburban area and buy coffee and water.  It is better stocked.  There is a long line. long lines are typical everywhere.  We ask directions and are helped by everyone, even to the point of walking us to the place to be picked up again.  We stop by some huge banyan trees.  

And in walking around the newer areas I discover my theory about a country without cell phones is not true.  There are hot spots where the business class are sitting and clicking away oblivious of surroundings.  We have tried the big hotels to try to get online, but the service is spotty at best and not worth the trouble.  I am personally glad to not know the news and be immersed in another culture with immediate concerns of finding out where I am and where I will find food and how I will get home.  Such a relief!

Mid week I decide to take it easy and just relax at home and hang around the hood.  There are an amazing amounts of improvements being made next door(all over the old town, really) which means pounding, drilling, sanding and sawing all day, added to the street noise sends me out to walk around the neighborhood.  I find a small plaza and shade to sit in.  I had one of those moments when you have no agenda and are just being, so that the life around you suddenly comes into focus without the perturbation of finding or wanting or grasping experience.  Just the life of the plaza on an ordinary day in Cuba.  Schoolgirls in groups of twos and threes or more walk by talking and giggling.  They are like young girls everywhere, reminding me of my granddaughter and her friends.  They look so neat in their white knee socks, the blue blouses, or gold skirts of their school, their hair pulled back in pony tails.  The young boys play soccer, seriously, intensely.  Some 20 something guys sitting across from me have body builder bodies.  There are a lot of Cuban man muscled up like that.  An old Cuban couple stroll by holding each other’s arm.  Every once in a while a few tourists come through, eyes darting right and left and up and then down at the map and walking on.   I felt so happy sitting there, so kind of invisible, seeing Cuban life without my interference.

I end the day sitting at the nearby cafe, having a coffee and watching the life on the stoops where men gather in groups sitting or hanging out and talking or just being together watching the passing scene.  A very old woman comes by with a plastic bag collecting aluminum cans and when the men see her coming and start gathering up their Crystal Beer cans to give her.  Then they open up the pizza box and offer her the rest of their pizza.  She takes it immediately and stuffs some of it in her mouth and then walks on over to my table and sit down across from me to finish the food.  She says something in Spanish I don’t understand, but assume it is that she wants just to rest a bit.
Esta bien 

Denise and I visit the  National Hotel where we weren’t allowed to go to the panoramic view.  $450 a night—not for us peons.   This is the one hotel owned by the Cuban government, the others are international companies.  This is where Fidel and Che and the rebels stayed right after the mob left and the revolution was complete. Denise goes on to the Vedado and I walk along the Malacon, snapping pictures and enjoying the warm breeze.

I had so many questions about how this new tourist economy is being handled and how much the money pouring into these places which charge $200-$400 a night is going to benefit the people on my street in old town or the people in the countryside.  There are two kinds of Cuban money.  One is for tourists and one for the people which is 1/4 the value.   On my walk on the Malacon I met a Brit who had been coming to Cuba for years who said that in the last three years there were big changes.  Much more food than before when you couldn’t find vegies in the old town.  There is no big central mercado where the peasants bring in their wares. Now there are a few sad looking potatoes and some greens, an onion seller has abundance.   All the good produce goes to the big hotels and what is left is sold locally.  There is an string of high end hotels on an archipelago jutting out into the sea where you go if you just want beach and partying.    in contrast,  his girlfriend’s parents are retired and get a pension of $8 a month.  They have a refrigerator—their only modern appliance.

The last day in Havana we sit in a plaza looking at the vast array of skin color from cream to blue back and hair style and outfits. A muscle boy comes into the plaza with a small thin limping side kick and they set up a meal in a bowl type business.  Muscle boy poses, struts, shows his physique.  He has shaved head with large curls on top.  Young men have outdone themselves with  dramatic extrapolations of western dos.  The plaza has guys with shaved head on sides and dreds on top or bleached on top standing straight up. The eye is stunned by huge black women smoking cigarettes, bandana head wrap, a bleached blond afro with black spaghetti strap tops, a young woman poured into tights, streaked hair, top knotted, purple nails, nike pink strips and pink blouse.   Business types appear with crisp white blouses and shirts and again the poured into pants and skirts and suddenly everyone is sitting and bending over eating their lunch, and we, who have been in the middle of this scene have no idea how that happened.  It’s the miracle of the loaves and fishes! 

Contrasts in perception:

Denise says they are styling; I say they look like they are in second hand clothes.

Denise says they seem so happy; I say I have seen a lot of furrowed brows and concerned faces.

Denise says they are all so thin;  I say there are a lot of really heavy people, but we both agree everyone even the huge move well.

Later on I am hunting the used mercado and turn a corner to see a monster cruise ship like a visitation from another planet, docked and  there are guides leading a groups of people around the streets.  Horrified, I retreat to the cafe on the corner near our apartment to while away the afternoon, felling suddenly sad for Cuba with the layer of wealth that is coming in on top of what is already here which will change it inevitably and in the end, who knows if it’s for the better.

I know I am taking up a whole table with just a coffee and all the tables are filled so I get nervous when the girl brings my coffee and the owner, who I have seen several times out and about and nodded “Hola” to(anytime anyone catches your eye out and about, we say Hola—an acknowledgment that comforts me), calls her over I think I will be asked to hurry, but no, I get a free coffee.  I am touched.  Some young people join me and I discover they are from Turkey, but before I can assure them about my liberality they quickly move to another table when I say Estados Unidos.

So on to Trinidad.  This is the part of the trip Denise doesn’t have reservation for because there willl be people greeting the bus to take us to their “casa”.   The bus trip makes for a strange day of feeling captive, stopping only at the government tienda for lunch with restroom and small tourist items.  We go through some jungly country and some major big irrigation type farms, but gradually there are many more horse drawn wagons, and farmers on horseback only the very occasional car.  I have a million questions.  Who owns what, where do the workers live who work the fields, what plants are grown, who decides what to grow and on and on.  No one to tell me.

So indeed when the bus stops in Trinidad, there are hawkers galore asking to take us to their very good, very  clean, very quiet, lovely modern casa.  It is chaos and very hot.   I stay with the bags and Denise goes off with one.  A old man takes me over to the shade to sit and then a woman tells me he has a great apartment, very good, so does she but hers is full.  The man says nothing.  Denise comes back freaked out.  It is above 80 degrees the casa was full and another not suitable.  She is hot and has been too much in the sun.  I suggest we try this silent man’s place and we take a rickshaw there. Denise looks and finds it unsuitable.  It is upstairs of his house, has two bedrooms, a sitting room a bathroom.   I look and realize it is not up to par, my bedroom has only a partial wall and the ceilings are peeling paint and the doors are lockable but old.  We take it, me tipping the scales in that direction and bargaining the price down to $15 each a night and Denise acquiescing, thinking maybe just one night.  Denise still freaked and I know Maya might agree, but there are no bed bugs and no roaches or other insects and the sheets are clean and Denise’s room has an air conditioner and there is a frig and a balcony.  It is middle class Cuba.

The view from our balcony. Our neighbor across the street watched with us.

We walk around Trinidad to discover the town if full of tourists.  We come to the main plaza and just between the church and the palace are steps going up and up and those steps are covered with westerners, eyes glued  on their cell phones.  The town hotspot.  We are horrified with Trinidad and after finding a restaurant head back home, stopping to talk to a Cuba tour woman about finding another place, another town, anything.  Tomorrow she promises.   We head back to our “casa”   There are no towels and the street is noisy, her ankle hurts, my hip hurts, and the toilet doesn’t flush.

We have only two days left and we spend most of this morning trying to find another place to stay.  Denise is pushing for leaving and going to Cienfuegos although I am hesitant because what is going to be different there?  Cuba is not set up for tourists with small hotels that are clean and reasonable.  It’s people’s houses or above restaurants and after walking and looking at a few places, we give up and go back to our casa and sit with Jose and his daughter in the living room and say we want to get out of town.  They suggest two things, the stream train to the old sugar mill and the trip to the national park by taxi and a hike to a waterfall.  Tomorrow the steam train at 9am and for today since it is already late,  they call a taxi and off we go to the mountains.  

And it is a great relief to get out of town into the country.  There are very few cars and our driver speaks pretty good English.  He says he’s named his car after a Cuban cartoon character and up the mountain we go until about half way up the car starts jerking, cutting out and we have to stop.  He has carried bottles of water to pour on the radiator and we start again and get a bit further before it stops.  There’s a vapor lock now.  He suggests we walk up to the look out above and wait there for him which we do. By now we are beyond agendas.   It’s lovely to be out of town and see the mountains and the level plains with beaches on both sides of Trinidad in the distance. 

The car has recovered and on we go to the park.  Our driver is going to visit his relatives while we hike.  At the bottom of this steep gully is a waterfall and beautiful pool to swim in and we start down full of hope and energy and interest in the surrounding jungle forest.  It is wonderful.

 We meet others coming back huffing and puffing talking about how steep it is.  After about an hour we both realize that we should turn around and head up.    We make it up to a small stream and pause to fill bottles and pour water over our heads and shoulders to cool down.  As we are doing this, up comes the last couple from the pool and the guard who brings up the last tourists.  So he walks with us up and up which takes a while as I am going slow by any standards and he is trying to be slow but also in a hurry to finish his day.  I do manage to find out that the area where the jungle is cut is going to be planted in coffee and it will be terraced to prevent erosion.  At least I had a successful communication.

At the top, we get water and are cooling down when I realize my glasses have fallen off where I hooked them over my collar and then had leaned down to scoop up water.  Hopelessly, they are expensive glasses, i walk over to the lone girl at the ticket stand and explain and she says it’s only 25 minutes to the stream and I say, for you, maybe, but for me, not possible.  I have to give up my glasses completely as there is no young kid to run down and search.    Our driver comes and they talk and I mention a “regalo”, not remembering the word for reward,  and on the drive home he gets a phone call that my glasses have been found and that night he rides over on his bike to give them to me!!!  So relieved and pleased.

The next morning we go on the steam train with the other tourists to an old sugar mill now abandoned but used to attract tourists.  More country, more small villages, more country people on horses and horse pulled wagons along the way.  The houses that Fidel promised to build for every Cuban are looking pretty run down 60 years later, the tin roofs askew, the paint and sometimes the walls crumbling.   Cuba reminded me of Mexico 60 years ago.

There is a museum which the Danes we talk to say has little to no information.  Pictures with typed information taped below.  They were really interested but disappointed at the lack of preparation for tourists.  We drink sugar cane juice and also coconut water and have them split the coconut to get the pulp.  I try in my broken Spanish to find out how the cane is prepared to crush into juice.   When we leave,  the guys I talked to come over to the train and with big smiles, give me a peeled sugar cane.  How sweet that they cared that I had asked!

We stop on the way down at a fancy lunch place and once back in Trinidad get ready the next day for a taxi ride to the airport and the trip home.  We managed to get the toilet to work sometimes and learned to love our landlord and his daughter both of whom were so sweet and helpful.  We kissed goodby.  I said Vaya con Dios, not knowing if this is appropriate,  (I enjoyed the every day struggle of trying to say what I didn’t have the words for with the words I knew) but Jose broke into a huge smile and repeated it to me.  Here we are on the balcony chatting.

I read Havana Nocturne while I was there which added another level to a very layered experience.  The mob literally planned to own Cuba until Fidel and Che intervened.  It was a real revolution and one in my lifetime and one that defied the USA.  I feel happy that I was able to see Cuba before Burger King and Pizza hut are on every corner.  I said to Denise that this hadn't really been a vacation--the vactioners were  in the hotels on the archipelago who may have been eating the fresh fish and ripe fruit of which we had none, except for bananas.  Our experiece was traveling.  It was work, but it was so worth it.   

I can’t imagine how the campesinos will fare with the influx of money from tourists.  They were the ones who kept the rebels fed as they hid in the mountain forests gaining numbers and training fighters at the same time teaching the peasants to read and setting up medical centers and schools.   They are the ones still living in the concrete block one or two room house much weathered from 60 years use.

I asked our taxi driver about corruption and he said not on the street but only at the high levels. Two economies can’t work for long especially with the internet newly introduced.   We changed money on the street a couple of times—the same rate without the long line at the bank.  Everyone kept saying it had all changed in the last three years, more services for tourists, more food at the little street stands, more internet, more money.  But it still isn’t set up for the lone traveler who is not on tour.  One of our money changers was hoping to get enough “real” money to get to Mexico where he could come to the US to work and “get ahead”.  Our taxi driver had gone to Angola to work as a driver and made enough money to “get ahead”.  He said he bought his wreck of a car for $15,000, a price I still find hard to believe.  We paid him $30 in tourist CUCs plus the 'regalo".for an afternoon which is five times the monthly retirement of the Brit's girlfriend's parents.
There is, I think, some kind of tsunami coming.

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