A Cuban Sojourn

Image 1We are staying on Cayo Santa Maria in a quiet little place facing west, away from the massive resorts farther northeast, on this 20km long key in the Bahia de Buenavista. A picturesque 48km causeway connects the key to the north coast of Cuba.Image 4

Yesterday we took a taxi back across the causeway to spend the afternoon in Remedios, a small 16th century Spanish colonial town that has retained its original character.P1070396 P1070400P1070409The absence of motorized traffic is magical and frees us to leisurely stroll the central plaza among locals and admire pastel coloured 18th century mansions and arcades. Martha, an articulate, buoyant parish volunteer showed us around her church, the beautifully restored Inglesia de San Juan Bautista. It’s a gem and an inspiration and its not surprizing that four hundred local people attend mass every Sunday.P1070411P1070390

The wind is calmer this morning, the birds are singing and a few big patches of brilliant blue sky are beginning to peek out from the clouds. Waves wash briskly over a reef that is close to shore and good for snorkelling when the sea is calm and the winds are quiet (which it has not been for the past few days). P1070477A faint perfume of curry in the garden takes me back to what we knew as the “corry grass” along country roads in Jamaica. (Reader: Can you help me here? Do you know what the botanical, or other name that it might be?)

Three inviting half moon shaped beaches on the property, with their resident herons, cormorants, sandpipers, and one small snake, are thrilling to meet as I explorethe shore. Always changing, itinerant travellers with me are sea urchins, conches, giant snails and starfish. Curious fragments among colourful coral have drifted in to tweak my imagination with their hidden stories.P1070156 P1070503In our morning yoga practices in the palapa over the water I make sure to choose a spot for my mat where I can see the fish through the spaces in flooring of the wooden deck.Image 2

 

As the sun goes down a saxophonist plays and champagne is served, heralding the evening. P1070606Dinner is uneventful but the rest of our evening is filled with the traditional Cuban music we have come to this island to listen to. P1070489Sipping a shot of Cuban rum in a small cosy bar with thirty or forty other guests, we can hear Cuba’s history in the music, influences of Spain, west Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the unique development in Cuba of son, Afrocuban Jazz, rhumba, and salsa, that have become a part of our planet’s rich body of music.

P1070302Gracias Cuba.

 

“Desert Coffee” Syria 1965. Repost 2015.

In 1965 Ross and I visited Syria. It was a time when the country was peaceful, the economy was growing, literacy rates were improving, and the people we met were gracious and hospitable. We loved our long drive through the Great Syrian Desert and reflected on it for many years before I wrote “Desert Coffee.” The story became Chapter Five of my 2013 book, “Weaving Threads Travels on the Silk Road.”

Today I think a lot about Syrian children. There are 8.5 million of them living in unspeakable horror and desperate need in Syria and surrounding countries. Some are victims of the worst forms of child labour in armed conflict and sexual exploitation.

Organizations like UNICEF (that I know well and love)  are there, inside Syria and surrounding countries helping children survive. (Go to  www.unicef.ca . Urgent Appeal. Children of Syria Winter Crisis for more information.)

I hope that in 2016 Syrian children will have a safer place to live, be well nourished and healthy, be able to learn to read write and count and grow up to be responsible and caring, like those we met in the desert fifty years ago.

                                                                 Chapter Five

DESERT COFFEE   Syria 1965

The battered old aluminium coffee pot filled with warped wooden gadgets that you see on my kitchen counter is special.

One night we almost used it as a weapon.

“Why are you going there? It’s very dangerous,” they said.“What ever you do don’t travel at night. Bedouin will rob you. After they riddle you with bullets.”

And so we set off anyway.

The Beetle bumps across a furnace of connected deserts and oasis towns. Everything around us is flat. Hard brown sand glistens like diamonds under a fireball sun.Image 2

The heat is unbearable.

I read that Gertrude Bell wore heavy wool to keep the sun out when she crossed this desert on a camel during the First World War. So did Lawrence. We wear bath towels. Heavy, brown, wet ones. Wet towels over our heads, wet towels over our shoulders and wet towels across our laps. And then we jam wet, brown towels into closed car windows to keep the hot blast of desert air out and block the burning sun.

The sun. The heat. The emptiness. There is so much of nothing here.

It is cooler now, the evening is beautiful and still. A massive orange sun seems unreal to us, as it slowly sinks into the sand.

“We really shouldn’t camp here,” I snap. “They warned it was dangerous. They said don’t camp in the desert under any circumstances. Bedouin are everywhere. They’re thieves. They’ll kidnap us,”

“There is no one anywhere near here,” Ross says softly. “Why would anyone be here? There’s nothing.”

He’s right. We haven’t seen anyone all day. I take a deep breath, calm myself and confess. “Actually, you know I’ve always wanted to sleep on the desert, under the stars.”

So here we are. This is the Great Syrian Desert and, like Lawrence of Arabia and Gertrude Bell, we are on our way to explore Palmyra.

Sand, the colour of nicely ripe peaches, is all around as far as we can see. The heat of the day dissipates as the sun lowers. Dusk begins to settle in. The moon brightens, stars begin to break through day into night, first one, then two, and now a few more.

It reminds me of the Christmas story.

We unfold the little Danish wooden camping table, smooth on the red and white plastic tablecloth, set out our shiny stainless steel cutlery and our brown stoneware coffee cups from Finland. The new Italian coffee pot is popping, sputtering and exploding, gathering pressure on the little diesel-fuelled camp stove set in the sand. Soon we will have a nice cup of coffee. We have not forgotten to bring all the trappings, of what, we think, is civilization.

“Do you see that?” Ross says, pointing to the darkening night in the east.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. An animal? It looks like a camel.”

Black and ghostly, the apparition gathers momentum in a storm of swirling sand. “It’s coming toward us. It’s someone on a horse, ” Ross stammers in disbelief.

“It’s Bedouin,” I screech.

Long, flowing, black robes fly in the wind behind him. He holds a wooden staff in his right fist. He raises his arm high. Like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia he is fierce and relentless in his gallop toward us.

“What are we going to do?”

Ross grabs the hot coffee pot. “This’ll work.”

“What? You’ll throw it? At him?”

Months ago we discussed carrying a weapon. Most people we spoke to, who crossed this desert, carried a gun for protection. We thought about it and decided that if anything bad happened we would be too scared and inept to shoot anyone. They would shoot us. With our gun.

Now here we are. Scared. Inept. But keen to live. The coffee pot will have to do.

In an explosion of sand, the man reins his horse to a high-speed stop beside us. The coffee pot is poised, ready for action.

But wait a minute. The Bedouin’s turban frames a kind, smiling face.

“Salaam Alaikum.” Peace to you, he says softly.

“Well now. Salaam Alaikum. Salaam Alaikum. Yes. Yes.” Ross blurts out, raising the coffee pot in his trembling hands high in the air. “Hey, would you like some coffee?”

The Bedouin smiles broadly again and says something we don’t really understand, shoots his arm high in the air, waves and charges off into the empty, bleak desert.

We are stunned. After a moment we collapse in laughter. At ourselves.

“He’s going somewhere fast. Probably home for supper,” Ross says.

Relief and happiness take over our fear as we lay down in the sand under the stars.

The morning is cold but the sun is beginning to soar and we know we will be in the furnace again soon. We pack up our little home in the desert and get in the car to leave.

But look.

There he is again. Children are with him, three boys, about ten or twelve, laughing and jostling one another, each on his own magnificent horse. They grind to another one of those high-speed horse stops in a cloud of sand, and the man, smiling broadly, gestures that these are his children.

Apparently they have something special for us.

With dad’s coaching, they shyly present us with a present. Three freshly picked watermelons.

Their gift has warmed my heart for a lifetime. And I will never throw out that coffee pot.

This morning I drove from Canmore to the Banff Centre down the Trans-Canada highway. The road was lined with bright yellow aspens. The sun cast a hue of golden magic on Cascade Mountain.

I was thinking about telling you my story about the Silk Road, the little boys, the watermelons and our coffee pot. Neil Young was singing on the car radio. Was it by chance for me?

I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold.

I want to be miner for a heart of gold

These expressions keep me searching for a heart of gold.

Keep me searching. *

 

Salaam Alaikum

* Young, Neil. Greatest Hits. Heart of Gold. Reprise records, 2004.

 

 

Look. There’s a Bengal Tiger in My Cappuccino.

P1060058We are staying in Nagarhole National Park part of the vast Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve that covers 5000 square miles across the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in southwest India. To me it is wonder of human achievement that this park exists in the second most populous country on earth. It is habitat for over 100 different mammals including the majestic Bengal Tiger, Asiatic Elephant and Leopard.   It is late in the afternoon and we’re taking a water safari on Kabini Lake. It is calm, quiet and beautiful; the boatman cuts the motor often to stop and listen to the forest. Our guide, a certified parks naturalist, assures us that the animals go into the forest during the hot daytime hours but now that it’s cooler we have a chance to see some when they it come out to the lake to drink. We see hundreds of gentle, sweet-looking spotted deer, several huge gaur, wild pigs, lots of langurs (a large Old World Monkey with a very long tail) capering in the bamboo, a few elephants and a crocodile basking in the late afternoon sun.P1050950 P1050998               But wait a minute. Do you hear that? That is an alarm call. The monkeys are warning that danger is near. Now the forest is silent. A tiger peeks out of the bamboo, takes a few steps into the river to drink. P1050991 - Version 2Then her eyes meet ours.P1050989 - Version 3 And she slinks back into the forest. It’s thrilling for me to see a tiger in her natural setting but it is even more exciting to know and understand the natural environment she thrives in so that we can work toward preserving her natural space.   We return to our lodge full of awe. The sun is setting. P1060060The barista in the reading room overlooking the lake is very happy that we have been able to see a tiger. He shares his enthusiasm for conservation in Nagarhole National Park and makes us an unforgettable cappuccino to celebrate an unforgettable day.

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