Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Chicago in March



After too many years, we finally returned for a trip to Chicago to see my old buddy Mike Schaaf. Mike and I have been friends since working on a project together in the Bahamas twenty years ago, and have not just kept in touch, but have spent time together many times over that period. Mike’s been a great mentor to me over that time, as we work in the same field, but he has a much wider depth of experience, working in many different industries and countries over the years. He is also a 6' 6" gym monster and ruthlessly beat me into shape during our year working in the Bahamas. To ensure I didn't get too shredded I drank enormous quantities of Kalik beer, which kept me loaded with empty calories and resulted in half of my workouts performed in a state of queasy hangover. But man, we lifted a lot of weight! In fact, our Friday night leg workouts were the stuff of legend; we could barely walk down the gym staircase at the end of it. It was all I could do to stagger weakly to my local bar Hammerheads and prop myself up on a bar stool.

The lead up to our March break trip to Chicago was not encouraging. First, Stella got hit with a terrible cold and was congested so bad she was hardly sleeping. And then Magnus caught some kind of stomach bug and was blowing it out both ends for several days. This was during their school break so they didn’t even get the pleasure of missing classes.

That left Ana and I. We did not want to get sick before the trip. But in a moment of motherly love, Ana went and slept with Stella one night when she was particularly stuffed up and miserable. I had been quite successful avoiding contact with both of the germy spawn, but Ana broke down and exposed herself to the infection. I began avoiding her too as I had a feeling what was coming.

The kids suffered through it and perked right back up the day before we left. On Wednesday Ana reported some unusual joint ache as we drove down the 403 highway headed for Michigan and both of us were pretty sure she was going to get it, but still we hoped for the best.

We arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan by around 7:30 pm, our first stop as we had decided to do the 9 hour trip to Chicago in two legs. I had been in nearby Detroit the month before for some work training and heard great things about Ann Arbor so we wanted to see it for ourselves. As we drove into town we were stunned by the magnificent buildings, most of which looked to be part of the University of Michigan, but there were also some government buildings and museums, all of which were enormous and well kept. We passed several university sports facilities - a football stadium, field hockey facility, indoor track and field complex, and soccer pitches, making us wondering how all this was funded. Sports in the US is a huge deal - especially college sports - and is in such stark contrast to Canada where there are college sports (apparently), but you just don’t hear much about them.

We had to drive around for ages to find a parking spot, but finally did and then went for a walk in the busy centre area. Despite it being Wednesday, the many restaurants and bars were loaded with people, as were the sidewalks, and all was bathed in light from the giant State Theatre marquee radiating dazzling colours.

We enjoyed a nice meal, did some people watching, and then drove back to the hotel which was actually a scary motel called the Red Roof Inn, but after seeing the name I started calling it the REDRUM Inn, but the kids obviously haven’t seen The Shining because they didn’t get the joke until I told them to spell it backwards. It actually wasn’t too bad - the room just had a faint odour of…something, but it didn’t stop me from having a great sleep.

The next morning we had a quick hotel-supplied breakfast of rock bagels with grape jam, gluey oatmeal and chocolate frosted sugar bombs, and then hit the road for the second leg of the journey to Chicago. After five hours on the road we finally arrived at my friend Mike’s house in Algonquin - a suburb north-west of Chicago. Mike hadn't changed - still big, muscular, handsome, and with an unimproved fashion sense - and coming from me, that's really saying something. In fact just after we arrived, the 80's called him and asked for their jeans back.

After a drink and a catch-up session with Mike we went for a big walk in the nature area close to his house. Ana’s cold or flu or whatever it was had fully set in, and she was feeling terrible, but joined us on the walk nonetheless. We talked non-stop, with hardly a break in the conversation, like it should be with old friends. The girls decided to go out shopping so Mike cracked out some beer and the three lads went out to the garage to scarf some suds and play with Mike's fine collection of power tools. Magnus, with Mike's help, fabricated an awesome wooden axe, and finished it just in time for the girls' return, and after some Chicago deep dish pizza, a ping pong round robin, and a bit of tv watching, we retired for the night.

Saturday was a huge day. Despite waking up feeling worse than ever, Ana used the power of coffee and cold meds to get her moving and soon we were out the door. We went for a huge, delicious, American-portioned breakfast at a local restaurant called "Burnt Toast", conveniently just down the road from Mike's place. The server brings out these bodacious, bountiful plates while I'm thinking "There is no way in hell I am going to be able to put a dent into that mound of grub". Fifteen minutes later my plate is clean and I'm picking away at the uneaten home potatoes on Stella's plate, and then Ana's, and then I go back to Stella's and eat the remaining half of her pancakes. I lova dis countdry!

We first drove to the nearby marina where Mike keeps his powerboat in the summer, had a quick look around, and then continued driving eastward right to the shores of Lake Huron. Here we turned south and followed the shoreline through some of the most expensive and exclusive neighbourhoods in the region, and stopped along the way for a beach walk. Suburb eventually turned into city, and we snaked right into downtown Chicago amidst the towering buildings and congestion of vehicles.

We spent the afternoon wandering the streets of Chicago, stopping first at the Art Institute of Chicago, but only making it in as far as the bookstore as we didn't have enough time to commit to properly exploring the museum. There I found a coffee table book of naked men and found an image of a particularly virile young Adonis with a python sized wanger and a magnificent sack. I brought it over and stuck it right in Ana's face, hoping to gross her out, but she just took the book and started flipping through it, interested. I considered buying it for her for Christmas, but it was almost a hundred bucks, so I decided instead to write her a love poem and work on a real good sexy dance.

Chicago downtown welcomed us in and we walked up and down the busy streets, ogling the magnificent buildings, watching people, popping into shops, stopping for lunch, and eventually making our way to Millennium Park and grabbing some photos by the giant stainless steel bean sculpture. From here we drove over to Navy Pier, the busiest tourist attraction in Chicago, and explored the lush indoor tropical gardens, shops, and the kids went for a ride on the giant Ferris wheel. The weather was not great as it was cool and there were intermittent showers throughout the day, but hey what do you expect for March in Chicago - a city not exactly known for its fabulous weather. But it is certainly a city full of life and I couldn't help but visualize us sailing Bella Blue all the way across Lake Erie, up through Lake Huron, and back down Lake Michigan right to one of downtown marinas and spending a good few days here in the heat of the summer.

The drive back to Algonquin was quite long as the traffic was thick and dense, but fortunately Mike had one of his famous cd compilations to listen to in the van. He calls them the "Best of Schaaf" but I just call them the worst music of all time. It's a deplorable mix of those songs that make you lurch for the tuner when they come on the radio and then stick in your head for days. We're talking John Denver, Peter Paul and Mary, "Afternoon Delight", "Seasons in the Sun", Captain and Tenille, "Rhinestone Cowboy", that sort of crap. Ana lucked out as she was feeling so terrible she had passed out in the back of the van, and the kids were just paralyzed at the sonic vomit leaching into their ears so they didn't even know what was happening. The worst part was I knew most of the words to the songs, which must come from deeply repressed memories from driving around in the back of my parents' wood panelled station wagons in the 70's, with the 8 track cranked. That's why Mike is the best - he marches to the beat of a different drummer. A bad 1970's drummer.

Sunday arrived - St. Patrick's Day and Mike and I were up early drinking coffee and chatting. But after watching the local news and seeing the massive waves of people rushing into downtown to watch the Chicago River being turned green (a 50 year old tradition) and the big parade, not to mention Ana sleeping like a corpse upstairs, we ixnayed the plan to head back downtown and instead decided to spend the day at Rancho Relaxo el Schaafo which seemed to suit everybody just fine. We visited, goofed around outside, Mike and Magnus build a birdhouse, Stella and I played ping pong, Ana drank tea and tried to get healthy, and then we all went for a short shopping excursion to the nearby super plaza. Mike's daughter Arielle, her husband Andrew, their dog Aslan, and Mike's sister Julie came over for supper and we had a lovely time drinking beer and wine, playing with the mutt, and putting together a nice feast. When Mike and the kids were outside chasing the dog around, Arielle and Andrew dropped a news bomb - they were pregnant! But we were sworn to secrecy as they hadn't told Mike yet and were planning an elaborate reveal for him two weeks hence. So we toasted the soon to be parents and then zipped the lips. It was a most excellent evening, and I could hardly wait for Mike to learn he was a grandpa!


We were up early the next morning, said our goodbyes to Mike and then started the return journey back to Canada. We took a slightly different route home, and the drive went well, making it back home in under nine hours. With another Power Weekend under our belts, I never cease to be amazed at the great variety of locations that surround us, and how easy and fun it is for us to travel to these places.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Going to Syra-Cruz

Winter. This damn, never-ending winter.

When winter gets us down, we usually pack up and go somewhere. But now that the kids are getting older and into the more important school years, we're finding that taking them out of school for vacations is becoming problematic. So, it seems that for the foreseeable future we are going to be tied into the school vacation holiday schedule or long weekend trips.

Fortunately, we live in the best part of Canada and the destination opportunities for weekend trips are unlimited. Yes, I do really mean "unlimited" because there's no way you would be able to explore all the fantastic places around here within a single lifetime.

Back in February my dad came for a visit and we took a long weekend trip to Syracuse, New York. We took off right after school on the Friday of the Family Day long weekend and drove straight there, making it in less than four hours. It took that long to train Dad how to pronounce the city name as he was stuck on calling it "Syra-Cruz" which, admittedly, is a much cooler name, but sadly, just not quite right.



As usual, we had no real plan for the weekend, so on Saturday morning we jumped in the van and headed downtown. Syracuse downtown is like many US rust belt cities - packed with magnificent, towering, classic buildings that indicate just how powerful and rich these cities were back in their industrial heydays. Somehow many of these cities have managed to keep these buildings alive, although there are always some you see that have fallen into horrible disrepair and are awaiting some shrewd developer to bring them back to life.

We parked the van and went for a blisteringly cold winter walk. The frigid wind was howling through the streets and between the buildings and we were practically the only ones walking around. We found refuge in the grand and magnificent Marriott hotel and inside found a display of typewriters from the early 1900's - some of which had the original non-QWERTY keyboards, some which were made for typing musical notation, and some which had symbols that none of us recognized. These heirlooms from the past were a testament to the large number of typewriter manufacturers that made Syracuse their home. We also found a grand piano where we hammered out a few poorly executed tunes and caused a real ruckus, but managed to leave on our own terms before they kicked us out.



From here we went to the Erie Canal Museum. Since moving to Ontario, I have been fascinated with the Erie Canal and have read several books on its history. The building of the original Erie Canal, which allowed barges to travel by water from New York City all the way to Buffalo, giving access to Lake Erie, was truly the driving force behind the incredible expansion and development that happened in this region. At the time, the idea of building such an expensive canal over incredibly difficult terrain seemed not just physically impossible, but foolhardy. But the economic impact of the canal was immediate and dramatic and the 7 million dollars in construction costs for the original 7 year canal project would be reclaimed in tolls within 10 years, both for the original project and for the later enlargement and expansion. The canal brought down the costs of transportation by a factor of 10 and resulted in an economic bonanza for the state of New York.

The museum is located in the last remaining weighlock building, which is where the barges used to enter and be weighed on giant scales to calculated the toll charges owing. It is strange to see the museum's location, because the original Erie Canal is no longer here, having been rebuilt along a different, more northern path during one of the expansions. They do have some photographs of what the area used to look like with the canal flowing through the city, but it is completely unrecognizable.

I loved everything about the museum, especially the full size canal barge and the big exhibit dedicated to the history of the mules that used to pull the barges along the canal. If you ever find yourself in the area - don't miss it: https://eriecanalmuseum.org/.

From here, we went to take on the Destiny Mall, an All-American supercenter with a thousand and one opportunities to separate you from your greenbacks, from an indoor electric go-kart track, to hundreds of retails shops, to bars and restaurants, movie theatres, and, of course, a massive kids park with electronic gaming, canyon climbing, virtual reality and a bunch of other stuff we didn't see because we decided to get sloshed at the Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville pub instead while the kids had their fun. 



Now who would have thought drinking in a mall could be any fun at all? Not me. But I was wrong. There was a huge queue of people waiting to get into Margaritaville for dinner, but I managed to sneak us into a table by the bar, claiming we were just stopping for a quick beer. Well the beers were cheap, atmosphere strangely amazing, music fantastic, and we were surrounded by images of various lovely beaches in the Caribbean, so much that we felt we were truly somewhere else, so celebrated by spoofing our Facebook buddies with shots of us all around the Caribbean. Every 35 minutes the table would be full of empty pint glasses so we'd get the waitress to clear them all off so we had room for our elbows, more pints and nachos.



We finished up the mall adventure with an intense session of cornholing. If you are laughing nervously right now, you're probably not American, so just look up "cornhole" online and it will all make sense. It's their national pastime. Yes, you're still laughing.

The next day we had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, a big swim and hot tub, and then went to Central New York Boat Show. We weren't able to get to the big Toronto boat show this year, so needed our fix of winter boat browsing. The boat show was okay, but focused mainly on pontoon boats and small powerboats, so not much for us sailors there, although it was well set up and not insanely packed like the one in Toronto.

We headed back downtown to take in the Syracuse winter festival that was supposed to be happening, which included a big chili cook-off. Sadly, we could not find the place to buy chili tickets, nor could we find much of anything going on, and it was still freezing cold outside so instead we found an awesome restaurant, THS - The Hops Spot, which had at least fifty craft beers on tap and a dozen craft poutines on the menu. This obliterated our plans for a "light lunch" to save space for a huge meal later, but hey, who's complaining?



After lunch we went for another walk downtown and found the Landmark Theatre. There was a show about to begin, but the staff member at the door allowed us to come in and take a quick look at the lobby. It was magnificent, ornate, grandiose, and oozing with history and we were quite sad that we weren't able to see the actual theatre space...maybe next time.


The girls wanted to do more shopping so they dropped us off at the hotel where Magnus, Dad and I played a rousing game of "Ticket To Ride" (our new favourite board game) and then back for another hot tub. The girls eventually made it back and we went out to the Olive Garden for a leisurely meal and then back to the rooms to hang out the rest of the evening.



After a slow breakfast Monday morning we packed up, piled into the van and drove back to Canada, stopping along the way only for gas, but enjoying the ride back. We had a great visit with Dad and were happy to be able to visit a brand new US city, which we will certainly return to soon.








Friday, January 18, 2019

Cuba 2019 - Home to Beat the Kids

We are back home, and still have a little of the sunshine glow leftover from Cuba. Our tans did not immediately fall off at the airport, sprinkle down our pant legs and leave a trail of discarded skin dust in our wake, such as what happens when people from Saskatchewan return from vacation in January to the moisture-less air and polar bear friendly temperatures. That’s why they must constantly sweep the floors from November to April at the John G Diefenbaker airport in Saskatoon. And then again from May to October for all the prairie dust.

Upon returning home, I stacked my nice new Romeo & Julieta tubed cigars gently in my humidor and loaded up the sponges with water to keep them well nourished, just in case some of the tubes leak. The reason they package some cigars in tubes is because once they are sealed at the factory they do not have to be stored in a humidor right away, but it’s not a perfect seal so air can still leak in and out. There is some debate as to whether you should remove the tops of the tubes when you put them in a humidor, or just leave them sealed. I leave mine sealed, but do make sure my humidor is always at the correct humidity level so there is little chance of them drying out. That will keep them safely packed away until I start using them in the summer. Ah, summer.

Well, I’ve changed my mind on that Jordan Peterson book “12 Rules for Life”. I am about three-quarters of the way through it and it is not a great book. Yes, he has some interesting ideas, and two of the chapters are quite readable, but you need to wade and strain through a whole lot of academic wanking and religious dogma. The religious pieces are particularly surprising, as I’d expect a guy like this to be a card-carrying atheist. Saying that, he doesn’t ever really spell out his religious convictions, leaving one to wonder why banters on so incessantly about the bible, Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and Moses and the rest of the gang. The “Rules of Life” he builds each chapter around are actually sensible and good, but then within the chapters he goes on and on about things that may be interesting if you are a philosophy egghead or Old Testament aficionado, but seem completely unrelated to the suggested rule. It’s rather annoying. There are nuggets of gold here and there, but you really have to dig for them.

The one chapter I really enjoyed (and was much more accessible than the others) was the one entitled “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them”. I love this line! How many times are you out in public and see children behaving like wild animals with their parents standing by, doing nothing to correct their behavior? Peterson says that disciplining children is hard – very hard emotionally on the parents, but it is your absolute duty and responsibility to do this, because if you don’t do it, then somebody else will – and that other person just might be jail.

He thinks parents are basically wimping out by saying things like, “I don’t believe in punishment” or “Let the kids learn to behave on their own”. Children are natural monsters; young kids treat each other in ways that even the worst adults would consider unthinkable. Bullying, beating, ostracizing, humiliating, badgering, torturing, sabotaging – you name it, they will do it. Kids will push and push and test the limits as far as they will go, and if they learn from their parents that there are no limits, and no repercussions, then their parents have just set themselves up for a life of pain, and their kids a world of suffering. If you turn the responsibility for parenting your child to the world, then the world will do just that, but it is going to be a lot harsher and damaging than a responsible parent could have provided. 

Kids don’t learn to be responsible, social beings on their own – somebody has to teach them, and your kids are your pups, so the job is up to you. Only the parents are able to do it with the appropriate level of care, understanding, empathy, and severity because they know their child best. Discipline is necessary to create a properly socialized child, one who knows how to share, how to play, how to show kindness, and how to talk to others. Poorly socialized children have terrible lives. Peterson also says that if you don’t discipline your kids by the age of 4 (and preferably 2) then you are too late, because their bad habits and personality is set by that point. Will it sometimes feel like you are going into battle? Yes. But as the parent you are wiser, stronger, and smarter, so you have what it takes to win…but do you have the will?

Does he recommend punishment? Yes he does, unapologetically. But as a parent, you know what is appropriate for your child. For some children, an evil eye or stern glance is sufficient. For others, a time out. Some may require a flick of a finger or a squeeze on the arm. For others, or for something severe (like running out into a busy street without looking), it could be a spanking. The intention is to provide the maximum amount of learning with the minimum amount of pain.

The other idea Peterson brings up often is the value of tradition and history and that we discard, ignore or change these at our own peril. It’s taken us thousands and thousands of generations as humans to build a society that functions, and in most cases we really don’t know why things work, but they do. This is why doing what your parents or grandparents did is usually a pretty good starting point. Following the new and highly advanced parenting recommendations in a book is simply untested and risky.

Do I agree with these ideas? Yes, I do – all of them. I wish this chapter had been available to me when our kids were just born, because it would have validated the methods we chose to discipline our children, which were exactly how our parents disciplined us. I think every parent with young children could really benefit by reading this one chapter. Or, simply do what your parents or grandparents did.

For now, it’s back to winter, and making it through the few months of cold that separate us from the big sailboat launch in May and the glorious summer season. But until then, I have a new project - the reggae band!  Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Cuba 2019 - Final Day

Our final day. Ana and I began it with a morning beach walk, enjoying the beautiful warmth, the sun, the sand and ocean water on our feet, the smells of the sea, and each other’s company. My wife is one of the smartest people I know and we can get into some pretty deep conversations about religion, politics, philosophy, history. Fortunately, we have enough differences of option to keep the conversation lively and interesting, but not so many that we want to murder each other. This morning we talked about another idea I read in Jordan Peterson’s book (I am beginning to think it’s a keeper), regarding order and chaos. It’s important to have a certain amount of order in your life, but not so much that you get bored and stop learning, so you need a good dose of chaos too, defined as the unplanned, unexpected, difficult, challenging and uncomfortable. That allows you to keep learning, keep challenged, and keep surprising yourself. It’s hard to get that balance right. It’s funny, both Ana and I tend to err on the side of order, but for different things. She is a real drill sergeant when it comes to cleaning the house, packing luggages for trips, grocery shopping, doing laundry and keeping us all well dressed. I care less about that stuff, but I focus on keeping our family finances in order, planning, purging junk from our house, and documenting things (like these travel blogs). And we both love a little chaos - impromptu weekend trips, backpacking in new places, and trying new things. I think our balance is pretty good, but I think we could always use a bit more chaos.

After our final magnificent buffet breakfast (where I’ve learned that omelettes must contain olives and jalapeƱo peppers), Ana and Magnus walked to the Pescador market to do some final shopping while Stella and I set up base camp at the beach. They returned after a while with some new treasures, and then we took a paddleboat out to the reef and spent a good long while snorkelling and soaking up the sunshine.

I took a short break at 11 to go for a reflexology session in a little oceanside hut. I’ve never tried it before, but who doesn’t love somebody playing with your feet for half an hour? At home, I’m constantly lobbying the rest of the family for back rubs, back scratches, foot rubs, leg massages, but (unsurprisingly) don’t often get any takers. Laying on a comfortable table, having somebody rub oil on your feet, while listening to the sound of the ocean waves and bird songs is sort of fantastic.

We enjoyed our last lunch at the seafood restaurant, and Ana got the recipe for the delicious seafood soup from the cook, who was happy to share, in rapid fire Spanish. Ana’s Spanish always comes back to her so quickly, and she is really good at it, while I struggle a lot more, but after a week it does comes back, and I start to feel fluent again, or least capable of achieving the fluency I once had when we worked in Spanish every day.

The pool was our base for the afternoon, but I did take a short break to go out windsurfing one final time. I took the board way out into the ocean to catch the much stronger winds and had a fantastic, fast ride, but by the time I got back to shore my arms felt like jelly. It’s funny how nobody in Canada windsurfs anymore - now it’s kite surfing. I really must try that sometime.

I enjoyed a final cigar on the patio and did some more planning for my reggae band. My friends are going to be so surprised and thrilled to find themselves in a band. I hope they like reggae music. While I did my scheming, the rest of the gang lounged around the room, reading, watching tv, chilling out.

Our final meal was at the Cuban a la carte restaurant, and once again it was delicious. Stella ordered four courses, but I think she met her match because she couldn't her main. She has been eating like a champ this trip, while Magnus has been sort of picking away at things. Ana moderates her meals while I eat like a pig, consuming everything in sight. That first day back at the gym is going to be a real killer.

We enjoyed our last evening drinks in the lobby and watched the Cuban fashion show on the outdoor stage. The models were quite good, and definitely not amateurs. Magnus and I kept our eyes open for the Blue Steel look, but we either missed it, or those Cubans hadn’t seen Zoolander yet. 

With that, our final day came to an end. And sadly, the trip came to an end as well as the next day we were up early, on the bus, on the plane, and back in the van, driving down the 403 highway heading for home.

Holguin, Cuba gets a quadruple thumbs up from the Olson family!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Cuba 2019 - Dive Day

Ahh, back to work Monday. For some people.

At 8:45 am the scuba diving bus arrived and several of us from the resort jumped on and were whisked to the dive centre, which services all the resorts in the area. There were 12 divers in total and everybody got fitted for gear and then went down to the marina. The dock and facilities were in excellent condition, as was the 48’ dive boat. Once everybody was on board, the captain fired up the boat and we were off. It was another hot and cloudless day, but there was enough wind to create some chop on the ocean. We reached the dive site in less than 15 minutes and after a very short briefing from the dive master, we were all in the water and descending to the ocean floor. Because I don’t have my own dive gear, each time I dive I use the gear provided, and sometimes it either doesn’t fit quite right, or is simply not comfortable, which never results in the best dive. Today, everything fit and felt great and I was completely comfortable in the water and able to focus on the surroundings instead of fiddling with gear.

The clarity was very good and we dove a wall down to a depth of just over a hundred feet. The coral formations were cool, but there were not a ton of fish, although I did see two pretty lion fish together, chilling out amongst some rocks. At the end of this dive we returned to the marina, dropped off some people, picked up new people, changed tanks, and went back out on the water to a different site for the second dive, which was equally good, and provided the yearly diving fix I was hoping for. On the way back to the hotel, I was looking at my dive card and realized that I did my very first dive over 22 years ago. Yikes! Back then I was a diving fanatic and racked up around 60 dives within a few years. Ana also has her diving certification, which she trained for in 1999, in an extinct volcano crater, in El Salvador, and we did quite a few dives together, but she had a really bad dive in the Azores one time and hasn’t enjoyed it much since. She does want to get back into it, so our plan (dream?) is to buy a catamaran and equip it with dive gear and an air compressor so we can dive ourselves, at our leisure, anytime whenever we like. Sounds nice, huh?

I returned to the resort just in time for a light hot dog lunch with the family at the snack bar, after which we spent the rest of the afternoon at the main pool. Magnus, Stella and I got in on a pool volleyball game which was a lot of fun, and then they held this ridiculous bull riding competition where they throw an empty beer keg in the water and you have to balance on it like a bull rider. As I had done this once before in Cuba I knew the trick for staying level and managed to hold on for 35 seconds, blowing away the completion, and was awarded a lovely Cohiba cigar keychain, which I will treasure forever.


The rest of the day proceeded as normal - late afternoon break in the room, kids played tennis, enjoyed a fantastic dinner, had drinks in the lobby, played dice, and watched a bit of the show. Stella and I found a patch of tiles in the lobby that were perfect for hopscotch so we kept ourselves amused for quite some time with that. Then we realized it had the same number of squares as a chessboard so all of us played a sort of checkers game with ourselves as the pieces. That’s the sort of thing that happens when there’s no internet and creativity-sucking devices around. I had so much fun.

Cuba 2019 - Do Your Friends Inspire You?

Before leaving on our trip, I found Jordan Peterson’s book “12 Rules for Life - An Antidote to Chaos” on sale so I bought it. These days I rarely, if ever, buy new books; we usually get them used or from one of the Little Free Libraries. Mostly, I borrow my books from the library in Brantford, and if I find one that I love and know will read again, or if I want the kids to read it in the future, I will buy it. I had a feeling this book may be worth owning, so I took a chance on it. I’m about a quarter of the way through it, but I’m not sure yet it if’s a keeper. Some of the writing is very dense, academic, and difficult to process, while other parts are at written at a much more accessible level. One thing the book does not do is pussyfoot around - he strikes out with bold statements, direct language and painful truths.

The chapter I’ve reached is “Make friends with people that want the best for you”. The idea is simple - don’t spend time with people who drag you down. I have been most fortunate in my life and I don’t ever recall spending significant amounts of time with anybody who I felt had the potential to drag me down. Peterson says it’s easy to surround yourself with people who are inferior to yourself, but much more difficult to be with people who are superior. But to keep growing and progressing in life, I think that is exactly what you need to do.

Late in the afternoon Ana and I left the kids in the room and went down to the lobby for a pre-dinner drink and cigar. And we talked about all the hundreds of people we’ve met over the years and how fortunate we’ve been to meet so many inspiring ones. We’ve lived together in nine countries, and have done our best to maintain long distance friendships with the people who most inspired us. We’ve been settled in Canada now for a long time and continue to try and meet new people and spend time as much time as we can with those that inspire us in some way. This idea is even more important to us now as we see our kids growing and approaching adulthood as we want them to find friends that can challenge them, support them, draw them in new directions, and expose them to their own good habits. So far I think they are doing well, but it is something we pay particular attention to, so this chapter in the book was particularly useful to me.

The day began with a blunder. I’ve been getting up at 6 am every morning to write and drink herbal tea down in the lobby. At that time of day those little no-see-ums are ravenous and love to chomp hungrily on exposed skin, so in my morning stupor I found the bug spray and liberally coated my feet and ankles, but then realized I had grabbed the bottle of sunscreen. But I put on so much I think it must have masked my human smell because I didn’t get any bites and will certainly not suffer any ankle sunburns today.

Ana and I went for a long, slow beach walk at 7 am, enjoying the still air and the glassy, unbroken ocean surface. This is the time of day when the beach keeners all march down to claim the best spots by draping their towels, bags, hats, and sometimes just flip flops, on top of the beach lounger chairs. Every time I see this I threaten to gather up all of these personal items from the chairs and put them into a giant pile, claim a prime spot for myself and then sit back and enjoy the frenzy as the beachgoers finally arrive hours later after their leisurely breakfasts and find their precious spots taken and have to root through the pile for their stuff. Am I evil? Yes I am. Am I too much of a chicken to try it? Yes I am.

The kids and us spent the morning at the beach (in a sub-prime location, but still perfect). Besides the regular swimming and beach combing (finding a gorgeous hermit crab whom we named “Champ”), we also got some sea kayaks and did a long paddle around the rocky shoreline and out beyond the resort. We also wanted to use one of the six-man paddleboats available, but it was extremely hot and we were getting too roasted so we decided to save that for another day.

In the evening we walked down to the Plaza Pesquero for a game of bowling. There seems to be a bowling alley within walking range of every all-inclusive resort in Cuba, and here was no different. Along the way Ana spotted a gigantic, and I mean GIGANTIC, toad poking his head out of a hole in the curb. We tried to entice him out but he was predictably wary and retreated into the safety of the underground before we could take a photo of the magnificent beast. The road leading to the plaza was dark and deserted, which would set off cranial alarm bells and tingling Spidey senses anywhere else in the Caribbean (or perhaps world?), but not in Cuba. There is simply no safer country to visit as Cuba does not tolerate crime, and we know this from experience. One time in Varadero, we had the hubcaps stolen off our rental car, and were advised by our hotel to report it to the police. This resulted in a team of cops being sent to the hotel to perform an intensive investigation, which included sniffer dogs and interviews with hotel staff. That was for sixty bucks worth of hubcaps. On the flip side, do not ever, ever considering doing something illegal in Cuba, because they will catch you and the consequences will be severe. During that same trip, we drove to Havana and back and I was pulled over four times by police for minor traffic infractions. I was able to play the stupid tourist card, and didn’t get fined, but there’s no doubt there are eyes everywhere.

The bowling expedition took us much deeper into the night than usual, and by the time we returned the evening show was well underway. A seven piece a cappella band was ripping it up on the outdoor stage and creating the illusion of a full Cuban band with only their voices. One of them was doing the stand-up bass, one did guitar, one did the flute, another did the drums, another a trumpet, and the last two were the main singers. They were extraordinary musicians.

And then, out of nowhere, the MC shrieked, “It’s time for a Cuban foam party!” As the high volume dance music started pumping, a shiny foam cannon was revealed at the corner of the stage and white gobs of suds erupted from its mouth, spraying foam over everything and everyone nearby. The crowd went wild and people rushed the stage and began dancing uncontrollably. A crazy Cuban foam party ensued and yes, we joined in.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Cuba 2019 - Holguin

In a place where days have no meaning and time is an afterthought, Sunday arrived. Stella reluctantly joined me for my morning walk, but only because I had extracted a promise from her the night before after several days of trying to convince her. She was not disappointed, as we were rewarded with a beautiful, clear, warm day and we walked the expansive shoreline nearly as far as we could go, as we talked together about all sorts of things.

At 9 am, our new taxi-driving friend Osmany Ramirez picked us up and we took off for Holguin. Along the way we asked him all sorts of things about Cuba and he was happy to share his thoughts. During the last term of Obama’s presidency, the US government had begun loosening up the restrictions on Cuba, although didn’t go as far as fully ending the decades old economic embargo. But things looked promising, and filled people with hope on both sides of the dispute. Well, as soon as Trump arrived in office, one of the first thing he did was to stop it all and revert back to the senseless and cruel travel restrictions for no obvious reason besides perhaps bullying. So for now, Cuba will remain the lovely, unique, but economically crippled place that it is.

Holguin was interesting, and like all Cuban cities we’ve visited, quite run down. The roads were filled with cars, people, bicycle taxis and lots and lots of horses. We spent a couple of hours simply walking around downtown, exploring, popping into the many shops, and just poking around. Strangely, we seemed to be the only tourists around (at least the only obvious ones wearing tacky resort wristbands). We visited a library full of extremely beaten up books, an art gallery,  a cultural centre and found the museum of natural history but it was closed. Most interesting were the government shops, where the sparse inventory was displayed in antique wooden cabinets with glass tops so that you couldn’t touch any of the stuff. Some items were displayed behind the counters on old wooden shelving. What sort of things? A single pair of underwear, a few pairs of socks, a few sets of bedsheets, dish detergent, soap, various household items (but only one or two of each item), and even some plumbing supplies, but only a small number of fittings as opposed to the typical Home Depot shelf of fifty-thousand couplers, fittings, unions and pipes. It is all very strange, but the shops were packed full of people, and in some cases they were lined up outside, waiting to get in. Communism at its best.

We stopped for a cold drink at a lookout point called Loma de la Cruz, which sports a two-hundred-year old wooden Spanish cross and offers lovely vistas over Holguin and the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately the aggressive few vendors there were a pain in the ass so we didn’t stay long. The ride back to the hotel was nearly free of conversation as all four of us were bobbing heads and nodding off sporadically. This bit of activity clearly put too much of a strain on our weary bodies.


The rest of the day was great - beach, pool, hammocks (where Magnus nearly got brained by a falling coconut), tennis, an hour of internet in the lobby (first of the trip…and hopefully last), and then finally another great meal at a Cuban-themed a la carte restaurant.