Wednesday, April 29, 2009

SoapBox Week in Cuba - Vacation Aspect

Arriving in Cuba wasn't much different than what other traveling (the amount is not large tho I've had the chance to do more than many I suppose) I have done. The airport in Varadero was similar in size to the airport I left from here in Alberta. The customs officials were typical in surliness and lack of communication (other than barked directives which I always make the mistake of trying to ask clarification about...) and then I got my standard selection for "random" questioning/inspection. Oh well, it might happen every time I travel but at least I've never had to bend over in a dimly lit room (knock on wood).

Anyway, it really wasn't that big a deal but I did find it interesting that these people always seem to think that if I WAS a drug dealer or smuggler I'd give up that fact if only the question were repeated 3 times with increasing strenuousness.

So once the questions were done and the momentary nervousness/frustrated anger passed, out I went into the glorious heat of Cuban spring, joining my family once more...not to be hassled again throughout the entire stay. About 20 minutes later we reached our resort (Sol Palmeras All Inclusive - I recommend this place for sure) and younger brother, who had arranged the whole thing, greets us with Rum Punches at the check in desk.

That night consisted of meeting the non-relatives who were attending the ceremony and catching up with some old friends of my brother, as well as some relatives who had already made it there. It had been a few years since I had been near the equator ( I did 2 cruise ship contracts in the South Caribbean in 2002 and 2003) and it was delightful to be back in the heat, the warm ocean and hot sand just a few feet away, and the undescribably rejuvenating quality of the fresh ocean breeze. Even my father was fairly immediately relaxed and he was the furthest from his farm that he has ever been, and for the longest time ever.

The next morning, Monday morning, I woke up (at around 5 am of all the ridiculous times) to the sound of song birds just outside my window. The time might have been ridiculous, but the music made it impossible to be frustrated and I spent the next few hours just laying there alternating between reading and light snoozing. Most people want to be up making the most of their time as immediately as possible but I like to let the air of a new place kind of settle into my lungs if I can. Luckily time moves at about 1/2 pace in Cuba and my week really did feel like 2, or maybe even 3.

So, guessing at the time since I didn't take a watch along and didn't feel like dealing with cell phone or laptop or mp3 player, I snapped a few pictures of the suite and the view from the balcony (including the above picture) and then wandered downstairs to learn that it was just after 9 am and I had just missed the breakfast buffet. Oh well, I don't often eat breakfast anyway, and my appetite goes way down in the heat anyway, so off I go, out into the morning heat of a gloriously clear Cuban morning.

This first full day was spent catching up with family and making new friends with my brother's and his fiance's entourage. Lolled around all day, couple trips down to the beach but mostly just hanging out and drinking orange juice in the pool/sunbathing area.

I must make special mention of one new friend I made that Monday. My aunt had traveled with her good friend and roommate, who introduced me to a book that was published in the 70's yet remained unknown to me but which fit well with much of my thinking and with one of the main themes of this blog, that being a conscious blending of sociological development with ecological concerns. "Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston" by Ernest Callenbach may be familiar to some readers here, but it was delightfully new to me and I actually found that it mirrored parts of what I can only call the spirit of Cuba. I finished it over the next 3 days, a very quick and enjoyable read that I suggest to everyone. Thanks to Maria for introducing me.

That evening, more socialising morphed into the one night of the trip where your friendly neighbourhood SoapBoxTech got into a little too much Cerveza and Rum. This made for a fun night but a painful next morning as there was an 8am departure time for the group tour my brother had arranged for Havana. This tour was the first of what I am calling the cultural exploration aspect of this trip. I am going to cover this aspect of my trip in the next post so I'm not going to get into Havana right now anymore than to say the first few hours was incredibly painful but thank goodness I didn't make any messes or pass out anywhere.

Back to the vacation/wedding aspect...

By Wednesday it was clear that I was only going to have that Wednesday and the Saturday to do much personal exploring of the island, but it was also clear that I probably could not afford this exploring so I settled into relaxing and enjoying the resort as much as possible. After the long and somewhat painful Tuesday, I spent a good part of Wednesday reading and snoozing in a lightly shaded hammock down toward the beach. I cannot easily describe just how relaxing I found this environment, with few screaming children and many singing birds.

Thursday was wedding day and while I will write about one portion of this day in the next post about the cultural aspect of my trip, there isn't much else for me to share here. It was a beautiful day, however.

Friday was my mom's birthday and her brother and his wife's anniversary so all of mom's side of the family who made the trip, spent the day on a nice Catamaran tour. This was a nice day, but definitely full-on "vacation mode". The first part of the day was a jaunt to a facility where guests could swim with dolphins. I took part in this, and it was pretty cool, but I would have much preferred to be sharing the water with wild dolphins as opposed to trained.

After this stop, the catamaran tour made its way to a scuba diving location, but I sat that one out thanks to wearing glasses. More stunning scenery on the way though, including being accompanied by wild dolphins for a portion of the trip.

Then it was back en route to our lunch spot, a stunning and quiet stretch of white sand beach which also contained the obligatory restaurant/bar. Obviously this is an increasingly popular location as a 2nd pier was being put in as the picture shows. One of my little cousins found a starfish in the surf here and I got to show them I could tell it was alive by ever so slightly prying it open to reveal the moving hydraulic suckers that starfish use to move. I did find it a bit disconcerting that out of at least 10 adults in the vicinity I was the only one able to tell if the thing was alive.

After a couple hours here, it was time to head back to the main pier, then our bus back to the resort. Even with lots of sunscreen, this was a sunburn day for most everyone. Great day though, and I think a good birthday/anniversary. One last moment to one point, I felt a little scritching at my elbow. Looking back, I discovered this little cutie grinning at me. I hope it wasn't me that turned the grin so quickly into the grimace.

And that, dear readers, about sums up the vacation aspect of my week in Cuba. Next up, the cultural exploration aspect of the trip, and it has been my intention to leave the best for least in terms of what I found to be the best part of the trip (other than the wedding of course).

Until later. Peace and comfort folks...please be careful and good to each other in this recently even more scary, crazy, old world.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A SoapBox Brief History of Cuba

When North Americans think of Cuba, over the past 30 years or so, the first thought is often of a nation oppressed by fascist communism. The reality is, Cuba is a country which has been oppressed by exterior forces since "Discovery" by Columbus. Spanish plantation owners were the first to enslave the local "indian" population native to Cuba at the time, basically wiping it out through over-work. The diminutive natives were hardly suited to the difficult labor of manual sugarcane harvesting and processing. Once these initial human energy reserves were exhausted, black slaves were imported from the West Indies, their forms being larger and hardier and thereby more "suitable" for such labor.

At this point, certain "Cuban heroes" began to emerge. Rare wealthy landowners began to have conscience problems and, as in parts of colonial America, they began to turn their holdings over to their workers while trying to instill in them a sense of ownership and patriotism to Cuba. These workers were taught the importance of freedom along with the skills and determination to defend this freedom. This quickly led to Cuba's first "revolucion", which started Cuba toward eventually earning their independence from Spain.

Cubans seem to be intensely proud of this revolutionary history, yet there is little knowledge of or at least attention to the fact that the US was a strong supporter of this first revolution (thanks to the Spanish-American War). This support led to the Platt Amendment, basically placing Cuba under American protection/scrutiny and turning over control of certain Cuban lands to US control (including Guantanamo Bay which remains US soil). Following Independence, Cuba spent around 30 years in political turmoil, finally coming under control of its first Dictator, Gerardo Machado. Machado was fairly quickly unseated and a provisional government established under the leadership of Carlos Manuel de C├ęspedes (whose father had proclaimed Cuban independence in 1868, as one of those afore-mentioned "heroes"). Closely involved in this uprising was military man Fulgencio Batista who eventually overthrew this provisional government and established his own ongoing dictatorial and corrupt regime which lasted into the 1950's and led to violent opposition from many sources, including a young lawyer named Fidel Castro.

Given the ongoing socialist movement in Cuba, originated by those few conscientious Spanish cum Cuban plantation owners, it should be no surprise that Cuba became one of the prime regions for Communist involvement in Latin America in the 1950s and 60's. Cuba's proximity to the US made it a very inviting location to the Soviet Union, as did the sugar processing infrastructure which had been set up by American capitalists. If Castro and Guevara had NOT been pro-communist movement, it may well have been that the Soviet Union would have expended much energy in trying to take Cuba by force. As it was, Castro's Cuba joined forces with the Soviets and Cuban agriculture and architecture quickly showed Soviet control and/or influence. Cuba still shows signs of this switch from US to Soviet "oversight", as thousands of vintage US vehicles still fill the roads of Cuba, left behind after the expulsion of capitalists from Cuba.

To Cubans, the last battle for their independence was against the US in what is known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revoluci├│n) in Old Havana is filled with remnants of this battle, including the engine of a Lockheed U-2 spyplane which was shot down. Cubans are fiercely proud of the outcome of this battle, seeing themselves as the first country able to resist the might of the post WW2 US. Actually, Cuba is fiercely proud of its independence in general. Street decorations in all the towns and cities that I saw contained relics of Cuba's many battles for independence, mostly old Spanish cannons and cannonballs.

I am ashamed to say that I was aware of very little of this information, beyond the general "history class" stuff, prior to my trip this fascinating island. Having been, I am now very eager to learn more of this history and I am desperate to return and talk to more people. I will write of my too-short experience there, but I wanted to get some of this historical stuff down first, as a bit of a foundation. Cuba also contains a very interesting history of the ongoing relationships between capitalism and socialism over the past hundred years or so. More to come on this later as the discussion/presentation could be lengthy.

Until later. Peace and comfort to all.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Back to BS

I promise there is more coming about Cuba and the trip but something came up today, locally, that I need to share.

Doesn't this look for all the world like an erupting garbage volcano?

We have a nasty wind blowing here today. It began last evening with a vicious dust storm and then backed off slightly to the gale we have now. So I thought I would trudge down to the marsh-side, which is directly downwind of the landfill that I've mentioned a few times before, to see what sort of mess things were. It was even worse than I expected.

I took a bunch of video as well, which I will try to edit together into something. However, I only have a digital still camera so the video quality is not great, nor is the sound. And careful of the volume!! It seems to be very loud and its VERY windy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Home Again, Home Again

Wow, what a week.

I got home from Cuba yesterday and there's so much to write about, I don't even know where to start. I suspect I have a few different posts in me, after such an inspirational time, but I best start with the whole reason for the brother's wedding.

Other than my inability to square up the ring box in the little photo display I set up, this was a pretty cool wedding. It's funny, the wedding happened mostly because my brother is somewhat traditionalist yet this was not really what most would consider a traditional wedding. For one thing, I stood up for his fiance and our sister stood up for my brother. For another, the ceremony was performed by a Justice and in Spanish...when all the attendees spoke English or German. The wedding planner did provide translation but the whole thing took place on the beach so no one but the bride and groom could hear much of what was being said anyway. I loved it, quirky yet beautiful.

I always knew I had a great little brother, but to see that around 45 people traveled that far to be there for his wedding really showed the kind of effect he has on people. One friend of the bride and groom had to travel 40 hours from Malaysia to be part of it. Sweet vacation being part of the deal or not, that is friendship! (Granted, it helps that many of his friends work in nice gigs in the oil and gas industry)

I don't really know exactly how to say this next part, other than to say that I think he has found himself a fine wife and he has brought some fine people into our extended family. I've now had the chance to speak to his wife a fair deal and I think she's a pretty clever woman, and she obviously loves my brother immensely (which is really all that matters). Her family and friends all ganged up and made me promise to visit Berlin as soon as possible, but it was not a difficult promise to make, as lovely as they all are. I have to start learning German now I guess. Not really fair to expect them to do all the adjusting.

I woke up yesterday morning with a growing chest and head cold, so I'm going to keep this post short. Much more to come tho. Let me just say now however...I only got to see so much in one week, but I am developing a fond respect for Cuba and its people. It became very easy to see why Ernest Hemingway loved the island so much, and found so much inspiration there. It was the same for me.

More to come. Peace and comfort to all.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Spring! And Cuba!

Spring seems to be settling in here finally. With no frost at night, odd for so early, much of the snow is melted other than where it has been piled. In the country side, a winter's worth of road clearing results in miles of lengths of ice which can take into May to completely melt. Melt water runs along these ice channels in the ditches, often flooding across the road completely.

Since our farm lies along the edge of a large marsh-lake, much local runoff makes its way to the lake via our property. If the County does its job and opens a channel to the road allowance, much of this water could run straight down the road allowance ditch and into the lake. As this picture shows, the County rarely does its job, so Dad has been out with his tractor, trying to open it from the other end.

So for as long as I can remember, spring has meant a yard full of water. And since the new(er) house went in 15 or so years ago, this flooding often comes dangerously close to flooding the septic tank.

This year, nature selected a slightly different path to reach the partial creek that runs through our yard.

Years of this spring flooding has carved a partial ditch through our yard, but the ends of the ditch are both flat and the run off water floods as the above picture shows. So for some time now I have been trying to convince my folks to rent a backhoe for a couple of days so that I could extend this runoff ditch at both ends. This would give us a lovely creek that runs through the yard in spring and after heavy rains, adding value to the property and doing much to remove the threat of spring flooding and having to rely on the county to clear the road allowance ditch. Mom and I have also been talking about trying to design a pool in the low part of the yard, where spring run off first enters our property from the roadside ditch.

Maybe I can convince them this year after the plumbing excavation is done. Just one more thing I'd like to do this year...and the list is long. Good thing its a 3 year list.

This does mean that I will likely be posting less often. Or maybe not. After all, its not like the world looks to be calming down any.

For the next week, however, posts will be very few as I am heading to Cuba tomorrow. My younger brother is getting married, and thanks to his lovely fossil fuel exploitation salary, the immediate family gets a lovely vacation out of the deal. As I have mentioned before, there is a bit of guilt in this for me...with so many who have lost everything, its just a little hard to reconcile a trip like this. But on the positive side, Cuba is a country that I very much want to see. I am hoping to get a chance to do some exploring and really get a first-hand look at how agrarian communities are set up there. Obviously I am also keen to have a look at all the urban agriculture for which Cuba is becoming famous. I'm quite excited to have this opportunity, and thankful to my brother for it. I will post upload pictures from the trip and post a link upon my return.

Peace and comfort to all.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Body in 2057

I stumbled across a Discovery Channel series on Youtube over the weekend that I want to share.

The 2057 is a presentation of a 50 year extrapolation of our developed society, based on current research and social memes. The video linked here is a look at the individual human body in 2057, in terms of medicine, clothing, shelter and a taste of social development. Not to foreshadow too much, but it is the social development suggestions which I found troubling.

Beyond that, I am not going to comment in the blog itself but instead I will put my initial thoughts in the comment section. I am hoping that people will view the 40-some minute production and leave their thoughts in the comments section as well.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Cycle of Life

Spring is usually filled with new life, both in wilderness and in domestication, but anyone who is connected with nature knows that death is an intricate part of life. This sometimes means that some new lives do not last very long at all. So those of us who live any kind of agrarian lifestyle also know that the joy of spring is sometimes tempered by the sorrow of young lives passing quicker than seems right.

This spring is no different on our farm. Most of dad`s few cows have been calving over the past week and a half. While this has led to 8 beautiful young calves running around, we did lose one a few days back. We were wondering if there might be issues for this particular cow but money is tight and that means limited veterinarian support. We did have one set of twins so everything is balanced, but it is always sad nonetheless (not to mention the lost income makes improving the farm all the harder).

But I did learn something out of the situation. I had asked dad the day after the stillbirth, if he wanted me to come and help him remove the dead calf. He said yes, but that we needed to wait 2 or 3 days so that the mother would be less upset. Lesson learned, I had thought that she`d be upset if we did not clear it out soon. Now I know better for when it is my situation to handle.

So today we removed the poor deceased critter. Apparently, one is supposed to bury such cadavers but we have so much carrion wildlife around that it seems ridiculous to not allow the cycle of life to continue. So off to the bush we went. I got another lesson in how horribly out of shape I am, as I struggled through much deeper snow that I had thought (ass deep if you`re curious). But once it was suitably placed I took a quiet moment to kind of wish its spirit well and to thank Nature for its cycle of life. Unfortunately I was a little too distracted by heavy wheezing for the kind of moment I had intended, but at least I remembered to take it.

This may seem macabre to some, but I was uplifted and felt peaceful when I drove past that stand of trees on my way back home and saw that the crows and ravens were already beginning the cycle of redistributing that life energy. It reminded me that as short as was that critter`s life, its passing means other life can continue and flourish. Soon the coyotes would have moved in and taken their share. After they were done the carrion birds would return and finish the macro decomposition. By the time spring sets in fully, there will be little remaining but bones and some sinew. This will draw the worms and the microbes. In time, even the bones will likely decompose into their various elements, to settle back into the soil, allowing yet more life to flourish.

Such is the blessed cycle of life.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

To Hell With Public Relations

Rant time.

I was going to do a cute, light April Fool's Day post about giving up on trying to make a difference and that I was just going to go back to a nice easy life of floating around the Caribbean pressing buttons on a lighting console until I saved enough to buy part of some beachside club somewhere. But I don't think I can be that kind of light right now.

Just a warning, this rant is probably going to contain some explicit language. Actually I know it will, because I am sick and fucking tired of being "sold at". I'm tired of slogans and icons and spokespeople and masking lack of action on issues by simply slapping a more politically correct name on them. I'm tired of having to spend time and/or money in order to avoid constant advertising attacks at almost every point in my day. Even if I was able to avoid these direct attacks, there are the advertising signs on EVERYTHING (thankfully books remain primarily free of this sort of visual pollution).

Then there's "public relations". This is a clever term for "public pacification". Public relations is the field devoted to making customers and investors believe that someone has their individual best interests at heart. It's the department responsible for finding some way of trying to convince you that the poison they want you to buy is good for you.

Every day I grow more and more disgusted with advertising and public relations, both forced and passive. I doubt I am alone in this, but I wonder just how many people have any kind of clue as to just how much energy is put into selling us crap that we don't really need, and making choices that really only serve to make some selfish bastards rich.

Now this rant was indeed triggered by something. It was triggered by learning that there is no longer a War on Terror. Change has indeed come, but who was guessing it would just be a change in name and, perhaps, tone. Indeed I would love to see an end to war, and I must admit that 'Overseas Contingency Operation' sounds a little more mature but isn't this just another case of public relations? They even have the White House public relations asshole saying that the name change hasn't actually happened. Just like a hardcore salesperson to claim they aren't actually trying to sell something.

It's not all the consumer's fault as so many will suggest. Selling has become a science. I would bet that significantly more research money is spent on new selling techniques, than is spent on curing cancer for example. When an entire industry is built purely on ruthless selling, not what is being sold, it's not hard to see how things can get out of hand.

Now, just for clarity, I want to point out that I am not against all advertising, nor against sales in general. I would be a hypocrite to do so, as I plan to sell things and market products. I just don't see why we have to have such a problem with exercising a bit of fucking moderation or with refusing to buy anything but quality, long lasting, non-toxic products.

I'm not going to suggest solutions here. I think most readers know what the solution is and that its going to be slow in the coming, if it does at all. I just had to get this off my chest. I can only handle so much of the constant and increasing pushing and pulling.

Maybe tomorrow I'll go see if enough snow has melted that I can hike into our forest a bit. Nature isn't trying to sell anything but balance. On that note, I should mention that it was a gorgeous day today, enough for shorts even! And I heard geese yesterday so it seems spring may actually be returning this year after all. Just saying that makes me feel lighter.

Peace and comfort to all. And happy April Fools, remember moderation in your pranks.