Category Archives: Caribbean

Guava Cream Pie and Sunlight Addiction

Our last few spring breaks have been quite cold. Our school district has spring break every April. Last April, we skied in Vermont; in 2014, we went in Iceland—beautiful and absolutely worth a repeat visit, but cold; in 2013, we were in Japan enjoying spring chill and cherry blossoms; in 2012 we were in Quebec freezing our butts off and warming up over pots of maple fondue, in 2011, we went to Cancun and Isla Mujeres, and in 2010, we visited Key West, Florida, more traditional spring break routes.

Growing up along the Great Lakes in the Snow Belt, that frigid stretch of the Northeastern United states that gets pummeled with “lake effect snow,” spring break always meant more than just a vacation. It was that much-anticipated week where you went somewhere to thaw out after months of cabin fever caused by playing too many board games or watching too much TV. You were sick of shoveling snow, helping your parents scrape ice off the car, and being yelled at by your mother for tracking dirty snow into the house from your snow boots. Spring break was synonymous with wearing fewer clothes, getting sunburned, leaping into giant, Smurf-blue swimming pools and drinking drinks made of colors too bright to exist back home, for who anyone north of Florida drinks Curaçao, that Windex-hued liquer flavored with laraha citrus?

I lived vicariously through other people’s interpretations of spring break. My family did not take springtime vacations, and we certainly didn’t go anywhere, not even anywhere nearby, to pass the school breaks. There was no money. Sometimes we went to a museum but most often we were left to fill our days on our own. I always felt jealous of the kids whose families flew to Florida for spring break, and to this day, I still find palm trees exotic despite having been around them now in several different countries. When I joke to friends that “palm trees give me the feels,” I mean it, because those shaggy fronds signal I’m somewhere else. In two years, we are hopefully moving to Los Angeles where I will wake up to palm trees and have the feels every day.

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Palm trees are obviously a big part of the scenery at Great Exuma Island, one of dozens of islands in the Bahamas where we spent last week. Exuma is breathtakingly photogenic, and I Instagrammed the hell out of it. Now that I think of it, anywhere in the Caribbean gives me the feels; I’m always happy there. I mean this emotionally as well as biologically; I have seasonal affective disorder, and my vitamin D and serotonin levels were soaring in the Bahamas last week. I could feel the release. Less rumination. Less worrying. Sunshine is good for the soul. I loved sitting out on the front deck of our rented cottage and getting pummeled by sunlight. I loved admiring the trees’ silhouettes against a backdrop where sea and sky were almost the same shade of blue. I have a crush on the word “cerulean,” and that’s the word I kept thinking of while in Exuma, a chain of islands home to just 7,300 people, a place that is part of a much larger archipelago originally called Baja Mar or low seas. It is indeed very shallow in the Bahamas, a region where the focus is outward, towards the water, where people move more by yacht or catamaran or dingy. The commercialized Caribbean vibe makes it easy to forget the Bahamas was once the gateway to the New World, when one day that probably started out like all other days, a stranger in a boat approached. In 1492, Christopher Columbus first spotted what is now called San Salvador Island, about 93 miles from where we rented our cottage. The Caribbean hasn’t been the same since.

People—usually pale Americans, Canadians and Europeans—go to the Caribbean to do the following: snorkel, dive, boat, fish, sunbathe, and, later in the day, eat the things you saw while snorkeling, diving or fishing. I could live like this for months, but spring break is only a week long. We snorkeled almost every day we were in Great Exuma Island, either off our private cove, in Elizabeth Harbour near Stocking Island, or near some of the smaller cays where a red-faced, old-time Bahamian guy named Ray took us out on a boat tour. We swam with the famous wild pigs of Exuma, who have their own Instagram feed, and held piglets born on Valentine’s Day. Twice, we snorkeled small coral reefs, and once you were mask-down, you saw the cast of “Finding Nemo” going about their business; fish of every size and color, some striped, some shinier than others, some bug-eyed, some darting about like over-caffeinated New Yorkers late for something, some just sashaying about, and some slowly circling yellow or dark-orange colored brain corals. We quickly discovered that swimming with the fishes in the Bahamas means something entirely different from swimming with the fishes in New York.

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Breathing through my snorkeling tube, I wondered what the fish thought of all these people coming through and spying on them. We held living starfishes big and small, we found sand dollars, we saw a barracuda swim past our boat, we saw conchs that still had their meat on them—and were hoping to get through the day without getting caught, for conch fritters and conch salad are on every menu everywhere around Exuma. Also on the menu: guava cream pie at the Driftwood Cafe in downtown George Town, where they also serve a delicious black bean burger. On three different occasions, I ate guava cream pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Pie does work as a side dish at any meal.

My daughter is not an adventurous eater, and I couldn’t interest her in the guava cream pie, but she’s adventurous in other ways. I could tell she was getting brave in the water. After a year on swim team, she was able to take full advantage of the snorkeling opportunities we had last week, and swimming has given her such confidence, that she started diving for shells and curiously poking around the reef to see more. We had taken her snorkeling in Key West six years ago, and tried to show her how to feed bits of pineapple to the fish, but she lasted less than 10 minutes in the water before freaking out. Last week, we had to beg her to get back on the boat, and once seated next to me, her skin pruned from a great time in the salt water, she smelled like a bag of potato chips.

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I tried to memorize the colors of the Bahamas during our visit, for even while swimming through these colors, I knew as soon as I got back to suburban New York City, I would miss the high these colors delivered. However, Great Exuma Island wasn’t all beauty all the time—there’s no recycling program, and I tried to pack our emptied plastics and bottles, but they wouldn’t fit in our suitcases. I also wondered about the local waste management system since garbage was everywhere. It’s an island of mixed development, with pockets of poverty alongside flamingo-pink administrative buildings and an old yellow school with not much of a playground. These buildings are just down the road from only a few major resorts such as Sandals and Grand Isle Resort, all connected by the “Queen’s Highway” as it is known, one long paved road running down the middle of the island, which also joins Great Exuma to Little Exuma via a one-lane, one-way bridge. From the Queen’s Highway are countless unpaved roads filled with potholes, which was how we got to our cottage. We chose to vacation on Great Exuma Island because we didn’t want to hang out in a resort bubble. I didn’t want to interact with resort staff. Instead, I chatted up locals when I could, asking a conch fisherman about where he dives for dinner, and talked to a guy selling produce out of the back of his pickup truck what days of the week he came through George Town. Everyone we met was exceptionally friendly.

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Being out of that bubble meant seeing some things that were upsetting, like piles of garbage or abandoned, rusting school buses or cars left at the side of the road, or empty homes with windows punched out like broken teeth. Yet it also meant unadulterated beauty and wandering the Tropic of Cancer beach on your own, a crescent of white powdery sand that’s at 23 degrees latitude and is going to get super-hot when the Summer Equinox rolls around in two months. The Tropic of Cancer beach is easy to miss, and we mistakenly drove by it twice. The painted line that you can straddle for your photo-op was once blue and is now bleached by the sun; it’s as understated as the fading signpost by the road indicating the Tropic of Cancer was just ahead. What was most impressive about this beach was not the imaginary line that runs across it, but how unsullied it was by anything or anyone. The Bahamians call it a “footprint-free” beach, and they’re not kidding; any footprints made are your own, and quickly disappear with the tide. Jersey Shore beaches are as crowded as highways, often barely a square foot of sand to pitch an umbrella, but here, my daughter ran races against her father and skipped around. The Tropic of Cancer Beach was one of the most beautiful swaths of land and landscape we had ever seen, and yet there were only two adults reading on the sand, two teen boys playing in the water, and that was it for a late Thursday afternoon. No conch fisherman. No rusting boats. No garbage in any direction. No paddleboarders or swimmers. No one standing over a cookout. And certainly nothing that characterizes most American East Coast beaches: no fried dough vendors or saltwater taffy stands or lifeguards looking bored by the job. Just a strip of sand being licked by soft waves of salt water. Just a beach the way beaches used to look.

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Reluctant Hibernation

I act like a bear in January. I cocoon on my sofa far too much and leave it reluctantly, unless, of course, I’ve got a salsa lesson, which is the best half-hour of the week. When not at salsa class (yes, some bears do dance), I skulk about our house looking for snacks—often, and I’m not joking here—smoked salmon. Fish is good for the brain and in the winter, my brain chemistry needs all the help it can get. January slays me every year (February, too, but I perk up knowing Daylight Savings and spring are just around the corner). If I could sleep away winter like bears do, I might, though I know no one would scoop the cat litter box while I hibernated. (I was disappointed to learn bears actually don’t hibernate as much as urban myth would have us believe. They’re out there in the woods, putting in the hours, which makes me think I need to get off the sofa more.)

What keeps me afloat this January is that starting in March and going into mid-May, I’ll be visiting some very gorgeous, warm places. I’ve been accepted to Sirenland, which still blows my mind, and despite a hatred (yes, hatred) of flying, I’m flying to Italy because no one has yet invented the technology to beam me there. Since I redeemed miles to make the trip, my journey is anything but direct. First I’ll be flying into Zurich, Switzerland, where I’ll spend a few days walking off a sedative hangover. Then I take a train through the Swiss Alps to Naples, Italy, which, honestly, I’m pretty stoked about. The distance is like training it from New York City to Buffalo; the idea of sitting on a train snaking through Europe will make me feel 25 again. I’m okay with this. Once in Naples, I join my fellow Sirenlanders and we pile into cars and make our way to Le Sirenuse in Positano, a jewel along Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Here, I’m expecting symptoms of Impostor Syndrome to strike—and to hit hard. Italian wine consumed in socially-acceptable doses will help.

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Then in April, a four-day family spring break to Exuma, the Bahamas, because last spring break, we skied in Vermont and froze our butts off, making it feel like a repeated winter break as opposed to a true spring break. There’s a place in Exuma where we can swim with wild pigs. The pigs in Vermont are either rolling in cold mud or are transformed into charcuterie. The pigs in the Bahamas are clearly having more fun. I decided on a house rental here instead of doing the classic Caribbean-style resort. I spent four days at a resort in Mexico this past October (more on that another time), and I’m resorted-out. If I have to forage for meals every day with a house rental, so be it.

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Which brings us to May, when I leave for Havana. Oh my gosh…people, I am giddy about this trip.

Thanks to President Obama relaxing some travel restrictions, among other factors, Havana is a city in flux right now. I’m going as part of the Cuba Writers Program. In November, I started salsa lessons because I decided I can’t go back to Cuba (I was there on assignment in 2003), and not dance. When I was there 12 years ago, music was everywhere; people danced in streets, in bars, along the Melacon. I’m not a keep-the-barstool-warm kind of gal anyway. I’ve had five lessons so far with a young Colombian-American guy who is sunshine in shoes. Salsa is a mood-lifter, better than Xanax, tequila, walking in sunlight or mocking bad poetry. It is the perfect antidote to January. What I’ve learned from signing up for dance lessons is that I need to keep dancing.

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I’ll be home May 19, and after that, not really going anywhere for a while. Yes, maybe back to California in August, and always back to the Adirondacks. We can’t really afford all this travel—it’s not cheap—but when you get accepted to prestigious writing conferences, you pull out the plastic and go. And then you get the bill and spend your summer living off library DVDs and eating spaghetti knowing it was all worth it.

While eating cheap and mooching off the local library, I’ll spend the rest of the summer thinking “Was I really there???” And that’s why you take photos when you travel. It’s not to show off or maintain your perfect life via social media. It’s because the Earth is an extraordinary mix of contradictions; it is beauty and struggle; it feels large and small at the same time; it has rhythms that we’ve learned to predict and behaviors that continue to confound; it is hot and cold, harsh yet serene. The places we visit and love change like people, so to remember these places, you need a camera. Photos thread who we were then with who we are now, allowing us to look back and see ourselves sunbathing on that beautiful beach, hiking that huge mountain, posing in front of that yellowing, historic building, so we can say “Really, I was there.”

(PS: I didn’t take these photos. They came from that fascinating Black Hole known as the Internet.)

Remembering the Cuba I Visited

Last year while walking underground through Montreal’s subway tunnels, I became extremely jealous of Canadians. I’ve always liked them but now I suddenly resented them. There, plastered before us while we waited in sub-zero temperatures for our train was a massive ad promoting a sunny beach vacation in Cuba.

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The ad displayed the usual eye-catching tropical hues of blues and oranges and yellows. I wanted to walk right into that poster. I wanted what the Canadians had, the freedom to pack sunscreen, fly directly to Havana, bask on Cuba’s pristine beaches, shimmy to bachata music in the streets of Havana, dine on “Moros y Cristianos” and slippery pork sandwiches, and buy whatever else fancied them without worrying about not having purchase power.

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It wasn’t that way when Mike and I went to Cuba in 2003. We flew through Cancun. Our connecting flights on Air Mexicana were purchased in Mexico. We arrived at 1 am in pitch dark. There were Che Guevara posters and murals everywhere. Everyone smiled and no one stamped our passports. Without credit cards or any access to our money, we had to make the cash stashed in our various pockets last the week. No splurging. We counted pennies and mojitos (just one per meal to stay within budget). What we didn’t account for was that the beachfront hotel where we were supposed to stay had gone out of business. Our cab driver, a young sympathetic guy who actually carried a cell phone, took us to another beachfront hotel that cost a bit more. We could swing it, but it would be tight. And it was. But what a week.

What I remember most about Cuba is its unblemished beaches, sand so white and fluffy it looked like fresh snow fall. The water was that distinct Caribbean blue you can’t find anywhere else in the world. This was the cleanest beach I had ever seen and covered with Canadians and Germans sprawled out on towels and blankets. I remember the fully-suited guards surveying the water with their binoculars, strolling the sand. One came up to me to inform me in rapid Spanish to close up my purse. I remember a beach vendor selling Pringles potato chips, that the beer was about $1, that old men really do play chess all day in Havana, that the chicken dishes I ate in Cuba tasted very chewy and stringy, and that the coffee was phenomenal and made me want to pull up a chair next to those abuelos, sip coffee and play chess til the sun went down.

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Today’s news from President Obama brought this all back. I never understood this mid-century trade embargo with Cuba and it appears millions of others never did either. We always kept trade going with China despite their human rights record while this bizarre, dysfunctional relationship with an island nation 90 miles from US borders needlessly withered. Meanwhile, the Cubans developed a kind of perseverance and resilience and resourcefulness that can only grow from living without, raising generations of MacGyvers who can readily take a bunch of random objects like a battery, an old toothbrush and a spare tire and make a functioning machine. Seriously, you won’t find a better mechanic on the planet than those tinkering in Cuba.

I want US-Cuba relations to normalize, if that’s the word we’re going to use, but at the same time I don’t want Cuba to become the next Punta Cana pit stop. What will the “new normal” with Cuba look like? Las Vegas in the Caribbean? I was drawn to Cuba while walking around Vienna in 2002; I saw a magazine cover story about Havana’s colonial architecture crumbling. Cuba did not have the money to preserve its own history and its yellowed, cracked buildings were slowly collapsing with age. I traveled to Havana as a journalist the following year because I wanted to see what might not be visible for much longer: 17th century architecture, those 1950s classic cars, streets free of McDonalds and Starbucks. You know how hard it is to travel the world and not trip over an American retailer? I’ve only visited two places so far where I didn’t have American capitalism in my face: Isla Isabela in the Galapagos and Cuba. Cuba is old and beautiful and I want it to stay old and beautiful, though I know that’s an unfair demand. Yet, still I worry about what’s going to happen now. American corporate sugar daddies were just waiting for this moment, for a new generation of leaders to scratch their heads and ask “does anyone recall what we were fighting about?”. Economic prosperity is for everyone everywhere, but I’ll selfishly admit here on the Internet: I hope Cuba says no thanks, or at least doesn’t permit American businesses to overrun what makes Cuba so Cuban.

So how did I leave things with Cuba? Money was squeaky that week, but Mike and I made it back to Mexico with 15 cents to spare. By the time our six days were up, we had just enough money to cover a cheap lunch at the airport, which was a sandwich and an ice cream that we split, plus our airport departure tax for two. I had to pee before boarding, so I went to an airport bathroom and bought some single-ply toilet paper from the attendant because the stalls didn’t provide freebies. Mike thought that was a bit of a binge–that I’ve gone in the woods without toilet paper before–why did I have to blow money on some wipes now? But I just couldn’t fly back to Mexico feeling that way so I gave the attendant the coins I had left in my pocket and she gave me back 15 cents because I had overpaid her. Flushing my last bit of spare change now didn’t feel so hard. We left Cuba with 15 cents between the two of us, which was 15 cents more than what I expected to leave with so I felt like a winner walking out of a casino. About two hours later when we were settled into our hotel at Cancun, we ordered a massive dinner, too many daiquiris and charged it to our credit card. We were back in full capitalistic action with that youthful feeling that anything in the world was ours again if we could afford it. But I admit, feeling broke in Cuba gave me a bit of a thrill. Now with the embargo set to lift, American tourists can buy all the toilet paper in Cuba they want, wiping without worry, but they won’t appreciate it the way we travelers did under the embargo.

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