The Weekend Collection

A small collection of good things to read and watch (didn’t have much time to listen last week) when time allows.

Read: I have a great deal of admiration for David Letterman. He’s an intelligent, very funny guy with a lot of class. All of that shows through in this conversation in which he offers his assessment of the current political landscape from his perch in retirement. The beard is still weird. (about 32 minutes)

Read: You go to a theater and probably don’t think about the device being used to project the movie. Unless something breaks of course. However, one writer at Vox says “the way a movie is projected can have a meaningful impact on your theatrical experience”. And presents the fascinating story of why and how. (about 10 minutes)

Read: Carl Sagan was a man ahead of his time. Although it was written more than 20 years ago, his Baloney Detection Kit, “a set of intellectual tools that scientists use to separate wishful thinking from genuine probability”, somehow seems very current. (about 9 minutes)

Read and Watch: Our short visit to Cuba last November is still swimming around in my head, sticking like few other trips I’ve made in my life. This short article and video is one of the best essays I’ve seen on the state of Cuban travel (positive and not so), and is worth a view even if you don’t plan to go. (4:24)

Watch: You’ve probably never heard of Marie Tharp but, as this wonderful animated film from The Royal Institution, a British charity dedicated to educating the public about science, explains, her work and determination proved the theory of continental drift and plate tectonics. Show this one to your middle and high school science students. (4:39)

3-2-1 For 12-4-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

Still thinking about Cuba. This story of a filmmaker who created a documentary in the country without permission is a reminder that the steps to restore relations with the US over the past two years are only a small start. The Cuban people still have no right to speak freely and live in fear of their government if they try. (about 4 minutes)

What happens when a Finnish teacher takes a job in an American school? This article in The Atlantic received a lot of notice on social media but in case you missed it, the story is a good contrast between national educational philosophies. Bottom line is that Finland trusts their teachers to make instructional decisions, unlike most districts in the US. (about 6 minutes)

In a wonderful post, Chris Lehmann reflects on a recent trip and suggests that we are often “tourists of our ideas”, spending too little time and effort to “fully and intentionally plan for change”. “And over and over again, we are shocked when the ideas don’t fully take hold.” (4 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

The US exports all kinds of products all over the world, including cowboy culture to Russia. This Planet Money segment is an interesting story of how that country is trying to develop a cattle business by bringing in American consultants, complete with a traditional rodeo. (18:16)

And one final item about Cuba (promise!). In these two segments about the country, On The Media talks to an author about New York Times coverage from 1957 that shaped the world image of Castro before the revolution, and then looks at how media covers Cuba today, complete with the usual cliches. (13:00)

One video to watch when you have a few minutes.

The movies of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and my favorite The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) are definitely an acquired taste. Enjoy a free sample of his style in a sweet, funny, and very quirky holiday short film. Ignore the sponsor splash pages at the start and end. (3:52)

Cuba and the World

Although much about the Cuba we visited earlier this month is firmly stuck in the 50’s and 60’s, we did notice some small but clear signs that changes were happening in that country. I have no idea exactly how the passing of Fidel Castro last week will affect them but I doubt it will reverse the course of progress.

Casa Particular

In the past five years or so, citizens have been allowed to open private restaurants (called paladars) to compete with the state-run establishments and there certainly seemed to be many of them. In popular tourist areas, like the city of Trinidad we visited, many people also rent rooms in their homes (called casa particulars) to visitors. The home in which we stayed was comfortable but not a “bed and breakfast” by American standards. We also saw lots of construction around town, adding rooms and entire floors to buildings, as enterprising Cubans anticipate even more visitors.

Getting Online

The young people we met in Cuba seem to have a good grasp on events and trends outside the country, with regular contact with the rest of the world, especially the United States. They are the people subtly pushing the government for change. I was a little surprised to see as many smart phones and computers as I did, believing that would be something the government would restrict.

But those kinds of restrictions have changed as well. Although very few people can afford a $400 computer or phone, one of our guides remarked that everyone in Cuba has a relative in the States. It seems many of the devices we saw have come through those connections.

Street Computing

And those digital devices bring information. The state telecom company allows a few public internet points in most areas and sells access cards for them. Accessing the internet is expensive, especially compared to the income of an average Cuban, and the connection is very slow. Nevertheless, we often saw groups of people staring into their phones (and occasionally a laptop) near to wherever there was a wifi point.

But slow and expensive internet isn’t an impediment to information flow. Our guides told us about what Cubans call “the package”. Every week, those people with regular access to the web, download all the news, movies, television, magazines, and more they can, and then pass around on storage devices (anything from a USB stick to a portable hard drive) whatever fits. It’s all about the sharing.

Student

In addition to paladars and casa particulars, some enterprising Cubans are also starting other businesses. One we visited was a private photography school, also housed in a home and ironically right across the street from a state secondary school. The school seems to be relatively successful despite being too expensive for most of the population. In spite of those costs, Cuban young people, like the photo student working on his project above, seem to be especially eager to learn new skills, and to create art, and commerce, of all kinds.

As always, many more photos from our trip are on Flickr. The previous two posts in this series are here and here.

More Thoughts on Cuba

As mentioned in a previous post, we spent a fast, interesting week in Cuba earlier this month. I’m still sorting through both the photos and my memories, but here are a few more of both, not necessarily with any kind of coherence or consistent theme.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba

Hotel Nacional de Cuba

During our four days in the capital city of Havana, we saw some of the traditional sites in what would be called the historic/tourist areas. Although the Cuban government has dedicated some money and effort to restore and maintain the area, it still had a very worn appearance. And unlike similar sections of other major world cities I’ve visited, something was missing. Like the usual brand names that often litter those areas. We were told that at one time Cuba allowed Benneton to open a store but all that’s left now is a window decal. Odd, but not bad. 

Dancers 1

Dancers

One of our stops off the tourist track was at the studio of a modern dance company. Cuba, both the government and society, is very supportive of the arts. Artists and performers who excel at their craft can live a very good life compared to other fields, including the opportunity to travel and show their work.

I admit that I don’t know much about dance, of any kind. But the young performers were energetic and eager to share with a group of strange Americans, all trying to photograph the action in a very small, oddly lit space.

Clown

Community Clown

Another unusual stop was at Casa Cultural Comunitaria, a neighborhood community center that provides classes and workshops in art, music, writing, and other subjects for both children and adults. The center is more informally known as El Tanque after the old concrete water tank that forms the core of the building. Our guide was eager to tell us the story of how the whole community reclaimed the space from a dumping ground for the nearby rail yard.

During the time we spent at El Tanque, we heard from two wonderful bands, one performing very rhythmic Cuban music and another doing wonderful rock and roll covers from the 50’s and 60’s. And in between, they served us lunch, a much more traditional meal than we had at the private restaurants. 

Streets of Trinidad

 Streets of Trinidad

For the final three days of our trip, our little band of very middle class Americans journeyed far outside of Havana to the city of Trinidad. Now a popular tourist destination, the town was founded in the 1500’s and was a major center of the sugar cane trade in the 1800’s under the rule of the Spanish.

Although many people, Cubans and foreigners, come to Trinidad for the history and the beaches, there is only one major hotel in town. So, in true entrepreneurial spirit, many residents rent a room in their “casa particular” (literally private home), something the government began allowing in 2011. The home in which we stayed was very comfortable, beautifully decorated, but very unexpected for the average American traveler. Our hosts were wonderful, even if my poor Spanish matched their lack of English skills. And the grandmother was concerned we didn’t eat much.

School Boy

Heading to school

Although Trinidad is a growing tourist area, life in town is probably similar to anywhere else in the world. Kids make their way to school, although we never saw anything resembling a school bus, and adults go about their daily routines. And in the evenings, they find ways to connect with their neighbors and celebrate life.

More to come about the trip but as always, many more photos with captions are in my Flickr albums.

Visiting Cuba

Cuba is one of those places that is largely a cliché to most Americans. When I was growing up, they were the big evil in the western hemisphere, home to communist boogie men planning to infect civilization.

More recently, as relations have warmed, the island acquired the image of a land frozen in time, full of classic American cars, old buildings and plenty of rum and cigars.

During a week-long wonderful, enlightening, inspiring photographic journey to Cuba, we, of course, learned that the culture and life of the island are far more complex and interesting.

Breakdown

I was surprised we didn’t see more of these cars
broken down on the side of the road.

For most Americans, travel to Cuba is still not a straightforward proposition, due to the continuing, anachronistic embargo. With few exceptions, the State Department requires visitors from the US to participate in “people-to-people” programs, interacting with artists, performers, and community leaders as a way of making connections between our two cultures. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. 

Havana Cruise

Even with US restrictions, Cuba has seen an increase in visitors over the past year or so. This cruise ship was docked in Havana for several days during our visit, dropping 700 people into the city at one time. Several people mentioned that the Cuban people look forward to more visitors but that the country’s infrastucture is really not ready to handle it. And they have absolutely no interest in seeing Starbuck and other American fast food stores. I can’t blame them.

Camera Collection

You gotta put them somewhere while we eat and drink.

As I said, this was a photography trip and we received some excellent guidance, both on making better pictures and on the country from our leaders. We traveled with Road Scholar, a not-for-profit organization that specializes in learning expeditions to all parts of the world. This was our first trip with them and just from this experience, I would go with them again. I’m not going into the mechanics of the trip in these posts but if you’re interested in details, feel free to contact me directly.

I will have more to say about our experiences and the wonderful people we met in later posts. For now, I’ll just offer a few more images. Many more can be found in these three flickr albums

Old and Older

The skyline of Havana as seen from the fortress El Morro,
built in 1589 to defend the harbor below.

 Valley

Near Trinidad, on the south side of the island, the scenery was spectacular. 

 Essdras and the Women

Our leader, Essdras, seemed to know people everywhere we went.
But this group was especially friendly.