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Cowboys are my weakness

Dawson City, in the Yukon, with its dirt roads, wooden sidewalks, and swing-door saloons took me back in time to a world I’d liked to have lived in. As Pam Houston’s book title so adequately declaims: cowboys are my weakness.

The colonial old town of Trididad in central Cuba, with its cobblestone streets, is a relic of times past. Plaza Mayor, the main square, is lined by other-worldly buildings like the Museo Romántico, in the restored Palacio Brunet mansion; the Museo de Arquitectura Colonial; and the Iglesia de la Santísima, the 19th-century cathedral with a statue of Jesus in a pose I’d never seen before. Man, did He look just a tad fed up. An empty rum bottle in a corner threw me. Was it an offering or a convenient place to discard an empty? And the Lenten posters could teach the church in Ireland or Hungary a thing or three about the relevance of communication.

The warren of narrow streets are home to markets of all sorts, actual shops selling real things, and a host of art galleries that while not quite on the Havana scale, are still to be reckoned with. The street vendors are chatty and pleasant, and perhaps at times a tad too forceful, but that’s only to be expected. Bargaining is part of the process but I found it embarrassing. It seemed cheap to haggle when people have a living to make and work within earshot of tourists sitting in cafés moaning about the exchange rate and how many hundreds of dollars it’s cost them to have brought US dollars rather than Canadian dollars or euro with them on their trip.

Had I done my homework before I left, I’d have taken Julio Muñoz of Casa Muñoz up on his offer of guided tours of an authentic Trinitario santero (priest) of Santería. And I’d had gone to see the rumba, the courtship dance, at the Palenque de los Congos Reales on Calle Echerri. But instead, I wandered the streets, up and down alleyways, taking it all in. There are plenty cafés and bars, both local and tourist, something for everyone. [As a complete aside, I never once had a bad cup of coffee in Cuba – who’d have known their coffee was that good?]

Off the beaten track, walking towards the hills past the Santería church, there’s one of a few tourist-free neighbourhoods that are so local, I felt like I was intruding. It was here I met my cowboys. What is it about a man in a hat on a horse? {Okay – so these were boy-cowboys … but ain’t the future lookin’ good?}

Trinidad is a departure spot for many. It’s not far from Playa Ancun, close to the La Boca sunset, the train depot for the Valley de los Ingenios, and probably the liveliest night life in the region. Worth a day or two to wander around.

 

 

2017 Grateful 38

I’ve heard the stories. A sister dying in Ireland a minute after her brother died in Australia (they say he picked her up on his way by). An otherwise healthy mother dying the day after her daughter (think Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher). Apparently there is such a thing as broken heart syndrome. Back in 1990  Japanese researchers called it Takotsubo syndrome.  It’s also known as the widowhood effect. It’s got something to do with the heart being assaulted by a sudden, massive release of stress hormones. It’s like a heart attack, except that the arteries are fine.

In Cienfuegos, in Cementerio de la Reina (Cemetery of the Queen) sits the grave of a 24-year-old-woman who supposedly died of a broken heart back in 1907. La Bella Durmiente. The sleeping beauty.

The cemetery, named after Queen Isabella of Spain, opened its ground in 1837. It’s on the other side of town – far from the yacht club and the villas. And sitting as it does in what looks like the middle of a nowhere trying to be a somewhere, adds to  its otherness.  It’s not nearly as impressive in terms of notable notables or statuary as the Colón in Havana, but it’s got more by way of atmosphere and personality. Colón is like a rich debutante, outwardly confident and inwardly uncertain, whereas La Reina is more like a middle-aged beauty comfortable in her own skin. And she’s definitely a she; statues of men are few and far between. [The last time this struck me about a cemetery was in Milan.]

A local woman, perhaps a cemetery employee, asked where we were from. When we said Ireland, she took us to an Irish grave. I wondered what she’d have done had we said Hungary. But Irish? In Cuba? From the 1800s? How did that happen?

Back in the 1820s, the sugar industry was booming. Slavery was big. The plantation owners wanted to boost their numbers  and have more white guys on hand to keep the slaves in check. So, get this: the Council for White Population went to Maryland, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania and rounded up a few hundred Irish, along with French and Canary Islanders, and tempted them to come start the ‘white colony’ of Cienfuegos.

Marina was the daughter of Limerick man, John O’Bourke, who was one of the Irish to take the Council up on its offer. He married locally and in true Irish form, had ten children. He called his plantation Nueva Hibernia and was known around the place as Juan. On his death, the plantation was sold, although Juan Jnr still had a share in it and was himself administrator of another plantation worked by 500 slaves.

Marina, one of the daughters (I think of Juan Jnr), was an abolitionist. She owned one domestic slave, Matilde, whom she would later help buy her freedom. Once free, and funded by Marina, Matilde herself became a wealthy property owner, lending money, in turn, to Cabildo Real Congo, a black mutual-aid society. Like her former mistress, she, too had a social conscience and worked tirelessly towards racial equality in the new independent Cuban.

Of course, we missed  Barrio O’Bourke, where the family settled and were I to go back, it’d be on my list of places to see. Needless to say, I found out all of this back at my desk in Googleland and see from the comments on Mapping the Irish in Cuba, that a certain Don Morfa of Yaguaramas is thought to have been a Murphy from home. Imagine. The things you learn.

With the remains of soldiers from the Spanish Wars of Independence buried above ground level in the walls, the world seemed well represented. It’s a beautiful spot. Definitely worth the effort. [Check this blog for some great photos.]

I’ve had a bad week. I’m still buggy. I feel like the Irish Sea is sloshing around in my head. I only ventured out when I absolutely had to and even then I was an embarrassment of tissues and phlegm. I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but this week, I’m grateful for the Internet and the wealth of information I can pull up in seconds. It really does open new worlds at the push of a button. And while my brain wasn’t able to concentrate on much by way of work, it benefited enormously from the between-headache educational dalliances with Google. In another life, I met Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, and I met the inimitable Louis Pouzin, inventor of the datagram, and were I to meet them again, I might be a tad more effusive with my thanks.

 

 

 

Gearing up for withdrawal

The last time I went away for more than 48 hours sans laptop was in 2010. That was seven years ago. Seven years. Every holiday (?) I’ve been on since then I’ve worked. Not all of it, but some of it.  Enough of it to know that I wasn’t completely switching off, letting go, being present. Back in 2014, I managed to stay offline for 72 hours.

It’s a  symptom of the freelancer’s lot. You take the work when you get it because you never know when you’ll get the next bit. Add to that the fear of being disconnected and having some or all of your clients find someone else while you’re gone and then staying with them out of convenience. [And you know this will happen because convenience is why you haven’t moved banks in 9 years or changed utility provider even though you know you should.] And you know that no matter how good you are, you’re not indispensable. There’s no contract. No paid leave. No redundancy clause.

That said, I wouldn’t swap the freedom and flexibility that freelancing offers for anything less than 353 days of paid leave per year from a corporate. I like what I do and like that I can do it from just about anywhere. It’s the ‘just about’ that brings me out in a cold sweat.

I’m off to Cuba. I hear tell that you can buy (not inexpensive) 30-minute vouchers for the Internet but that the Internet there might not be quite as fast as the slow Internet here. So rather than put myself through the torture of watching a large file upload to an FTP and get to 99% at 30 minutes, I’m steeling myself to go dark. Offline. For 10 days.

I’ve done the unthinkable and told my regular clients that I’ll be incommunicado. I’m figuring out how to post an out-of-office message on my various email accounts. And I’m working like a mad woman trying to clear my inbox before I leave. By the time the holiday comes, I’ll be exhausted.

And that will be great. Because I’ll have ten whole days to recover. I reckon I can decompress on the flight and not start to experience the first withdrawal symptoms until Day 2 in Havana. By that stage, I’ll have found a cigar factory and will be busy testing a theory I have about rum and tobacco so the anxiety levels will be minimal.

From experience, day 3 is when the full impact hits – that disconnectedness, that wondering what I’ll be going back to, that faint niggling worry that the workflow will have stopped entirely. And knowing this, by day 3, I plan to be on a beach, somewhere near Trinidad, by the water.  And there’s very little, in my book, that seawater can’t cure. Bring it on, I say, bring it on. Who knows, it might be the start of a whole new career.

Facing reality

No matter how invincible I might think I am, no matter how determined I might be to do it all, there are times when I have to face reality and admit defeat.

Some years ago, over coffee, one of my besties GM put a question to me. If I’d paid €100 for a concert ticket and it was crap, would I stay to the end or leave half way through? €100 is a lot of money in my world. And that level of investment would warrant that I get a bang for my buck. So I said I’d stay.

Then she asked why I would throw good money after bad, compound my loss by further wasting my time? mmm… I hadn’t thought of that but it  made sense. So I resolved, if the occasion arose in the future, to cut my losses and leave.

But it’s easier said than done. As I learned this week.

Way stressedback in March I decided that I wanted to travel somewhere big to mark my 50th. We decided on Cuba. We booked the tickets to depart for Havana on 6 September. In the interim, life got busy. It’s always busy, but September began to morph into a manic month. We have visitors coming for the wine festival. They stress3leave Monday and we’re scheduled to fly Tuesday. Then the house finally came through (another story) and we need to close on that by the 25th. And then we’re off to Slovakia on a four-day train trip through the Tatras (a lovely b’day present from the even lovelier MI). And in the meantime, there are deadlines, lots of deadlines, way too many deadlines. And we’d be effectively offline for two weeks during it all.

The Cuban Embassy has been closed for a couple of months and doesn’t open till 1 September so we still have no visas. We have nothing planned or booked and no time or bandwidth to do any research.

When I added up what we’d spent so far on flights, factored in what we’d need to have in pocket to do Cuba justice, and what we’d not be earning by being out of work for two weeks, it didn’t make sense.

So the question – cut my losses or go regardless?

Cuba has always been high on my list of places to see. And it’s changing. The old Cuba will soon be but a distant memory. But we’ve made no preparations, done little by way of research, are clueless as to what to expect, and by all accounts the Communist system of organised chaos reigns supreme. How would my already fraught nerves cope with that, I wondered.

The last time I faced this problem was South Africa. The volcano in Iceland was playing havoc with flights and I was up to my tonsils in work, facing two weeks of being offline. I had decided that if my flight was cancelled, I’d be all the happier. It wasn’t. I coped with being offline. And I had one of the most memorable holidays ever beneath the African sky. Would Cuba be the same?

I made a coffee and sat myself down for a chat. I asked myself how disappointed I would be if I didn’t get to Cuba next week. On a scale from 1 to 10. I registered a 2. I then asked myself how far I’d have to push myself to do everything that needed to be done in the next 10 days and was shocked at how close I came to bawling. Sometimes, I really need a reality check.