Cuba

Cuba is so near and yet so far away.  Cuba and the United States are very close to one another, and yet, the two countries have been separated by mutual suspicion and animosity for so many years that Cuba almost seems like a different world.

Our family had the good fortune to travel to Cuba during June and July 2017.  Because we live in Florida, we were able to visit Cuba relatively inexpensively and very easily.  We drove to Tampa, boarded a ship, and the next day, found ourselves in Havana.  Between the time we booked our tickets and left Tampa, the United States President announced his intention to tighten travel restrictions for Americans traveling to Cuba.  Thankfully, our trip happened before restrictions are implemented.

 

Ministry of the Interior Building with Che Guevara’s image and the words, “Ever onward to victory.”

We spent our time in Cuba learning about Cuban history, seeing architecture, and interacting with wonderful Cuban people.  Thanks to Amanda, our incredible guide from Havana Journeys, our trip followed the guidelines for a People-to-People exchange, which currently is a legal way for Americans to travel in Havana.

While, like many Americans, I tend to focus on recent events in Cuban history following the Communist revolution in the twentieth century, Cuba has a long and rich history.  Of course, Cuba was vibrant with indigenous peoples long before Columbus arrived.  Following the arrival of Europeans, Cuba remained an important part of the Caribbean because of its location, size, and natural and human resources.

Plaza de la Revolucion

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like many visitors, we saw the Plaza de la Revolucion, where Fidel Castro made speeches lasting many hours.  We saw Miramar, the area of Havana that wealthy people called home in the early part of the twentieth century.

 

 

We drove around Havana in classic American cars.  Yank Tanks, as they are sometimes called, have been meticulously maintained by Cubans.  We traveled with my parents, and our ride in these cars reminded them of their youth!

 

 

 

 

 

 

When our family travels, we try to go beyond the comfort of the usual tourist spots.  While in Havana, we asked our guide to take us to a place where Cubans enjoy ice cream.  Amanda took us to Coppelia, a wonderful place in Havana, where Cubans line up at different signs advertising the flavors available.  Chocolate seems to be the most popular!  After waiting, they are seated in outdoor pavilions and then enjoy ice cream.  Each scoop costs about the same as ten cents in American currency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were many highlights of our time in Havana.  One was following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway.  We visited Hemingway’s room and the roof-top bar of the Hotel Ambos Mundos.  We felt the humid air and could imagine Hemingway sitting over his typewriter.

Hemingway’s View

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another highlight was seeing the world through the lens of Cubans.  While walking through the National Hotel, where Castro directed Cuba’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis from underground caves, I saw pictures of famous visitors.  Yes, there were American film stars and political leaders such as Jimmy Carter.  But, there were other people Americans tend to view as villains.  There was a large portrait of Hugo Chavez and many pictures of current Russian leaders.  I was able to ask someone about John Kennedy, and not surprisingly, Kennedy is still viewed with suspicion given the Bay of Pigs invasion and missile crisis.

My experience in Cuba was similar to my experience in every other country I have visited.  The vast majority of people are kind, helpful, and open to relationship.  They want to live in a world where people can relate to one another with respect.  Despite differences of history and language, religion and culture, people are people, and we can find things in common to unite us.

Dear Friends

Just before leaving Cuba, we had the wonderful pleasure of visiting with Rev. Santiago Conrado Delgado Castillo and his family.  Santiago is Secretario Ejecutivo of the Fraternidad de Iglesia Bautista de Cuba (the Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba).  We shared coffee and conversation, and we discussed our hopes for a world of freedom.

I am grateful we were able to see Cuba and interact with many wonderful people.  If you have an opportunity to visit Cuba, do it!

On the Road Again — In the Alps

Eighteen months have passed since our family of four completed our round-the-world adventure.  Being home is wonderful, but our family also loves being on the road together.

One of the delights of traveling together is the sense that the four of us — my wife, son, daughter, and I — are on a special adventure.  We encounter new places and new people, we get lost and find our way, and most importantly, we do it together.

Our wonderful home in Geneva

Our wonderful home in Geneva

After a year-and-a-half at home, we are on the road again.  This time, we are in the Alps.  We are house-sitting for a wonderful family as they take a holiday to Lapland.  They live in Geneva, Switzerland, in a beautiful home with a great view of Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc.  And, we are about an hour from ski slopes.

My wife and daughter at the ski lift

My wife and daughter at the ski lift

 

 

 

We hit the slopes on a beautiful day in Avoriaz, France.  The day started out with foggy weather, but by the time our skis touched the snow, the sky was clear and blue.  The snow has not been plentiful this season, and many locals have kindly expressed their concern that our experience may be less than optimal.  For us, though, it was a grand day.

My son, daughter, and me in the Alps

My son, daughter, and me in the Alps

Ah!  To be on the road again is a wonderful thing!

To Kill a Mockingbird

Outside Courthouse

Courthouse Museum, Monroeville, Alabama

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books.  I read it many years ago as a teenager, and growing up in a small Southern town, I could relate to many of the characters Harper Lee created.

After reading the book, I saw the movie, and my admiration for Atticus Finch, so ably portrayed by Gregory Peck, increased after seeing the screen adaptation.  As a young adult, I listened to the book on tape while commuting to my first job after graduate school.  Even though I knew the story well, still I cried when the jury found Tom Robinson guilty.  I remember blinking away tears as I drove the streets of Boston after hearing the verdict.  This school year, my son read the book during his English class, and I enjoyed talking with him as he discovered this treasure.

Act One

Act One

One of the highlights of moving to Northwest Florida’s Gulf coast is that I can drive to Monroeville, Alabama, Harper Lee’s hometown, in about two and a half hours.  A few days ago, our family joined the small crowd making the pilgrimage to Monroeville.  We watched the Mockingbird Players perform the stage version at the Old Courthouse Museum, which this all-volunteer cast has done for twenty-seven years.

The first act took place outside the courthouse, and we were introduced to Scout, Jem, Dill, Calpurnia, Atticus, and their neighbors.  We saw racism grow among the residents.  I was startled to hear the N word used so freely by the characters, and looking around the audience, I wondered how others felt when hearing this offensive term.  We watched fear fester as neighbors talk about Boo Radley.  During the first act, Scout and Jem were amazed by their father’s skill when he shot a rabid dog, and as the act ended, Atticus calmly but courageously faced the lynch mob outside the jail where Tom Robinson was awaiting trial.

Inside Courtroom

Inside Courtroom, which was used from 1904-1962

The second act took place in the courtroom.  Twelve white men were selected to sit on the jury, and the remaining seats were open for the audience.  Our family sat in the grand jury box between the judge’s chair and the prosecutor’s table.  We were able to see the faces of Tom Robinson and his accuser, Mayella Ewell, as the proceedings developed.  We were so close to Atticus Finch as he defended Tom that we could have touched him.  And, of course, we were very close when the jury found Tom guilty.

Grand Jury Box

View from the Grand Jury Box

The second act included Boo Radley saving Scout and Jem, and it concluded with Scout’s growing understanding of life in her town and her father’s courage through it all.  Atticus Finch said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”  Thankfully, sitting in the grand jury box gave us a wonderful view to consider things from the perspectives of Atticus Finch, Mayella Ewell, her father Bob Ewell, and Tom Robinson.

The play runs during April and May of each year, and the quality of the acting is amazing considering that all of the actors volunteer their time and energy.  The cast begins rehearsing in February each year, and they give of themselves until the final performance in late May.

Outside NightWitnessing the play was a highlight of Spring for me, and I especially was delighted to share the experience with my wife and children.  Stuart Richeson played Judge Taylor the night we watched the play.  In the playbill, he said, “The message is timeless – one man determined to do what is right, even though society resists him.”  I agree, and I recommend the play to anyone.

Happy Birthday, Martin Luther

In 1483, Martin Luther was born on this day, November 10, in the town of Eisleben.  He is well known for posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517 and sparking the Protestant Reformation.  He was a leader both revered and reviled, and in his wake the trajectory of history was altered in ways that still resonate nearly 500 years later.


Many times, I have joined with other Protestant Christians to sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” as we have celebrated Reformation Sunday.  On such occasions, it is easy to forget that, in addition to his leadership in the Reformation, Luther also was deeply human and filled with fears, joys, and frustrations.

I resonate most with Luther as the person who mixed hope with struggle, challenge with delight.

Luther’s decision to enter the monastery was made in fear. Caught in a severe thunderstorm, Luther called to St. Anne for help and promised to become a monk if he survived. True to his word, born of fear, Luther entered the monastery in Erfurt in 1505.  Many of Luther’s days were consumed with fearful self flagellation and longing for salvation.

Beyond his fears, however, Luther also knew joy. Perhaps his source of greatest joy was his family. He married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, and together they had six children.  By all accounts, they had a loving and happy marriage.  Though finances often were tight, Luther said, “My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me that I would not exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus.”

As a husband and father, I share Luther’s delight in his spouse and children. A few years ago, our family visited Luther’s home. I could picture him sitting around the table filling the room with music and talk.


While I love Luther the happy husband and doting father, I also am honest to say that I can relate to Luther at his points of frustration.

Just a few days before his death in February 1546, Luther traveled from Wittenberg to his hometown, Eisleben, to mediate a dispute. While in Eisleben, Luther preached his final sermon.


It is estimated that Luther preached 7,000 sermons during his lifetime, but for what became his last sermon, only five people were present.  Luther was mightily frustrated.  He wrote to a friend despairing that he had been part of a failed Reformation.  In the bitter winter of February 1546, the great preacher preached in a nearly empty church building.

Just a few days later, Luther went to bed with chest pains.  He prayed the  prayer found in Psalm 31:5, “Into your hand, I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me O Lord, faithful God.”

In the hours after midnight, Luther’s pain increased, and the hour of his death was near. He was asked, “Reverend father, are you ready to die trusting in your Lord Jesus Christ and to confess the doctrine you have taught in His name?”

“Yes,” he replied.

First Day of School in a New Town

My son, like me thirty-one years before,

is the new kid in a new school.

Driving to school, we talk about nerves.

I tell about my experience. The hardest thing I ever had faced.

Then, I hear the advice coming from my mouth – as if from some seasoned elder.

“You can’t rush things.”

“You have to give it time.”

“There will be a few bumpy days, but hang in there.”

“Just be yourself.”

“Once people get to know you, they’ll like you, even love you, for who you are.”

 

Arriving at school, grey clouds are full.

Rain is falling.

We pull up to the door; he gets out of the car.

 

“I love you.”

 

Through rain-splattered windows, I watch him

walk into the building,

into a swarm of unknown people and challenges.

Suddenly, it is thirty-one years ago.

I am the new kid,

arriving at school,

wading into a sea of strange faces.

Both invisible and conspicuous.

 

Watching my son walk in, I see myself walking in.

 

I sit for an eternity in five seconds.

The light turns green, and I pull away,

leaving both my son and myself.

 

FWBHS (2)

Go Set a Watchman

I have the book! And I’m going to start reading Go Set a Watchman tonight. 
    

Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, is only about 100 miles and a two-hour drive from my home in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.  Maycomb — as it’s known in the books — is really close!

I’ve read the reviews, and I’ve listened to the critics on NPR. I know that Atticus Finch is portrayed as a racist, and I know that many other readers have been disappointed. Still, I’m looking forward to reading this book. 

In some ways, I feel a bit like Scout. I was a child when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird just as Scout was a child during Mockingbird’s action. Having grown up in a small town in the southern United States, I could relate to many of the things that Scout, Jem, and Dill encountered. I don’t remember a Boo Radley in my hometown, although there were plenty of characters around whom I felt at least a little uneasy.

And, like Scout, I knew racism. I heard it at school, and I knew the attitudes of many people around town. I saw the different sections in which people with different skin color lived. There was an invisible but very clear color line dividing our town. 

I am thankful that my parents taught me to respect all people regardless of their racial or ethnic background. But I still knew and observed racism. 

I read To Kill a Mockingbird again as an adult. I also listened to the audio book, and although I knew the story — although I knew that Tom Robinson would be falsely found guilty — still I cried when the verdict was announced. How could people treat someone else with such dismissive disdain and searing hatred, I wondered. 
To prepare for Watchman’s release this week, my family watched Mockingbird on Monday night. Gregory Peck was just as calm and determined as always as Atticus Finch . I still felt the pit in my stomach during Tom’s trial. 

And, now I have Watchman. Like Scout in Watchman, I’m older now (though I’m considerably older than Jean Louise in Watchman). I’m sure my perspectives have changed since childhood as Scout’s surely did. 

While other readers have expressed frustration and disappointment with Jean Louise’s portrayal of Atticus, I’m looking forward to it. Much of the disappointment seems driven by people’s desire for a completely good, upright hero without flaws or blemishes. 

I don’t think life happens that way, and I think it is heroic to do the right thing even if one has mixed motives and undesirable qualities. At this point, I think Atticus still is a hero. 

I wonder what I’ll think after reading Go Set a Watchman. 

Now, it’s time to read!

Best Chinese Food Ever!

A few years ago, a teenager from our town traveled with her orchestra to China.  Upon her return, I asked about her favorite memories.  A big smile came across her face, and she said, “The food!”  She quickly added, “I love our local Chinese restaurant, but the food in China was so much better.”

While traveling in China with my family, I enjoyed lots of delicious food.  And with each great meal, I thought of that young lady.  I agree with her; the food in China is delicious!

We had a number of delicious and memorable culinary experiences in China.  While in Beijing, we stayed in an AirBnB apartment owned by an American family and run by Holly, a wonderful Chinese woman.

My wife, Lisa, with our Beijing host, Holly

My wife, Lisa, with our Beijing host, Holly

We told Holly how much we love dumplings, and she agreed to teach us how to make them.  She started with a trip to a local market, which I never could have found on my own.  Walking from our apartment, we ventured off the main road and turned into a small side street that became a walking path.  Eventually, we entered a nondescript building that held a bustling market filled with local produce and baked goods.

Then, we returned to our apartment where Holly led a cooking class for our family.  She taught us to make the filling, which included pork, cabbage, carrots, onions, spices, vinegar, and soy sauce stir fried in the wok.

 

Hollys Wok - Edited

Then, she taught us how to mix flour and water with chopsticks until the dough was firm and ready to knead.  Holly pinched off small bits, rolled them out, filled them, and cooked them in a pot of boiling water.

Rachel with Holly (2)

Then, we joined other Chinese friends from the neighborhood around the kitchen table eating lots of dumplings.  Delicious and memorable!

Noodle TeacherWe received another cooking lesson while in Beijing.  We went to Mama’s Lunch for a dumpling and noodle lesson.  Our gracious host and excellent teacher, Joyce, greeted us with tea and snacks before beginning the class.  We made regular dumplings as well as green dumplings with spinach water and orange dumplings from pumpkin water.  In addition to the traditional filling of pork and spices, Joyce taught us how to make a filling of scrambled eggs with chives.

 

 

We then shared a feast of boiled and fried dumplings.  Delicious!

Eating Noodles

In addition to our cooking classes, we enjoyed wonderful meals in two restaurants.  In Beijing, we shared a ten-course dinner at Black Sesame Kitchen that included five flavored eggplant, shredded lettuce stem, and black sesame ice for dessert!  The restaurant is located in a hutong, a traditional neighborhood with narrow alleys and courtyard residences.  The meal was pretty expensive, but it was a great treat for our family.

Menu Beijing

Finally, in Shanghai, we had a great meal of Xiaolongbao, soup dumplings cooked in steamer baskets.  We ate at Din Tai Fung, a restaurant chain with several stores around Shanghai and other cities around the world.  All dumplings have a thin skin and sixteen delicate folds, and they are filled with various broths.  We especially loved the pork dumplings and the crab dumplings.

Shanghai Dumplings

I still love Chinese food at home, but I have to agree with the young lady from our town.  These meals in Beijing and Shanghai were the Best Chinese Food Ever!

Group Dinner Plate