Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Jerk Chicken

Photo Credit: Jamaican Hotel and Tourist Association

Jerk Chicken is a specialty of Jamaica. That along with Ganja (marijuana), Lick-Two-Dominos and a host of familiar local names makes the island a surprise even when surprises were expected. My only past connection to Jamaica was Bob Marley and his reggae music. Aside from the song ‘Montego Bay’ the Rastafarian experience was just a phrase clouded in mystery.

Sharon and I were only in town for a brief stay before departing on the high seas for a ten day cruise around the island of Cuba. Upon arrival in Montego Bay, we traveled the narrow streets clogged with cars and Lorries to our hotel high on a high overlooking the city.

Like most resorts on the island, this was a gated compound with a wall separating it from the masses and iron gates to keep them out. There was an open-air restaurant high on a bluff overlooking the ocean, airport, and clear water beaches below.

Like all Caribbean islands, Jamaica is proud of its many traditions and specialties. One of their most famous is Jerk Chicken. One of our traveling companions had jerk chicken for lunch. Jerk Chicken is an internationally known Jamaican specialty. It’s made with a plethora of ingredients including allspice, nutmeg, salt, brown sugar, thyme, ginger, black pepper and vegetable oil. He said it tasted fantastic.

Intrinsically woven into the Jamaican experience is the Rastafarian influence as best illustrated by Bob Marley and his music. Ganja is the Jamaican word for marijuana. Despite having approximately 37,000 acres of marijuana fields and some of the most idyllic growing conditions in the world, until 2015 anyone caught in possession of the plant could face five years in jail and a fine of US $1,500. All that changed last year when the government decided to decriminalize small amounts of the herb.

My own experience with ganja centered on a newspaper guy on a bicycle who first tried to sell me the local rag sheet then when that didn’t work turned back and offered me the ‘best weed on the island.’ He seemed truly confused when I turned down his wonderful offer.

Rounding every corner are enthusiastic games of dominos where four participants prepare to ‘lick some dominos’ with the best of them. In the past, it was considered a ‘poor man’s past time’ but has now been elevated to a uber-competitive sport played among ‘rumpanions’ gathered to shoot the breeze.

There’s a lot of new construction going on. Jamaica like all the other Caribbean islands is competing for the highly coveted tourist dollar. The government is pulling out all the stops to get their fair share of that booty.

The country is proud of its countrymen who have made their mark in the world. Well known celebrities and personalities such as Lester Holt (NBC news), Malcolm Gladwell (writer), General Colin Powell, and Naomi Campbell (supermodel) all have roots in the country. Among other Caribbean countries, Jamaica still has an uphill battle to wage for the almighty tourism dollar.

Jamaica reminded me of Acapulco, Mexico back in the sixties when I squatted there for a week’s R & R from my Army confinement. It was the same environment with a lighter shade of color. ‘Don’t drink the water’ and ‘bring your own toilet paper.’ Once you get past the mindset that ‘this isn’t America anymore’ you can get on with the job of exploring the island.

Jamaicans are rightly proud of their country and the progress is made. In the ultra-competitive world of carrageen travel it’s fighting for its place in the sun. Its native-born idiocrasies and traditions make it a ‘different place to travel.’ Once you get past that natural inclination to seek the safe and familiar it can be one heck of a ride.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

On the Trail of Hemmingway

Key West was my first introduction to the legacy of Earnest Hemmingway. His famous six-toed cats and the walkway to his writing tree house kept me in suspended animation. That was long before I decided to focus my attention on writing and creating stories of my own for others to enjoy

That was a long time ago.

But it was Cuba that gave me a new insight into the man and his passions. It solidified the image and the legend of Papa as he was affectionately known.  Wandering the narrow cobble-stone alleys and walkways of old town, Havana brought back a plethora of sights and sounds that Hemmingway must have embraced and embellished when he was around.

Rumors abound about the Hemmingway of old and his escapades in the Hotel Ambos Mundos  in Old Town Havana. The lobby is adorned with large photographs of Papa when he hung around the lobby, mixing stories with other ex-pats in town and eyeing the local scenery.


So as I sat in one of the old leather chairs that Hemmingway supposedly sat in and listened to the jazz combo playing something from the forties I couldn’t help but imagine another world in which he lived and loved and grew his legend. I let myself ask what, if anything, I shared with that genius with a tortured soul. He was a man obsessed with his own image and his place in literary history. I just want to write.

Despite his wonderful writings, Hemmingway was a tortured writer and a conflicted human being. His father and brother both committed suicide and he followed suit. Hemmingway represented an old fashioned vision of what it meant to be a man. I think it was this narrow focus and blind determination that caused him so many of his internal conflicts.

I don’t think a man should be judged by the size of his gun barrel or his capacity to get stinking drunk. I don’t think the number of wives a man acquires or outside marital interests mark his greatness as a man.

I’m guessing near the end of his life, Hemmingway felt a tremendous insecurity at the thought of his sinking ability to write something great. It was almost as if He was doomed by the same passion, focus, determination and blind faith that lead him to greatness in the first place. Whatever balance that might have existed in his life had dissipated by then.

Hemmingway solidified his place in literary history but at a terrible price by my Midwestern standards. He had four wives, numerous liaisons and a serious drinking problem. In the end, he made the literary grade while I’m still plugging away. But I’ve got my health, a solid relationship and great kids. Probably not much of a comparison but I like where I’m at. I’ll still climb mountains, ride bikes and do other physical things but nothing in comparison to Hemmingway.

In the end, that’s OK. He did it his way even to the end. I’m in control as he was and I’ll do it until I can’t any longer…my own way. Good for both of us.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

OMG, I've Become my Mother

My Mom and Me (on top of a car)

It was Sharon in one of her wifely moments who early on commented that I was becoming ‘just like your mother.’ I can’t remember what I was doing and it hardly matters. Something I did reminded Sharon of my Mother’s odd, sometimes eccentric moments. I’m sure I just shrugged my shoulders and replied: ‘Whatever.’ It’s always easier that way when you’re just starting out.

As time progressed, I’d begin to take issue with Sharon’s continuing comments about my mother and her idiosyncratic behavior. Mind you, it was never enough to escalate into an argument. ‘I suppose so’ was enough to quell her observations and end it there for the time being.

But as we spent decades together it slowly dawned on me that Sharon’s comments were more insightful than I gave her credit for. In many instances I was emulating my mother’s behavior and wasn’t even conscious about it. That or I was in total denial.

Early on, I was aware of one characteristic that defined my mother and to a degree myself. It was prevalence for hard work and focused determination. My mother only had a sixth grade education and held menial jobs all her life but she wasn’t afraid of hard work. It was born of an agrarian background and understanding that anything worth pursuing will take work. That said, some of her other actions were hard to fathom at first.

Our home on Randolph Ave

After she and my uncle built the house I was raised in, my mother used to put little notes in all her instruction manuals and on the HVAC system. The notes indicated date of purchase, warranties, comments from the installer and other sundry information. I thought it had to have been one of the dumbest things I’d ever heard of until I found myself pondering the purchase date of our own appliances when they went bad.

Then once I began acquiring investment properties I still wasn’t smart enough to make notes on each HVAC system at the time of purchase or when repairs were made. It took a long time for me to recognize the wisdom of my mother’s little notes.

My mother would always prepare the coffee maker the night before. Again, a habit that didn’t make much sense until I found myself one morning, groggy from the night before and no caffeine to jolt me awake. The process of preparing coffee that morning reinforced the wisdom of her preparing it the night before.

The first thing my mother and step-father would do upon a return from a trip was to sort, wash and put away all their clothes. I saw little benefit in their hurried cleanup efforts until I found my own travel clothes scattered about and couldn’t remember which had been washed and which hadn’t. Turns out, it was a good habit to get into.

My mother and stepfather loved dancing and would go out two or three times a week. I never took up that skill but pretended to be a runner for more than forty-five years. Kind of the same. She loved to play cards. I’d rather have my teeth pulled out by a draft horse. But I can sit and write for hours on end and find it immensely pleasurable. Go figure.

Mom and I

For a woman with little to no education, my mother was one hell of a street-smart lady. She understood the critical importance of education and I’m sure I picked that up through a subconscious kind of osmosis of the world around here. She wanted the same for her own kids.

Slowly but surely, in denial or not, I was observing and emulating her actions even thought I didn’t really know it at the time. I was seeking my freedom and independence but couldn’t shake those unmistakable lessons I’d been taught by her actions alone.

I wish my Mother were around today. I’d admit to her about being slow on the uptake but very curious what other tricks she might have up her sleeve. Examples were given on almost a daily basis and I didn’t even know I was in class.

So, thanks Mom, belatedly, for your patience and understanding. And if there is a place above the clouds I’m sure you’re looking down and chuckling: “It took you a little while, but you finally ‘got it.’  Good for you, son.”

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Metaphor for Stew

Cubans like to describe their fellow countrymen as stew. By that they mean their heritage is a rich cornucopia of African, Spanish, Caribbean and native influences. Originally inhabited by three tribes, Cuba saw its early natives decimated and destroyed by outside Spanish, French and English rule. It wasn’t until the early-nineteen hundreds that Cuba finally wrestled away control from the Spanish and began its long and very rocky road toward democracy.

While strolling San Juan Hill, I came across a plaque that proclaimed it the Cuban-Spanish-American War. It turns out there was a Cuban Army fighting the Spanish long before American business interests on the island forced our government to send in Teddy Roosevelt and his rough riders. Somehow our own history books glossed over the fact that American commercial interests  dictated much of what the local government did and didn’t do for its people. Naturally the Cuban people take issue with our version of Teddy and company winning the war sans their support.

American business expansion including a sizeable investment from the mob came to a screeching halt when a former law student decided he’s had enough of their farmer turned general turned dictator. In the mid-fifties Fidel Castro turned tables on dictator Batista and stopped the clock for all intents and purposes. Cuba has been locked in a time warp ever since Fidel embraced socialism in lieu of capitalism.

The average income for a Cuban family is roughly $20.00 per month. Even with free food rations, free education and free health care, there is little incentive for the average Cuban to work hard. As the poor step-child to the kremlin for more than fifty years, it was only the collapse of Mother Russia that shook Cuba out of his sheltered existence and forced it to face the harsh economic reality of the modern-day world.

The first factor contributing to the GDP are health care services. This comes in at seventy-three percent of GDP. Cuba has been farming out its doctors, psychologists, nurses and other health care professionals to Central and South American countries for years. Tourism ranked second in GDP at twenty-two percent with the government poking its financial fingers into everything from hotels, cigar sales, and rum sales to the Tropicana Cabaret.

It has only been in the last several years that the government has reluctantly pried open the tight squeaky doors of capitalism and free enterprise to outside interests. But with fifty to seventy-five percent of the population working for the government, it leaves little incentive for outside work. Add to that the fact that (per Western Union) Sixty-Two percent of the population receives remittances from relatives in the United States and the concept of hard work equals success is a difficult one to embrace.

Wandering the rough cobble-stone streets of Old Town, Havana, Sharon and I were transported back to 1955 with American cars streaming down the boulevards and the grand facades of marvelous old buildings. But a closer look beyond the fa├žade and one can see the crumbling guts of those buildings and blue smoke belching out of worn piston rings and antiquated automobile engines.

Every town seems to have its collection of wonderful old mansion and grand buildings now run by the government. They are the sad reminders of what the country once was. Castro’s purge was quick and effective. Capitalists and anyone opposed to the regime had barely weeks to leave the island. They left behind businesses, homes and a way of life that had eluded the masses.

Yet in their quest to help the people, the new government sucked the economic life out of the country. Replacing business owners with farmers to manage a plant only invites total collapse. Kicking the middle and upper class out of town only exasperates the problem of poverty and economic ruin. The rich got booted out of town but they took with them the means by which so many others might hope to climb the ladder of success. Then Mother Russia came along and the incentive for change and advancement totally disappeared.

For anyone worried about Cuba changing into a ‘Starbucks on every corner’ there is no rush. Even if KFC and that coffee giant were to plant their flags of capitalism in Old Town, Havana it would only be the tourists who could afford a cup of Joe and a chicken leg.

Pay-to-pee is still a common day occurrence everyplace a tourist might go. That and the absence of toilet seats makes one want to control bodily functions until a safe haven can be found. In fact, we were all advised to bring our own toilet paper when off the ship and they weren’t kidding.

At the National Museum of Art, Sharon was handed three sheets (and it wasn’t double-ply) then had to pay for the privilege. I encountered the same thing in Peru when I went there on a film shoot but that was in the mid-eighties and the country was still fighting the Shining Path.

In time, Cuba will evolve and embrace capitalism to a greater degree. The people there are adamant about retaining their cultural traditions and history. I admire them for that. The idea that one might travel to a foreign country and not find a Starbucks on every street corner is a pretty empowering image. I hope they can do it.