Friday, June 29, 2012

Back in Time

"Make sure you are home in time for dinner!" 

My three sisters, one of their friends.  I'm the smallest kid.
That was rule number one when we were growing up in a small gold-mining town located in the coastal mountains of British Columbia Canada.  We got up, hurriedly spooned down our bowl of porridge sweetened with brown sugar and reconstituted Pacific-brand evaporated-milk.  Maybe we slowed down long enough to snag a piece of toast and peanut butter before heading out the door on weekends. 

Accompanied by our willing, but slightly dim Cocker Spaniel, we ran up and down the dirt streets exploring our neighbourhood, swung out on rope-swings over rocks and blackberry brambles, and fooled around on abandoned bits of mining machinery.  During summer vacation, once mom and dad were able to afford a rustic summer cottage on a nearby lake, we were turned loose to explore the shorelines, and hillsides.  At sunrise my third oldest sister would drag me out of bed to go fishing in dad's canoe.  We'd troll up and down the lake for several hours - finally bringing in enough Rainbow Trout for breakfast.  Rule number two was "clean and eat what you catch." 

Lawrie's first bike, before the 2-wheeler.
Lawrie's childhood memories of growing up in the City of North Vancouver are similar.  From the time he was old enough to ride a two-wheel bike, he frequently rode eight to ten miles a day exploring the surrounding city.  Or he and his friends played cowboys and Indians in the nearby forest, once tying his hapless sister to a tree as their captive. 

Hours later when he returned home his mom asked: "Where's your sister?  Oops!"  His forgetfulness earning him a spanking.  Other times Lawrie and friends would try their luck with fishing in nearby rivers, using a simple hand-held line with a wooden handle. 

He explored from sunup to sunrise, coming home at dusk, hungry, tired and happy. 

We were free to roam.  Free to explore.  Free to do as we wanted. 

Friends out watching the release of baby turtles

That's what Lawrie and I really like about Mexico.  The children are out doing things, playing, and exploring. 

Not many of the local children have electronic games, or televisions that would keep a North American child spell-bound, and house-bound. The older siblings let the younger ones tag along, no quarrels.  It's their responsibility to look after the youngsters. 

There is a large group of young ones living just down the street in the Colonias.  Once the nearby North American home owners have left for the summer season a group of five, six, seven, or a dozen youngsters will explore various swimming options before invading a pool - clothes and all.  If they were a touch more stealthy in their approach no one would be the wiser.  However, the gales of giggles emanating from the pools are always a dead-on-clue that something is up.


An intense game of Foosball

Other groups of children, made up of various brothers, sisters, and cousins play in the surf with an older sibling keeping an eye on their antics.  There is a little 'tienda' in the Colonias that has an outdoor foosball table set up on their veranda.  The local kids spend a few pesos for hours of raucous fun. 

And when the storms bring the Soisin fish close to shore a group of three brothers and a sister will cooperate and fish together, reeling in dozens of fish for a family dinner.




For us, living here is like stepping back to a more innocent time - to when we were kids. 

Riding double on a bike

The one improvement over mom's rule number one: "Make sure you are home in time for dinner!"  We can go out for dinner, or eat in.  Our choice.  We're all grown up now.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Escape From Cuba

Home-built boat for Cuban refugees

The wooden hull scrapes on the coral, stalling in the shallow water.  Men scramble overboard, pushing and pulling the small wooden boat to shore - allowing the others to disembark.  Voices whisper softly in Spanish, shushing those that speak too loudly.  Scrabbling over the rocks they swiftly change into dry clothing, discarding the wet pants, shirts, shoes on the sand.
 
Pirates invading Isla?  No, they are Cuban refugees arriving on the east side of the island in the pre-dawn hours of the night. 

We, and the two watch-dogs that sleep in our driveway, peacefully snoozed through the night completely oblivious to the excitement happening a few hundred feet away.


Naval officers investigating

In the morning Lawrie noticed two naval officers plus two heavily armed enlisted men walking purposefully along our beach. 

Naturally curious he popped his head out the door to see what was happening.  The group had stopped in front of the neighbours' house, peering over the rocky ledge to the beach.  Lawrie raced upstairs to our bedroom patio for a better view and spotted the boat pulled up on the sand beneath the ledge.

A few minutes later, camera in hand, I wandered down to the beach to chat with our neighbours’ handyman, José.  He said that the boat had arrived sometime during the night, and that he had reported it at seven in the morning to the Navy officials.  

Discarded wet clothing

José thought there were around 20 people on board judging by the amount of wet clothing left behind along with space-blankets (thin aluminum sheets that are used to retain body warmth) and the amount of empty water bottles in the bottom of the boat.  José said the eighty-five mile trip would have taken them at least five days, even accounting for the easterly winds. 


Plastic fan blades for a propeller


 It was a primitive, open boat, with no shelter from wind, rain or sun.  Their only means of propulsion were two long home-made wooden oars, and a tiny motor out-fitted with a plastic fan blade for a propeller.  Fortunately for the refugees the weather had been mild for the last few days - overcast, windy, not the strong storms that can occur in the winter.


The next night, during a driving rainstorm, we could hear loud banging and bashing noises coming from the direction of the grounded boat.  In the morning we discovered the abandoned carcass of the boat had been picked clean.  The local people had recycled all the wood, the motor and most of the wet clothing.  What was over-looked were the two long wooden oars.  These now decorate our living room wall.  Our little bit of recycling, otherwise known as beach scavenging.

Cuban oars as wall decoration

A quicker, but vastly more expensive, way for Cuban refugees to arrive in Mexico is via fast sport-fishing boats, powered by two or three 250-horse outboard motors.  These boats are typically stolen from coastal American marinas and taken to Cuba where the operators sell passage from Cuba to Mexico at approximately $10,000 US dollars per person.  

The operators will then make the drop-off somewhere on the Mexican coastline - hoping to avoid detection by the Mexican Navy or Coast Guard cutters.  Not all escape detection.   There are currently about forty boats moored at the Naval docks on Isla Mujeres.  They remain here, year after year, rotting at the docks, mired in a legal battle between American insurance companies, and Mexican officials. 

All of these boats have been intercepted by the Navy

Spanish speaking Cuban refugees can assimilate quite readily into the Mexican population, but for the most part they eventually try to make their way north to the US border.  When researching on the internet to see how many refugees attempt this crossing I found an interesting news item.  It described an incident in June of 2008. 

A group of armed men "kidnapped" thirty-four Cuban refugees who were being transported by police to a detention centre.  The thirty-four refugees had been detained by the Mexican navy on a beach near Cancun. They were turned over to the immigration department, and were to be transported to the refugee camp at Tapachula near the border of Chiapas and Guatemala.  The article suggested that the kidnapping was likely a rescue operation by either friends or paid associates, preventing the forced return of the refugees to Cuba.

This journey is not for the faint of heart.

The next time the wind blows from the east, the sea is calm, and the moon is bright we'll be keeping our eyes open, and listening.  Listening for the arrival of refugees.  This journey is not for the faint of heart.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Escape to Cuba

Russian Yak 42 - probably built in 1960's

We ducked our heads, clearing the low doorway bulkhead as we entered the plane - an ancient Russian Yak 42 - still in use by Cubana Airlines.  The flight was three hours late leaving the Cancún airport.  Strange, considering there are only two Cubana Airlines flights per day; one from Havana in the morning, and one from Cancún in the afternoon. 




This is 'completely normal'  Really?
We secured our seatbelts.  Lawrie buckled his, I knotted mine, unable to adjust it to a different size.  The plane was completely full, with no other seats available.  As the pilots started to taxi the plane onto the runway, the air conditioning and lights were turned off.  The flight attendant cheerfully announcing; "Don't worry.  It is necessary to turn off all extraneous power to assist with takeoff."  Seriously? 

When the plane cabin filled with a white smoke, she made another cheerful announcement.  "Don't worry.  This is completely normal.  It is condensation forming as we climb into the atmosphere."  Really?  Completely normal?  A few minutes later a loose armrest from another seat slid past our feet.  By then we were laughing in nervous acceptance of flying inside a mechanical disaster.  One hour to touchdown.  Perhaps we will survive.

Office buildings are used a apartments

Landing in Havana we scrambled off the death-trap, refusing to think about the return flight.  That was three days away, there was lots to see and do in the meantime.  The bus ride deposited us in the centre of Old Havana at the Hotel Plaza.  The one-hundred-year-old Hotel Plaza is rich in history.  At one time is was a home to a wealthy Cuban family, later a luxury hotel with famous guests such as Albert Einstein, Isidora Duncan, and Babe Ruth.  The hotel has retained some of its historical features, bas-relief ceilings, impressive white columns, and colourfully tiled floors - but the rooms are plain, tired, and functional. 





Lawrie and a beer - Bacardi building behind
Our favourite place to spend an hour or two was at the roof-top bar, overlooking the city, and the impressive former Ron Bacardí corporate building. Bacardi Rum was started in Cuba in 1862 by Spanish born Don Facundo Bacardí Massó.  His descendents grew the company ever larger with each generation.  Bacardí family members initially supported Fidel Castro and the revolutionaries, donating tens of thousands of dollars to the movement, and acting as intermediaries between the revolutionaries and the CIA. 

Shortly before the takeover on January 1st 1959 the Bacardí family realized their holdings were in jeopardy,  moving the ownership of the Company's trademarks, assets and proprietary formulas to the Bahamas.  The Castro regime confiscated the remaining Bacardí assets on October 15th, 1960 - while nationalizing all private property on the island as well as all bank accounts.   All over Havana, abandoned offices that were built for bankers, accountants, lawyers, and corporations have now been put to use as apartments for Cuban nationals.

Riding in a coco-taxi in Old Havana

We spent the next three days exploring the city.  We joined a tour bus for a guided tour around the old embassy sites and mansions.  We walked to Ernest Hemmingway's favourite bar the La Floridita where he is said to have invented the Daiquiri drink.  We explored along the Malecón (seawall), through the art flea market.  We toured the city by night in a coco-taxi, a yellow egg-shaped two-person contraption attached to a motor bike. 

Whatever transportation was available we used it.  With the American trade embargo in place since the revolution there are dozens of 1950's and 60's American cars limping along, lovingly repaired with bits and pieces, anything to keep them working just a little longer.  New cars have quite recently been imported from France and Germany.  While new motorcycles and tour buses have been brought in from China.

Many old American cars still in use

As we toured the city, one feature struck us as quite odd.  There are no signs, no advertising, nothing.  No signs to indicate a grocery store.  No signs for restaurants.  No signs for gas stations.  We saw a few posters depicting the famed revolutionary Ernesto"Che"Guevara, but none of the living, and equally famous Fidel Castro.  Visually it was a treat to not be bombarded by advertising, but really confusing when trying to find a restaurant. 


Our first night in Havana we asked the doorman at our hotel for a recommendation for dinner.  He handed his door duties off to a fellow worker, and said; "Follow me."  We walked down dark streets, along a twisting confusing route, blithely trusting that we wouldn't be robbed - eventually arriving at an unmarked door.  The doorman indicated we should follow him inside, up five floors of progressively narrower stairways, and through another door.  A restaurant!  We would never have found it ourselves.   We tipped him - and he left us there.  Was that a good idea?  The food was good, not quite the spicy mix that we thought we would find in Cuba.  We were told that because of the ongoing trade embargo spices are too expensive, and hard to find.   Cubans had become accustomed to blander food.  We drank local beer, ate local food, watched local people enjoying their dinners.  Eventually we knew we had to attempt to find our hotel again.  Fortunately Lawrie has a good sense of direction and he led us back to the hotel - via a slightly more circuitous route.

Various forms of transportation in Cuba

At the end of our three day mini-vacation we headed back to the airport - dreading our return flight on Cubana Airlines.  We arrived in the airport, the requisite two hours before departure time.  And waited. 

We watched while the flight crew wandered out on the tarmac, coffee cups in hand, to chat with the maintenance crew.  Work stopped.  The group increased to a dozen people.  They sipped coffee, gestured, laughed, sipped more coffee.  

We waited.  Two hours!  Ah, that explains the why our Cancún flight was behind schedule. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Riders on the Wind


A cloud of frigatebirds over North Beach
On a puff of wind the large, iridescent black shapes float past, slowly gaining altitude as the warm air updrafts, or thermals, lift them higher and still higher into the atmosphere.  A slight adjustment to the tilt of a wing, the position of the tail and the bird effortlessly climbs higher still. 

Dozens of frigatebirds glide past our house joining the hundreds that are arriving from all directions.  They enter the thermal spiral, sliding in place without interrupting the flight pattern of others - all playing, soaring in the updraft.  I lean backwards, craning my neck into an uncomfortable position, trying to count the birds.  It's an impossible task with hundreds more joining in.  The spiral looks to contain a thousand or more black birds, soaring, gliding, spinning upward until they are mere specks in the sky. 


3 feet tall, and a wingspan of up to 7 feet
These enormous birds stand about 3 feet tall (about a metre) and have wingspans of up to 6 1/2 feet wide (about 2.3 metres).  The females are black with white underbellies, and the males are black with a bright red throat pouch that during mating season is inflated to attract a female.  Groups of males will put on a spectacular courtship display with their throat sacs inflated, clattering their bills, bobbing their heads and quivering their wings. 

Apparently it works - the females think they are quite handsome.  The pair will remain monogamous for the season.  Both parents share in feeding the one or two chicks for the first three months.  Then the chicks will stay another eight months with the mother, noisily demanding to be fed even though they are nearly as big as the parent.

Coordinated flight paths over Ray carcas, discarded in surf.
Unlike most ocean-going birds, the frigatebirds can't swim, can't walk well on land, and have difficulty taking off from a flat surface - but, they can stay aloft for more than a week at a time flying as much as 225 kilometres before they land.  When hunting over the ocean surface they snatch small fish, or baby turtles, using their long, hooked bills. 

When food is plentiful, the birds aren't aggressive with each other.  We have seen them coordinate their flight paths - flying in an orderly pattern from right to left over a ray carcass, picking off bits of meat.  Not squabbling, but cooperating.  All of them feasting. 

Flying in a pattern, right to left. Everyone eats!
Other times they perform like fighter pilots, using speed and manoeuvrability, attacking the another frigatebird until the food is dropped mid-air.  I have had the experience of a bright blue still-flopping fish landing beside me - the lost prize from a battle between two frigatebirds.  I put it back in the ocean, but the drop from several hundred feet guaranteed that it was not going to live.  It flipped over on its side, stunned, not moving. 

Unfortunately the two squabbling birds had lost interest in the hapless fish, and had moved on to another battle.


Peace returns when the updrafts are perfect, and another 'fly-in' begins. 

The birds once again start drifting past, slowly gaining elevation. 

Heading up, up and away.  Like Peter Pan and Wendy.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Diá de la Marina - June 1st


Naval Officers, participating in Dia de la Marina

Exuding confidence in their smartly pressed dress-whites three naval officers relax on the upper deck of the UltraMar ferry. 

A flotilla of boats, both public and private, is headed out to Manchones Reef between Cancún and Isla Mujeres.  It is June 1st, the Diá de la Marina, a floating remembrance day celebrated with speeches, prayers, and the laying of colourful floral wreaths on the ocean.
  
The Diá de la Marina was created by the Mexican government on June 1st 1917 in celebration of the first time a Mexican merchant vessel - the Tabasco - departed with the officers and crew composed totally of Mexican born seaman.  Before this date, the captains, chief engineers and officers of the Mexican vessels were all foreigners, presumably Spanish born, but foreigners all the same.  The Diá de la Marina wasn't celebrated nationally until June 1st, 1942.  That's when the crews of various ships - torpedoed by German submarines in the Second World War - were honoured. 


Local flotilla headed to Manchones Reef

The modern Mexican Navy has approximately 56,000 personal plus volunteer reserves.  It boasts a total of 189 ships, and 130 aircraft that are used to patrol 11,122 kilometres of coastline.  The naval base on Isla Mujeres was established in 1949 with an eye to help protect the mainland, assist with protecting the PeMex oil fields near Campeche if needed, and in later years to intercept Cuban refugees or arrest drug-runners. 

The naval officers and crews also respond to any natural disasters, specifically the cleanup after powerful hurricanes such as Gilbert and Wilma.  Mexico City is home to the Naval Medical School, while Veracruz has the Aviation School, and the Engineering School.  Members of the Navy as well as state police officers, and firefighters are trained for marine search, rescue and diving in Acapulco.   
Laying wreaths on the water
Our local celebration of the Diá de la Marina was well-attended. The colourful flotilla of pleasure boats, over-loaded with family and friends, jockeyed for prime positions.

Everyone wanted to be close enough to hear the speakers and able to see the flower wreaths being lowered onto the water. 

There were a few close calls. Passengers using their hands and feet pushed away a-too-close boat, shouting instructions at the captain in rapid-fire Spanish.  

"Get back.  You're too close.  Stop!"

A few boats were too close for comfort

One young ensign stood proudly at the rail of the UltraMar ferry, smiling at the sight of so many people paying their respects to his colleagues. 

I asked; "May I take a photo of you?" 

He beamed a smile at me. 

"Si, si."  

For me, his quiet pride was the best part of the experience.


Proud Naval crew member