Saturday, April 21, 2012

The colour of the goddess

Santiago de Cuba is Cuba's most Afro-Caribbean city. 
The motorcycle cop waves us down, swings his leg off his bike. My heart kicks a beat. In all the times Pat and I have visited Cuba, we've never been stopped at any of the seemingly random highway checkpoints. The road can't be flooded out, I worry; it's dry season.
Heat shimmers off the road as the officer walks over and bends to speak to our driver and friend, Rolando. "Going to El Cobre?" he asks, pushing his visor up from his glistening, sun-roasted face. "Bring back some cold water, hermano."
"Of course, brother!" Rolando replies, and we're off again, through the green and lovely landscape northwest of Santiago de Cuba. Roadside vendors sell sunflowers; panhandlers slip glittering stones into our hands when we stop.
On the way to El Cobre, 20 km northwest of Santiago de Cuba.
Our destination: Cuba's most sacred pilgrimage site, the Basilica Santuario Nacional de Nuestra SeƱora de la Caridad del Cobre.
Honouring the Virgin by wearing yellow.
Our Lady of Charity, or Lady of Cobre (there's an old copper mine nearby), is the adored patroness of Cuba. The sanctuary is full of offerings for favors requested or bestowed. Fidel Castro's mother brought a small golden guerrilla fighter to protect her son during his early mountain campaign against Batista; Ernest Hemingway left the Nobel Prize he won for The Old Man and the Sea.
A week after our visit, Pope Benedict XVI would make a landmark visit to Cuba and the shrine. For now it is quiet, a few families with babies to be blessed, a tour group annointing themselves with holy water. Something strikes me. From candles to ballcaps to sunflower bouquets, the scene has a definite colour scheme: yellow.
Here, where Cuba's complicated history and cultural mix have layered Catholic iconography over African beliefs in a complex religion called Santeria, the tiny Madonna perched above the altar at El Cobre is also worshipped as Ochun, the Yoruba orisha or goddess of love, dance, pleasure, home and happiness.
Colour has great significance in Santeria and beautiful Ochun is associated with the warm glow of yellow.
As night falls, we drop the cold water off with the policeman, still at his post, and return to Santiago de Cuba for a supper of grilled shrimp at a rooftop paladar. Then we head for the world-famous Tropicana cabaret. As the orchestra strikes up, we settle back under the stars as a parade of dancers sweeps out in incredible costume after incredible costume. Yes, there are male dancers and they shake their mambo sleeves for all they're worth, but the show is clearly a celebration of women, a celebration of Ochun, the goddess alive and well and living in Santiago de Cuba.

Goddesses of dance and celebration at the Tropicana nightclub in Santiago de Cuba.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Cherry blossoms in Toronto

Yes, this is Toronto.
Of all the beautiful things that grow better with age, the magnificent Somei-Yoshino cherry trees in Toronto's High Park are some of the best.
A photographer perches in a tree.
The donation of blossoming cherry trees, or sakura, has been a project of the Japanese Consulate in Toronto for years. With the support of private donors, the consulate's Sakura Project has planted over 3,000 trees across the province in recognition of the business, cultural and academic exchanges between the province of Ontario and Japan.
In addition to maintaining the High Park plantings, the Sakura Project is responsible for new trees at the U of T campuses, the CNE grounds, various schools and seniors centres, McMaster University and the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington.
A well-timed wedding day.
The venerable Somei-Yoshinos on the hillside walkway to Grenadier Pond in High Park were a gift to Toronto from the government of Japan in 1959 and have erupted in a blizzard of snow-like bloom for over 50 years. Thousands of people visit the trees over their short bloom period, many coming multiple times to admire and photograph the them in varying stages of bloom and qualities of light. Picnics, sakura viewing parties by moonlight - it's a real happening.
In Toronto, even the most cold-tolerant species of ornamental cherry are at the northerm limit of bud hardiness. Usually blooming in late April/early May, this year's mild winter has staff at the High Park Nature Centre anticipating an earlier bloom, possibly as early as Easter weekend. For accurate cherry blossom updates, check the Nature Centre's blog.
See you there!
Toronto's High Park is gorgeous in spring!

Is this heaven?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Canucks, inuksuks and Cuba

A secluded beach west of Santiago de Cuba.

Waves crash, palms blow, vultures wheel, clouds unspool. Here on the Costa Morena, the rugged coast west of Santiago de Cuba, all nature salsas frantically in the wind. Flopped like a castaway under a massive seagrape, sunburnt, pants torn, I suddenly get Van Gogh. Vincent never made it to Cuba but he would have known how to paint it: all agitated, spinning daubs. I need a video camera, not a pile of salt-stained sketchbooks, to record all this action. My sketches, I realize, are less a document of this trip and more an exercise in slowing down to really see nature's complex patterns. They're also signposts to feelings and memories.
Off to build another inuksuk!
Seagrape leaves fly off my tree, spinning like circus plates towards the lowering sun.  Pat will be waiting, I know, laughing with Canadian and Cuban friends back at the hotel bar where everyone meets at this time of day. I wander back along the beach, thinking about other trips to Cuba, places visited, people met.
Canadians visit Cuba to the tune of a million a year. For many, it's more than a cheap vacation spot; it has become our place in the sun. Some have been going for decades, building on long friendships and romances, getting married, making and baptizing babies. I'm always surprised, too, at how often I meet Cubans who have been in Toronto for some reason or another and express their love of High Park and snow.
Four little inuksuit stare off towards Jamaica.
As I near the hotel, I stop to photograph an inuksuk, then another. Little sentries of stone and coral, staring out to sea. Once built as monuments for communication and survival in the Arctic (the preferred Inuit spelling is inuksuk, plural inuksuit), the inuksuk is now often used officially as a symbol of Canadian friendship and cooperation. Here on a deserted Cuban beach, they are signposts to the passage of Canadians and tokens of affection for their windblown place in the sun.

I heart inuksuit, driftwood and Cuba.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Are you a right-brained traveler?

To Michelangelo, the left hand meant life.
I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about being lefthanded while growing up. Raised in a house full of righthanders, I simply adapted to  unfriendly can openers and blister-causing scissors and got on with life.
Life as a lefty, though, meant drawing a certain amount of flack. And flack is fuel for stubborn individualism.
For 1 in 10 people (a number consistent through history and all cultures), being lefthanded (and thus predominantly right-brained) has generally meant being chided for daydreaming, considered clumsy, nonconformist, possibly criminal, definitely different.
Right-brainers live in the vivid moment.
Reading Rik Smits' book The Puzzle of Lefthandedness (2011) makes me glad I wasn't born to a tribe that crippled lefty children's dominant hands with fire to force them to use their right, or live in a time that deemed lefthandedness "sinister" and equated it with magic and witchcraft. Who wouldn't be a recluse or rebel if everyone you met made the sign of the cross?
The book's a great romp through history, superstition and science. Smits concludes that swimming against the tide of  90% of humanity in fundamental ways of thinking makes lefthanders self-reliant and independent, attributes that made me a determined solo traveler while still in my teens.
Work - much of it secretarial (the QWERTY keyboard is one of the rare tools that favors lefthanded users) - had one purpose: to fund missions to see my personal grails. Wide-eyed and strangely unworried, I pursued my obsessions like Super Mario, full blast, leaping obstacles as they rose in an era before the safety net of cellphones, internet access, ATMs or easy overseas dialing for a parental bailout.
Exercising your left brain is definitely a good idea, too.
These days, I plan more but still often find trip inspiration in a single painting, building, artist bio, old photo, film, fairytale illustration, myth, legend, even the occasional nursery rhyme.
But when it comes to travel, left-brainers may be better at making it happen. Logic, time management, finance and planning skills go a long way towards turning an idea into reality. And coming up with ways to turn costly "vacations" into viable travel-related businesses.
But do right-brainers (and you don't have to be lefthanded to be predominantly right-brained) get more out of it? 
I believe travel is addictive because it stirs and satisfies the creative, emotional, sensation-seeking right brain in all of us. Every step we take frames new pictures. New smells, tastes, even atmospheric conditions, rivet our attention in the moment. The rocking of a train, even the disorienting twilight of an overnight flight through multiple time zones, eases us into a meditative state that quiets our thoughts, makes our minds more receptive, allows us to feel, not just observe.
Travel is a direct ticket past your corpus collosum into the vivid, dreamy realm of your right brain. Whether you maintain permanent residence there or just visit from time to time, it's a groovy place to find yourself.
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Monday, January 16, 2012

On a carousel in North Tonawanda, New York

This Herschell ostrich (1907) is a rare bird.

The 1916 Herschell #1 Special carousel features painted local scenes and a 1910 Wurlitzer band organ.
My aunt Angie always gave great presents. One long-ago summer, my birthday gift was a wooden jewellery box that tinkled and revolved like a real merry-go-round.  Decades later, I'm still enchanted by carousels though real, rideable ones are few on the ground.  One of the best places to find them is Western New York, a region that once supplied the world with fairground rides.
The Herschell Carrousel Factory in North Tonawanda, a community on the north edge of Buffalo, was once headquarters for carousel production in North America.
My first visit to the factory--now a museum--was pure magic.  I peeked into the carving room and admired the historical display bright with color and fantasy.  There were old kiddie cars, lovingly restored, and a small-scale merry-go-round for tots.  Inside the roundhouse where workers once assembled mechanical wonders and shipped them as far away as Tahiti, the 1916 #1 Special carousel was a sight to behold. Thirty-six handcarved horses, over 580 lights, illuminated heads and handpainted scenic panels added to its magnificence.
"Can adults ride?” I asked the attendant.
“Sure!” she replied and pointed to one of the larger and wilder-looking outer horses.  “Climb onto Big Billy there.”
The crazed-looking stallion creaked as I swung my leg over his saddle and I instantly regretted the second beef on weck—a Buffalo area specialty—I’d polished off at lunch.
But no time to reconsider.  The attendant hit the switch and Billy surged up and forward so fast I wondered fleetingly whether his last name might be Seabiscuit.  Then I gave up any thought other than holding onto the brass pole with both hands.
At 40 feet in diameter, whirling at 6.5 revolutions a minute--well, you do the math.
Flying around and around to the carnival piping of the Wurlitzer organ was sheer glee once I got used to it.  I laughed out loud, caught myself and then let it rip.  Why not?  There was no one here but me and the attendant who jigged her knees and conducted the Wurlitzer with an enthusiastic air baton.  I closed my eyes, felt the breeze on my face and channelled the spirit of my Cossack ancestors.
I drop by the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum whenever I can. It's always my birthday--and summertime--aboard the 1916 #1 Special.
The Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum is on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Sites.

In the carving room, local artisans like Bill Miller demonstrate techniques on lightweight basswood.

It's hard to believe that these beautiful carousel horses are not made from fiberglass or plastic.

The Herschell carousel museum houses the Mary W. Lockman Collection of hand-carved carousel animals.

Once Around is Never Enough! - Allan Herschell Company motto

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Toronto Christmas Market fun

The Toronto Xmas Market takes place at the Distillery District.

Toronto's Distillery District glows each December with the lights and flavours of a European-style Christmas Market.  From traditional German sausage and schnitzel to Canadian favorites like pure maple taffy and poutine, there's lots to munch on as you stroll the brick-paved lanes and duck into the shops.
This year the atmosphere is even more convivial as the Market's liquor license is extended every Friday to Sunday to allow people to wander around with a glass of mulled wine, hot toddy or beer in hand.  Who would be up for lounging around an outdoor beer garden in December? we wondered.  Everybody, it seems, when most of the patios have hand-warming heaters!
Mill Street Brewery has won many awards for its handcrafted beers and ales.

The market is worth attending twice: once during the day when it's easier to access shops and admire the funky Victorian-era industrial architecture, then on a weekend evening to enjoy the lights, crowds and outdoor winter drinking culture.  If your tolerance for cold is limited, I recommend giving the Fair a once over as you head to a performance at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts or settle in for some live jazz at the Fermenting Cellar.  If you're the hardy type, just ask your friends to meet you at the clock and take it from there.  The 2012 market is on until Sunday, December 18.  Merry Christmas, with love, from Toronto.
Stalls sell everything from crafts to snacks.

There's a carousel, Ferris Wheel and more for kids.
Toronto Christmas Market
Distillery Historical District, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Get a fair map from the info booth near the clock.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Sicily's seductive beaches & strange symbol

Castellamare del Golfo, Sicily.

The trinacria, symbol of Sicily, Italy.
More than 2,000 years ago, Greek sailors sailing the Mediterranean around Sicily gazed upon its golden shores and likened them to the alluring legs of a woman. They called the island Trinakria, or three pointed, identifying it with the Thrinacia mentioned in Homer's Odyssey.
I love to wander Sicily's beaches in the off season when it's easy to imagine ancient scenes on deserted shores.
The trinacria is still the symbol of Sicily, appearing on everything including the region's flag, though in that case the snakes coming from gorgon Medusa's head have been updated to less-threatening wheat sheaves.
I don't mind the snakes.  To me, they perfectly represent all the old mountain roads that wind all over this beautiful island.
Paradiso nature preserve is on Sicily's south coast, not far from the Greek temples at Selinunte.

Scarab beetles scurry over the dunes at Paradiso nature preserve.

Alcamo Marina, in Western Sicily.

The old tonnara (tuna fishery) at Scopello.

The popular beach town of San Vito lo Capo, Sicily, hosts an annual Cous Cous Festival.