Category Archives: Travel

METROPOLITAN DIARY: EAST TEXAS EDITION

Last week, after wrapping up an assignment in Tyler, Texas, I decided I would take blue highways on my way home. I had taken my twin-lens reflex camera with me, and hoped to stumble on landscapes, houses, and signs that would yield fun photographs.

The backroads did not disappoint. And after what had been a cold and overcast morning, the sun broke through the clouds in the afternoon, giving me some fun photographs and beautiful light.

I saw the sign below on the opposite side of the road as I drove through Ben Wheeler. I was going to pass on it, but something nagged at me and I doubled back and took a few shots. Shortly after I started making a U-turn to get back on the road, I slammed on the brakes because several things flew off the passenger seat and the camera almost tumbled onto the car floor.

While I tidied up the passenger seat, a woman had pulled over on the other side of the road, and approached my car. I was surprised to see her, and thought, Oh boy, she’s going to ask me why I was taking pictures, someone saw me taking pictures and was weirded out by that.

But no, that was not it. She wanted to know whether I was OK. I lowered the window and after I told her that I was, she said she and her passengers were wondering if they needed to pray for me. I told her that was sweet and reassured her I was OK, and explained that I had stopped because the passenger seat was a mess.

She insisted.

As she walked back to her car she said, “We’re going to pray for you tonight. We all could use that these days, right?” I laughed, told her that was true, again thanked her for her kind and sweet gesture, and we wished each other a Merry Christmas. Then we both went on our way.

Passports and my dad

When you walk through security at a federal courthouse, you can feel – you know- that what happens there is serious business. At the Dallas federal courthouse, where I go to for hearings and trials now and then, there’s no chit chat with people on the elevators; even the employees who know one another keep work-related exchanges to a minimum.

But there are moments that add some levity and joy to the elevator ride to the courtrooms, where what transpires is often dark, bad and sad. For me, those lighthearted and happy moments happen when I see children who are going to get their passport.

To know me is to know I love to engage with children. So yes, I start asking questions: is this your first passport (often it is), where are you going, are you excited (always yes).

The little boy I chatted up today was sweet and shy, though he did answer my questions. He was getting his passport to see his grandmother in Vancouver.

I love to see children excited about their passports, a document that is loaded with the promise of adventure, and who doesn’t love that?

I’ve had the privilege of traveling since I was a practically a newborn. Wasn’t even a month old – I was 23 days old, to be exact- when I was issued my first passport. And I know that because I have it!

My dad, with whom I was very close, kept every passport I had as a minor. I didn’t know that until after he died and noted he was the only parent who signed them. It may be that only one parent needed to sign them, but in my mind, it’s a reflection of the presence he had in our lives against the absence of my biological mother, and perhaps more broadly, an indication of the fractured marriage he had to my biological mother and our equally fractured family life.

Herewith, my favorite anecdote about passports and my dad.

We needed to get our passports renewed and, as usual, he was running late. The film processing shop in Guatemala City he liked to go to to get his passport photos taken only took and developed them till early afternoon and we weren’t going to make it that day. No worry!, he said. We’ll get them taken around the embassy.

Turned out that there were people who had set up makeshift photo studios and darkrooms in garages in houses surrounding the U.S. embassy. And it was in one of those convenience stores-makeshift photo studios where we went to get our picture taken.

I was horrified. These places, with their bed-sheet like curtains that separated the convenience store from the photo studio and lab, reeked of illegal activity. But they were, in fact, legitimate businesses.

What we were given were mug shots. In those photographs, we look like criminals. But not petty criminals. Bombers, cocaine traffickers. I was nineteen, but looked much older. (See picture lower right, above.)

No way we’re going to be able to travel with these pictures, I argued. We’re going to get stopped at the airport all the time. Let’s get our passports on another day.

But my father insisted the pictures were fine and off to the embassy we went. We got our passports and never once were we stopped at an airport for questioning. We should’ve been, because those photographs are awful.

I still have that passport – and the tale of at least one adventure to go with it.

 

 

Aquí, todo es un misterio

Cubans have a variety of expressions to describe the government’s secrecy, its repression, its inefficiency and the hardships of their lives. A family friend said Eastern Europe may have had an iron curtain, but Cuba had one made of smoke and mirrors.

“Aquí, todo es un misterio”.

Here, everything’s a mystery.

That appears to be a popular expression and one of my favorites.

No one knows, for example, why you can’t go inside the airport’s baggage claim area to greet passengers. Or why passengers are let out in groups of two or three.

 

U.S. Cuba restrictions

This week, we commemorate the twenty-eighth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  For decades, the wall divided Germans from friends and family.  During that time, many Eastern Europeans seeking freedom from Soviet repression were killed trying to get past that wall into West Germany.

As they reflect on that seminal moment in our history, it would behoove U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven  Mnuchin and others in the Trump Administration talking tough about sanctioning Cuba to remember the Caribbean Island does not have a Berlin Wall.

Cuba doesn’t have good fortune, as a handful of Eastern Bloc countries did, to share a border with a democracy. The United States mainland may be ninety miles away, but that’s certainly not comparable.

For decades, Cubans desperate to escape the economic, artistic and personal repression of the Cuban government have tried their luck at sea- many unsuccessfully- in hopes of reaching the United States. They have no wall they can tear down or climb over, no Checkpoint Charlie they may be able to get through in a secret compartment of a car.

Mnuchin and others who support the embargo and tougher policies apparently have not been to Cuba.

Or if they have, they apparently have not had the conversations we had with small-business owners who are hurting in part because U.S. tourism has slowed since this summer, when President Trump first tightened the screws on travel to the Caribbean Island.

According to an Associated Press story, Mnuchin said of the new sanctions:

“We have strengthened our Cuba policies to channel economic activity away from the Cuban military and to encourage the government to move toward greater political and economic freedom for the Cuban people.”

These restrictions will do little to persuade the Cuban government into giving more freedom to entrepreneurs. In fact, successful businesses that compete against government-owned enterprises that may not be as lucrative are shut down.

The ineffective policies they’re supporting will do more harm than good to the Cuban people.

This post is an updated version of one posted 11/09/17.

‘Hu’s on First’ on the Way to Cienfuegos

My husband, two friends and I recently traveled to Cuba and in addition to spending time in Havana, we went on a couple of side trips.

I was reminded of the incident I describe below when I saw this fire extinguisher while pumping gas at a gas station in Dallas.

IMG_2791 (1)

Almost 45 minutes into our trip from Havana to Cienfuegos, our driver was stopped by a police officer. As I watched the exchange from the back seat, it became clear he was giving Rodolfo a hard time over some nonsense. Cab drivers are subjected to heavy controls in Cuba, and though I didn’t know him well, I figured Rodolfo wouldn’t risk not having his permits in order.

Apparently, cab drivers must carry a fire extinguisher in the car. Except that, as Rodolfo later explained to us, you can’t find functioning fire extinguishers in Cuba and that’s why he didn’t have one.

The officer repeatedly told Rodolfo he needed to have an extinguisher. Rodolfo told the officer he wanted to comply with the law, but could he tell him where to buy one?

This circular exchange went on for about fifteen minutes.

It took everything I had to stay in the car and not get involved, given my proclivity to want to run my mouth when I have no respect for authority. I was ready to pay a bribe, but wasn’t sure this cop was the type to take it and didn’t want to get Rodolfo in trouble.

In the end, the officer let him go with a warning.