Travel Pinch Me Moments

“You have to travel to see new light, find new hope, renew the mind and revitalize the soul.” Lailah Gifty Akita

It was summer in January on a beach in Napier, New Zealand.  The weather was hot and the sun was setting at 930 PM. The moon was out at the same time.  My new friend pinched the fingers of both her hands together and said, “This is a pinch me moment”.  I had heard of pinch me moments when someone wins an Academy Award or accomplishes a dream but I had never heard of it standing on a beach watching a sunset.  She explained that, “You pinch your fingers to save the moment. When I am sitting in my kitchen in England and I look out the window at the dreary weather, I will remember this moment.” 

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 As I watched the moon that night, it made sense that it is also the small moments that resonate in our minds. They are part of the story making events of our lives. Here are some of my travel pinch me moments. (photo by Cordula Reins)

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Looking out at the balloons in the air over Cappadocia, Turkey.

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Watching the sun set over the Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia

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Rainbow over Iguazu Falls, Missiones, Argentina

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Angor Wat, Cambodia

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Walking on the beach in Varadero, Cuba

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 Sailing on the Mekong Delta, Viet Nam

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Machu Picchu .

Seeing the elephants up close in Kruger National Park, South Africa

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The Tori Gates on Myajima, JapanIMG_1074

The view of the volcano in Santorini, Greece

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Fly safe,

JAZ

Going To Cuba With God -Part 3

Going To Cuba With God –Part 3

Santa Clara

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

The weather has changed . Another hurricane is coming. The power goes out  again in our hotel. This time it doesn’t come back on.  I am on the eighteenth floor . Luckily I have flashlights and strong legs. We leave the next morning for Santa Clara in the pouring rain . The water comes over the malecon ( sea wall) as we leave Havana.  Santa Clara is about eighty miles away. It is pouring – hopefully Valerie was praying. We are traveling with the Colombian Ballet Company. They don’t speak English and have good humor about traveling with the kids. (Kennedy Dancers, Columbian Ballet Dancers)

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Santa Clara is most famous for being the city where the last battle of the revolution led by Che Guevara took place. It is the place where Batista’s government  was toppled in 1958.

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In the center of town is a park (Parque Vidal) and a statue of Marta Abrue. Marta was the sole financial sponsor of La Caridad (Charity) Theatre. It surrounds the square and is where the kids will be performing. The building is a national monument of  Cuba and one of the seven big theatres from the Colonial era that is still standing. It has exquisite architecture and an amazing interior. The concept behind the theatre was that the proceeds were to support the two schools that Marta founded (One for boys and one for girls) for the poor children of the city.

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Parque Vidal is probably one of the most typical places in Cuba. During the afternoons, people (especially singles) visit the park to meet others. Although not widely practiced in recent times, the custom was to walk the park around and around. The women walk the inner part of the park, while the men walk the outer side. Another lost custom was for the locals to set up a platform and offer improvisations with their guitars on late Sunday afternoons.   They dressed in their guayaberas and highly polished shoes and played their music. A  guayabera is a light open-necked cotton shirt, often with large pockets and pleats down the front, that is typically worn outside the pants.

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On the other side of the square, is our hotel the Santa Clara Libre (formerly the Santa Clara Hilton). It still has the bullet holes inflicted by Batista’s forces. The rooms are small and the hallways are dark. There is nowhere to rehearse so the Spanish dancers are in the hall doing flamenco improv. They are tired of being upstaged by the tap kids. We all watch them and some of the kids dance as well. The dark hallway is transformed.

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Everywhere we go there are Cuban kids waiting to meet the American tap kids – schools, clubs, camps etc. This time it is a Performing Arts School from Santa Clara.  The children are always incredibly beautiful.   A few of them speak a little English. They watch the rehearsal and hang out after the show. The kids are given sodas. The Cuban kids are very excited about the sodas. One of the boys plays the song from Titantic and dedicates it to my daughter.  They are all having a great time and ideologies don’t seem very important.

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We leave for Havana and stop at a mausoleum which houses the remains of Che Guevara and sixteen of his fellow combatants killed in 1967 during the Bolivia campaign. There is also a reconstruction of Guevara derailing the train during the Battle of Santa Clara.

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After tearful goodbyes to our new friends, Valerie and I go home a few days early because our kids were missing too much school. (Michael and Jamilla)

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We had a long layover in Cancun and long flight.  We had visas but we were advised not to say  that we had been in Cuba unless they asked at customs. We were told that at this time if they knew we had been in Cuba, we would be there for a very long time. I asked Valerie what we should do.  She said “I am going to pray.”   We walked through in a few minutes.

“So are you a believer in prayer now?” she asked.   I laughed and did not say anything. (Kennedy Tap company)

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For the majority of Cubans life “no es facil.” (not easy). It’s a daily struggle to find food, toiletries and medicine. It is a totalitarian government  -“nothing against the state , everything for the state”. Though there are no guns or drug trafficking, prostitution is on the rise and people can be arrested for anything. But still, they are proud, kind, resourceful and highly educated. The colors, sensuality, crumbling architecture, performing and visual arts, beautiful beaches and cultural heritage, make it a great place to visit. The hope is that the life will get better here. It was an amazing trip and an honor to have met these people.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Paul and Arlene Kennedy.   They taught our kids dance and life lessons. Like the jazz music and tap dancing they loved-  they taught them that in life, you never know what is going to happen next, practice leads to excellence,  and it is always best if you improvise.

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Fly Safe Paul and Arlene Kennedy,

JAZ

Theaters of Havana, Cuba

Theaters of Havana, Cuba

“Adventures don’t come calling like unexpected cousins calling from out of town. You have to go looking for them.” — unknown

After a beautiful morning on the beach in Varadero,  we drive to Havana. It is two hours away. We see a lot of cars from the fifties, older Russian models, motorbikes and beat up buses filled with people.  Now we are in a business hotel complete with towels, private rooms and toilet paper. I put the toilet paper in my purse and ask for more. I know we will need it later.  One doesn’t come to Cuba for the food (not when Cuba is paying) or the toilets. (one of my favorite songs – Chan Chan from Buena Vista Social Club -if you don’t watch the video listen to the music while you read)

The concert tonight turns out to be at a small theatre in a very poor neighborhood. There is no place to change and the kids change on the bus. We can see into the sparse apartments around us and smell the garbage.. We are surrounded by hordes of kids and give them almost all the candy , pencils and gum we have brought. They are an amazing audience. What they lack in material possessions, they make up in the love and enthusiasm they have for dance.

At the market in the Plaza Del Armas the next day,  I found out that  the Kennedy Kids were the hottest ticket in the festival and it had been sold out way in advance. They were the first American children in twenty years to be in this important dance festival. They represented hope. We were inexplicably famous. They were on the TV and radio news every day. There was a lot of translating to do  so even  with my bad Spanish, I am interpreting for the press.  It was a reality check to see how few people spoke English.   The Cubans loved seeing the American kids walking around and  people asked for their autographs.

One of the many odd things that happened was how surprised the Cubans were to see  “ninos blancos y negros”   (Direct translation black and white children) playing together at the hotels. Apparently performing was one thing. Their  information about the United States,( like their cars) was from the fifties. They didn’t know that things had changed. They were always asking me if they were allowed to be friends.

The Plaza del Armas  (literally weapons plaza)  is in Old Havana. It is a main square surrounded by crumbling buildings. Horse and carriages (in need of repairs) wait to take you around the old city. El Floridita (made famous by Hemingway) is there.  In the cathedral square is a market selling crafts, books and paintings.  I am there every day.

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We spend a few days  in Havana. Fidel gets his money’s worth. If the kids  are  not performing, they are watching other  children perform. In the daytime, they performed at hospitals, orphanages, schools and the Young Pioneer Headquarters.

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The mission of the Pioneers  in every Communist country is to indoctrinate the young in Communist ideology. At first it felt creepy being at those headquarters seeing only what we were supposed to see. After a day with young pioneer children and teachers, they made us honorary pioneers  by tying the scarves around our necks. We were happy to join our new friends. Our group picture is probably among their photos. ( It was the year before Elian Gonzales. We saw the photos of all the Young Pioneers on the news with our neckscarves waving their fists and wondered if we knew them) (the American Pioneers)

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We go to see Giselle performed by Alessandro Ferry of ABT and the Cuban Ballet Company at the National Theatre of Cuba . It is a huge modern building, decorated with works by Cuban artists. The kids are exhausted and are all asleep when the lights go on at intermission.

It was a beautiful ballet performance – again everyone is talking about it at the Plaza de Armas the next day.  It is amazing  to be in a country that loves ballet.  Many of the wood carvings in the market are dancers.  The others are cars and cigar related things.

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The American Ambassador (yes there is one) finds out that American children are in Cuba and prepares a dinner party. There is a lot of security. They take our purses and cameras in the afternoon.  He rounds up the Americans in Cuba. The Alvin Ailey Company, some documentary filmmakers, any Americans working in Havana ( there are some) , Alicia Alonso and some of the Cuban Ballet Dancers. The ambassador turns out to be from Pasadena, California. We are also  traveling with Fayard Nicholas ( of the  famous tapping Nicholas brothers) He is there telling stories of dancing in Cuba in fifties. It is a wonderful night with good food. (Alicia Alonso -Director of the Cuban Ballet Company and Arlene Kennedy, Fayard Nicholas and Alvin Ailey Dancers, Kennedy Dancers)

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The girls take a ballet class  at the Cuban Ballet School (an old Havana mansion) with members of the Cuban ballet. The school, run by Alicia Alonso has turned out some of the best ballet dancers in the world.  They combine Cuban sensuality with classical training.  The many dancers  who defect to the west  is a very painful thing for them.  The company stars who were there when we were, now dance in the US. The school dates back to the Ballet School of the Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical de La Habana, founded in 1931, where Prima Bailerina Allicia Alonso received her earliest ballet classes. In 1962, the National School of Ballet was created as part of the National School of Art . Like all the Cuban educational systems, the  ballet training in this country is free.

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We saw other ballet performances at  the Gran Teatro de Habana.  Someone performs a dance to the Internationale – the communist anthem. The solidarity clap begins. The audience stands and many people have tears in their eyes. (The Internationale)

This prominent theater is located on the site of the former Teatro Tacón in the Paseo de Martí (Prado), in a neo baroque building known as the Palacio del Centro Gallego. It is beautiful and crumbling.(as is much of Cuba). The García Lorca auditorium provides a magnificent stage for the Cuban National Ballet Company, as well as other dance and musical performances.

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The Kennedy Tap Kids and the Alvin Ailey  company perform the next night at  a modern theatre in Havana – the Mella Theatre. It is named after revolutionary hero and dissident Julio Antonio Mella, assassinated in Mexico in 1929 under orders of then Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado. This is a modern building with a conventional stage and seating for 1475 attendees. It hosts a variety of shows, from cabaret to recitals as well as theatre performances.

By then we are pros. We sit in the first row and start the standing ovation and  the solidarity clap. American dance moms know how to get a crowd going. !!!!

Adios and Fly Safe

JAZ

Going To Cuba With God – Part 2

Going to Cuba with God – Part 2

“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  Karl Marx

 We woke in Varadero, Cuba.  A children’s ballet school had been waiting for two hours to entertain the American kids.  I wasn’t moving.  I lay in bed and watched the woman next to me carefully lock her suitcase.  We don’t speak. Did she think we were going to steal?   I also had locks and did the same – not sure who I was supposed to be worried about.

Everyone ran out. I decided to shower (in the communal bathroom) and fix my things. There was only a hand towel that felt like a dish towel. I heard ballet music.  I walked out on a terrace and there was the most beautiful white sand beach with clear blue water.  I could see the dancers on point on the concrete. It was an amazing sight.  I couldn’t wait to get outside.

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We had missed breakfast.  No worries, I had protein bars.  At lunch – cafeteria style,  I asked for coffee. “We only have coffee at breakfast,” they said in Spanish.   Now, I had no idea that I was surrounded by hotels and could have had coffee, fresh lobster and a massage on the beach at any hour of the day.  I was thinking more like prison in the middle of nowhere.  If they had coffee beans in that kitchen,  I was getting some. They finally tell me that after lunch I can have coffee.  Everyone leaves  and the kids go to rehearse.  I wait for them to serve us coffee with Indira and Elaine. A woman comes out and says “Vamos.” We walk to her house on the premises.

We sit in her kitchen and she makes us coffee. The linoleum on the floor reminds me of my childhood.  I understand more Spanish than I can speak, but we manage to talk. I don’t know how Cuba is now but fourteen years ago, the first language was Spanish, the second was Russian and the third was Bulgarian.  No one spoke English.

She is really nice. I ask her why we are here and not at a hotel.  She says that there is an increase in prostitution in the hotels in Cuba (due to the economic conditions), and Fidel did not want the children to see this. They decided a children’s camp was better for them. She and her husband run this summer and holiday camp.  Now there is school.  (after coffee)

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I tell her we need to get bottled water for the kids.  She says the water is good there. I explain politely that it won’t be good everywhere and we want them to get used to only drinking bottled water.  We walk to a store with two very muscular Russian men to carry the water.  They only speak Russian.  Elaine and I are having fun now.

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The store is small and sells only to tourists. I buy some Cuban coffee and we come back with water. The kids are rehearsing.  Though we didn’t know it at the time, the Kennedy Tap School was a good preparation for life.  Change is constant.  They were changing and reworking their dance numbers up until the first show. The kids go for a quick swim at sundown.   It is beautiful.  What an amazing beach!

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The woman in the bed next to me turns out to be our interpreter Jamilla and by the end of the day we are good friends.  I meet the rest of the people who have attached themselves to our group.  It was hard at that time to get visas for Cuba so that is how people went.  They are local politicians from LA and journalists and people to help with the tour. They all ran to the hotel next door when they saw the accommodations.  We are all having fun now.

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We leave for the theatre in Matanzas for the first of many performances  in Cuba. Everyone is nervous.

The Sauto Theatre opened in 1863.  The U-shaped 775-seat theatre is almost entirely covered with wood-panelling.  It has three balconies and Carrera marble statues in the lobby. There is no influence of communist architecture in this theatre.  As in other communist countries, they left these old beautiful theatres intact.

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It is a sub-venue for important international events held in the capital, such as the International Ballet Festival and Mayo Teatral. The Sauto presents programs about five days a week.  Considered the most elegant and functional of the 19th-century Cuban theatres, it has become a symbol of the city. The great Mexican artist Diego Rivera once said, “I recognize Matanzas by the Sauto.” The theatre was declared a National Monument in 1978.

Before they go on stage, the kids and the teachers join hands in a prayer circle.  They did that before every performance in LA as well. A prayer circle is when everyone joins hands and wishes their prayers on each other.  Their performance is amazing. “It Don’t Mean A Thing” brings down the house.

The audience is clapping wildly.  Suddenly the clapping changes.  Everyone starts to clap in unison. I can’t even begin to imagine the logistics of how such a clap could be orchestrated by one person. I find myself joining in. If you mention it to a Cuban or any person from a Soviet country,  they will not know what you are talking about. This is how they clap when they like something.  It is the “communist or solidarity clap.” You need to be sitting in an audience or on stage to truly appreciate it.  I have heard it in Russia and Croatia.  But after witnessing it, it promises to continue to astound over and over again.

On our bus back to camp everyone is excited and happy.  I notice other people on our private bus . They were some of the ballet students from the morning and their parents.  Since petrol is hard to come by in Cuba, we are giving them a lift home.  The buses are always overcrowded and sometimes people wait a very long time to get on one. We are always picking up and dropping people off. The bus driver must know everybody in Cuba.  I am always meeting new people and hearing their stories.  It turns out that I am the only one who speaks Spanish in the group.  What an amazing day!!! (public bus, Cuban and American dancers)

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Buen Dia and Fly Safe,

JAZ

Going To Cuba With God (Part 1)

Going To Cuba With God  (Part 1)

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” -Aldous Huxley

My daughter’s tap company was invited to perform at a reception for the Cuban Ballet in Los Angeles.  The director of the company, Prima Ballerina Alicia Alonso is blind. When she listened to the kids dance, her face lit up.  She liked what she heard and invited the Kennedy Tap Kids ( fifteen children ages 10-15) to perform at the world renowned Cuban Ballet Festival. They were the first American children to perform at this Festival in twenty years.

This was fourteen years ago.  Getting a visa for  Cuba at that time was very difficult.  We applied and while we we waited, we raised the money for the airfare. The Cuban government would pay for everything in Cuba. As Americans, you were not allowed to spend money in Cuba.  You could not use a credit card . There was no cell phone service, internet or atms. We didn’t get any information about lodging, meals, performance schedule or our itinerary beforehand.  We did know to bring every medical supply we could think of.   The visas  did not arrive until the day before.  It was very stressful.  I had a lot of anxiety about going.

My mother was legally blind and loved ballet , opera and theatre.  I was raised hearing stories of Alicia Alonso, the blind ballerina. I had seen her dance when I was young  and  my daughter had  done a  book report on her the year before.  I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to go if hadn’t been for her.   I had grown up with her story.

In case I wasn’t nervous enough, Hurricane Mitch ( the deadliest hurricane  since 1780) was in Cancun at the time we were leaving. We had decided to fly into Cancun because they didn’t want the kids to go past the picket signs in Miami. For the last few days, the news would show empty Cancun airport and a city ravaged by the storm.  We were still going. I  was preparing, convinced we would be staying in a storm shelter if we even made it to Cancun. I packed lanterns, flashlights , my earthquake blankets and water.  The night before I was having a panic attack.

I called one of the moms.  What are you doing  about the storm Valerie?  What are you bringing?. Her response was “I’m praying.” “You’re praying?” I try to keep the hysterical edge out of my voice.  “ Yes”, she replied. I could see that she wasn’t going to be any help.

I was so nervous that I didn’t sleep.  I was  still deciding whether or not we should go at the airport in the morning. When we arrived at the airport , the teachers and students were in a  circle praying for the safety of the journey . Really? In the middle of the airport? This was a devout group.  They practically pushed me on the plane.  The plane was empty .  The media had done an excellent  job.   We can each have our own row in coach.

The flight is relatively smooth. We land in the empty Cancun airport.  It is sunny. Valerie looks at me. I don’t say anything.  Fifty skycaps  come running toward us ( the only people around)  with their carts. Sorry, we  are just changing planes.. We take pictures near the broken glass and blown out windows .

We move on to my next fear.  It is the very small plane that is taking us to Havana.  I have a fear of small and very small planes. I sit with Arlene Kennedy on the plane.  Arlene and Paul Kennedy ran the Kennedy Dance School and Tap Company. Many famous tap dancers have come out of this school.  Arlene Kennedy had danced around the world and  had seen it all . She  dealt with all the chaos at the Kennedy  School with a quiet strength.  On the plane, she acted like we were sitting in the Chinese restaurant next door to the school having a chat.  It was exactly what I needed.

I didn’t have to worry. When the turbulence started, the Mormon missionaries sitting behind us started to sing and pray.    We finally landed.

Landing in a  Communist or Military oppressed country always feels different .  There is a lot of security and people with guns around.  (It was pre 9/11). It is quieter.  The air smelled thick with smoke. It was about three o clock in the morning for us. We waited on line for a while . They didn’t stamp our passports, but stamped a separate piece of paper. At that time it was better not to have a Cuba stamp on your passport.  There were no stores in the airport.  We were taken to a bus and driven away in the dark.

We were going to our first destination, Varedero, a beautiful resort city about a two hour drive  from Havana.  We were told that we would be in a five star hotel.  It didn’t look like a hotel – it looked like a camp.  It smelled like a tropical island.  It was very dark and there were dim or no street lights so we couldn’t see where we were.  The kids were brought into the dining room.  All they wanted to do was go to sleep. They were exhausted.  Someone brought out vanilla ice cream for everyone.  They didn’t want it. They were American kids. They could have ice cream any time they wanted. ( for dessert only)  I had to tell each one of them quietly that they had to eat the ice cream .  It was a special treat that they had prepared for us. (when was the last time you forced a kid to eat ice cream?) At the end of our trip in Santa Clara,  we saw a line that stretched out over many blocks. We looked to see what they were lined up for. It was an ice cream cart. They understood.

We were then taken to another building. We had to climb two flights of stairs with our suitcases.  I don’t travel lightly.  In addition to my regular packing, there were  costumes, dance shoes, extra food, medical and storm supplies. Thank you Tony Nicholas for carrying my suitcase up the stairs that night.  Our room has a big hole in the screen ( the size of my head). My daughter is allergic to mosquitos and I read that they were there.  ( I never saw them).  We moved into a big dorm room with all  the kids.  My daughter and I shared a twin bed . Luckily I  brought a pillow as there weren’t any.   The kids were now hopped up on sugar from the ice cream and jet lag. There was a woman I didn’t know in the bed next to us.  My daughter did not look happy. I tried not to cry.  Things were not off to a good start.

Viaje Con Cuidado,

JAZ