A modern-day Marco Polo travels the world. On foot! That's me, veteran of a 50-state road trip and 2,000+-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. O.K., I do take breaks, both to lead tours in NY, DC, Boston, and Philly, and work as a mover's concierge, helping people to organize garage sales, pack, and move. The key is to keep moving. cesarwalks@yahoo.com/ 1-305-444-1932; 14021 sw 109 street, miami, fl 33186; usa; north american continent

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Of Crusts and Crying; Little Angels showered in love.

Photo: Little 5 year old Oliver and 3 year old Sadie enjoy looking at a ladybug outside of The Nelson Gallery's expansive lawn....Kansas City, Missouri

I should be so lucky to be faced now with the insignificant pain of writers block when so many in my family are enduring true pain, true loss and true sorrow.

Winds of change have swept into my family. Sometimes they blow to topple and knock down for a bit and other times…..other times those winds…sweep away.

There are times on my voyage that remind me of the day of the passing of my grandmother. I was 8 I believe and a phone call sounded from inside the house (I was playing outside with my dog Blacky)…a sound I normally never hear. I mean I’m outside, the phone inside.

But in this day I heard it. Like a siren. At the very same moment, Blacky looked at me, solemnly and he had calmed down to the point of near “sleepy-dog-ness”. This was a Labrador, a wild one at that. Blacky was never sleepy.

So strange was his demeanor…that I sat down on the very edge of my “terraza” and began to pet him. Normally this would throw Blacky into spasms of delight. Not this day.

On this day he was preparing to tell me something.

I heard my mother say “Ayyy, la pobre!” And I looked into Blacky’s eyes and they were saying; “it will be OK” (not easy mind you, but OK.

My Grandma passed away. It would be the first time I would see my father cry. Mommies cry, and I had seen my mommy cry lots of times. But loss is loss and fathers and sons are not exempt from its power.


Last week as I crossed the last few miles of Missouri and headed to the Kansas Border….strong winds were blowing east. I was walking west.

So strong were they that for five days my face had not seen the sun. Covered up I was minus my glasses peering out, as the rest of my body built up sweat from no less than 12 layers of clothing head to toe (4 layers on legs, 4 around my upper body, two on my head and face and even two pairs of gloves).

With the windchill, the temperature read 20 degrees on one particular day. On that day gusts were being clocked at 40 miles and hour. Mostly I was walking against a steady wind at 30!

My plan was to do 7 days of this. But on the 5th day, the spirit of the crossing was diminishing. The winds were not slowing down. I had had a lovely, epic, challenging time…but it was time to stop.

I listen to inner voices when to stop and when to start. Consequently I start and stop a lot. On this day, Saturday, there was something that was telling me, it was time to break.

As the sun set, the family that was to pluck me from out on the cold that day… called to tell me to turn around. I did. And at that moment, round 5 something, the moon was in eclipse. A sight that could be seen the world over.

An event, like my Blacky settling down, like the winds that inexplicably blew for 5 days straight….that rarely takes place!

Just one hour later, the call would come from Miami….a call that would stop time,…it was my sister…telling me of another event taking place that rarely happens, is never hoped upon and is without understanding.

Our cousin….three year old Alyssa… was in a coma.


In the middle of my five day crossing into the state of Kansas I had been connected thru a friend to a family I had never met that would take me in and shuttle me around on two of the windiest days.

They have two precious kids; one a vivacious 5 year old boy named Oliver and a remarkably pudgy-cute-as-can-be 3 year old girl named Sadie.

Little Sadie has this infectious laugh that rolls for minutes. Until it blows up into a massive guffaw..that defies the little lungs it is emanating from.

She wore two high pig tails and a mess of colorful clothing, striped leggings and plastic beads and toted around a small green “blankie” as well as a doll named La-Fonda!

As word came in about the pain and panic setting in at Miami Children’s hospital…my mind went blank until I arrived at their door and Sadie was there transfixed to a cartoon…she turned and smiled.

It was all I could do to keep my composure.

The next day was a total anomaly. Sunny, warm. I even had the chance to eat outside on the porch. One layer. No wind. A strange peace had descended.

I ate my grilled cheese sandwich across from Sadie who was dipping hers in her tomato soup…mimicking her brother Oliver. Only Sadie had trimmed triangles without the crust and Oliver had his in long rectangles.

A few minutes earlier, I saw Sadie quizzically eye my sandwich which still had the side crust intact. As if to say; “I thought all sandwiches were neatly trimmed like mine!”

Small children can simultaneously be the greatest source of happiness and sadness.

Their happiness and victory in anything they do brings us the ultimate in filling our “joy” cup and overflowing our emotions to the point of feeling like we are walking on air.

Their sadness (over anything…blankies included) and defeat in anything they do, has us promising to do anything it takes to bring back that smile.

In either case, the parents have an active roll in their learning. They (both Alyssa and Sadie) could experience sadness and happiness because they know the extremes of both. To know sadness and loss you must know happiness, to know happiness and victory you must know sadness.

As you can imagine most three year olds cry almost violently when they cant get what they want. I say most because some, sadly don’t get that love. And that is indeed more horrific than anything that could ever be inflicted upon an innocent child.

And there in lies the only truth that matters.

Alyssa and Sadie are and will always be fortunate and in loving hands because we know that they experienced that unequivocal and unconditional love and are still very much in a world of innocence and clouds.

One is puzzled about a triangled grilled cheese sandwich that still hasn’t been relieved of its side-crusts, the other one now looks down from the heavens at a father and mother and wonder why they cry.

From their standpoints….they cannot understand a reality with crusts and crying. What they don’t know or cant understand is that a world without crust and crying can only be protected, delivered and prepared by loving parents.

Alyssa was loved without a shadow of a doubt. She knew only happiness and love and knew her two loving parents.

Many of us, as hard as it may seem to some….aren’t as fortunate or as with life, they are exposed to things even parents cant protect us from.

With love (my dear little cousin)…Cesar Alex

I have asked a friend who is the president of The Native Plant Society to procure a rare little slow growing, but strong little tree with its nickname “The Tree of Life”. It is a native of south florida and can be found in the Caribbean. It is called Lignumvitae. It is on the threatened and endangered list and so each time it is planted is a small victory and I think a fitting little memorial that when the time is right we can plant somewhere in Alyssa’s honor.

Cesar Becerra, Columbia, Missouri

Monday, January 01, 2007

REvisiting Europe allows me a REvisit to family bonds...Modern Day Miami Griswalds visit Rome and Madrid

It was touch and go wether we even were going to make it. A massive 5 hour flight delay - three of which had us sitting on a stuffy plane - had us at Miami International Airport when we should have been getting ready to touch down on the Iberia Penninsula for our first flight to Spain. A connecting flight that was now extinct had further problems since the computer failed to print out an extra ticket for my father who shares my same name...only on this day the computer wanted only to print me a ticket.

I will spare you all the boring details but 23 hours later from the moment i left my parents home in Miami, we finally touched down in Rome, Italy and were reunited with my brother Carlos who had been travelling about 3 and a half weeks by that time.

A half hour later we were at the Starwood Hotel Michealangelo and after plopping our luggage down we went for a brief 10 minute walk that took us in the middle of St Peters Square - though the square is in fact round and bordered by massive columns the size of rocket ships....in short it was impressive and a dream come true for us all....particularly for my brother who upon watching the Pope speak last year on his annual midnight mass (la misa del gallo) uttered a challenge and a call to arms; ¨next year we should all be in Rome at this service and spend Christmas with the Pope!¨

And so it was that brother ¨Chuck¨(carlos is his real name but we all have nicknames for each other) awaited us with an impromtu but real live Christmas tree (branch sticking out of a hotel wastebasket) with small and colorful chocolates as the decorations.

Thus started our European vacation which really ended up being a lovefest of heartfelt realizations that no one knows you better, nor do you share more intimacies than that of with your family.

And speaking of family and travel traditions, we love to take photos, so i've put nearly 300 of them here on my photo site www.flickr.com/photos/planetcesar/sets/72157594454958371/

But before i get to all the ¨deep¨realizations and observations let me recap a bit about my impressions about Rome and Madrid. And before i do, let me add that i could go on ages about both these countries but i´m actually on overload and need to process it better by re entering the US and reacting to the contrast of how different life is there. I´m now so used to the following that the old life seems a bit of a dream;

I´ll start with Rome and Italy in general. First of all, no matter what my mom tells me that the languages are different, its pretty clear to me that maybe 60 percent of the words in italian are decipherable if you havea good command of spanish...which i have an alright command over.

So i did not feel that out of it. None the less this does not mean that communications were always clear... particularly at restaurants where at times massive amounts of food were brought out...for example when we ordered an appetizer and several paninni sandwiches for the family members and told the waiter "we´d share". On one ocassion it turned out that everybody got a personal portion as a meal and on another we each got a smorgasbord of pizza in ever concievable variety!

Normally this is not a problem but we ended up on a few ocassions cancelling some of our main courses cuz there was just too much food already on the table....plus and this is important....things are quite expensive in Rome.

This is of course an understatement. THINGS ARE VERY EXPENSIVE IN ROME!

Though i treated the family to a few meals the majority of the trip was a gift from my parents to us and i suspect to themselves since it really brought them great joy to see us all together. So we had to watch it. How expensive could a meal be...well lets start you off with the tale of ¨The Coca Light¨

A ¨Coca Light¨is basically like a diet coke....wait no...IT IS A DIET COKE, only the diet coke at most in the states is like what a buck, buck and change....but over here in Rome i made the mistake of ordering what amounted to be the MOST EXPENSIVE DIET COKE on the planet. Are you ready....how but 9 bucks! Six and a half Euros ends up basically being 9 bucks! For a diet coke!

Thats worse than the two dollar chips at Mount Vernon outside of Washington DC!

Another observation is that this place is not Hollywood or Disney World. What i'm referring to is that after a few blocks of the inner core of the historic district there generally is a creeping in of new buildings, more modern...hell even glass like office monstrosities. Not here.

For blocks upon blocks and mile upon mile in any one direction....Rome is Rome. Old as hell. Ancient. Authenticly ancient. Which is a blessing. A blessing that i was in awe over since everything i was looking at was at the very youngest 3 or 400 years old. Of course there were plenty of really ancient 1,500 nd 2000 year old structures to boot!

Amazing. I really kept thinking behind all of this was wooden 45 degree angle bracing holding up a false front like on a Hollywood Western movie set. But it was not to be. This place is for real.

Restaurants are notoriously old school, old fashion and helmed by old waiters, waitresses who really could care less about "flair" and the pomp and circumstance that goes along with a Chilis or Applebees-like experience. Also, one bathroom stall generally for the whole place. These are tiny mom and pops. There are very few big chain anythings in Rome or Madrid. Of course there is McDonalds but its not like Western styled restaurants have taken over. Nope. Just slow and methodic mom and pops....with.....

GREAT FOOD! Boy did we eat well. Amazing food. But remember the norm there is to order two plates....since at times they separate the meat from the potatoes or veggies. But carefull...these Euros add up. Even at McDonalds. One American Dollar is like 75 or 80 cent Euro there....not quite the buck....so yu loose out.

Cars are mega tiny. Mega tiny. And gas is somewhere in the vicinity of 11 Euro per liter. And cars park anywhere. On a sidewalk, half on a sidewalk, stuck in a nook or alley way. One car i stood next to looked more like the Clown Car yu see at a circus than a real car....but it was no joke. There is just no room for big SUV like monstrosities....though i saw more regular cars in Madrid than in Rome.

In Madrid, no one sleeps. Well most folks. Our hotel room might have well been right on the street surrounded by rice paper walls! I slept fine, but i'll sleep through anything. However in the morning my sister and mom and dad would recount how loud passerbys were and how one morning my sis was awoken at like 4:30 by party revelers. Of course i was confused; "huh? I didnt hear a thing!"

So take ear plus if yu sleep lightly in Madrid.

And careful with Cherry Bomb finatics. We were there on New Years Eve in Madrid when every now and then they monstrous terrorist sounding bombs would explode (i said explode not "pop") near us. On one ocassion an M-80 (that is a highly illegal quarter stick of dynamite) was set off in an arched hall leading out of the Plaza Mayor....holy cow, i really thought a real bomb had gone off.

Speaking of bombs....Etta, the militant, quasi terrorist group wanting to ceceeed from Spain....set off a bomb in the Madrid airport 3 days before our departure back to the states. Nearly 3 floors of parking lot the sise of half a football field was deleted from existence as well as (just from the shock waves) 3 floors of glass more than 200 feet away were removed (i.e. shattered) from the front of the airport entryway at the very terminal we checked in at making our departure cold enough to stay layered up (gloves even) while checking in our bags in what used to be the "inside" of the airport.

By the way Madrid airport is perhaps the most beautiful airport in the world. Think large blanket like roofing billowing for nearly a mile. Except its all steel and glass and wood. So organic, yet its not....or is it....in nay case it was quite an optical illusion.

So okay, amidst all this architecture, culture, history and expensive food....what i really learned is that my family is a riot. And just when i thought i knew them...well....i get to know them even better....discovering things ironically thousands of miles away where i hadn't been able to on casual visits back home.
Maybe its the dynamic of removing them from the norm....or maybe its European pixie dust but here is what i learned;

Mom; Olga Becerra, code name "Mami" or "Olguita"

Mom, turns into a child when she travels. Doubly so if all her children are with her. It gives her balance and calm. I know this because during the fiasco with the airline hick-up, she and i went to see if we could fix the problem at the main counter. We briefly separated from my dad, sister and brother and after a cell phone call that they had moved gates and were about to board another flight, my mom began to unravel. Close to the point of tears, she nearly fell apart when a gate attendant explained we could not go back in because our tickets did not match the new gate our family was now at.

I calmed her down (funny role reversal of when i was a kid and when mom was the one to settle my pangs) calmly explained to the supervisor and were then let in.

My mom touches my heart like few others do. Dad of course touches it to and on another ocassion;

Dad; Cesar Becerra Sr. ...AKA "Papi" or "Magni" (for the magnificent!)

He was walking and talking to me about what his life would be like if he had never left Cuba. At that instant, his foot slipped off the curb....and in a dash to reclaim his footing his body inverted as he fell on his side. On the way down, for some reason i got a view of his head...hair white and grey and thinnning....it was a dad far removed from the young one i always saw him as. The jet black hair...lots of it.

In the end, like mom, i was there to lift up his spirits (another roll reversal) as well as him. He was down. And though of course he could have very well gotten up himself...i helped him anyway....patted his back for 5 minutes as he stewed about how much this was gonna hurt tomorrow!

Speaking of patting.....here is what i learned from sis;

Sister; Leslie Becerra....nic-name "La Princessa" or "Flaca" (thin)

"Don't do that!"....."Don't pat me, i'm a big girl now!" She sure is and careful to have pitty on my sis.....she does not like that. Guess what? Sister has grown up. I mean i knew that but she is smarter than a whip and proved it on many an ocassion where deft crunching of numbers came in handy such as dollar to Euro conversions were concerned but on another silly level where my brother and i were calculating the cost of something and we generalized way off....to which Leslie provided the exact (to the decimal) amount...."thank you very much!"

Sis is an accountant, and a jet setting one too. When returning to the states she would be boarding yet another plane in less than 2 hours bound for Chicago to begin her work at Price Waterhouse Coopers, one of the top three accounting firms in the world!

Hell she is even a marathon runner that got me into my new passion "my four mile mondays"...see i accompanied sis on a practice run one Sunday in Rome and i was amazed i was not COMPLETELY out of breath. So the next week...on a monday in Madrid, i sealed the habit firm and stated...after the next 40 minute, 4 mile run (jog really); "i'm doing this no matter where i'm at...on mondays!

So sis is on her own and making it in the world, and speaking of making the world his....there is...

Brother; Carlos Becerra....Alias...."Brother Chuck" or "Goyito" (a nic name my mother gave him as a kid, i think it just was a simplification of some baby babble he would say)

Brother Chuck i found at a really good time at his life. I may be biased but at any moment yu find yur self in a major job or even career transition....you are guaranteed to stretch and grow just by the mere fact that something has come to an end (in this case his job as Chief of Staff of a prominent business leader who was a Dade County Public School Board Member) and something innevitably gets born, launched or even re-calibrated.

I think my brother is headed towards re-calibration. But i'm only guessing. I saw a brother who had been released from the grasp of a cruise-controlled life. Not that he was in a job that didnt afford him surprizes or challenges (it did) but i think it had become somewhat predictable....and some of us can only do predictable for only so long.

A hi-light for his search was in hearing him say he "might be looking at anothe city" outside Miami. Which i have to agree can be a wize move for growth and even opportunity but mainly perspective.

My late uncle once told me. "You won't be growing till yu leave Miami and enter and unknown." He was talking about New York, L.A. or anywhere else but the main point was, spread yur wings, fly and see the world, but don't be afraid to temporarily inhabit another reality.

Inhabiting another reality really is what this trip was about. And in doing so one learns of oneself, of their own family of other cultures.

Rome and Madrid's memories are in the past but their current day lessons and insights are seared into my present; and i find....another layer...of a strong and sturdy foundation....has been poured.

Cesar Becerra, Chattanooga, TN

I´ll let you do the math on the food but lets just say you have to watch it.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Aaron and Jerry, my extended brothers/family in Orlando

Home is most definately a state of mind. I know i know some folks say to me "how can yu sleep at a different place each night?...what about your favorite pillow? etc"

The real truth is that i have been travelling so long that it just doesnt matter. And really i'm not moving each and every day. I have what i call "pockets" of time and particular places that i set up shop, chill, relax, think. South Florida is obviously one; since family, friends and loved ones are there, i can chill out quite a while and not wear out my welcome. Chattanooga at the Bridges home is another. Boston, New Hampshire, Marthas Vineyard, DC even Los Angeles....all places where friends harbor me while i'm at a crossroads to think and act on another step to future plans.

Couchsurfing.com helps out to. In a pinch if i'm staring at a week off and there is little time to get back on trail or my next job is still a week away....i'll zap out some e-mails to hosts that open their home to travellers or nomads like myself and i swoop in, make new friends, cook, take in a new city.

One of my favorite Oasis' would definately have to be The Palm Lakefront Resort and Hostel (see www.orlandohostels.com or call 407-396-1759 or e-mail them at palmlakefront@yahoo.com) owned and opperated by a team of brothers that have come to be a part of my extended family.

Its been so long taht i cant really remember exactly when i met Aaron and Jerry who run in my opinion the most beautiful, relaxing and friendly (not too mention popular) Hostel in the world (that last opinion is shared by many internationals who have told me the same even in far off places). Located in Kissimmee, FL, just a few miles near Disney World and other Orlando attractions...the "Orlando Hostel" (as its most commonly referred to as)...is one of the MUST STOP AT spots when European backpackers come to "tour the states".

Jerry and Aaron might reside in Orange County, but their reputation and love is spread throughout the world as traveller upon traveller goes home to the far corners of the world and remember to write thank you post cards that get posted on the lobby wall. How many times do yu remember itching to write back to the manager at the local Motel 6? This is no ordinary place....it trully has a quality reminiscent of Leo Decaprio's tight knit clan in his paradise pad called "The Beach"....of course in the telling of this story there is no guns, marijuana farmers and shark bites! But the photo zapped to him at a anonymous internet cafe at the end of the film (that subsquently fills him with longing and nostalgia) is not too far removed from my feelings for the place.

Now typically when yu speak of lodging for tourists or travellers....the last thing yu think about is nature or natural surroundings. But in this case i will begin my description far from its comfy private rooms and clean bunk styled hostel accomodations and work my way back from a few dozen feet from Jerry and Aaron's helm at the front desk where at times they seem staple gunned to the place as piles and piles of hungry, tired, curious, antsy and happy journey-folk migrate to as they get ready to "attack the (theme) parks" or rest up from a busy day doing so.

To begin with, the old motel - turned hostel - is situated on the banks of a large Orlando lake called Lake Cecile, with an old dock that leads out 40 feet into the water...providing two levels of remoteness and detachment from the real-time carnival taht is Orlando's increasing mecca of tourist-trap-like atmosphere. On this very dock one can read, think, or dream away as canoes, fishing enthusiasts, moss covered Cypress trees, paddle boats and water skiers whisk by under battleship clouds that are best seen above such a large blue expanse.

Just steps away from the dock lies an old styled motel pool graciously and generously situated at the end of the 5 acre site half of it greened by a wide expanse of green lawn that anywhere else would have been gobbled up by more development, expansion etc....I say old-styled simply because it resembles more a private home pool than that of a resort hotel pool. During the day you can find folks (mainly pasty white European students) lounging around without a care in the world....taking in one of Orlando's forgotten and taken-for-granted gifts; its sunny, warm, and glorious weather.

On those ocassions where i find myself with a block of a few days either exiting or entering Florida on my way down to Miami....i will drop by and stay just to lounge by that pool, that is as i said next to that expansive lake. Mind you, my parents have a pool....so its not the pool itself...its the setting...oh and one more thing.....i have to admit....the foreign setting of listening to languages around the pool i CANNOT decipher....which for me is part of the kick.

Working slowly my way again towards Aaron and Jerry's roost at the front desk....our next stop is the fountain located amist quiet benches and shrubery that although not to the level of The Pallace of Versailles...is for this setting a break....or last stand buffer zone before you leave that quiet and pristine paradise before another waft of happiness hits the lucky traveller as next you will probably find a bevy of guests cooking at one of three bar-B-Ques and park-like pick-nic tables adjacent to a lively game of Volley Ball which always seems to be the thing to do while the steaks/burgers/hotdogs are a cookin!

Though not on tap, beer flows freely thanks to the hostel's close proximity to a neighborhood supermarket called "publix" right across the street. Of course you need to be 21 to purchase and drink alchohol in the states. In any case, in all the visits i've been there i have noticed NONE of the shenanigans that generally follow American tourists...as the Europeans take to alchohol earlier in their lives and "drinks" constitute more of a light social enjoyment than than that of a tabooed reach in asserting age, independence or rebellion.

Next up on our tour is the screened in sun porch! I'm telling you, this place is amazing....i havent even gotten to the main hostel yet.....which is the point here at Orlando. Other hostels act more as a place to set up camp, hold your gear, while yu see a city. At Aaron and Jerry's, the hostel in a sense IS the ACTUAL spot you come away talking about. I have been at other hostels, where i have heard the common refrain; "You going to Orlando...the hostel there is the best!" Instead of "dont miss Disney World!" On the sun porch, larger groups use this area to set up meetings, mini conferences or if there is a lone Maestro in the bunch....chill by the piano and enjoy some tunes as the palm trees, Australian/and Caribbean Pines and cypress trees surrounding the property lull back and forth in the gentle breeze coming off the lake.

Ok, now....finally indoors....you can find yourself in the main "common" room or as i call it "the Map Room" since on one rather large wall there exists a mural of the worlds continents and countries where some travellers have written small messages near where they originate from on the planet! I have my name down near Miami (since Miami was pretty full). So even furthering my sense of place or home is the fact that the very walls here bear my name!

Inside this room you'll find two couches, coffee table, the daily newspaper, chairs and tables for eating, chatting, playing cards, opening oversize bus maps as the hostel is right on the line for a direct dollar fifty bus ride to Disney World!

Next to this room is the kitchen. The massive kitchen, complete with two ranges, ovens, small and almost walk in refrigerator. Actually the one near the sink is one of them convenience store varieties where thanks to the glass doors yu can see everything inside. Named and unamed (remember to put yur name on yur food or it will get pilferred) bags of goodies from cheeze to steaks can be found in here ready to fill a backpackers belly up by the end of a long day at the parks. This place gets hopppin round 6pm. I have been known as others have as well after pitching in a few bucks....to cook my great Cuban Meal for at least 12 hungry new friends. And i might add, new friends from all over the world!

On one ocassion, during the height of Hurricane season a few years back (Hurricane Jeanne to be precise) i was cookinvg late into the night as all the guests huddled inside the common room as the storm passed over and i recall counting guests from no less than 14 places on the Globe. On that very night in my presence were folks from Uganda, South Africa, Italy, Spain, S. Korea, Germany, England, Ireland, Denmark and the list went on.....basically a mini United Nations all at yur fingertips. talk about a shrinking planet. the internet is one thing but to have everybody in front of yu - flesh and blood - welll.... there is just no substitute for that!

And finally we reach the final room. That which brings me both Joy and a bit of sadness....is that of the front desk. The very place where Aaron and Jerry find themselves day in day out. I say sadness because although it is not backbreaking work (though they might disagree) they have to "man the fort" so to speak just about every hour of the day. And if yu know how needy travellers can be, well then yu know that at times i'm sure the allure of the job can wear thin. Though i also see great happiness and a bit of gloating for having and helming such a cool job....at their very fingertips (or desk) the world comes to them.

They might have come to see the mouse, but first they see the brothers at palm lakefront for guidance, a room, bunk, directions, deals and a friendly smile.

I have waited patiently on many ocassions overhearing Aaron welcome folks, ask questions, share anecdotes about others of their nationality that might have stayed there a few days, weeks or in the rare ocassion of an odd country....months before. No longer does the weary traveller stress from shuttles or confusing buses from airports, delayed Amtrak or Greyhound journeys or the damned HEAT!

But they soon have their things in a room, their eyes on the lake, feet in the pool and the tough decision of going to the parks now or perhaps leaving that for .....another day!


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Cuba on my mind....in my body....part of my soul.

So removed am i at times from the rest of the world that quite frankly i must hold the dubious distinction of having been the last person on earth to know that Castro is dead, almost dead...at least has given up power (temporarily/for good?).

I got an e-mail from my ex-wife. How's that for the island still having an impact on my life. (still raw from the divorce, i hadn't heard from her in a while, i respected her need to no not contact me, and it had been weeks, then thanks to Castro, an e-mail from my ex!). So far i'm liking the impact his mishap has spawned. I'm not one for burning bridges so i'm also probably one of the few non-parent divorcees that still wants a friendship with their ex. Come to think of it the issue with Cuba is not so far removed from bitter or sweet divorces.

Mind you this is an island i have never visited....lest yu count in my mind. "Hope your going to write about this?" and that's all my ex-wife said...the subject line said "Castro"....so even then i had to wonder; "is he dead....no way!" Either way...she wrote me! Yay. Thanks Dr. C.

My fingers pecked furiously onto google. I downloaded an NBC news clip with Matt Lauer waxing on about an operaton and ceding power. Wow. This is it....but what is "it".

For years i grew up in a parallel universe of hotdogs by day and rice and beans at night. Cuba was always on the back-burner, especially at parties. While us kids were galavanting in the yard the "adults" would yap on about politics (Cuban politics of course) and they could go on till 1 or 2 in the morning....easily.

Time and time again; "Well he doesnt have long to go! He's getting old you know. He cant live forever!" That was when i was 10. At twenty it was the same broken record. 30? Ditto.

There are two things i believe you need to know concerning the whole Castro thing; One. Nothing lasts forever and Two; There is always good that comes from bad.

The first one is simple. It was innevitable that he goes, or will go, or might go. Gosh even now, the dude cant just die. Castro never does anything with great finality. There is allways a grey area. A MASSIVE grey area with him.

But on the second front, the one about good from bad. Lets face it, and i'm a radical mind you and certainly this is gonna sound odd to some of my family.....but in a sense Castro's entrance into the cuban history books spawned a movement (literally as many 100 thousands have moved to America to start life anew) that has allowed many (my family included) to live a life of freedom and prosperity that exclipses anything they could have achieved in Cuba.

Now i will get some debate on this since both sets of my family did very well for themselves in Cuba before Castro (beach side homes, maids, businesses strewn all over the island) but in this country they not only have matched that but in many instances have suprpassed it. Monetarily is one thing (there are some members of my family that are quite well off) but i'm focusing on stability and freedom of mind for the future.

Lets face it, Cuba was allways in flux. There was allways some quiver of a fault line in its politics and therefore the ability to sustain any sense of success, hard work, piece of property.....was going to be a risk. You can thank both Spain and America for that. And since we're talking Castro today, let us not forget that one of the main reasons or THE main reason he came to power in the first place was to throw off the shackles or marrionette strings being pulled by both Washington DC and the mafia in Cuba....that lets face it.....were indeed running the place.

Yes Cuba was technically its own sovereign state but when we (the USA) helped (key word here is HELPED, since the revolutionaries in the 1890's were doing quite well on their own in devastating Spanish military rule) kisck Spain out of Cuba and give back the country to the natives or newly minted Cubans......it would be key to know (since you will not find this detail in high school yearbooks) that the American Flag flew over Cuba for 4 years......AND IT ALMOST DIDNT COME DOWN.

From 1898 to 1902, Washington DC, not Havana, debated about what to do with "Cuba Linda" and in the end decided to give it back (actually they were bound by law to thanks to an ammendment pushed thru by Cuban revolutionaries living in exile at the time) but not without first "helping" them draft a constitution (that looked and sounded like ours - no problem there) and "helped" draft their trade/tarrif issues (that benefitted - surprise surprise, U.S. businesses) that eventualy really ended up running the place.

Which is why leader after leader was toppled, sent away, or de-throned......until Castro came along and said.....this is it. "I'm in charge" Good or bad, Castro did things his way. Look the guy is a monster, i have personal accounts of his attrocities, and i believe them. My family's gardener was a political prisoner for 20 years. My cousin who just arrived has told me first hand (fresh - not 40 year old) accounts of the political injustices, lack of possibilities etc. And a dear friend and fellow radical http://www.tcpalm.com/tcp/local_news/article/0,,TCP_16736_4886491,00.html
has also taght me lots about the truth about Cuba.

And the truth is, is that it is complicated. Yes, they have very little there in terms of stuff, food and options. But here we have too many. I think so much so that it very well might be oppressing us as much (al-be-it on the opposite side of the spectrum) as the folks in Cuba (my "hente") are oppressed.

Because of Castro; i am free to be me, free to think the way i want to think, go where i want to go. Because of Castro; my family can build a stable....long range future and not worry about the government taking over their businesses and confiscating items and property they worked hard to earn. Because of Castro; i would not have met amazing friend from Cuba that has opened my eyes about the realo truth about Cuba (for many years.....i had no idea who to believe). Because of Castro; I began my world walk in Key West.....since i told everybody the last place i want to walk as i go around the planet is Cuba....."after Castro dies".

He is and has colored our every or most of our present past and future. No Cuban, Cuban American or Miamian for that matter that can say that Castro hasnt impacted their lives. I believe if you press further and ask if he has impacted their lives for the better or for the worse...most might have to think twice (with the exception of those that have lost loved ones in his jail cells, firing lines, or on rafts) about the answer.

But the answer is always gonna be "well.....its complicated!"

Thats the only answer.

So....will Castro die. Is he dead.

I dont know. But i do know that a building block in the foundation of who i am has a piece of him in there. Cant escape that.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Trail Days hits the BigTime; The good, the bad...the muddy!

It was supposed to be hotter than the dickens this weekend but nooooo, as Bill, Becky and I approached Damascus for the annual Trail Days convention the sky just disappeared. Any lofty soft orange clouds that were left by day's end was enveloped by a black sheet of cotton so thick it turned dark within 3 minutes time.

And then it came. The rain, the cold front and the nippiest air....came
in to chill our bones as we huffed down Becky's delicious cheese ball and crackers next to the heater that was now on full blast at the Days Inn in Abingdon, VA.

Becky kept fidgeting to Bill about something. Little mini whispers and
prodding told me something was up. And just as i suspected, Becky was
urging him on to assist me to pass out the packets they stuffed the week before. But i said "no". They are too good to me but i could not let them get involved in a night of chaos. Not too mention get soaked to the bone in this chilly rain.

So i bid them farewell and off i went on my midnight ride into Damascus
to pepper the town and its estimated 600 hikers that descend on it each
year....info....on my talk for Trail Days, my new web site and
basically on myself.

Kamikaze marketing i call it. Others call it Gorilla marketing. Either
way, tonight would turn out to be a doozey of a journey much of which was very reminiscent of my Appalachian Trail (AT) hike in 2001.

Weeks before I had prepared a flyer promoting my world walk, AT book,
and website. I scoured the dollar stores for little goodies like candy,
Easter chocolate (hey it was at 50% off) and tea bags. I also had from my last professional organizing job, a crap load of soy chocolate milk packets.

So I had Becky and Bill stuff this all inside 400 zip lock bags so I could hand them out the night before my talk.

On my way over to Damascus that night I was worried that I had gone too
far. Maybe it was too many years back and my recollection was more tents than were really there. My ambitious side gets ahold of me sometimes and I go too far.

As I arrived in town I soon realized I was probably not only well prepared but under prepared. The power of Trail Days – that of the virtual black plague of hikers that descends on the town – has not died. It is alive and well. Just as a moth is attracted to light, hikers, hungry hikers in particular, are attracted to Damascus from parts near and far.

That’s not to say Trail Days hasn’t changed. In fact I’m sure since its inception in 1987 (begun by local resident Charles Trivett who wanted to honor the thru hikers) the changes have been night and day. But I’m more focused on just the last 6 years. My first trail days was 2000. That year, I must admit I saw trail Days thru a long lens and a bit far removed from the ground view of real AT hikers. I stayed at The Appletree Bed and Breakfast, then the ONLY B&B in Damascus….there are now about 4.

The tents were conglomerated that year along the river bank and in between the Baptist church and the Old mill restaurant. That’s all. Maybe 200 tents. The same was said for the following year and the year after, as I kept returning to give talks and see Trail Days grow.

Growth is a double edged sword. Sometimes and it is my opinion on this event a folksy, small town event like Trail days can grow too big for its britches, and so it was when I entered the now “designated” camping area, way outside of the town square. Now I’m sure the town has its good reasoning for moving the campground area so far away from where all the action is, but the original intent of this festival was to celebrate the oncoming rush and visit and invasion if you will of the very hikers that hike the AT.

Sure during the day there are shuttles that send hikers back and forth from the campground, and sure there are beautiful woods that they now can camp at….but they are no longer (with the exception of the hiker hostel known as “The Place”) an army of tents covering every open area of grass all over town. THE VERY ACT THAT GAVE TRAIL DAYS ITS CHARM!

Now, I cant help but see the hikers as second class citizens. Relegated behind a chain fenced in campground whose only entrance is a Gestapo-like check-point Charlie armed with local police presence night and day. Though the town has provided a trolley shuttle during the day. At night the hikers are left isolated and made to walk a long way to get to and from town. HELLO FOLKS, haven’t they already walked enough to get to this point!

I’ve probably gone too far in saying that but it is my fear that slowly over time events that were born of this folksy embryo grow too corporate, too rigid, too much of a town fundraiser (instead of a hiker homage) and loose the great flavor of a spontaneous fluid arrival of a pack of sweaty hikers taking off from Springer Mtn in Georgia.

Its almost like being in Nebraska or The Dry Tortugas at a certain time of year and waiting for the migratory waterfowl. All the birds will not arrive all at once! They seep in and out of one spot. They land where they want to land. They take over any field.

In any case, my evening began round 8:30 and did not end till about midnight as I sloshed and dipped my feet into unknown mud holes, streams and washouts as I trudged thru the night from tent to tent delivering word of my talk and of my life. In each packet contained a business card, flyer and some trail magic (candy, tea, soy milk shake powder – whatever that is). One by one like Santa Clause I visited each tent and each clump of hikers gathered around several campfires that were lit to keep them warm and dry.

It is at these very gatherings that I would pop in and ask the most ridiculous of questions; “anybody want free chocolate?” That’s like asking a bull if he wants to tear up a red cape! Out came the outstretched hands and the thank you’s....instant friend making technique….not a hard thing to do in a friendly crowd like this, but chocolate makes it all the more easier.

And so I did so and met new friends, faceless friends at that – since it was hard to decipher just who was who in the dim light. As the rain came down in spurts I continued my trollop through the magical farie like woods, into camps named “Ewok Village” and “Miss Janet’s Pirate Park” even “Muddy Hollow”…appropriately named for the massive field of mud that surrounded the tents.

There were little tiki torches leading from one village to the next and small encampments with makeshift sails and seats forming tribal counsels of wize jedi-like hikers named “Coconutty” and “Hot Feet” and “Fashion Foray”.

I would load my bag up with lets say a hundred or more ziplock backs filled with goodies and spread the cheer. Run back to Bill and Becky’s Jeep and refill up the bag and head out into the wet night again. Once I found myself close to the car but in the woods. I decided to take a shortcut and found my newly bought and shiny white New Balance shoes slumped down in a muddy stream. Well previously “shiny white”, now baptized in trail days mud.

By 11:30 I was done and quite chilled. The temperature dipped down to 60 that night. It was a bit insane for such a late day in May. I however was lucky enough to head back to a dry and warm motel room at the Days Inn....further proof that I have indeed become soft, that I am no longer of this AT world….i’m a veteran hiker, aged and withered and not of the hard stock of the true journeymen and women who will be gawked at by nearly 10,000 visitors to the town over the weekend.

Oh well. What can I tell ya. The bed felt great. Rested and refreshed we ventured towards town by 8am and I was proud to show Bill and Becky the town of Damascus as we sped around the narrow streets of which I now know so well. It was my first viewing by day of a town I had first visited 6 years back when I was just a dreamer. Just a kid with a plan to walk 2000 miles. Even then I had the audacity to be part of the speakers series and give a talk on my 50 state road trip….never mind that it had nothing to do with hiking or the Appalachian trail.

I think I was so caught up in the excitement of hiking or of being on the precipice of such an epic journey I felt I wanted to be part of that group instantaneously. “Let me in!” and they did. I guess that once yu take on a journey of that magnitude there is instant respect. “Hey you understand us…here is a temporary membership. Welcome!”

I gave my talk that morning to 20 souls who got up at the (for hikers at trail days anyway) ungodly hour of 9:30 (normally hikers are known to be up before the crack of dawn). It was a great talk. Sold 4 books to very grateful new disciples of thorough hiking and fielded lots of questions and curiosities about a different way to hike.

I find that most folks are hungry for info on doing things a different way. Some of my guests were older and wanted to lessen their load. Others were young and just wanted to not kill themselves. It is very satisfying to help them all.

When my ex-wife and I hiked in 2001 we were looked at a little strange with our ultra light and tiny backpacks. People thought we were cheating. How dare we go light and not do mega miles. We reversed the trend and said, “how bout going light and doing LESS miles?”

Something stuck. Nowadays all the vendors are pushing ultra-ultra-light gear. Nearly every booth at trail days was pushing “light” and at “less cost”….unbelievable. We were way ahead of our times. A few hikers did hear of our term, now firmly adopted; “yeah thorough hiking, we have heard of that. Quite a bit” came the answer to a couple from Massachusetts. That felt good. You see we coined the thorough hiking phrase and have two veteran hikers (12 time AT hiker Warren Doyle and Nimblewill Nomad) to prove it.

In any case, Trail Days is a blast, please don’t get me wrong but something tells me that it may have gotten too big for its britches (so to speak) as witnessed at the local Italian Restaurant Sicily’s. As Bill, Becky and I were exiting, a local resident, who had just sat down to a meal and was asked by the waitress how was his day going, we heard him nastily express the flip side to “The Friendliest Town on the Trail”; “I’ll feel better once these damn hikers get out of here!”

Granted its one guys opinion. And this is a friendly town. And no that guy does not speak for all residents. But with one comment like that yu know there has to be more. We do tend to override the town. The word “Plague” is not too far fetched. It seems to me that probably the best way to celebrate Trail Days is not to bunch up all the activities in one weekend. I mean trail days is a week long but the core things take place on the festivals last Friday, sat and Sunday. So the hikers slow down and at times quicken….all to get to trail days and sit their and in a sense (some of them come with…) feel they should be waited on hand and foot.

Yes, the town is friendly. But the first trail days was celebrated…lets not forget…to honor the hikers that came thru there. That’s quite an honor if yu consider that Damascus is paying homage to burly, smelly, bearded and a genuinely motley crew of society. Its quite something. I just don’t see the hikers (other than with their money) giving back equally but then again that’s not their fault, the town brought this on as they built it up and tried to capitalize on it. I wonder seriously how much of a financial impact does Trail Days present in their annual take? It would be fascinating to know. I’m assuming quite a bit.

But I cant escape the notion that perhaps there should be a return to a more primitive time. A simpler era. In compressing it and attempting to harness Trail Days, has the event or the phenomenon of it all been eroded. Has it peaked? A good question particularly on the heals of a massive New York Times “Escapes” section front page article that really put Trail Days on the map. I wonder how that article was pitched. Hmmmm. I wonder….and better yet….maybe I’ll check.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

101 things i love about IKEA and why i am a good candidate for Liars Annonymous

OK, so the flavor of the month now is the Georgia Aquarium, the new 200 million dollar concrete example that u can recreate nature just about anywhere, even a few hundred miles away from any ocean!

But a few months ago, Atlanta was abuzz about the new IKEA, a 60 million dollar venture to serve one of America's major metropolis'.

Everybody took their sides. One side (the yuppies and social-climbers) jumped for joy, the enviros and anti-Wall Mart crowd vowed never to set foot and signaled the beginning of the end!

I decided to give it a few months and let the noise die down before i would decide for myself - though, lets be realistic, the minimalist in me was aching to attack!

In the end i was torn. Is IKEA the beginning of the end? Can a store that sells cheap, pressboard shelving (and to be fair, a million other household products, some of them built to last) build a bridge in between two classes of society? Could i be asking too much, thinking too much, hoping too much of IKEA, to play a role in defining who we are?

Before I comment on that batch of sticky questions. Lets begin with a tour. Now normally yu’d start with the front door. But this is one of the world’s largest IKEAS and Ikea does nothing small. So before yu can step foot in the building yu must submit and be subjugated by the beast. Meaning yu must go subterranean. Like tectonic plates sliding over the weaker mass, Ikea is built upon its crowning achievements, an elaborate and ultra clean parking garage that exists under the entire massive blue and yellow structure.

And it is here where they begin working on yu. There are beautiful signs about what is in store for yu. There are posters and specials already blaring the goodies you couldn’t possibly resist getting even if you did not come there to buy in the first place. There are fancy escalators and elevators to whisk you inside. And another one whose main job it is to whisk you our effortlessly, cart in tow, (called the “travelator”) magically with all your goods floating downward – cart on the actual escalator, wheels locked in place and at an angle that wont tip anything off or have flying crts go whizzing down knocking others buyers into lawsuit heaven!

Forget something in the car? Well good luck getting back. The escalators all go up in one section of the building. Its almost impossible to go down, that is…unless you have gone through the entire store! There is a maze to ensure that you do get to see it all. Translation; buy it all or be tempted to buy it.

When you do approach the lobby of the entrance you will first smell the 75 cent a cup Danish fresh brewed coffee, piping hot next to the just baked 99 cent cinnamon buns! All of course as your dessert cuz for the main course you’ve got IKEAS famous Danish Meatballs and 50 cent hotdogs and 75 cent fountain drinks!

This is what the industry calls a loss leader. Items that the store is just barely making a profit on or coming up even steven but they are there to both keep ya happy and (God forbid yu get hungry) keep ya inside the store. Better still is the fact that if the brood is along, the little whipper snappers can be fed for under 10 bucks. Even a family of 5!

Speakin of little ones. What do you do with the pesky fellers when yu are trying to shop, pay attention to that big purchase yu might be contemplating with the Missus? Why, check them in of course. IKEA has thought of that too. Yes folks, free day care, on the premises. And we’re not talking some crappy carpeted room with a few toys. NOOOOO, they went all out.

In other words, IKEA wanted not only for you to believe they would be safe with trained childcare folks at hand but calm in the notion that there was enough to keep yur little one entertained with. Enter the “berry-est” happiest place on earth. IKEA’s holding pen. OK the nake is fancier, but it’s a holding pen no less. Complete with a themed village that begins with the following themed story of a lush land in spring time somewhere in Sweden; “soon u will have stepped thru the berry basket. With your clogs you walk past
rounded stone fences and thru the the magic forest….”

Yes folks rubber like trees with the spongy carpet and lots of toys await your tiny tot for hours of enjoyment so that nothing, not even your screeming little ones comes between you and yur particle board purchases!

So Ok, belly full, kiddies in the pen its time to grab a cart. But you say, “hey, I don’t need a cart, I’m just browsing today!” HA! Not so fast, yee of little will power. IKEA has another thought for you and its emblazoned in 30 inch lettering, just above the cart rack area. I quote; “grab a shopping cart your about to get your hands full” as if you are no match for the powers of IKEA marketing……actually….come to think of it, they are right, this is the land of impulse purchasing. On more than one occasion that day I heard one person say to their friend, spouse, partner; “well, we could always use this” or “you know that other rug seems ratty, why don’t we get this” or “but its sooo cute”.

Ok, so yur in the store, kiddies sequestered (out of yur hair) cart in tow (cuz yu just cant resist)….so what is there to buy. Well our first station has a “wall mounted drop leaf table” designed by Ann Laarson (whoever she is – there is a photo so maybe this is the ultimate doyeene domain to know by face and name all of the designers who make household tchotchkies!) for 49.99.

A bit expensive for a two foot table? How bout a better bargain for 5.99. Lets say “tea light” holders, not the candles mind yu, just the holders. Now if yu know tea lights, they already come with an aluminum can like base that catches all the wax. Guess IKEA is figuring yu might tip this and need an extra holder….or maybe yu live on an earthquake fault and will be experiencing wax run off due to a 4.5 richter hic-up? So for 5.99, hey, yur covered!

Ok, I’m being hyper critical yu say. “Cesar, c’mon, every store in America has stuff yu really don’t need. Ahhh yes but do they have the “Toftan” storage unit that attaches to the “Stoleman” post for a mere 129 bucks! Ha! Gotcha. Yes folks this is a new level of absurdity. For 129 bucks yu can get a space-age pole that holds a few boxes (can yu say milk crates and a used PVC pipe – hell I’ll bundle that up for ya for like 20 bucks) to hold….get this, incredibly heavy stuff like Q-tips, tampons, shaving cream and maybe a few meds?

Exactly how far do we have to disguise (or put on a pedestal…a 129 dollar pedestal) the normal realities of our lives? Are we that far removed and jaded to say to the world, these things don’t exist here. This is a bathroom, I wouldn’t want you to see bathroom like stuff in a bathroom, I want it invisible! “toiletries BE GONE! Ahh, HA, HA, HA….Poof!”

Ok, I’m getting a bit passionate here. As you can tell. But I’m not loosing it. I still have my marbles intact which is much more than I can say for IKEA’s odd view of the world. By that I’m talking about a section of quotes on the wall just before you begin to see the mother of all show rooms.

Here are two that I wrote down; “what if penguins were experts in home furnishing” and

“what if a ball of yarn got tired of cats and cardigans” Huh? Hey IKEA, here’s one for ya What if ya spoke English and explained just what do penguins and cats and cardigans or cats wearing cardigans really means! I think its just some pseudo-intellectual subversive marketing bull shit just to give the place some quirky edge.

As you wind yur way through their main layout yu will see fully furnished rooms, furnished to the hilt! Now yu will see this in other furniture stores but usually the flower vase or window treatment doesn’t have a price tag and info sticker attached to them. BUT here at IKEA, its all for sale.

And they mean this. One thing folks may or may not realize is that at the corner entry to each “suite” or fully furnished rooms or apartments (yes sometimes there are rooms yu enter that have a 2 bedroom apt style layout) yu will see a grand price if yu dare choose all and everything yu see in front of yu…..lock stock and flowery paper weight…barrel! The designers at IKEA have dolled up square foot vignettes of 237, 377, 592, and 753 square feet….so u can envision yur own unit of the same size looking just like theirs. Never mind that here at IKEA there are no door jams, plenty of track lighting and a roster of folks trampling thru yur faux home saying “ooohhh, ahhh, look at this.” Note to buyer; this is a wee bit of a tricky environment to buy furniture cuz yur thinking that the cooing people come with this stuff or “if I buy this stuff, lots of folks will want to come to my place and also oooohhh and ahhhh”

Sorry Charlie. They wont. You’ll be stuck with the bill and a hell of a lot of instruction and installation manuals to put all this crap together. Not too mention a shit load of Styrofoam, cardboard and cellophane bagies.

But there is so much here you ask, how can I possibly choose a style. I have a limited income and I’m here to show my sweetie that I’m open to graduating from milk crates and hand me down futons. IKEA has thought of that. Around the store there are stations with pencil paper and the following quote; “big or small its ur place and for any size home family or budhet u can find yur style with smart designs at very low prices from ikea. Come on in and explore this home (take our ideas - we want u to) and discover just how well u can live well within ur means”


I got to break this down folks. Sorry, just cant resist. Particularly this line;

“Come on in and explore this home (take our ideas - we want u to) and discover just how well u can live well within ur means”

This basically is telling the soon-to-be-IKEA junkie that there sense of style and imagination is shit. “You have no originality.” Says the dark voice behind the curtain. “We will teach yu proper design, we will tell yu what to buy!” Of course they want yu to take their ideas. Since before u got in the store, yu probably had one of each object that is in the store. What IKEA is really telling yu is that their stuff is cooler. Its time to replace that old ratty couch or coffee table with one of ours. See its translucent quality! Yeah, that is no match against that silly aux wood grain crap table yur momma gave yu all from the basement. “Chuck that thing! Time to grow up, use this stuff to show u’ve made it!”

Which is part of the problem I have with IKEA. We are made to believe that this high end designed but cheaply constructed furniture will make us look good. But don’t look to hard, or….don’t move the furniture too much. Or the fascade will crumble. Remember that though design is key to making yu buy it, the tipping point of the sale comes with the price. This is a devastation combinbation that makes yu overlook the fact that yu are indeed buying cheap crap. And anyone that knows furniture will agree. Hell even IKEA agrees. How bout this explanation on price vs. design;

“an idea without a price tag has no meaning that’s why at IKEA a low price is part of every design”

So they begin with design but soon there after say, how can we mimic this look while building it with the cheapest materials in the world? i.e. plastic screws, particle board, laminate fake wood grain surfaces etc….

They promote something called “Democratic Design” which they follow with the following quote, bathed under nice lighting; “Enjoy a beautiful life at home without giving up the rest of what makes life worth living, IKEA believes every one of us deserves that.”

I wish IKEA would answer their own question….”what exactly makes life worth living?” and what the hell is a “beautiful life?” and why should getting one ensue that we might have to be “giving up” something to get it in the first place. Seems to me, buying all this crap makes us reach for that brass ring while loosing our footing on the carousel of life. In other words, paying for all this stuff takes time away from enjoying life. Are we simply buying it to show others a ruse. That in effect I will have just enough time to swallow a Tylenol to suppress that blinding headache caused by the 60 hour week it takes to keep paying for stuff I see only at night or once a week when I invite my family or friends over for “the tour!”

You know “the tour”, that customary (whether u like it or not) tradition that all homeowners feel the need to inflict upon visitors so that can show off the new addition or new pile of crap they bought. Sometimes I want to add; “well that’s nice but in case yu got the wrong idea, I came here to see yu, not yur new shit!”

OK, relax Cesar, its gonna be all right. C’mon guy, reign back on the negative, there has to be some positive thing yu can say about IKEA. OK there is. And I’m not joking here. One great thing I see about IKEA’s design principals is that they do promote small space living. The fact that they have showroom apt of 277 square feet is testament to that. So they have a less is more approach but then they fuck it up by designing space saving pieces not necessarily to breathe more room into such a small space but…..here it comes…..but to make room for even more stuff. So Mc Mansion or not, you can have the same elements a big home has but in a Mini-me sorta way!

OK, I tried saying something positive. Really I did.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Rescuing Tanya; Perilous journey ends with a new beginning.

Fifteen dollars and ninety five cents was the final bill (tip included). I had an unsweetened tea with lemon, my guest had a Budweiser. The staff at The China Steak House in Hialeah Florida was persnickety about taking up table space (in their practically empty restaurant) without ordering food so I ordered a heaping plate of sweet and sour chicken to go. It came with that delicious duck sauce, some rice and two fortune cookies. All of which were familiar to me. Familiar to all of us really, except those that have only seen a fortune cookie opened up on a movie screen!

Introducing; Tanya Olga Rodriguez; dining guest, long lost cousin, Cuban escapee and newest immigrant to America.

The story really begins at another restaurant many miles away from The China Steak. I was checking my voice mail from a borrowed cell phone just before entering the Shoney’s All u can eat Buffet Restaurant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when I got word from my mother that “Tanya had finally arrived.” Those words sent chills down my spine. For Tanya has been on my mind since I was a kid. Early on in one’s Cuban-American reality, you will hear of a visiting great-grandfather or aunt about to visit from Cuba. The excitement levels rise, parties are planned anticipation builds and everyone heads for Miami International Airport as if The Beetles were arriving!

Now I had known that a plan was in place to get her out of Cuba but I had no idea how dicey it would end up being. When I checked my voice mail the details were sketchy. Tanya had arrived in Texas, she then flew to Miami and was now in Hialeah Florida with her father! Huh? That just proved to open up a slough of questions….so I quickly called my mom.

“It took 5 days, there was a boat, rough seas, a holding house, several buses and small planes and a border crossing.”

It seemed surreal. Especially since I was inside this (above mentioned) all u can eat buffet. Where the only danger was the off chance that the place would run out of chocolate pudding. Well for maybe 5 minutes. Nothing runs out at the Golden Corral, a place that is a world and a reality away from the story I would hear when I’d finally meet my long lost and never seen before cousin.

My first recollection of having a cousin in Cuba was a faint photograph of this skinny wirey haired girl with a big smile wearing a yellow jumper like outfit. It is still in my mind. Mention of her was always followed with “you know she’s about your age” and so there was something I could relate to. However just about everything else in our lives were the extreme polar opposites. I knew that for years but until I would meet her, it would not dawn on me just HOW different our upbringings could be.

Much of that realization makes me think about the slight of fate that comes with history and moments in history that can change things forever.

But for years I would get to know Tanya a little bit by writing her letters and she in turn writing back. Now it wasn’t gobs of letters but now and then maybe once a year. Sending a letter to Cuba could in fact take a long time. Maybe a few months since all letters going in and all letters going out ARE ALL READ by censors who’s job it is to make sure nobody is planning anything….and maybe just to fuck with peoples minds a bit.

Control is a constant in Cuba. Control of freedom, food, speech even movement are all carefully watched. Thinking however is another story. Which is where Tanya’ tale comes in. As with my own train of thought, there are just some people who no matter how long they have been blasted and exposed by a particular way of life….just don’t conform. Just do not agree with the status quo. And in the end either lead dual lives or rebel wholeheartedly.

I’m a rebel and although I have come to find out that Tanya is too, her act of rebellion was years in the making. But where I had the opportunity to choose, Tanya had to lead a dual life. She tried, tried real hard to make it work. She studied, got her degree (architecture), rose up the ranks, kept her unhappy demeanor in check and lived on the best she could. But unhappiness and restlessness are not good partners to keep. And so it was that when her father was able to leave Cuba due to his age and retirement, he vowed to get her out as well.

That would of course be easier said than done.

It is not easy leaving Cuba legally, sometimes that proves to be even more dicey when yu begin planning elaborate ways to safely get off the island. Tanya’s father Luiz had been working on a plan for Tanya to marry an American. The plan was only part plan, the other half unfortunately was part business proposal. And it went sour….along with the $6,000 that her father worked so hard to make….he himself a recent newcomer.

So it was that a few months later, another plan was hatched to hire Mexican smugglers who traffic in human cargo. Yes there is a price for everything. And this one was to cost $12,000. Most of it for bribing folks and officers along the way.


It began innocently with a messenger who came to let Tanya know just where to be and when. 7pm outside of a park outside of Havana alongside a remote road. Getting there is another story. One which Tanya relied on a good friend who she said respected the fact that she could not tell him just what was happening. “All he knew was to have the car ready, with enough fuel, at a certain time and be ready to drive.”

“that ride was the longest two hours of my life. I knew then there was no turning back. I could not tell anybody, anything, not my mom (although Tanya feels that she must have known or had a feeling) nor my best friends. You just cant take that risk. Plus yu do not want to get anybody into any trouble or have them in an uncomfortable situation where they are hiding something. So its best to just go!”

At the park, she waited and waited, with a small bag (part of the directions she was given was to pack very lightly, with a few things to wear and eat) the size of a big purse, but nothing bigger. A car pulled up and opened its passenger door. The driver knew exactly who she was and she was whisked off into the night, to God knows where. When the car stopped she was joined by three dozen more souls and ordered to climb aboard a giant truck and crouch down low so that nobody would see them. The truck rolled and bounced along with the loose wooden boards that made up its structure as the wind chilled all 40 something souls that now resembled more cargo like qualities than that of human beings.

Four long hours went by as the truck road down even bumpier roads and as the air changed from chilly and cold to salty. They were near the ocean they could hear, but it was pitch dark and even the smokers were asked not to light up as were the chatter-bugs asked not even to whisper. One by one they were brought down off the truck and when Tanya’s feet hit the ground her equilibrium was off. For some reason she could not stand up straight. She thought it was from being crouched down on the long ride.

Soon there after as she began taking steps she realized it was not that after all. It was the fact that the ground was uneven, rocky and sharp. The smugglers called for everybody’s attention and began whispering orders to follow in a single file line slowly. “Slow was the key word.” explained Tanya “each and every step was just impossible, I felt like I was going to fall down, I could not see my hand in front of me, it was that dark….so I would crouch down almost and walk as if on all fours.”

Her hands and at times knees paid the price with scratches and bruise marks. That walk took four hours. But she thinks they barely went but 2 miles or so.

When the group reached an alcove they realized that this must be the place where the boat was to meet them. And sure as hell did a boat appear…only problem was that it looked as if it was a toy boat. “I laughed inside….yu got to in this situation, some folks freaked out and turned around and left. What was clear was that this had to be a joke right? There were 40 of us, this boat looked like it could hold 15….tops!”

But on they went. One by one. Some into the galley and in the hold, others on the deck or the fishing platform. Slowly, precariously…. the boat chugged away.

It took nearly 24 hours for the boat to reach Cancun, Mexico. And the seas were rough. Many was the moment where barf bags were distributed, filled with human queasiness and tossed over into the ocean until the process was begun again. Distribute. Barf. Toss. And Refill!

On a few occasions the Mexicans scrambled everybody below deck like a can of sardines. They’s pull out the fishing gear and act as if they were on some grand Sailfish tournament. Only it was 3am and the boats that approached them luckily were not from the law.

However something tells me that was more of a tactic to protect their profits than to protect their cargo. The less entanglements meant that they had less people to bribe. So the money was a just in case measurement more than it was money for gas and food or labor costs.

In Cancun they were met with more Mexican smugglers who greeted them with Cancun tourist t-shorts and resort wrist bands as they (in small groups of 4 or so) exited the boat to smiling guards, rifles in tow and onto waiting mini vans after sashaying thru oppulant swimming pools and hotel lobbies.

A few minutes later they were all back again, sardined into a few rooms of a home away from the core tourist area. It is there where they got a pretty decent meal and the cell phones were busy making calls to relatives in other parts of the world. It is also there where the Mexicans would then give orders on how to get the balance of the money (in cash) paid to their men on the street. “meet so and so at this time, 9,000 dollars in cash, then we will proceed” So it cost 3 grand to get them to Mexico and another 9 to get them across the border!

That process took another 4 days where Tanya says she could barely sleep or eat. She was emaciated. But eventually the call came in. Her family had rounded up the cash. Tanya was ready to go home. A few bus rides a small plane ride and a van ride later, she was somewhere near the border. The van door opened and she was told to proceed toward the guards.

The very same guards that were holding rifles. Smiling. Only instead of standing between her and the border. They welcomed her and bid her a good trip into America. After crossing a bridge. She entered the United States and asked for political asylum (a privilege denied most other immigrants {i.e. Hatians} but thanks to the political and economic influence of the well connected Cuban community, folks like Tanya are welcomed with open arms).

In less than a few hours she had paperwork and was free to go. Only she had no idea where she was. And had little money left to her name. What hit her soon was the biggest hunger pains she had experienced. Maybe even bigger than back in Cuba. She had been such a nervous wreck, that hunger was the last thing on her mind. “In Cuba we would curb hunger by drinking a glass of water with sugar. But I was at any moment of this crossing fearing that we would be caught, I would be sent back and me and my family, punished. So I really forgot to eat. But when I was free, it hit me, and I bought, I think yu all call a hot dog, somehow it tasted like the best thing I had ever eaten!”

A friend that also made the crossing helped her dial up her family and soon arrangements were made to get her to a small airport where a plane would take her to Houston. The airport was so tiny it actually was closed by the tiome she got there and the flight would have to wait till the next morning. It was nippy outside and Tanya was not prepared for it. She could not see why the guard would not let her inside to get warm. So she sat on a bench shivering. Ironically, even though she was now free, she probably came very close to the effects of hypothermia – not a laughing matter. Luckily she managed to stay warm and in the morning flew into Houston.

It is there where her new surroundings began to hit her hard. The terminal at Houston was so grandiose and so filled with food, products and shiny things that it was dawning on her that “if this was the airport, I cant imagine what the regular cities would look like.” Coming from Cuba, yu are used to (as Tanya explained) a lot of nothingness. Whether it be bare shelves or empty stores to dull packaged products and raw materials. But here at the Houston airport, life looked like a dream sequence. Was this happening? Was this for real?

Another ticket had been purchased and soon Tanya was whisked off to Miami. Her family had booked her a first class ticket. But Tanya had never flown in first class. Come to think of it, Tanya had never flown a commercial airliner so she wouldn’t know what first class was if it fell on her lap. Which is exactly what happened. The hot towels. NEW for Tanya. Glasses of campaign. NEW for Tanya. (actually it took her a while to realize that she could ask for a glass, when she did, she asked for two) Fancy food delivered to yur seat at 30,000 feet. ALL NEW for Tanya!

The plane landed in Miami and after 6 long days her ordeal and journey was over. But there was a new one to start. One that I will follow up in the future. One that might even prove to dwarf the peril of her underground-railroad like crossing.

But for now, she is safe. She is with her father and her family. Some of her family. The other ( a mom a few relatives and her real stability – her friends) is across a 90 mile stretch of water that separates one world from a completely different reality.

See the above mentioned story was told to me at a restaurant whose (above mentioned) meal cost 15 dollars – the actual monthly salary of Tanya Olga and others who are professionals in Cuba – she being an architect. So there in lies the new challenge and mind screw that is the divide between Cuba and the US and for anybody making that transition. It is the rewiring and the path that Tanya will choose to find her own way and happiness, plus the balance of the two that is of great interest to me and to her. I’m picking on a money example so that yu can get a taste to relate to the divide, but it is far more complicated than that. We talked about it at length but I felt it was too early to comment about it here. It has been 3 months since our talk so I hope to wait a bit to see how she is doing before I tackle on. Until then, I am wishing Tanya all the luck and good opportunity that this country can offer and hope that the transition goes smoothly.

Cesar Becerra

Note on photo; Tanya Olga Rodriguez is pictured in the center being flanked by my sister Leslie on the left and brother Carlos on the right, and far right is Tanya’s father Luiz. Of course there is Leslies dog Kayla….and we don’t want to miss out on mentioning her.

I will post other photos of Tanya when I get them scanned, so stay tuned.