What Kayaking in Cuba Taught Me

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Lake Hanabanilla

We landed in Santa Clara, in the center of Cuba, our flight approximately half as long as our wait for a Cuban visa in Ft. Lauderdale. Not only would we paddle and snorkel in Cuba’s warm, clear water, but we would visit an island that has been essentially closed to residents of the US for my entire life. Kevin and I had been thinking about Cuba for several years, and Tommy Thompson’s Cuba Adventure Company trip promised a blend of nature and culture. In the summer of 2017, the Trump administration had blocked individual people-to-people tours to Cuba, but group people-to-people tours were still permitted in December. Cuba…only 90 miles from Florida but a world away.

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Courtesy of  World Atlas (https://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/namerica/caribb/cu.htm)
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Courtesy of Bob Bonnen

Tommy cheerfully greeted our group and introduced our Cuban guide, Bernie, who would help us understand life in Cuba. Tommy suggested that we practice patience, flexibility, and understanding when things didn’t go as planned, a prescient warning for our paddle on Lake Hanabanilla. As Tommy and Bernie explained the week’s program, our Chinese-manufactured tour bus carried us south towards our first night’s stop. We arrived at our government-run hotel and were told that all guests had been shifted to a nearby hotel. Our first lesson in flexibility.

Once ensconced in our rooms, we quickly found the hotel bar and its mojitos. We discovered that all Cuban bars serve Havana Club rum, not Bacardi, which is known internationally. (For a detailed explanation on why, check out the book Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba by Tom Gjelten, Penguin Group, 2008.) Cuban mojitos tend to be much less sweet than those served in the US.

The next morning we woke up to driving rain and the news that the axle on the kayak trailer had broken. Surely this development was related to the patience and understanding Tommy mentioned.

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Russian massage

After some delay, we loaded ourselves and our gear into our transport: a Russian army truck filled with rows of hard plastic seats. Rolling over the unpaved roads left no mystery about the term “Russian massage.”  In Cuba, I found, almost any transportation is good transportation. Transporting both goods and people is a serious challenge for Cuba because both cars and fuel are in short supply. This leads to food shortages and makes it difficult for people to get to their jobs.

Slightly worse for wear, we arrived at Lake Hanabanilla ready to paddle. The rain had given way to clear skies, and we launched on a glassy lake. However, the dark clouds that glowered over our destination foretold a stormy paddle. Soon, we struggled against wind and waves as a squall passed over us. Wet and weary, we landed at our “glamping” site and settled in for the evening. By far, this day’s paddle and “glamping” was the most challenging part of the trip.

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Let’s glamp!

By noon the next day, we dried out our gear at a hotel overlooking the lake. We enjoyed a fantastic meal of fried fish and tostones at a paladar, a family-run restaurant unlike most of the government-run establishments geared to tourists. Many of Cuba’s tourist establishments were originally built for visiting Soviets back when USSR and Cuba were strong allies. Cuba’s economy drastically changed when the USSR withdrew economic support in the early 1990s. Today, Cuba’s tourism economy is growing, including visits from Russians nostalgic for the Cuba they remember.

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The next morning, we drove to Guama, our launch site for our next paddle. Adjacent to our put-in lay what every paddler wants to see: a crocodile sanctuary, fortunately surrounded by a chain-link fence. For mere pesos, they allowed us to feed the crocodiles by dangling meat on a homemade fishing pole over the fence. (No, this would not happen in the US.) The sound of the snapping jaws resounded over the lake.

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Crocodile petting zoo

We went next door for an obscenely large lunch, including sauteed crocodile. (Tastes like gator.) During our stay, we had numerous large meals in restaurants geared to tourists. Since Cubans receive rations for limited quantities of food, the over-feeding of tourists was unsettling. In general, Cubans live on very little, approximately $30-40 per month, which means that most people must somehow supplement their official salary. It is not unusual for surgeons, for example, to drive a taxi to make ends meet.

After lunch, we paddled through mangrove-lined channels to Hotel Guama. I was especially looking forward to visiting Guama and Laguna del Tesoro (Treasure Lake). Fidel Castro had supervised this recreation of a Taino stilt village, and he appreciated the birds and natural beauty of this location. I wish we had more than one night to explore the creeks and bays of this quiet place.

The next day we headed towards the Bay of Pigs, a place name most of us had encountered in high school history classes. It struck me that, of our entire group, only my mother remembered these events in Cuban and US history. Despite its name, the Bay of Pigs is beautiful, and Playa Largo is known for its snorkeling and diving. We dipped our fins in to see for ourselves.

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Bay of Pigs Battle map (Courtesy of Latinamericanstudies.org)
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Billboard near Giron, Bay of Pigs

Signs throughout Cuba remind visitors and residents of the revolution. Prominently placed billboards highlight quotes from Fidel Castro and others, and images of Castro and Che Guevara appear in many locations, urban and rural. The revolution and its heroes dominate the Cuban landscape and historical memory. So, while the Bay of Pigs might seem like ancient history, constant physical reminders bring it into the present.

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Sign in downtown Cienfuegos

We spent the last three days of the nature part of our trip in Guajamico on the southern coast. For those of us who salivate at the idea of snorkeling, this was heaven. Each day’s short paddle brought us to secluded beaches surrounded by colorful limestone cliffs, and from there we could don snorkeling gear and swim out to beautiful reefs.  One day’s schedule even included a ride on horseback from the beach to our lunch spot, with the Escambray Mountains as a backdrop.

And then the kayaks were put away, and it was time for Havana. Our guide Bernie left us, and Meylin joined us. After a week in quiet rural areas, the sights and sounds of Havana were quite a change. We stayed in a historic colonial building, now Hostal Las Maletas, with high ceiling and tall windows.

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In addition to the classic car tour and visiting the historic squares, we visited the Museum of the Revolution. Not surprisingly, the museum had its own interpretation of history and US involvement.

And, of course, we had drinks at Hemingway’s daiquiri bar, La Floridita.

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I loved this trip to Cuba, and I feel like I have just scratched the surface. I grew up during the Cold War, and Cuba seemed like such an alien place to me, like the communist USSR and Russia. Yet, I recently discovered that my grandparents honeymooned there, when Americans sought to escape the restrictions of Prohibition. So Cuba is part of my family history as well. This trip fulfilled the spirit of the people-to-people ideal. I’m already planning my return.

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Water Water Everywhere: Hurricane Irma

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Birds loved our post-Irma yard

I love water. Paddling, swimming, sailing, and surfing——bring it on! But after Irma, was it too much of a good thing? We’ve had droughts in Florida in recent years, and now, for the first time, we flooded. We were fine, but what about next time?

Over a week before Irma hit Florida, weather stations trumpeted dire warnings about a storm that would be wider than almost all of Florida. Kevin and I rarely watch TV, but the approaching storm kept us glued to the TV weather reports. And we prepped and prepped. We bought gas, grilling supplies, and brought critical gear into the house.

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Every hurricane needs dark and stormy fixings
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Catching a ride

We went to One Love Cafe to hear the Shambles on Friday night. Then we waited.

The storm was supposed to hit sometime late Sunday night into Monday morning. Tropical storm winds were predicted for Gainesville. We tracked the storm as hit devastated the islands and moved towards south Florida, messaging with friends throughout the state.

By late Sunday night, we knew the storm’s track had shifted, but neither of us got much sleep anyway.

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Bathroom command post
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Early rain bands
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The deluge

By midday Monday, most of the rain had stopped, and we went outside to inspect the damage. We were lucky — other than a small flicker, we never lost power.

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Our new infinity pool!
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Backyard lake
Flooded street
Who needs streets when you’ve got canals

Flooded in! But we were still really lucky. No major damage. As the winds calmed, we took a water tour of our neighborhood. We paddled across our neighbors yard, out to 16th Avenue, and around the lake behind our house.  After being stuck inside for so long, we were all a bit stir-crazy.

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Paddling up our front walk
Katie paddles over our deck.
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Visiting our neighbors Marihelen and Paul across the lake

And then it was time for Dark and Stormies. After all the hurricane hysteria, we hadn’t touched our supply. We could start our clean-up the next day.

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Flooded garage
Vacuuming a flooded garage
Kevin cleaning the garage with a shop-vac
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Fish swim across our sidewalk

The next day Kevin and I emptied the garage of water, with a Shop-Vac and endless buckets of water.The streets stayed flooded for almost another week, thanks to a disagreement between city and county over drainage. Finally, a truck pumped the water into a sewer several blocks away. And we had our street back.

We got off easy, compared to others. But what about next time? Will rising sea temperatures lead to monster storms? As the map below demonstrates, Florida is a low state and especially vulnerable to sea level rise, whether or not our elected officials “believe” in climate change.

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(Map courtesy of Nasa)

We’re mostly back to normal, and a front of cold, dry air will wrap up the 2017 hurricane season. Now, as we look ahead, do we go back to “business as usual” or think seriously about climate change and how it affects our watery state.

An Oasis of Bees, Chickens, and Gardens in Kansas City, Missouri

For something completely different, visit  City Creatures Blog to read about chickens, bees, and gardens in Kansas City, MO. I visited Cherith Brook Catholic Worker while researching my new book Living Sustainably: What Intentional Communities Can Teach Us about Democracy, Simplicity, and Nonviolence.

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Cherith Brook mural

When I reached Cherith Brook Catholic Worker House in Kansas City, Missouri, I did not expect to see chickens loose on the driveway. I’m not sure why I was so surprised—other urban Catholic worker communities I visited had backyard chickens. But it was a dreary day in a dreary neighborhood, and I had driven through the east side of Kansas City, with little sign of animal life or greenery. Cherith Brook’s chickens, gardens, and beehives were an oasis of nature on their city block. Read more.

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Backyard chickens

On TRAK to Adventure in Tofino, BC

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Team 2020 (Photo credit: Jamie Sharp)

How does a skin on frame kayak respond to rough water? What better place to test a redesigned TRAK kayak than Vancouver Island? The TRAK Team 2020 had come to play in the surf and give a final round of feedback on the new TRAK 2.0.

Nolin Veillard, founder and managing director of TRAK kayaks, had invited the team to come for a surf camp and a chance to learn about TRAK 2.0’s new features. Half the team already owned TRAK kayaks, while the rest were new to TRAK. My husband Kevin and I bought one of the earliest TRAKS for a self-supported kayak trip through the Exuma Island in the Bahamas where we snorkeled and paddled in paradise (TRAK Unleashed: PADDLERS IN PARADISE). We loved the boat as an expedition boat, but I was curious to see how it would hold up to wind and waves.

Most of our team had met virtually, on group chats and a group forum, but I was looking forward to meeting everyone in person. In addition to Team 2020, Hans Trupp had coordinated the event, and Fabio Raimo Oliveira and Jamie Sharp had come to help us become better surf instructors. And most important, Buffy Trupp fed us gourmet meals.

Nolin had reserved an assortment of lodges, yurts, and campsites the Wya Point Campground and Resort, just at the edge of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. My home for the next several days was Yurt 14, which, conveniently, was also the group headquarters for meals and meetings. (Since my gear was trapped in Delta’s black hole of lost luggage, I was thrilled to stay in the yurt.) Our yurt was just yards from the Pacific beach, and forest went right up to the edge of the beach.

On our first afternoon, we readied our kayaks for the next day’s paddle. Since I owned one of the first models, I was excited to see the improvements Nolin had made over the years. I was especially happy to see improvements in portability–Nolin shaved almost 10 pounds off the earlier models that Kevin and I dragged through airports. Thank you Nolin!

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Assembling the TRAK
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Inside a TRAK (Courtesy of Awesome Kayak)
TRAK on the beach
Wya Point Beach
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Photo credit: Jamie Sharp

Everyone was eager to get on the water the next day. In the morning, operations manager Jason Guindon demonstrated the newer features, and after lunch, we carried our boats to the beach. The water was calm, with small waves lapping the shore, a perfect opportunity to exchange tips on strokes, rescues, and rolls in skin on frame boats. For me, playing in the surges–rock gardening 101–was a real treat and the most different from my own southeast surf zone. Later, we paddled out beyond the rocks enclosing our cove and saw a massive sea lion guarding his perch.

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Flying over our route

 

The first day’s calm gave way to higher winds and slightly higher onshore waves. Nonetheless, the conditions bode well for our trip to Wickaninnish Beach. The Tofino area, I discovered, is Canada’s surf capital, and Wickaninnish Beach promised good clean surf. We paddled out of the cove and headed towards north. We paddled along the coast, that alternated rocky islands and sandy beaches. I didn’t expect to see so many sandy beaches; my image of the Pacific northwest was all rocky beaches. I had thought the Pacific Northwest was all rocky coast; I had no idea I would see so much sand. After about an hour, we reached a rocky island where the group reconvened. We lingered for almost an hour. Some fixed gear while others took the opportunity to rock garden. The island offered several play spots, and we practiced our skills timing the surges along the rocks. I was impressed with the TRAK’s responsiveness. I had never used mine in situations with rocks and fast moving water.

Soon after we left the island, we paddled through a narrow channel made by rocks, and the conditions changed for the worse. The winds grew stronger, and the water rougher. Boats and paddlers dipped in and out of view as we rose and fell with the swells. We paddled on, watching the coast, but staying out far enough to avoid refracting waves. I felt my boat flex with the waves, but it paddled solidly in these force 4 conditions. This was the test, and the boat passed with flying colors. Finally we rounded the headland and surfed in to shore — after all, we had come to surf. It was an exhilarating day and a new challenge for many, but we all agreed that our boats had passed a critical test of seaworthiness.

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Coming in for a landing
Coming ashore
On shore
TRAK flag
TRAK flag
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A trailer of TRAKS

 

We had so much fun that we returned to Wickaninnish the next day.  The conditions had calm considerably, but everyone was happy to have a day just to surf. Fabio and Jamie gave up pointers on surf instruction, but the highlight was playing in the waves. That night we debriefed over fish and chips from a food truck in Tofino and prepared to head home.

On our final morning, we disassembled our boats and offered a final round of feedback on the TRAK. I was sorry to say goodbye to so many new friends, but we are already planning new surf adventures. TRAK’s Kickstarter campaign is well underway, while we eagerly await the unveiling of TRAK 2.0.

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Our successful Kickstarter campaign

As a child, I spent my summers playing in the tidal areas of Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia. When I moved to Florida, it was like coming home to an ecosystem I loved and missed. Florida’s rivers, barriers islands, springs, and ocean waters are our wilderness, and my husband Kevin and I spend as much time as possible exploring the waters by SUP, kayak, and sailboat. I have kayak camped in the Keys and the 10,000 Islands, surfed my kayak in the Atlantic, and recently learned to SUP surf. We are longtime volunteers with Paddle Florida. Even though Florida is blessed with what looks like an abundance of water, its rivers, springs, and aquifer are threatened by pollution and over-consumption, among other things. So while I enjoy playing and surfing, I also work to protect Florida’s waters.