Cuba and the US to Normalize Relations

Cuba and the US to Normalize Relations

As myself and basically anyone else paying attention has long said, President Barack Obama is officially going to normalize relations with Cuba. This goes much farther than his previous attempts to relax restrictions and warm up relations between the two countries.  I think this is an excellent use of the lame duck portion of a second term–perhaps clean up the drone and torture programs and fix students loans and immigration on your way out and we’ll be square, Mr. President. Here are my biggest take-aways from the speech: The Pope was instrumental in this negotiation.  The Pope has always had great popularity in Cuba, and his predecessor’s visit there was seen as an acceptance of Afro-Cuban religions that riff on Catholicism.  The papacy continues its legacy of advocating for the release of political prisoners, and for greater respect of human rights. The US Special Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy will become a true US Embassy once again.  Will workers there no longer receive hazard pay?  We should expect to see an influx of official visits from American politicians, although there have been some already. I’m not surprised that the release of Alan Gross and the remaining Cuban 5 (Los Cinco Heroes) were major points in bargaining (along with an unnamed US operative), although Obama chose to refer to the 5 as agents, continuing the US government’s stance in the face of pretty compelling evidence. To learn more about the Cuban 5, check out the movie The Trial (El Proceso.) Cuba’s placement on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorists will be re-examined by State.  Relations could never fully normalize without...
Priorities, or Death When You’re Away

Priorities, or Death When You’re Away

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Surfing Lessons in Ireland

Surfing Lessons in Ireland

Surfing lessons in Ireland? Yes, you read that right! On our way toward Dingle, Ireland we stopped in Castlegregory to take a surfing lesson. It was a dreary, disgusting day, and I was not surprised that only three of us wanted to go–my brother, one half of a nice young couple who got stuck traveling with us, and me. Luckily, our traveling companions were more than happy to cheer us on from shore and take pictures. Even in the cold, Brandon Bay in County Kerry is a lovely place to spend a few hours. It was cold and rainy, and I have a feeling we were warmer than them in our wetsuits and booties. The wind was so strong that day that I could barely get myself and the board to the water without becoming a sail and blowing away. Our instructor, Jamie Knox of Jamie Knox Water Sports, was very understanding with my brother’s and my status as complete beginners during our surfing lessons. He went over safety rules and explained a few different technique we would use, and focused on getting us in the water early and often, to make the most of our lesson. Both my brother and I have terrible vision (I clock in at -8.00) and I can’t imagine that helps us in our aquatic adventures. Kevin was flying blind, and I wore some outdated contacts. There were several times when Jamie would be gesturing and we just looked at each other and shrugged because we had no clue what he was trying to say, but nobody got hurt so I guess it turned out...
Sea Kayaking Dingle Bay: A New View of Ireland

Sea Kayaking Dingle Bay: A New View of Ireland

Sea kayaking in Dingle was one of the things the drew us to Vagabond Tours.  We are an outdoorsy crew, owning two canoes and a kayak back home.  We knew we were going to be sea kayaking this trip, come hell or high water.  It was also one of the keys to a successful family trip–you are who you are, no matter where in the world you go. Irish Adventures was right on the waterfront in downtown Dingle.  Our guide, Noel, was funny and informative.  He also took some great images, although he didn’t seem to understand why it would pain me not to be able to take them myself.  Someday, I would love to have a camera or rig that can survive sea kayaking, but this was not that day. A few people were in tandem kayaks, but most were solo.  There was a quick lesson and continued instruction for those brand new to kayaking.  Michelle was a complete newcomer to sea kayaking but she was able to learn the techniques quickly from Noel and had no problem with the paddle.  We paddled along the bay in search of the famed Fungi the Dolphin.  I had read about him ahead of time and my bullshit detector lead me to believe there were a  few dolphins off the coast and on the rare occasion one was spotted, they were called Fungi.  Or that Fungi was a bit like the Dread Pirate Roberts or a child’s goldfish, secretly replaced every time he passed on. It turns out there was no need for the cynicism–Fungi is the rare lone dolphin, and he...
Ganvie: the Stilt Village of Benin

Ganvie: the Stilt Village of Benin

En route to Ganvie. It’s rare for people to write about Ganvie, or really any part of Benin, but when they do it churns my stomach.  Romantic, they write.  Mystical, inviting, the Venice of Africa. None of this is what I saw in Ganvie. We got to the stilt village in the middle of Nokué Lake, not far from Cotonou,  Moving in a pair of long motorboats we passed fish farms and what looked like the invasive species water hyacinth along the way.  Because we were a human services group, someone asked the obvious question of whether the men who brought us there were from the community, and the answer was hand-waved away with a probably.  When we arrived, we got out to find a small, angry monkey chained to a post, setting the tone for our visit. The only monkey I saw in three weeks in Benin.   Reasons given for the existence of the village are varied, from the villagers themselves as well as the internet.  Some claim it started 400 years ago, others say the 16th or 17th century.  The Tofinu people were running from enslavement by either the Fon or Dahomey tribe.  Or was it the Portuguese?  Some claim it’s the only one in the world, or perhaps the biggest. Everything felt uneasy there. A woman screamed at us in a tribal language as we came to a shop.  Throughout the day, children and adults would curse, yell and point at us as they passed on their completely non-mechanized boats.  Even for those who didn’t speak French, it still had a chilling effect.  We found ourselves lowering...
Elephant Rides: Animal Abuse vs. Tourism

Elephant Rides: Animal Abuse vs. Tourism

Elephant rides top many bucket lists, and tourists from around the world seek them out. Like walking into a guide book, we ran into “domesticated” elephants several times now in Kerala, India, always completely by accident.  Well, by accident or unknowingly on our part.  But the two times when we saw elephants at or near hotels were certainly no accident.  I quote the word domesticated because I’m not convinced that such an animal can be domesticated.  And if it can, surely this cannot happen over the course of one lifetime–isn’t true domestication a multi-generation process, a form of contrived evolution? According to EleAid, India has some of the strictest laws in Asia governing domesticated elephants, but the laws aren’t enforced.  City life is completely unsuited to what elephants need, and some elephants used in tourism or in temples are known for being chained to one spot their whole life or completely over-worked. Elephant rides often force animals to carry too much weight and for too long, with insufficient time to rest. Being on display in public exposes elephants to human food and limits their ability to exercise. As a person who loves animals (and used to spend quite a bit of time in the sciences), I find myself pulled between two poles: I want to both be with animals and see them able to live their lives naturally.  As interesting as it was to spot a bear on a neighbor’s porch in Maine, for example, it was sad to realize that this animal had acquired a taste for human food and was bold enough to walk up to someone’s...

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