Farming Family with Fire in Northern California

The fastest NFL player can return a punt 100 yards – end zone to end zone – in about ten seconds.  When the Northern California wild fires began raging uncontrollably throughout the wine country, it was traveling that same distance in just three.

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One of nearly 10,000 structures burned

 

The fires started at night.  Late at night and without warning.  The Santa Ana winds nearing hurricane force strength.  Flaming embers, some the size of softballs, traveled up to a mile through the night sky.  Leaping across entire roadways…turning homes, cars, and buildings into piles of ash.  A lifetime collection of memories becoming charred remains in seconds.

Two days after the fires began, we were on our way to San Francisco for a writing assignment with the World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.  WWOOF for short, is a hospitality service that organizes homestays on sustainable organic farms.  Those who work on the land are called, WWOOFERS.  And in exchange for their labor they get food, lodging and first-hand experience in organic growing methods.   Founded nearly 50 years ago, the organization is now in more than 130 countries with over 2,000 farms spread across the United States.

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Maple the Calf in the fields of Duckworth Farm

I scoured the WWOOF web site for a suitable farm, and settled on Duckworth.  An 82-acre family-run farm outside Santa Rosa, in a tiny valley a few miles south of Sebastopol.  They grow mostly blueberries, but also pears, apples, and plums.  There are horses and sheep, cows and chickens, plenty of ducks and a few tractors.  And we were excited to see it all.

Flying into San Francisco, on final approach around 10,000 feet, I noticed a faint fiery glow across the bay, just north of the city.  We picked up the rental car and started towards our B&B in Santa Rosa, about an hour north of San Francisco, a few miles away from one of many evacuation lines.  Driving over the Golden Gate Bridge I rolled up the windows to keep the smoke from filling the inside. We were still 60 miles from the flames.

In the morning, the sun, trying its best to peek through the smoke, spilled through the curtains and landed on my face. I thought I’d slept through my alarm, until I reached for my phone and realized I’d never set it.  But I had slept through a few calls.  Blinking my eyes awake, I hit “play” and listened to the first voice recording.  It was Duckworth.  All was fine at the farm.  The fires were still several miles to the north…and we were invited to come by first thing Monday.  So, we had three days.  Three days to explore.  Half a week to spend in a town that was on edge…and becoming edgier by the second.

Walking down for breakfast I took a seat against the parlor window and poured some orange juice into a thick bottomed glass.  Across from me sat Judy and Felix, both retired doctors.  They’d fled their condo and taken up residence in the room below me on the first night of the fire.  I stood to introduce myself as Judy told me her story.

“We smelled smoke.  Looked outside.  Saw flames.  And just got in the car.” She said.  Never taking her eyes off her scrambled eggs.  “We left so fast we had to leave Burt behind inside.”  Hoping Burt was more than capable of driving himself to safety, I was somewhat relieved to find out Burt was a feral cat she’d been fostering.

At the head of the table was David, who worked in a fancy financial office.  He explained  his job, but I’m four years short of a Harvard degree.  So, I just nodded as if it all made perfect sense.

For the next three days, our Breakfast Club started the day together.  Sharing food, coffee and stories.  Always trying to steer the conversation towards something more pleasant.  But we always came back to Burt, the latest containment reports, and the people we’d been meeting as we traveled through Napa, Sonoma, and other neighboring towns.

One after another, we found people making a difference.  People from all walks of life who gathered in parking lots and strip malls, forging for items their neighbors desperately needed.  Neighbors, who’s names they didn’t even know.

From the famous – Guy Fieri cooking for firefighters – to the not-so well-known; a local restauranteur serving food, water, and apparel to nearly 2,000 people.  We found the spirit of community everywhere.

Clara, a boutique clothing shop employee whose house burned to the ground, told us how her employer had moved her and her son into their home.  And Foster, an artist who escaped the flames with his son, Max.  Passing three people he didn’t know, who’d planted themselves in his front yard, digging trenches and scooping buckets of water from his neighbor’s pool to save his house.  The very next day, Max cashed his entire paycheck and bought blankets, chargers, gift cards, waters, and batteries.  Not for him and his dad, but for other evacuees.

There was an elderly man who grabbed a hose and kept the flames away from his neighbor’s house, while his home burned down behind him.  A Santa Rosa man who turned his camper into a food shelter for first responders.  Cooking meals and taking donations.  We met a group of teenagers who volunteered at a pet shelter for misplaced animals.  And two sisters who looked to be well into their 70’s, held hands and smiled, telling us they’d successfully alerted their neighbors before their condo caught flames.

When it came to the fires, six degrees of separation had been whittled to one.  But not a single person we met, listened to, or learned of, ever spoke about their loss without mentioning their gains.  How they’d each gained a newfound appreciation for being alive.  And in the process, gained new friends who were now helping them overcome unimaginable loss.

Monday morning was the last call of our Breakfast Club.  We were leaving the next day.  Firefighters were getting the upper hand on a majority of the fires, and many of the mandatory evacuations were being lifted.  Judy and Felix were heading back to their condo, where only minor smoke damage remained.  Burt, was safe, too.  A neighbor had spotted him through the window and alerted Judy an hour earlier.

David gobbled down his breakfast faster than usual.  He was in a hurry to catch a flight for a business meeting in Palm Springs.  Life was getting back to normal, it seemed.  Whatever this new normal was going to look like.

As our club dissolved, we exchanged numbers and emails, shook hands and hugged one another…promising to keep in touch.  It reminded me of my last day of High School.  All of us rushing to sign each other’s yearbook before walking out of school one last time.  Driving through the tiny town of Sebastopol, careening through its winding roads towards Duckworth Farm, I wondered if I’d hear from any of them again.

At the bottom of the valley, I turned into the farm and parked our dusty red rental alongside an old tractor. Trying to look cool in the rustic, rural setting.  The tractor did.  I looked…well, not.

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Flowers in the Kitchen Garden at Duckworth Farm

 

Lorri, who runs the farm, and her daughter, Snazzy (who was about to run us all over the farm) greeted us in the driveway with a welcome reserved for long lost cousins who finally found their way back home.  “Let’s go into the cookhouse.”  Lorri said, leading the way.  “We can talk in there.”  Making my way into the building, sidestepping a handful of border collies, I felt that familiar sense of community we’d found in Sonoma, Napa, and elsewhere.

The cookhouse, a small 20X20 rectangular building, is the nucleus of the farm.  A warm and inspiring feeling overwhelms you the moment you cross the threshold.  Windows, from top to bottom, occupy the entire back wall.  Looking out into the kitchen garden with its flowers and vegetables, the barn with its looms and cupolas, and the hills in the distance that form the valley.

Inside, in the left-hand corner, sat an antique stove with burners from a bygone era.  Big clunky knobs stared up at a set of large pots and pans on top of the warmer oven.  Dozens of cookbooks with worn out pages of recipes from pastries to pastas were stacked along the floor.  And an ice cream maker lived just off to the right, opposite a large fully stacked freezer with enough food to feed an army.  And it did.  All the time.  Dozens of glass jars, each with its contents half filled, lined up neatly along a wooden table in the middle of the room.

We remove all the cooking items from their packaging, so our students can see the ingredients, as opposed to having processed foods in cans or boxes.”  Lorri told us.  “A box of product typically has one use. Ingredients are unlimited.  So, I like them to see opportunities not products.  That, and I really dislike advertisers in my kitchen.”  She added.

The cookhouse is the place WOOFERS gather to make their meals.  Succeeding or…not. But with little harm done, either way.  “We’ve had spectacular success and horrific failures, and they both make great stories.”  Lorri said.   It’s also a place where one can feel truly safe.  Free to talk about anything and everything.  Confident their conversations will never pervade the four walls that surround them.

Lorri and her family eat off the farm the entire year.  And the bread they share with others is never sliced.  “There’s something about the ripping and tearing.  It’s visceral.  It’s…a moment.  This is how we learn to trust each other.”  Lorri told us.  The food at Duckworth is their heritage, history, tradition, religion, and identity, all rolled into one.  “If we don’t farm, harvest, prepare, cook and eat together, then we’ve lost a good part of what it means to be human in a community.  When you share a meal with strangers, everyone becomes equal.”

And there are, of course, opportunities to learn and grow in the field, as well.  While some WWOOFNG farms are more hands off, focusing only on agricultural technique, Duckworth teaches what vocational schooling leaves out; fixing engines and changing tires, welding, cooking, sewing and planting.  If you’re not collecting eggs, you’re repairing fences.  There’s sheering sheep (which I knew you could do) and milking them (which I didn’t).  At Duckworth, if you’re not getting your hands dirty, you’re not living up to your full potential.

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In the spring, there’s weeding and planting and prepping the blueberry fields.  June is plum month.  Blueberries are picked in July.  Pear season starts in August and apples are readied in September.  Winter months involve more weeding and more repairing.

Lather.  Rinse.  Repeat.

Lorri shared with us an email from a recent WWOOFER who had no experience in farm life until she spent a summer at Duckworth.  “I am now fully prepared for any oncoming zombie apocalypse.” The post read.

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Where the WWOOFERS live

The work here may be never ending.  But it is never boring, and always rewarding.  There are classes about plants and soil and taking care of animals.  But WWOOFERS here also learn about taking care of each other.  And as we wandered the property I realized we were walking the grounds of a communal boot camp for the important things in life.

At days end, we had played with – and learned about – cows, horses, goats and ducks. Snazzy taught us how to harvest, but not before we tried (unsuccessfully) to wrangle sheep.  And gave up – perhaps a little too quickly – at getting anywhere close to catching a chicken.  With nearly 100 acres there’s room for everyone.  Animals and birds, bees and blueberries, WWOOFERS, and those seeking refuge from the wild fires.  Duckworth Farm was accustomed to fighting with a fire for what they do.  This time, they had to fight a fire that threatened who they serve.

At 2:00 am, the first morning of the fire, Lorri’s phone rang.  It was a friend of hers, a local veterinarian:

“I said, “hello”, and she said, “Lorri, is your farm on fire?”  I said, “No”, and she said, “I’m on my way, trailer behind me with the horses.”   I told her I would have the barn ready and be outside waiting for her. We got her horses settled in the barn fairly quickly.”

Her family trailed behind her, bringing along their dog and two cats.  Having lost everything – including their neighbor, who died in his home – they ended up staying on the farm for two weeks, until securing a rental property in nearby Petaluma.  Also staying on the farm was a single mother from Coffee Park in Santa Rosa.  Her and her 7-year-old daughter stayed in the barn until the evacuation order was lifted for their neighborhood.

Left in the fires’ wake was more than a billion dollars in damage.  At least two dozen wineries destroyed.  200,000 acres scorched.  Close to 10,000 homes and businesses gone.  And over 40 people dead.

Too often, we conceive our world to be measured in square feet – the size of our homes.  But when we realize that homesteads are actually measured in miles, new communities are formed.  And community is the foundation of WWOOFING.   The ground of its farms is sacred.  Value is tied to it.  It breathes life and breeds lasting bonds.  On the flight home, we thought about the lessons we’d learned on the farm and in Northern California.  How the dirt beneath us can be devastated, and we can still help change the world.  They grow a lot of things on Duckworth Farm.  But crops of compassion are what they raise best of all.

Concerned Citizens Take a Stand Against Human Trafficking in Cancun, Mexico

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Human trafficking is the third most lucrative crime on the planet.  Thriving not just in the shadows of third-world countries, but in plain sight in some of the wealthiest nations in the world.

Mexico is the number one supplier of trafficked victims globally.  And Cancun, a city which took in over five million visitors last year, ranks third in the country as a supplier of sex slaves to the United States, Europe, and Canada.  It’s considered a “transient” drop off for victims.

And while human trafficking is a federal crime in Mexico, it’s one that typically goes unpunished for a variety of reasons; corrupt police who look the other way, anti-trafficking laws caught in the tangles of red tape, and journalists who fail to report on the issue.  Either because of confusion of its definition, or fear of exposing the powerful people who continue to profit from it.

But there are those making a difference in Mexico.  Concerned citizens determined to save lives by fighting on the front lines every day.  Making themselves visible so others won’t disappear.

We met four such people while on assignment in Cancun.

Veronica Fajardo 

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Veronica Fajardo

A light rain was falling as we sat in the corner of a small, unremarkable café half-an-hour west of touristy Cancun.   Drinking our lukewarm coffee, we waited for Veronica Farjardo, a local journalist, who despite threats from profiteers and road blocks from her editors, continues to write trafficking and social interest stories for Novedades de Quintana Roo.  We met over the phone the evening before.  The concierge at the hotel helped us contact her newspaper.  And as luck would have it, Mrs. Fajardo answered the phone.

Stepping through the door, Veronica shook her umbrella dry and wiped her feet.  She spotted us immediately and made her way over for proper introductions.

We had a long list of questions.  And before we could start checking the boxes, Veronica began dishing out details in areas we were more than happy to have first-hand knowledge of.   The under-the-radar intricacies of how these crimes continue to thrive; local brothels disguised as massage parlors, and web sites allowing access for those “in the know” to trafficking victims.

“There are fake on-line travel agencies.”  She told us.  “Agencies where you can buy packages and get connected to luxury resorts offering ‘special services.’”

The “special services” she referenced were photobooks.  Catalogs where prospected buyers could browse through a collection of kids’ head shots – some as young as five years old – detailing age, weight, height, and cost.

“Some get passed around to as many as twenty people a day.”  Veronica told us.

She talked about bribery within local law enforcement, and corruption at the highest levels of government.  Trying my best to keep up, I flipped through my notebook in search of blank spaces to take down the details.

“Do you know any victims we can talk to about these things?”  We asked.

Some.”  She answered.  “I just don’t know if they will want to talk to you.  Many are afraid to go on record.  You might have better luck with NGO’s.”

NGO’s are non-governmental organizations.  Typically, nonprofit’s that are independent of governments. They’re usually funded by donations and run by volunteers.  They are grassroots.  They are boots-on-the ground.  And they’re the ones we really wanted to meet.

We finished our coffee and called it a night.  Agreeing to meet the following morning in a government building just around the corner.

“I’ll make some calls and see who we can talk to.”  Veronica promised, as she drove away.

The following morning our taxi dropped us off near the steps of the government building.  We were a half hour early, eager to start our day.  It was nearly 100 degrees, not a cloud in the sky or a hint of any breeze.  So, we stepped into a small patch of shade under the portico of the building and waited on a nearby bench.

Forty-five minutes later…no sign of Veronica.  Our texts, calls, and emails all went unanswered.  Just as we were about to call it quits, our phone rang.

“Sorry I’m late.  I was trying to get us an interview. I’m right here.”      

Breathing a sigh of relief, we looked up to see Veronica with a phone to her ear waving from the entryway.  Joining us on the bench in the shade of the portico, she spent the next ten minutes telling us about all the people she’d reached out to.  None of them willing to talk.

The disappointment was interrupted by a cheerful, musical chime that came from under the bench.  It was Veronica’s phone. Taking it out of her bag, she answered the call and quickly moved to the far corner of the entry way and into the glaring sun.  We tried reading her face for any hint of good news, but she remained expressionless throughout her conversation.

A few minutes later she came back.  “My friend will talk with you.  She runs a shelter.  But we must leave now.”

Squeezing ourselves into a small taxi, we drove through one nondescript neighborhood after another, in search of Veronica’s friend.

Paola Feregrino

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Paola Feregrino

In 2003, Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho wrote a series of articles about the sexual abuse of minors for Por Esto, a daily Mexican newspaper headquartered in the Yucatán.  With a main office in Cancún, and several other bureaus, Por Esto’s circulation was significant.

In one of the articles Cacho featured a story of a girl who came forward accusing a local businessman, Jean Succar Kuri, of abuse.  The following year, believing local police were failing to follow up on the girl’s accusations, Cacho wrote a book; Demons of Eden.  The book not only accused Succar Kuri of being involved in child pornography and prostitution, it named names.  Important names.  Prominent businessmen and high ranking politicians, who Cacho claimed, were protecting Succar Kuri.

Demons of Eden had spread fear to those unaware the crimes existed in their backyard.  And concern to those who were profiting from it.  In 2006, a tape emerged of a conversation between influential businessman Kamel Nacif Borge and Mario Plutarco Marín Torres, the governor of the state of Puebla.  On the tape, the two conspired to have Cacho beaten and raped for her reporting.

Cacho’s efforts to fight against sex trafficking and violence against women has earned her the distinction, according to Amnesty International, of being, Mexico’s most famous investigative journalist and women’s rights advocate.”  Her reporting has made her famous.  It’s also made her a target.  There have been multiple attempts on her life, and the United Nations Human Rights Council advised she leave the country and seek political asylum elsewhere.  But Lydia Cacho fights on.  In Mexico.

One of Cacho’s earliest achievements was the creation of a shelter called, CIAM – El Centro Integral de Atención a las Mujeres (The Integral Center for Women’s Care).  The Cancún-based organization supports women and children who have been victims of violence, and it’s where Veronica set up our first meeting.

“We’re meeting Paola Feregrino. She took over the shelter from her mentor, Lydia Cacho.”  Veronica said, as we climbed out of the taxi and made our way towards a thick concrete door.  Acknowledging herself to the security camera above, Veronica rang the doorbell and waited.  Seconds later, a buzzer sounded signaling our clearance.

Greeting us on the other side was Paola, the shelter’s Executive Director.  Warm, friendly, and just thirty years young, Paola began our tour of the facility.  Her passion for social causes resonating more and more with each story she told us.

At the end of the hallway was Paola’s office.  Opening the door, she invited us in, took a seat behind a small, black desk and began telling us about her work and the things she’s seen.

A good number of our survivors here have been victims of human trafficking.”  She told us.  “When the shelter started, we didn’t even know what human trafficking was.”

Those coming into the battered women’s shelter to escape physical and sexual violence were suddenly telling stories of being sold to perspective buyers.

“We’d never heard anything like this.”  Paola told us.

Majoring in Clinical Psychology, Paola was the first in her family to get a degree.  And despite the constant threat of physical threats, budget cuts and funding challenges, her approach to educating the community on violence prevention remains both creative and innovative.  One program teaches at-risk kids the importance of gender equality and conflict resolution.  While another, a campaign called, “Yo no estoy en venta!” (“I am not for sale”), teaches young kids to become advocates against human trafficking.

“I think I’ve always been an activist.”  She told us, as that familiar ring tone once again chimed from Veronica’s purse.  Taking the call, she stepped outside while Paola continued.  

Lydia Cacho taught me a lot of things…theoretical and technical.  But above all, she taught me how to develop leadership skills.  To help guide a team in unfavorable circumstances. She gave me confidence. I was afraid to become an Executive Director. I still feel afraid sometimes because it’s a big responsibility.  But this is not about me.  It’s about the lives we can save and the steps we can take to build a better world for all of us.”

Veronica came back into the room, dropped the phone into her purse, and smiled.

I found more people to talk to.”  She said, excitedly.  “They’re waiting for us now.” 

Rosa Maria Marquez & Marcos Basilio 

Saying goodbye to Paola, we exchanged emails, promising to keep in touch, and to look for ways to work together in the future.  Jumping into another taxi, our Amazing Race day continued.

“We’re going to see Rosa Maria, a social activist and her lawyer, Marcos.  He’s a commercial and family law attorney.”  Veronica said.

Neither Rosa Maria or Marcos were all that thrilled to sit down with us.  Veronica, a friend of theirs for nearly 20 years had talked them into it.  Promising to be present at the meeting.  Now, nearly ten minutes late, we wondered whether they’d even be there when we arrived.

It was mid-afternoon, and the restaurant was nearly empty.  Except for Rosa Maria and Marcos, who sat at a table in the middle of the restaurant, directly under a slowly rotating fan.

“Traffic!”  Veronica exclaimed, waving in their direction.

We took a seat and ordered a pot of hot tea.  The coolness of the fan was a nice welcome.  As was the greeting from our two new friends.

Rosa Maria started the conversation – taking us back thirty years to when her journey began.  Earning a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), and a Master’s in Public Administration from American University, Rosa Maria had perfected the profession of a civil society activist.  Today, focusing on the defense and promotion of Human Rights causes, she is a pioneer in group organization and a leader of several causes; women in detention, people with disabilities, HIV positive individuals, and a variety of social causes for both younger and older adults.  She has a full plate.  One, which is refilled daily and without complaint.

Quietly sitting next to her was Marcos Basilio, her attorney, friend, and accompanying activist.  Marcos’s story was just as fascinating.  Having practiced law for the past ten years in Cancun, Marcos has carved a niche for himself representing Guatemalan women and children who are trafficked for labor exploitation, as opposed to sexual abuse.

“Human Trafficking isn’t only about sex.”  Marcos told us, shaking his head.  “People always make that mistake.  It also involves a complex web of other illegal activity.”  He continued.  “There is prostitution and gambling, drugs, organized crime, money laundering, and labor exploitation.”    

What impressed us most was not the stories these four had shared.  Rather, how their passion for justice powers them past their everyday occupations.  Continuously focusing their talents on delivering hope for their country and its citizens.  They work independently, yet each are intrinsically connected.  Intertwined in a cause greater than themselves.

Why would, Marcos, a commercial lawyer care so much about humanitarianism?  What makes someone like Rosa Maria dedicate half her life to do so much for so many?  Why would Veronica continue writing stories of human oppression, despite the threats of violence against her?  Any why would Paola put her life in danger – every day – to protect women and children she doesn’t know?

“Why do you do this?”  I asked each of them.

“Because these stories matter.”

“Because people matter.” 

“We do it…” Paola told us…” because someone has to.”

 

 

 

 


 

Cuba – Part II

Journeying through historical sights and visiting Cuba’s LGBTQ community…here is Part II of our Cuba series.

Each new day brought with it new excitement and wonder.  We stopped in the Plaza de Revolución; the focal point of the Cuban government and one of the largest city squares in the world.  At 77,000 square feet, the Plaza has been the site of many political rallies, and it’s where Pope Francis famously held mass in 2015.  It’s two steel memorials, featuring two of the most important heroes of the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuego, is one of the country’s most iconic images.

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We traveled through Fidel’s childhood neighborhood, and ate lunch in a restaurant with his son at the table behind us.  Speaking with some locals, we learned about Cuba’s churches, and how many of them are considered “sanctuary locations.”  Places where groups meet in secret to discuss the hardships of communism while plotting its demise.

We passed pockets of revolutionary groups gathering on street corners and proselytizing communism at the top of their lungs, as they waved pro-socialist literature in the air.  They’re called CDR Watchers (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), and their job is to remain vigilant and vocal, while spying on their neighbors…looking for those who oppose authoritarian rule.

By mid-week we’d talked with dozens of people on a wide range of issues.  History, art, food, weather, and the importance of smoking a good cigar.  As well as politics…an often times jailable offense should the conversation happen to spill into the wrong ears.

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And while life on an isolated Communist island is hard enough, being gay and living there presents an entirely new set of challenges.  Maintaining an LGBTQ lifestyle in Cuba isn’t an illegal offense, but it is offensive in the eyes of the government.  We witnessed it on our last night in Havana.

On the other side of Chinatown is a bar called, Cabaret Las Vegas.  We’d read about it earlier in the week, as we trudged along on the government-monitored-wifi-hotspot we’d picked up on in the park.

Las Vegas boasted the biggest drag show, in the biggest gay section of Havana. The term “big” is relative, as the “section” was nothing more than a corner with a bar, restaurant, pizza shop, and the club at the opposite end.  Big or not, it was a popular spot.  Hundreds of people gathered along the sidewalks, laughing and dancing to the muffled sounds of different disco tracks, all blending together from the four locations.  It was a festive party in the street…a mini Mardi Gras, where beads had been replaced with slices of pizza and Caipirinha’s.  Just under the surface, however, a germ of danger was waiting to be exposed.

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Standing at the door to Las Vegas was a gaunt young man in a ripped white shirt, with skinny white jeans and worn out white Converse sneakers.  He reminded me of an emaciated John Lennon walking across Abbey Road.  Although, his hair and height was considerably shorter.

“We don’t open for another hour.”  He said.  Looking at my watch it was nearly midnight.  We asked if there someplace to get a drink.  Someplace other than the crowded spots on the corner.  “Follow me.”  He said, as he left his post at the door.

Walking 10 feet in front he asked us to stay behind.  “It’s better not to draw attention.”  He said.  “I’ll go first.  You follow.  We’ll meet at a table once we get inside.” 

Our new friend entered the coffee shop, briskly brushing past a police officer who was arguing with 3 teenage girls standing on the steps of the shop.  The girls wore matching knee-high denim miniskirts, and shared a terrified look on their face.

We entered the shop thirty seconds behind the mysterious man in white, who had secured us a table.  Gesturing with both hands, he offered us a seat in the remaining two chairs.  It was all very covert.

“What’s the story with the girls outside?”  We asked.

“They’re waiting to get into the club and the police don’t like the way they’re dressed.”  He replied.

“And the police don’t want us talking to tourists.  That’s why I needed to walk ahead of you.”

Through sad brown eyes that stared right through us, he began his story.  His name was Martez; 33-years old, soft spoken, and recently released from prison, having spent 12 years of a 15-year sentence.  His crime; selling Marijuana cigarettes.  Although, his real crime, he told us, was being gay.  Martez had never left the island and his parents had never clued in on his lifestyle.

“That’s got to be difficult.”  I said.

“It was easy.  I’ve spent half my life in jail.  They never visited.  They never paid attention to me before that.  I don’t have a relationship with them.”  He said.

His words lacked any form of empathy.

We talked about the Pulse shooting in Orlando and asked what the communities response was.  “What’s Pulse?”  he asked?   An asteroid could be hurling towards us with only a few days of human life remaining.   And while the entirety of the world’s population braced for impact, Martez and his friends would be going about their normal routine.  Closed off from all things news and all things social media.   And for a moment his unplugged world seemed comfortable enough.

“Behind you.  Quick!”  Martez said, motioning with his head.  Outside the three young girls had apparently lost the argument with the police office and were being placed in the back of his car.

Finishing our drinks, we made our way to the Cabaret, as Martez resumed his spot – 10 feet ahead of us.

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By the end of the trip we’d met people who were happy, content, frustrated, scared, and downright angry.  And while the political spectrum ran from one extreme to the other, the one thing everyone had in common, was the struggle.  Whether for freedom with capitalistic independence, or communist state-run assistance, everyone was aware of the restrictions and poverty that surrounded them.

And while there’s much to envy about the wealth the rest of the world has, many Cubans we met were mindful of what else those foreign countries endure:  a populous with soaring education debt, low literacy rates, homelessness, out of control gun violence, and a health care system in disarray.  Those things are available in Cuba.  Everyone can go to college.  In fact, many Cubans have multiple degrees.  Crime is barely visible and health care is available to everyone.  And while it seems the younger generation appreciates those benefits, those we met were fully aware of the toll it is taking on them and their country.

Beauty permeates Cuba like flowers poking through a rusted metal fence.  We found it in  music, food, culture, architecture, and most of all her people.  People equipped to live a life, but forced to do so in a controlled and confined space.  Traveling is about understanding cultures and embracing the unknown.  We were fortunate to have been able to take advantage of president Obama’s easing of Cuban/American relations.  Now, with the new administration’s policy rollbacks, it’s anyone’s guess as to how those relations will be impacted.

 

Cuba – Part I

 

Taking advantage of the Obama administration’s easing of Cuban/American restrictions, we accepted a project with a group of writers and photographers.  Our directives were simple; assigned to various places throughout the country, we were asked to document our experiences.

Our knowledge of Cuba was limited.  We knew the country was roughly the size of Tennessee and we were aware of its complicated history with the United States.  The disaster at the Bay of Pigs, and a missile crisis which took the world to the brink of nuclear war.  We also recognized that reading about something is entirely different than experiencing it.  And while a week in any country does not an expert make, what was packed into that time gave fresh insight into what had been an otherwise stale perspective.

Here is Part I of our two part series.

“Revolution is a Bitch”

Havana Airport security, we were told, could be a bit complicated to navigate.  I’ve always had success while visiting new places by appearing to know what I’m doing and where I’m going.  “Act like I’ve been here before” is my mantra.  Nonetheless, this was Cuba.  So, our small group of journalists prepared ourselves for the peppering of suspicious questions.  But not one came our way.  Cuba’s security officials decided, instead, to interrogate the large group of American tourists that had entered Passport Control just ahead of us, looking a bit dazed and thoroughly confused.  The tourists were asked all sorts of questions; where they were from, why they were there, and if they knew anyone on the island.  While they stumbled through the inquiry, we seized the opportunity.  Moving quickly and unnoticed to the counter, where our passports were stamped without incident.

Stepping out of the airport and squinting through the mugginess I noticed a long line of taxis waiting with their engines running.  A few were “modern” New York Yellow taxis, but most were vintage cars that looked as if they’d driven straight off the set of a Happy Days episode.  “If the engines were still working, then maybe the air conditioning is too.” I thought, as I pulled my damp shirt away from the back of my neck.

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I slid a stack of Euros under the glass partition at the currency window and waited.  Cuba has an exchange tax on U.S. currency, so to save money I’d traded out the bills the day before.  The officer on the other side of the window divvied up two piles of Cuba’s two currencies.  The CUC which is used for tourists and set at a 1:1 fixed rate against the Dollar.  And the CUP, or Cuban Peso, which is worth far less, and used at ration stores and street stalls selling juices and assorted fruits.

We piled into the back of a faded blue 1961 blue Chevy, and made our way towards Havana, roughly half an hour away.   It was a time traveling trip where everyone shared the road.  Antique cars rumbled over potholes, while improvised horse drawn buggies trotted alongside, trying to keep up.  Mopeds, which appeared to be held together with duct tape and pieces of erector sets, sped through the traffic.  Backfiring as they shifted gears and raced around the ancient automobiles.  Not to be outdone, bicyclists with boxes of fruit and other household goods strapped and stacked higher than the riders themselves, peddled along the sidewalks, leaving beads of sweat in the dirt behind them.

 

 

IMG_3639We drove past dilapidated buildings with chipped paint, cracked windows, and exposed blocks of concrete set behind pro-revolutionary billboards of Fidel Castro coolly smoking cigars.  Clothes, gently swaying in the warm, sticky breeze were pinned along clotheslines attached from one tin roof corner to the other.

The homes gradually turned more pleasing as we neared our hotel; a one-hundred-year-old mansion in a quiet section of south Havana.  The house-turned-hostel was nestled amongst a depressed collection of homes, each one hidden behind beautiful bougainvillea, banana palms, and multi-colored hibiscus bushes.  The outside of our hostel was tattered with years of disregard, but the interior boasted a carefully preserved décor of spotless Italian marbled floors and imported onyx columns that supported frescoed ceilings.

In the communal bathroom, water slowly dripped from the sink faucet regardless of how hard the nozzle turned or which direction it went.  There were half a dozen rooms, each with ten-foot hand crafted wooden doors that even when fully opened, required a sideways entry.

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The streets were caked with broken bits of asphalt, piles of dirt from unfinished roadwork and an assortment of other debris.   Trash cans were overflowing with flies circling above, hoping the garbage trucks would forget to make their runs.

We found our way to The Malecón; an esplanade roadway where the ocean kisses a 5-mile stretch of the Havana coastline.  It’s a popular hangout for those who have very little and are looking for entertainment without a cost.  We stopped there to capture a few images of life along the wall, when we struck up a conversation with two locals who were offering a tour through the city in a 1952 Chrysler.

After negotiating a price, we scooted into the backseat where the carpet on the floor had been removed, displaying a metal that hadn’t seen the light of day since it rolled off the assembly line.  This car was born a few years before seat belts.  So, the head rest on the seat in front of me would have to do.  Lowering the window to allow fresh air, I cranked the handle – delicately – as if I were churning butter.  Everything about the car was original.  From the engine and the paint, to the steering wheel and its radio knobs.  Everything except the Boss Stereo system that lived in the glove box.

Elon, our navigator, fiddled with the stereo, while Carlito, our driver, pointed out landmarks.  So much was happening…and all at the same time.  In-between shout-outs, Carlito struggled to keep the door from falling off its hinges.  Opening and closing it in rapid succession to get the latch to catch properly.  That, while a bassline of reggae-infused Spanish music thumped through crackling speakers, with a decibel level so loud it may have interrupted communications with the International Space Station.

It was our very own Cuban/American Graffiti moment, passing a collection of vintage American cars, while cruising the streets of Havana with music blaring.  We stopped several times to take video and pictures.  And as our tour guides explained the relevance of what we were seeing, we were wondering when the door might fall off completely.

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We pulled into a bar – a juke-joint type of place – where Mojitos were made on the small patio, and live salsa and merengue music was made in the room next door.

“Mr. Obama sat right here and drank a Mojito!”  Carlito told us proudly, while ordering us the same drink.

“You don’t want one?”  I asked.

“No.”  he shot back, disappointingly.

“I can’t afford them…it costs 6 CUC.  Revolution is a bitch.”                                                                       

We ordered drinks for them both, then sat down at a corner table.  In hushed tones, we started talking about things locals weren’t supposed to be talking to tourists about – things they couldn’t do:

  • Travel abroad without permission.
  • Change jobs without permission.
  • Read unapproved books or magazines.
  • Visit or stay in tourist hotels.

Their list went on.

While they were ticking off the “Do-Not’s” of a Cuban citizen, a drunk man staggeringly made an unwelcomed entrance at our table.  Interrupting our conversation with slurred speech, he called our friends prostitutes and chastised them for conversing with “the westerners.”  A bouncer forcibly removed the man, pushing him back onto the street.  I watched him walk away, teetering and talking to himself as he disappeared around the corner.

Finishing our drinks, we climbed back into the car as Elon reached for the stereo before slamming the door.  Cranking Bonnie Tyler’s, Total Eclipse of the Heart, to an uncomfortable level, we sped off.

“You want some cigars?” Elon asked.  “I know just the place.”  We’d said, no.  But Carlito was singing the “Turn Around Bright Eyes” chorus so loudly, neither of them heard us.

IMG_4469Winding through a narrow alley in a neighborhood where the streets truly had no name, our Chrysler careened its way around pedestrians.  It wasn’t the derelict environment that stood out, in so much as it was the idleness of those living in it.   Everyone seemed to be waiting for something to happen.  Some squatted inside entryways where the doors had long since vanished, and others wandered the street aimlessly.

Carlito pulled the car up alongside a corner and stopped, abruptly, with the left front tire slightly scraping the sidewalk.  Exiting quickly, the four of us headed down a dark, dingy passageway to meet a man we didn’t know so we could buy cigars we would never smoke.

The smell of urine hung in the warm air as Elon reached through wrought iron bars and banged heavy on an even heavier wooden door.  “Julio!” he called out.  Banging a few more times.  No answer.  I got the impression “Julio” hadn’t been around for a while…seeing as how there was a giant padlock on the front of his door.  Satisfied Julio would not be selling us Montecristo’s, we climbed back into the Chrysler and bounced our way down the broken street once more.

The day was getting away from us and it was time for dinner.  We chose, at the behest of our new friends, La Familia. One of Havana’s many paladeras – privately owned small businesses used as restaurants.

La Familia’s food was simple and home cooked; black beans, rice and half a chicken.  There was nothing fancy about it.  But we preferred it that way.  It reminded us that those who prepared it weren’t professionals.  They just simply enjoyed cooking it for us.  The ambiance far outweighed the meal, as family pictures of people long since passed hung crookedly on the wall, and newspaper articles lined every inch of the ceiling.  Two guitar players performed acoustic Spanish renditions of James Taylor songs in the far corner, as the patrons sang along in between bites.

With dinner over we set out in search of a Wi-Fi Hot Spot.  Cuba has the lowest internet density in the Western Hemisphere.  Less than 2% of the population even has access.  And although the government is slowly lifting those restrictions, this a country where not that long ago chewing gum was illegal.

With only half-a-dozen hotspots in Havana, we stumbled into a park where hundreds of people sat shoulder-to-shoulder on benches and sidewalks.  A fluorescent glow bouncing off their faces, signaled to us we’d found one of the six.   We bought a one-hour internet card for 4 CUC from a kid who looked as if he were selling fake Rolex’s.  The cards had a scratch off username and password on the back that when scraped away, revealed a long set of random digits and symbols.  Everything we surfed was being monitored by the government.  And the speed at which we were doing so was the equivalent of two hamsters running in a cage to activate the filament of a lightbulb.  An hour’s worth of internet service was barely enough time to send a few texts and answer an email.  Skype didn’t work, and a simple phone call distorted the voice on the other end, turning their speech patterns into an alien lifeform with an indecipherable language.

It had been a long day and we’d seen quite a bit.  So, as a self-anointed “cork dork” I felt a nice Cabernet would be a good way to say goodnight to Day 1.  We hadn’t seen a wine shop all day.  And if one existed, our guess was that it would be in the center of downtown Havana.  Standing outside El Capitoilo Nacional, we heard a voice from behind.  “I can find you wine!  1 CUC per bottle.” The voice said.

We’d been chauffeured all day successfully.  And while I was skeptical of a taxi driver promising dollar-a-bottle wines, I figured there was no harm in searching.

 

IMG_3539The darkness did little to hide the fractured facades of the homes we drove past.  And as our car came to rest in front of a nondescript door, I took notice of the dozen or so doorbells, each one connected with exposed wires that shot off in all directions.  Careful not to touch anything, I traced my finger along the wires, trying to find the doorbell that matched the wine store.

“Put your CUC in the bucket.”  Our driver said from behind me.  Pointing to a small sign above the door that read simply, “Vino!”

What do you mean, ‘the bucket?’” I asked.

Your money.”  He replied.  “Put it in here and I’ll send it up there.”

‘Up there!” was a fourth-story balcony where the bucket had just been dropped, hand-over-hand with a frayed rope.

There were four bottles to choose from.  And while I knew slightly more about wine than the average person, I was more than confident the listed varietals were made up.

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Figuring we’d been had, we decided to buy all four.  Which, we believed, would raise the chances of at least one bottle tasting better than cough syrup.

I dropped a 5 CUC bill into the bucket and watched as it ascended upward towards a shadowy figure on a balcony just below the roof.  The figure, never saying a word, pulled the bucket over the ledge and disappeared.  Within seconds, four separate sounds of glass against tin echoed through the street as I stood underneath … waiting with outstretched arms.

Retrieving the bottles of God-knows-what from the bucket, we got back into the car and drove towards the hostel over an uneven and bumpy street.  Our bottles clanking together on the seat between us, as we wondered – aloud – what they were going to taste like.  And what in the world the rest of the week had in store for us.

 

 

Inspiring Stories To Give You Hope After A Less Than Inspiring Year

 

We thought sharing NPR‘s favorite, most inspiring stories of 2016, would be a nice Christmas present.  Inspiring you to remain hopeful after the (insert catastrophic phrase of your own here) year we just shared together.  These stories certainly helped shape our New Year’s Resolution.  Not gym membership, seeing the doctor more often, or adding more travel commitments (although, we’ll do those things).  But also our determination to raise our voices a little louder…get involved just a little bit more.

So let’s all have ourselves a wonderful holiday season…and get some rest!  We’ve got work to do in 2017.

Merry Christmas and a Happy (Happier) New Year to all of those committed to Just DO Something…Anything! to make a difference.

Sincerely,
JDSA

Clockwise from upper left: Dr. Forster Amponsah; a Malick Sidbe photo taken in Mali; a global garden of radio; Chewa the TB-sniffing rat; another Sidbe photo; Olympic medalist Fu Yuanhui of China; the New Mexico cave where a superhero bacterium lived; poverty fighter Sir Fazle Hasan Abed; calligrapher Sughra Hussainy; activist Loyce Maturu.

Jason Beaubien/NPR, Courtesy of Malick Sidibe and Jack Shainman Gallery, Katherine Streeter for NPR, Maarten Boersema/APOPO, Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images, Courtesy of Max Wisshak, Courtesy of BRAC, Ben de la Cruz and Toya Sarno Jordan/NPR 

There was no shortage of sad news in 2016.

And because we’re a blog that covers global health and development, we covered a lot of those sobering stories: the toll of diseases like Zika, the bombing of hospitals in conflict zones, the suffering caused by poverty and by discrimination against women.

But we published a lot of hopeful stories as well. We asked our team at Goats and Soda to pick some of the stories from this year that inspired them the most. We hope you’re inspired too.

Of Periods And Bugs

My favorite inspiring story from this year was about the Chinese Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui who made headlines for telling the world she was on her period. I love that woman — breaking boundaries and taboos effortlessly.

My favorite story that I wrote was the hero bug story. We forget that to fight antibiotic resistance we need the help of the bacteria. —Michaeleen Doucleff

A Rat With A Nose For TB

My favorite piece on Goats and Soda in 2016 was “Chewa The Lab Rat Has A Great Job, Good Retirement Benefits.” African giant-pouched rats like Chewa are trained to detect TB — and they’re faster and cheaper than lab machines. You can tell from the photos that the lab technicians really love their helper rats. —Malaka Gharib

Unstoppable Women

I love watching the video of Sughra Hussainy creating calligraphy. When she was a kid in Afghanistan, girls couldn’t go to school. That didn’t stand in her way. Today she’s a gifted artist with big dreams: “I just want to work hard at this. And of course, become world famous.”

A favorite story I wrote was an interview with Loyce Maturu, a 24-year-old from Zimbabwe who was an orphan, HIV positive and abused by a relative. And she had TB. And tried to kill herself at a low point. As the headline says, “She almost gave up — but didn’t.” —Marc Silver

Dazzling Doctor

Dr. Forster Amponsah has star power. You can see it as he walks the halls of the Koforidua Regional Hospital in Ghana. Interns’ and patients’ eyes track his movement. Amponsah through sheer force of will and against incredible challenges has built up a surgical department in his public hospital. The surgeries he’s performing would be considered routine in a U.S. hospital but some days in Ghana they appear as small miracles. —Jason Beaubien

Irresistible Radio

Our story about Radio Garden, a website that lets you listen to stations around the world, was my favorite story. Just point your cursor at one of the thousands of green dots on a map of the globe. Listen to talk radio in Uganda, jazz in Morocco and punk rock in Hawaii. It’s a fun way to feel a connection to distant cultures. —Ben de la Cruz

A Photographer And A Poverty Fighter

This one is poignant given the extremism and political violence plaguing Mali, but I felt so uplifted reading Ofeibea Quist-Arcton’s tribute to the late Malian portrait photographer Malick Sidibe. His black and white images from the 1960s and ’70s captured dancing couples, pensive matriarchs and youngsters showing off their grooviest outfits — a reminder of a hopeful time when Mali was newly independent and, as Quist-Arcton put it, “relishing its freedom and having fun.”

One of my favorite interviews was with “the most influential poverty fighter you’ve never heard of” — Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, founder and head of BRAC, the anti-poverty group. BRAC helped pioneer a program that gives extremely poor families an asset like a cow or a goat. It’s an approach that has likely improved the lives of millions. —Nurith Aizenman

And he is back, without binders that is……

The man who captivated crowds of 100,000 plus during rallies, skated across Hofstra University’s debate stage, reminding us of one, simple thing: “I’ve got this.”

Body language is telling, and the town hall format showed, not only the president at his most comfortable, it also showed he finally…finally…got his groove back.  Instead of being holed up behind a lectern, Obama strode, sometimes even seeming to glide, across the stage in a confident manner.  Mitt Romney skulked and plodded about, looking like a used car salesman trying to sell us an automobile he knows has far too many miles.

The president was laser focused, besting Romney in nearly every category.  From taxes to Bain Capital.  Even when Mitt tried cornering the president on Libya, staring him down in a defiant manner on the issue of terrorism, Romney was embarrassingly fact-checked on the spot by moderator Candy Crowley, and proven wrong.

But it wasn’t discussion of foreign policy or unemployment that caught my attention.  It was women’s rights.  There was not a single mention of women’s issues during the first debate.  So I was more than grateful to see it come up this time around.  Katherine Fenton, an undecided voter, asked the president, “In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?”

Obama mentioned the very first piece of legislation he signed into law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

How did Mitt Romney respond?

Well, he said he, “learned a great deal” about gender pay inequality while constructing his cabinet as Governor.  “And I—and I went to my staff, and I said, ‘How come all the people for these jobs are—are all men.’ They said: ‘Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.’ And I said: ‘Well, gosh, can’t we—can’t we find some—some women that are also qualified?’ And—and so we—we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said: ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”

Binders full of women?  Really?  I never knew it was possible to objectify and dehumanize women everywhere with so few words.  Even worse was this comment from Romney:

“I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said: ‘I can’t be here until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. I need to be able to get home at 5 o’clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school.’ So we said fine. Let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.

I give Romney points for flexibility.  That’s certainly important.  But painting the picture of a woman who has to rush home to make dinner for her kids in this century, sounds as dated as someone who still carries around binders of any kind.

If Mitt Romney is elected President of the United States, I’ll tell my daughter not to worry about gender equality or equal pay, because her name will be in a big binder on Mitt Romney’s shelf should she ever need to find a job.  Somehow, I don’t believe that’ll give her much confidence, though.  Even less, I think, when she realizes she falls into that 47% category of his.

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