I Was in Hell (again)

I’ve been to hell (again)

August 14, 2017

I say again because you may recall last year hell was in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

That was then.  This is 2017, and hell—the Roman entrance to it at least—is but a short cab ride from our boat in Pozzuoli, Italy.  I went there today, and discovered it is really Campi Flegrei, an active volcano that has “streaming jets of Sulphurous vapour at temperatures of 160 degrees C…..” Set in a caldera, hell has fumaroles with traces of the “rare red arsenic Sulphur crystal called Realgar…”  For those who have never been to hell, I can report that it resembles places at Yellowstone.

This area is historic both in a geological and an historical sense.  In addition to being the entrance to hell, the volcanic activity is in the “epicenter of the cyclic phenomenon of the rising and lowering of the ground level in the Phlegrean Fields known as brandisim.”  I’m quoting from the brochure, since I couldn’t possibly make it up.  The rising of the land in 1538 created the youngest mountain in Europe—Monte Nuovo, 430 feet high, that originated when lava shot out of the earth. I can see it from the ship.

Historically, too, Pozzuoli was an important port in the early history of Rome. Some vestiges of that background remain, including a huge coliseum, one of the largest in the empire, and a partially reconstructed (and equally huge) marketplace. It lost its importance as Rome built ports closer to the city. I think we’re about 150 miles away.

Still, what we had come to see was not hell, or still more Roman ruins, but a picturesque 17th century village on the island of Procida , the smallest island in the Bay of Naples. To get there, we boarded a public ferry, filled with merry makers; tomorrow being Assumption Day, many Italians were getting a head start on vacationing. (In addition, the earlier ferry broke down and so we had a double load; “this is Italy,” quipped our program director).

Fortunately, no one but residents can bring cars to the island during the summer—fortunately, because the roads, if one can call them that, are barely wide enough for a well-greased car to slide through, and there are probably 11,000—one for every resident on the 14 km island.  We took taxis for our tour of the island, which featured spectacular views of the Bay of Naples, the commensurate “special” church, this one with a baroque interior hiding behind a 1890s façade. Its claim to fame is a wooden vaulted ceiling. The town of Corricella, at the bottom of a cliff, is distinguished by pastel-colored houses, supposedly a nod to the fishermen there, who wanted to be able to see their houses from the sea. The colorful appearance is striking.

The other claim to fame for Porcida is that the prize winning movie “Il Postino” was shot there (and one of the other islands we’ve been to). We had lunch at the restaurant where the movie was filmed—and now I feel compelled to see the movie!

In other words, I had a hell–err, heck, of a day.

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August 13, 2017

Heeding the strong northwest wind that more than rippled the waves, our captain changed course slightly today—we left Salerno at 5 am, bound along the Amalfi Coast for Sorrento, about 40 miles away.

While that meant we didn’t get to see much of the small villages tucked on high cliffs (I should have realized that the Saracens raided much of this area in the 16th century), it did get us to Sorrento with our bellies still full (one of the hazards of a cruise is food!), and in time to sightsee in Sorrento, one of the larger cities on the Bay of Naples. Sorrento’s other claim to fame is in the Odyssey; it was where the sirens lived.  Fortunately, we did not hear them, since they lured sailors to their death.

We had about three free hours after a brief walking tour of the city, known for its lemoncello, a liquor made from the ubiquitous lemon. The city sits on a cliff above the Bay, reached by a road through a fissure (or an elevator), its fort (damaged when Napoleon took the city) replaced with a plaza named for a famous local poet Tasso. Carolyn and I took the “city train,” which gave us a tour of the historic district, and then I was able to return to a few museums.  The local cathedral was built in the 14th century, with some artifacts from its predecessor, and an interior redone mostly in the baroque period. The church has several inlaid wood pieces that represent one of the crafts of the area (there’s a woodworking museum).  It also has a bell tower that likely dates from the 8th century.  The Saracen sack of the city in the 1550s required rebuilding of a lot of it.

A little farther on the main street was the Villa Fiorentino, built in the early 20th century by a couple who made their fortune in handkerchiefs—and brought in an American architect to build a house later donated to the city.  I went to the current Chagall exhibit, which filled six rooms.

We then were whisked to homes for lunch with local people.  If farm to food is “in” in the United States, I suspect it never went “out” here.  Our host families (an extended family of mom, daughter and son and families) gave us a tour of their farm (we were, I think in the city!) where they had two pigs, three cows, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, corn, and peppers (broccoli comes later); they were bottling tomato sauce, making wines (they bought the grapes), and served us a fresh meal.  I should have known that the pasta was an appetizer, for what followed was another main dish with meatballs, salad, peppers, and wonderful bread, all prepared from fresh items for us. Not to mention homemade wines and lemoncello.

When we came back to the boat, we learned that Greek god Aeoli’s failure to keep the winds in check meant a revision of the schedule, and so, instead of sailing up and back to Sorrento, we were going to detour to our next port by way of Capri (hence the pun for the title).

Capri is a photogenic island, rocky but distinctive, with homes of many wealthy people, including, at one time, the famous ballet star, Rudolph Nureyev. We sat on deck for about an hour and learned about the island (one of many in the Gulf of Naples, a huge caldera in sight of Vesuvius).

Our guide told us that Jackie Kennedy was responsible for “Capri” pants.  It’s said she liked Capri sandals so much that she had pants made that would let her show off the shoes.  Hence was born a fashion trend that, from the tourists we saw in Sorrento, is still very much in vogue.

One other item: many Italian immigrants to the United States came from Naples, and so a lot of the music we think of as Italian is from here.  Such as funiculi, funicula.  The origins of that song, however, bring tears to my eyes as a marketer.  It was an advertisement for a funicular company in Naples, urging people to ride to the top.  Sounds better in Italian when you don’t know the words!

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Pompeii The Ultimate Melting Pot

The ultimate melting pot—Pompeii

August 13, 2017

We’ve spent the three days in the shadow of Papa Vesuvius, along the Amalfi Coast, one of the most scenic parts of Italy.  Two days were in Salerno, where the highlights were the Greco-Roman ruins discovered in the 18th century when Carlos VII, a Bourbon, was King of the Two Sicilies and interested in antiquities.

I’ve already written about Paestum, but the next day we went to a more spectacular discovery—Pompeii, literally a “melting pot.”  The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD created one of the most well-known archaeological sites—Pompeii.  Over two days, a city that once housed 26,000 people got buried, to be rediscovered almost 1600 years later.  In two hours, we barely scratched the surface, but we did see the major public buildings including the forum, the center of any Roman city, the market (with a stand that measured weights), the local happy house (there were six in the city), the walls that enclosed it, and so forth.  I was a little disappointed to realize that much of the artwork got taken to the museum in Naples that we are not visiting, but there was enough to help the 2.5 million tourists who visit the site get a real feel for Roman civilization.  I was interested in the temples devoted to Augustus (as well as Jupiter and the other traditional gods), because he was recently declared emperor, and began the tradition of emperor king.  We also saw the kind of “Home Depot” store, which housed amphoras and other items of everyday life, and had several casts of the dead, including a dog, that died in the “melting pot.”,

We had enough time when we got back for me to take Carolyn to the St. Matthews Cathedral, which is another site not to be missed.  She noted it was bright inside, but that’s due in part to its origins in the 11th century, with a huge iron gate cast in Constantinople; I was also impressed with the Arab-Norman cloister, as I mentioned.  In addition, one of the chapels in the church is called the “chapel of the Crusaders,” who stopped there to have their weapons blessed before embarking on the Crusades.

We’ve not been too worried about Vesuvius (though with 2 million people living in Naples, its next explosion could certainly make Pompeii seem small), but our captain has been sensitive to the winds that escaped from the Aeolian islands.  Rough seas postponed our departure from Salerno, and we took a short bus ride to Vietri, the entrance to the Amalfi Coast.  A small town, it’s best known for its ceramics, which cover the dome of the parish church, and call out from half the shops in town for a stop and look.  I found a trivet that copies the famous Pompeii sign “Beware of Dog” (Cave Canem) that greatly delighted Carolyn.  It will certainly find a place in our kitchen!

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A cheesy day in Salerno

A cheesy day in Salerno

August 11, 2017

We’ve moved another hundred miles up the coast to Salerno, scene of one of the major landings in World War II and one of the farthest north remnants of Manga Graciae, that set of Greek colonies that marked the Ancient Western world and defined Greek civilization around the Mediterranean.

Of course, that meant our main visit today was to the ruins of the three- temple city of Paestrum (also named for Poseidon) one of the best-preserved ruins in the world. Certainly, it has wondrous Doric temples for Athena, Hera, and Poseidon (or possibly Zeus), constructed in the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. There’s also an agora and an amphitheater, where Greek democracy once flourished.

Another tribe replaced the Greeks in the 4th century, and in turn, the Romans conquered Paestrum in 279 BC, and rearranged some of the features of the city, renaming the temples, for example.  About a quarter of the old city has been excavated (one of the features I’d not seen before was the tomb of the founder of the city), with the artwork, including the striking tomb of a diver in the archeological museum.

The temples, rediscovered in the 18th century, as part of the “grand tour” other Europeans made in Italy had also been converted to Churches, naturally, but archaeologists have restored the Greco-Roman ruins on the main part of the site, which is government owned. Our guide said we should say goodbye to the Greek ruins that we’ve seen since the start of the trip.  That will begin today when we visit Pompeii, smaller than Paestum, but thanks to the explosion of Vesuvius, much better preserved.

The area, Campania, is one of the main agricultural producers in the country, and we passed many large farms along the way.  We stopped at one for lunch, Tempio (temple), whose claim to fame was its production of buffalo mozzarella cheese.  They gave us a tour of the 2,000 head of water buffalo, originally imported from North Africa, that produce the cheese.  Lunch was cheesy, and I don’t think I’ll ever think of mozzarella cheese in the states as “real” cheese again.  It came in kind of a bubble, with milk—but I resisted the temptation to put it in my suitcase and take it home. We had eight varieties of cheese!

The other highlight was a walk from the boat to the old city.  Our program director took us through what had once been palaces up on the hill (now subdivided into apartments), with clothes drying on the balconies (“you can tell who lives there”), people working out on their balconies—in short, real people doing real things.  Paolo spoke to a number, and coaxed a singer to do a resounding Ave Maria.

That was in front of what purports to be (and I have no doubt is) the most beautiful medieval church in Italy, the church of St. Matthew. It houses relics of the Apostle in a crypt in the basement.  The entrance to the church has a cloister with arches that have touches of the Arab influence in the area, and if we have time, I’ll try to go back with Carolyn.  It is worth a second look!

I need to get ready to go to Pompeii and say, in the local dialect, something like “yummy, yummy,” which means “let’s go.”

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The Great Italian Caper

The great Italian caper

August 10, 2017

We sailed through the Straits of Messina last night, from the protected channel between Sicily and the rest of Italy, into the Tyrrhenian Sea.  The Straits, the closest land distance (about 2 ½ miles) between the mainland and the island, have been of historic importance for at least a part of this trip; the reinforcements for the Knights at Malta gathered at Messina, where the Spanish governor had his headquarters.

The area has also given rise to (not unexpectedly) Greek and Roman mythology.  The Scylla who lured sailors for example, was located near the Straits.  Apparently, too, Cyclops lives near here, the result of Greeks finding an elephant skull with a hole (where the trunk was), or so the story goes.

We were heading to the Aeolian islands, seven volcanic topped islands north of Sicily, where in Greek mythology Aeolis trapped the winds in a cave.

Aeolis is not there, and the winds were arriving later today (which led to a hasty departure from Lipari, the largest of the islands, to give us a smoother trip to Salerno and the Amalfi Coast, where we’ll be the next few days.

The islands are known as resort havens, which was pretty obvious from the yachts in the harbor, some of which were the size of our ship, but there’s no real port, so we had to take a small tender to Lipari.  I was hoping to see the archaeology museum (naturally, there were Greek and Roman relics in it), but we were on that island long enough to board another ferry for our destination, the island of Salina. Lipari is a UNESCO heritage site, and in applying to become one, had to close its major employer—a factory that quarried pumice, one of the possible products of volcanic activity.

Salina was important in the ancient world because it had a salt pan (no more), which was important in preserving food, and its scarcity led the Romans to pay soldiers in salt (“salary” comes from it). Today it’s a vacation spot, with some interesting agriculture, the purpose of our visit.  I was really envious when we stopped at an overlook and I was as close to scuba diving—900 feet below me, in pristine waters, I could see the flags of the divers.

The purpose of our visit, though, was to learn about capers, by going to a caper farm. Something like a million tons of the product come from the Aeolian islands, so it’s something of a local treat.  Capers, we learned, come in four varieties, depending partly on size (small, medium, and large), and on maturity; the previous ones are buds, but you can also eat the fruit.  What surprised me was the production process.  Those fresh from the plant are inedible, but must be put in salt water for at least 40 days, but the farmer said the best ones are soaked for at least a year. They’re hand-picked in many small farms by the women, soaked, and then sorted (by a machine that has holes to separate small, medium, and large). There’s also a mechanized bottling set up.  We sampled a variety, and were offered the chance to buy capers for different uses, including pesto, which I’m eager to try.

As I said, the winds have been unleashed, so we cut short our visit and set sail for Salerno, where guess what—there are Greek/Roman ruins (think Pompeii) and volcanoes (think Vesuvius).  It was awesome to travel around the Aeolian Islands and circle Stromboli, a volcanic island that seems fuming, with a face that is all lava. And so our caper ends.

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Smokin’ Hot is Pretty Cool

Smoking hot at Etna

August 9, 2017

Heat has followed us this whole trip; it’s been in the upper 90s every day.  Rome, after all, has been hotter than New Delhi.

But I awoke to a new “heat” this morning—we’re docked off Mount Etna, the largest and most active volcano in Europe.

Some of the most famous volcanos are in Italy, part of the “belt of fire” that extends east from here into Turkey.  Etna is probably the best known certainly since Vesuvius, which in 79 AD buried Pompeii.  We’ll see that in a few days, too.. There’s also a potentially devastating explosion waiting to happen in Naples from a “young volcano”.

The trip took us to 6000 of the 11,000 feet (and to temperate temperatures, thankfully). The mountain is obviously the highest thing around, and rises from sea level.

We stopped at the site of an explosion in the mid 19th century, I believe, which left a variety of cones (big cones are caldera, usually where the explosion collapsed the area).  Our guide told us that the cone explodes gas and ash, and the lava flows come from fissures; usually the fissures are a one-time phenomenon. Sometimes the cone will throw larger stones, called bombs. He showed us a variety of the rocks, from the dust and ash to the lava.

We drove later to a lava flow, dating from the early 1990s.  He explained how the lava flow perpetuates itself; as the upper layer cools and solidifies the lower layers stay warm (over 2500 degrees) and flow underneath, eventually breaking through and resuming their flow until eventually cooling and generally stopping.  In the case of this particular lava flow, the nearby US Air Force base sent in helicopters with bombs to alter the path (kind of like setting counter fires).  It’s on youtube, and I do have to say that seeing the explosions and flows (we had a talk afterwards on the boat with visuals) are pretty spectacular.  We’ll have other chances—the island of Stromboli, and later, Vesuvius and the Pompeii ruins.

The boat talk was by a government agent who’s part of the monitoring of “momma Etna”, which once had the traditional cone shape I associate with volcanoes (Fujiyama anyone?), but in the 20th century has gotten new craters—including “big mouth” (a more colorful name than South East u) and the eruption of new craters has continued in 20th century—even in the past year, new craters have emerged,  a phenomenon never observed this quickly anywhere else in the world.  He said explosions can be violent, with fragments of ash and gas which are blown downwind and ash covers everything.  I remember when St. Helens blew in the 80s, we had to wipe off ash from our cars.  Here in Italy, he said, cleanup is slow. Dust can spread and make visibility difficult, roads slippery, and air bad to breathe.  Lots of “hills” we saw were baby craters at lower elevations.  A 1669 eruption reached 10 km, down to the sea.

When we asked him about living in a volcanic area, he noted that only one of the modern explosions threatened a city on the slope, and the slow progress of lava took 5 weeks to reach the village, allowing everyone to move anything they wanted—except their houses.  Interestingly, there’s no volcano insurance available in Italy, though there are some government funds

He said the “heat of pyroclastic (look that up in your dictionary) flows killed people in Pompeii.” Not the explosion, which is a product of the water vapor buildup from the intense heat.  Other gases include carbon dioxide and Sulphur oxide, which can leave a residue of yellow on the top of the mountain, looking at first glance like snow.

In all, it might have been smoking hot, but it was a pretty cool experience!

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A pupi day in Siracusa

August 8, 2017

I had a pupi day in Siracusa (read and see why)

We’ve sailed nearly a hundred miles north to 37 degrees north of the equator, the port of Siracusa in Sicily (translated Syracuse, though the one in New York is the Orangemen, here, the city uniform is green).

If I were to single out one thing we’ve seen as symbolic of Siracusa, it would probably be the church, since it incorporates many of the historical trends that explain this island.  The original site housed a   Greek temple, and the enormous Doric columns serve duty today as pillars for the church.  The city was founded by colonist from Corinth (in Greece) and is a reminder (for me) that Greece was a civilization, rather than an empire.  Unlike Rome (which copied a lot of Greek customs, changing the names of the gods, but not their duties—the temple of Athena here, partly reconstructed, became the temple of Minerva when the Roman rulers replaced the Greeks), Greece seems to me best understood as a series of related cities ranging from Asia Minor into the western Mediterranean, Siracusa being a case in point.

In addition to incorporating the columns into the church, subsequent Norman conquerors incorporated crenelated tops into the building.  And of course, later Italian (and Spanish) rulers built more traditional items into the architecture.  An earthquake in the 1690s resulted in a magnificent baroque renewal, making the façade a delightful expression of that architectural style.

Another church on the square has a Caravaggio (I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot of him; his work in Malta was from his short stint as a knight. He apparently got into a scuffle and was kicked out of Malta, fleeing to Siracusa long enough to create another masterpiece). The church is on the spot where Santa Lucia was martyred–she was a 21 year old brutally killed for being a Christian.

We had a free afternoon, so after bringing Carolyn back to the boat, I took the on and off bus, determined to see what else I could in the city.  Although it has been in the upper 90s (35 or so to Europeans who measure in Celsius), I was determined to see the outdoor architectural ruins and the archaeological museum.  The museum was a real treat, with a surprising amount of locally-found artifacts from mostly the Greco-Roman period (that was, after all, over a thousand years!), but the ticket taker urged me to hurry to the coin collection, which was closing in half an hour. I’m glad I paid heed, since the coins took the entire first floor, and served as a substitute introduction to history of the island. Every ruler issued coins with his picture on it, from the tyrant Dionisius to Victor Emmanuel (who was the first king of reunified Italy in the mid 19th century).  It would have been fun had I had several days to try to put together the various tribes who conquered the island—including the Arabs (who probably converted the temple of Apollo to a mosque, only to have the Normans repurpose it to a church). Half an hour was scarcely sufficient to get acquainted with the history of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and the other predecessors of the Sicily of today.  Perhaps I’ll have a chance in the next few days as we cruise up to the straits of Messina.

Our program director, a Florentine, gave us a few extra treats today.  One was an introduction to a Granite (shaved flavored ice), but one of the cultural attractions of Sicily is a kind of puppet show, and there is a puppet maker and museum, that he took some of us to visit.  We saw the puppets being made, talked with the cast, and saw a play in Italian which pitted good and evil.  When asked if they could come to the United States, the puppeteer quipped that he “can’t bring the Moors.”

Incidentally, puppet in Italian is pupi, pronounced just like you think.  My 10 year old grandson would probably giggle.

It was a pupi day.

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Daze and Knights in Malta

7 August 2017

It seems appropriate that Carolyn and I started this trip to Europe in Malta, because our last trip here was four years ago, when we ended in Rhodes, since one of Rhodes’ claims to fame was in January 1523, when the island fell to Suleiman the Magnificent, who allowed the Knights of St. John to leave the island,while keeping their weapons, relics, etc.

Ironically, the Knights ultimately wound up in Malta, contributing to at least two things most associated with Malta: the Maltese Cross and the Maltese Falcon.  The Maltese Falcon, perhaps most associated with Dashiell Hammett and Humphrey Bogart, was really part of the history of the Knights and Malta.  After wandering around the Mediterranean, seeking territory—anything from Rome to the other properties of King Charles V of Spain, including, at the time Tunis and Algiers, where the Knights helped Charles in his battles against the Turks, the order reluctantly settled on Malta; the price was one hunting falcon a year, hence, the real Maltese Falcon.

Of course, the Knights brought with them the 8-pointed cross of the Order, and their pugnacious disposition to both defend the faith (and incidentally, to do hospital work; the Order started performing medical assistance to the Crusaders and pilgrims to the Holy Land as part of the crusades.  The militant medicine men carved quite a niche in the Mediterranean as a self- financed international organization that fed on warfare and (depending on your point of view) piracy, seizing Muslims ships, selling the captives into slavery and confiscating the cargo (a mirror image of what the Turks were doing).

One of the pivotal military points in the battle between Islam (and especially Suleiman) and the West, occurred in 1565, when Suleiman, then an old man, mustered nearly 50,000 of his finest soldiers and determined to put an end to the predators on Malta. The last straw, according to one of the books I read (but not mentioned by our guides), was the Knight’s seizure of one of the personal ships of Suleiman carrying cargo gathered by the harem, including his favorite wife, for sale in Venice.

The western victory marked the apogee of the Ottoman empire.  Combined with the loss of the Turkish navy in the battle of Lepanto (to which the Knights contributed ships and men) in 1571, the turn of the Turkish tide had begun.

Thus began about a 250 rule by the Knights of the island of Malta.  As you might imagine from the narrative, living in this neighborhood required fortification of the harbor, and one of the distinctive features of Malta even today is the incredible array of fortresses guarding the Grand Harbor in the town named for the grand master during the siege, Valetta.  In the period of their rule, perhaps the most stunning building—as you might imagine—is the cathedral of St. John, a magnificent baroque construction distinguished with Caravaggio’s only signed (and largest) painting, the beheading of John the Baptist.

The Knight’s rule came to an end in 1798 when Napoleon landed and conquered the island, ending the rule of the Order, abolishing slavery, and confiscating church property (to help pay for his futile campaign in Egypt (which included the destruction of the French navy at Aboukir Bay).  The conquest led to an uprising, which invited Britain to help overturn the French, and at the Congress of Vienna in 1814, Britain acquired Malta as a colony; it remained so until 1964, when it became independent.  In 2004 it entered the EU as the smallest and least populated country, with about 450000 citizens.

Between the Knights and the British, the island acquired a lot of palaces—the president’s palace, across from the hotel we stayed at, was built by one of the Knights, then became residence of the British governor, and now houses the President of the Republic of Malta. While English was until recently one of the official languages, Maltese (the language of the people) predominates.  It has roots in Arabic, as does the country before the 13th century.  Indeed, the town of Mdina, another walled city that was the capital of the country, is a medieval fort on a hill; the Knights, being seagoers, sought a city with a harbor, and built Valetta and the other cities on the coast.

The location—“a north African desert with a European civilization’—at the crossroads between East and West and Europe and Africa has made it a potentially important trade entrepot  or naval base.  For the British, it was the headquarters of the Mediterranean Fleet, important in the 19th century with the development of the Suez Canal, the route to India, and the effort to keep the Russians contained in the Black Sea—not to mention the need for coaling stations.

That location prompted what the Maltese call the “second great siege”—during the second world war.  With the entrance of Italy in 1940, Malta began to get bombarded the next day.  Astride supply lines to North Africa, it intercepted Axis supplies and thus was subject to bombardment and blockade.  The island is limestone, which meant a lot of air raid shelters, some of which were built below existing early Christian and Jewish catacombs.  One of the catacombs was a cave where St. Paul was supposedly incarcerated after being shipwrecked on the island and converted folks to Christianity, making Malta (in the Maltese telling) one of the earliest Christian countries (a claim that has to discount almost a thousand years of Arab and other occupation, however; there were several ethnic cleansings).

The Daze comes partly from the beauty of the sea (the land this time of year is hot and dry), and the visit to Hagad Qim, reputedly the oldest free-standing stone building in the world.  Archaeologists think it was a temple, around 4000 BC, with fi arrangements rather like Stonehedge or Cahokia, with holes for the equinox and solstice.  There were also some interesting statues found, now housed in the archaeology museum, including the “Venus de Malta.”  I saw it.

I wonder, as we are about to sail for Sicily, if the ancients would have been ready to predict the solar eclipse later this month. I wouldn’t be surprised…

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Remember the Maine? I did…

“Remember the Maine” was a slogan coined by the “yellow journalists” of the 1890s to encourage American intervention in the (second) Cuban war for independence from Spain.  During that struggle, the United States government sent the battleship U.S.S. Maine to monitor conditions here. In February 1898, a mysterious explosion (probably caused by coal dust in the bunkers) sent the ship to the bottom of Havana harbor.  The resulting furor led to the Spanish-American war, and the addition of the Philippines as a colony, and Cuba as a protectorate to the American empire.

While my “remembrance” started last night, the full exploration (insofar as four hours can be “full”) had to await the final half day of classes for the Faculty Development trip.  It was another morning well spent.

The first speaker, a Canadian born lawyer, who admitted being a left liberal (possible in Canada; one of our guides at Bissett was a self-proclaimed socialist), talked about his business, as part of a major (1500 partner ) law firm, advises business who want to enter the Cuban market.  He literally regaled us with examples, good and bad, of companies that had tried to enter the market without fully understanding the Cubans.  One Canadian company, he told us, had done its homework and concluded its business was absolutely essential to Cuban, and believed it would have no trouble negotiating favorable terms.  It hadn’t realized that the Cubans do their homework, too,  have a strong sense of purpose and plans, and wound up getting Cuban, not Canadian terms. He noted that the Cuban government can sometimes accept ideas if you present them politely and persevere and were patient, citing the eexample of a Canadian company that had an idea; Canada practices socialized medicine, with free care, but up to 18 months wait for some surgeries.  The company proposed bringing patients with their doctors to use underutilized Cuban hospital space— and to everyone’s surprise, the Canadian company had its plan approved.  He admitted that doing business in Cuba is difficult, but can be fair;  the large population (relatively), location, and lack of corruption are uncommon in this area; as he noted, “Money doesn’t talk.”  He said Cuba has not nationalized without compensation; the sticking point for American companies is that Cuba offered to pay based on the company’s own previous tax valuation, and the State Department has urged those companies to hold out for full repayment.

In thinking about what he said–the preparation, persistence, politeness, and perseverance (you don’t talk business before the third meeting, and don’t presume you know what Cubans need), may well be a clue for doing business with anyone other than Americans, who he said, tend to be too aggressive in international business.

As a Canadian, he has some advantages, having lived here for 25 years; Canadians also constitute over a quarter of the tourists to Cuba–over 1 million.  Part of that comes from Canadians escaping winter (when I was in Quebec City with my family one spring break, the snow-covered town was empty; I thought they were all in Florida!). Part may have been, as well, US citizens who could fly to Havana from Montreal.  Her presentation, however, gave us a nice look at state planning–with party goals to develop 8 tourist areas, many of them surf and sand resorts along the coastline of Cuba. Some of that has come with foreign expertise, such as we heard about when we spoke to the Melia (Spanish) hotel managers, but I think Sheraton has also signed a memorandum of understanding to run some to-be-built government hotels.  She also described the rampant, or perhaps explosive, growth of bnb, one of whose consequences has been to exacerbate an already stretched housing problem.  Surprisingly, there are are no regulations for consumer protection, which for me sort of questions the centralized nature of planning.

The final speaker, whom we’ve had several chances to meet, is a young woman, a US citizen married to a Cuban, who teaches English and pursues research in cultural anthropology.  Her topic: the consequences of social and economic and political change.  I couldn’t help thinking of my trips to Russia and to Eastern Europe, where we repeatedly heard from locals that they “missed” the subsidized life of the Communist regime; “and now,” sighed our guide in Russia, “I am reduced to having to guide to make a living.”

Some of the same things are occurring here in Cuba as a  result of Cuban economic directives (the inside factor) and the increasing normalization (external) that have reduced subsidies and increased some market forces particular through (what seems to me relatively unplanned) development of a private sector.  The creation of the directives and a five year plan based on them (by the party) were the result of many “town hall” meetings, where notes were taken, apparently for the first time, anonymously.  She said over 8 million participated (population 11 million), and the result slowed either the implementation or changed the direction of the proposals.  For example, the company lunch was replaced with a lunch stipend. Many consumer goods used to be distributed through the company (“We have 5 tvs to distribute; you decide which workers deserve them”), whereas now they are distributed on the market, though there are shortages, and some savvy buyers get things by standing in line and resell them.  One of the items Cuban-Americans bring back to their families here is a Best Buy TV set, which costs $800 in Cuba, $300 in the US, which can be sold on the black market at $700, making a $400 profit to the family.  She said many of the changes need to be “sold” to a society still based on nationalism and socialism, the pillars of the revolution. As I told her at dinner (she shared the rise of helicopter parents among her students, one of whose moms is a Minister, who tried to use her party position to “encourage” the teacher to give the student good grades), what has probably surprised me most about Cuba is the strong influence the revolutionary ideology has–almost 60 years later, and without the purges of Stalin or the lunacy of the Cultural Revolution.

“Class” ended, and I was free to pick up where I’d left off last night.  Wearing my “Maine High Adventure” polo, I set out to continue to “remember the Maine.” Last night, that consisted of having my picture taken at the monument to the battleship, which features cannons salvaged from the ship.

Today, my homage was in the old city, and particularly around the Plaza of Arms, where the troops used to drill.  Many were stationed in a fort (the big one is across the bay), the Royal Fortress, now converted into a naval museum, with scale models of caravels and galleons, and gold and silk treasures recovered from sunken ships.  The sly guide took my camera and furtively took pictures forbidden of the treasurers, by which she added to her treasurer….a business opportunity, I think. What I learned there was that the galleons that gathered in Havana Harbor consisted of the treasurers of South America via Cartagena, but the Manila galleons came across Mexico!  The tower over the fort has a weather vane that has become the symbol of the city.

The former American embassy (through the fifties) is across the square and is now a library, but the other seat of power was the residence of the governor general, which is now the city museum.  I used a guide here; the building houses artifacts from the residence (some really wonderful phaetons), and a portrait gallery of the leaders of Cuban independence movements from the first war of independence (1860s) on. The building also houses the first Cuban flag, designed in New York (sic!). Built in the late 18th century, one of the features is a wooden block street in front of it, installed by a governor to please his wife who complained that horses clopping on the street kept her from napping during the day!

From there, I wandered to the Cathedral square, only to discover that the wonderfully baroque facade was all I was going to see since the church was closed.  Instead, I contented myself with a colonial art museum, which contained porcelains, chairs, stained glass, and furniture from the colonial period.  It came from France (the nicest stuff), Spain, Italy–and the United States.

While I thought about resuming my musical career in Cuba, I think that will have to await my next trip.  I’ll not only remember the Maine, but the 15 other faculty I spent the past week with in Cuba.

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Fairview Stew (the song) debuts in Cuba

It’s hard encapsulate all that happened today (and it’s only 6 pm), which included a Scoutmaster from Normal Illinois attempting at lunch to top the performance last year of the Rolling Stones, who attracted one million Cubans; read to the end to get the exact admission (as if you didn’t guess).  And who knew there was a Napoleon museum here in Havana that had the largest collection of Napoleona outside of Paris?  Or that, miracle, we would get back early enough to visit it.

I had no idea how the day would unfold when we drove the 45 km to the constructed special economic zone of Mariel, a 464 km2 area set aside for the development of a deep water port to restore the greatness of the Havana port which has grown too small for the big container ships (38x the size of those of the 50s, necessitating as well the widening of the Panama Canal); it was in Havana harbor that the galleons gathered from the far flung reaches of the Spanish empire (from Manila, Peru, and Mexico) before the long trek in convoy (to evade the predatory European pirates) to Seville. Though 45 km from Havana, it connects into the rail system–and wages are ten times those in the rest of the country.

One of the advantages of the “planned economy” is that the government can say, “Do this” and it gets done.  That’s more or less what happened with this new port a few years ago.  Dredging, hiring PSA International of Singapore to manage the operation, one of the leading operators of ports around the world (Singapore usually leads the world in transshipping). Our host was Argentinian, and he had lots of good things to say about being an expatriate in Cuba, particularly the safety–there doesn’t seem to be any overt dissatisfaction — and good international schools. As I said, this seems to be a pattern in the joint ventures–hiring managers for expertise–but the zone signed to let foreign owned companies locate here.  It was after all, the special economic zones Deng Xiao-ping established in China that propelled much of China’s economic miracle. For the long term, as with some of the other businesses we’ve visited, reaching the goal of creating a transshipping and manufacturing center will require an end to the US embargo.  Given that the population of Cuba is only 11 million, and we keep being told it is a poor country (Raul noted that when he became president and canceled some of the retirement benefits; retirees get a small stipend, but essentially you have to  plan ahead for your retirement),  the future depends on the ability to utilize the geographic location–within 500 miles of major port cities, including Houston, Miami, Charleston, etc. Currently, 90% of the containers are destined for Cuba. As I mentioned, ships that stop here cannot dock in US ports for 6 months.  It’s always fun for me to see logistics operations, with the huge cranes that lift the containers off the boats and onto trucks or train cars.  The cranes were made in China, one of the few connections I’ve seen here with the Middle Kingdom. Cuba was in the Russian sphere of influence for 30 years, and that shows in lots of places. Lada cars anyone? The last time I rode in one, I was in Tsingtao, China, with Mike Seeborg, pushing the Lada up a hill.One of the Russian connections is in the realm of cooperatives.  We had a talk from a lawyer a few days ago about these instruments for economic development, and two visits to cooperatives.  One was a restaurant, reputedly the first restaurant cooperative, which like many of the cooperatives (rather like Green Top in Bloomington, where you put money in and run the company) started with contributions of 7000 pesos, and a loan of 35000 CUC (each CUC=25 pesos). Our guide said it was one of the few successful cooperative restaurants.

There was a guitar trio, and this Scourtmaster from central Illinois could not help himself, and so, the amusement (or was it the embarrassment) of all, plucked through two verses of Fairview stew. Despite entreaties to play at the same stadium as Mick and the Stones, the modest Scoutmaster ended his Cuban tour in favor of lunch.

The next cooperative, a car restoration facility, was state  owned, when the state recommended (one of the directives from the Soviet inspiration) to turn it into a coop.  The 48 owners (now 200) have in the two years boasted of their voluntary association, economic participation, community involvement, and being self managed and consultative in decision making.  They choose their own executives.  What was interesting to me, though, was despite the semi-socialist rhetoric, their strategic plan came straight from Harvard–a strengths/ weaknesses analysis, followed by a Michael Porter analysis, then a tour through the plant which reconstructs cars, trucks, and buses.  The plant does panel beating (honest), painting, reupholstery and assembly/reassembly.  With the expense of cars (I think the guide told us one luxury car goes for $265,000; two were sold), and the age of cars (US cars to the late 50s; Russian cars from the 80s), repair maybe the easier (or only) way to go.  The bill is around $4000–and the terms are net 30.  There’s no financing.  This is a cash economy, even if some businesses have credit card signs to lure tourists in.

We got back early enough that I took advantage and went to the Museum Napoleon.  Who knew the Emperor lived in Cuba (as I recall he was so disgusted with the French possessions in the new world that he sold Louisiana to the United States)?  A rich Cuban decided to collect memorabilia, and wound up with four floors of it in a wonderful neo-Renaissance villa built in the 1920s, that alone was worth the price of free admission.

And it’s only 630 now.  Off to do more.  Maybe play the guitar again.  After all, the 14 faculty on the trip applauded…..

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