Arroz a la Cubana: Touchdown

Arroz a la Cubana: Touchdown

I had nightmares of getting mugged at the airport. The bestie had relayed a cautionary tale about a friend of a friend who’d set her bag down one minute, and found it gone the next. So there I was, in Varadero’s Juan Gualberto Gomez Airport, looking around furtively every so often like I was deep in the heart of Colon Street with a target on my back. I sometimes forget that if you’ve ever emerged intact from the bowels of old Cebu City, you can survive anything.

Still, it never hurts to be cautious.

Then again, I don’t remember the airport he had specified. Had it been Havana International? If it was, I was being overly cautious for nothing. Nothing happened. Everything ran like clockwork. The Cubans have the tourist machinery down to a fine art. Unlike Manila, there is no chaotic mess, no street hawkers, no shady characters lurking in the shadows, waiting to take advantage of you the moment you exit baggage claims. If there were, I didn’t see them. The whole process, from de-planing, to customs, to baggage claim to arrivals, is smooth, easy and fancy-free.

If you’re flying out of Canada, more often than not the price of the plane ticket includes the cost of the required tourist visa. The airline provides you with a tourist card (which is the visa itself) to fill out on the plane before landing. Be sure to read the instructions before writing anything down because erasures are not allowed. The lady beside me wrote the departure date instead of her birthdate and had to pony up $50 CAD for a fresh slip, something that upset her very much, because she spent a good twenty minutes berating herself while her husband tried to calm her down. Not a good way to start a vacation, that’s for sure.

At customs, the immigration officer checks your documentation – as always, it’s best to be sure your passport is valid for at least six months. Cuba does require proof of insurance. While proof of your provincial insurance (like your OHIP card) is acceptable, I took the extra step of purchasing extra insurance from the airline (Air Transat, $22 CAD) just in case. He didn’t ask to see the extra insurance, just took my picture and wished me on my way.  You can speak Spanish if you like, but English is not a problem at admissions. Just in case, I’d recommend downloading Google’s Translate app. It’s only polite to try and speak the language, rather than expect everyone to know English wherever you go. 

Anyway, after customers comes baggage claim and arrivals. Unlike Cebu or Manila, there are no aggressive hawkers waiting outside to get you to take a taxi or a dubiously priced rent-a-car. I had booked my vacation as a package – airline and hotel in one – which came with roundtrip airport transfers. (Highly recommended, if you don’t want to stress about how to get to your accommodations.) Upon exiting arrivals, you’ll find airline representatives – Air Transat, Sunwing, RedTag, etc. – waiting outside. They’ll direct you to the shuttle you’re assigned to, which turned out to be a big, air-conditioned bus that stops at pre-arranged resorts along the Autopista Sur, the main highway that stretches into Varadero. 

I had wanted to get my currency exchanged at the airport, but there was no booth in the arrivals hall so I ended up doing it at the resort instead. Cuba has two currencies, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) which is for tourists with a roughly 1:1 exchange rate, and the Cuban Peso, which is what the locals use. While it means visitors don’t get to pay the same rate the locals will for a specific item, I like how savvy it is when it comes to making sure they don’t get taken advantage of.

Blow by Blow

Blow by Blow

I got my first rejection email recently.

I was, absurdly, thrilled.

This may mean nothing to the ones who are brave, who always put themselves out there, who really and truly don’t give a single damn what people think. You know who I mean. The ones able to post anything and everything on social media. The ones who lay themselves open for all of us to see. The ones who share fresh selfies, unfiltered by anything but strident fluorescent light. The ones who post every excruciating detail of their personal relationships as it crumbles around their feet, oblivious to or uncaring of the reception from the rest of us. They hide nothing. Not their pain. Not their joy. Not their confusion. Their feed is a raw jumble of exposed nerve endings, every gnarled moment on show.  To the very brave – and, incidentally, the very stupid – everything is fair game, and they are unfazed by having the world at large as their audience. To them, putting themselves out there is as easy as breathing.

I’m not brave like that. I have always lived by the tenets of nganong ni enter, a maxim that means never willingly putting oneself in a situation which is bound to have an unfavourable outcome. I have never  found myself capable of  rolling  over to expose my belly for inspection, of being that vulnerable in public. It’s a big reason I fail in the world of social media, because so much of it requires selling myself and my capabilities, something I am way more comfortable having other people do than actually doing myself. It’s just not how I am, and I realize I am eventually going to have to get over myself someday, but for now, it is what it is. My  feed is a hundred percent self-deprecation, almost an apology for sharing, like excuse me for showing up on your wall, but yes, I would like to share this today. It sounds sad, and maybe it is, but that is the way I operate. I deflect with humour and sarcasm. I am outwardly blasé because the truth is I care very deeply about things. Risking being seen as anything less than strong and capable is very hard for me, as I am not brave enough to be who I really and truly am unless I trust someone implicitly. It’s difficult for me to readily trust society. I think people as a whole are terrible (except me, I’m amazing), and the internet hasn’t done anything to change that point of view. If anything, it’s magnified that side of the human race a thousandfold.

(Yes, the irony of putting this out for anyone out there to read doesn’t escape me – but a blog is different from social media!)

Anyway, I was thrilled.

Not because being rejected puts writers in the “company of greats”, as so many aspiring dreamers like to say, assuaging the pain with thoughts of Stephen King and the nail in his wall, impaled with so many rejection slips, he had to drive another one in beside it to accommodate more. There is a cold sort of comfort in the story of J.K. Rowling and her incredible journey to superstardom, her path strewn with numerous rejection letters from publishing houses and agents who failed to see the potential of a boy wizard with a lightning shaped scar.

That’s not why I was thrilled.

I was thrilled, because it felt freeing. I had opened myself up to the very real possibility of receiving a blow, finally received the blow, and realized it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. It’s like taking that first step into thin air, with the very real fear of falling to my death, and realizing it’s not the end of the world.  I think I would like to see how far this little side project of mine will go (and no, I’m not giving any further details about it for now!), because I want another blow like that, as masochistic as that sounds. And another. And another. And still another. I will take my blows, and – hopefully – come out on the right side of it, battered, but with a dream come true.

Random YouTube K-hole: Boys to Men

Random YouTube K-hole: Boys to Men

If your feed was filled with before/after photos of people you know this week, congratulations, you’ve just witnessed –  maybe even participated in – the How Hard Did Aging Hit You? challenge. Some said it was a ruse to train facial recognition algorithms (if it was, the joke’s on them because my Facebook profile pic is an illustration), but most took it as a chance to brag about how aging kissed them gently on the lips instead of beating them up with a two by four.

Anyway, it seems two of my favourite 90’s boybands heard the call, because they’re having a moment again, and thank baby jeebus for the treat.

I don’t think Westlife ever hit it big in the US, but luckily for me, I grew up in the Philippines. MTV Asia made no distinction whether the boyband was from the US or the UK – if they were cute and their songs were catchy, they’d get airtime because they knew young girls fall easily for handsome troubadours, and the more of them, the merrier.

If I Let You Go – Westlife

Something about the innocent imagery of If I Let You Go speaks to me the same way it did when it first came out twenty years ago. Look at the handsome Irish boys wading in the surf, singing about their fear of rejection! Swoon. (Hi Kian!) Bonus points for all that long-haired virility galloping in slo-mo along the sand astride horses. It was like the cover of a novel come to life.

Flying Without Wings – Westlife

I intended to share just one video from Westlife, but screw it, I’m including Flying Without Wings.  Because I’m a secret sap who responds to love songs that turn into choral anthems. Because I think a part of me will always be susceptible to ripped sleeves, floppy hair, toned biceps and piercing blue eyes. (Hi Kian!). And of course, because I can. Why haven’t I been to Ireland yet?

Hello My Love – Westlife

Westlife is back, all grown up and singing about gratefulness and age-appropriate choices, sending us all on a balloon-filled adventure over what looks like a discarded set from the original Star Trek TV show. I’m just happy to see them back together, having aged like fine wine. (Hi Kian!)

It takes more than good looks to make a boyband last – excellent song choices are very much a part of its success, with lyrics that can stand the test of time. Pop music gets a bad rap for being faddish and/or shallow, but the best pop songs are the ones that strike a common chord anywhere and across cultures. Westlife’s longevity is in a large part due to this attribute.

The Backstreet Boys are no slouches either. They’re as good at it now, as they were then.

Quit Playing Games (With My Heart) – Backstreet Boys

It actually took these guys a while to make any sort of dent on me. I’d enjoyed We’ve Got it Going On, and nothing brings a smile to my face quite like hearing the first few bars of Get Down (You’re the One for Me), but any doubts I may have had about throwing money away on a cassette (!) tape were over the moment Howie Durough bared his abs in the pouring rain. The boys brought it, and brought it hard in the third video off of their debut album, and it worked like gangbusters. I hared off to Lee Super Plaza first chance I got. Music videos: effectively marketing music to impressionable young girls since time immemorial.

All I Have to Give – Backstreet Boys

I’ve always needed a little more prodding than most, so when the boys came out with their sophomore album, I didn’t think I was going to get it. And then this video came out in all its bright-coloured, fedora-wearing, abs-baring glory, with Howie Durough promising to give me all he had to give. No more questions, your honour. Hello again, Lee Super Plaza.

No Place – Backstreet Boys

Oh, the blessing of boybands that stay strong and true.Even if it’s jarring to see them with wives and children, something which would’ve sent their fanbase into conniptions a couple of decades ago. They famously sang “Backstreet’s back, alright” – but the truth is the Backstreet Boys never really went anywhere… and thank goodness for that, because everyone always needs a little pop in their lives.

Internet Sausage Links

Internet Sausage Links

I’ve had it with people indifferent to the way they smell and how it affects other people. I can’t count the number of times I’ve come home with a blazing headache from either too much Axe or too much BO, so good on American Airlines for having the balls to do this – Washington Post

Speaking of stinky, I’m buying these. You’d think people on my side of the world could afford regular showers with soap and water but apparently not, and winter just brings out the worst offenders ever. Come to think of it, summer does too, so maybe I’ll bulk buy these things or something – Amazon

Still on the subject of stinky, Toronto Hydro cut power to the building directly across from us because winter in the True North is hazardous to everything. A pipe burst and flooded their electrical control room, leaving all the residents of a 33-story high-rise without heat, water and light for the past few days.  We checked last night and the lights are on again, but still. Yikes – Global News

In even more stinky news, the Bryan Singer expose is the ripest kind of ripe. On so many levels. If you didn’t already hate him for sticking his fingers into the X-Men reboot and ruining Matthew Vaughn’s vision for the X-Men franchise, this read should do the trick – The Atlantic

I worship at the altar of carbs. Yes, you are absolutely right, I need to stop. Still, this is one of the most blasphemous things you could ever do to a delicious dish of pasta, all in the name of of celebrating a stupid gender reveal party. Yeah stinky is really driving this particular post – New York Post

You, Me, and a Little Yellow Ball

You, Me, and a Little Yellow Ball

“Tennis is the sport in which you talk to yourself. No athletes talk to themselves like tennis players. Pitchers, golfers, goalkeepers, they mutter to themselves, of course, but tennis players talk to themselves – and answer. In the heat of a match, tennis players look like lunatics in a public square, ranting and swearing and conducting Lincoln-Douglas debates with their alter egos. Why? Because tennis is so damned lonely.”
– Andre Agassi, Open

Someone once told me she thought tennis was a boring sport. While tennis may very well look like giant ping-pong from a beginner’s point of view, to fully appreciate the game – any game, really – one simply needs to understand how it works. That’s the great thing about tennis. Like basketball, it’s ridiculously simple.

So, the basics.

The rules: the ball cannot bounce more than once. The ball must stay inside the lines. When serving, the ball must bounce within the specified service box, and the server is only given two chances to get it right (three, if the ball clips the top of the net). A point is won if:

– the ball goes out of bounds
– the ball goes into the net
– the ball bounces twice, or
– the player cannot return the ball.

The surfaces: tennis has three. Grass, clay, and hardcourt. Each surface impacts ball striking, movement and ball bounce differently, requiring the player to make adjustments to his or her technique. It also necessitates the use of warm-up events, called tournaments, that lead up to major tournaments (majors), which are also called Grand Slams.

The majors: tennis has four. The Australian Open (Asia-Pacific/hardcourt), The French Open (Europe/clay), Wimbledon (Europe/grass) and the US Open (America/hardcourt). A player’s ranking depends on the number of tournaments he/she wins. The bigger the tournament, the bigger the prize money and the number of ranking points earned. To defend their ranking, players must  either have the same results that they had the previous year, or earn more points than they did, for a higher ranking.

Game, set, match: a game is three points and a set has six games. The first player to win six games wins the set, provided the opponent is two games behind (i.e., 6-4). If both players win six games apiece with neither two games behind, the set is decided by a tie-break. A match, for men, requires best of three sets at the ATP 250 and Masters 1000 level. For Grand Slams, they play best of five. A match for women, regardless of tour level, is always best of three.

Best of all, in tennis, there is no team to rely on. There is no one else to pass a ball, a baton, a pigskin, or a puck to. There is no safety net. Boxing may be as solitary, but even in boxing, you have people in your corner, the guys who bring you water and wipe you down,  smear ointment on your lacerations, push you back into the centre of the ring, reminding you it’s not over until it’s over. You don’t get that in professional tennis. It’s a mostly solitary sport that demands utmost accountability. In tennis, if you fail, it is through no one’s fault but your own.

Tennis requires focus, willpower, courage and stamina. Most of all, it is a sport that requires control. Control of yourself, of your body, of your mind, and control of the ball. The player who controls the ball the best, is the one who wins the most. Think of the myriad different ways you can flick your wrist or twist your arm, rotate your torso, angle your body, stretch your legs. All of this in the quest to direct that little yellow orb. Where do you want it to go? What do you want it to do? What do you intend to create? Carve a laser down the line? Blast an explosion cross court? Draw a graceful arc in the sky to push an opponent back? Pull him forward with a short ball? Go right when he expects you to go left? The possibilities are endless.

There is nothing quite like watching two tennis players striving to out-think, outdo and outlast each other across the net, in a physically punishing environment, stopping short of actually drawing blood. When tennis is played by the best of the best, it is breathtaking. Suspenseful, Exciting. Brutal. Merciless. Graceful. Magical. Nuanced. And yet, at the end of it all, the players are expected to meet each other across the net, and shake hands civilly, to pretend they didn’t just spend the last few hours trying to grind each other into the dust – because yes, in tennis, your behaviour matters too. Players have gotten fined for bad behaviour, for smashing their rackets, for using foul language and abusing the referees.

There is so much more to tennis than running from side to side trying to hit a ball across the net. Tennis, boring? Not on your young, beautiful life.

Waiting

Waiting

I know, I know.

I said I was leaving Netflix.

I have a confession to make.

I haven’t.

Yet.

I feel like one of those female friends we all have who keep complaining about their boyfriends and yet never get up the guts to truly leave. Netflix is like the bad boyfriend you can’t seem to shake, the one who’s given you every reason to leave and yet you can’t seem to keep giving chances to. I kind of hate myself for it, because I’m still seeing Crave on the side. Actually, I’m seeing Crave on the regular, and sorta/kinda neglecting Netflix, while paying for both, which is kind of a dumb scenario to willfully be in.

Still, there’s been nothing from them addressed to me personally about hiking my subscription up, so I’m going to hedge my bets. I read that they’ll hike the prices on the ninth of February, but am waiting for an official e-mail. So no, I haven’t pulled the plug. I’ll pull it when it’s official.

Update: There. I did it. It feels like the end of an era… and the start of another one!

A Less Wasteful Kind of Joy

A Less Wasteful Kind of Joy

 

Marie Kondo is a sweet little bird of a woman. I had somehow imagined that the best-selling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing was a Michiko Kakutani of sorts. I expected her to look stringy, rigid and exacting, not be a tiny slip of a girl with a smile that stretches from ear to ear, who wears prim, feminine outfits and seems to be the human embodiment of the sunshine emoji.

Marie Kondo is the celebrity of tidying, hired to make sense of one’s life by helping one weed out, sort and organize the detritus that can accumulate simply through existing. She currently has a TV show on Netflix, where she helps people decide what to keep and what to throw out, and teaches them how to arrange the things they have decided to keep to spark the maximum amount of joy. Joy is her raison d’etre. The gist of her method, called KonMari, is to keep only the things that give you joy, and to honour the things that no longer do before casting them aside and donating them to charity.

What makes the KonMari method special is that she believes each item that you have in your home should bring you joy. She also believes that every sentimental item has a sort of life, one that needs to be respected. It sounds ridiculous and I suppose on the surface, it is. Inanimate objects are just that, objects. Because I subscribe to the notion that my things turn into the cast of Toy Story whenever I’m not looking (which is why one moment they’re missing  and the next, they’re lying under my nose waiting to be picked up) the KonMari method and the philosophy behind it doesn’t strike me as particularly outlandish.

I like her philosophy on tidying up. One of the things Le Hubs does that drives me up the wall is whenever he forgets to put a thing back where he got it. (He does this fairly often. It’s a source of everlasting frustration.) The control freak in me loves the idea of organization, of knowing what goes where, the empowerment of knowing where everything and anything is at any given time.

The method may seem simple, but it is devilishly tricky and in some cases, unrealistic. Book lovers in particular, myself included, bristle at the notion of only keeping the books I am likely to re-read (she recommends having no more than thirty) and giving the rest – the unread ones, or ones I’ll never read again – away, as the KonMari method says to do. Please keep your happy, well-meaning paws off my books, Marie Kondo. All my books bring me joy. Everything else but the books!

It’s impossible to only keep the things that spark joy. Not everything I own does. Not everything has to, and that’s okay. I may not have a meaningful relationship with my spatula, but it’s not getting thrown out anytime soon.

To be fair, I don’t believe she means for people  to start throwing everything out willy nilly in the pursuit of carving out a space in which to breathe. If anything, I see the KonMari  method as a good way to re-evaluate the reasons we have for buying the things we do.

It’s helpful to have perspective when buying things, something that, in our mad dash to accrue, very often gets muddled. Sometimes we find ourselves buying things for the sake of buying things, stripping them of their meaning in the process, and the cycle of going out to buy things simply because it feels good to buy things becomes a vicious one that’s hard to break. Before you know it you’re surrounded by things  that have no meaning beyond the initial impulse you had to buy them in the first place.

When it comes to acquiring movies and books in particular, I like to make sure the ones I get are ones I really enjoy. Either I’ve seen it at a theatre and loved it, or I’ve borrowed the digital version of a book from the library and have decided it deserves a spot on my bookshelf. This way I know I’m almost never going to throw it out, and they will never go unwatched or unread. Be selective. Aside from asking if something you already own brings you joy, it’s also a good idea to ask if something you want to own will bring you joy. It’ll help you ensure you’ll never have to throw anything out.