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Archive for February, 2016

Reading today’s Kansas City Star, I couldn’t help drawing a contrast between people who were the subjects of articles in different sections of the paper.

One story, by sports columnist Vahe Gregorian — perhaps The Star’s most sensitive writer — was about the sister of former Chiefs’ star Otis Taylor, who is in an enervated state, unable to speak or take sustenance on his own.

The concussions and repeated brain jarring from football have stripped him, at 73, of his ability to participate in the collective consciousness of the life and world around him. But he has a lifeline, someone who makes his existence as tolerable as possible. That person is his sister, Florence Odell Taylor, a licensed vocational nurse who is caring for Otis.

As Gregorian reports, Odell Taylor formerly lived in Houston, where she tended to her mother before she died of Alzheimers. Then, about 10 years ago, she left Houston and came to Raytown to care for Otis, who was already deteriorating badly. Here’s how Gregorian described Odell Taylor’s solicitousness toward her brother.

“She just about literally hasn’t left her brother’s side since (arriving 10 years ago). As you read these words, she is next to him or feeding him or bathing him or turning him in his bed or cutting his hair or rubbing his feet or dressing him or otherwise ministering to him.”

According to Gregorian, when Odell sleeps, it’s in a chair beside Otis’ bed.

Before reading the entire story, I was looking for a photo of Odell. There was none, and my first thought was that The Star had blown it and not bothered to get a photo.

But, no, that’s not the case. Odell wouldn’t even consent to an interview. Gregorian didn’t explain why, but it’s very probable she didn’t want any attention bathed on herself. Her focus is on her brother — a brother who just so happens to be one of the most popular players ever to don a Chiefs uniform.

Most of us, when we think of Otis Taylor, picture him in that slow-motion recording from Super Bowl IV…Len Dawson hits him with a short sideline pass; Taylor catches the ball at the Minnesota Vikings’ 41-yard line; breaks a tackle; races powerfully and gracefully down the sideline; jukes another defender and glides into the end zone, sealing the AFL’s first victory over the NFL.

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One of the most memorable plays in Kansas City Chiefs’ history — Otis Taylor breaking a tackle attempt by Vikings’ cornerback Earsell Mackbee in Super Bowl IV on Jan. 11, 1970.

I think that’s the memory that Odell Taylor does not want to impinge on. She does not want it disturbed.

…Then, there’s another notable story in today’s paper. It’s the lead editorial, on Page 18A, accompanied by a photo of a man named Scott Tucker. In the photo, Tucker is wearing sunglasses and a race-car driver’s suit. He’s obviously at some sort of race. He’s writing on a legal pad, and people are gathered around him. Even though he’s not smiling, it’s an image of a guy living the good life. Good looks. Prosperity. At least brushing with fame.

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Scott Tucker

But, in fact, Scott Tucker is just a turd. A con man who made millions at the expense of poor people all around the country and then spent lavishly on his own comforts and indulgences.

Tucker, who lives in the Kansas City area, was indicted last week, along with two fellow “businessmen,” on charges of bilking 4.5 million people in a vast payday-lending scheme that Tucker started back in the mid- to late-1990s. He and his co-defendants and some others — including at least three men from prominent Catholic families in Visitation Catholic Parish — operated in the shadows for years and enriched themselves, often by finagling and raiding the bank accounts of people who never even requested loans.

Some of these guys, like Tim Coppinger and Frampton T. Rowland III (how’s that for a name implying “distinguished gentleman”?), used some of their ill-gotten millions to make significant contributions toward construction of a new chapel at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Prairie Village. Their generosity must have impressed at least some parishioners who didn’t know the score.

I hope indictments soon follow for Coppinger, Rowland and others involved in this cynical undertaking.

…During my many years in the newspaper business, I’d often people whine, “Why don’t they report some good news?” (So as not be be offensive, people usually didn’t frame the question in the second person singular.)

Well, today The Star reported some very good news on two fronts. First, that the government has closed in on some disgusting, self-enriching con men and, second, that we are blessed to have in our midst people like Odell Taylor who dedicate themselves to service for others and do so without seeking a sliver of attention or credit.

As far as I’m concerned it’s a great day in Kansas City. Let’s applaud and be grateful for those who inspire us with their humility and sacrificial spirits. It is they who give us hope and show us that greed and corruption are not overwhelming.

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Cuba: Round 2

Judging from the strong response to yesterday’s post, I sense a keen interest in all things Cuban.

And why shouldn’t there be, with Havana being a 37-minute flight away from Miami — and yet a world away?

No McDonald’s, no Costco, no Home Depot. The equivalent, in a way, of our Old West, with its saloons, general stores, hotels and blacksmith shops. One big difference, though, is no one is walking around with a gun on his hip, or in his pocket. In Cuba, the government’s got all the guns. That’s not necessarily good, but it sure makes for safe streets.

Anyway, I got a lot of good photos during our 9-day stay, and I didn’t have room yesterday for all those I really liked. So saddle up and get ready for a second pass…

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When you arrive at Jose Marti International Airport, there are no jetways; you walk down the steps of the plane and into the terminal. Immediately, you make connection with the ground of a new country.

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For seven days, our tour guide Roberto and our driver Paqui were our almost-constant companions. Roberto has a brother who lives in the U.S., and his mother is planning to visit Miami this month. Most members of our tour group got the feeling Roberto would be visiting in the near future.

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Our group of 10 with Kansas City connections was joined by several people from other parts of the country, including Rima (left), a social worker from Brooklyn, and her mother Susan, a family-advocate attorney in Woodstock, NY.

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…and Bill, a retired Navy and commercial airline pilot from San Diego.

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Four of us stayed over two days to see more of Havana and environs. I took this last Sunday, when we spent part of the morning and early afternoon on a windswept beach at Guanabo, a town about 12 miles east of Havana…That’s Patty on the right; Martha next to her, and Martha’s sister, Jane, who lives in New Mexico.

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During the formal tour, musical groups entertained us at many lunches and dinners. This group was the first we encountered — on our first day in Havana Vieja — and one of the best.

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Like the musicians, street performers work for tips.

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The Cuban flag added color to this street in Havana Vieja — Old Havana — the heart of the city and the main tourist district.

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In an unbelievable coincidence, we happened upon this old marble staircase — a photo of which has hung in the hallway of our home the last two or three years. I bought the photo from a local photographer who had visited and photographed Havana…I was dumbstruck after Patty came to an abrupt stop on our walk through Old Havana, pointed to the right and said, “Look!” And there it was, the same staircase.

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The Malecon, the sea wall that extends along Havana’s shore line for several miles, is a natural and popular gathering place for tourists and locals alike. From the nearby hotels, you can hear the sound of happy voices emanating from the Malecon on calm Gulf Coast nights.

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We got out into the countryside, too. These red-barked trees are facetiously called Tourist Trees because they resemble many tourists who mire themselves in all-inclusive Cuban resorts and burn their skins to a crisp at the resort swimming pools, never venturing outside the resort confines. (We stayed at one of those places two nights and saw a bunch of Canadians who did exactly that.)

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At an organic farm, we saw what rich dirt looks like.

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…and the people who work it.

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…and how they till the soil.

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Cuba used to export enormous amounts of sugarcane to Russia in exchange for oil. That came to a crashing halt after the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1991. Sugarcane, coffee and tobacco remain are still some of the country’s largest crops. Here an organic farm worker strips a sugarcane stalk.

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Ernest Hemingway had a rich history in Cuba, of course, before committing suicide in Idaho in 1961. In 1940, he purchased Finca Vigia, or “Lookout House,” several miles outside of Havana, and he lived there off and on until his death.

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The residence, which sits on 15 acres, is now a museum. Visitors cannot go inside, but they can look through the windows.

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Hemingway’s 38-foot fishing boat Pilar — the nickname of his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer — is on the property.

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A bustling, relatively modern town we visited in southwestern Cuba, on the Caribbean side of the island, was Cienfuegos.

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Many young people in Cienfuegos were fashionably dressed.

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This fabric store was doing a brisk business.

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Fifty miles southeast of Cienfuegos is Trinidad, a charming town with cobblestone streets and a lively street life.

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The busiest place in town was the Telepunto store, where people were lined up, presumably to buy phone-time cards.

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The Trinidad Post Office.

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This guy wasn’t begging, but I gave him a Cuban 25-cent piece in exchange for this photo.

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And wasn’t it inevitable that we would run into a Royals fan somewhere in Cuba? Cubans’ favorite Royal, naturally, is Kendrys Morales, a native of Cuba, who escaped the country on a raft in June 2004. Cuba’s loss was our gain. Opening day is less than two months away!

 

 

 

 

 

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When we landed in Miami Monday afternoon after nine days in Cuba, one of the first things that popped up on Patty’s phone¬†was the score from Sunday’s Super Bowl game. That was the first we had heard of the result. And that’s a reflection of how different a world we had been in, even though Cuba is just a puddle jump away from the U.S. by plane.

We had talked and dreamed for nearly two years about going to Cuba, and it more than lived up to our expectations.

On the one hand, Cuba is a place of charm, beauty and energetic, resourceful people. On the other, it’s a place of crumbling infrastructure, abject poverty and totalitarian government that keeps the populace firmly under its heel. In any event, it’s an eye-opening, enthralling place to visit.

For the first seven days we were on an organized, educational tour operated by a company called Cuba Explorer and sanctioned by the U.S. government. The sanctioning meant we had visas — good for 30 days — and health certificates that qualified us for hospital treatment had any of us experienced a medical emergency. (Fortunately, we all stayed healthy.)

The organized tour consisted of 19 people, including 10 in our immediate group and nine other Americans from various places. The tour took us to Cienfuegos and Trinidad in southwestern Cuba (see map), as well as Havana. At the end of the tour, four of us — Patty and I and a good friend of ours and her sister — stayed on for two more days to explore Havana on our own. The sisters are conversant in Spanish, which helped immensely.

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By category, and with accompanying photos, here are some of the highlights of our trip…

The Car is King

Everyone has heard, of course, how the Cubans are able to keep their old, mostly American-made cars chugging along. Some have been restored and are in excellent condition, but many are rattletraps that are nursed along through ingenuity and jerry-rigged equipment. Car ownership bestows status in Cuba. That’s because they are big revenue producers. In addition to official state-operated cab services and private taxis, some car owners use their vehicles as informal, communal taxis, known as almendrones. Standing curbside with hands extended, people flag down these vehicles, quickly discuss destinations and rates and either jump in or send the driver on his way. (I saw very few women drivers.) Often, several people going to different places ride in the same vehicle…It’s a cheap and efficient way to go, and we never worried about our safety. For the first few days, we took private taxis, but on our last full day, Sunday, we twice flagged down almendrones, getting cheap rides and cheap thrills.

People who give rides — whether in official taxis, tourist taxis or almendrones — earn much more money than the average, government-paid Cuban worker, including doctors. Other high earners are those in the hospitality industry, like musicians, waiters, bellmen and tour guides — basically anyone who works for tips. From the looks of things, even the banos attendants, who are just about everywhere, take in more money than doctors, who reportedly make about $50 a month. (They’re also leaving Cuba, understandably, in droves.)

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This is the way many people arrange rides — quick conversations with drivers of communal cabs, called almendrones.

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And while there are a lot of restored classic cars, you see more of this variety…These guys were replacing a muffler and tail pipe.

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One night, our entire group of 10 got a ride into Havana Vieja (Old Havana) in this tourist taxi. Our driver was Jose.

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The cab seated eight people on two bench seats in the back and two people up front.

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Truly a beauty, that car.

Money

There are two types of currency in Cuba: the one the residents use, the national peso, and the one that tourists use — the Cuban Convertible peso, C.U.C., phonetically referred to as “kooks.” The ratio is about 25 national pesos to one kook.

And while the kook is essentially the equivalent of the U.S. dollar, Americans get outrageously hosed when exchanging dollars for kooks. Right off the top, the government takes a 10 percent surcharge, compliments of Raul and Fidel, I’m sure. Then there’s an exchange fee of three to four percent, which means every kook is actually worth about 86 or 87 cents.

The best way to go, like I did, is to exchange dollars for Euros before leaving the States and then exchange the Euros for kooks in Cuba. Euros and other foreign currency are not subject to the surcharge, so you’re gaining 10 cents on every dollar.

 

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Fifty C.U.C., or 50 “kooks.”

Accommodations and (in)conveniences

If you let TripAdvisor hotel reviews be your guide, you’d never go to Cuba. That’s because the hotels are government owned and not up to American standards. The beds are narrow, so make sure you get a room with two beds, and the plumbing is unreliable. For example, the toilet paper doesn’t go in the toilets but in trash receptacles next to them. There are no wash cloths, either, so bring your own, if you absolutely need them. (At one point, I converted my eyeglass-cleaning rag into a wash cloth.)

It’s amazing, though, how fast you adjust to the conditions if you just relax, focus on having fun and making do with what you’ve got.

Oh, and because Cuba has a monumental trash problem (no regular pickup, as far as I could tell), the banos in restaurants and bars are not equipped with paper towels or hand towels, and most of the automatic dryers don’t work. Usually, you find yourself shaking off your hands and letting evaporation do the job. In many cases, hand soap is not available, either…But, like I said, you adjust.

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Our first hotel was the Copacabana — “the hottest place north of Havana,” as the great Barry Manilow song goes.

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From our room, we had a view of the Russian embassy — a structure whose tower resembles a sword handle.

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The hotel wasn’t the greatest, but it offered a beautiful view of the Gulf of Mexico.

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We spent one night at the Hotel Presidente, about a 10-minute drive from Old Havana.

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From our room there, we could see the waves crashing against the Malecon — the sea wall — one morning when the wind was high and the sea rough.

Food and Drink

I had my fill of black beans and rice by Day 3. I like black beans and rice, but after two or three consecutive lunches and dinners featuring them, I swore off. I also got tired of the main meat dishes — pork, beef, chicken and lamb. Last Sunday, a driver we had hired for several hours took us to an Italian restaurant where the pizza ranked right up there with Minsky’s. A day earlier, we found — thanks to a recent New York Times travel story — a restaurant that had American-style food, including hamburgers. Although it didn’t particularly look like American hamburger — it was cured, we believed — it was close enough for satisfaction…And by the way, I really liked the Cuban Kola (in photo below); it rivals Coke and Pepsi, in my opinion.

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I made the mistake of ordering a “super hamburguesa” instead of a regular. I ate one and a half of the three patties and later tossed the rest to a dog on the street.

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I gave up alcohol about 35 years ago, but this bottle of Cuban rum sure was alluring.

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At a national park north of Trinidad, on the southern coast, we bought some honey and nut bars that tasted like a combination of peanut brittle and granola bar.

Dancing and Entertainment

On one of our first nights in Havana, we attended a cabaret-type show at the Hotel Nacional, the most prominent building along the sea front. I wasn’t expecting much from the show, but it turned out to be thoroughly entertaining. For me, the highlight was a conga-drum player who won the crowd over as much with his radiant smile and crowd interaction as with his lightning-fast tapping and slapping on the drums.

…Salsa dancing in Cuba is something to behold. Last Sunday, we went to one of two Casa de la Musica establishments in Havana. About 45 minutes before a live band performed, people began dancing to loud, thumping recorded music…I don’t know how these women do it — whether they learn it from formal instruction or it’s in the genes — but they way many of them swish their torsos and roll their hips is spell binding. Many men are great dancers, too; their moves are just more subtle.

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Hotel Nacional de Cuba

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A cabaret show at the Hotel Nacional.

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Above and below…Salsa dancing at Casa de la Musica.

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**

I could write a lot more and show you many more photos, but even electronic space should not be abused. So, I leave you with this…If you haven’t been to Cuba, try to go. And try to go soon. With American dollars and tourists pouring into the country, it’s going to change. It’s hard to say how long this lost-in-time country will boast the eclectic, authentic flavor it has right now. Maybe five years, maybe 10, maybe more. But the influx of money is bound to bring significant change. While the future is uncertain, for now all is Muy Bien!

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Our group — minus the blogger who had been occupying the empty chair.

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