When I took my first year-long peregrination across Europe in ‘72-’73, I decided mid-course to make a slow drive down the Dalmatian Coast of what was then Yugoslavia. It was stunningly beautiful and wild, with massive vertical cliffs dropping into the Adriatic Sea below (narrow road, no guardrails). Looking above inland, you could see men behind musk ox, plowing their fields in the very old way that made you think you had time tripped back 1000 years. We had to stretch our supplies because there was literally next to nothing in the stores. Long empty shelves. Tito had not done a good job with their economy.
I knew that I could drive right up to the Albanian border but no further, without prior arrangements. Albania, one of about 19 nations at that time considered Communist, was probably the most closed country on the planet. You had to apply for a visa, wait some weeks, then, if allowed, serve two weeks laboring for the homeland before being allowed to wander, with strict limitations, on your own. Only a handful of adventurous young would-be Marxist backpackers from Australia, Germany, the U.S. and Canada, took the challenge. I suppose it would have been fascinating, a memorable moment in history, but not my cup of tea. Especially not with a three-year-old. Don’t cry Christopher, Papa was sentenced to life in an Albanian prison for snapping the wrong photo but he might get out in 20 years for good behavior. Try to get into a good college, kid.
As we approached that border barrier we decided to make a rare stop in a small local hotel. Our VW camper had a bed, icebox, sink and a propane burner, so while our bankroll for a trip across Europe with hotels, restaurants and transportation might have lasted a couple of months at best, our mode stretched it to a year. Besides, when you’re driving your accommodations, you can go wherever you want, down any back road that beckons.
The luxury of leisurely hot showers and big beds were cut short early the next morning when our innkeeper awakened us with dire warnings that a big storm was rolling in fast and we needed to hit the road now, forget breakfast. Her expression was such that we wasted no time, and that was when I found out there were Alps in Titoland.
The Dinaric Alps stretch all across the old Yugoslavia and run right into the Italian-Austrian Alps. Who knew? I saw mountains on a map but thought I could drive through them, or over easily. You can’t see the mountains at all from the coast road, but not long after leaving Dobra Voda we were climbing almost straight up, in a reliable but well-worn four-banger VW not up to the task. Soon our struggling auto-home resounded with panicked driving advice and the prayers of non-believers (we had German and American hitchhikers), and the real fear we might just come to an agonizing standstill (or flip over backwards as gravity doomed us) before reaching the top, and have to roll all the way back down, freezing to death by the side of the road or, if we made it to the bottom, spending months snowbound in good old Dobra Voda. I will never forget the moment of making the summit, to begin the peaceful coast down towards Greece. There were spontaneous loud cheers and big grins, and tears of relief.
Cuba has also been off limits, for Americans, since the Cuban missile crisis in 1963. Until Barack Obama, every American president since then refused to lift the travel ban on our former Cold War enemy-neighbor, and, more importantly, the blockade that strangled the island nation of more than 11 million. Who knows what the petulant child-president we now suffer will do, but Obama did loosen the travel restrictions. Which is why now is the time to go.
It’s been on our family bucket list for a while (especially my wife’s, but then, the top of her list is now Antarctica, followed closely by Mars — hello, Elon Musk); getting to know Sandra Levinson of the Center for Cuban Studies (CCS) in New York, through an art show she brought here, gave us inspiration, and then when Alaska Airlines began a direct flight from LAX to Havana in January, for $325 RT, that was it.
To visit Cuba Americans still have to apply for a visa, as a journalist, researcher, performer, doctor, athlete, etc. It’s a hassle, uncertain, and could take two months. Or you can go with a “People to People” group, basically a tour that puts you in contact with the Cuban people, not just their buildings, museums and beach resorts, and your visa is a certainty (for $100).
That’s what we did. Levinson, through the CCS she helped found in 1972, has become an authority on Cuban art, culture and history, and has led more than 200 tours there. Cuba is crawling with artists of all stripes, so many of them remarkable and recognized worldwide, even though they’ve had difficulty getting their work out. And getting art materials in, because of the U.S. blockade. When that changes,the art will change.
It was an amazing adventure and I will throw Cuban stories into future columns. I could write a small book about our week there, but you’ll have to settle for that. Or take me to the Daily Pint and for a couple of shots of Writer’s Tears Irish whiskey, you’ll get the whole empanada.
A MUST, SATURDAY
Remember I told you how good the Surreal/Unreal exhibit is at the Jack Rutberg Fine Arts gallery on La Brea? And of the superb Lyris Quartet who played there last November? Life doesn’t often give you second chances, but here you go. Wine at 7, music at 8, art all night, 20 bucks.
QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Have we reached the breaking point in Santa Monica, are enough people now vigorously questioning and protesting the idea of over-developing away everything that has made our beach city known worldwide as an oasis at the edge of LA, that we may be able to stop the madness? (Seems to me like things are shifting, the winds are blowing. Sometimes it takes an electoral loss to galvanize folks.)
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “American imperialism is often traced to the takeover of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii in 1898.” — Noam Chomsky
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 31 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. Send love and/or rebuke to him at email@example.com