Cuba Calling

This is my first time visiting Latin America and I can’t imagine a better place to start with than Cuba.

It is a momentous time for this beautiful Caribbean island – the last fraying thread of the iron curtain snapping with the recent visit from President Obama.

Many people have told us before we flew out that going to Cuba is like traveling back in time to the hedonistic lifestyle of the 1950s, punctuated by decadence, fancy cars, opulent villas and sensuous song and dance all wrapped up in the heady smokes of cigars and the intoxicating burn of well-aged rum.

What we saw in reality is a more sepia version of that romantic notion of Cuba. To me, it is as if the ancient and modern, the opulence and austerity, the spontaneity of music and the curfews on social life are all merging to create a new Cuban identity that is both relevant and timeless at the same time.

We caught a glimpse of this emerging new identity with Chanel fashion house holding their very first Latin American fashion show last week in the Prado Boulevard 300 meters from our hotel. We also saw the first American cruise ship dock in the Havana port after the last one was allowed to sailed in 50 years ago. The old weapons of invasion – missles and economic embargoes have now been replaced by fashion, pop culture, social media and the tourism dollar. And the impact is a lot quicker too.

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Stargazing at the Chanel fashion show – Tilda Swinton

We love the vintage cars – the ‘Old-Timers’ with their repainted and glued on (a million times I think) chrome (more matt now) fenders, their bright colors, the cracked vinyl bench seats that you can’t help but leave sweaty thigh imprints on and the naughty vibrations in the car every time the drivers shift gears. It is not unusual to see cars being fixed on the side of a busy road or a few people trying to push start a car.

You can clearly see the influence of the Spanish colonial masters in their beautiful architecture. Many buildings have high, brightly colored walls, intricate albeit faded frescoes, imposing living spaces, and very tall windows and doors. A lot of the monuments, theatres and religious sanctuaries in Old Havana are kept in surprisingly pristine conditions. However they often stand alongside buildings in precarious state of decay and misery, some with only the front façade of a concrete wall with rusty steel beams jutting out.

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– an amazing restaurant with quality service, ambience and food. Obama and his family dined here recently

The food in Cuba is amazing, and you can find grilled lobster on the menus of most reputable restaurants. Music and singing is very much part of the eating experience with a small band playing in the background in most bars and dining places.

The Cuban people are very friendly and easy going; random people kept coming up to us to ask where we are from and whether they can show us around and give us any information. Initially we were abit suspicious, but after the first day, we realize they were genuinely curious to find out about other cultures and people of different nationalities.

Key museums to visit are the Museum of the Revolution, Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Rum. It is definitely interesting to read important documents pertaining to crucial historical events from the local perspective and see first-hand, the crude weapons the militants used in their fight for freedom. I love the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Cuba art is so vibrant in themes, styles and colors and that you feel like you are walking through the pages of a children’s storybook where history, culture and politics are reduced to their basic form that everyone, young and old can understand. The Cubans take their alcohol, notably Rum, or ‘Ron’ in spanish, very seriously. We were treated to a very informative tour of the entire rum making process at the Museum of Ron and ended the tour with a rum tasting session. image.jpeg

The highlight for me on this trip was when we chanced upon a restaurant featuring a music act called the ‘Traditionals of the 50s’. We were blown away by the quality of the band and the singers although they all look like they were at least 60 years old. 91 year old singer Juana Bacallo, famously known as the ‘Black goddess of Cuban music’ came out at the end of the show. Her voice is still strong and commanding, and like a witch doctor, if felt as if she had cast a spell on the captive audience, drawing everyone in through her very presence. The hairs on my arms stood up when she started singing. It was such a privilege and honor to see her perform in person.image.jpeg

It will be interesting to see how much the social, cultural and political fabric of Cuba will change in the next few years. I don’t know how many in the same league as Juana Bacallo will still be around to show the world Cuba’s beauty, strong spirit and resilience.

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Unsung heroes

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face to face with a life-size hero

There’s a new superhero in town and he is white and furry, has a cute button nose and he sure looks uber-cool in his aquamarine dive suit and matching sailor hat.

Armed with his trusty compass, you can always count on Captain Barnacles and his fellow Octonaut compatriots to rescue and protect all sea creatures in the deep blue.

This is one cartoon superhero I have no worries about my boys emulating. Not only does Timmy learn about appreciating nature and helping others in trouble from the show, he and I have also learnt alot about sea turtles, electric torpedo rays, anemones, sea cucumbers, sperm whales (this is the only time he’s allowed to say the word ‘sperm’) and colossal squids with giant ‘testicles’. My son has trouble pronouncing ‘tentacles’.

Did you know there is an actual fish with a hawaiian name – Humuhumunukunukuapua’a?

Timmy and I did an ocean scene for our art & craft project recently. He had fun painting a wooden shipwreck, sticking colorful pipe-cleaners into modelling clay so they look like psychedelic seaweed, spreading colorful pebbles and glitter glue to make our beautiful seabed, and crushing pink transparent wrapping paper into jellyfish form.

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 I’ve been thinking about the myriad cartoons and TV personalities children nowadays are exposed to, especially since my son is at the age to start exploring concepts of good and evil, superheroes vs villians, what is considered cool or uncool, and what superpowers to have – typical issues adults consider on a daily basis.

It’s really sad that there is only a pitiful number of worthy superheroes that kids can look up to and aspire to be. I’m so sick of seeing every other 5 year old boy wear Batman or Superman T-shirts, don Spiderman masks for every costume/birthday party we’ve been to, consider it ‘creative play’ when they attempt to jump off chairs in restaurants, scale the narrow walls in elevators, growl at old people like they are evil monsters or try to throw wet rolls of toilet paper onto the ceiling to see if they’ll stick like ‘spider webs’.

For now, I think I can still live with Timmy saying ‘testicles’ instead of ‘tentacles’. It is by far a lesser evil than him asking me for a Justin Bieber haircut.

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Hansel and Gretel must live here…

or at least the blind witch with the saccharine-sweet candy house in grimm’s fairy tale.

Colmar, a little french town in the alsace region, is just a 1.5hr drive away from Zurich, Switzerland. Last Sunday was wet and cold, and on a whim, we decided to drive to France to have lunch. That’s the beauty of living right smack in the centre of Europe, you don’t need to book a flight to experience a different culture or get cheaper toiletries and groceries from across the border.

We have been to Colmar several times and it never fails to put a smile on our faces when we see the charming little townhouses with its fairytale-like quality. The rainbow colored buildings are more beautiful in winter when the streets come alive with christmas markets and the smell of gluhwein and roasted chestnuts, and at night, the soft glow of the street lights give it a surreal feel and you really feel like you are transported into the medieval ages.

P.S: Colmar is also about 15 mins drive from the closest KFC outlet. (there are NO KFC fast food restaurants in the whole of Switzerland!!!) We were tempted to drive there for take-away but my husband didn’t want his car to smell of greasy chicken.

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how much is that piglet by the window? alsastian cuisine is influenced very much by its german roots and feature many pork dishes like roasted pork knuckles and sausages served with a huge portion of sauerkraut. 20120422-193636.jpgmany memorabilia and serving dishes feature traditional alsastian way of life


the price of being green

A blog post has been circulating on facebook, written by a guy who went to the supermarket and was reminded by the young cashier to bring his own bag in the future, and that all the environment problems that we now face are because his generation didn’t do enough to ‘save’ the earth. Of course he refuted by talking about his generation’s way of life with fewer energy-wasting appliances, re-filling old bottles and walking to work instead of driving cars that emit too much toxic fumes etc.

here is the post if you are interested to read: http://gaasedal.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/anyone-over-the-age-of-35-should-read-this-as-i-copied-this-from-a-friends-status/

I must admit I am not much of a ‘greenie’, but I try to do what I can by reusing plastic bottles, printing on both sides of the paper, doing my 10-year series assessment books 2 to 3 times before my A’ levels, using the ‘weak’ flush option if I am just peeing (altho my husband complains I always leave toilet paper floating in the bowl), and I try not to waste food by eating my son’s leftovers, and my friends’ leftovers if we eat out.

Living in a high rise apartment in Singapore most of my life, it was a way of life to throw all types of trash down a long rubbish chute with little care of the noise of glass bottles splintering into a million pieces down 24 storeys, or any notion of recycling plastic or glass items. Most people I know cannot sleep without air conditioning, otherwise you end up drenching your bedsheets with sweat because of the 80% humidity. Almost everyone owns a car despite the efficient and extensive public transport system, costly road tolls and parking fees. Shopping is the 2nd favourite past-time of Singaporeans, and most hardly worn clothes or old models of iphones or electrical appliances can be easily disposed of when the ‘garang-guni’ or ‘rag and bone’ man comes by and takes them away for you. He even pays you a token fee, usually $0.50 to $5 for your junk.

Switzerland must be one of the top ten countries that puts great importance on energy saving efforts, research into using cleaner fuels, recycling and keeping the environment clean and green. Afterall, what is Switzerland without their creamy snow-capped mountains and cows running carefree-ly on luscious green fields. This year, the ruling party with their proposals to reduce the number of foreigners moving into Switzerland lost their majority stake to a new party with a serious green agenda.

I find sometimes being green comes with a price. And it doesn’t need to be monetary.

Our town council hands out a yearly calendar listing the schedule for the collection of cardboards (usually once every 2 months), newspapers (once every month), and Christmas tree and other plant waste. For our apartment, the rubbish truck only comes once a week to take our trash away. Those with young kids would know how quickly your rubbish bag gets filled up with soiled nappies and milk cartons. We usually store all the stinky soiled nappies on the balcony, that is why the balcony, with an awesome view of those creamy snow-capped mountains is hardly used. Each 35-litre rubbish bag costs about chf 2, and if you leave your trash out much earlier than the stipulated day of the week, you run the risk of your trashbag being ripped open by deranged dogs or crazy pent-up youths; or civic-minded neighbours reporting you to the authority after they’ve rummaged through your smelly compost and found some form of identification like a letter with your name, or a soiled nappy, especially if you are the only family with kids. (they fail to realise some older adults use nappies too). My husband use to do a secret run in the middle of the night to throw bags of soiled nappies into the public waste bins opposite our house along the lake. I think someone must have found out what he did and changed the bins to ones with a very narrow opening.

Every Saturday morning begins with a 3-min drive down the road to the recycling area to dispose of our brown, white, green glass bottles and plastic containers.

We had a family outing last Saturday morning to The Big Dump to dispose of some large wooden crate boards and chunky styroform pieces. My husband bought me a massage chair from Singapore and it was delivered in a huge wooden crate. Thankfully we got the help of 5 muscly friends over New Year’s to carry the chair up 3 storeys of stairs and into our bedroom. The massage chair weighs 120 kg, but together with the wooden box it came in, it weighed 200kg. (This is to give you some idea how heavy the wooden boards that I have to help my husband put on top of my little Audi S3 were).

Going to the Dump is quite the experience. We were the 2nd last car to drive in, (it closes at 1130 am on Saturday and we arrived at 1115am), and there was still a long queue of cars waiting to go to the Dump. All the cars have to park in designated lots and wait for the dumpster guy to come and assess the amount and type of rubbish you are disposing. We were told our rubbish cost chf 50 (!!!??!!!), and that we have to carry them to the dumping containers all by ourselves. I thought to myself, why are we being penalised for disposing our rubbish???

We left our son in the car backseat and planned the best way to hold the wooden boards without getting any splinters into our palms or getting poked in the eye by the few sharp nails sticking out from the sides. I was cussing and telling myself if we were in Singapore, we could easily hire a truckload of bangladeshi workers (and this is not a joke) and pay them peanuts to take away the wood pieces. I dragged the boards, along with whatever shred of dignity I have left, up the flight of stairs and do a clumsy toss/swing of the rubbish into the dumping containers. There was a lady with full-on dark grey eyeshadow, dirty-blond pigtails and thick gloves ploughing through all the rubbish to see if there are any knick knacks she could savage. I suspect she comes here quite often.

I don’t know if I will live long enough to see the reward of my back-breaking efforts. Perhaps the end of the world will come soon and the alps will be flattened to the ground when they get hit by an alien fireball. The Swiss’ costly efforts in building artificial lakes on the mountains to pump out artificial snow would all go down the drain then. Or maybe we will all die from breathing the toxic fumes from smelly nappies.

My husband told me the last time he went to the Dump to dispose of our old furniture when we were moving house, a group of scavengers cheered loudly as one guy waved something in the air.

The lucky guy had found a stash of porn DVDs in one of the bags in the containers.

Well, at least the videos would get a new lease of life in someone’s bedroom.

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