Here are some pictures from my visit to Havana.
You can see more photos from my visit to Havana here.
Do you love your life? If so, cherish it and love on! But if not, I invite you to ask yourself, “How could I love my life more?” What do you need to do to be more fulfilled? Here are a few suggestions:
Practice Gratitude – Finding what we are thankful for in our lives and taking time to be grateful will make huge inroads to brighten up your life, your perspective and your mood. Practice gratitude for the big things and the small things. It will make a huge difference.
Tell Those You Love That You Love Them – Telling your loved ones, “I love you” on a regular basis is very helpful. We love our lives more when we realize that we have people to love in our lives, people we love and who love us. Don’t feel loved? Ask people in your life, “Do you love me?” They will more than likely say yes. Then let the truth sink in: you are loved!!! And you are precious to many. Many people have a hard time believing this about themselves but it is really true!
Take A Rest Break — Stressed? Get some rest. Before you dismiss this idea as impossible, take a moment to consider: What if it is possible for you to rest and refresh? Even just for a moment? I’m here to tell you that it is possible. Stop feeling like you have to carve out a lot of time. Even 2-5 minutes will do. Take a rest break. Just get away to a quiet place, even if it’s just stepping outside for a moment or into the bathroom, and close your eyes and give yourself permission to rest. Many people try to get a million things done on their rest break. But rest breaks are called that for a reason. They really are for resting. So give yourself permission to take a break. Rest. Rejuvenate. And love your life!
In November 2014, I took a group of 13 travelers to Cuba with the World Affairs Council of Houston. We traveled there legally on a people-to-people humanitarian program.
On Wednesday night, we had dinner at our hotel with Dr. Andy Gomez before flying to Havana, Cuba the next day. He said, “Did you know people still come to the U.S. from Cuba in boats?” Then our waitress came over and introduced herself. “My name is Yunay,” she said.
Yunay is 29 years old. She immigrated to the United States on a boat her father made when she was 9 years old. She said her father was a fisherman. He used his skills to navigate to the U.S. shoreline. They landed somewhere near the Florida Keys. And their family has been in Miami ever since.
“My parents named me Yunay for United States of America,” she said. Yunay. United States of America.
I immediately felt a wave of patriotism and awe. Before she was even born, her father named her for the American dream. Sometimes we as Americans do not know how powerful this dream really is until we go to other nations and see the longing for America and her democratic way of life in people we meet. It shines forth in their hearts and eyes.
As a fellow traveler who seeks to do good in the name of America wherever I go, I constantly remember this. Although today’s news is replete with stories of many around the world who say “down with America”, there are so many more people around the world whose voices and longings are not being heard. But they are there. And they are willing to risk their lives to come to our shores.
Cubans really are still emigrating to the U.S. in homemade boats. On our return from Cuba, we met cruise travelers whose ship diverted to pick up boaters. Twelve Cubans spent four days at sea in this makeshift “boat”. Only eleven fit, so they each took turns dangling in the water. After four days at sea, the U.S. Coastguard intercepted them. They were in international waters, so they were returned to Cuba. Sometimes I lay awake at night wondering what became of them once they returned.
However, in recent years, a glimmer of hope has opened up for Cuba in regard to improving one’s lot in life. In 1993, the Cuban government began granting people the right to open a limited selection of personally owned businesses. They made slow progress in the beginning. But in recent years, their numbers and influence are increasing. I personally believe entrepreneurship is opening doors to greater freedom in Cuba on a personal, economic and societal level. And the more people find economic opportunity in their own country, the less they will have to go to distant shores to find it, and the better it will be for both.
In recent years, more Cubans have been opening privately owned businesses than ever before. Greater access to remittances have helped bolster the development of Cuban businesses. Some of the most popular businesses include restaurants, guest homes, and tourist-related attractions. Yet even individual Cubans with little access to resources are starting businesses, such as nail salons and barber/beauty shops.
When visiting Cuba on a people-to-people program with the World Affairs Council, our Havanatour guide shared that if she could open any business, she would open a bakery and make pies. As a former lawyer, she used to work at the U.S. Interests Section as a legal assistant. She said once she tasted pumpkin pie at a Thanksgiving dinner there. And she said it was the most delicious food she had ever eaten. She has dreamed of starting her own bakery ever since. “Have you ever made pumpkin pie?” I asked. “No,” she said. “Do you have a recipe?” “No,” she said. Surprised, I thought, How will she ever start a bakery if she does’t even have a recipe? And if she did have a recipe, maybe she could start making those pies now – and selling them to tourists for $5 each. Then that would supplement her income and allow her to share in the joy that we know as Americans, the joy of entrepreneurism and the ability to enjoy the little things in life and share them with others as a side benefit.
As an American who shares in her joy of baking, I thought, I wish I had a recipe for pumpkin pie to give her. Unbeknownst to me, I had brought the perfect gift for her to give her a start. Just before I left for Cuba, I grabbed a handful of magazines off my reading shelf. I planned to read them and then leave them for Cubans to share our American culture with them in a friendly and natural way.
When I looked through what I brought, I had a magazine entitled “Southern Living Our 2014 Thanksgiving Cookbook – 62 Great Southern Recipes” replete with a picture of a delicious pumpkin tart on the front. “No way!” I exclaimed when I saw it. “This is great!”
I promptly gave it to her and she thanked me. On my way back to the land of the free, I decided to make desert in honor of Ilyana. And then I realized something: she probably did not have the tools she needed to make any of those recipes.
I recalled one night at dinner when some of our traveling companions asked for a flan recipe. The waiter said, “Well, you use a can of sugar.” Who uses a can of sugar? What is he talking about? Later I learned he was referring to a coke can. After all, with limited resources, people do not have easy access to measuring spoons and measuring cups. So I bought some for Ilyana and sent them to her.
I look forward to visiting her bakery one day. But what I realized is that in Cuba, entrepreneurism is not as easy as pie. But we as Americans with access to so many goods can make a meaningful difference in small ways if we bring tools to equip our southern neighbors to achieve their future dreams. It doesn’t take much. A little willingness and resourcefulness on our part goes a long way to help Cubans to have a better future.
Ecuador contains one of the most biodiverse areas in the world in the smallest space. Ecuador is one of the most eat biologically diverse places in the world and such a small area. North Americans often select Costa Rica as their hotspot for nature tours. Most people do not know Ecuador’s mainland is full of abundant natural treasures, pristine ecosystems, and famed flora and fauna, including the folkloric quetzal. Ecuador is also a birder’s dream. If you are planning a visit to Ecuador, we recommend San Jorge Eco-Lodges. Learn more at www.SanJorgeEco-Lodges.com.
Today, I visited the book fair at my daughter’s elementary school. The principal gave the morning announcements and said, “Now we are going to say the Pledge of Allegiance. All students turn to the flag and put your hand over your hearts.”
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to this republic for which it stands. One nation, under God, indivisible. With liberty and justice for all.
As I said those words, my eyes swelled with tears. They always do. Every time I say the pledge, I am deeply moved. My daughter saw and said, “Why are you crying?” I told her it is because I cherish our freedom. It is so precious. And I am so grateful.
In my work in world affairs, I see a great need for freedom around the world on a daily basis. Recently, many migrants have been seeking refuge from persecution in Asia. They are from the Muslim Rohingya minority. Their situation is dire.
I came across this article today. Seeing the women, men and children stranded on this boat with no one to rescue them is heartrending. Here’s the link: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-32733963
Our sweet land of liberty is a cherished prize. I wish more nations hungered for the basic, inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – both for those in charge and for those in their care. If they did, I presume much would be different.
I wonder how many in our own country understand and value the freedom we have. When we do, we can make the world an even better place.
Last Thursday night, Suki Kim visited Houston and shared a moving account of her time as an undercover journalist in North Korea. She traveled to North Korea in 2011 and left when Kim Jong-ill died. While there, she posed as an English teacher and missionary with the sole intent of learning about the humanity of North Koreans. She believes the best way to understand North Korea is full immersion. She wanted to humanize North Koreans so their bleak world would become more human in the eyes of the world.. “After all, there are 25 million people living in that world,” she said.
She taught at Pyongyang University, an evangelical Christian University which hosts North Korea’s most elite male students. Although it is a university, she said it is really more like a prison.
She began her speech saying,”Shockingly, North Korea is simplistically portrayed in our news media but it is actually quite complex.” She attested to the many Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un jokes that float around in newspaper headlines and other media sources. But she quickly brought the audience to a deeper level of concern – her concern – that North Korea really is a world unto itself cut off from the rest of the world and the people who live there will not have a chance to enjoy the freedom and joys of the outside world – our world, a world of information, democracy and technological advancement – unless nations from the outside intervene.
She went on to describe what it is like to live in a society where there is no personal freedom (which is the basis of democracy, I would add). Every citizen wears the badge of “Dear Leader” at all times. Students are not allowed to leave the campus. Every class is recorded and reported. Although they have a computer major available, students do not know the existence of the Internet.
She wondered if the truth would improve our students lives. Yet in their world, so much of their day-to-day information was built on lies. For them, the truth was dangerous. Teachers would talk about the outside world and tell them it was dangerous for them.
Kim’s book is called Without You There Is No Us. It is based it is titled after a national song which the students saying every day at school which lauds Dear Leader and proclaims, “Without you, we cannot survive!”l.
I look forward to the day when no more nations exist where people are dominated by fear. It is a horrible way to live. And no one should have to live that way.
The other day, my daughter r and I were driving down the street and we noticed several American flags blowing in the wind against a blue Texas sky at a car dealership. She started singing My Country Tis of Thee. As we sang, “Let freedom ring,” I thought of people I have met in nations where they are not free. Cuba came to mind.
On my way to the airport leaving Cuba, I found myself wondering why people were so afraid. I had heard many stories from the past, but there is an underlying quiet fear that one sees in the eyes of the citizenry there. When I occasionally asked them about politics or history or what life was like in the past at certain periods of time, they grew very silent and were not willing to talk about it.
So as I drove to the airport,I thought about them and wondered what they were so afraid of and what would happen to them if they did talk about it.I asked them, “If you do talk about it, what will happen?” They would say, “Sometimes you go to jail and they don’t let you out. And you don’t get a fair trial.” That’s about as far is they would go and telling me what would happen.
As I drove on my way to airport, I looked over and on what looked to be the Ministry of Transportation building, in big red letters it said, , “Patria o Muerte”, Patriotism or Death.
“Give me liberty or give me death,” John Quincy Adams said. But here patriotism or death. That’s the reality for Cubans and North Koreans and others and totalitarian dictatorships. And it’s something that many of us can’t even imagine because we do live in the land of the free and the home of the brave who have fought for and achieved freedom.
During her speech, Ms. Kim referred to the Kim Jung-un jokes and said, “I am one of those people with no sense of humor because I do not know what so funny about a gulag nation”. I agree with Kim. It’s not funny. It’s heartbreaking.
Kim was so petite yet so courageous and my eyes. As I heard her speak, many of her concerns reminded me of the concerns I felt when in Cuba. Cuba in North Korea are not the same. But what they do share is the fact that their citizens are motivated and controlled by fear.
She made an excellent point in closing. She said, “Once you understand the place with feelings that these students could be your son or your grandson, people’s perception will change.”
Suki Kim is doing her part by bringing awareness to the world. Awareness is the first step to change anything. As Americans, we must cultivate a sensitivity and greater concern for peoples who do not have the freedoms that we recognize as inalienable rights. Only a freed man can free a man. Let freedom ring!
Suki Kim came to Houston on behalf of the World Affairs Council of Houston. To find out more about upcoming events, visit www.wachouston.org.
Galapagos is unlike any place on earth. Animals in Galapagos do not know humans as predators, so when they see you, they don’t run away. They just stay where they are. Birds, reptiles, and sea lions will even engage with you. The experience is surreal.
The sea lions add comical flare to these solitary islands. Engaging with them is an experience of a lifetime all its own. I was walking along beautiful Gardner Beach on Santiago Island when naturalist expert Jorge Garcia took this photo. It really captures the quintessential experience in Galapagos: Walk with the animals! Talk with the animals!
I loved swimming with the sea lions most of all. When you jump into the water, they think you are there to play with them. They swirl around you, blow bubbles at you, and speed past you while clamorously barking with excitement. It is surreal and unforgettable.
“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it within us or we find it not.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
We all make an impact, both in our daily lives and when traveling. I am not talking about a carbon footprint impact or some other environmental impact here. I am talking about the impact you make by being you.
Just by being ourselves, we affect the world around us. And we do something more than have an impact. We leave an imprint.
The kind of imprint we leave on the lives of others will be determined by what we carry in the treasure of our hearts. How do you know what you are carrying? Look at what you think about and seek out the most…Those you love? That which is beautiful? Uplifting? Joy-giving? Or do you find you are constantly preoccupied with concerns, restlessness, and strife? Or somewhere in between?
We must strive to find the beautiful and let it live within us. In doing so, we will carry it within us and it will become like an abundant treasure which will enrich our lives and the lives of others. And as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Though we travel the world over to to find the beautiful, we must carry it within us or we find it not.”
In our lives and in our travels, we can make a beautiful impact. Even small ways make a big difference, such as giving someone a smile, a warm embrace, an encouraging word or an act of kindness. In doing so especially when we travel, we can defy the “ugly American” stereotype and leave a beautiful imprint on those whose lives and hearts we touch. Because whether we realize it or not, we do touch hearts and lives every day – just by being ourselves.
What kind of imprint do you want to make?