Sunday, April 24, 2011

Swim or Sink

I made a terrible mistake between 30 and 60 years old. I gave up sport.


Gymnastics, football, basketball, Judo and kayaking all fell by the wayside. Complete collapse.

Since 1999, the deterioration has been even more precipitous. I rise before 7 AM each morning, walk a hundred feet, through the bathroom, through the kitchen, into my car, drive into the city, walk another hundred feet, through an elevator, and into my office, where I sit for 10 – 12 hours a day. By mid-evening, I stand from the office chair, drive home, huff through the kitchen and bathroom again, and into bed.

What a life.

If the degree of muscular atrophy in my heart is anything like that in my torso, arms and legs, I will succumb to heart failure the first time I need to respond quickly to an urgency or other sudden demand for movement.

Recurring episodes of gout now preclude walking or running as a cure. My joints hurt too damn much. The perfect excuse.

Three weeks ago, my doctor suggested swimming.


I don't swim. I flounder. Then I sink.

I used to be able to fake a crawl or breast stroke for a hundred feet or so, but it was all a put-on. I was just pretending. By the time I got to the raft or dock or other destination, my heart felt like it was going to explode as I gasped for air while trying to disguise my distress lest someone discover the secret.

Ironically, I absolutely love being in water. How absurd! I often wade out to neck depth in a lake and stand there for hours just staring at the trees and waves. Periodically, I ease forward face down into a 'dead-man's-float' and thrill at the sensation of flopping there, weightless, relaxed and silent. I'll put on a mask and dog-paddle along the shore just under the surface, observing fish and studying the vegetation.

Yet I can't swim.

This embarrassment came full force a few weeks ago when I faced the chore of driving my young son to his twice-a-week swimming lessons. I've never been one to just drop him off and return later, so I slipped my shoes off, waddled to poolside and read for an hour, sneaking the occasional glance without distracting him.

Around the fifth lesson, curiosity set in.

The teenagers doing the coaching were enthusiastic and well meaning enough, but my analytical bent noticed most of the students were really struggling. They were being asked to repeat length after length with virtually zero personal instruction for stroke improvement.

Something was wrong. I found myself cringing and tense at their frustration until I involuntarily almost shouted to myself, “Is that what happened to me?” “Son-of-a-b---!”

I couldn't wait to get home and onto my computer. Stroke analysis! What would Mr. Google have to offer? Soon the links began streaming down the monitor. Hundreds of them. I felt dizzy. Another massive overload.

Then I spotted one that looked downright silly. “Total Immersion Swimming ”, it said. Must be a Canadian joke, right? Like French Immersion? How the hell else can you swim, other than being immersed? And people were paying for this nonsense?

Couldn't resist. 'Click'. Hmmm. You Tube.

And there it was. After all these years. Absolute grace! (Follow the link and see for yourself...)

Some guy, I guessed in his late twenties or early thirties, about six foot six, was slipping through a pool's glass-surfaced water like a frigging knitting needle. I'd never seen anything like it. The peace. The ease. And the bugger was really moving! I mean he was generating a bow wave off the top of his head you could have surfed on.

That was the first hint.

He wasn't leading with his face, nor his chest, nor his shoulders. All I could see was barely the crown of his head and a bit of one shoulder peaking out of the water. Everything else was submerged, straight as as a needle, totally still, yet slicing through the water like a damned torpedo from hell!

Or a dolphin. Or a beluga. Or a ring seal.


When I later found out he was pushing fifty and only about five foot eight, I nearly choked. No way! And apparently this stuff can be learned?

Despite being closer to 70 than 60, I made up my mind then and there I would learn this stunt myself and save my son the decades of apprehension and embarrassment about swimming that I had so long concealed.

...continued here..

Saturday, March 19, 2011

In whose interest? A Cuban diary.

A year ago, I travelled South of the USA/Mexico border for the first time in my life. The ultimate tourist cliché: a pudgy, ageing, lily-white male, travelling alone, to Cuba, in February.

With two important exceptions.

I speak fluent Spanish and, most days, my relentless internal dialogue revolves around something more than seething mulata sexcapades.

This year I'm obsessed with understanding the global effect of Compound Interest. No, really.

What better place to concentrate on political economy than the last bastion of anti-imperialist bravura where obesity is anathema and the resultant stunning female population is educated and can actually think?

I don't enjoy large hotels in densely concentrated tourist centres. I tend towards more remote areas, preferably rural. The highlight of my first trip in 2010 was an encounter with Cuba's celebrated health-care system, even in rural areas, described here.

This time, having retired a month ago and travelling alone once again, I'm setting out in search of a compromise location to recommend for family or friends who don't speak Spanish at all and need an occasional shopping spree. I'm looking for something off the beaten track, preferably within reach of Havana, yet culturally and economically light years from the five star strip at Varadero.

After scrubbing the Internet all through the Fall of 2010 and using Google Earth to surf at ground level, I became intrigued by a neighbourhoood of Guanabo. Despite being only forty-five minutes along the coast east of the capital, it looked good from a mile up. Equally isolated from both the capital and the tourist meccas further east it's where Cubans themselves go for holidays in July and August. After reading a few comments from previous tenants, I decided to try Skype-calling one of the local 'casas particulares', the Cuban equivalent of a B&B.

What luck. Extraordinary luck. My first choice just happened to have a two week vacancy exactly when my family might complain a little less while I explored.

Ignoring the 'all inclusives', I booked an independent flight from Montreal and asked the casa operator to meet me at Havana airport this first time because I was arriving at night. I must have had horseshoes and rabbit's feet in my horoscope because, despite the full moon, my bags were among the first to emerge in Havana and customs just waived me through with nary a glance. I had nothing to declare anyway, but was still surprised at the total lack of inspection or delay. I learned later that another flight had arrived concurrently from Miami loaded with Cuban expatriates. Seems they warrant much closer scrutiny.

My host has red hair and I sport a goatee in winter, so we found each other with remarkable ease amidst the cacophony. She'd hired a friend and his 1950s Mercedes-Benz saloon for the hour's drive to the casa, so we picked up her thirteen year old son from her sister's place along the way. My first sensation in the dark was the sound of surf washing. So far so good.

I would be happy in a hovel, but reptiles and airborn beasts of any kind make my family's skin crawl. Inuit are notoriously uncomfortable with insects. They could be a show-stopper. Fortunately, the few I spotted on arrival were from the place being closed up for several days. They were dispatched with ease (a piece of tissue paper and down the toilet), never to reappear. No other problems through the night and my first morning dawned to reveal a spotless apartment in typically modest Cuban style.

My host and her son occupy half of the first floor, while her retired parents live in the other half. They rent the upstairs as two independent apartments, one twice the size of the other. I was in the smaller single bedroom version with kitchenettte, living room and balcony overlooking the sea. The family have lived in this extraordinary location since 1969 and began renting about ten years ago. They have gradually added practical and unostentatious features, including external stairways and private entrances for each apartment.

The surrounding neighbourhood is entirely populated by local families. There isn't a hotel or high-rise for miles and the village itself, including streets and vehicles are raw Cuba. They fully reflect the fifty years of American economic blockade and hostility. It is hard to believe the flow of European and Canadian tourists to Cuba in recent years has passed this area by so completely.

The beach is natural, a contrast to the man made extravagance of Varadero, and was empty throughout my stay but for a few Cubans, mostly fishermen who swim and dive for lobster and other seafood each day for their own sustenance, and a few kids playing beachball after school and on Saturday.

Which pretty much sums up Guanabo idyllic veneer, its surface. (Video and photographic clips to follow.)

What concerns me more, however, is the story beneath the surface. The burgeoning, bubbling, irrepressible energy about to awaken in Cuba that could transform this area and perhaps even the whole country in a matter of years, or months.

Might the Arabian Spring of February-March 2011 link to a Bolivarian Blowoff in 2015 or 2020? Was former Brazilian President Lula da Silva just a precursor to the ethical leadership emerging in the Americas?

There are extraordinary lessons to be learned on this island. Oblivious to the obscene, but obvious to the observant, the facts are so far removed from the inexorable bullshit fed to us by the cabal of North American conglomerate media.

(to be continued)