Category Archives: Family Travel

Cuba

Cuba is so near and yet so far away.  Cuba and the United States are very close to one another, and yet, the two countries have been separated by mutual suspicion and animosity for so many years that Cuba almost seems like a different world.

Our family had the good fortune to travel to Cuba during June and July 2017.  Because we live in Florida, we were able to visit Cuba relatively inexpensively and very easily.  We drove to Tampa, boarded a ship, and the next day, found ourselves in Havana.  Between the time we booked our tickets and left Tampa, the United States President announced his intention to tighten travel restrictions for Americans traveling to Cuba.  Thankfully, our trip happened before restrictions are implemented.

 

Ministry of the Interior Building with Che Guevara’s image and the words, “Ever onward to victory.”

We spent our time in Cuba learning about Cuban history, seeing architecture, and interacting with wonderful Cuban people.  Thanks to Amanda, our incredible guide from Havana Journeys, our trip followed the guidelines for a People-to-People exchange, which currently is a legal way for Americans to travel in Havana.

While, like many Americans, I tend to focus on recent events in Cuban history following the Communist revolution in the twentieth century, Cuba has a long and rich history.  Of course, Cuba was vibrant with indigenous peoples long before Columbus arrived.  Following the arrival of Europeans, Cuba remained an important part of the Caribbean because of its location, size, and natural and human resources.

Plaza de la Revolucion

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like many visitors, we saw the Plaza de la Revolucion, where Fidel Castro made speeches lasting many hours.  We saw Miramar, the area of Havana that wealthy people called home in the early part of the twentieth century.

 

 

We drove around Havana in classic American cars.  Yank Tanks, as they are sometimes called, have been meticulously maintained by Cubans.  We traveled with my parents, and our ride in these cars reminded them of their youth!

 

 

 

 

 

 

When our family travels, we try to go beyond the comfort of the usual tourist spots.  While in Havana, we asked our guide to take us to a place where Cubans enjoy ice cream.  Amanda took us to Coppelia, a wonderful place in Havana, where Cubans line up at different signs advertising the flavors available.  Chocolate seems to be the most popular!  After waiting, they are seated in outdoor pavilions and then enjoy ice cream.  Each scoop costs about the same as ten cents in American currency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were many highlights of our time in Havana.  One was following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway.  We visited Hemingway’s room and the roof-top bar of the Hotel Ambos Mundos.  We felt the humid air and could imagine Hemingway sitting over his typewriter.

Hemingway’s View

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another highlight was seeing the world through the lens of Cubans.  While walking through the National Hotel, where Castro directed Cuba’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis from underground caves, I saw pictures of famous visitors.  Yes, there were American film stars and political leaders such as Jimmy Carter.  But, there were other people Americans tend to view as villains.  There was a large portrait of Hugo Chavez and many pictures of current Russian leaders.  I was able to ask someone about John Kennedy, and not surprisingly, Kennedy is still viewed with suspicion given the Bay of Pigs invasion and missile crisis.

My experience in Cuba was similar to my experience in every other country I have visited.  The vast majority of people are kind, helpful, and open to relationship.  They want to live in a world where people can relate to one another with respect.  Despite differences of history and language, religion and culture, people are people, and we can find things in common to unite us.

Dear Friends

Just before leaving Cuba, we had the wonderful pleasure of visiting with Rev. Santiago Conrado Delgado Castillo and his family.  Santiago is Secretario Ejecutivo of the Fraternidad de Iglesia Bautista de Cuba (the Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba).  We shared coffee and conversation, and we discussed our hopes for a world of freedom.

I am grateful we were able to see Cuba and interact with many wonderful people.  If you have an opportunity to visit Cuba, do it!

Joyeux Noël de Genève

Joyeux Noël de Genève– Merry Christmas from Geneva. 

Our family’s Christmas Eve in Geneva, Switzerland, began with a trip to the top of Europe where we visited Chamonix to see Mont Blanc. 

From the town of Chamonix, we rode the Aiguille du Midi cable car up the mountain for a view of Mont Blanc. The ride is pricey, but the views of the Alps are beautiful and worth the splurge.  The crowd on Christmas Eve was small and wait times short.  Our time at the top was breathtaking. In fact, there is an exhibit on the physiological effects of high altitude, which is worth exploring. 


Our next stop was La Calèche restaurant in Chamonix for fondue. The waitstaff was warm and helpful, and they graciously spoke to us in English even as we ordered in French. The cheese was fantastic, and dessert was a great surprise. We enjoyed profiteroles, which had delicious vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and hot chocolate sauce.  We will try to recreate them when we return home. 


We returned to Geneva as the sun set, just in time for an organ concert and Service of Lessons and Carols at St. Pierre Cathedral. 


The cathedral is the place where Protestant Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) preached during the sixteenth century. Worshippers filled the nave for the multilingual service. 


We returned home to share a Bûche de Nöel and wish one another Joyeux Noël, Merry Christmas. 


It was a special day and a celebration of Christmas that we will cherish for years to come. 

Joyeux Noël de Genève — Merry Christmas from Geneva. 

Thanksgiving for Connections

A year ago, our family was in the midst of a round-the-world adventure that took us to six continents. We experienced wonderful places along the way and, most of all, developed relationships with cherished friends across the globe.  Now, we have returned home to the United States, and we are preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving.  As we give thanks this year, we think of the beloved friends we made and the connections we continue to feel to these people and places. 

During the past several days, events have occurred in two countries to which we feel especially connected: France and Myanmar. 

  
In France, terrorists attacked people gathered in Paris to enjoy sporting, dining, and cultural events. We felt connected immediately because we remembered walking Parisian streets to our apartment. We thought of the cafe on the corner and the people we saw gathered there sharing coffee, wine, and conversation. 

  
We were in Paris during the Charlie Hebdo shootings, and seeing the recent scenes on television reminded us of the heavy police presence in January. And our thoughts went to our friends in France, Heather and Vic. Although St. Pois, their village in Normandy, is far removed from Paris and St. Denis, we wonder how shaken they are by the attacks and reverberations across the country. 

  
On a brighter note, we have felt intensely connected to Myanmar following the historic elections that saw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy win a sweeping victory. We have thought of our dear friends with whom we have shared laughs and tears. We have thought of hugs and hopes shared in their homes.  And we have rejoiced to receive reports from them during the past few days. 

A friend from Myanmar shared these words:

Breaking News: “The Winner is…. NLD!!!”

Just now at noon, according to UEC’s announcement of the winning seats in both lower and upper house, NLD has won 348 seats, far more that it needs to form a new government 329. Incredible! Surely, it will be more when the counting is over, hopefully, in a few days’ time. It’s so exciting! Please continue to keep an eye on our country and make sure that you and your respective democratic governments would continue to support us as we have to build Myanmar’s future toward restoration, reconciliation and democracy without any violence. We do hope, pray and work so that genuine peace and justice would prevail, human rights and human dignity would be honored and flourish, prosperity would come to exist and all kinds of fear would disappear when the new and clean government and good governance started to take place.

  
Travel has connected my family and me to people and places far away from our home. Despite the miles, on this Thanksgiving, I give thanks for deep connections that remain.  And although we are apart, somehow we are very much related. 

I am thankful, indeed. 

Happy Birthday, Martin Luther

In 1483, Martin Luther was born on this day, November 10, in the town of Eisleben.  He is well known for posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517 and sparking the Protestant Reformation.  He was a leader both revered and reviled, and in his wake the trajectory of history was altered in ways that still resonate nearly 500 years later. 

  
Many times, I have joined with other Protestant Christians to sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” as we have celebrated Reformation Sunday.  On such occasions, it is easy to forget that, in addition to his leadership in the Reformation, Luther also was deeply human and filled with fears, joys, and frustrations. 

I resonate most with Luther as the person who mixed hope with struggle, challenge with delight. 

Luther’s decision to enter the monastery was made in fear. Caught in a severe thunderstorm, Luther called to St. Anne for help and promised to become a monk if he survived. True to his word, born of fear, Luther entered the monastery in Erfurt in 1505.  Many of Luther’s days were consumed with fearful self flagellation and longing for salvation.  
  
Beyond his fears, however, Luther also knew joy. Perhaps his source of greatest joy was his family. He married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, and together they had six children.  By all accounts, they had a loving and happy marriage.  Though finances often were tight, Luther said, “My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me that I would not exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus.”

As a husband and father, I share Luther’s delight in his spouse and children. A few years ago, our family visited Luther’s home. I could picture him sitting around the table filling the room with music and talk. 

  
While I love Luther the happy husband and doting father, I also am honest to say that I can relate to Luther at his points of frustration. 

Just a few days before his death in February 1546, Luther traveled from Wittenberg to his hometown, Eisleben, to mediate a dispute. While in Eisleben, Luther preached his final sermon. 

  
It is estimated that Luther preached 7,000 sermons during his lifetime, but for what became his last sermon, only five people were present.  Luther was mightily frustrated.  He wrote to a friend despairing that he had been part of a failed Reformation.  In the bitter winter of February 1546, the great preacher preached in a nearly empty church building. 

Just a few days later, Luther went to bed with chest pains.  He prayed the  prayer found in Psalm 31:5, “Into your hand, I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me O Lord, faithful God.”  

In the hours after midnight, Luther’s pain increased, and the hour of his death was near. He was asked, “Reverend father, are you ready to die trusting in your Lord Jesus Christ and to confess the doctrine you have taught in His name?”

“Yes,” he replied. 

Best Chinese Food Ever!

A few years ago, a teenager from our town traveled with her orchestra to China.  Upon her return, I asked about her favorite memories.  A big smile came across her face, and she said, “The food!”  She quickly added, “I love our local Chinese restaurant, but the food in China was so much better.”

While traveling in China with my family, I enjoyed lots of delicious food.  And with each great meal, I thought of that young lady.  I agree with her; the food in China is delicious!

We had a number of delicious and memorable culinary experiences in China.  While in Beijing, we stayed in an AirBnB apartment owned by an American family and run by Holly, a wonderful Chinese woman.

My wife, Lisa, with our Beijing host, Holly

My wife, Lisa, with our Beijing host, Holly

We told Holly how much we love dumplings, and she agreed to teach us how to make them.  She started with a trip to a local market, which I never could have found on my own.  Walking from our apartment, we ventured off the main road and turned into a small side street that became a walking path.  Eventually, we entered a nondescript building that held a bustling market filled with local produce and baked goods.

Then, we returned to our apartment where Holly led a cooking class for our family.  She taught us to make the filling, which included pork, cabbage, carrots, onions, spices, vinegar, and soy sauce stir fried in the wok.

 

Hollys Wok - Edited

Then, she taught us how to mix flour and water with chopsticks until the dough was firm and ready to knead.  Holly pinched off small bits, rolled them out, filled them, and cooked them in a pot of boiling water.

Rachel with Holly (2)

Then, we joined other Chinese friends from the neighborhood around the kitchen table eating lots of dumplings.  Delicious and memorable!

Noodle TeacherWe received another cooking lesson while in Beijing.  We went to Mama’s Lunch for a dumpling and noodle lesson.  Our gracious host and excellent teacher, Joyce, greeted us with tea and snacks before beginning the class.  We made regular dumplings as well as green dumplings with spinach water and orange dumplings from pumpkin water.  In addition to the traditional filling of pork and spices, Joyce taught us how to make a filling of scrambled eggs with chives.

 

 

We then shared a feast of boiled and fried dumplings.  Delicious!

Eating Noodles

In addition to our cooking classes, we enjoyed wonderful meals in two restaurants.  In Beijing, we shared a ten-course dinner at Black Sesame Kitchen that included five flavored eggplant, shredded lettuce stem, and black sesame ice for dessert!  The restaurant is located in a hutong, a traditional neighborhood with narrow alleys and courtyard residences.  The meal was pretty expensive, but it was a great treat for our family.

Menu Beijing

Finally, in Shanghai, we had a great meal of Xiaolongbao, soup dumplings cooked in steamer baskets.  We ate at Din Tai Fung, a restaurant chain with several stores around Shanghai and other cities around the world.  All dumplings have a thin skin and sixteen delicate folds, and they are filled with various broths.  We especially loved the pork dumplings and the crab dumplings.

Shanghai Dumplings

I still love Chinese food at home, but I have to agree with the young lady from our town.  These meals in Beijing and Shanghai were the Best Chinese Food Ever!

Group Dinner Plate

Journey to The Great Wall of China

I often have said that the journey is more important than the destination.  While visiting the Great Wall of China, I learned again how true this saying can be.  The journey to the Wall was fantastic, and while it did not top my joy of walking on the ancient structure, it was a great experience all its own.

Great Wall

When traveling, our family uses public transportation as much as possible.  Our trip to the Great Wall of China was no different.  And getting to the Wall by public transportation is very feasible, quite inexpensive, and a great adventure!  If you have the chance, skip the tour group and go with the locals!

We took the Beijing Metro to the public bus stop where we waited for Bus 877, which would take us to Badaling, the section of the Wall most visited by tourists and foreign dignitaries.  As a child, I remember seeing the 1972 picture of US President Richard Nixon walking on the Wall in a big winter coat with the furry collar.  Nixon was at Badaling.

Great Wall Crowded

Bus 877 departs Beijing from the Deshengmen Arrow Tower, and the trip costs 12 RMB (about US$2) per person.  After we boarded the bus, a helpful worker walked through the aisle taking money.  We did not have exact change, but she made change for the four of us.  Then, we settled into the sixty-five kilometer trip (about forty miles) that lasted a bit more than an hour.

Bus 877 was filled with Chinese people except for six foreigners — a German couple and our family of four Americans.  Riding with the Chinese passengers, listening to them talk with each other, and watching them gaze out the windows as we caught our first glimpses of the Wall was a great experience.  The ride was smooth, and we enjoyed our time on the bus.  The journey was fantastic.

When we arrived at Badaling, we waded into a sea of people.  Several tour guides yelled into megaphones, and loads of vendors sold all kinds of souvenirs and snacks.  People swarmed around us, and groups pushed toward the ticket windows.  Thankfully, we have taken many rides on crowded Metro trains, so the crowd did not dissuade us.  In fact, I found it fascinating and fun.

Great Wall Hills

The terrain at Badaling is very hilly, and the elevation change between the parking area and the Wall is pretty extreme.  You can walk up to the Wall, but it is a steep climb.  You can be whisked to the top in a cable car.  Or, you can ride on pulley cars, which are sort-of toboggans that run along a rickety track.  The pulley cars reminded me of the county fair where I grew up.  The ride is thrilling at least partly because you are not sure you will make it to the end in one piece!

Pulley Car going up to Great Wall

Pulley Car going up to Great Wall

At Badaling, you sit in a car, and the pulley car takes you up to the Wall.  The ride up to the Wall was a fun surprise.  And, the ride down the hill was even more fun.  While riding down, a worker sat in the front car leading a string of about twenty cars.  He seemed to control the speed and braking for all twenty cars by pulling on hand levers.  Taking the pulley car made the journey almost as much fun as getting on the Wall.

Great Wall Walking

And, then once we were up on the Wall, we had the thrill of walking around this ancient structure.  As I walked, I thought of the millions of people who have walked there before me.  I looked out from the wall at the beautiful landscape and thought about the Chinese empires it had protected.  I watched people from many countries who had made this journey like our family.

Watch Tower on the Great Wall

Watch Tower on the Great Wall

Looking out from The Great Wall

Looking out from The Great Wall

As happened many times in China, friendly Chinese people asked if they could take a picture with someone from our family.  Well, I suppose I could be more accurate.  During our visit to China, lots of people asked if they could take a picture with our daughter, Rachel, some asked if they could snap a picture with our son, Jonathan, and a few asked if they could have a picture with my wife, Lisa.  No one — not one single person — asked to take a picture with me.  At one point, a person walked up to me with a camera and said, “Excuse me, sir.”  “Yes,” I replied and began to smile expecting to have my picture taken.  Then, the person continued:  “Would you please take a picture of me with your daughter?”  I was not a desirable subject!

Rachel on the Great Wall

Rachel on the Great Wall

After our ride down the pulley car, we had an easy return to Beijing on Bus 877.  Then, we took the Metro back to our apartment.  It was a great day at an iconic place.  And, taking public transportation allowed us to save some money and, especially, have a great experience traveling with locals.  The journey was almost as good as the destination.

The four of us on The Great Wall.  I finally had someone take my picture!

The four of us on The Great Wall. I finally had someone take my picture!

Noah’s Ark in Shanghai

During the Second World War, millions of Jews suffered humiliation, tragedy, and death.  The treatment of Jews during this period is a horrible moment in human history.

As our family has traveled around the world, we have encountered a number of reminders of World War II and the Holocaust.  We spent somber time at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.  Looking at pictures of adults and children the same age as our family made the horror real for our children.  After our time there, we talked in depth about this time in human history.

While in Shanghai, we deepened our learning about the treatment of Jews during World War II.  The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum tells the story of the 25,000 to 30,000 Jews who found safe refuge in Shanghai during this time.  Housed in the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue in the Hongkou District and easily accessible by Subway Line 4, the museum offers regularly scheduled tours in English.

Shanghai Jewish Museum

Our family spent an informative afternoon at the museum.  Our helpful and kind volunteer guide told us the history of the synagogue and the experiences of Jews who found refuge in Shanghai.  Despite Japanese occupation after 1937, the French Concession in Shanghai remained under European powers’ control.  Shanghai was the only city in the world that did not require a visa for Jews to enter.  As mistreatment of Jews increased during World War II, nearly 30,000 Jewish refugees moved to the city and established their lives there.

Jewish life was concentrated in the Shanghai International Settlement, which often was called Little Vienna because of the European-style cafes and shops.  The nearly 30,000 Jews lived in close proximity with about 100,000 Chinese neighbors.  Despite differences in language, history, and culture, the museum documents numerous cases of positive relationships between neighbors.  While Jewish survivors left Shanghai following the war’s end, many returned through the years to thank their Shanghai friends.  Photos and accounts of their reunions are a heart-warming part of the museum.

Although small, the museum contains exhibits, artifacts, a documentary film, and stories of survival.  One of the survivors was Michael Blumenthal who later served as United States Secretary of the Treasury in the Carter Administration.

We spent much time looking at pictures and paintings to learn about the Jews who survived because of the welcome offered them in Shanghai.  Some refer to the Jewish settlement in Shanghai as Noah’s Ark because Jews found refuge in Shanghai just as Noah, his family members, and animals found refuge during the great flood.

Shanghai Jewish Museum Inside

David Kranzler, a Holocaust survivor and noted historian, called the welcome offered to Jewish refugees the “miracle of Shanghai.”  He said, “Within Jewry’s greatest tragedy, there shone a few bright lights.  Among the brightest of these is the Shanghai haven.”  Visiting the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum reminded me of the Righteous among the Nations at Yad Vashem.  In a time shaped by tragedy, hatred, and horror, there were some examples of compassion, care, and survival.  It is good and right for us to remember them.

Should you find yourself in Shanghai, I encourage you to venture beyond The Bund and the Shanghai Pearl.  Enjoy those places, but also take time to visit the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.  Look at the pictures.  Read the stories.  Imagine life in Little Vienna.  Picture reunions in the years after World War II.

It is well worth your time.