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More cruises to Cuba are setting sail from ports on Florida’s coast this year as the market for American tourism settles down after Obama eased travel restrictions in 2015. My family just returned from a week-long cruise with stops at Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and, yes, Havana.

Caution: These cruises aren’t Love Boats. They are regulated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which means travelers must participate in educational activities, often called people-to-people exchanges. An educational visa is required.

We loved the educational vibe on our cruise. The cultural activities were fun and interesting: lessons on Cuban history, santoria, salsa dancing classes, African-Cuban history, performances by Cuban dance and music groups, rum-tasting, and more.

For us, the on-ship highlight was an improvised talk by four Cuban exiles who were returning “home” for the first time. They described their ambivalence and the downright hostility of some of their older relatives whose grudge against the Castro brothers remains strong. In the end, all said they were compelled to go back to Cuba to see what had changed and to see relatives left behind five decades ago. One was Elena, a retired teacher who couldn’t resist the opportunity to return to Havana after 55 years to meet a half-sister for the first time. We later saw them walking down the street holding hands.

As part of the people-to-people requirement, we were encouraged to engage with Cubans on shore. We were schooled in basic Spanish phrases, currency tips and cultural do’s and don’ts. Once on shore, we chatted with shopkeepers, artists, vendors, people who have opened cafes in their homes (paladeres) and yes, the drivers of the vintage 1950s cars that are the staple of the taxi fleet. We roamed the streets of Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and Havana. Cuban people were friendly and curious. Love of baseball was a common denominator.

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We’d been pondering how to visit Cuba for several years and knew lodging is scarce (and likely without AC). The cruise ship helped resolve that issue – it gave us comfortable rooms and amenities, we only had to unpack once and transportation between cities was taken care of. The downside to cruising is we had less time on shore. We had to rush some of our “must see” sites.

We’re big Teddy Roosevelt fans so we were thrilled to see San Juan Hill, the site of the military victory in 1898 that propelled his political career. Note that the locals call the conflict the Spanish-Cuban-American War, because while freed from Spanish rule they were then occupied by Americans for decades.

Another highlight was the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. The museum is filled with relics and photos depicting Castro’s takeover and the subsequent 50-year standoff with the U.S. (from his vantagepoint of course). In front of the museum sits a tank commanded by Castro at the Bay of Pigs, when exiles disastrously failed to invade. An area adjacent contains the “Granma,” the boat Castro commanded on his ultimately successful invasion in 1959.

The island really is stuck in a time warp. Castro time, that is. Half a century of U.S. embargo and then the loss of their patrons in the USSR has left a crumbling — but proud — country.

We have only two regrets. One, baseball season was over, so we didn’t catch a few innings of Cubano ball. Two, we didn’t get out into the countryside. We heard the Vinales Valley in western Cuba is incredible. We would have liked to tour a sugar cane or tobacco plantation, since they are staples (rum and cigars) of the Cuban economy. Or do some hiking in the Sierra Maestra or Escambray mountains, where Castro’s guerrillas plotted their revolution.

It’ll start our to-do list for next time. We couldn’t get enough of this colorful culture and people, blended like a fine mojito.

Addendum: Here’s a 2-minute video about travel to Cuba.

Sandy K. Johnson is a journalist who writes real news and is a fierce protector of the First Amendment. 

It’s the 4th of July holiday weekend and, naturally, the Dakota kids have laid in an awesome amount of meat to grill. No matter that we’re going out for several meals – it is the principle of the thing. Holiday = grilling.

As I was shoveling protein into the refrigerator and freezer, I noticed a label on one package of beef: “100% American farmed.”

I started giggling, thinking of all the marketing and labeling shenanigans that have been foisted on the unthinking public: Light, lite, natural, low-fat, low-cal ,etc.

Protein has been particularly susceptible: organic, farm-raised,  free-range, 100% gluten-free, hormone-free, 100% vegetarian raised, wild-caught, blah blah.

People, read the labels. Then decide for yourself whether you really care that your fish was “wild caught,” when in fact it was wild caught in Thailand, where food safety rules may be, er, rather lax. Or that your pork loin, “100% farm-raised,” contains up to 15% water, vinegar and marinating chemicals.

meatCRR and I grew up with the original organic protein. Our parents raised the cattle, chickens and pigs that went to slaughter to pack our freezers. We snagged trout and walleye and perch directly from the rivers and lakes. But I also don’t sweat animals that have been raised in confinement – check out how super-expensive Kobe beef is raised.

If you really care, do your homework and make your own informed decision as a consumer. Free-range may mean something completely different than what you think. You may not actually know what a GMO is — but Jimmy Kimmel does.

Just don’t be fooled by stupid labels that some PR firm was paid millions to snooker you.

Back to the beef. Americans eat 24 billion pounds of home-grown beef a year; fewer than 1 billion pounds are imported, primarily from Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

And if you want to be truly informed, read this 92-page list of USDA rules about meat additives. Then go shopping, and know what you’re talking about.

And Happy 4th of July. Grill away!

 Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

CRR is a tree hugger. Growing up on the sparsely-treed prairie, it was probably preordained that he would become a lover of trees.

During the Dust Bowl, topsoil literally blew away as winds howled down the prairie. With little natural tree cover, there was nothing to stop the clouds of dirt. Convinced that trees could break the wind, FDR ordered up “shelterbelts,” rows of trees planted by CCC and WPA workers. By 1942, 220 million trees had been planted along 18,600 miles stretching from the Dakotas to Texas. Those rows of trees defined the countryside where we grew up.

Now we have a big suburban yard with dozens of tree specimens, and CRR can name them all. When we first bought the property, the yard had been neglected for years. He brought in an arborist to identify the trees and diagnose what ailed them.

The arborist condemned the persimmon that shades the patio and a giant locust that towers over the property.

The arborist underestimated CRR’s tree powers.

He slowly nursed the persimmon back to health, with some foul-smelling ointment and a burlap cIMG_1315 (2)oat that wrapped it for two seasons.

The giant locust was a bigger project. The arborist predicted it would eventually split in two, fall, and damage our house (or our neighbor’s). CRR brought in a landscaper who cabled the thickest trunks together – even the derecho of 2012, with its winds gusting up to 80 mph, didn’t bring it down.

Snowmageddon took a big chunk out of the magnificent magnolia that graces our front yard. The tree doctor said it would never regain its shape – wrong again, with CRR’s pruning guidance.

When 9-year-old Sam brought home a sycamore seedling from his school’s Earth Day celebration, he and CRR planted it and nursed it to the rangy specimen it is today.

His latest project? A bigleaf magnolia, a mere sapling now that promises plate-sized blooms in a year or two.

IMG_1284For his attention to the trees — mulberry, sycamore, magnolia, dogwood, crepe myrtle, arborvitae, pine, persimmon, locust, tulip poplar, ornamental cherry, cypress and a forest of hollies – CRR has earned the title of tree whisperer.

Happy Father’s Day to a wonderful husband and father of our two sons.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, Va.

 

 

 

 

I am contemplating Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima as we shift into Memorial Day weekend, a time when Americans remember our fallen warriors. I have no issue with the president’s visit – we must always remember and never forget.

Obama said: “Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.

“We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow. Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.”

It seems so long ago. Some 60 million people died over the years that World War II raged, including the final acts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet my own family to this day represents the past and present.

My father sailed into Yokohama Bay as part of the conquering force, having expected to fight his way into Japan but for Harry S Truman’s decision to deploy the first and only atomic weapon. “Everybody knew we were going to Japan,” Dad told me. Then Truman made the fateful decision. In the awful aftermath, the U.S. Navy sailed on to Japan. Dad’s convoy ported at Yokohama, the Imperial Japanese naval base south of Tokyo. Over the next few months, he helped transport the tortured and emaciated American soldiers who had been liberated from Japan’s notorious POW camps to U.S. medical ships for treatment.

Fast forward 70 years. Our nephew Kyle, a Marine, visited last weekend. He was recently posted in Japan, and expects to return. His memories of Tokyo are far different from my father’s, and I am struck by that. Kyle’s stay in Japan took him to Tokyo and Okinawa and Mount Fuji and beyond. He talked of the blinding lights of Shibuya, the Japanese equivalent of Times Square, part of the long resurrection of Japan’s economy after the war years. He’s also stood sentinel at the DMZ in Korea, an ongoing symbol of the uneasy East-West relations.

Yes, Kyle is today’s face of our long military relationship with Japan. As was my father long long ago. Separated by seven decades, yet the mission eerily similar: Keeping the peace.

May we never forget.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, Va.

As I ambled around our gardens yesterday, glorying in the first real sunshine in two weeks, I marveled at the beauty of the roses. Big blooms, heady with perfume.

Then it struck me: Our roses utterly adore the British-like cool rainy weather that has marked the first weeks of May.

That triggered memories of a May trip to London. Mourning the loss of a job I loved, I skipped town – to London, to seek solace with Chris and Jeff.

Chris knew just what I needed: a week-long tour of gorgeous British gardens. From Regent’s Park to Kew Gardens to St. James’ Gardens and Chelsea’s physics garden, we admired and sniffed our way through glorious May flowers. The roses were incredible – bowers drooping with the thickly petaled roses of England, their scent drifting across the manicured lawns and parks.

Sissinghurst was the crown jewel of the week: more than 400 acres of flowers, just a short train ride away in Kent. Chris and I spent the day wandering from one beautiful corner to another of these storied gardens. Imposing crown imperials (George Washington’s favorite flower), tulips and dozens of varieties of daffodils. Clematis, wisteria, azaleas, honeysuckle. Penstemon, foxglove, allium.

And the roses, oh those roses. They were other-worldly in their abundance and beauty. On trellises, climbing up brick walls, adorning stone arches. The entire day was a sensory cacophony.

That trip was a balm to my soul. My mother had urged me for years to stop and smell the roses, a cliché that I disdained until, finally, it made perfect sense.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, Va.

Sorry I have been AWOL. Blame the job. I will try to do better this year.

Mother’s Day seems like a great time to renew this blog, since my mother has been such an inspiration to me. She’s 84 and she’s still gardening.

OK, it’s gardening “lite” – last year she had one cucumber plant and one tomato plant. But she still glories in the small joys of gardening: choosing just the right plant, procuring the right soil (JJJJ, this is your department) and nurturing the plants to harvest. I think she’s a “vegetable whisperer.”

It may be a micro version of the enormous garden she once had, but on the other hand she no longer has to feed six hungry mouths. She only has to enjoy the gifts that God gives us, with her expert care and vigilance against varmints.

Mom: CRR is trying to grow some gooseberries from seed. I remember them from Grandma Benner’s garden, small seedy juicy berries that we ate straight from the plant. They’re called husk cherries in other parts of the country, which I discovered in St. Louis last summer when a James Beard nominee chef joyfully incorporated them into his dishes.

Mom: I don’t “can” tomatoes like you did, but I diligently cook tomato sauce and freeze it, a frugal streak I got from you. Though I have to say, this time-consuming kitchen work is tried when I see that I can buy two 15-ounce cans of diced tomatoes for $1. Really, all that work for 50 cents?! I guess it’s the “love” component.

tulipMom: My flower gardens are a direct tribute to your love of gardening. All year long, as I baby the flowers and admire their beauty, I think of you. The lilacs just finished. Roses are blooming. Soon we’ll have iris and peonies and hydrangea. Everything in its time.

These things, so tangible yet so intangible, I owe to you. We owe to you.

Happy Mother’s Day.

xoxo, your favorite daughter (sorry, sibs, you knew that was coming)

Sandy K. Johnson is a journalist in Washington, D.C., and mother of two sons. 

Source: Deep Into Tomato Season