North of the 38th Parallel – Part 셋

This is the final chapter in the three part Q&A on my trip to North Korea. Previous parts available for the eternity of the Internet here (I and II)

What Other Miscellaneous Impressions Did You Have?

A few other seemingly interesting impressions emerged during the trip.

First of all, it’s clear North Korean is anachronistic in many ways. I began to see the country as an old kingdom from centuries ago. A small elite has set up a system to benefit revolving around the hereditary succession of one family, which is viewed as near-equal to God. All of society is structured to replicate this system, with many massive public works projects constructed with what I can only assume is more or less slave labor in support of this social project. The country would not be out of place among the Game of Thrones-like empires that pre-date the evolution of the nation-state.

At the same time, agree with it or not, the system is vastly impressive. The level of control is so total and complete, that either everyone believes what they are meant to, or at least won’t even let up the facade for a single second. The ability to maintain such a degree of isolation in this day and age, where I make Skype calls across the world on a daily basis while ordering pizza from Mongolia, is incredible. I go back to West Africa, but imagine if I tried to set up something similar there (which I basically did during my Peace Corps service, unsuccessfully trying to get all the kids to refer to me as ‘Hulk Hogan’). There’s just no way it would work – successive leaders have been trying to extend governance throughout their countries for decades, with middling success. The historical circumstances are very different, but I can’t help but marvel at the level of control installed, and endured throughout the years.

The level of grandeur also can truly be impressive. Now the choice of who gets to participate in this system and who does not is rather stark and heartless, but the ability to build it in the first place is not insignificant. Similar to how my ability to consistently talk about doing 189 pushups with a rabid monkey holding a carrot on my back is just as nearly impressive as actually doing it (right?).

077-13724123_10154796481548797_5404894958479396973_o

pretty cool to me

That’s not to say the system is considered faultless, even by its own people. The very first day one of the staff from my uncle’s office that was accompanying us got pulled aside by a security guard while we were walking around. The guard verbally chewed him out for a good five minutes, for reasons which are still unclear. We were all a bit stunned, and half expected the man to disappear and never be seen again. He had a bit of a scowl on his face as he left, and just told us to get back in the car quickly. As soon as we were in the car though, he lit up and began ardently complaining about the incident to our driver (again all with a degree of assumption, since people in this world speak Korean). The questioning of a security guard and voicing complaints to another individual was surprising to me, but demonstrated that not everyone is a sycophantic, blind sheep (as cuddly as they might be).

This was further emphasized when we tried to drive out to Kim Il-Song’s birthplace right after. It is a bit outside of town in a hilly area, and the winding roads can get confusing. We stopped to ask directions from a bumbling old security guard probably in his fifties and wearing an outfit two sizes too big. He kind of explained to us where to go and we went off. Only that it didn’t take us to where we needed to be, but basically right in a loop (I think he just wanted to see us again – the feeling was not quite mutual). The driver then realized we had to go in the other direction, but perhaps he was still smarting from the previous security guard incident. As soon as we passed the bumbling old man again, they (the driver and my uncle’s colleague) rolled down the windows and simultaneously yelled at him. The man stood there shell-shocked and didn’t even offer a response, while we rolled up the windows and drove off. Clearly some authority can be questioned (to be fair, this man did not look intimidating in the least, and I’m pretty sure doubled as my elementary school bus driver).

On another note, there also must be some amazing event planners in this country. If they can ever open up and start a service economy, event planning would be the way to go. We attended the circus, a concert, and saw Kim Il-Song square where there are so many numbers and lines across the entire thing to prepare for events. All were impeccably choreographed and clearly a lot of time had gone into creating such spectacles. I was so impressed to the point that I immediately hired a set of North Korean event planners for my upcoming quinceañera (don’t worry, you’re not invited).

135-IMG_0353

Everyone take their places

142-IMG_0376

How much work was it to get every single bunny in just the right spot in the background?

We did manage to check out some local technology as well. North Korean is famous for promoting their own everything basically, creating knock off versions of existing technologies elsewhere (though I did hear rumors that most of it might be made in Chinese factories and just given a DPRK logo – similar to everything else in the world these days). Ay any rate, when we visited the Science Center, we saw rows of shiny, new North Korea brand computers, down to the mousepad. They were all connected to the ‘intranet‘ as well, which seemingly had an endless supply of knowledge written by North Koreans, for North Koreans. Fancy North Koreans have access to that ‘intranet’ on their mobile phones anywhere as well – we looked up ‘Pakistan’ while on the road and read the wikiepedia-style article, which was rather accurate.

188-IMG_20160628_160936155

local computer

127-IMG_0297

More local technology

125-IMG_0295

Internet or Intranet – everyone just wants to stream shows

As for the mobile phones, the one I saw had a rather large screen, but was still quite thin. It was incredibly heavy though, much heavier than a similar phone you’d find outside North Korea (it could also be because I can barely curl an egg roll these days). All the apps came pre-installed as well, and the whole thing cost a pretty won – if I calculated right, around $340. Overall though, it seemed to function fine and didn’t really freeze up or run slowly. It is kind of crazy to think that just up until a few months ago, some North Koreans possessed more advanced mobile phone technology than I did, but that’s what carrying around a flip phone until 2016 means.

A few other North Korean-isms came up during our visit. First of all, we learned that everyone has to attend mandatory Saturday ‘reeducation’ classes. Akin to Sunday school I imagine, but on Saturday instead – how fun. We would also see groups constantly cleaning the streets – it seems community groups get assigned this on a regular basis. Just about every balcony on all the apartment buildings in Pyongyang had flowers, which we were also told was a rule. There was also a 200-day campaign going on during our time, which meant that all society was mobilized around improving everything during this period, giving special effort. However, this 200-day campaign had began just as another 80-day campaign had ended, and some (foreigners living in Pyongyang) surmised that would be followed by another right after. So despite it being a tool to maximize societal efforts, we saw a lot of evidence of it in action – from propaganda posters advertising its arrival, to red flags in public places as its symbol, to people fixing up the outside of their houses, especially in Kaesong. Electricity barely went out while we were there (once in the diplomatic enclave and another time while in a shop downtown) – but we were also told that as part of the 200-day campaign, coal workers were putting in 14-hour days to ensure a steady supply. Seemingly unsustainable, but also near constant mobilization.

172-IMG_0572

Poster outlining the 200-day campaign

175-IMG_0580

Red flags symbolizing the campaign, while a group fixes the street

The Myonghang hotel near the Friendship Hall we visited up country was also a microcosm of everything North Korean. A massive structure in the middle of nowhere, it’s mere existence is impressive proof of what North Korea is able to accomplish. I imagine if discovered as an overgrown ruin by future peoples (or past aliens) they will claim this as the mark of a great civilization, on the level of the Pyramids, Taj Mahal, and the Pokemon Go app. Yet at the same time, it was mostly a facade. There was supposed to be a rotating restaurant on the top floor, and while it was closed, I wanted to go up anyway to see the view. However, the elevator for this 15 story behemoth was not working (and the stairs were not offered). Then my uncle’s colleague had raved about the pool and insisted we go see it, only for us to be told we couldn’t (because we assumed it wasn’t in viewable state). On top of it all, we were literally the only ones in this place, which had a five staff per customer ratio, all seemingly ready, waiting for something or someone. We lunched by ourselves in this massive cloud-themed restaurant that was fully set up to accommodate over hundred with silverware and place settings already out. Again, an impressive feat of architecture and engineering demonstrating apparent capabilities, but we were just left wondering if those capabilities were appropriately applied.

021-DSC_0231

A future ruin?

152-IMG_0431

An empty marshmallow cloud restaurant, also known as the of most Pee-Wee Herman movies

What was exit like? Did the check all your photos?

Exiting the country was a completely different experience than entering. We took the train up to the Chinese-North Korean border, so we didn’t have to deal with the airport at all. Everything in North Korean is so controlled and people and generally aware of your arrival beforehand, but our arrival at the border at the city of Sinuiju (we didn’t get off the train) was the first time during our trip I think someone was not informed ahead of time of our impending presence.

182-IMG_0618

all aboard to Sinuiju

 

The train was seven cars long, with three North Korean cars, followed by a dining car, followed by three other cars. As mentioned in post II, we were not permitted to go into the North Korean section. The rest of the non-North Korean cars were filled with Chinese nationals, likely a mix of tourists and businessmen. We had the first berth of the first car within this section of the train, with six beds for ourselves (the train was only about a five hours journey, though also took three additional hours of border formalities).

Upon arrival at the North Korean side, a guard walked into the train and was startled to see us, likely expecting just Chinese nationals. The confusion on his face was obvious, and he pointed at me as I was seated closet to him, asking where I was from. I responded ‘Mi-guk,’ which means America. That gave him even more consternation as he attempted to figure out how on earth an American had ridden the train all the way to here undetected. I pointed to my uncle and explained he was a diplomat, but that had him start asking for my diplomatic papers instead, to which I unsuccessfully tried to explain he was the diplomat and we were all his family (even though I am not a direct relative, and have a different nationality & last name).

The guard ran out and back a few times, but eventually figured it all out. Once the confusion was removed, the process was smooth and the guards extremely courteous. Our bags were not searched at all, nor where our cameras inspected, I assume because we now fell under the diplomatic protection of my uncle. Though the model and make of our mobile phones was jotted down, nothing else happened with them. He again asked his usual refrain if we had GPS’s or bibles (unbeknownst to him Qurans would’ve been more appropriate), but once satisfied that we didn’t he left us alone, while taking his time with all the other Chinese tourists. We had been warned to have receipts for all souvenirs and to delete potentially sensitive photos from our camera prior to exit, but it proved all for not. The guard even cracked open a wide smile, saying in English “have a nice journey,” and bowed upon exiting the train, an amicable parting memory (I wonder how long he had been waiting for an appropriate time to use that nugget of English!).

163-IMG_0530

The other border . . . we could not cross this one

Arrival in China

Arriving back in China, even after just nine days in North Korea, was overwhelming. There is music blaring and lights flashing everywhere and shops upon shops upon shops. So many damn shops. All trying to sell you something. Capitalism is so hot right now.

The contrast across the border could not be more stark. Even taking the train from Pyongyang, the area begins to get a bit more developed once you get closer to the border, given the extent of trading (legit and illicit) that happens with China. We saw a noticeable difference in nicer, taller, and more plentiful buildings. But that still is nothing compared to China. In the distance we saw what looked like a megatropolis, full of skyscrapers and rice. It looked like the future (note: all the more difficult to comprehend, given that Dandong is only China’s 118th biggest city). It’s all very visible across the Yalu River – I just don’t see how it’d be possible to stand on the North Korean side and look out at that everyday, without wondering if something might be up. The differences are so stark, that Dandong has developed an entire niche tourist industry around those who go halfway across the railway bridge linking the two countries, just to ‘look’ into North Korea (a similar reverse industry has developed on the other side of the border for more active North Koreans to ‘look and swim’ into China, in an attempt to introduce more exercise-based tourism).

Also, one noticed right away that so many Chinese people were fat. I never saw a fat North Korean (though that’s probably evidence of something rather bad . . . like chronic starvation – could be a new center for diet tourism perhaps?). At any rate, another symbol of the incredibly different paths taken by the two countries, simply predicated on divergent governance and leadership.

Nonetheless, after the initial awe of arriving back in China wore off, it quite annoyed me. All the flashing lights and loud music and plethora of items, I yearned for a simpler time. Reverse culture shock as they say, but there was something calming about the North Korean controlled society (for me at least). If this is what development means, should they really be going down that path? Not that it’s any of my business to pass judgement, but its an activity I often involve myself in, especially when its none of my business.

Concluding Impressions

To start, we did get the feeling that North Korea was changing a bit. We visited Tongil Market in Pyongyang where capitalism seemed to be on the move, and as mentioned perhaps more tellingly, were not allowed to take photos of it, lest it represent to the outside world that the free market does in fact exist within the country. The market was packed and contained a highly tolerated black-market exchange center, where you could get 8,500W for your dollar, rather than 1,000 on the official rate. Along with some other nascent changes, a Chinese national we met remarked that it reminded him of his own country’s initial flirtations with capitalism in the late 1970s/early 1980s (though advertising and the development of catchy names is still a ways off – we bought some souvenirs at the creatively named Department store no.1). Whether that proves to be an accurate assessment remains to be seen, but there were small indications that the government has been experimenting with ways to improve the economy, introducing some capitalism-like reforms in the process.

131-IMG_0339

Capitalism in action (btw, are they eating iced ice cream water??)

Furthermore, the situation in Pyongyang did not seem as dire as imagined – rather the city is experiencing a bit of a construction boom. We visited a whole new and futuristic street reserved for the nation’s scientists, while the ‘Pyong-hattan’ skyline boasted an array for freshly built tall apartment buildings. Another whole new part of the city was under construction, reportedly at the rate of an entire story per day. Where the financing for all this is coming from in a country supposedly under international sanctions is unclear, but what was certain is that the construction all around defied preconceived notions of a country under serious economic strain (which very well may still be the case overall). Kim Jong-Un has reportedly put a simultaneous focus on both military and economic development in a change from his father’s policies, and the construction we saw and the development of small market centers appeared to be evidence of that. One North Korean further explained the changes, stating six years ago there were no cars on the road in Pyongyang, but now there are plenty, “as we grow by ourselves.”

179-IMG_0601

Up and coming buildings

130-IMG_0318

Pyong-hattan by night

Thus overall, the impression we got was not of a country in stagnation or on the brink of collapse (which some daring press reports may confirm), but on on the move, in a very odd fashion. Perhaps that was exactly the impression our visit was designed to achieve, but for the small portion of the country we experienced, it seemed to be the case.

At the end of the day though, what was I most interested in prior to my visit was the people. While our deep interactions were with an elite crowd, the common humanity witnessed in little events like joking about bowel movements, or more jokes about bowel movements, demonstrated simply that people are people everywhere, no matter what. Even in North Korea, which I still think is probably adequately described the weirdest place on earth (rural West Virginia excluded), I felt there was more commonality between us than not. Perhaps that was the most enduring impression from the trip, that its possible to find similar ground even with someone who has grown up in North Korea under a completely different system unlike anything else remaining in the world today. I mean if Dennis Rodman can do it, then we all can.

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-7-33-40-pm

and the crowd goes wild!

It’s over, it’s all finally over – you can now sleep easy!

North of the 38th Parallel – Part 둘

This is the second part in a Q&A on my recent trip to North Korea. Part one is available here.

What were you not allowed to do?

There was very little actual ‘no’s.’ In terms of photos, general rules included not cutting off the body parts of any of the Dear Leaders (i.e. if you took a photo of Kim Il-Sung standing in a field of smiling nuclear warheads, you had better make sure you didn’t accidentally crop out his pinky fingernail)  and avoiding military installations. For many of the grand buildings we visited, such as the War Museum and Friendship Hall, we unfortunately were not allowed to take photos inside – you’ll just have to trust me there was actually stuff in there. On other occasions, we told not to take photos of things that seemingly had little logic – such as in the subway, where we could take pictures of half the station but not the other, though it looked essentially identical. In addition, I was advised to delete a quick photo I had snapped while visiting the tolerated but technically illegal Tongil market, possibly given that it represented a streak of capitalism mucking up all the socialist purity. But photos were generally unrestricted overall, to the point where my cousins and I took 2,124 in total during the nine-day visit, or approximately one camera click every six minutes.

035-DSC_0485

No illegal cropping here

Aside from photos, we were also generally free to roam about. Traveling outside Pyongyang requires paperwork, but there are a number of select destinations you can get permission to visit, a few of which we were able to do. Within the city, as mentioned we could pretty much do what we wanted. Essentially we were told we could not take public transportation (including hailing one of the surprisingly common taxi cabs – I did not notice a North Korean version of Uber just yet), nor enter too deeply into a public housing area. Otherwise we walked or drove around much of the city, with no overt restrictions or even checkpoint stops.

Really on the train ride out to China was the only time I was specially told “NO!” in a panicked manner, and on multiple occasions. First, I inadvertently tried to cross into the North Korean section of the train (which was divided into local and foreign compartments), which resulted in a petit young North Korean stewardess matching Usain Bolt’s top end sprinting speed to lunge across the compartment and grab my arm with more vigor than an emotionally clingy octopus who just finished watching the Lion King. While that shocked me, I continued to be a troublemaker and tried to play cards with my family in the dining cart, which also elicited another strong ‘NO!’ Perhaps it was fitting that our last few hours in the country were overshadowed by such negative regulation, but really the only other time I heard that word during the trip was when I frequently lobbied my family to purchase the $500 caviar we found in the diplomatic store near my uncle’s house (true story).

In terms of interactions, we probably moderated our conversations ourselves a bit, likely engaging in a degree of unwitting self censorship in the initial days while we tested the waters (for example, I only mentioned Kurt Cobain and dinosaurs once during the first 72-hours, a personal record). Given that we were special guests of an international office and the hoops I know they had to go through to get some Americans in, we tried to pry but not rock the boat. But generally I did not feel our conversations were overly restricted, nor did we get the evil-eyed silence that follows many a questions during those documentary videos on North Korean travel that you often see. In fact, speaking of our conversations . . .

048-IMG_20160628_161810696

This photo was allowed, but probably shouldn’t have been

What sort of people did you meet and interact with? Were they ‘normal’?

We met a range of North Koreans that I can truly say were quite nice, and I do not think planted with stock phrases on repeat for my benefit. Everyone was generally friendly, and those we interacted with on a deeper level even interested in us. Our topics steered clear of overt propaganda, as no one ever tried to convince me that Kim Jong-Un holds the world record for most eggs stuffed in one’s mouth, but still they revealed some interesting insights.

To begin, our presence affected some people we didn’t even talk to. Walking around town, we never saw another foreigner, and from some of the looks we got, those around us hadn’t either. Most people basically ignored us, but every now and then we’d catch someone frozen with a wide-eyed glare of stunned disbelief. A couple people tried to play it cool, but could not overcome themselves. The most poignant were two middle-aged ladies who passed by on the street across from us during our first self-guided foray outside the diplomatic enclave. As we walked, I saw one of the ladies grab the other and gesture towards us. She clearly noticed us as well, but tried to act like she’d been there before, telling her friend to calm down and continue walking. Her friend, however, was rather difficult to control and although she continued walking, refused to turn her head forward in the direction she was going, but rather remained fixed behind at us. The road was kind of long,so we probably walked on it another three to four minutes – every time I looked back, that lady was further away, but still staring back at us (I became concerned that she just might accidentally walk into South Korea at that pace). I’m sure she went home and uttered to whoever was around, “you are not going to believe what I saw just saw!”

029-DSC_0419

People a keeping their distance

Perhaps the most entertaining moment while walking around was when we nearly started a riot with a bunch of school kids, who then in turn then almost got run over by a number of passing vehicles. Essentially about 100 immaculately dressed tiny North Koreans were walking by in perfect rows with four to a line. We were ahead of them but somehow they were gaining ground on us, despite their tiny, little legs. They hadn’t really noticed the foreigners in their midst, until we got to a traffic light and both came to a stop. Some of them began to point, laugh, or even say ‘how are you?’ in English. We in turn waved at them, which set off an entire chain of hysteria. Since there were about 25 rows deep, more kids kept walking forward, but by the time we came into their view they stopped looking where they were going, and rather paid attention to us. This resulted in many rows of kids crashing straight into the row ahead of them and so forth, almost creating a domino effect of fallen North Korean kindergarteners. The light then turned green and their teacher, along with the crossing guard (there are crossing guards at nearly every major intersection in Pyongyang) attempt to get the kids to move, but as we were still standing there and waving, none of them budged. Finally we decided perhaps it would be best to turn and continue walking in a different direction, less the kids continue to defy their teacher. As we started to walk away, some of the kids belatedly crossed the road, of which the light was turning red by now. All the other kids in the row continued, running through the red light to catch up. I cringed at the international incident getting an entire school of North Korean children run over would cause, but luckily the crossing guard was worth his weight in kim chee, and no kid was left behind. I breathed a sigh of relief, having narrowly avoided incidentally killing dozens of Korean schoolchildren for the fourteenth time this century (I did spend an entire year in charge of little ones in South Korea after all).

084-13701259_10154796483638797_7589361316118422769_o

the approach . . .

In general, I half expected everyone to run away upon the sight of us, or ignore us completely out of fear of being associated with an evil imperialist (which coincidentally, is my new AIM screename). But at times, people were surprisingly bold. After laying flowers at the statue of the Dear Leaders on the first day, we were immediately thrust into someone’s wedding photo shoot. Many soon-to-be married couples were coming to pay their respects, and as we were walking down one photographer stopped us and motioned to surround the happy couple. Whether they had a choice or not, we obliged all too willingly, and forever ruined a nice family’s wedding photo album.

001-DSC_0020

Oblierating local traditions, one photo bomb at a time

Most of the true conversations we had were with members of my uncle’s staff, given the prohibitive language barrier, and the at times equally prohibitive the ideological barrier, with everyone else. Granted, the staff is incredibly privileged and some had even spent time abroad, but it was nice to connect with real North Koreans, regardless of their status (I tend to only be able to relate to one percent-ers these days in any case). There were a couple of young males in particular my cousin and I became friendly with over the week and a half (hey, hey – not like that). We asked them basic questions about their lives – what they eat at home (cold noodles), what do they do on the weekends (go for picnics, drink ‘a little’ bit of beer, play volleyball, hang out with friends, or nothing now as newborn children dictate), how they met their wives (set up on a blind date by friends and it worked out) – and got back responses that would seem pretty normal anywhere. Again, this doesn’t represent all of North Korean society, but it can be surprisingly normal for some.

They were also pretty curious about us, and asked about our lives. I remember in particular one of the young guys asking a lot of questions about how we find our housing in America. In North Korea, the government provides all housing and in turn dictates the level of accommodation you will receive – there is simply no real choice in the matter. He seemed kind of astonished that we have to do this process on his own, and I thought even potentially a bit intrigued. But then kept bringing up how expensive it must be, a potentially subtle point regarding the (extremely limited) benefits of being born in North Korea (the main other one being a lifetime supply of bad haircuts).

At times, their perception of the outside world seemed a bit odd as well. These privileged few did have access to some entertainment from abroad, but one kept referring to me as the “bank hunter” because I wrote glasses, since all “bank hunters” wear glasses. It could be a translation issue – my cousin got to be a “movie star” because he had sunglasses on, which made a bit more sense because the last time I hunted or had sufficient business to warrant going into a bank, movies hadn’t even been invented. I was, nonetheless, honored to receive such a title, although I think given my impressive stature, something along the lines of ‘Grand Marshall Mahmood the Powerful’ would’ve been more appropriate.

037-DSC_0531

Hunting down banks, one broke movie star at a time

The final day my uncle hosted a BBQ for all the staff, the thank them for their tremendous efforts in not just getting us into the country, but also making our trip so enjoyable. It was a nice opportunity to watch the North Korean and other international staff mix, and honestly did not feel too different from the same sort of scene I’ve encountered in various development offices around the world. A fitting end to a myth-busting (or myth-adjusting) adventure.

I was most interested in the human aspect of North Korea, so being able to walk around to observe freely and develop a basic rapport with a handful of locals was undoubtedly the highlight (after of course coming in last place in every karaoke contest I entered). After spending nine day there, I would dare say that the people we met and interacted with, if you adjust for the extremity of their extreme circumstances, are perhaps the most normal on the face of the planet (if you don’t adjust, however, they are all just wackos of the highest order).

004-DSC_0043

I think I got robbed in this content . . . no one told me to bring my Santa suit.

181-IMG_0611

The calming normality of grilling meat extends everywhere (except the vegan nation of California of course)

Did you ever feel uncomfortable?

Overall, as mentioned everyone was friendly, even including random shop owners that probably wouldn’t normally interact with a foreigner. The one real time I felt uncomfortable was at the War Museum. The day we went there were literally hundreds of fresh cadets, some of which I swear could not be 18 (actually it’s likely like that every day – all the monuments and other sites we visited are not really designed for external consumption, but were constantly filled with local visitors cycling in and out, often bused in from other parts of the country to partake as a treat).

Anyways, our presence was unusual for them, and generated a number of seemingly menacing glares. This came amongst the backdrop of our (friendly) guide explaining about how the Americans were evil imperialist aggressors during the war, and had eaten all the babies they could find (by the way, it was the same narrative regarding the war we would hear everywhere, down to the specific quotes cited and events mentioned – someone had clearly crafted an argument and that line of thought had been disseminated throughout the country – at least people had studied their history books pretty well!).

The rhetoric was bad enough, but surrounded by young, glaring soldiers who appeared to take it all to heart in a confined space, was getting to be a bit much. At the end of the tour you go to the top of the building which has a panorama – a 360 degree mural depicting war scenes, which rotates and and plays sound. We got up there ourselves and they dimmed the lights, so I relaxed. But next thing, all 100+ cadets also ran up the stairs and cornered us in the dark, in what I only assumed was about to be a real life reenactment. Truth be told though, the stares shouldn’t have put me on edge at all – despite the fact that the panorama room became so crowded and all seating was taken, no one came to sit on the three-person bench I was occupying alone, until finally a brave soul just barely placed himself all the way on the opposite ledge opposite. The glares may have been menacing, but they were apparently no match for the stench of imperialism emanating from my pores (for the record, even my family didn’t want to sit next to me).

006-DSC_0074

Propaganda with a smile

185-IMG_0188

Really fresh cadets

What differences did you notice outside of Pyongyang? 

On the three occasions we managed to get outside the city, we were able to catch a passing glimpse of rural North Korean life. Unlike the endless sprawl characterizing the outer extensions of most major population centers worldwide in this day and age, there was a clear and distinct end to Pyongyang. It was patently obvious where the last building of the city limit was, and how sudden the transformation to countryside emerged.

As for once we passed that lack of non-sprawl, the countryside was beautiful. It was the start of the rainy season, and did not lack for greenery. Much of it was cultivated land, and plenty of workers were (collectively) tilling that land, without the aid of much, if any, machinery.

160-IMG_0513

Working the fields

154-IMG_0448

greenery and hills

In terms of infrastructure, the roads we were able to travel on were decent – some potholes but not that bad. There were also multiple road options that would split off, and then connect with more dirt paths.

149-IMG_0408

Paved and empty

I think what shocked me most about the countryside is that you’d be plodding along without nothing but farmland and small clusters of housing units, and then all of a sudden there’d be a number of tall buildings and other infrastructure. While clearly not on the same level as Pyongyang, there were other decent sized towns and smaller cities we passed that broke up the charming monotony of the rural landscape.

150-IMG_0414

Even in areas of pure farmland, there would be a six story apartment building or whatnot around. Now many of these buildings were not necessarily pristine, or even in a state of slow decay. But the fact that they existed at all threw me for a loop – perhaps when your barometer of development is West Africa/the Sahel, everything looks nice (which is probably true and akin to the fact that after living in in Washington D.C., rent elsewhere never feels expensive). To see this many multi-story buildings in Burkina Faso outside of Ouagadougou would be a revelation, as you could drive for five hours between the two biggest cities and probably count on one hand the number of structures you pass containing more than four stories (what you could not count, however, is the number of goats eating dirt).

162-IMG_0522

Tall rural housing

Big buildings aren’t the be-all end-all marker for development, but they surely do count for something. In this sense, North Korea may be a poor country in its neighborhood and even stagnant or potentially deteriorating, but it does not compare to much of West Africa. But then again, its all relative.

Anyways, back to the DPRK. The biggest city outside Pyongyang that we got to spend some time in was Kaesong, part of the industrial complex along the South Korean border. Kaesong also was a ‘real’ city, with plenty of tall apartment buildings, paved roads, and other sorts of city-like items. It did seem, however, that the exterior buildings in any apartment complex looked a lot nicer than those on the inside, a classic case of subtle deception. Noticeably, there was also less public transportation than Pyongyang, making it seem like everyone in the city was out and about on a bike right then, or even twoFurthermore, there were less little shops outside the apartment complexes selling basic items – the type that are all over Pyongyang. I think I counted just a handful during our drive throughout the city, another distinct difference.

166-IMG_0554

167-IMG_0555

Kaesong apartment complexes

Of course, what we saw overall was just a fraction of the rural countryside, and in many other places all the starvation may outweigh the idyllic charms. But at a minimum we can say unlike some other places I’ve visited, the concentration of all aspects of development to the capital city was less stark than imagined.

178-IMG_0592

I mean, there may be not be a lot of cheese on hand, but I could live here.

What was the food like?

So one day my cousin and I decided to go on a street food tour, and basically just try one of everything we saw. While there was not a vast array of options, we did accomplish this simple task – but unfortunately the results were not too pretty. The tour consisted of:

  • Kimbap! I was excited to find this as this was a staple of my previous South Korean existence, and I had asked for it before at a restaurant to no avail. The initial exhilaration of the find quickly wore off as there was nothing in the rice save for one long, thin piece of slightly picked radish. A far cry from the plethora of ingredients I was accustomed to from my neighborhood store 300 kilometers to the south. I kept wondering if something had fallen out.
  • The next item looked like a Chinese steamed bun, expect that it was not steamed at all and wrapped in plastic. While it did not pass the eye test, I figured I might as well try it anyway, even though North Korean bread was not high on my list of ideal satisfying food options. Much to my surprise, delight, and chagrin all in one, the interior of the bun did not consist of more bread nor was empty – but rather had been stuffed with a sort of coleslaw like substance. Again not ideal, but way more interesting than just more bread.
  • I was pretty certain I was not going to fall for the next item either, but went for it anyways. A sticky, glutinous pancake of sorts, it was wrapped around the red bean paste that marked so many dessert items during my South Korean time. It actually was not bad overall, but so sweet and filling, to the point of nausea.
  • We had skipped some fried hot dog type things (which is a pretty amazing testament to the vastly different dietary demands from my 24-year old self), and my cousin was in the mood for noodles. Cold noodles was perhaps the most commonly cited North Korean dish anytime we asked anyone what they typically eat at home, and we had had some at a fancy restaurant on our first day. Determined to get a more authentic version from the street, we had seen some kiosks with covered outside areas and seating attached. People were always surrounded by bowls at those type of places, so we imagined that’s where we would have to go. We came up to one along a main road and decided to give it a go. Thus far all of our purchases had been predicated on pointing to things and the basic Korean market vocabulary that I had retained (the standard combination of hello, how much, and a few numbers, followed by thank you and good-bye, can get you pretty far in most places). This was going to be a bit more complex, however, as there was nothing active to point to. At any rate, we approached the stall operated by a young North Korean woman who was probably as surprised as us that we were here. I did the usually greetings and pointed a metal machine and freezer, and asked for two. She followed by a series of questions to which I clearly did not understand, but just attempted to point in an appropriate direction each time and said yes. She motioned for us to go over and sit down, which we did to await our fate. While unsure of what we were really getting, we were convinced it would be some sort of noodle dish, given the bowls and the noodle-like machine in her little shop. We waited for a few minutes, until she brought out the bowls. Upon laying them on the table, I did a triple take, while my cousin’s jaw dropped. Essentially the bowls were filled with ice water, on top of which floated two small scoops of ice cream, which was further topped by some grossly sticky syrup. Quite far off from the cold noodles we had expected, although it was indeed cold. I couldn’t believe this is what all those people were always eating at these places – iced ice cream water? Mine was mango flavored while my cousin got banana (we think). We managed to eat enough to get to that presumed fine line where there was still plenty left but would allow us to exit politely. On the way out I went back to the kiosk section to inspect the area to see if anything else was capable of emerging from the contraptions there, but it all seemed designed for one purpose – to provide iced ice cream water to the masses (for the record, by far the most stares we ever got in country was when the two of us were sitting down at this kiosk along a busy road, enjoying an iced afternoon treat – I guess most expats weren’t dumb enough to order the mango).
  • The final item came as I could do with no more sweets and desperately wanted something salty. I had bought some fried corn kernels the other day that made for a pleasant snack, and was on the prowl for something similar. Unfortunately, what I wound up with could best be described as a rice krispie treat (actually almost perfectly described as such). Thus it was still sweet, pushing me into further sugar overload, but was probably the best thing on the entire tour. I promptly came back home and passed out for two days.
140-IMG_0374

Someone is thoroughly displeased with his iced ice cream water

094-13734871_10154796493358797_2216064538447917697_o

Unfortunately, most meals did not look like this

Overall, how did it compare to South Korea?

Well, it really doesn’t. But at the same time, there are a couple of indicators that the thousands of years of shared history trump recent political divides. Aside from the obvious fact that they are the same people (i.e. language, ethnicity, etc.), aspects of the culture definitely reminded me of my time in the southern portion of the peninsula. The overriding emphasis on work, whether ‘forced’ or not, is similar – we saw people still in the fields at the dusk of 7pm when driving back to Pyongyang, while in South Korea my teacher colleagues would regularly pull similar hours (and not really on their own volition either). And it’s not just an emphasis on work, but a very results and achievement oriented focus. In South Korea, they were constantly comparing themselves to other nations such as Japan, while here you would hear about all the specific, measurable outputs achieved. The obsession with being a great nation, regardless of the underlying factors associated with such a push, I think cuts across the peninsula.

The food, as mentioned before, can be extremely similar. Though probably just not as good (as our street food tour would attest), but contains a lot of common elements, such as kim chee, bean paste, rice, noodles, and so forth. South Korea did had an impressively wide variety of cuisine options for a relatively small country, and I am not sure if they all continue to be present in the northern side, especially in places where there is no food.

Dress even had some similar characteristics. It may surprise many of you that I am not a fashion icon nor typically pay much attention to such matters, but the sort of frilly blouses dressed up women wore reminded of of the south. Perhaps the skirts are not as short nor are the outfits as Western, and there’s a lot more army green and grey involved, but I’d venture to say that they derived from a common basic stock. Either that or I just don’t understand fashion.

While Pyongyang as a whole is quite different, the large-scale utilitarian apartment complexes are also not too far off from what I used to pass by on my way home in my small town. The focus on housing rather than style pervades both, with a premium on space.

At any rate, while North Korea is unlike any other place I’ve ever been or will likely go, shades of similarities with its southern brothers I think do exist, despite the nearly seven decades of division – perhaps an optimistic reminder of the strength culture and history can wield over ideology, and aspects to emphasize when paving the eventually way for reunification one day.

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-7-10-26-pm

At least the pretend dress up is similar

But wait, don’t stop there . . . there’s North Korea more to come (one day)!

North of the 38th Parallel – Part 하나

104-IMG_0122This past summer I had the unique opportunity to spend nine days in North Korea, with my cousins, aunt, and uncle. The trip was all more the extraordinary as I was visiting a family member posted in Pyongyang, and thus not subject to an all-encompassing scheduled tour, nor constantly “minded” by menacing guides analyzing my every movement for perceived insults/hostile activity (which my movements tend to naturally exhibit when unhindered).

 It’s hard to put into words and explain all that we saw, and even though we had greater freedom than most tourists, what we experienced was still controlled in some way. Nonetheless, it provided a window into a typically secluded society (all the more so for Americans), and gave us a chance to get beyond the alarming headlines of impending projectile-related doom. 

The following is the first in a multi-part Q&A monologue, based on the most frequent queries I have received regarding the trip. Unfortunately, my grand dreams of crafting a deeply insightful yet classically humanizing narrative capturing the intricacies of the North Korean soul fell flat the second I began typing. Thus the path of least resistance is as follows. 


How were you able to go?

So by extreme chance, my uncle happened to be working in Pyongyang and was able to get select family members a visa (to be part of such a prestigious selection, you basically had to exist). I told him no matter what the cost, if I could ever legitimately visit North Korea, I would. Being an American added a layer of difficulty and my application was initially rejected, but the perseverance of my uncle and his office ultimately won out (there was the slight issue that I had lived a year in South Korea, and happened to attend the same university with the same major as North Korean’s most recent long-time American visitor). In this sense, we were treated more like diplomats rather than regular tourists on the nine-day trip. That meant we had free access to go around just about anywhere in Pyongyang without minders (as my uncle does), though when visiting major monuments or sites a staff member from his office usually accompanied us (thus someone he knows and interacts with on a regular basis, rather than your stereotypical personality-lacking, government-imposed minder). But generally we were allowed to walk the streets of Pyongyang freely on our own, and even got outside the city on three occasions, which made it a unique trip from what I imagine is your more traditionally restrictive guided tour.

079-13737593_10154796482833797_446820381803025742_o

Walking the streets of Pyongyang

As a caveat though, I can obviously only discuss what I saw and even though we were more free than most, what I saw was still heavily managed. Some of the best moments were just wandering around Pyongyang surrounded by seemingly normal North Koreans – but I must remember it’s a privilege to live in the city that most do not get to enjoy (about 90% of the population). Similarly, we got to see a few other sites outside the city and travel on some roads, and while those areas clearly illuminated some differences, these were also typical sites or along known routes that likely have been allowed for a reason. It’s folly to say any of this represents the rest of the country. At the same time, however, it does ring true for about 10% of the population, which is a limited but not insignificant sample. In short, the people we met and the things we saw were real, even if they don’t illustrate the entirety of the country (similar to how I always felt living in DC was a bubble insulated from the rest of the US – for instance, I had no idea what happens, if anything, ever, in Wyoming).

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 4.28.30 PM

The limits of our explorations

What was entering the country like?

At the airport on the way in, I was a little nervous about the health check given that I was coming from West Africa (for a time, North Korea put every foreigner arriving in the country under a three-week quarantine for Ebola, regardless of origin). That proved to be a senseless concern, as the first thing I did upon entering the airport was hand my health form outlining the countries I had recently visited to a doctor-type official, who barely glanced at it and waved me on.

Immigration was not too difficult – I am certain the guards had been given the background of everyone entering on that day’s Air China flight (the North Korean-owned Air Koryo also makes the trip from Beijing most days, practically the only way to enter the country), as instantly when I handed the immigration official my papers, he said (in English) “you are visiting your uncle?” It was a startling introduction to the pervasive state apparatus, while at the same time a not-so subtle reminder that “we know all about you.”

Customs was a bit more intense, but reminiscent of my family’s re-entry into Saudi Arabia at the end of every summer in the 1990s, when the authorities would go through every single item in your suitcase and generously utilize their black marker to eliminate uncouth materials. This was a similar process of going through x-rays and opening up our luggage, but a few interesting things occurred. First my glasses were inspected, perhaps to see if they contained a camera, the Internet, or just because they are held together by used bubblegum. Secondly, they repeatedly asked us if we had GPSs, USB sticks, or bibles – seemingly their largest concerns. I also had to mark on the customs form that I had brought in no “killing items” or “poison” (conveniently bypassing the fact I consider myself to be finely-tuned and poisonous killing machine).

I had been warned to bring as little electronics as possible so I just had my camera and my phone (which I had unnecessarily deleted nearly all apps and photos from prior to arrival). Both were taken out and examined, with the camera taken to a different location. Unfortunately, on the way in my camera was actually in my cousin’s bag, who was standing in line in front of me. The guard asked him if he had a camera in his luggage, to which he replied no, as he had forgotten I placed mine there. It created a minor ruckus as I called out after him to tell him he did indeed have a camera, which the authorities subsequently found after going through the x-ray, none too pleased. They asked him about it and took him to a side room, with him calling back at me to explain that it was mine, while I couldn’t proceed as I hadn’t been through the x-ray just yet. They wanted to turn it on, which my cousin didn’t know how to do and in fact is very complicated because the on switch is kind of broken and you have to open up the battery flap and hold it in while simultaneously pressing the on button to get it going in most circumstances (yes, I am so cheap that I have yet to resolve that issue). So with the guards demanding he turn it on, him yelling back at me, and someone else then grabbing the camera and taking it to a separate area, we had a few minutes of minor panic, with flashes of how good I might look after 15 years of hard labor flying through my mind. By the time I got through the x-ray, however, and ran over to the separate camera area, the authorities were handing it back to my cousin, seemingly satisfied with whatever check they conducted, and thankfully not pressing the issue on the discovery of electronics in his bag after he denied anything of the sort.

The other only minor issue was when we didn’t have one of the proper forms for customs (there was a health, immigration, and customs form – but the airline did not give us the last one). A gruff guard told us to go back and find it, forcing us to confusedly walk back through the airport until others told us to go forward. Upon our return, he grudgingly gave us the form and allowed us to fill it out there.

From there we were free and made the 30-minute drive to the city (the Pyongyang airport really is in the middle of nowhere – when we were landing I was shocked that all I saw around were fields, reinforcing some preconceived notions regarding the level of development in the country)!

183-IMG_0632

beautiful countryside

What did you do?

 We did a combination of your typical visits to monuments and grand sites, mixed in with some cultural excursions like the circus and a classical music concert on the 100th anniversary of a famous composer, interspersed with a few more “normal” type of activities. A mostly inclusive list:

In Pyongyang

  • Laid flowers and bowed at the statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il – the first thing we did on our first day.
  • Visited Kim Il-Sung’s birthplace, which is now a preserved open air at Mangyongdae, just on the outskirts of the city.
  • Went to an Italian restaurant where all the wait staff doubled as highly patriotic karaoke singers.
  • Toured the War Museum, a massive structure that depicts the North Korean side of the 1950-53 Korean War. The grounds are replete with weapons of war captured from the United States during the conflict, along with the USS Pueblo (which is docked in the harbor right next to the museum and open for boarding).
  • Visited Juche Tower and got a sense of how big Pyongyang really is.
  • Rode Pygonyang’s metro, one the world’s deepest, but only for our one allotted stop.
  • Visited a recently built Science Center filled with tons of computers and children, along with a gigantic missile in the center of the building (replica I assume) – this was your typical showcase, whereby happy children in well-dressed uniforms surfed the North Korean Intranet on home-made eletronics to learn about aspects such as the chemical composition of chlorophyll, or the destructive nature of unverisal human rights.
  • Had a rainy photo shoot at Kim Il-Sung square, where many of the large-scale parades and events take place.
  • Paying a visit to the intensely capitalistic Tongil Market, and haggling with the sweetest elderly North Korean ladies (in some broken Korean mind you) for the right to purchase a Kim Jong-Il era safari suit.
  • Attended a concert on the 100th anniversary of a famous composer’s birth – almost every single song had to do with the Korean War or some other aspect of patriotism, while many war veterans were interviewed during musical interludes.
  • Visited one of the movie studios in Pyongyang, and flirted with the idea of staying on to make it as a famous actor.
  • Went out for ice cream and Korean BBQ at some of Pyongyang’s finest restaurants – also tried to go eat on a restaurant at a boat, but got there after its 9pm closing time.
  • Defeated by cousin by way of a massive comeback during an epic bowling match, surrounded by thousands of cheering fans (all true – besides the fans).
  • Freely (I assume) walked the streets of Pyongyang and sampled the local street food (not a lot of winners unfortunately). While I would assume the guards at the exit to the diplomatic enclave notified someone each time we departed, I did not overtly notice anyone following or watching us.
  • Held a BBQ with the 20-odd staff at my uncles office – a nice chance for the North Korean staff to mingle with us (along with other foreign staff).

Outside Pyongyang

  • Visited Mt. Myongheong, where we did a small hike and toured the Friendship Hall – a massive complex displaying gifts from other nations to both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. We also had lunch at a completely empty 14-story pyramid structure that emerged from the middle of nowhere, and looked like it could be a ruin found by future civilizations.
  • Visited the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the border between North and South Korea, in addition to the city of Kaesong (which contains a currently non-functioning joint industrial complex, along with a few historical sites of importance from various Korean empires dating back hundreds, if not thousands of years).
  • Took the train from Pyongyang to Dandong on the Chinese side of the border to exit the country, which was full of Chinese nationals but a rarity for an American.
011-DSC_0132

The surprising vastness of Pyongyang

119-IMG_0238

Ryugyong Hotel overlooking the skyline

Was it was weird as the media makes it out to be?

Yes and no. It’s clearly weird – there is no doubt about that. But as weird as the media makes it out to be? Well . . . I think an analogy is appropriate here. Prior Christine’s first trip to Pakistan with my family, she was a little freaked out. I mean if you read the news about Pakistan, it sounded like there are bombs going off on every street corner on a bi-hourly basis, while all white people were immediately thrown in dungeons and denied cheese. Clearly that is not the reality of daily life, but rather a snapshot of the worst events that transpire, replayed over and over. After being in Pakistan for about one week, Christine literally told me she was  “bored.” Sorry – not enough bomb action for her liking.

So at any rate, clearly media outlets need to sell their content, and come up with snappy titles to grab attention while focusing specifically on arcane aspects. Not that what they are reporting is not true, but is typically just a fraction of normal life, rather than the whole picture. Days that pass without missile launches for example, and where everyone just goes on a happy picnic with fried chicken, generally do not make the news (though I would love to see a photo of Kim Jong-Eun “inspecting” a bucket of good ol’ Colonel Sanders).

Now having said that – things are most definitely still weird. The cult of personality is all-encompassing. Everyone wears a pin of one or both of the Dear Leaders all the time (which I was explained you get when you join the youth league in your late teens). Murals and paintings of Kim Il-Song and Kim Jong-Il are everywhere – large murals depicting happy scenes, while paintings of the Dear Leaders adorn the entrance of most buildings. There are also ubiquitous propaganda posters and other sorts of slogans in Korean (or at least I assume most are, given that my Korean is limited largely to food words, of which these slogans did not contain many). There are no other real sorts of advertisements – really its just advertising the regime constantly. Indoctrinating motivational songs just start playing around you – be it coming from a vehicle with speakers, an adorably tiny child that has latched onto your thumb, or elsewhere. The cult of personality is so extensive, that you can’t just dispose of the newspaper, as it usually has a photo of Kim Jong Eun on the cover, and must be treated properly. So that’s all a bit different, considering you can buy (and I often do) George W. Bush toilet paper in Amurica.

040-IMG_20160627_044707041_HDR

Dear Leaders on a building

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 7.20.57 PM

one of the ubiquitous murals, with a lot of pointing going on

035-DSC_0485

happy scenes

I began to think of the cult of personality like a religion. Albeit imposed (as religion often is actually) and revolving around a living family, a religion nonetheless. People revere and deify their leaders, and will not accept any criticism of that aspect. Sounds like a lot of religions to me, and if you can just accept that and move on, then it starts to get a bit less weird.

In addition to the cult of personality, references to the war and the evil American empire are common. At the concert we went to, every song essentially involved patriotic symbolism from this event over 60 years old – as if to completely keep society mobilized on a near-constant war footing, or at least the threat thereof. It would be like if we constantly celebrated the greatest feats of our nation from the 1950s over and over – such as the emergence of the poodle skirt.

On top of that, you never really know what people are thinking. The Dear Leaders are thanked for everything they have done for their people and country, and there are frequent bows when in the presence of their statutes. You kind of constantly want to ask “ok yea, but do you really believe all this?” – a question on everyone’s minds, but one we just really won’t evern know the answer to.

187-13765980_10154796483003797_5879096184626272561_o

Not inclined to answer . . .

Nonetheless, while the cult of personality and these other aspects are entrenched, they didn’t dominate every single thing we did or every conversation we had either. Prior to each meal we didn’t have to thank the Dear Leader, nor was every other word out of someone’s mouth some sort of expression referring to how North Korea was the best country in the world. No one also tried to kill, kidnap, torture, or tickle me once they found out I was American.

And in Pyongyang at least, daily life activities can be somewhat normal on the surface. There are some shops, although the selection is limited. There’s public transportation and people are constantly walking the streets. The city has all the modern conveniences you would expect (electricity, water, etc.), though they aren’t always operational. But it’s a real city that’s clean, with paved roads and a plethora of utilitarian 15-25 story buildings. I mean you can even go kayaking in the Taedong river that bisects the city (my mark of normality anywhere).

123-IMG_0263

people just a walking

Really, as an outsider you can get used to many aspects pretty quickly, reducing the overall “weirdness” of the whole place. Plus all the people we met were genuinely nice, and did not appear to be robots. The fact that I still had to verify their humanity makes it one of the “weirder” countries I’ve ever been to for sure, but your average day might not rank as high on the spectrum as you might think (at least as an outsider – no one still really knows what’s happening on the inside).

Proof of a level of normality came when my cousin almost ate it while slipping off a wet sidewalk curb, and a stern North Korean guard doubled over in his chair laughing so hard he nearly ate it himself – a sign that the classic humor of a person falling flat on their face translates even to North Korea, making the whole place just a little bit more normal.

I think the biggest lesson is that people are people everywhere, and no matter the situation they go about their daily lives in as normal a fashion as possible, adjusting to their local context. Even if that context can seem pretty dern odd to outsiders.

096-13725073_10154796498188797_7523158291519878228_o

I mean, being forced to do this every morning before breakfast for the Dear Leader’s amusement isn’t that weird, is it?

 

more riveting armchair analysis and tales to come . . . don’t turn off the Internet!

Burkina – The Return

I had always kind of wanted to return to Sideradougou, the village in southwest Burkina Faso where I had spent my Peace Corps service, but had never found myself back in West Africa or seriously pursuing the idea. Many other volunteers I knew had gone back in the intervening years, but the prohibitive cost of flights from the US combined with limited vacation days and an entire world to explore made the prospect look daunting. Once Christine and I moved to next door Benin for her work, however, my hand was forced – I had clearly run out of useful excuses and resolved to make a trip as soon as I could.

Given the paucity of flight connections within West Africa, air travel was nearly as expensive as if I was coming from Europe (one of the more reasonable itineraries had me flying from Benin to Morocco for a 20+ hour layover, just fly back down to Burkina), thus the whole thing would have to be done overland. That meant about 30 hours with four different transport changes, but hey at least that helped set the tone as I felt like a poor Peace Corps Volunteer again (or also made me wonder how I had progressed so little during the past 3,179 days since leaving village).

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 12.09.04 PM.png

la route

Other than the logistics of actually getting there, the other main issue was that I had fallen out of contact with everyone in my village during the past nine years. People’s cell phones numbers changed, while I moved around my fair bit as well. Prior to my arrival I tried to send a note via the taxi brousse system (literally having someone give a piece of paper to a driver plying the route to my village, who would then give it to someone there so they could locate the intended recipient – or if the driver was less inclined, he would just throw it out the window as he passed the town). While that may have been a somewhat effective means previously, the cell phone revolution appears to have killed off such obsolete forms of communication, and my message floundered in the dust unanswered.

Thus I was going in blind, just how I don’t really like it. It was my village after all though, surely the life-size statute of myself that I had built,  my crowning achievement during service, still resplendently stood on the main road, no? Plus, how many other volunteers since had brought a two-year supply of bacos with them, only to force feed it to the masses? My village must remember me, and this wouldn’t be awkward at all.

I more or less planned to just show up unannounced. While this seemed like a great idea at first – just surprise the whole village I figured, they’ll be thrilled! – I became increasingly nervous the further into the 30-hour journey I became. Maybe just showing up was not be the right way to go – maybe no one would remember me (which would have severe and lasting repercussions for my fragile psyche), maybe they would be angry I hadn’t come back with gold bullion bars from the streets of l’Amerique as I had promised, maybe the foreign volunteers in the village after me would’ve commanded such a strong cult of personality to erase any memory of my time there from the pages of village history (i.e. tearing down the statue), or perhaps everyone would just really remember how much I smelled and agonize over the thought of such odors returning to the village. A combination of such dynamics were likely to transpire I figure, but I was in too deep to turn back now.

Thus, as much as I had wanted to spend the night, I was hesitant about showing up after so long already, and searching for a place to stay would have been an added complication, so I resolved to just visit for the day this time. It would be nearly impossible to pull off such a feat and have meaningful time there via taxi brousse as well, so I rented a car & driver for the day in the nearby town of Banfora, representative of my newfound status as a ‘baller’ (aka anyone who is not a Peace Corps volunteer).

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 7.26.12 PM

Arriving in style

Thus at 10:00am on May 31st, 2016 I pulled into Sideradougou like it was 2006 all over again. Expect that upon arrival, I had no idea what to do. The driver of the car I had rented already thought I was a bit strange for wanting to go to Sidera for the day, despite my explanations. He was also primarily concerned by what he was going to do all day there. But I guess he figured that out quickly, as once getting there he essentially kicked me out of the car and said he’d see me at 4:00pm. Six hours in Sidera – what had I done??

My basic plan essentially involved all of the following – just start walking down the main road and hope someone (i.e. anyone) recognized me. It was a bit of an arrogant strategy, but lord knows how many names and faces I had forgotten over the intervening nine years. Even more arrogantly, I hadn’t even bothered to look through my extensive photo collection circa 2005-07 for a crash course of key figures in Sideradougou societal circles prior to arrival. At any rate, here I was now – not much more to do really.

I started walking and instantly a wave of trepidation came over me. Each passing second that no one called out my name only reinforced my recently formulated preconceived concerns that this was an utterly harebrained plan, and I was going to spend the next six hours in a valley of depression significantly deeper than any Larium-induced psychosis over the fact that the village I had poured my soul into for two years no longer maintained a reciprocal status with me.

I kept walking and began to wonder also – what if no one recognized me now? My face contained a few more hairs and my belly a few more pounds – I was likely the opposite of a shell of my former self. I probably should’ve shaved and dug up those scotch-taped, completely unaligned glasses I had worn throughout my service, along with a few of the rags I used as clothing and the tattered Redskins hat I never took off in two years – then people would recognize me. That must be it, nothing about the lack of impression that I give, simply a lack of recognition give my nine post-Sidera years of near bi-weekly hot showers. That must be it.

Finally, when I had given up all hope amongst the roller coaster of emotions I had experienced in my first 120 seconds back in village, some cried out almost incredulously “Omar? Omar???”

I was a made man! My plan had worked – I turned to see where the call was coming from and immediately recognized the face. Unfortunately I also immediately did not recognize the name, nor could formulate anything close. No matter, the man in question (who I will call Solo, as I later found that was indeed, and had always been, his name) was an old friend – perhaps not in my inner most circle which largely consisted of myself, a few of the talking lizards that lived on my walls, and my shortwave radio – but in the next tier. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my Sidera plan.

Solo was so surprised to see me – he looked essentially exactly the same, with a few additional gray hairs sprouting in his short hair. We chatted a bit, and then he offered to take me by my old house – I had hoped someone would be willing to sort of ‘chaperon’ me around at the beginning as I gathered my bearings again, so this worked out well. We went off on his moto (so liberating as this was technically not allowed during our Peace Corps service) and after getting off the main road I instantly remembered how to get there. Solo had warned me that no one was living there now, and the landlord has passed away and his son was re-doing the house, or something of the sort. Sure enough, the house was in a state of non-use and disrepair – the entire courtyard had been vacated long ago. I poked around a bit, trying to see if I could enter, but figured I wasn’t here to dwell on the past. Following that, Solo took me to see the house he is building now, and then to his place for an impromptu tea session.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 7.26.19 PM

my old abode, in a state of non-use

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 7.26.47 PM

Tea time at Solo’s house – just like old times

Solo’s house in construction was actually just two ‘blocks’ down from my old house, on a road in which I remember there being basically nothing, save for an odd boutique perhaps. Now there were multiple boutiques and even a restaurant of sorts. Such developments count, as well developments – one of the main questions I had going in was how Sidera might be changing, and here was my first piece of real evidence.

I sat at Solo’s having tea for some time, happy to have a place to be. But then I realized that I really had only six hours in Sidera, as my driver was insistent on making the two-hour journey back on the dirt road to Banfora before nightfall. The short moto ride from the main road to Solo’s house had flooded back a wave of memories, and all of a sudden I felt I had to see everything. My mind instantly flipped from “what on earth am I going to do here for six hours,” to “oh my goodness, I only have six hours!”

Thus I wrapped up tea with Solo as quickly but politely as I could, still grateful that he happened to be on the main strip and recognized me right off the bat. I asked Solo to drop me off at Amara’s boutique, the place owned by one of my closest village friends. I was very nervous upon asking as it had been nine years and given the state of healthcare au village, I shouldn’t assume that everyone from 2007 was up and running (in fact on an incredible sad note, Solo had informed me right off the bat that my counterpart/one of closest friends in village had unfortunately passed away six years ago). Thankfully, Solo said Amara was doing well.

He dropped me off and I marched into Amara’s boutique as I had many an afternoons, as if nothing had changed. Amara’s jaw kind of dropped upon seeing me, and gasped something like “it is really you? I never thought we would meet again!”

I had always enjoyed hanging out at Amara’s boutique as I found him to be incredibly intelligent and well versed in current events, as he sat there and listed to RFI all day. We had great conversations about the world, and he taught me a lot about the local culture. His three-year old daughter at the time was also insane in a good way, and always excited when I came around, yelling various things in various non-French languages (I would typically write down my daily tasks for the day on my hand – not that there wasn’t paper, I just like the idea of ink seeping into my blood stream – anyways, she would always grab it instantly and pretend to read at a very high volume, shouting out pure gibberish).

Visiting Amara’s boutique was a primary motivation behind returning, and it was an incredibly touching moment. In some ways I felt ­­­­­­­­­­­disillusioned that his little boutique looked exactly as it had when I left – it was comforting in a way, but also meant that this brilliant and hardworking man was held back by a simple lack of opportunity predicated on the geographic chance of birth. On the other hand, Amara was doing quite well and had expanded his family by two, a clear sign of success in these parts. His previously rambunctious daughter was now a serene twelve year-old (but that mantle has been taken up by her new six-year old sister). I was nervous about expecting to recognize the kids I used to know, as they five-year olds would now be taller than me – but she had the same face of the little girl I had doted on.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 5.09.33 PM

Amara’s boutique and daughter – at least one has grown significantly!

I spent the next three hours catching up with Amara on village developments, and other world events. As much as I didn’t want to, I tried to leave on multiple occasions given my time constraints, only to be drawn back in by hospitality demands that I be thoroughly well fed before my departure. At one point, I was surprised to see Amara’s other daughter holding up a set of battered playing cards – he said I had given them to the family when I left. I had no recollection of bequeathing these specific playing cards, but was happy they had endured, and reminded me how the littlest thing can have a lasting impact.

Finally around 3:15pm I left Amara’s house – I had no desire to, I could’ve spent all day there and been content. I cursed myself for not arranging to spend the night in Sidera somewhere, despite the practicality of the decision at the time. Next time, I’ll come and spend a few days I figured, and truly be able to have enough time to repeat all my experiences of nine years prior.

Amara had told me some Moringa plants I had started as part of a child malnutrition project were still being grown at the CSPS (local health center), and even being used. Solo himself had said “every time I see those plants, I think of Omar.” It wasn’t quite an imposing village statue of me, but it would do. I was even more surprised these were still standing than the playing cards, but figured I had to check it out. Time was of the essence, as the 4:00pm deadline to return was looming, so I quickly jotted off to the outskirts of town where the health center was located.

Unfortunately, while on my way, I passed by the local police station. The sight of a random bearded foreigner, running by himself with a backpack down the road in Sideradougou, where foreigners likely rarely ever run by themselves, ostensibly startled the officers hanging around outside the station. I was already cognizant of the changes in Burkina Faso due to the creeping threat of terrorism from northern Mali, punctuated by the January 2016 attacks in Ouagadougou. Identification checks along the roads were frequent now, at a rate unseen before. Nonetheless, while en brousse, I assumed this would stop.

No luck, as the officer began frantically whistling his whistle and waving for me to come over. I kind of ignored the first noises and friendly waved back as if to say hello, but his insistent nature informed me that it would be better to heed this request than to not. I approached nonchalantly but in a manner of feigned surprise to make it seem like it was routine for me to be here doing what I was doing, while he immediately asked for my identification. I took out my passport, and explained that I was just going to the CSPS to check on a project. I was a little curt, more than I ever should be with West African security officials, because time my time in Sidera was rapidly ticking down, and I had many other goals post-the CSPS Moringa run.

He handed me over to the police commissioner, and then I decided to expedite the process by explaining that I used to live here and had come back to visit right now. He poured over my passport and visa, and upon learning that this particular police commissioner had been installed here in 2010, I offered something presumptuously conceited to the effect of “well then, my ties to Sideradougou pre-date your own.” I stopped myself after that, and resolved to be a better detainee by chitchatting a bit about the village and how it’s changed. The commissioner seemed satisfied enough to let me continue on my regularly scheduled path after about 15 valuable minutes, and I immediately took off. Though I really couldn’t get too angry as they were just doing their job (and I looked suspicious enough to the point where I would’ve stopped myself).

I managed to make it to the CSPS and saw what I assumed were the plants (in reality, I had no idea). Luckily, as had been dominant theme of my plan throughout this village visit, an old friend popped up and confirmed that these were indeed the plants and they were being used. I had been a business volunteer, with grand designs to develop the local cotton-based economy into a thriving West African powerhouse, but I suppose I should still be happy if my lasting impact of two years of service is that little children were getting a bit more vitamins and nutrients than they used to.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 7.27.24 PM

The Moringa trees still alive and kicking, to my surprise

I wanted to run up to the local high school to see if the world maps I had painted were still in effect, and just wander along the streets a bit more to take in other developments and hopefully run into some other old acquaintances, but it was already 4:15 by this point. My CSPS friend took me back to the center of town where my car was waiting, but luckily a few other friends had heard I was in town and gathered around to see me before I went off. Thus I was able to squeeze in a couple additional three-minute sessions aimed at catching up over the past nine years, and then left village with a high note. Of course, as soon as I entered the car to leave Sidera again for one last time, we drove six minutes to the outskirts of village and promptly broke down for an hour. But at least that allowed me to take in the experience I wasn’t ready to have end a bit more, even while the driver frantically worked to repair his vehicle in time so we wouldn’t have to travel at dark.

Overall, my nerves quickly subsided upon returning to village and it felt just like old times for a while. Though my time was short, I accomplished what I set out to do by finding out and catching up with a few old friends, reestablishing contact, and seeing how a near decade had changed or not changed things for a place as near and dear to me as anywhere else I’ve lived.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 7.28.19 PM

Modibo – my old water guy who used to be constantly sick (often I was told by other villagers when I needed to find him as I had run out of water, not to bother as he would die that day), looking better than ever!

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 7.28.32 PM

This guy owned one of the bush taxis I used to travel on – I thought he was super old back then, but seems just the same now!

In some ways, Sideradougou had changed a lot – this biggest initiative being the advent of electricity about a year ago. I yearned for electricity during my time there, but eventually got every used to living without it, and as volunteers we always wondered how life might change if such modern amenities were introduced to our villages. The typical refrain is that it would help businesses (refrigerators, etc.) and households (nighttime lighting for kids to study), but in reality it might just mean more television watching and cell phone recharging. I can’t say I was able to determine the impact in the six short hours I was there, but it was telling that some residents, such as Amara who live one road removed from the main road, still hadn’t paid to have it installed just yet. Regardless, the introduction of a modern amenity considered standard in much of the rest of the world is a definite cause for celebration and a visible sign of progress – and considering when I arrived back in 2005 there was no cell phone reception or electricity, the introduction of both within a decade span I’d say is a decent indicator that things are overall trending upwards.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 7.26.41 PM

electricity counter in action next to a latrine (perhaps indoor plumbing as a next step?)

In addition, Sidera had clearly grown. People talked of it more as a small town now, rather than a big village. I was quoted some population numbers I cannot recall, but signs of this were apparent throughout. Along with the increased number of stores and other businesses off the main road, the CSPS had actually been upgraded to a more regional health facility, replete with additional structures. I was told a number of new schools had also opened, both private and public. Two boulangeries (bakeries) had also opened in Sideradougou, and residents were clearly proud of the fact that they no longer had to import their baguettes. While I saw smart phones for sale as well, most people I interacted with still had most basic cellphones, though admittedly more advanced models than what I was used to carrying around stateside!

A gold mining project had also begun about 40km from Sidera, with some elements based in the town. In fact, on the ride to town we also saw independent prospectors, women digging through the dirt on the way into town. While it may be temporary as once the stores are exhausted the mining companies will leave, it does represent a new local industry, and makes me think I should’ve spent more time digging around in the dirt while I was there (more than my usual amount of course).

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 7.25.21 PM

gold prospecting – I could’ve been doing this for the past nine years

On the other hand, some things have definitely not changed, and may have even gotten worse. The dirt road from Banfora has gotten pretty bad, and the rainy season was just getting underway. The premature passing of my counterpart from ‘hypertension’ reveals the continued hazard of public health concerns considered much more easily treatable back home. And the numerous police checks underlie the overall increased risk of terrorism and spread of radical ideologies – something that was not an issue in the least in this region nine years ago.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 7.26.03 PM

la route n’est pas bonne

Overall, the basic picture of the village and daily life is largely the same, with a few added amenities and hopefully some additional opportunities. Nine years is both a short and long time, but I kept finding myself wondering what Sideradougou will look like by the time Amara’s one-year old son is his age. There’s often a tendency to resort to a ‘nothing ever changes’ sort of attitude, but I can’t say that has been the case in Sideradougou, and hopefully will continue in that direction.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 7.27.36 PM

Sideradougou village entrance, with electricity wires!

In this sense, despite all my nerves, the trip was a smashing success both from a personal standpoint and that of intellectual curiosity. The biggest added benefit, besides seeing many old friends doing well in their situations, was the reestablishment of contact so that I can confidently drop in from time to time when in the region. In some ways, I thought this visit might close that chapter of my life, as I would’ve gotten the village update I needed and been able to fully move on. But in reality, it did just the opposite and reminded what a unique experience I was lucky enough to participate in, and that the bonds developed and personal relations cultivated will continue to demand my presence from time to time – just hopefully the next visit will be sooner than nine years from now!

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 7.26.57 PM

Amara’s family has been growing – hopefully will be back soon to see check in again!

Venice is the Ganvie of Europe

About ten years ago when I visited Christine while she was still a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, she asked me what I wanted to do around the country, before quickly muttering something disparaging along the lines of “anything but Ganvie . . . it’s waaaay too touristy.” As one of the few world citizens without a deep knowledge of Beninese history and culture at the time, I had no idea what ‘a ganvie’ was, and generally accepted the stipulation that it was not on the table. However, after having learned later on of its fame and frequent reference as “the Venice of Africa,” I secretly harbored a desire to visit the floating village on Lake Nokoue. A village where the houses have been built on stilts in the middle of the water for centuries as a means to avoid enemies, less than an hour from Cotonou – who doesn’t want to see that? Aside from dismissive Peace Corps volunteers who actively disdain anyone who commits to Benin for less than two years at a time and contemptuously frown upon all others who pass in their midst, of course (note: I am as guilty of this as anyone as well, thus am qualified to write it). Nonetheless, given Christine’s initial reaction, I kept such desire hidden, lest I be lumped in with all the other ephemeral visitors.

For years I never told Christine about my desire to visit the village, fearful of her response – that is until she married me. Once that deed was done and she could use my childish aspirations as an excuse to forever depart no more, I broke the news. As luck would have it, a few years later she accepted a short-term position in Benin and I was to accompany her – this time there would be ‘a Ganvie!’

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 5.31.03 PM

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 5.32.17 PM

No motos to get to this village

A few weeks in we got our chance during a belatedly announced national holiday in the middle of the week. With no other plans, Christine begrudgingly asked what I wanted to do, knowing all too well that response was “we’re going to Ganvie!” But given her own graduation from the Peace Corps ten years prior, and an abundance of world travels since then where we were the non-committal tourists who came, took photos, and absconded, Christine relented and we were allowed to play tourist.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 5.29.50 PM

Us happy tourists along for the ride!

In fact, it could be the day we went there, or the fact that we just don’t care about anything anymore, but Ganvie was not as touristy as expected. Maybe this was also because this was all based on the ridiculous notion that anything in Benin could be “too” touristy, which thus meant other tourists would actually have to be present in this tiny country most outside West Africa do not believe even exists (I am still personally skeptical on that point myself).

Regardless, getting there is a breeze, and costs a grand total of $1 on public transport. A two-hour boat ride with the official association runs a bit more (at $10/person), but given that our boat did not appear to be teetering on the edge of destruction as most others plying the lake, it appeared to be good value. We opted for the optional guide, as we were full fledged tourists now, and went off. The two main pit stops the boat makes are designed to sell you items, but if you can ignore the desperate pleas for patronage (which we instantly did at each stop), the rest of the ride was through an active floating village. In fact, we only saw one other boat with tourists the whole time, though given the aforementioned low threshold of Beninese tourism, I could see how that could be classified as “too touristy.”

At any rate, Ganvie is an entire village built on stilts, dating back to the 1700s when the king of the Tofinu took his people into the water to avoid constant raids from enemies. The legend has it he transformed into some sort of animal, and then a few other mystical-type things happened, and then there was another round of such otherworldly developments, and then you had Ganvie. Or something like that as our tour guide explained, and I clearly closely listened.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 5.31.38 PM

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 5.30.42 PM

Ganvie as I always hoped and dreamed

The village itself it pretty interesting to see though, and not quite as “frozen in time” as one might expect. In fact, it has all the normal facets of a typical village, every building just so happens to be surrounded by water thus the roads are always flooded, even during the dry season. There were solar panels, a health center, a market, a mosque, and porches attached to many of the houses. We cruised down the two main “roads” which intersect at the local market in which the stalls are boat based. Unfortunately it was not market day, but other daily activities around the village we witnessed seemed fairly routine, just with a lot more fishing nets and boats present.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 3.53.43 PM

Market during non-market day

In a way it actually might be a super touristy village, in that people are used to foreigners idling by in their boats, and thus the constant screams of “yovo, cadeau!,” (white person, present!) are somewhat muted (though really only somewhat). All in all, it’s a pretty interesting place to visit, though the comparisons to the grandeur of Venice might be just a bit of a stretch. For a unique experience just outside Cotonou though, and a chance to spend a half day on the water, well then it’s well worth pretending to be a tourist for that!

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 5.31.23 PM

Solar panels in force

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 5.31.48 PM

Even the mosque is on stilts!

State-run Ice Cream

If there is one institution that serves as a microcosm for all that is Cuba, it is none other than the Coppelia, or state-run ice cream parlors. If reading the words “state-run” and “ice cream” back-to-back in the same sentence seems odd, well that’s because it is. Of all things for a government to be involved in, I would’ve suspected ice cream production to be one of the last, but then I would’ve speculated very, very wrongly.

One of Fidel Castro’s pet projects apparently revolved around the idea of “ice cream for the people,” thus giving birth to the Cuban government’s equivalent of a Baskin Robbins (albeit initially with 26 flavors, presumably a reference to an important revolutionary event that occurred on July 26th). At any rate, the heavily subsided frozen dairy products fall in line with other forms of incredibly cheap entertainment – such as baseball games, the theater, and an overwhelming promotion of the arts. Keeping the costs of such diversions affordable and thus available to everyone, is likely both a key equalizing benefit of living in a socialist system, and a strategy for the long-term preservation of power. In short, it is an indelible part of what makes Cuba, Cuba.

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 3.24.35 PM

What is ice cream indeed?

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 3.24.45 PM

Coppelia in action

Government intervention is obvious from the moment you set foot in one of these institutions. For starters, the price of ice cream is astronomically cheap, beyond reasonable human comprehension (I do think some owls could pick this up though). The first time I ordered two scoops, and when I asked for my bill the surly waitress simply grunted “dos pesos.” Assuming there was no way she could be talking in moneda as that would amount to 8¢, I assumed she meant two CUC, the equivalent of $2 (it never got any less confusing that the two currencies in Cuba were often referred to simply as ‘pesos). A dollar per scoop seemed a bit much, but made much more sense than four cents per scoop. So I handed her the exact amount, rather than a larger bill which would have resulted in a 35-minute wait for my change (did I mention this was a state-run place?), and promptly left. It was not until days later at another coppelia that I realized the prices were indeed that cheap, and I had given a personal all-time record 2,400% tip!

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 3.24.17 PM

The recipients of a record-breaking, but very confusing tip

Other indicators typical of state-run places were also readily apparent – for example, I noticed an odd phenomenon where everyone else always had piles upon piles of ice cream at their tables, making my two scoops look rather meager in comparison. A standard order seemed to be more within the five (ensalada) to seven (gran piedra) scoop range, with most customers insisting on two orders each – up to 14 scoops of ice cream per person! Looking at the menu, I realized the largest single order possible was a seven scoop wonder, and assumed the fact that everyone was doubling down was due to some top-down imposed limit to which I was unaware. Regardless, the obscene amounts of personal ice cream consumption fit in nicely with the live-in-the-moment approach to personal consumption on the island, to “get as much as you can, while you can.”

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 3.26.10 PM

Only one lady doubling down in this party – the rest do not represent Cuba well

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 3.25.01 PM

Remember that its not in CUC, so seven scoops for less than 30 cents!

At the same time, the first coppelia I wandered into was a massive structure, with space for about fifty tables. Of course, only maybe four or five occupied at the time, making the room look eerily empty. The low patronage was not reflected in employee hiring practices, as I counted at least seven people in the back via the see-through glass doors, in addition to four officially uniformed wait staff. That meant each table could have had its own personnel waitress, along with two kitchen members attentive to their order. Given that there was nothing that complex on offer, with the majority of orders consisting of scooping ice cream into a bowl and perhaps delicately adding a wafer, the amount of personnel seemed just so slightly excessive (and likely was given that at least two or three employers stood there the entire time during my visit, literally not doing anything). Except it really wasn’t, because despite the proliferation of waitresses, I still have to work to get anyone’s attention. It took over twenty minutes after sitting down until someone took my order, while two of the waitresses spent that entire time chatting to another lady who can entered the coppelia to sell pastries to accompany your ice cream.

In contrast, hard at work at this coppelia

In addition, the choice of flavors had long been whittled down from 26, evidence of local shortages. No coppelia that I visited offered more than four, with many having only two on hand after selling out the rest. And while the first coppelia I patronized in Cienfuegos was rather empty, the lines around the block on a Saturday evening at the one Santa Clara revealed that perhaps they do fill up at times, and thus engender the continued persistence of Cuba’s line culture. Furthermore, despite this insatiable demand for ice cream, just about every (not-so) convenience store I went into had a large, and utterly empty Nestle ice cream freezer, which looked like it had not been operational for some time.

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 3.28.33 PM

The status of (private) ice cream in Cuba

In short, the coppelias symbolize everything that is great and irksome (from my engrained capitalist perspective) of Cuba. The coppelias themselves promote the local dairy industry and provide (excessive) employment, while the cheap price allows (over) indulgence by the masses. Conversely, the coppelias are not insulated from aspects of Cuban life that largely derive from a state-controlled economy such as long lines, limited selection, inefficient service, and externally imposed purchasing limits. At the end of the day, however, if you can acquire 14 scoops of ice cream for less than 56¢, perhaps that is a win for all involved!

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 3.26.03 PM

Even this guy is semi-impressed!

Appearances and realities

A guest post by one Christine Ribeiro

When you first arrive in Cuba, with your grand illusions of what communism is, you are confronted with a different reality. Walking around Havana, life seems, well, pretty normal. Granted, it is not US standard of living, but most countries in the world are not, and after a year of traveling through South and Central America, it fit right in with the rest of them. And things kept coming up that just didn’t fit with my image of communism.

Cuba – currently suffering from an invasion of both minions and the Pope!

For example, the main drag of old town Havana, lined with souvenir shops. There is a wide variety of cheesy magnets and keychains to choose from. Che’s face is on just about everything you can imagine, from t-shirts to flags to purses. People are hustling you to come in and look or luring you into cafes with fresh mojitos. You look around and think, this is communism? Hustling to sell plastic crap made in China on every corner? Did you know you can even find coca-cola and m&ms on the island? I thought I came here to see what life was like without all that.

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 11.14.33 AM

Lucky couple scored a flat screen tv

What about the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC), a state-owned art center/bar/club. Imagine what a state-owned club would look like, and it was the complete opposite. This place puts every bar in DC to shame. Lines to get in, this huge former electric plant has been transformed into a labyrinth of art galleries, music venues and bars, all under one roof. Each room has its own music and vibe, and while distinct they all just ooze coolness. Open Thursday-Saturday, there are events happening in different rooms at different hours throughout the night. The night we were there, Cubans and foreigners alike sip their mojitos while watching a fashion show of the latest in gothic fashion show by a local designer. Is this the Cuba you were expecting?

IMG_9116

The smartly renovated FAC building

IMG_9118

your typical Saturday night Havana gothic fashion show

Being there over Christmas, everyone was out with their new presents, namely the kids. While sitting on the Malecon, the iconic Havana road along the water, a young Cuban couple with a three year old girl came to try out the girl’s new present. Dressed to the nines, this little girl got in her mini electric car and drove up and down. I thought Cuba didn’t have access to new cars, how does this three year old get one? Was it at the mall that we stumbled upon, full of people shopping at stores like Adidas? Again, not the Cuba I imagined.

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 11.08.18 AM

A Havana mall at Christmas time

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 11.08.24 AM

But as you spend time, observe, ask questions, and get out of Havana, you begin to see just how life really is different here, shaped by their system and their past.

Take the breakfast spread that we had at our house in Vinales (fruit, eggs, cheese, ham, bread, honey, butter, two kinds of guava jelly, fresh fruit juice, tea and coffee) was quite a spread by any standards. Looking at this, one would think there was no lack of foodstuffs, however, upon learning more, we understood that was not the case. It had taken hours of searching and waiting in line over multiple days for our host to acquire this assortment of goodies. In fact, the next day we tried to eat at a local egg sandwich place for breakfast and they were completely out of eggs already at 9am. That is all they made and they were out. It was not until the next day that we saw everyone in town walking around holding 5 dozen eggs each (probably the maximum they were allowed to buy) that we realized it wasn’t just this shop, but the whole town had been out of eggs. The meals that magically appeared in the morning were not as simple as they first seemed.

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 11.10.19 AM

Or take the hoarder we stayed with in Santiago de Cuba. This older woman lived alone in a very large house right in the historic center of town. The room we stayed in was very clean and nice. Like all the others we had stayed in, it was complete with AC, fans, hot water, soap, towels, etc. For some reason, outside the room, every free space was filled with very old pieces of plywood and the sort. It was as if this hoarder could not get enough wood. While strange at first, we later learned about the ‘special period’, following the fall of the Soviet Union, when Cuba had to go through some extremely lean years. There was no fuel to cook with and barely any food to survive. People took to burning their wooden furniture to cook on. Looking at it this way, it is no surprise that this woman, who supported her family through these times, prefers to keep old rotting wood around.

It is not until a few days in that you realize, while there may be more shops and commerce than you imagined, there is absolutely no advertising. All billboards are political in nature, flouting the glory of the revolution. There are no TV or radio ads, something we have to pay extra for in the US. At the baseball game, there are no sponsors, no ads flashing on the big screen, no distractions from the game. This aspect was actually quite refreshing.

So, if you want to see the remaining vestiges of communism, you need to work a little harder. Get out of Havana and the beach resort area. Head as far to the east as you can, off the tourist circuit. Talk to as many people as you can, they are open and love to share their experiences. Keep your eyes open and enjoy!

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 11.12.57 AM

Y’all come back now, ya hear?