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.


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).

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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)!


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.

The surprising vastness of Pyongyang


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.


Dear Leaders on a building

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


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.


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).


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.


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).

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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).

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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.

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my old abode, in a state of non-use


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!


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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Solar panels in force

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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.

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What is ice cream indeed?

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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!

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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.”

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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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?


The smartly renovated FAC building


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.

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A Havana mall at Christmas time

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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.

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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!

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Y’all come back now, ya hear?




14 Things I Learned About Cuba

1. Reforms are making a major impact (more so than changes in US relations)

Reforms have made a marked impact on the life of daily Cubanos, with presumable shifts in the island’s socialist core. The legitimization of 170+ private businesses in 2011 means that hair dressers, driving instructors, bathroom attendants, and even magicians are now present in higher rates than before. A restaurant owner in Havana, who pursed his dream to open up one of the first private restaurants in the city in the mid-1990s, explained how at the beginning the government viewed him suspiciously, like he was doing something wrong, and sent a steady stream of inspectors to fine him for the slightest of violations. In contrast nearly twenty years later, the environment has vastly improved to the point where the government now views his occupation positively, even allowing access to small amounts of credit for such entrepreneurs for the first time last year. As he said, “some people just want to work a job, while others are entrepreneurs – now those that fall into the latter category are able to pursue their path.” This official experiment with capitalism has been a major driver of change on the island, and may even outstrip what an end to the US embargo would mean.

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The ability to sell (or exchange) your home – a recent option for Cubans

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This guy can’t have more than four years of (official) experience . . . I usually don’t settle for barbers with less than nine (made an exception).

2. Private enterprise is more efficient, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the answer (although I am now also more of an ardent capitalist). In addition, while capitalism is slowly taking root, its not quite there . .

The efficiency of private enterprise over state-run entities is difficult to argue against, and I found myself more ardently in favor of capitalism (within reason) after the visit. A short narrative explains my stance. Going to the Viazul (state-run tourist bus) station a day before to get tickets to a town three hours away, I was greeted by a long line (very typical) extending well outside the building. Taking my place at the end, I was resigned to wasting over an hour here, only for the ticket vendor to likely inform me the bus was sold out. At about the same time, a private taxi owner (likely allowed as part of reforms in the past few years) came by soliciting passengers for his vehicle, offering rides to the same destination. Charging $15 rather than the $12 for the state-run bus, the extra funds would result in getting picked up from my house, getting dropped off at my house in the next town, and a faster ride with just three other passengers (and even more space, given that the double backseat rows of the car fit five). In addition, he was present and immediately available, with a line of other private taxi owners outside, to meet the excess demand in a manner that the state could not. Thus I could either wait in line for an hour or longer and take a less convenient ride, or spend slightly more for a higher level of service and not have to wait at all. The choice was clear, and the contrast behind the efficiency of the private enterprise and the failings of the state could not have been any clearer.

Not to say “our” system is infinitely better. The pursuit of endless profits at all costs drives innovation and progress, but has downsides in creating an elite corporate class that wields an inordinate level of influence (sounds like I could be Bernie’s campaign manager). In contrast, despite the experimentation with capitalism in Cuba, it clearly hasn’t taken full root. At a baseball game, the crowd around me began discussing in earnest the situation of a Cuban player who left to go play (in Venezuela?), drawing a much healthier salary. Rather than appreciate or understand such a move, the crowd reaction was more one of universal derision, making fun of him for becoming, for lack of a better term, a ‘fancy pants.’ Later that night at a small restaurant frequented by tourists, all the tables were full, although two (including yours truly) were in the process of paying the bill. When another couple came in to get seated, the restaurant employee explained there was no space. Seemingly content with the level of business for the evening, she simply turned the potential clients away, rather than ask them to wait for a few minutes. Aghast at potential loss of profits, the other table of tourists from a capitalist country that were paying the bill, told the newcomers to wait and they’ll give them their table in a few minutes. Seeing other clients approaching the packed restaurant I tried to do the same, asking for the bill so I could get out of her way and not impede additional profit making that evening. Of little concern to her, I got the bill over twenty minutes later after asking two more times, during which many a potential new customers were forced to look elsewhere. Capitalism clearly exists in forms, just the lesson on maximize profits at all costs perhaps hasn’t taken root.

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A mall in Havana at X-mas – the future of Cuba?

3. Rules are supreme, but people find ways around them

Cuba can extremely be bureaucratic at times, with rules heavily enforced down to seemingly minor levels. I realized this early on, when a whistle happy guard nearly blew out my eardrum merely for looking at the José Martí monument while it was ‘closed.’ At other times, it seems odd when you go into a ice cream shop there is a limit on the number of items you can purchase. A maximum of four scoops – how decidedly un-American!

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I got in trouble just for looking at this?

Fear of being caught outside the bounds of the rules is high – this was played out when a set of casa owners demanded I register with them instantly upon arrival, lest a random inspector happened to drop in during the time I went to the bathroom. At the same time, other casa owners never me registered at all, indicating that the perils of being caught may at times be outweighed by the benefits of off-the-books transactions.

At any rate, decades of arcane regulation have engendered resilient island. To illustrate – after waiting over thirty minutes in line for churros at a weekly Saturday night festival (did I mention things move slowly?), my quest was nearly derailed when the vendor stated that everyone who wished to purchase churros must have a child with them (I had only been waiting in line for 30 minutes instead of nine months by the time he made the announcement, so I couldn’t have done much about it anyways). Apparently despite the many adults present, the sale of churros was only for children. There was a big loophole, however, in that each child was allowed to purchase up to five sets of churros, thus allowing them to share with any adults that may have been funding diabetes-inducing nighttime snack.

Essentially defeated by a system I didn’t understand, I was saved at the last minute by the intervention of a young girl, who instantly grabbed my money and explained I was in line with her. Before I could even realize what was happening, the unimpressed vendor relented, and allowed us to buy the maximum between us. Bureaucratic rules up against the creative resilience of a twelve-year old with nearly a decade’s worth of experience navigating the system. The latter won out, as I suspect it does the majority of the time.

4. Poverty and class differences exist

When you think about Cuba, you think of an idyllic socialist paradise where all are equal and no one looks down on anyone else, no? While the contrast between the haves and have-nots may not be as dramatic as in many of its neighbors, poverty and class differences are surprisingly ingrained in society, despite decades of policies to eliminate both. In fact, they may even be getting worse.

A simple 10-minute walk between rundown, old dwellings of downtown Cienfuegos, and the recently renovated mansions and private clubs of its coastal Punta Gorda neighborhood reveals unexpected stark differences. Or perhaps the presence of beggars on the streets of Havana will stand out. The sheer desperation of an elderly campensino so eager for financial renumeration in Vinales that he tracked me down on his horse three times during an obvious twenty minute hike to me show the way (for a dollar), also came as a bit of a shock.

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Upper class goats slumming it at a public housing complex

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The private club where they (the goats) usually hang

Such differences have become further entrenched through the use of dual currencies – the Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) and the Cuban Pesos (or moneda nacional). CUCs are traded evenly with the dollar and primarily utilized by tourists, thus flowing into the pockets of those working in the tourist industry. Moneda nacional on the other hand (which is traded at a rate of 24 to one CUC), is the ‘local’ currency used to buy heavily subsidized items. Middle class residents who are able to rent out their rooms to travelers gain access to a steady stream of CUCs, further distancing themselves from those who deal solely in moneda.

A former doctor in Holguin exemplified this dynamic – she left the medical profession and her 50 CUC equivalent salary each month, to run a bed & breakfast where she can earn 25 CUC per evening, equaling her previous salary is just two nights. An internal sort of brain drain when the earnings of a B&B host vastly outstrip that of a respected doctor, who at the same time is now able to distance herself from her former state-paid colleagues. The result is a new class of enriched, tourism-dependent entrepreneurs, who enjoy steady access to cold hard beautiful CUC cash.

5. Old cars are nice, but also a reminder that environmental regulations make a big difference

The iconic American cars dating back from 1950s cruising down Havana’s Malecon contribute to the nostalgic vision of Cuba as a place stunted in time, reminiscent of an earlier, simpler era. The cars themselves seem to define Cuba in a nutshell – a visible reminder of the US embargo, while the fact that they still run is a testament to local ingenuity.

While the cars do make for a beautiful backdrop, most of the restored ones have been done so solely for the purposes of generating a tourist buck (CUC) or two. In fact, one cab driver mentioned how the older cars were in the process of becoming more expensive than importing newer ones from non-US manufacturers, given the insatiable tourist demand for a trip down memory lane.

Nonetheless, the less publicized side of this anachronism is the high rates of diesel fumes inhaled. Walking down a street in Havana, described as a ‘diesel sauna’ by a fellow traveler, is a pleasant experience, until one of those cars rolls by emitting who knows how many CO2 emissions in the form of plumes of black smoke, right in your face. I developed a sore throat just two days in, despite the constant 90-degree weather, to which I directly attributed to the higher than normal amounts of pollution consumption. It’s time like these that make me appreciate the emission regulations aimed at protecting my delicate, delicate lungs – despite many a previous complaints any time car inspection time rolled around.

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A please scene, but detrimental to your long-term health

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But really, who can resist these iconic photos (and I’m not even a car guy)

6. Life can be extremely cheap

Prices can be extremely, extremely, super extremely cheap, especially when paying in moneda. Covered seats at a baseball game run for 4 cents, while cheap seats in the sun are half that. Ice cream at state-run institutions costs you seven scoops for 20 cents (a limit of two orders). Ubiquitous personal pizzas are as little as 20 cents. A 4-hour ride on local ‘camion’ transport came to a dollar. When items are this subsidized, perhaps $25 a month isn’t so bad after all (entertainment – the theater, baseball games, ice cream, etc. – in particular is very cheap, perhaps a means to keep the masses occupied).

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Paid double for this view!

7. The lack of supplies is real (albeit exaggerated)

One aspect of life often assumed about living in a communist economy, is the dearth of supplies considered to be basic elsewhere. This was apparent right from the start, when checking in for the flight at the airport, you could easily spot who was Cuban and who was not based on their luggage. All sorts of modern appliances, from air conditions to flat screen TVs, from tires to diapers, were brought onboard.

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That tire will find a good home

The emphasis on bringing such goods underlines how common shortages can be – not just of appliances but also food items. For example, a casa owner in Vinales went to a neighboring town, the capital of the region, on a daylong search for a simple bathroom mirror, only to return empty-handed. A renowned restaurant was out of milk, beef, and pasta the night I dined there, rendering 80% of its menu obsolete – and no one else batted an eye. Another lady explained that she assumes her Argentine boyfriend, who regularly visits the island, could never live in Cuba because how could he “go from a place that has everything, to here?”

The issue is compound by the ‘space ratio’ in stores – that is unnecessarily large structures filled with a small amount of goods. If the mid-size store downsized instead to that of a local tienda, its shelves would be appropriately filled with enough goods to fill its space. But when you have unnecessarily large stores with vast aisles and little to put in them, the visual effect is magnified (perhaps a consequence of cheap state-regulated commercial space rent?).

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A semi-stocked pharmacy

Adaptation to this aspect has engendered a mentality of ‘buy as much of everything that you can, when you can.’ During ‘egg day’ in one small town, everyone walked away from with at least five dozen – not a single person bought just two or three for that evening’s meal. The state attempts to counter this mentality with general person limits on how much of a certain item can be bought at a time, but as seen above, people know how to get around the rules.

The shortages mean that creative resilience of the population to obtain goods manifests itself in the most unexpected of ways – when calling down to the reception of a hotel in Havana for a completely unrelated issue, the polite, young receptionist closed the conversation with “are you selling anything? The Mexicans that stay here sell things, and we will buy them!” Emphasis on the lack of specificity must be noted here, as literally “anything” would be up for discussion. I was half-tempted to turn my entire duffel bag into a quick economic experiment to gauge the demand for goods such as tattered socks, used razor blades, and dried out pens, but spared everyone the indignity of rustling through my dirty underwear in the hopes of finding a new dinosaur shirt.

However, it doesn’t seem as bad as it could be – you can find toilet paper at least. The prior insistence by many to bring my own soap also proved to be unnecessary (mainly because I rarely showered, personal choice).

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What’s available today (sugar, salt, rum, beer, and rice – the essentials)


8. An entire ‘line culture’ exists

Another interesting facet of life in a communist system often portrayed in the media, is presence of long lines for everything. Cuba is no exception to this, and lines of people waiting to conduct simple tasks such as buying bread, changing money, or even buying ice cream are commonplace. So common in fact, that it has resulted in the development of an entire culture of line waiting.

Generally guards limit the number of people actually allowed inside the institutions, meaning that a crowd of people manifests on the streets outside. While it may appear chaotic, it is anything but. Everyone is aware their place in line, as any newcomers must ask “el ultimo?” (i.e. the last?) and get behind that person. Often, however, people don’t physically wait in that spot, but maintain a general reference to their place in the order, while line neighbors will save the spots of those who smartly multitask by leaving to do something else as the line slowly progresses. Despite the fact that people are standing everywhere, order is highly respected, and you will not be cut. While this courteous line culture is nice, on the other hand it indicates just how used to waiting in line people are, and how much of one’s daily errands are consumed by such a process. Rarely did I come across someone who was surprised that, when he went to his local tienda to buy milk, he would have to wait what I consider an excessive amount to complete the transaction.

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No one cutting in this line for Internet

9. Advertising comes in the form of revolutionary propaganda

Flipping through newspapers or watching TV, I was struck by the limited advertising. The 3.5 minute commercial breaks I take for granted were refreshingly absent. Revolutionary marketing, however, is big business. Photos and quotes from Fidel, Che, Raul, and even the occasional Huge Chavez are everywhere, such as Fidel’s anti-capitalist tirade inside one of Havana’s more X-mas decorated malls. A different sort of take on advertising, but I suppose the end goal is similar – having you buy into a system rather than buy a product.

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10. People are educated & highly aware of the world outside their island home

I encountered a highly educated populace, albeit it the embedded effects of the revolutionary advertising are impossible to wash away completely (for example, monuments to the five ‘antiterrorist’ Cuban spies exchanged in 2014 for USAID contractor Alan Gross, as part of normalizing relations with the United States, were everywhere, and everyone could name all five members). Nonetheless, most Cubans cited the power the US Congress holds over the restoration of full relations, an awareness of local politics in another country that I couldn’t assume could be true on the reverse. As one casa owner put it, “everyone here knows about politics – and if you don’t, you’re a pile of yams.” I couldn’t have agreed more, and serves as an indication of the high human capital potential often discussed when it comes to the future of Cuba.

11. Despite the lack of universal technology (i.e. the Internet), things work – just a bit differently

Cuba works, just differently at times. Internet has been gaining traction recently, as the government has established public Wi-Fi spots at the main parks in most cities. You buy a pre-paid Internet card, log-in with your device, and are good to surf the surprisingly decent connections. Private connections remain a rarity due to high costs (though this is changing), as do cyber cafes, but you can always know where a Wi-Fi spot is by the huddled masses of (largely) young folk holding phones, tablets, and laptops (another recent development, given that ownership of such items was banned until 2008).

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Internet is truly a communal affair in Cuba!

The lack of technology is apparent in other areas, as many businesses rely on old school models. Reservations for buses, taxis, and even flights came down solely to having a name on the right piece of paper. After my flight out (on the state-run airline) was randomly canceled a week prior unbeknownst to me, and I had to wait a day for the next one, the manager simply wrote my name down and told me to come back tomorrow. I protested, assuming there had to be some electronic input to this process, or that some sort of confirmation receipt should be issued to me, especially as this particular manager wouldn’t be there the next morning. As he shooed me away, I was certain the next day would be a repeat situation and I would half to make a new life in the Havana airport a la The Terminal– style. But the paper made its way to the right people, and the next morning I checked in without a hitch on a different flight than the ticket I presented. Perhaps that’s how things used to work before the Internet took over – I don’t really remember, and soon no one else outside of Cuba will either.

12. The simplest of things we take for granted are not always easy

Even just trying to accomplish basic tasks can be frustrating. I went into a store that looked like it was decently stocked to buy orange juice (an attempted ailment against the pollution induced-sore throats mentioned above), and was pleasantly surprised to see that they had an imported brand from Spain (thus avoiding the angry and bitter Cuban citrus – also just finding orange juice in itself was a bit of an accomplishment, based on previous lengthy and unsuccessful searches). I grabbed one and went to the counter, where a lady with an open cash register was separating the moneda from the CUC in the drawer. A guy is standing next to her, typing numbers into a small machine while yelling other numbers out to seemingly no one in particular. This goes on for at least five minutes, as she never looks up. Finally she tells me I have to go to the other side of the store, something that apparently couldn’t have been said before. I go to the other side where the previous number yelling guy is now ringing up people. I wait in line for a few minutes, then he quizzically looks at me and remarks “oh, you brought your stuff over here?” Confused by that statement, I look back to the other side of the store, and the counting lady who rejected me, is now ringing up customers! No matter, I decide I really don’t want to ever do this again, so I quickly grab a second juice to not avoiding having to return (picking up that Cuban mentality quickly). While coming back to the line, I noticed another lady has locked the store entrance, even though its only 4:45 and they advertise a closing time of 5pm. Some customers try to push the door open, but she holds them back and explains that they need to close early to clean up some water. I look over to where she is pointing and see a huge puddle of expanding dirty water – apparently one of their meat freezers broke and was rapidly flooding the entire store. The whole process was emblematic of how the simplest things sometimes are not so – all I wanted to do was buy orange juice, and now nearly thirty minutes later I was in danger of having raw-meat water seep into my shoes. Times like these I appreciate the uneventful, albeit impersonal, routine 7-11 interactions that ensure I can acquire a product without losing half a day (or a sock).

13. There is a strong sense of community

One of the ‘soft’ effects of communism many sympathizers argue is the heightened sense of community, especially with the supposed universal state-imposed equality. In Cuba, this can be apparent through the lack of major crime, especially compared to some of its neighbors in the Caribbean and Latin America (one of the most violent and murderous areas of the world). But I witnessed this at other, more minor yet just as revealing, levels. Taxis asking for directions in neighborhoods they were unfamiliar never failed to get an adequate response – often the first person stopped would be just as unaware, but they would in turn start tracking down others on the street until a firm answer emerged. No one walked away before the taxi request was fulfilled – rather there was a sense that despite not knowing one another and just meeting, we were all in this together.

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Impromtu community street dance party


14. And finally – all the idiosyncrasies are what make Cuba unique, and hopefully merit even further future exploration!

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Until next time . . .

So You Want to Visit Cuba Before it “Changes?” – Well, You’re Too Late!

Cuba has been on a lot of minds lately, in large part due to the advancing winds of change emanating from its traditionally hostile northern neighbor. Speculation about the potential impact of normalized relations with the hitherto isolated island has spurred a surge in tourist visits, as many attempt to get on the ground prior to the lifting of the five and one-half decade old US economic embargo, and avoid a presumed future with sun-stained and wrinkled Floridians on every block, the Big Mac as Cuba’s national dish, and Starbucks coffee coming out of all public faucets (a mindset that yours truly has been as guilty as anyone of harboring). This ‘normalization’ effect has been so significant that during a recent visit at the turn of 2015, tourist industry operators countlessly explained that this was the largest number of visitors they had ever experienced, straining the already limited service capacity. As hordes of vacationeers grasp at a presumed last chance to visit a pristine land immune to the pernicious evils of American capitalist greed and Hollywood culture, it might be a good time to inform all involved (especially those planning urgent trips in the near future), that the biggest lesson gleaned from my visit is that they are already too late.

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El Rapido – an authentic Cuban fastfood chain!

More than six years prior to President Obama’s historic announcement in December 2014 outlining the restoration of relations with Cuba, longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro ceded authority to his younger brother Raul, citing health concerns. This leadership shuffle at the top of island’s power hierarchy heralded a new era in Cuban history. Reforms initiated by Raul – such as allowing the ownership of electronic devices, reducing restrictions on international travel, and legalizing up 178 different types of private enterprise – have imbued the island with a slight capitalist bent, and upended the idyllic tranquility romanticized by travelers wishing to experience of one of the last remaining vestiges of communism (but not actually ever live through it). The effects of these changes are present throughout the island – major cities have a decent selection of private restaurants, tourists and locals alike cram into public parks to enjoy Wi-Fi access that connects them to the outside world, and middle-class residents open up their homes for tourists to stay in (casas particulares).

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A nicely renovated casa particular (bed & breakfast basically)

That’s not to say that communist-inspired economic policies and signs of government intervention in all aspects of society are non-existent – far from it. Cuba is the place to go if you want to purchase heavily subsidized ice-cream (four cents per scoop), spend hours each day waiting in lines for anything and everything, exchange ubiquitous advertising for billboards championing the revolution, and inhale the passing burst of unregulated fumes from beautifully restored 1957 Chevy Bel Air. The impact is felt by all who live within the system – tobacco farmers noted how they have to sell 90% of their crop to the government, a casa particular owner explained how she gave up her $50 a month government salary as a doctor to make nearly as much each night renting out a room to tourists, while a young professional in Havana pined over traveling to Haiti (downtrodden Haiti of all places!) to purchase the latest goods.

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Still running (strong-ish) after nearly 60 years – who says American cars aren’t built to last?

In this sense, elements of Cuba as a living museum for outsiders to marvel at are still readily apparent, but they have been altered significantly in recent years. Economic controls have been loosened and capitalism is beginning to take shape – now (approved) private enterprises jostle with government-run entities, rather than being illegal and/or frowned upon. Nonetheless, it is easy to forget that despite the changes and the Obama administration’s recent overtures, the Communist Party of Cuba remains the ultimate arbiter of power on the island. The pattern of change established has been steady thus far, as the system transforms from one of the last havens of communism on this planet, to one that is just a little bit more measured in outlook. From this perspective, rather than viewing the eventual lifting of the US trade embargo as a culmination point in this process of change, it is just another step (albeit a highly significant one that likely goes beyond mere symbolism) in a longer-term process.

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The blockade – longest genocide in history . . . (?)

Many Cubans feel the same – one (perhaps jaded) tour guide operator remarked on the improving relations and eventual dissolution of the embargo, that “there will be a few more tours and businessmen, but nothing will really change.” Implicit in his comment was the lack of impact on the daily lives of ordinary Cubans. A casa owner in the east of the country was more sanguine, noting that proximity to the US would ensure reduced prices for goods currently imported from further flung locations, but stopped short of predicting that his future battery purchases would be at Costco, and twelve dozen at a time. The common underlying sentiment being that while enhanced US relations will be a boon for the island as a whole, those pulling the levers within Cuba will ultimately determine just how far and at what rate the effects will play out, especially for the masses.

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Broke down cars and bread lines – I don’t think this scene is going anywhere!

In this sense, the coming storm will likely be more a steady trickle of small adaptations that build upon one another, rather than an avalanche of instant Americanism, avoiding the overnight mini-Miami transformation feared by many current and prospective visitors. That in and of itself is probably the most encouraging news for travelers who desperately want to visit the island before it “changes,” but may not be able to in the near future. At the same time, Cuba undoubtedly has already changed, rendering harried plans to see communism in one of its purer forms less relevant. But given that the trajectory will be filled with numerous other fascinating twists and turns, there is still plenty of occasion to visit.

The Cuba of ten years ago resembles the Cuba of today less with each passing minute, but the same will be true of ten years from now as well. So fear not – you may be already too late in one sense, but that’s okay because it’s going to take a while!

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This Cuba is here to stay . . . ?