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Archive for the ‘social commentary’ Category

calling all hipsters, wannabes and fans…

Or just people looking to check out new neighborhoods in London 😉  I grew up fairly poor by western standards in the 1980s.  That decade became associated with Donald Trump, jerks on Wall Street and conspicuous consumption – and there was some of that.  In many places, though, it was a decade of recession, runaway interest rates and social strife.  That was the decade I lived in.  It was a time when there were thrift stores instead of vintage boutiques and if your jeans had holes, it was because they were old and you couldn’t afford a new pair…

It was an interesting time and possibly one of the best decades in history in which to be young.  I was fortunate to meet and date a lot of people who had a phenomenal impact on my life (many still part of it) and, without them, I would likely not even be IN London, let alone so much like a local that I was searching for new neighborhoods to keep the experience fresh.

I began the decade about as far from cool as one could be but, by happy accident and forcing myself to acquire better social skills, I inched a little further in that direction during a summer spent in Calgary.  Calgary is hardly a major international center of chic but it was the biggest city I had ever lived in at the time and it was exciting.  Toronto was even more exciting.  My father was very well read so I knew about Bay Street but the idea that I was now WORKING on Bay Street.  OMG!  It was a childhood dream come true.

What was even better was that I had an amazing boyfriend who had grown up in the city and was a fan of indie rock back in the day when you whispered the names of bands like insider secrets.  I still remember the party where someone said, “you need to listen to The Smiths.  They are amazing”…

There was a lot of music to love in the 1980s but the most radical part that changed my life is that indie rock bands were poor so they played in scruffy venues rather than glossy stadiums.  Long before the word gentrification was even coined, I was hanging out in the neighborhoods that would fall prey to it.

It’s made the new century very interesting for me.  I will never be any part of the hipster universe but I hang out with them a lot because I love exploring cities and know that the east side (almost always…) is the more interesting place to be.  I like character and action, living in the real future rather than the fake past.

If you are coming to London for the first time, the best place to hang out is the West End if you can afford the tariff.  If you are looking for something cheaper but super comfortable, Earl’s Court is a popular option.  If you are OK with a little edge – or have a tiny budget – head east to the London of Jack the Ripper and the working class.

beautiful graffiti

At minimum, stop by for dinner.  That was my initial foray into Shoreditch.  London is very old place.  Shoreditch has been through several centuries of history and its star has risen and fallen.  These days it is definitely on the rise.  London is one of the great cities of the world.  I have lost count of the number of times I have visited but it is so vast in both geographic size and scope of things to see and do that there are still plenty of things I have not yet done.

The first time I set foot in the city of London was 28 years ago.  I got my first passport to visit my boyfriend who was travelling through Europe on an extended trip I couldn’t afford but I discovered the airfare to London wasn’t too bad so I could buy a backpack and make a short visit since we could sleep on the sofa at his Australian friends’ flat in Earl’s Court.  Back then, it was best to just stick to an English cooked breakfast and fish and chips.  Pretty much everything else was cooked to death and tasted a little like cardboard.

Luckily, I have found lots of reasons to continue to return to England’s capital so saw the rise of British cuisine first hand.  For a long time now, I have been fortunate to have at least one friend living in London and it makes me an especially privileged tourist.  We’ve been going to Shoreditch for dinner for a few years now so I decided it was time to see if I could STAY in Shoreditch and expand my knowledge of the city.

There are a few options.  I decided to stay at the Hoxton.  I would highly recommend it if you are comfortable with hipsters 😉  It’s very lively.  They have done a

hangin at the hoxton

good job of being part of the neighborhood while catering to tourists and it’s packed on the weekend.  I spent some time with my friends but was also at the hotel alone at points so could go into observation mode.

exploring the ‘hood

It was quite hilarious.  In my normal life, I don’t spend a lot of time with hipsters so had not appreciated how little individuality there was.  Practically everyone looked the same, especially the men.  For sure, curated facial hair, often a man-bun.  Expensive sneakers with little personality.  Untucked shirt, invariably white but possibly black.  Skinny jeans.  It was a little creepy, like looking at a version of youth programmed as Stepford Wives.

While the concept of individuality may have gotten a little lost, there was a lot to like once you indulged in conversation.  It’s a great bolthole from which to experience Shoreditch and environs.

We’ll continue the Shoreditch adventures… and eventually I will write more about London… but to get you started I am going to defer to TimeOut.   I can vouch for Lyle’s and Andina.  I have been using TimeOut guides for most of my adult life.  I can’t remember if I discovered it in London or in New York City.  Like so many things, it has gone from cool entrepreneurial quirk to ubiquitous corporate presence but it’s still one of the best resources for travellers who like the path less travelled…

 

 

 

bye bye USSR…

If you think of Eastern Europe as a drab Soviet era anti-paradise, you will be shocked.  Back when I visited Prague in the late 90s, you could still see communism in action but these days you are more likely to wonder if you are in a parallel universe where you could be in New York City, London, Sydney – or Vilnius!  In some ways I find it disturbing – the globalization of culture… but you have to be careful to check your western privilege.

There is definitely an unconscious bias for prosperous citizens of developed countries to want to find cute cultures that allow them to be nostalgic or surprised.  Culture is a very complex subject and I am definitely not a fan of the homogenized American propaganda marketing machine but I am a fan of development and prosperity.

In an ideal world, different cultures will adopt new technologies but in a way that makes them special and true to the region.  It’s a tough ask and one needs to be open minded.

Some of my greatest travel experiences have been in luxe safari lodges in Africa where the companies seem to be making responsible decisions about the environment, the wildlife and the local population, appreciating it’s an ecosystem and behaving honorably will create the best results for all involved.  The US seems to have gone bonkers and corrupted capitalism but it wasn’t always that way.  Some of the early American entrepreneurs actually cared about their employees and their communities.  There are pockets of a return to that vision that should be embraced by consumers.

I really hope that kind of capitalism can see a broad resurgence in the country that defines itself by that moniker but I have been more enthused by capitalism in developing economies.

I’m pretty good at research and seem to have a nose for finding cool things so, once I had seen the Old Town, I looked for 21st century Vilnius.  It’s the capital city so I really saw only a tiny acreage of its possibilities but you can wander just a few metres from the storybook Old Town and wonder if you have wandered into Brooklyn…

It will be cooler than Brooklyn, though, as there will still be cobblestone streets and old houses… but there will also be cocktails, tapas and live music.

extra entertainment

The great part is that if you have only one night, it can all happen on one street and environs.  You can eat there too but I found it a little hit and miss on the service front so you are likely better advised to follow my lead from my first night in Vilnius.  Zuvine in the Old Town showcases the seafood of the Baltics.  There is even a scientific chart!  I am a huge seafood fan and one of the really cool elements of that is that seafood is a regional thing so you can eat it all over the world but you should try the local delicacies rather than sticking to stuff you already know.

When I lived in Germany, one of my favourite fish was Zanderfilet.  What I loved even more was that there wasn’t a precise English translation.  It was just awesome fish from pristine German fresh water lakes.  That’s really all you needed to know.  At Zuvine you can also sit outside and dine across from a fabulous church and you might get lucky and see hot air balloons as you munch on your fish.

Once you have a full belly, you can head to Vilniaus and start your bar crawl.  I started at Distilerija and had the Smoked Manhattan – the showcase cocktail.  It was fine.  I am very spoiled when it comes to cocktails so you might think it better than fine. It’s worth checking out just to people watch.  It’s definitely young happening Vilnius.  I tried to order salmon tartare but it was going to take about an hour so I gave up.

Considered The Bubbles, a spot specializing in all things sparkling, and Alchemikas,

rum sublime

supposedly a very serious cocktail bar, but they were too quiet, so chose the Rhum Room instead.  It was mostly a large boisterous birthday party but they gave it a lively vibe.  According to my lovely server, it opened in November 2015.  She carefully constructed an excellent mojito and was very pleased when I told her it was better than the ones I’d had in Cuba.

I also managed to get some food.  The menu was limited but the jerk chicken lollipops and sweet potato fries were excellent.

plein air tunes

I also caught a band at Vasaros Tersasa.  It’s only open in summer months but there is a big, boisterous courtyard and the cover was only two euros.  It felt like you were in real Vilnius rather than Vilnius aspiring to be Brooklyn or London.  I ended the night by popping into a crowded pub on the way back to the hotel for a beer since I was in Eastern Europe and you really should drink the local beer.  It was the most authentic (and cheapest) experience of the evening, proving there are options at different price points.

So, check out aspiring hipster Vilinius (sans most of the curated facial hair) or revel in authentic Vilnius.  Or sample both.  Just make sure you go before it’s as packed with tour buses as Prague!

 

 

 

 

 

thoroughly modern riga

Apparently Riga blossoms at the beginning of centuries.  It was a spectacular place to be at the beginning of the 20th century.  Sadly, it then became embroiled in the challenges of that century in a very prominent way but, luckily for those of us born to be able to enjoy the 21st century, Riga is making an impressive comeback.  For visitors from the prosperous west, it is a place where you can live large – so be sure to tip generously!

so great it was spared

I’ve covered the most intriguing tourist sights but there are a few more places that are noteworthy.  There is the spectacular Riga Synagogue, built in 1905, and the only surviving synagogue.  Not far away is the Freedom Monument.  It was paid for by public donations and erected in 1935 where a statue of Peter the Great once stood.  It’s affectionately known as Milda and, during Soviet times, it was off limits to the public and people placing flowers at its base were prosecuted.  Of course, this makes the flowers you see there today

freedom a very powerful concept

more poignant.

flowers with extra meaning

If you are into flowers, you will love Riga.  Like Amsterdam, there are many flowers for sale and the quality is astonishing.  The Flower Market is near the river.  You can just enjoy its beauty from the banks or you can hop aboard a vessel and cruise along Daugava River.

In Old Riga, you will also want to check out Riga Castle, the Swedish Gate and the Powder Tower, remnants of the power struggles among European empires for this Baltic treasure.

I am no longer surprised by the amazing food and drink to be found in Eastern Europe.  There are not as many choices as there are in Paris or London but that doesn’t mean there are not sufficient choices, invariably at a fraction of the sticker shock you will encounter in London.  I was sleep deprived as I was trying to check out as many options as I could 🙂

One place to definitely check out is Gutenbergs.  (It is also a great choice for accommodation).  I snuck in without a reservation but I would recommend making one.  Then, perhaps, you could sit on the patio.  I didn’t understand why I couldn’t as there were empty seats the entire time I was there but it’s best to just play along… I still had a great view of the cathedral, Riga rooftops and the pink and blue sunset.

To add to the experience, the meal was divine.  They are really into gin so ordered an Estonian gin and tonic, which was excellent.  Went full carnivore and ordered the most expensive thing on the menu – 21 day aged local entrecote.  It came with a plethora of roasted vegetables and everything was perfectly cooked and delicious for 22 euros.  That might just get you the cocktail in London…  Enjoyed the steak with a great glass of Primivito.  Better than any steakhouse dinner for probably half the price.

worth the price of the cocktail 🙂

You can get good cheap beer easily but there is also an emerging sophisticated drinking scene as well.  I started with an excellent Manhattan at the Radisson Skyline Bar in order to check out the view and the sunset.  It’s the most expensive drink I had in Riga (still probably half what you would pay in London) but it was worth it for the expansive bird’s eye view over Riga.

The thing to drink in Riga is Black Balsam.  Mittel Europa is big on boozy botanicals.  I guess it was all the forests… It’s worth trying but you may not fall in love.  You can do it straight or in a cocktail.  There is also a currant version, which is more user friendly.  As already noted, I tried it first in a cocktail at the Albert Hotel.  My most memorable experience though was when I stopped in late afternoon at an outdoor café near the Swedish Gate (Sweden used to throw its weight around via military force until they invented Ikea and H&M ;).  I was mostly tired from walking and needed to consult my guidebook but wanted to try Black Balsam in the raw before I left Riga.

I went through a shift change so ended up with two different servers.  They were both young women excited about the prospects of Latvia and one of them was anxious to see more of the world.  We ended up having a great conversation as the café wasn’t busy and I stayed long enough that it was time for an early dinner.  For some reason, almost all my great conversations in the Baltics were with young women.  Maybe the Communist influence?  There was a lot to regret about Communism but it did tend to promote women as equals.  Whatever the reason, I was very excited to see all these young women thriving and dreaming.  Each Eastern European country is different and there is no doubt they are disadvantaged compared to the West but there is also a sense of optimism and hope that is often lacking in the West.  Most young people don’t have the same sense of entitlement.  Instead they are excited to see what they can do to improve their communities.

If you like talking to cool young women then your next stop should be the Left Door Bar.  It’s in the Art Deco district close to Albert iela.  It wasn’t on my weekend route so I ended up there on a Sunday but that allowed me to chat with my server.  Apparently they had run out of Black Balsam because the weekend was so busy!  She informed me that each cocktail came in its own special glass.  I had the Philosopher Martini, which had been invented by the chef.  It included Absolut Elyx Vodka, Nordic Vermouth, Luxardo Maraschino Cherry Liqueur and was served in a vintage glass.  I drank it very carefully 🙂

It rivalled anything I had in London (also part of this trip).  My server informed me there were three cocktail bars she would recommend in Riga so you will have to do some research but it will be worth your while.

I ran around Riga a bit like a whirling dervish because it is compact, beautiful and safe so not sure my notes really do it justice but there were some other memorable experiences I can share with potential visitors.

I managed to find some of the nightlife so can offer some recommendations.  You can watch live jazz at Trompete (Peldu 24).  Unfortunately, no one was playing when I went there but did have a nice beer and it’s close to Folksklub Ala Pagrabs, which became one of my hangouts.  It’s a huge cavern filled with beer, music and Latvian pride.  The bar strives to reflect the full geography and diversity of Latvian beer.  I ended up on the dance floor a couple of times, first with a nice Latvian who was scared off by some loutish lads and then a Brazilian guy who seemed to have a complicated life.

There is music at Blues 54 Jazz (Terbatas 54).  It’s also a great street to check out for food and architecture.  If you want a surreal experience of kitsch, head to Moonshine, a Latvian tribute to 1950s America circa Happy Days (i.e the fantasy USA as exported by television).  The décor didn’t do much for me but there was a very good band upstairs.

If beer is your thing, also check out Alus darbnica Labietis, which promotes more obscure Latvian breweries.  If wine is more your thing, check out Vina Studija (Elizabetes 10) after your Art Deco tour. My server seemed to have taken his customer service tips from Soviet times but the wine was excellent and well-priced!

My final night in Riga was a Sunday so that made things a bit more difficult.  Latvia has definitely discovered the tourism industry so a lot is open but not everything.  My Left Door Bar server dissed KID so went off in search of Bibliothek or Kolanade.  I never found Bibliothek and Kolonade was closed.

Do consider checking it out though because it is also near the river in a gorgeous setting in addition to the food experience. I LIKE walking but was starting to feel both weary and hungry so headed for Old Riga, which I assumed was touristy enough to have restaurants open on Sunday night.  Locale looked promising and ended up with a nice cocktail, a glass of wine and some excellent lasagne to finish my tour of Riga on a high note.

Riga has a lot of high notes.  You really should go and meet the new generation of dreamers in one of the most spectacular settings in the world.  Latvia is still under the radar enough for a visit to paste you with a patina of cool but it’s discovered enough you won’t be a trailblazer… why I think I need to go to Tbilisi 😉

<I laughed reading this as I did a first draft a while ago but didn’t finish and post until now… and since then have booked a trip to Tbilisi!  Will actually be going to Georgia the country and Georgia the state for the first time next year.  Both very cool destinations from what I read.>

DO cry for Argentina ;)

We are jumping continents again… back to finish my South America adventures…

Argentina was the first country I visited in South America.  The trip had an unusual origin.  I invited a friend who had just come back from a five month sabbatical in South America to a wine dinner with some Aussie friends.  They asked him his favourite country and he replied Argentina.  At that point I had never been to South America.  It was my missing continent so when my Australian friend decided we should go, I was in.  She was married so we only had 10 days since she was leaving her husband at home in Canada.

That’s when I discovered Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world!  So we wouldn’t be seeing all of it in 10 days… I decided we could spend some time in Buenos Aires, drink wine in Mendoza and check out Iguazu Falls.  It was a magical trip.  What was most amazing is that the logistics mostly worked.  We never got to the Brazilian side of the falls (despite paying a hefty fee and enduring insane archaic bureaucracy to get a visa so we could spend a day in Brazil) because there was a strike…  There were also strikes and protests that meant we never got to eat steak as the strikers were blocking its delivery to restaurants.

part of the culture

Welcome to Argentina!  You should absolutely go!  Just recognize that it is the kind of place for which the term banana republic was created.  It’s a gorgeous country full of natural resources and some of the world’s most beautiful people.  Part of the reason Danny was so keen on Argentina was how many attractive people he met there.  I’m not sure what they put in the water but he was right 😉  While strikes and protests can mar your travel plans, there are lots of lovely people in Argentina.  You feel so sorry that their country is such a mess as they don’t deserve it.

My first trip was back in 2008 when the economy was only starting to recover from the most recent economic catastrophe so there were a lot of cynical Argentinians jealous of Chile.  Buenos Aires was once the Paris of South America and it was the 10th wealthiest nation per capita in 1913.  They did elect Macri and there is finally some hope.

That’s the Argentina that I visited the second time.  When you take the Australis ship you can do a return trip or you can go in one direction.  It’s very expensive and I didn’t get the sense I would see a lot more returning to Chile so chose the Punta Arenas – Ushuaia route.  Ushuaia bills itself as “The End of the World” as there is no population settlement further south anywhere in the world.  It’s where you go if you want to check out Antarctica (so I will likely be back at some point ;).

You likely want to spend the extra to get a transfer to your hotel when you leave the ship.  I was cheap and did not… it all looked easy on the map 🙂  It wasn’t very many blocks to drag my suitcase but what I hadn’t realized was that the entire journey would be on a steep incline with questionable infrastructure like sidewalks… I made it without succumbing to a taxi and the reward at the end of the journey made it very worthwhile.  I would highly recommend the Alto Andino Hotel.  It’s quite small, the staff are very friendly, there is a good breakfast and – the biggest treat – there are sweeping views of the mountains and the Beagle Channel from the top floor. On top of all that, I also had a Jacuzzi bath in my room.  Ushuaia is a small frontier town so it’s an easy walk (without a suitcase!) to find souvenirs, food or drink.  I did have an incredibly difficult time finding water, though. so you may want to pack some.

beautiful breakfast

Just to make sure I knew I wasn’t in Chile any longer, there was a giant protest!  Welcome to Argentina…  Didn’t do anything especially memorable in Ushuaia.  It’s really a transit hub – but it is in a gorgeous location so worth a day if you end up there on your way to somewhere else.

Getting back to Santiago was challenging.  There are only a couple of flights a day from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires so I spent hours at the airport.  It was one of the most abysmal airport experiences of my life.  I had far more fun drinking beer at the outdoor café in Arusha watching the tourist groups come and go and local Tanzanians hang out.  The food and entertainment options were extremely limited and the pizza I finally decided to try tasted like cardboard!  They made it fresh so I was hopeful but maybe they forgot the yeast… At least I didn’t have to switch airports!  LAN Argentina changed my flight several times and I had to call them to finally sort everything out to make sure I could connect to Santiago and what airport I needed.

Argentina is like a telenovela star.  Gorgeous –  but temperamental and difficult at times.  She drives you crazy but she is so seductive you can’t resist… The people of Argentina need your pesos.  Go and meet them.  You’ll fall in love…

 

participating in the local economy…

It is always my goal to try and help the local economy in all countries that I visit.  The easier it is to navigate, the easier it is to acquire information and meet locals so that you can get a better sense whether you are impacting the lives of individual citizens or governments or giant corporations.  Communism is in theory about the people so should make it easier to boost the bank accounts of ordinary people through tourism but it is generally the opposite.

It’s hard to know what is controlled by the government, advertising is suppressed and not everyone is comfortable expressing an honest opinion.  That doesn’t mean you give up though, just that you have to try harder.  As I earlier expressed, I really wished I had done more homework before I arrived in Havana and highly encourage bringing a guidebook!

Of course the other thing that works in every place is to chat with locals.  You might meet some on the Malecon.  It’s a seafront promenade that stretches for seven kilometres.  Personally I found it a little underwhelming and having to navigate several lanes of crazy Latin drivers without traffic lights just made me feel as though I was back in Pompeii risking my life on the roadway so I could catch the bus back to Rome.  There is a lot I like about Latin people but their driving habits are not in that category.  Nevertheless, as long as no one plows you down getting there, it offers a great view of Havana.

great atmosphere

great atmosphere

I preferred to meet my locals in Old Havana where the traffic is mostly on foot.  The most fascinating conversation I had was when I was buying souvenirs on Calle Obispo and met an American who was relocating to Cuba.  He was a big fan and an entertaining guy.  A liberal Republican!  He had lots of interesting views involving a few conspiracy theories.  Much to like.  Much to question 🙂  I had been lured in by a young Cuban entrepreneur promoting his wares on the street so felt I was supporting the local economy.

Also spent some time at Sloppy Joe’s, a restoration project of a Havana institution.  It is definitely new Cuba and an interesting

hipster cuba :)

hipster cuba 🙂

counterpoint to all the crumbling buildings.

The other thing I would recommend is taking a shared taxi.  I didn’t do it on purpose.  The taxi to Plaza de Revolution was so expensive I thought I would walk back but instead just managed to get lost in Nuevo Vedado.  It was illuminating though.  I found a hotel where Cubans would stay rather than foreigners.  Of course, that also meant the guy at the front desk couldn’t call me a taxi.  It was Mother’s Day so taxis were at a premium.

I discovered that it appears the street names in Vedado are marked on stones at ground level rather than signs above eye level… why it is easy to get lost.  Since I had to find my own taxi, I attempted to figure out how to get to a main street and managed to get back to Avenida de los Presidentes, a place I knew well from my earlier experience lost in Havana.  It wasn’t easy to find a taxi that wasn’t filled with passengers but finally a car stopped.  I had read about the shared taxis so figured it was better than being lost.

It was a great insight into the real Cuba.  There are two currencies – local pesos and tourist pesos (which are equivalent to a US dollar).  I had been living in the tourist peso economy and the taxi driver was quoting the fare in local pesos.  The other passengers were lovely and helped me to figure it all out and I think we both won.  It cost me almost nothing and the driver got a crazy tip.

I would definitely encourage you to seek out the real Cuba and support the new entrepreneurs.  One of the easiest ways is dining at paladares.  You will need to seek them out as they are typically on the second floor and advertising is very minimal.  I used my guidebook and discovered a great one and a classic one.

classic cuban cuisine

classic cuban cuisine

The classic one was El Gijones at Prado #309.  You can look out on the Prado and eat a very reasonably priced meal of pork, rice and beans.  Classic Cuban fare.

Even better is to seek out Paladar Los Mercaderes (Mercaderes #207).  It’s a charming, romantic space complete with

capitalist cuba ;)

capitalist cuba 😉

fresh rose petals on a marble staircase.  Some equally charming young men were at street level trying to lure me in but I told them I had already selected it as my dinner location.  I was really early so got incredible service and took my server’s suggestion to splurge on the lobster in coffee sauce.  It’s a Cuban splurge so not too bad on the budget and it was delicious!

It also allowed me to have some intriguing conversations with young Cubans.  Coming of age in Cuba in the 21st century is definitely an interesting experience.  They have grown up with a rich culture and a history longer than almost any in the New World but capitalism is seductive and they sense the need for change.  You can’t begin to debate the merits of capitalism or socialism in under a half hour but I told them Cuba was trending and their lives would be memorable… most memorable for me… they didn’t know what trending meant… why you need to see it now 😉

 

viva la revolution!

It is strange and somewhat disconcerting to be a tourist in a Communist country.  Of course, you can just follow a tourist guide around and not think about it or stay in a posh resort that is wholly capitalist despite the national politics.  I always like to try and understand a place when I visit to the extent my few days immersed in the local culture will allow.

drifting through havana

drifting through havana

Since I only had about five full days in Cuba, I decided to just stick to Havana so that I could try and get a good sense for it and save the rest of Cuba for another visit.  There is plenty to do – and think about – in Havana so I was never bored.  I also went on these crazy walks all over Havana that lasted for hours and frequently resulted in me being lost for some portion of the walk.  The wonderful part of that was that I discovered Havana in a way I never would have just speeding by in a pretty refurbished automobile from the era of Trump’s fantasy America.

I did feel that I should do that at least once, and since I had gotten lost trying to walk to Plaza de Revolución, it seemed a

an eerie place

an eerie place

good case for a fancy ride through Havana.  I would definitely recommend at least one ride in a classic car.  Mine was very expensive compared to everything else in Cuba but, as a gringo, I just accepted I was contributing to the economy.

Plaza de Revolución is a lot different in person that it looks in photos.  There is the fancy metalwork saluting Fidel and Che, which is a compulsory tourist photo.  The square is gigantic and generally eerily empty.  The military presence is very obvious and you realize you are in a police state.  It feels like someone is watching from a hidden camera every moment.  There are lots of signs marking where you can no longer wander.

welcome to china!

welcome to china!

Communism and other forms of dictatorship make me nervous.  I was relieved to get out of the Plaza de Revolución and to another part of Cuba that felt hopeful and festive.  When I was in China, my hotel was close to Tiananmen Square and, despite being a major hosting venue for the Olympics, which had just ended, no taxi driver seemed capable of finding it so I spent a lot of time in Tiananmen Square.  It is an unnerving place to be deposited.  Mao is always looking at you and there are plenty of dudes with rifles milling about.  One of the most bizarre sights was the soldiers standing guard in front of a giant display of the silly Olympic mascots.  There should have been a sign saying “Welcome to China!  It’s complicated.”

All countries are complicated but Communist countries increase the complexity by an exponential degree.  Theoretically, all this communism is FOR the people and offers them a better life than the capitalist pigs would have allowed.  But it’s never really gone down like that.  Every supposedly Communist state is a little different.  ALL love propaganda!  All are comfortable suppressing the truth, controlling the media and rewriting history.  Visiting a Communist country really makes one appreciate the freedoms and benefits of democracy even if not all of its attributes are sublime.

When I was in China, it was entertaining to read the history of Shanghai through the Chinese government’s eyes.  In Cuba, you can get the same experience by visiting the

ya gotta love propaganda ;)

ya gotta love propaganda 😉

Museo de la Revolución.  It is located in the former Presidential Palace so worth visiting just for the architecture.  You will certainly learn about the Cuban Revolution.  You won’t learn much beyond that, though, and it’s all glory and sacrifice and the 1960s.  Just another aspect of Cuba that feels like a time capsule.

fidel is watching you...

fidel is watching you…

It’s important, though, to note that young Castro was a noble guy.  He did some good stuff.  It’s easy to go communism bad, capitalism good, but it’s not at all that simple.  Probably why the vast majority of the people who score high on happiness and quality of life on those international indices live in socialist countries. The best system includes elements of both.

And Castro and team did some remarkable things in Cuba.  They defeated the United States of America!  They got rid of the mob and the casino culture that had overtaken the economy.  They sent young disciples out to rural Cuba to teach everyone how to read so that Cuba now has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.  They also have free education and healthcare and some basic food is provided by the state.  It’s an idealistic concept that would have appealed to the very young men and women who masterminded the Cuban revolution.

The tough part, though, is how to sustain that kind of system and how to be able to interact with a world that doesn’t share the same system.

the iconic che

the iconic che

The original system was more crazy fever dream than well-reasoned new political and economic philosophy.  As an example, I learned that Che Guevara was appointed President of the National Bank of Cuba and Minister of Industry in addition to being in charge of Agrarian Reform.  OK, first, TOO many major jobs.  Second, SERIOUSLY, who appoints a dude who’s a doctor and a guerilla war expert to run the money stuff???

I would encourage you to go to Cuba and check it out for yourself.  Go with an open and inquisitive mind.  There are some good ideas there.  There is a lot of idealism.  There is a lot of pride.  There is also naivety.  Cuba is an example of incredible idealistic ideas brought to fruition – but it is also a cautionary tale that it’s really important to have a plan that’s sustainable and pragmatic enough that your revolution will actually achieve the ideals you hoped it would for the long term.  The hardest part begins the day after the victory parade…

 

 

in cuba the present IS the past…

I still have a little more to say about South America but decided it was time to change locales for a few posts…

You may recall I bumped Cuba up the travel list because I was worried it would be flooded with Starbucks before I got to see it the way I had always romanticized it.  Of course, all that is in question now, which means making a visit soon is likely not as urgent but I would still encourage it.

While I love the internet, it has been responsible for the commoditization of global culture.  I first noticed this in the twilight of the twentieth century when most people still hadn’t figured out how to use the internet.  Even then there was global media, cheap travel and far easier ways to share ideas than had ever existed before in human civilization.

As someone who grew up in the middle of nowhere and dreamed of having access to what was actually going on in the rest of the world, it was exciting.  I was also able to start travelling a lot and quickly understood that it also meant that so many places looked alike that had once been unique.  The trendy bars in Sydney, Paris and San Francisco all looked shockingly similar, devoid of elements that made them reflect their unique local cultures.

What I discovered is that if you got a little more adventurous, you could still find something that surprised you in a delightful way.  It might be in Cambodia, Tanzania or Romania.  It was likely to always be in an emerging market.

In Cuba, things go a little further.  Not only is it unique but you feel like you are visiting history without a time machine.  In Cuba, Fidel, Che and Ernest are still in their prime.

It feels a bit like you are on an acid trip (or how I imagine an acid trip would unfold 😉

There are several shrines to Hemingway.  Pretty much anything associated with Hemingway has a plaque at minimum.  It’s very surreal as there is almost no advertising or promotion in Cuba – except when it comes to the big three.  Coming from a market economy it is both comforting and disconcerting.

But you can just go with the kitsch and not obsess over its moral implications 🙂

worth the price!

worth the price!

One place you really should hit is El Floridita.  It’s been around since 1817 and about 100 years later it acquired a new Catalan immigrant owner, Constantino Ribalaigua who invented the frozen daiquiri in the 1930s.  Neither he nor the daiquiri may have become so famous had it not been for one of his patrons – Ernest Hemingway.

These days there is a bust of Hemingway along with memorabilia and a lot of tourists!  It is the most expensive daiquiri in Cuba (but still cheap by first world standards) and absolutely worth it.  It’s a daiquiri factory still set in the 1950s.

If you are a Hemingway fan, you can also try a mojito at La Bodequita or just hang out at Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway was a resident from 1932 to 1939.

If following Fidel is more your thing, you should head for the Hotel Habana Libre.  It originally opened in 1958 as the

it's 1960 in havana

it’s 1960 in havana

Havana Hilton with Conrad Hilton himself in attendance.  At the time it was Latin America’s tallest and largest hotel and likely the swankiest.

On January 8, 1959 Fidel took residence in suite 2324 as his headquarters.  In October 1960 all American hotels in Cuba were nationalized and the hotel was renamed the Hotel Habana Libre.

a daiquiri worth seeking out

a daiquiri worth seeking out

It’s now owned by the Spanish Melia chain and a great place for a fantastic daiquiri – the best I

the view!

the view!

had in Cuba and about half the price of El Floridita.  There is also a nightclub on the top floor but it wasn’t open when I stumbled upon it on my walk around Havana until you figure it out unofficial excursion.  I was hoping to get a drink and take cool photos of Havana.  Luckily I shared my goals with one of the hotel employees and she took me in an old-fashioned operator controlled elevator to a high floor that felt like something out of the Jetsons.

You can live in the past – or at least visit it 😉  I highly recommend exploring the past and present intermingling in one of the only places left in the world where that experience is still possible.

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