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Guest Post: Cuba Libre

This week we have a guest post from our good friend Andrew McGill and his girlfriend Kestrel Jenkins of Falcon Related, who just returned from a two week jaunt across Cuba.  Check out Drew’s photos and Kestrel’s writing below.  – Marko

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“It’s complicated.”

For the people of Cuba, this is life. In a recent adventure across the largest island in the Caribbean, we consistently heard this sentiment. From taxi chauffeurs, park rangers and housing hosts to lifeguards and restaurateurs, the conversations all ended up in the same place: with an acceptance of the complex reality they live.


Just 90 miles off the Florida coast, Cuba has been disconnected from trade with the U.S. since 1962. After the revolution, the embargo and inefficient agriculture led to regular food shortages. While people today are generally able to bring home enough rice and sugar through Cuba’s rationing “libreta” system, they often have to seek out other foods, especially eggs, milk and meat.


Food becomes even more complex when you insert the double economy. Cuba functions on two separate currencies. Cuban pesos, or nacionales (MN), are the money of the people. Citizens employed through the government are paid in nacionales. The other coin, largely known as the CUC (convertibles), was created specifically for tourists and initially set to be 1 to 1 with the U.S. dollar. To put the divide into perspective, 1 CUC = 24 pesos (MN).IMG_7987

From afar, Cuba is known for its time warping image: colorful vintage cars, historic buildings, and classic street scenes. While it has all of that, its layers of history and beauty go far beyond.

In a landscape emanating complexity, travel can be just as difficult.


When we arrived in La Habana, we were abruptly bombarded with hagglers and chaos. In a quick attempt to escape the mayhem and search for a more nature-rich scene, we hopped on the first bus to Baracoa, which sits on the coast on the opposite side of the island.


22 hours and multiple breakdowns / fixes later, we cruised into the picturesque and isolated beach town of Baracoa. The road that leads into Cuba’s oldest town is windy, narrow and well, mountainous.IMG_8316


Our caffeine free arrival was met with a gang of bici-taxis ready and raring to capture our bags, and bring us to their family or their friend’s casa particular. Casa particulares are a more recent way that Cubans can start a private enterprise. By renting a room out of their own home, they are able to earn CUCs, an income impossible on a government salary.


One of the most profound realizations we came to in Cuba was that everyone belongs to one or more “networks”. These webs of interconnectivity help every Cuban connected to that channel capture a chunk of the tourist CUCs spent along their adventure.


For instance, a taxi driver drops you with another taxi driver who can take you to your next destination. The original taxi driver tells the second taxi driver the location and name of a casa particular in your anticipated destination city. Before you know it, you arrive at the most incredibly welcoming home. A casa particular with an ocean view, a mother and daughter with glowing personalities and some of the most flavorful food you could imagine. It happened in Rancho Luna. And we were beyond grateful.


Now, this situation can go to the contrary in the blink of an eye. Once you get on a travel avenue, it’s like you’re amidst a relay race. You will be passed along onto someone else – a casa particular, another form of transportation, a restaurant or a guide. Before you know it, you may be in an entirely different place than anticipated, which could be a blessing or extremely frustrating. For us, we realized that when we didn’t like something about the current we got caught in, we set ourselves free entirely, and started fresh with a new race.


The tourist bus system – the Viazul – was one of those specific avenues we ejected ourselves from. After our initial overnight cross-country ride, we were over the bus scene. The Viazul generally stops at government-run restaurants, which serve buffets complete with bland and overpriced food – establishments overflowing with collections of tourists.


For us, the bus left us feeling like we had lost our freedom to choose, to explore, to ask questions, and to connect more with the local community. After some early struggles in understanding the culture and way of communicating, I finally threw my inhibitions out the window and decided it was time to barter right back. This attitude and our Spanish-speaking skills allowed us to jump into the taxi trellis, a travel option we found to be more economical for city hopping, and also far more rewarding.


Colectivos are taxis that travel from city to city on the regular and load up with as many people as possible. It costs pesos for the locals, but if you can speak the language, you can work your way into a seat for a far more reasonable price than the bus. In addition, you’ll have the opportunity to cruise the roads in some pretty insane vintage rides, while having the chance to chat with local travelers crammed into the car beside you.IMG_7277

Some of our most vivid memories are from our cross-country colectivo travels. The extreme green jungle views, the humid breeze blowing through the windows, the squeaks and sounds of the antique cars, the conversations, the questions, the connecting and the smiles.


What is travel without having the chance to engage with the people? That’s where the true beauty lies.


Big thanks to our good friend Andrew McGill for sending over these incredible photos and to his girlfriend and partner-in-crime Kestrel Jenkins for writing up this insightful article.  Go check out Drew and Kestrel’s website and give them a follow! 


Hello! Bamboo! (Yangshuo, China)

The bus dumped me on the streets of Yangshuo at about five-thirty in the morning.  The roads were empty, and large limestone cliffs encircled the town and sheltered the buildings from the sunrise.

I was exhausted.  My one-week bender in Hong Kong was tiring enough, but trying to sleep in the tiny metal shoebox on the “sleeper bus” drained out any energy I had left.  I needed rest, and I needed fresh country air.  I ate a bowl of Gullin noodles, found a cheap hotel, and slept for an entire day.

The next day I awoke refreshed and ready to explore the surrounding countryside.  I rented a bike, grabbed a bike, and took off down the road.

The area around Yangshuo was littered with hundreds of karsts.  I am tired of describing what karsts look like.  This is how I know I have been in SE Asia too long, when the beauty of these awesome (yet ubiquitous) limestone cliffs no longer conjures up my powers of description.  They are great, to be sure, but I think I am running out of ways to describe what is essentially a single landscape that stretches from Thailand to Southern China.  I apologize for my apathy.

I rode on until I found a place called Yueliang Shan, or Moon Hill, in English.  A handful of old ladies waited for tourists in the shade at the bottom of the hill.  They approached me and said, ‘Hello!  Water!’  Hello.  No water, thank you.

I started walking up the hill, and one of the ladies started following me, fanning me and repeating two words, ‘Hello!  Water!  Hello!  Water!’  I noticed that tourists returning from the summit had old ladies following them, fanning them, and repeating the same two words as well.  Hello! Water!  One tourist told me he bought a water just to make his lady go away.  What was this?  I would have none of it.

I turned and faced the old lady and told her No as politely and firmly as I could.  It was not my words, but my beard that spoke to her.  She looked into my eyes, then into my beard, and took a step backwards.  From within the depths of my whiskers she heard the rejected cries of trinket mongers and water vendors from Malaysia to Vietnam.  No, my beard said, your pleas are futile.  Abandon all hope, ye who try to sell water to this beard; we buy our water at the supermarket.   She turned and walked away.

I summited the hill.  It was nice.  I took a few pictures and tried to relax, but the other tourists’ Hello!  Water! ladies chatted loudly only five meters from the viewpoint, waiting for us to start walking down, waiting for the opportunity to sell just one bottle of water for a profit of less than a dollar.

I managed to evade the Hello!  Water! ladies once again, and I hopped on my bike and started riding along the Yulong River in search of something called Yulong Qiao ­– the Dragon Bridge.

It took a few hours to ride along the Yulong River to the bridge.  My guidebook said there was a small dirt road tracing along the river through rice paddies and small villages.

But the road was not dirt, it was paved.  Truck after truck passed me, all carrying large bamboo to the half dozen ferry landings scattered along the riverbanks north of town.  The road passed dozens of construction sites for new hotels and luxury resorts that sprawled across the valley from the river to the foot of the surrounding cliffs.

I finally emerged from this jungle of development and I saw the river clearly for the first time.  There was a long string of bamboo rafts carrying tourists in bright orange life preservers.  I passed a ferry landing where dozens of rafts were moored while their pilots sat idly in the shade playing dominoes and waiting for customers.

I passed a small tree with three old ladies squatting under the shade.  I waved at them, but they did not wave back.  Instead, they popped up, put on their lampshade hats, jumped on their bikes, and began chasing me down the road.  What had I done now?

It is an odd feeling, being chased by a 70-year old lady.  It is an even odder feeling when she catches up to you.

She pulled next to me, waved, and screamed at me, HELLO!  Oh no, I though, not water again… Hello! Bamboo!  BAMBOOOOOO!

What the heck?  Bamboo?  Ahh, bamboo rafts!  There was no way I was going to ride on one of those things. I yelled back at her, No!  No bamboo!

It didn’t work.  Hello!  Bamboo!  NO HELLO!  NO BAMBOO!

Then the road dead-ended – right into a ferry landing.  The old lady jumped off her bike, smiling as if she knew she had won.  There was no escaping the bamboo rafts now.  More old women hobbled up to me, surrounding me like zombies from a B-grade horror film.  Hello…bam…boobam…boo…  I gasped and pointed to something over their shoulders and when they turned their heads I darted off on my bike.  Escape!  Glorious freedom!

I peddled onwards for ten minutes through the rice fields.  No matter how far I went, it seemed like I could not escape the hammering of new developments.  The whole valley was literally covered with construction sites.  I pulled off the road, looked over the fields and thought about what it all meant.

I could see China’s recent history in these rice paddies.  Fifty years ago, these fields were the stage for one of the largest economic experiments in history: Mao’s so-called ‘Great Leap Forward,’ that created agricultural cooperatives across the Chinese countryside.  He abolished money and private property, and tried to force productivity through pro-revolutionary ideology.  Mao’s plan failed miserably and as a result an estimated 30-60 million people starved to death.

Many things changed after Mao’s death in 1975.  It was widely acknowledged that Mao’s communist plans had failed and that something else must be done.  Den Xiaoping stepped up and ushered in a new era of market reforms.  He opened China’s doors to international trade and prescribed a program of “Four Modernizations”: agriculture, science, technology, and defense.  Within a few years, many of the communistic ideals of Mao were replaced with the American free-market principles.

Beginning in 1979, the ‘people’s communes’ were dissolved, collective farms were divided amongst the people and productivity skyrocketed.  As a result, there were plenty of farmers with nothing to do.

So they built factories in the countryside to employ the farmers made redundant by increased productivity.  These were very successful, so Deng Xiaopeng decided they needed to take it a step further.  Deng Xiaopeng listened to the advice of his free-market economic advisers and created China’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Shenzhen, next to Hong Kong.

I went through Shenzhen on my way to Yangshuo.  It thirty years ago it was just a small fishing village, but today it is an extremely prosperous city full of Gucci stores and Mercedes dealerships.  This is because the government offered businesses tax-breaks, freedom from government regulation, and a free hand to experiment with new market ideas.  They attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment, created many joint-ventures with foreign companies, and everything was made for export.  Shenzhen is one of China’s success stories, and many other SEZ’s have been constructed along the eastern seaboard, facing towards the Pacific Ocean and the world markets beyond.

This model has been replicated along China’s eastern seaboard and it has brought prosperity in its wake.  But it is not the same story in the inland provinces.  From where I was standing in Yangshuo, I could see the enormous gap between the wealthy tourists from Beijing and the poor old ladies who were trying to sell me water bottles.

These women were old enough to be my grandmother, yet in this ‘communist’ country where everyone is supposedly taken care of, they were chasing down tourists to supplement their income.  How could the prosperity of Shenzhen and the desperation of these old women exist under the same communist system?

I got off my bike and took a closer look at my surroundings.  Hotels and resorts were springing up across the valley as far as I could see.  The rural tranquility that draws visitors here was being devoured by development.  As I wrote in The Luddites’ Last Stand, tourists can not complain if local farmers turn their farms into guesthouses or restaurants.  But this was different – the farmers didn’t own these massive resorts.

Beijing is confiscating the land of farmers and awarding it to developers, often evicting entire villages and offering the farmers little in return.  Profitability seems to be the bottom line in China, with little attention paid to equality.  Had similar injustices occurred here?  Were all these Hello! Water! ladies former farmers displaced from their lands by privatization?

There are many other social costs of privatization.  As the State-Owned Enterprises are dismantled and turned into private companies, the former employees lose the benefits they enjoyed under the public companies – the so-called “Iron Rice Bowl” that provided workers with wages, education, healthcare, pensions, and housing.  Many have lost these privileges, many have been fired, and millions have left the countryside in search of work in the cities.

It is estimated that between 130 and 250 million rural Chinese migrate within China each year in search of work (that upper estimate is almost the population of the USA).  This is the largest migration in human history.  These migrants take the worst jobs, the ones that urbanites refuse to do, and they get paid little for their labor.

It was noon, and the laborers rested for lunch.  They set their hammers aside and silence fell over the rice fields.  Finally, I experienced the tranquility I sought.  Then I felt a bony hand grip my shoulder.  I turned around to see an old lady with a face wrinkled from a lifetime of hardship, from the upheavals of collectivization, privatization, and now this current situation, whatever it was.  She looked me in the eyes, then said, Hello!  Water!

Good lord.  There is no way the central government planned for this: scores of luxury hotels and hundreds of Hello! Water! ladies.  Deng Xiaoping said it himself, “Some must get rich first,” arguing that the SEZs and the rural areas must “eat in separate kitchens” instead of pooling their resources in a “common pot.”  I had not been in China long but it was easy to see which kitchen served better food.

I rode my bike back into Yangshuo and grabbed some dinner.  I chatted with a few other tourists, and they asked me where I was heading next.  I told them I had no idea.

I felt like I was drifting.  I needed a plan of action, or else time and money would slip through my fingers until my visa expired and my checks bounced.

I pulled out my guidebook and looked at a map of China.  The distances between the attractions were vast.  There was no way I could see everything I wanted to see in less than six weeks.  After all, I had the Trans-Siberian Railroad to catch.  I had to travel to Europe in less than two months.

My heart started thumping in my chest.  Was this really happening?  Was my trip coming to an end?  Only a few weeks ago I was riding The Minsk across Vietnam, free as a bird.  Now I could feel the constraints of Time and Money entrapping me, forcing me to make difficult decisions about my itinerary, my budget, my future!  My freewheeling vagabonding days were finished for now.  I realized I would have to plan out the rest of my trip on almost a day-by-day basis.

One thing was obvious to me – China was huge and transportation was expensive.  I needed to pick one part of China and I needed to stay there until it was time to go to Beijing.  I found the most interesting (an affordable) region in China – the Yunnan province.  I packed up my bags, took a bus to Gulin, and caught an overnight train to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan.

American Bombs (Luang Nam Tha, Laos)

At the crossroads – Trekking – Development Challenges – Luang Nam Tha – Laos’ Future, Past and Present – American Bombs

I crossed the Mekong at dawn.  Instantly I felt the subtle differences between Thailand and Laos.  The pace of life was slow in Laos: the border guards had not yet stumbled into work when our ferry arrived.  All the official signs and hotel advertisements were in French, linguistic holdovers from the colonial era when Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam formed the French colony of Indochina.

The challenge to get off the tourist trail continued.  We landed in Huang Xai and most of us were immediately herded from the border crossing to the docks and loaded onto the “slow boat” down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, a two-day journey on a 70-person barge crammed with 120 people.  No thanks.

Instead I opted to go north, from the border with Thailand to the northern border with China.  I spent  five days in the eastern corner of the Golden Triangle between Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing, attempting in vain to organize a trek into the nearby national park.  I hesitated a moment too long and missed my opportunity to go trekking, but it’s worth mentioning unique nature of the treks in Luang Nam Tha.

Unlike the exploitative manner in which most guides bring tourists to small hill-tribe villages, the companies in Laos have developed profit-sharing partnerships with the hill-tribes.  Whereas a trek in Thailand visit a virtual human-zoo where the locals “dress-up” in their traditional attire and sell tourists souvenirs and opium, the hill-tribes in Laos are genuinely happy to welcome tourists into their homes.  Because the trekking companies share around 1/3 of their profits with the tribe, the villagers do not rely on selling souvenirs and drugs to make a living.  My friends that went on such a trek were ecstatic afterwards.  They ate a traditional meal with the villagers, drank laos laos (the local moonshine) with the village chief, and then handed a blunt knife and asked to decapitate a chicken.  So the treks might be eco-friendly, but they are not quite PETA-approved.  This innovate approach to tourism is representative of Laos’ choice to develop along a sustainable path.  Hordes of NGOs are helping the receptive government develop their economy while preserving the Laos’s natural beauty.

But there is still much work to be done.  Laos’s people are in desperate need of education, infrastructure, and business opportunities.  Thankfully, the one-party socialist government has opened itself up to the world after disastrously flirting with collective agriculture and nationalized industries.  Laos has buried the past and is looking keenly towards the future, so if you are a recent grad looking for opportunities in development work there are plenty of opportunities here.  Check out www.directoryofngos.org for a starting point.

Though I missed out on the trek I had an enjoyable time in the north of Laos nonetheless.  I wandered through the towns, sampled incredible Laos coffee and French baguettes in cafes, rode through farmland on a motorcycle, and watched barefooted opium addicts stumble through the streets.   There were few tourists, the weather was cool and comfortable, and the scenery was enough to keep me in Luang Nam Tha for a few days.

Luang Nam Tha lies in a low, wide valley surrounded on east and west by green mountains stretching for miles into the distance.  The mountain ridges were shrouded in dense gray clouds that transformed as the day progressed, darkening and thickening into ominous rainclouds that poured sheets of rain through the afternoon heat.  Come midnight, lightening pierced the sky and thunder fulminated through the valley with a fury that made me sit upright in bed.

The valley was beautifully serene during the day.  Rice paddies spanned the width of the valley, each small plot partitioned by thick grassy ridges of earth that formed irregular patterns of squares and rectangles in the soil.  I rode a motorcycle through the farms and villages surrounding Luang Nam Tha, marveling in the beauty of it all and admiring the reflection of the mountains in the yellow waters of the flooded green rice paddies.  Old women knelt beside the river; some fetched water in woven baskets, some washed clothes on its banks, and some bathed their wholly covered bodies in the muddy waters.  Hours passed as I watched this lazy rural life trickle by to a soundtrack of buzzing crickets and chirping birds.

A busy highway bisected the lazy river and the hum of a thousand Chinese lorries overpowered the gentle buzz of the crickets.  China built this highway to connect Chinese exporters with the growing economy of Thailand.  This highway is one of many springing up across Laos, criss-crossing the country and connecting her neighbors with each other.  Dirt roads are still the norm in the countryside, but China is paving a smooth highway from Beijing to Singapore.  Laos’s future lies in her connecting freeways.

Her past is not so cheerful.  Laos is famous for being the world’s most heavily bombed country, a title earned during the American Secret war of the 60s and 70s.  Never heard of it?  Neither had most Americans at the time.

In the 60s and 70s Laos was a mess.  Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam had formed the French colony of Indochina since the 1800s, but the hasty departure of the French in the 50s left chaos in its wake.  Internal power struggles eventually descended into guerilla warfare between a US-supported government of right-wing elitists and the popular communistic Pathet Lao party.  The Pathet Lao party allied themselves with Ho Chi Minh’s army in North Vietnam, the US supplied the government with money and arms, and the CIA began training the Hmong hill tribe villagers to fight guerilla warfare.

Eventually the war in Vietnam spilled over the borders into Laos when the North Vietnamese Army established the Ho Chi Minh Trail along Laos’s eastern border.  The Trail was a vital supply route allowed the communists to circumvent the US military in central Vietnam, one that the Pentagon was determined to eliminate.  In 1965 the US began secretly carpet bombing Laos without approval from Congress and continued until 1973.  The bombing campaign created 750,000 refugees in Laos, and to this day the presence of unexploded ordinances (UXOs)  has retarded economic growth – essentially, it is too dangerous to farm in much of the countryside because unexploded American bombs are still buried in the soil.  Tourists are strongly advised not to wander off the trails, lest they step on bombs.

Luang Nam Tha was not spared from the destruction.  The Chinese highway linked the Chinese-owned hotels in the new town with the American-bombed ghost of the old town.

I visited the local Buddhist temple in the hills above the valley.  Like the town itself, there was both a new and an old section of the temple.  The old temple was a crumpled ruin of brown bricks while the new temple shone proudly like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the past.  As I paid my $0.30 admission fee I asked the groundskeeper what happened to the old temple, but I already knew the answer.  “Bomb,” he said, “American Bomb.

I did not know what to say to him.  I wasn’t alive when this happened and I had no part in this war, yet I was panged with guilt.  This was the first time I had witnessed the aftermath of an American war firsthand.  I had written research papers on Vietnam in university, but in Laos my paper’s carefully crafted arguments and well-researched statistics crashed to the ground when the abstract met reality.  That was all irrelevant, years in the past high up in an ivory tower halfway around the globe.  Where was The Domino Effect now?  No, the truth was staring at me in the form of a crumbled temple, a crushed village, a cold reaction to my stated nationality.  I’m from America.  The brief pause, the forced smile, then Ohhh, America…yes, yes, yes.

Yes, indeed.  What dark memories hide within those three ‘yes’s?  What other truths lurk in these small villages, in the soil of fallow pastures and the memories of the old men who watch me from their porches?  How many more times will I have this experience?  How many more times will I learn the history of a place, only to say, “Yeah, well…shit.” No explanations, no arguments, just guilty speechlessness.

What am I supposed to do?  This question remains unanswered.  The temple’s groundskeeper told me the history of the temple, but what could I say?  Sorry for blowing up your innocent Buddhist temple? I dropped a few pathetic dollars in the donation box and walked away in silence.

After five days it was time to move on.  Luang Nam Tha had been a beautiful place to learn a horrible history, but the Lao Lunar New Year was approaching and I wanted to be in a good spot for the festivities.  I packed my bags and headed south to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO Hertitage Site and purportedly the best place to bring in the New Year.