Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Tales of Tibet

Reading through my friend Mahogany’s blog LIVING ON A JET PLANE a few weeks ago made me cringe in embarrassment. In his usual succinct witty prose he tore apart travelers that bemoan changes in the places they visit, wanting to keep them in the dark ages to feed their egocentric travel aspirations.

I cringed because after a day of landing in Lhasa, the chief thought running through my head was that I wish I had come here at least ten years ago. Most of it, other than the little Tibetan quarter was so unlike the exotic Shangri La of my imagination. Guilty! I sound exactly like those whiny self indulgent tourists. So for what its worth I offer no defence, just snapshots of what I loved in my encounters with people there. Allow me, dear reader, a few paragraphs to rant first, please.

Tibet is tragic. Apart from the hundred thousand plus Tibetan refugees, a few bleeding hearts and a handful of Hollywood stars, no one really gives enough about their plight. Sympathy does not translate into action. It’s a lost cause and no one has any hope of an independent Tibet any more, least of all His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.

A few weeks after my return, a three part article written by N Ram appeared in the Hindu newspaper. After a whirlwind tour of Tibet as a guest of the Chinese government, with a Chinese guide, this eminent leftist journalist was full of praise for the progress China had brought to this dry, inaccessible, formerly primitive land. He must have spoken to many, many Tibetans before writing these articles. Or then again, maybe not. Three cheers for progress but this bounty has come at a very high cost to the people of Tibet who have no recourse but to accept all of it with the fatalism of their gentle faith.
Of course it’s wonderful that they now have a massive modern airport, well stocked shelves in supermarkets, decent roads linking big towns and electricity in every remote hamlet we visited. Heck when I saw that, I almost wrote to the Chinese asking them to invade Kodagu, my electricity strapped pothole ridden hometown in India! And yes, Chinese food is a great, after a diet of tough yak momos and indigestible tsampa that tastes vaguely like uncooked chappati dough.
And we were fascinated and amused to find out that one can order Victoria Secret lingerie online from the US and they deliver to Lhasa. Now that’s true upliftment of the masses. Progress!
What’s also going on is cultural genocide. Tibetans have become minorities in parts of their own country with wave upon wave of Han settlers from the mainland. Their children are forced to study in Mandarin, people who escaped to India and returned are hounded and persecuted and jobs made impossibly hard to get. People aren’t allowed to worship their spiritual leader, display his photographs or even mention his name openly. The Chinese are bypassing age old traditions and are declaring their chosen ones to be trulkus (reincarnated monks who often lead big Buddhist sects). Naturally only the tractable need apply. Case in point, the 11th Panchen Lama.
And coming back to that marvel of engineering, the controversial train to Lhasa… we saw the effects of it first hand. It was quite a moving sight…thousands of chattering Chinese tourists jostling each other (and us) in the holiest of holy, Tibetan shrines exclaiming over the wonders that their government has done its best to wipe out during the Cultural Revolution in the years between 1950 and 1970. They come in droves these tourists, they stay in huge Chinese hotels and they leave without lining the pockets of the Tibetans. And curiously, their tour leaders carry Mickey and Minnie Mouse flags to rally their troops…go Disney! That’s progress too.
Enough ranting…what was special in Lhasa was the Barkhor or the kora (circumambulation) around the Jorkhang monastery.
The Jorkhang is the spiritual nerve center of the Tibetan quarter. We spent hours there people watching, seeing young and old shuffling their way through the crowds, spinning prayer wheels and stopping to pray at shrines at every corner to feed the fires with offerings. The women almost always wear the traditional chuba with a small striped apron and so do many men although western dress is quite popular with men too. Cowboy hats are worn with great elan! Amdo women, with their hair done in 108 braids and strapping Khampa men who wear red and black tassels in their hair are among the most colorful to see. I was so taken up by one gorgeous woman that she completely took me in when I bought some old prayer beads from her.

One is supposed to circumbulate only clockwise, so Cat and I spent ages going round and round the Barkhor scouting for bargains or just looking for each other. I often hung out at the Makye Ame rooftop restaurant which has one of the best views of the Barkhor. Rumor has it that the dissolute 6th Dalai Lama used to slip out of the Potala to this place to meet up with a mysterious woman friend. The Summit café was also a favorite after hours hangout and had a fairly good Internet connection. I tried to see if one could access information about Tibetan politics, religion and leaders but surprise, all those sites were banned!

My friend Cat was fascinated by the devotion with which people do the Chaktsal (prostration) and watched all day while an old woman went through this series of steps over and over. I spent time with two wonderful people…both introduced to me through my Tibetophile friend Trish who had helped us plan our trip. Charming, hospitable Phurbu, who along with her husband makes and sells the most stunning Tibetan carpets, is also mother to a number of orphans in the Lucky Star orphanage. And Tseden Namgyal, master painter of Tibetan tankhas (paintings) who patiently answered my questions about Tibetan iconography and came with me while I selected fabrics to frame the White Tara I bought for my mom. I must state for the record that we did not discuss politics or religion and that the views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

I was blown away by my first glimpse of the Potala Palace. It hovers over the city like a guardian angel and was being renovated at the time of our visit.

Ironically the Chinese government is now fixing up the same places they destroyed to make money out of tourism. A monk, years ago had gifted my dad a tapestry of the Palace and as a kid I loved this picture. It was a dream come true to actually set foot inside of what ranks among of my list of all time favorite old buildings. After extensive security checks, we were let into the complex and saw an unusual sight. The roofs were being replastered in a uniquely Tibetan way. Two bands of laborers, back to back, took turns marching to their leaders’ commands but they sang as they stomped in unison. We heard later that they drank copious amounts of chang (barley beer) before they worked! Someone should tell our bosses about this method of keeping workers happy!

After a few days in Lhasa, we left the comforts of the Tibet Gorkha hotel and hit the road with a driver and our school teacher guide Tsedor.

Soon we were on monastery overload. The big monasteries are actually quite different from each other (Drepung, Sera, Ganden, Reting, Tashil hunpo and Samye) but the Tibetan pantheon of gods is vast and utterly confusing. It was always more fun to watch the pilgrims who came in large merry groups or startle monks surreptitiously playing with mobile phones instead of immersing themselves in prayer. The smell of butter lamps and the hum of chanting is what I will remember too. A fascinating sight was watching the younger monks have their practice debates…some got pretty fierce with much wild gesticulating and clapping of hands!

We drove for 7-8 hours at a time, day after day, through the mostly arid, unchanging landscape. The towns bordering big cities were full of Chinese and were gray, drab places. Tibetan households everywhere were easy to spot from their brightly colored doors. There were other splashes of color for Tibet has many rivers and is greener than I have always imagined. As we ventured further out of Lhasa, the roads became increasingly more bone shattering and dizzying.

One of our first stops was Tridum, a nunnery famous for its therapeutic hot springs. To this place goes the dubious distinction of the worst public toilet I have ever had the misfortune to use. Our rooms were pretty basic and with the same indifferent standards of hygiene. To avoid spending time there, Cat and I decided to try the hot springs. Cat had sensibly carried a swimsuit but I had not. At first we headed to what looked like a small private hot spring but after we had inadvertently frightened and chased away the poor man who was soaking peacefully there, we discovered that the water was way too hot for us.

Finally we found what looked like a women’s pool. A bunch of ladies were just leaving, including one girl who spoke Hindi and had just returned from Bylekuppe, a massive Tibetan settlement near my home town in India! Conscious of offending local women but tempted by the water, I nervously stripped down to my undergarments and waded in. This water was just right (am beginning to sound like Goldilocks now!) Soon two nuns arrived on the scene. They told me that they had walked for two hours over the hills just to soak. They started to strip. I had never realized how many layers of clothing nuns wore…it went on and on…and then suddenly they were naked. I was traumatized…it was like seeing the Shankaracharya or Mother Teresa nude!

Then a bunch of ladies arrived with their pink cheeked snotty nosed offspring. The women wore some elaborate braids with turquoise and ribbons. Some had thick woolen capes and had obviously not bathed for quite a while. They all stripped down to basics too. Now Cat and I were overdressed! The mothers dunked their squalling kids in the water and scrubbed them mercilessly. It was increasingly merry. The nuns taught me the names of different polite body parts in Tibetan (I got over my blushes pretty quickly) and all the ladies were giggling and pointing at us. Occasionally some mother would blow her baby’s nose and a wad of snot would float by. The boys from the men’s section were really curious about the naked ladies and were trying to peek over the wall. I was worried about how the nuns would react to this, but they were blissfully unconcerned! We sat there in happy harmony until our skins started to wrinkle.

Our next stop was camping overnight in yurts at the NamTso lake. This massive salt water lake, the second largest in China, is ringed with snow capped mountains. Henreich Harrer crossed over some of these 7000m peaks when he made his journey to Tibet and spent 7 eventful years there. The water in NamTso has an ever changing color palette reflecting its mood that ranges from grays to blues to greens to purples.

One can sit there and look at the water for hours, which was what I was doing when I met Tashi, a young man selling Tibetan prayer flags. I bought a few flags to tie on the top of the hill next to our camp and then Tashi asked me if I wanted to go drink Tibetan tea with him. So I followed him away from the tourist yurts to a Tibetan canteen tent… there were a number of Tibetan men, women and children in the tent and a huge flask of yak butter tea was plonked in front of us. The tea was salty and an acquired taste but I found it tasty enough.

When they heard where I was from, the folks in the tent got pretty excited. Unlike many of our neighbours, the Tibetans in Tibet actually like Indians. They asked me the usual questions about Bollywood and then somebody asked if I had a picture of the HH the Dalai Lama. I regretfully said no, but then I had a brainwave. I ran back to my yurt and brought back my Lonely Planet Guide. Cat came along too out of curiosity! When I showed Tashi and his friends the letter from HH on the first page and his signature, they all started to respectfully touch the book to their foreheads. It all made me a bit teary, so on impulse I tore out the page and gave it to them. From then on Cat and I were treated like honored guests. The Lonely Planet guide to Tibet was passed around and they poured over pictures of their own country, places they were unlikely to ever see in person. Cat took pictures and there was more giggling and smiling. And lots more butter tea… which they wouldn’t let us pay for.

One of the boys brought out an obviously precious tattered folder from which he drew forth a sketch saying it was of the Dalai Lama. There was a faint resemblance-the man was the right age and wore glasses. He graciously allowed me to take a photo and it came in handy when we were asked the same question again. And people always responded with the same reverence.
It was deeply moving to spend time with these simple devout folk. In the immortal words of George Michael, “You gotta have faith.” It sure helps get people through tough times.

At our last stop in Samye, we trekked up a mountain and unexpectedly came upon a cave with monks and nuns chanting prayers. It was brilliant to sit in the sunlight and soak in the atmoshere. Back at our guest house which was pretty fancy by Tibetan standards, I befriended a bunch of older women pilgrims who hugged and kissed me. One lady looked exactly like my beloved long dead maternal grandmother!

Before we returned to Lhasa, I was hell bent on a pilgrimage of my own. I fervently wanted to cross the Yarlung Tsangpo river and spent a sunny morning taking the ferry across. For many years no one knew that this river became the Brahmaputra in India for people apparently could not fathom how this wide expanse could cross the Himalayas. But it does, and the gorge where it drops down thousands of meters to the plains is unfortunately inaccessible.
A month later, back home in India I was on my way to Kodagu with my parents. We stopped for breakfast on the road and met a bunch of Tibetans heading to the Bylekuppe which is the second largest settlement outside of Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile. I went over to say “Tashi delek” and practice the few Tibetan words I had picked up. They were fascinated that a girl from Kodagu had made it all the way to Tibet and were full of questions about what was going on and where I’d been. Their longing for their homeland was apparent. Some had never even seen Tibet and yet it was home. For the first time, I appreciated how lucky I was to be able to come back to India whenever I wanted. No matter how comfortable these refugees might be in their adopted countries, exile is exile and it leaves one yearning. Yes, Tibet is tragic.

June 2007

Friday, December 14, 2007

Lao Lao in Lao

I stepped out into the deserted street in front of my guest house. It was my last day in Laos and I had woken up too late to see the monk walk. In this daily ritual, early every morning, over 300 saffron clad monks walk solemnly through the streets, and are fed khiaw niaw (sticky rice) by devout Laotians.
This moving sight had greeted us our very first morning in the ancient town of Luang Prabhang. That first day, two Laotian women had cornered me as I sat enthralled, outside my guest house overlooking a magnificent golden wat (temple). I was sipping excellent Lao coffee and watching the monks file silently past. The ladies offered to sell me a bamboo basket filled with sticky rice for 10,000 kip (about a dollar).
I had just read a booklet in our guesthouse about feeding the monks. Making extremely inventive use of the English language, this gem of information had warned that the monk walk was a solemn ritual and tourists should learn to do it properly instead inadvertently offending locals. My weak protests about not knowing what to do were brushed away by the intrepid duo who relented only when I promised to do the deed the next morning.
There was no escape when they tracked me down on day two. They stuck around to find me a place to kneel on the red matting on the sidewalk. The ladies, Phon Chan and Thong giggled merrily while I frantically and somewhat unsuccessfully, tried to roll sticky rice balls in time to pop one in each monk’s brass bowl.
Later they collected the empty baskets and posed for a few pictures before leaving. They both had lovely cheery faces, as did most of the people we were to meet over the next few days in this land of a thousand smiles.
My friend Rina and I spent a couple of days in Luang Prabhang which is strategically located on the banks of the massive Mekong river. On our first morning, we took a trip up river to see some cave temples with their thousands of ancient Buddha images.

Typical mornings in Luang Prabhang for us, started with coffee and baguettes in the little bakeries that abounded in this former French colony, with the JoMa bakery emerging as a firm favorite.
We saw monks everywhere...going about chores, little ones doing what naught little boys do, others chanting in the temples and carefully practicing their English with tourists. Monkhood is a rite of passage here as in many countries in the region and every man we met had done time as a monk ranging from weeks to years. It always amused us to see novice monks texting, checking mail at Internet cafes and (gasp!) on occasion, shyly checking us out too.
We watched sunrise from Phousi hill and hiked to the spectacular Tat Kuang Xi waterfalls where I splashed around to my heart’s content in the natural pools formed by the cascades.

We braved the unrelenting sun to bike around this quaint town, a world heritage site dotted with hundreds of wats. Buildings were a mixture of French colonial and more traditional Thai/Laos architecture.

By dusk, the main street transformed into a night market where tribal women came to sell handicrafts and gentle haggling was the order of the day.

I was in foodie heaven and for once, even vegetarian Rina had no trouble finding great food to eat. Our favorite was the noodle soup lady and like homing pigeons, most nights we faithfully ended up at her stall. Other favorites were fresh laap (a salad with minced fish, meat and herbs), morning glory fry, laam ( a stew), fish and chicken grilled on sticks, water buffalo patties, eggplant in lettuce like leaves, papaya salad made to order, all manner of fresh fruit and loads of desserts (got to love the French influence!).

We left Luang Prabhang with a plan to head to Phongsali, the northern most province in Laos, where the best green tea, whisky and opium are produced. The trekking around there to tribal Hmong villages was supposed to be spectacular. Phongsali was where few tourists ventured and to me, it had taken on the mythical proportions of Shangrila, so remote did it seem. Most of the locals laughed at the ambitious plans of these two backpacking Indian girls and we felt rather brave taking off into the unknown.

It was not an auspicious start. Our first stop was the town of Nong Khiauw and we paid a princely sum to get there by private van, the only transport available to us at that late hour. The plan was to catch the morning ferry from Nong Khiauw and head north. The journey took longer than we expected in the dark and we had no idea where we were heading. Rina and I were giggling hysterically to mask how uneasy we felt. To shut us up perhaps, the driver played some excellent Thai pop music. United in a shared appreciation of the music, our tension eased somewhat.

We got to the town late in the evening to find it shrouded in darkness. After depositing us at the nearest guesthouse, our driver headed back. We were on our own. Stumbling back from a surprisingly good dinner, washed down by Laos beer and singing old college songs, our torch beam lit up a snake on the road in front of us, hood raised as if taking a whiff of the cool night air. It’s hard to say who was more horrified, our scaly friend or us! After a restless night, we woke up to a beautiful misty morning and headed to the river.

Over the next few days we slowly learnt to read between the lines and sift through the misinformation we were fed at tourist offices. Basically there was one public boat a day to the next destination and this was subject to change with very little warning. Fellow travelers bonded sharing information and we had a lovely week, heading north on the Nam Ou river, a tributary of the Mekong in crowded slow boats.

The scenery was spectacular.

Water buffaloes lolled languorously watching us through sleepy eyes.

Naked kids screamed and played in the river while the adults fished or farmed the lush countryside.

It was unfortunately slash and burn season and the air was filled with smog. We drifted past burning firesides and at night it was like a pyromaniac convention. While tourists grumbled about the pollution, most Laotians shrugged it off as a practice they had followed for generations.
We stopped en route for a night in the village of Muang Noi on the river bank. Our clean, basic accommodation was a hut built on stilts, with a shared bathroom for 3 dollars/night. To my utter frustration, roosters woke us up by crowing enthusiastically from 4 am onwards. This village was a tourist hotspot and restaurants had the ubiquitous banana pancake and milk shake type menu along with local fare. I took great pleasure in ordering the chicken curry!

Muang Noi is known for good trekking and we stopped on our way back from some caves to watch a riotous game of football in a school yard. About 50 teenage children of the village, both boys and girls were playing and it was hard to tell who was on which team. Goal posts were marked by a few pairs of slippers and players played with all manner or lack of footwear. I spotted a few with just one shoe. Goals were greeted with rapturous screams. It was the most joyful game I have ever seen! I started to think about how many people choose to adopt kids from countries such as Lao in the fond hope that they are giving them a better life. Perhaps this is the better life.
Next stop was the township of Muang Khoi. We almost didn’t get there because no public boats were running. Finally we hooked up with two elderly couples and rented a boat. Muang Khua was a hole. It was close to the Chinese and Vietnamese borders and was hot and filthy. Our only diversion was watching the river traffic. The town had a half bridge made of metal and when a vehicle wanted to get across, it would drive to the end of this bridge and then the whole bridge would be towed by a tugboat to the other side. There may be more efficient ways, but this was much more entertaining!

That evening I played badminton with the young men of the village whose initial skepticism turned to amazement, that this puny foreign woman could actually hold her own. I was feted with Beer Lao for my exertions! That night Rina and I took the tough decision to head back to Luang Prabhang as we were running out of time. Phonsali would have to wait...

To get to the bus stop we had to walk past a butcher’s house. The drying entrails made us both gag, but as we walked past, the inhabitants arm deep in bloody buffalo intestines, smiled cheerily at us. The bus journey back via Uthomxia (where we stopped for lunch) took all day. The bus was leaking gas at one point, but eventually we made it back to Luang Prabhang with frequent pit stops to eat. We were disheveled and tired and snapping at each other by the time we arrived late that evening.
Luang Prabhang revived our spirits instantly and the next day we did a lovely kayaking trip on the Khan river where both Rina and I took some spectacular falls while we attempted to negotiate the rocks and zigzagged our way down the river. Our abysmal kayaking skills ensured that we spent more time in the water than actually navigating it.

And now it was already our last day. I walked down the street, camera slung around my neck, on the look out for something that would catch my eye. I consoled myself thinking I was in Luang Prabhang, and there was no shortage of wonderous sights, even if I had missed the monk walk that morning. Scarcely 100 yards away from the guest house, I came upon a bunch of women huddled by the side of the road. They looked like khiaw niuaw sellers, judging by the bamboo baskets by their sides. I walked over, hoping to see Phon Chan and Thong, the two women I had met on my very first morning. Sure enough they were both there and we rapturously greeted each other like long lost friends. They made me pose with the bamboo baskets and their friend Noy took pictures while all the other women stood around laughing.

They started to gather up their bundles and I followed. As we were walking, Phon Chan reached into one of the bamboo baskets and thrust a bunch of bananas at me. Confused, I started to refuse when Phon Chan silenced me by saying, “For you. No money. Present”. I was really touched and mimed what I was feeling by putting both hands on my heart and wiping away imaginary tears. They found this hilarious and and indicated they were going to the river. I understood they were on their way home and thought I would see them on their way. We walked down to the Mekong where they pointed out their village on the bank opposite. Their boat was a long wooden one with a motor and Phet, the youngest and prettiest, took four women and dropped them off. When she came back, the remaining five women asked me if I wanted to go in the boat with them. I happily agreed and they decided I needed a Mekong river tour.

We drifted down the river looking at the morning sights while I chatted with Noy.

So, we set off down the river while they chortled and called out to the fishermen and villagers on the banks, charging them to pose for me.

At some point Noy said something to the rest which galvanized them into action. Phet pulled up by the side of the river and everybody got out and ran to the different shacks around as if in search of something. I was puzzled, when it dawned on me that they might be searching for Lao beer which I had told Noy I liked! We came to a tea shack and I found that they were selling beer. Deciding this was a good way to thank them for their hospitality, I bought some beer and invited the ladies to join me.
Magically glasses appeared and then a roll of new pink toilet paper which was ceremoniously opened. With great solemnity, Thong wiped the glasses carefully with the toilet paper and then we poured the beer and started to drink.

Hai, the oldest woman took off to the little kitchen on the side of the shack and came back with scrambled eggs doused in fish oil which we all ate with sticky rice. I, as the relatively wealthy foreigner was not expected to pay for everything and that more than anything made me relax. I learned their names and a bit about their lives.

The kids who were running the tea shack, were watching this unusual scene in fascination and after a while Noy ran off to the veggie gardens and returned with miniature green watermelons which she cut up for everybody. Noy was absolutely taken with my camera and I showed her how to take pictures.
Meanwhile Hai, who looked like the village lush, was looking rather disgruntled with just drinking beer. She took off somewhere and returned with an empty coke bottle filled with a clear yellowish liquid. “Lao Lao” she crowed in delight and the others cheered while I mimed absolute horror because I knew just how potent this local whisky could be. When our beer glasses were empty, Hai poured us each some Lao lao and we started doing shots at approximately 8:30 in the morning.
Then some dried, fried animal was brought to the table which they insisted I eat. It was vile, with a chewy rubbery texture and I didn’t dare ask what it was. A few other women from the village came by to look at what was going on and were invited to join the party. The kids started to play Lao pop on their boom box and that’s when things started to get really wild.

The women had all seen Indian movies dubbed in Thai and insisted I dance for them. And so I did! My faux Bollywood dance steps were much appreciated and soon we were all dancing and laughing. Phet who was very shy, was the last to get out of her seat and she turned out to be the best dancer of our lot.
At some point, I realized I had a flight to catch so I begged them to take me back. Reluctantly, the festivities came to a close. Hai had almost passed out and the others tried to tip toe away but she drunkenly insisted on coming back with us. Our merry bunch headed back to the Luang Prabhang side of the river and we said our tearful goodbyes after many hugs and handshakes.
I spoke no Lao and they, very little English, but we had understood each other perfectly on this magical morning. And a good time was had by all. It was the perfect end to a perfect holiday.

March, 2007


“No es facil” (It isn’t easy) is a common refrain in Cuba. More so than any other country I have visited, Cuba throws up unanswered questions and forces you to look within, at your own belief system. A closet socialist and an admirer of Cuba’s determined stance against the bullying, destabilizing tactics of its powerful neighbor, I came here prepared to fall in love with the country and its people. However, the more I saw, the more, the realization dawned that this system was simply not working. It’s not like me to be pessimistic and in my admittedly short visits to places I tend to focus on the positive. So what was it about Cuba that churned me up so?
Cuba certainly has more than its fair share of the positives. The country is a photographer’s delight and one can be trigger happy here, looking at life through colorful frame after frame. It’s all undeniably beguiling, especially with a Mojito or Cuba Libre (made with good Cuban Ron) in hand.
The humor, pride, and the sheer physical beauty of its people are one of its biggest assets. Cubans, who range in color from blue-black to café con leche to milky white, seem truly racially integrated in a way that few countries achieve. Cuba provides its citizens with free medical benefits, housing and a monthly food ration. The state provides free education and there is about 97% literacy. One fact among many jumped out at me: There are over 400 million illiterate women worldwide and not one of them is Cuban. No slouch in the natural beauty department, Cuba has the feel of a Caribbean island with its famed coastline of soft white sand, azure waters and lush tropical vegetation. And just when one tires of plains dotted with sugar cane and tobacco fields, there are cool mountains to escape to, like the Sierra Maestra range that sheltered guerillas during the revolution.
Cuba is infused with music. It blares out of radios from every house and bands, good, bad, indifferent play in bars and restaurants every where. Major towns have a Casa de la Musica and a Casa de la Trova which play traditional music (Son, Trova and Afro Cuban) to packed audiences. Towns have colonial buildings, huge parks, open plazas and cobbled streets where folks gather to gossip while kids play improvised games of baseball, with nothing more than a stick and a bottle cap. Soccer, chess and marbles are popular too, and we often saw groups of men aggressively slamming tiles in hotly contested games of dominoes.
It was fiesta time in June when the three of us arrived and alcohol flowed in the streets of Trinidad and Camaguey with strangers happily sharing swigs of beer with us. Beer was sold in trucks bearing huge vats and people scrambled over each other in their eagerness to fill jerry cans and bottles with this inexpensive, golden elixir. Pigs roasted whole, stared beadily at us even while being shredded into sandwiches. Pizzas, pork, rice and black beans and ice cream were imbibed in staggeringly huge quantities. At night the plazas came alive with scantily clad teens moving their bodies to latin pop and salsa. We joined revelers in Congo processions down the streets and gawked at floats and bands in the parades. On one very special night, we witnessed the rueda, aka the Casino, which is the infinitely complicated and very beautiful salsa, danced in circles. Another magical afternoon in Santiago, by sheer luck, we chanced upon energetic rehearsals of Cutumba, a world famous Afro-Cuban folkloric dance group.
Cubans seem born with the ability to move with grace and rhythm and it’s a common sight to have people just get up and dance in restaurants when the mood strikes. And no matter how much we tried, we failed to achieve the skill that enabled them to shake from head to toe in the frenzied manner of a person electrocuted.
As one can imagine, people are pretty relaxed about sex too and the official age of consent for girls is 14. In a parody of their mothers, even little girls of 3 and 4 strut around dressed provocatively and kids couple up from 9 or 10 onwards. Machismo rules and men leer and make suggestive comments at all women who pass by. It reached a point, when our lone male had to claim both us women as his own to avoid more unwelcome attention.
Religion is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Cuban culture. The state relaxed its stance on atheism in 1992 and believers were allowed to join the ranks of the communist party. Every house we visited had a picture of Christ or the Virgin and the Pope’s visit in 1998 seemed to have been a cataclysmic event in this predominantly Catholic nation. It was strangely moving to visit the serene shrine of the patron saint of Cuba, La Virgen de la Caridad in the mining town of El Cobre. In a little room, believers had provided offerings like metal sculptures of body parts, golden statues of guerrillas (apparently Castro’s mother had made one for the safety of her son), degree certificates, a TV, a balsa wood raft sculpture (our guide book surmised that the person made it safely across the straits of Florida) and even an Olympic medal. There was also a poster with a map praying for the release of prisoners of conscience held in locations all over Cuba.
The nation has a young history which seems alive in a way that’s alien to those of us from older civilizations. The poster boy of the revolution is of course, Che Guevara and he is everywhere, on murals, postcards, posters, propaganda hoardings and on the red 3 peso notes that hustlers sell on street corners. Ironically, the Marxist icon has become a consumer product. Children in schools are exhorted to “Be Like Che” but I suspect our hero’s rakish good looks and early death have contributed to the legend. With his fundamental honesty, I am convinced that even Comandante Che would have been terribly disillusioned with the state of Cuba today.
The airport in Habana was modern despite painfully slow immigration procedures. Officials did not stamp our passports and we were issued tourist cards instead. The airport was festooned with flags of different nationalities and there was even one of the US (I checked!). There were visa only ATMs and modern Korean air-conditioned taxis. The drive to Centro Habana started to reveal more. Hundreds of people wait in queues for two humped buses called Camellos that arrive already filled past capacity. Tourists have their own special buses and are thankfully exempt from the ordeal of using public transport. Vintage Corvettes and Chevys ply the streets. Dilapidated old colonial buildings looking dangerously shaky assault the senses. In the city center, run down restaurants serve up meager fare and vegetables like tomatoes and potatoes ubiquitous everywhere else, seem a rarity. But it’s the raw need you see in every face that gets to you. Children, men and women in the street are desperately trying to sell you something or asking for money and goods. This is what proud Cubans have been reduced to.
During the “special period” in 1990 after the fall of the USSR, Cuba went through times of great economic hardship. When the government decided to open its doors to tourism as a means of filling empty state coffers, it set in motion the double economy that both plagues and sustains Cuba today. Almost all hotels and restaurants are owned and operated by the state, which explains the terrible service everywhere. Not having enough state owned hotels and restaurants to cope with the tourist influx, the state has reluctantly allowed for some private enterprise. Casa particulars (B& B’s) and private restaurants (paladares) have sprung up everywhere and in spite of crippling taxes and restrictions, there’s fierce competition for tourist dollars. Paladares operate out of residences, are not allowed to have more than 12 tables, can’t employ people other than family members and are unable to serve shrimp, lobster or beef. And we had wondered why hamburgers sold in these places were made solely of ham!
Cuba has a dual currency system where tourists use CUCs or Cuban Convertible Pesos (8 CUCs = 10 UD$) and the general population uses local pesos called Moneda National (about 26 local pesos= 1 CUC). Our outdated guidebooks were wrong and US dollars were not in circulation at all. Government monthly salaries are capped in the range of about 45 CUCs and people have to try and supplement this income. As we paid about 15-25 CUC per night for a room, casa particular owners are earning several times what their compatriots are and this has created a dual economy. Homes we stayed at were plush, with air conditioners, televisions, camcorders, washing machines, fridges and often servants too. Our hosts lived well and provided tables laden with foods like lobster and shrimp for us. We saw for ourselves in supermarkets that consumer goods and foods were available in Cuba, but only some could afford to buy them. People without access to tourist money are forced to beg or supplement their income illegally. The dual economy has created a class system, something the revolution fought so hard against. On the positive side, prices of many goods and services are regulated and have been the same for years. A trip to the famed ice cream parlor, Copelia, in Santiago was an eye-opener as we saw even skinny waifs tucking away 8 scoops of ice cream with ease. All this gluttony cost only a few local pesos.
Inefficiency is rampant, in government offices everywhere. For every job, there are several personnel, who do little other than sit around and chat. The only efficient business we saw was that of the Partagas cigar factory. Cigar rolling is a serious, skilled business and workers have to pass exams and tests to qualify. Every Thursday, workers are entertained by performers, but contrary to popular rumor, cigars are not rolled on the thighs of virgin mulatto beauties. Like everywhere else in Cuba, workers in the factory were obsessed with the results of the World Cup (Copa Mundial) and Brazil was a hot favorite.
Back on the road, plush casa particulars coexist with glorified shanties on the same street. We were curious about homes and how they had been allotted and were told that families stayed on in homes they owned prior to the revolution. Cubans are not able to buy or sell their homes and so growing families are forced to share living spaces. Many attribute the high divorce rate to cramped living conditions. People can trade homes, but a great deal of money passes hands illegally during such transactions. Poor people are forced into living in unhygienic and often unsafe homes because these are not exchangeable. Cubans are also restricted from moving towns without government permission. Just a few streets away from the beautifully renovated city center in Old Havana, are old apartment blocks that collapse with frightening regularity. A trip to rundown China town made even us, hardened veterans of poverty (from India!), blanch. Rural areas seem better off somehow. There are also tourist areas and beaches that are out of bounds for Cubans and these are supposedly hotspots of luxury.
We, like many other tourists, stuck to casa particulars recommended in our guide books or those recommended to us by these casa owners. It was annoying to be solicited so strongly by hustlers (jineteros) and we had started to ignore people who approached us in streets as we knew there was invariably a catch. The guidebooks recommended various strategies that we tried, but with little success. Later, we were shamed by some of well spoken educated jineteros who told us how hard it was to break into the market and how much they were harassed by local police. And so we talked to everybody, rebuffed some (especially offers of kisses!) and took other people up on offers to eat meals illegally at their homes. We were sometimes ripped off, but it was worth it. A strike for free enterprise and entrepreneurship!
While healthcare is free, medicines are very hard to come by and the monthly ration is woefully inadequate. People may be highly educated, but jobs are few. We met engineers who drove taxis and chartered accountants and professors who solicited us in the streets. Internet access is hard to get and international calling rates are among the highest I have ever seen. Corruption is endemic….even in the Capitolio National, the former seat of the government, the lady in the cloakroom openly asked for tips and then attempted to sell us 3 peso Che notes. In restrooms too you need to pay the attendants before you can get toilet paper or soap.
The wily Fidel Castro has always managed to turn things to his advantage, but politically Cuba seems poised on the brink of disaster. The daily struggle for survival is taking its toll. Everybody knows things will change after Castro (he is 80 after all) but nobody knows what direction this will take. They seem resigned to wait it out and while many openly criticize Castro, there is no doubt that he is also admired.
It’s hard to separate out how much suffering in Cuba is due to the US embargo and how much is due to a failure in governance. Both I suspect have played a role. And so the questions keep coming…What should good governance look like? Which political system works best? How socialist should a government be in order to protect those who need it? When and how much violence is justified in a revolution? Is violence justifiable at all?
But days later, back home as I walk around Singapore looking at its grim, unsmiling prosperous citizens, I can’t help but compare it to the love of life we saw reflected in hundreds of smiling, generous Cuban faces. So many we met who were willing to share their lives with us, like chain smoking Migdalia of midnight feasts and video games, Caridad mother of all tourists, the chess master of Santiago, hosts Humberto and Cari, serenading musician Eddy Mendoza, bicitaxi drivers, lusty taxi drivers and wily jineteros. I believe, the world has lessons in grace to learn from Cuba on how life is meant to be lived when things “no es facile”.

Burmese Daze

I dream about Burma every night, of golden pagodas appearing from nowhere in the midst of stark, dry landscapes, of monks collecting alms at dusk, of the sluggish brown Ayeyarwady river, the unrelenting heat, the hum of haggling in the gem markets, ladies with beautiful thanaka smeared faces, of men in elegant longyis and of the gentlest, kindest people I have ever met.
It’s a different world in a different time. Streets are sparsely populated with vintage cars and packed buses held together by rust and willpower. Imagine if you will, a life without ATMs (or travelers checks!), traffic jams and innumerable cell phones. There is change happening, but not at the breakneck speed which one sees elsewhere in the developing world. I wonder how long Burma can keep the world at bay. The process has already begun in tourist rich areas where touts have a twang to their English and cynicism in their hard sell. We found it hard to tell rich from poor Burmese as mostly everybody dressed the same to our untutored eyes.
Nobody ever talks about politics and every now and then, you see a signboard denouncing foreign devils to remind you of just where you are. People tell stories of acquaintances vanishing silently and of course no one has seen Aung San Suu Kyi in years. It’s hard to picture the “junta” as the enemy as even people in uniforms break out in smiles as we greet them in Burmese, saying mingala ba (perhaps it was the atrocious pronunciation?!). One curious thing we found was that golf shops abound-apparently it’s a favorite pastime of the hard hitting generals.
Department stores are filled with everything one could ever want but the prices are often ridiculously high. Currency used is the kyat (chaat) or the dollar and kyat prices are higher than $ prices in most places.
Yangon was memorable for the Shwedagon Paya, whose gleaming, golden stupa dominates the city skyline. It has been said that there is more gold in this pagoda than in the vaults of the bank of England. Watching daybreak in this powerfully spiritual place is not to be missed. We also got to see a novitiate ceremony where little boys all decked up, get to become monks for a short period, a rite of passage for the Burmese male. Our hostess overheard a Burmese tour guide solemnly explain to Taiwanese tourists that the males were called monks and the females, nunks! How perfectly logical, and nunks, is how they shall be known for the rest of my life!
Thanks to the generosity of my resident friend Janet, we also got a glimpse of the expat life in Yangon-trendy bars and restaurants, service apartments, maids and drivers, embassy parties and softball games. The same as expatriate life anywhere, in fact.
On the road to Mandalay, we stayed in a hotel, which we realized later was government run. Mandalay was memorable for a marionette show and a wizened old master puppeteer who gave me a hug when he realized I was from India. Much to my disappointment, we missed the famous Moustache Brothers and their satirical show. We did however eat the best food of our trip in Mandalay, Shan cuisine in the Lashio Lay restaurant, a massive meal for under $3 a head. We took a ride up the Mandalay Hill partly by trishaw driven by a retired primary teacher and partly in a tiny blue locally built car proudly bearing the license plate Gold finger! We preferred the serene white stupas at Sandamuni Pagoda at the base of the hill to the view on top. Trish, another friend returned from a day’s trip to the earthquake damaged, cave temples at Mingun with glowing accounts of what she had seen. Dinner at the City Cafe was a disappointment-we ended up being forced to eat Spaghetti Bolognese while vegetarian Rina picked listlessly at deep fried veggies. Next morning at 5:45 am as we sat sipping tea in the lobby, the lobby manager came up to us and said, “Excuse me, if you don’t mind, I request you to please get in the car as your boat leaves at 6 am.” Talk of being polite!!! A mad car ride later we arrived just in time at the docks.

The boat ride down the Ayerrawady was definitely something to remember, moving our $2 chairs across the burning deck in search of elusive shade and breeze. Even a surreptitious massage, surprisingly decent food and Mandalay beer barely sustained us through eleven hours of being slowly baked to a crisp. The Bagan Hotel, when we arrived finally was like an oasis in the dessert, none of us wanted to leave, ever again!

Bagan was mind blowing with its 2000 plus temples and stupas from the 11th-13th centuries. The next two days went past in a whirl of visiting the sites, buying lacquerware and scouting out the best local food. (Green Elephant gets my vote!). Rina and I were up earlier and earlier to beat the heat, and my system is only now recovering from shock. Our favorite mode of transport was Mr. Tin’s horse cart, where Rina made a close study of the bowel movements of equines with some truly shocking findings! Bicycles also made for a leisurely ride around this ancient site.

Our return flight to Mandalay took 30 minutes as opposed to 11 hours by boat, but of course nothing memorable happened. Mandalay airport was impressively modern compared to Yangon which was like a throwback to early airports in India.

Yangon on our return was reserved for shopping. We bought jade, gems, wooden carvings, spoons and umbrellas in the Scott Market and enjoyed every bit of the good humored bargaining with the storekeepers. We even found time for a longyi tying lesson much to the amusement of the shop girls.

I had waited so long for this reunion of friends but before we could gratefully say “jezu tin ba day”, the trip was over.

And every night I still dream of Burma….

Shabari, March 2006