Cuba’s 50th anniversary

Cuba has a lot to mull over as it rushes in the new year. That’s because it’s no longer up to Fidel to make decisions about the nation’s state — particularly with regard to its relations with the world’s most powerful nations (Russia, China, and the United States to name a few…). It’s up to Fidel’s brother, Raúl, who officially took the reigns from an ailing Fidel back in February.

Fifty years ago today, Fidel Castro marched his revolutionary troops down to Havana and freed his nation from dictator Fulgencio Batista. It only seems fitting, then that this photo is Cuban propaganda that says, “Fight and conquer the impossible.” Let no one argue Fidel’s power and influence in Cuba. He entered the picture fifty years ago. The rest, they say, is history. Soon after Castro’s rising, the U.S. government banned exports and broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. The Bay of Pigs, the Cold War, Guantanamo are all marked in his nation’s history, indicating moments of victory, defeat, and uncertainty.
To be certain, this new year will be an exciting and perhaps tumultuous one for this Caribbean nation. The Guantanamo military prison, which Bush opened in January 2002 in response to the September 11 attacks, will likely close very soon. Some European countries such as France, Germany, Portugal, and Switzerland are considering taking in some Guantanamo detainees. Obama, once inaugurated, will likely open talks with Raúl Castro, possibly ending a near-fifty year cold shoulder and allowing greater ease in travel between the two countries. Citizens of both are optimistic.

Perhaps, when the next holiday season comes around, loved ones will not need to rely on web-based shopping sites to send gifts.

Travel read: Around the Bloc

I stumbled upon Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s writing on a stopover in New York City. She was reading from her third and most recent travel-related book, Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines, at Book Culture near Columbia University. I was immediately struck by her engaging use of language and her savvy presence. It’s a pleasant sight to behold a young, female traveler and writer who is curious about the world and daring in her attempts to understand it.

Her reading finished, I bought her debut book, Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, and when I asked her to sign my book I told her I too was an aspiring travel writer, working on a memoir of my own. “Can’t wait to read about your travels someday,” she wrote in curly script on the title page. I have since been in correspondence with Griest, who has agreed to have me interview her in early January. Until then, I plan to review her three books for Gadling. Here is the first review, of her debut book on her travels around the Communist bloc of Russia, China, and Cuba.
Griest’s three-part memoir documents her experiences in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana during the late 1990’s, and it does so with humor and humility. It took nearly three months for me to make my way through Around the Bloc — not because it was a slow read, but because I wanted to gain an understanding of the three places she writes about in her memoir. Russia, China, and Cuba have long intrigued me as culturally rich places with politically backward power struggles.

Similar to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, where the traveler’s experiences are summarized by culturally specific activities, Griest’s journey around the bloc are punctuated by drinking, dining, and dancing:”…while Russians bonded over drink and Chinese over dinner, Cubans connected through dance.” Griest’s youthfulness and occasional naiveté captures just how eye-opening one’s travels abroad can be. It is clear by the end of the memoir just how much her experiences in these countries reshaped her values and shook the foundation upon which her life had been seemingly secure.

The tragic Russian Mafiya, Chinese propaganda, and Cuban Revolution stories swirling in Griest’s memoir make her self-discovery that much more palpable. Griest navigates the socialist and political struggle of being in the bloc, and walks away not at all unscathed. Rather, she sets her original assumptions straight again, allowing herself to understand her place in the world that much better.

Of the three parts presented in her debut novel, I must say the most enlightening was the first on her experiences in Russia. It seemed that here, in Moscow, Griest experiences the most profound awakening. I sense these early times, fresh from her undergraduate studies in Austin, that Griest transforms from a hippie wannabe to a truth-seeking, life-living journalist and hearty traveler.

If the popular Eat, Pray, Love is any comparison, I feel Griest’s Around the Bloc far surpasses Gilbert in all the categories I hold dearest to a literary travel writer. Griest masters the art of language and humor; she is finely atuned to her youthful innocence (and, at times, ignorance); just as in life, Griest does not tie her three parts together into a perfect red bow. Instead, there is an imperfection that permeates through her memoir that is raw and real — not just real, but realistic. If Gilbert’s travel memoir satisfied you just enough, then Griest’s will take your breath away. It will teach you things you didn’t know before, but more than this, it will make you get off your couch and out into the wide world, experiencing things you once dreamed of but now can see with your own two eyes.

My review of Griest guidebook, 100 Places Every Woman Should Go, is forthcoming in about a week. Should you pick up any of Griest’s three offerings during the holidays and have a question you’d like me to ask her during my interview with her in early January, feel free to shoot me an email (

Where did the commies go?

With September came the near fall of another Communitst leader, as Kim Jong Il, dictator over North Korea vanished from the limelight, joining his Cuban counterpart Fidel Castro in the murky depths of unknown, fiercely hidden ailments.

The realist in me knows that both leaders are gravely ill. Kim Jong Il is said to have suffered a stroke early this month and hasn’t since been seen in public — even for state celebrations. In a similar light, Castro, who seems to have largely recovered from last year’s digestive problems, has resigned from his official state role in Cuban politics and now stays largely out of the public eye — no doubt because he is still an aging, fragile man.

But the conspiracy theorist in my has broader, more hopeful aspirations. I think about these two ailing leaders and wonder if perhaps, Communism has taken a toll on them over these last years and if maybe they’ve finally thrown in the towel and headed out to the beach for some good old vaycay.

I see Kim Jong and Fidel sitting on chaise lounges in the Indonesian Archipelago somewhere, bare feet up and drinking out of coconuts while looking out at the setting sun over a crisp, white beach. And Kim Jong looks over, out of his massive blue blockers at Fidel as the Cuban puts down his latest Harry Potter book to take a pull off his strawberry daiquiri. And Kim says, “Hey buddy… we gave it a shot.”

Wherever you two are, know this: I would take two old school Communist evil doers over one rambunctious Latin American president any day of the week. May your countries be open and peaceful and prosperous without you.

Adios, Fidel! Cuba won’t be the same without you (hopefully)

I cannot believe Fidel Castro actually resigned as the president of Cuba. I mean he is only 81 years old and still has plenty of energy to keep him going for at least 35 more years! Was I the only one who thought that Fidel was actually immortal? Well, we’ll still have to see about that.

In his written speech to the nation, Fidel said that he is not “fading into the sunset.” It’s just that his health is not allowing him to dedicate the energy necessary to run a country. I am sure running a totalitarian state takes a lot out of you. You know, it’s lonely at the top.

According to the NY Times, Fidel’s statement raised the possibility that little would change after Sunday, when the National Assembly meets to select a new head of state. Cuba will probably continue to be ruled in essence by two presidents, “with Raúl Castro (Fidel’s brother) on stage while Fidel Castro lurked in the wings.”

Reuters reported that Fidel’s resignation was unlikely to make the United States lift its trade embargo on Cuba. See, just more of the same old.

Future Travel to Cuba Possibly Easier

Ever since I saw the Buena Vista Social Club, I was sold on getting to Cuba. It wasn’t just about wanting to watch tiny old woman roll fat cigars anymore or about chilling on some cool Cuban coastline with a cocktail anymore. That movie made me what to explore the bottomless depths of the music scene. Or should I say musicia? The songs, the dance, the history and the lives of the people swaying to Omara Portuondo’s “Gracias a la Vida” are all the things I’d love to come across during a two-week long trip.

Anyhow, before I get too wrapped up in my own sweet dreams of traveling to Cuba, I wanted to point the attention of other travelers longing to visit the only Communist country in the Western hemisphere to this plug found on World Hum. They site a couple of articles across the web that suggest travel to Cuba could one day become legal and easier for you and me. Now don’t go about clicking your heels yet. There is only a glimmer of hope as of now with factors like Fidel missing his big 80th birthday bash and his brother Raul’s call for open talks with the U.S. over the weekend. So yes, we probably still have to wait until Fidel bites the dust and Raul tells our prez that the American public is happily welcomed to visit Cuba. Of course Bush will probably have to lift sanctions from 1962 when the two countries became unfriendly towards one another and with his schedule I am sure that could take awhile if it were strongly being considered. For all of us dying to go, we can only hope and for more reasons than our own selfish ones.