National Portrait Gallery Opens Two Civil War Exhibits

The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., is commemorating the Civil War with two new exhibits.

The Confederate Sketches of Adalbert Volck” looks at the work of a rebel dentist who became one of the Confederacy’s leading political cartoonists. Unlike most German immigrants, who sided with the Union, Volck was an active rebel who not only fought the Union with his pen, but also smuggled much-needed medical supplies to the South. The exhibit runs until January 21, 2013.

More famous is photographer Mathew Brady, whose portable photographic studio is shown above. “Mathew Brady’s Photographs of Union Generals” make up the second exhibition. Numerous high-quality images of the Union’s leading and lesser-known generals will be on display. The exhibit runs until May 31, 2015.

The exhibitions are part of a continuing series at the National Portrait Gallery marking the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Cuba Libre: Travel observations and tips

Cuba is one of the most distinct places in the world. I can say this with complete certainty having traveled to nearly 50 countries on this globe and never encountered anything like it. During the brief two weeks I was there, I was able to enjoy the hospitality of a most vibrant people, as well as experience life with little to no American influence.

As I conclude my Cuba Libre series, there are just a few more observations and travel tips to share with you….

Food and Accommodations
If you really want to learn about the Cuban culture and interact with the locals, eat at a paladar instead of a restaurant. Most paladares are hard to find, so just ask the locals where to go and they’ll point you in the right direction. Along the same lines, stay at the casas particulares instead of the larger hotels. I learned a great deal about family life just by observing the interactions between members of my host families.

In both cases (paladares and casas particulares), the hosts are eager to please you, their customer, and they’re equally interested in understanding where you come from and what life is like off their Cuban rock. Most of these families will never see the world outside of their island, so share what you can – or better yet, leave a gift behind for them as a symbol of your appreciation.

Solo and Female Travelers
Solo travelers should be aware that, though Cuba is one of the safest countries to travel in, it can be a lonely existence while you’re on the road. I was used to meeting people in hostels, but Cuban casas have a two guest room policy, meaning you have just one other person or couple staying in the same house as you. If you guys don’t hit it off, you’re really on your own. If you hit the music venues at night, though, you are bound to meet other travelers with the same predicament.

Also, female travelers will certainly get their fair share of attention by the men (in the form of whistling, shouting, or aggressive talking). If you don’t like the attention, ignore it. If that doesn’t work, just say “no” and they will get it.

Personally, I always felt very safe traveling in Cuba. When you’re walking around in a city (like Havana or Santiago) at night, you should walk on the street rather than the sidewalk, as the streets are better lit. I always felt safe walking around at night – even along darker streets in Havana. However, don’t be bold and stupid. Use common sense.

You will likely develop a tolerance or maybe even a fascination (as I did) for the onslaught of political billboards and slogans that are plastered on city walls or strewn along the countryside. The most common slogans portray images of Cuba’s colonial independence leaders José Martí and Antonio Maceo, the Revolutionary leaders Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos, or the five Cuban prisoners (often depicted in a star or with the word “Volverán” – “They will return”).

“Viva Cuba Libre” and the other popular slogan “Viva la Revolución” (which mean “Long Live Free Cuba/the Revolution” seem to me like desperate reminders for the Cuban people that Fidel’s victorious revolution that ended 50 years ago still lives on today. However, based on conversations with locals, I sense most Cubans wish it to be a distant memory and want to embrace change soon, before their already dire social, political, and economic situation worsens.

Plan ahead for long distance trips across the island. During peak travel seasons (May-July; November-January) buses fill up quickly and flights to hotspots like Baracoa, Santiago, and Trinidad are booked weeks – if not months – in advance. You can reserve a seat on long distance buses. Bring a sweater or blanket with you, as these buses are air-conditioned and can get quite cold – especially at night when there’s no sun.

Don’t expect to use the phone or the internet while you’re in Cuba. Both are expensive. Your host should be able to make calls for you within Cuba, but international calls can only be made at ETECSA offices in major cities and are ridiculously overpriced. Using the internet for an hour costs $10, and you cannot connect to it using your own laptop. It’s best to just avoid communication with the outside world altogether. Heck, that’s the Cuban reality, so you might as well experience it like a local.

For a complete listing of my Cuba Libre posts, please click HERE or skip straight to the good stuff —

  • How Cuba survives with two currencies
  • Cuba: How to get in, where to stay, where to eat
  • My first impressions of Cuba
  • How to prepare for Cuba
  • My days in Havana, Part One
  • Being sick in Cuba
  • My days in Havana, Part Two
  • The vibrant nightlife in Trinidad
  • Salsa dancing in Santiago de Cuba
  • The eco-tourism potential of Baracoa
  • Infiltrating North Korea Part 12: A North Korean History Lesson about the U.S.S. Pueblo

    The largest symbol of anti-Americanism in North Korea is undoubtedly the USS Pueblo. Naturally, this is an obligatory stop for all tourist groups.

    The Pueblo is an American spy ship that was captured just off the coast of North Korea on January 23, 1968. The North Koreans claim the ship was in their territorial waters while the Americans claim it was not. It was fired upon, boarded, and then taken to the port of Wonsan.

    Today, the spy ship sits moored to the bank of the Taedong River where we visited it one drizzly afternoon. We were met at the gangplank by one of the only English speaking docents we had the entire trip. She was dressed in a conservative uniform and spoke with a very matter-of-fact tone.

    We followed her onto the ship and into a small room with a handful of chairs and a television. This is where we’d spend the next 20 minutes being indoctrinated by a North Korean video about the Pueblo incident.

    The narrator was scathing and never missed the opportunity to add the word “imperialist” after every time he mentioned “American.” He told us how the ship was captured in North Korean waters and how the American government continually claimed it was a fishing trawler–something that even I found a little embarrassing when we later toured the ship and its enormous banks of encryption machines and electronic monitoring devices.

    The video also included black and white clips of the 82 soldiers captured on board. The video made no mention of the torture and beatings they endured while in captivity, however, and focused instead focused on quotes by the sailors claiming they were being treated better than they deserved.

    We were also told how the crew signed a letter of confession admitting that they were spying on North Korea. The fact that Lloyd Bucher, the Pueblo’s commanding officer, underwent a mock execution and was told that his men would be shot one by one until he signed the confession was conveniently left out of the story.

    In addition, two classic acts of defiance were ignored. When the North Koreans forced Bucher to read his confession on a radio broadcast, he cleverly mispronounced “paen,” the Korean word for praise. And so he told the world, “We pee on the North Korean state, we pee on their great leader Kim Il Sung.”

    Although the North Koreans never realized the pun, they did discover another act of defiance, although too late. It wasn’t until propaganda photos taken of the “healthy” crew were released to the world that the North Koreans discovered the true meaning behind so many middle fingers sticking out. Unfortunately, when they did find out, the surviving crew suffered terribly with increased beatings.

    North Korea refused to release their captives until the United States apologized. It took 11 months but finally President Johnson acquiesced, much to the glee of our smartly-dressed guide who proudly told us that this was the first time the United States had ever apologized to another nation. The narrator of the video rubbed it in even further, mocking Maj. Gen. Gilbert H. Woodward who signed the apology as being too “confused” to even remember to sign the date.

    Naturally, nothing was mentioned about the United States later disavowing the apology or about the statement Woodward read before signing it; “The paper which I am going to sign was prepared by the North Koreans and is at variance with the above position…but my signature will not and cannot alter the facts. I will sign the document to free the crew and only to free the crew.”

    Walking through the spy ship war trophy after watching the video certainly left a bad taste in my mouth, especially after hearing the narrator’s final statement that, “the American imperialists are an aggressor that should be annihilated by force of arms.”

    Yes, the Americans were spying and yes, the North Koreans caught them, but so much of the story was purposely left out to paint a very one-sided portrait of the affair. It was classic North Korean propaganda and it provided some fascinating insight into the communist government’s control, manipulation, and resultant mindset of their population. The only difference from what we experienced during our “education” about the Pueblo is that the North Korean people have no outside source of information to confirm or deny what the government tells them. Nor, for that matter, will they ever have the chance to learn for themselves about the bizarre submarine incursions their own government has ordered into the South.

    For more information about the Pueblo, be sure to click here to visit a fascinating website maintained by the former crew.

    Yesterday: North Korean Style Advertising
    Tomorrow: Kids will be Kids

    Infiltrating North Korea Part 11: North Korean Style Advertising

    Billboards are a ubiquitous presence in most any major city. Depending on local ordnances, they may fill the entire side of a building, dominate cityscapes, or simply appear on the roadside in a variety of shapes and sizes.

    The city of Pyongyang is no exception. The only difference is that there is only one product being advertised here: communism.

    Propaganda is the evil step cousin of advertising and the North Koreans embrace it as eagerly as an account executive on Madison Avenue pitching for the Coca Cola business.

    Although there’s certainly nowhere quite like Times Square in Pyongyang, there is hardly a spot in the capital where one is not exposed to a billboard or mural extolling the virtues of communism, North Korea, or either one of the Kims.

    And just in case someone is blind, a fleet of propaganda vans with speakers mounted atop drive around the city pumping out the latest rhetoric.
    Naturally, the state controls the mass media as well, jamming incoming foreign transmissions and making it technically impossible to tune into any other broadcast except for the official state one. This, in part, is controlled by producing radios with only a single FM button and absolutely no dial! I had one of these North Korean specialties in my hotel room and sat staring at it for the longest time; it was simply impossible to change the station and it left me feeling completely powerless.
    In addition, there is no such thing as the internet in North Korea or cell phones. Anyone entering the country had to leave their cell phones with customs officials who kept them locked up and inaccessible for the entirety of our stay. And I certainly didn’t get a copy of USA Today under my hotel room door.

    Surprisingly, being cut off from the outside world was actually somewhat enjoyable for the five days I spent in North Korea. I quite liked the freedom of not being tied to my cell phone and email and relished in the ignorant bliss of not being exposed to troubling international news. This isolationist cocoon where the state controls everything you hear and see, however, would not have been fun for too long. Living an entire life under such conditions would be hell.

    There was one brief glimmer of hope, however. One day when driving around the outskirts of Pyongyang we passed a billboard doing what billboards do throughout the rest of the world: selling a product. Someone has managed to erect North Korea’s first (and only?) billboard, and as you can see, it’s advertising brand new automobiles.

    And that, folks, is the slippery slope of capitalism.

    Yesterday: The Followers of Kim
    Tomorrow: A North Korean History Lesson about the U.S.S. Pueblo

    Infiltrating North Korea Part 9: Worshiping at the Altar of Kim

    It’s impossible to visit North Korea as a tourist without being forced to personally pay respects to the Great Leader oneself.

    This is always done at the capital’s Mansudae Grand Monument where an enormous bronze statue of the Great Leader towers above the city. According to my copy of Pyongyang Review, the statue was built in 1972 due to the “unanimous desire and aspiration to have the immortal revolutionary exploits of the great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung remembered for all time and to carry forward and consummate the revolutionary cause of Juche [self-reliance] which he initiated.”

    The Grand Monument is one of the holiest places in Pyongyang and our guide appeared a little nervous when we piled out of the minivan. “There are a lot of people here,” he told us. “Please don’t do anything that would embarrass me.” He also asked that we did not take any photographs of the Great Leader which would cut him in half. Only full shots were allowed in order to show the utmost respect.

    Before leaving the parking lot, our guide walked us over to a small flower stand where a member of our group was asked to purchase an arrangement. After doing so, we joined a large crowd of North Koreans also bearing flowers, and walked up a slight hill towards the statue and two large monuments which stand on either side of it, one of which commemorates the anti-Japanese struggle while the other chronicles the socialist revolution and includes a large slogan that reads, “Let us drive out U.S. imperialism and reunify the country!”

    Because of the mass of people paying their respects, we had to wait a moment before a member of our group was allowed to walk the remaining distance and place the flowers at the base of Kim Il Sung. When he returned, we all stood nervously in a line facing the statue. I wasn’t about to bow, and I assumed that the others in my group wouldn’t as well. Our guide however, had no choice. He bent low to the waist and offered up a very serious bow to the Great Leader. And then, we were free to go.

    We hung out for a little while and watched as a never ending flow of North Koreans did the same as we had just done; parading up to the statue, offering flowers, and then bowing deeply to Kim Il Sung. For an atheist nation, I never would have expected such religious devotion.

    Yesterday: The Cult of Kim
    Tomorrow: The Followers of Kim