Reflections: Cuba

37 countries later, I finally set foot on Cuban soil.

Cuba is a fascinating place where the Spanish guitar probably first fell in love with the African drum, creating the most interesting genres of music which we all dance to today.

It is also a place where the story of colonialism, neo-colonialism, revolution and progress unfolds in such dramatic fashion, and is still a work in progress.

Overall, a country with friendly Cubanos, passionate music, frozen-in-time street-scenes and in my opinion, an impending paradigm shift in how the country will progress towards the latter half of the 21st century.

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Logistics: If you are travelling from the US, the most convenient points of transit are Mexico or Canada (direct charter flights from the US are increasingly available, but still tremendously expensive). Bring Euros or Canadian dollars to exchange at a local cadega (money exchange). Speaking Spanish will be very helpful, although most tourist-related infrastructure in Havana will be able to communicate in some form of English.

You could probably read guidebooks online or your Lonely Planet to get an idea of what to see/do in Cuba, so I will instead share with you 4 random things you probably should know, from my experience…

  1. Taxi particulares – these are the local taxis (basically any 1950s-looking car with a taxi sign up top) that you should definitely be taking because they cost about 10 times less than a “yellow taxi” which I presume caters to foreigners. The local taxis do, however, go on certain routes and so prior to hopping on, you will need to ask if the driver is going in your general direction. Each person needs to pay 10 local pesos (~0.50 euros at time of writing). If you get a chance to, peer under the hood of one of these old 1950s Chevrolets, you will be surprised to find a retrofitted Nissan or Toyota engine in there!

    My 1950s ride

  2. Local food stalls – the prices in Cuba, especially where tourist volumes are high, can vary significantly. I have paid as much as 15 convertible pesos, and as little as 1 convertible peso for the exact same meal. Speaking Spanish will help, because you can walk around and ask for directions to local eateries. Trust me, you will know right away when you are in a local eatery – there will hardly be any foreigners around. Make an attempt to stray a little off the beaten track/tourist hot spots in Old Havana, and you will be sure to find plenty  of local options around every corner.

    Distribution centres for subsidized food supplies

  3. Drink the coffee (from the local street stalls) – Cubans brew their coffee along with molasses, which produces a bitter-sweet concoction fit for kings. They cost about 1 local peso per tiny shot, so a full cup of coffee may set you back a whole 5 local pesos. You can also have the same drink in a restaurant at about 10 times the price at a local stall. Go figure.

    Cubans are pretty damn good at chillin’

     

  4. Go to Trinidad – period. One of the first things you will notice about Trinidad is the sound of horse hooves against the cobblestone streets and peddlers hawking bread and pastries from their bicycles. I have been to a few colonial towns (San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, Pelourinho in Bahia Brazil etc) and none have come across more real and pure as Trinidad. Although tourist infrastructure such as restaurants, bars and hotels have sprung up, most of Trinidad still remains in its tranquil form, with Cubanos living their lives as it seems to be half a century ago. Again, veer off the Main Square into the side streets and you will find the true Trinidad sitting there unblemished. Also, hike up the track past the bar-in-a-cave to the top of the cerro where the communication tower stands, chat up the security guard and he may just let you into the compound where you can get a 360-degree birds’ eye view of the entire valley. 

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Cuba moving forward… will be an interesting story to witness!

From what I have noticed, the socialist state does a pretty decent job in providing free education, healthcare and subsidized sundries for every Cubano. Roads are good, most people have a roof over their heads, and general happiness is still derived from family ties and social activities (dancing, music, sports etc.). However, the growing income disparity is becoming a sizable issue at the back of everyone’s mind. Although tourist-serving establishments/ jobs pay a higher tax to the state, the prices being charged are ~10times higher than the local equivalent, and this provides a select group of the population with higher purchasing power to enjoy modern luxury goods (think smartphones, new cars etc.). Imagine the monthly salary of a state-worker of 15 convertible pesos, which is the equivalent of a single meal at a nice restaurant.

To quote my taxi driver:

“… development for Cuba is good, but development will also bring in maliciousness, greed, and other related things that will eventually harm a big part of our society, like what it does with most capitalistic countries.”

The ability of the next government to help spread the fruits of growth and development to all the Cubanos will be critical to the survival of one of the world’s last remaining bastion of Socialism.

 

Valle de Vinales, worth a visit!

 

Life doesn’t come with subtitles

Languages are a beautiful thing. I was born and raised in Singapore where everyone is effectively bilingual, resulting from well thought-out education policies. For those who are curious, everyone in Singapore speaks English + one, where the one is of your native heritage. The three primary races in Singapore are the Chinese, the Malay and the Indians. Since my great grandfather sailed across the ocean from China to settle in Singapore, I was lucky enough to win the birth lottery for Singapore, and learned Mandarin as my “+ one”. Over the course of my life, I was also extremely fortunate to have picked up Spanish through Middlebury’s language school, which is hands-down one of the world’s best language programs. So armed with the top three most widely spoken languages globally (English, Mandarin and Spanish), I could finally conquer the world!

Not.

When I was informed that I would be placed in Tajikistan for my Kiva fellowship, I had to first verify if this was a real country. Eventually, I found out that the main languages used are Russian and Tajik (similar to Persian-Farsi). Great, because I speak none of them… It is one thing to travel to a place for a few days and not speak the language, and another to live there for a few months under a similar circumstance. Time was short, and after a few weeks of general preparation and some Russian transit hoo-hah later, I found myself living in Dushanbe.

Time-travel back to the Soviet era, in Dushanbe

Time-travel back to the Soviet era, in Dushanbe

I have to explain that I had translators who worked with me throughout my Fellowship, and so initially there was little impetus to learn the language. However, through the course of my time in Tajikistan, I was forced to pick up certain words that became really helpful in my everyday life in a foreign land.

Foreign lands, absolutely stunning

Foreign lands, absolutely stunning

I have gathered a tried-and-tested list of 50 words (grouped into 5 categories) over the past few months that is guaranteed to come in useful when you are in a completely foreign country!

1. The 6Ws and 1H: who, what, where, when, why, which, how (much)

2. Time/location: now, later/then/after, tomorrow, this, that, here, there

3. Food: delicious, half (referring to size), chicken, cow, pig, fish, sheep (vegetarians could have a different list)

4. Articles/numbers: I, you, my, your, one-to-ten

5. The most useful misc. words: name, friend, family, home, work/school, thank you, please, bus-station, water, toilet, beautiful, hello, goodbye

Based on my experience in Tajikistan, with these 50 words above, combined with your endless vocabulary of charades, you will be surprised as to how much information you can actually relate and receive. You will also be amazed by the kind of connections you can build with just these 50 words. Having a “semi-conversation” with locals in their language completely changes the dynamics of interaction, and builds a fleeting but intense bond that I hope you will be able to experience in your travels!

This covers about 75% of the requirements for daily communication. The remaining 25%? Well, that’s the fun of travel!

P.s. Based on your experience, what other key words would you add to the list?

Running into a herd of biblical proportions.

Running into a herd of biblical proportions.

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If you are living or travelling through Singapore, do check out one of Singapore’s underground social communitiesTête-à-Tête, a bi-monthly pop-up language cafe where polyglots gather!

A tribute to an inspiration

My last post about the freemasonry of the Central Asian road was largely inspired by a gentleman by the name of Taylor. I met Taylor 4 years ago in Singapore. At that time, he had just arrived from Rome. Yes it sounds pretty normal, except he did not arrive by plane. It took him 2 years, overland, through one heck of a hitchhiking journey (except for one leg across Afghanistan where he had to fly due to extreme safety concerns). He had hitchhiked cars, trucks, ice-cream vans, animals, basically anything that moved. When he told me he had done this from Rome to Singapore, I remarked “you are one crazy dude.”

We met at a local CS gathering, and of course he had plenty of stories to share. The most surprising thing I recall him telling me was that he had hitchhiked from the Botanical Gardens to Little India (2 locations in Singapore), and I did not believe him. I said that people in Singapore are too busy and careful to allow random hitchhikers on board their cars. He proved me wrong. Before we bid farewell that evening, Taylor issued me a challenge – “Baby steps my friend, begin by trying to stick your thumb out and hitchhike in your own country!”

The following day I tried to do that outside my apartment, to no avail. I was disappointed, but I guess it was a tiny victory as sticking that thumb out felt a lot more difficult and awkward than I thought it would be…

… 4 years on, I have since hitchhiked in Singapore, Myanmar, Indonesia and most recently Kyrgyzstan.

Today I received a note from a friend, telling me that Taylor had passed away last year. While travelling back home to Canada, he was hit by a truck in Africa. 6 years of his hitchhiking vagabondage across the world came to an abrupt end.

What exactly did we talk about that one random night in May of 2011? I honestly don’t remember much. However, I do recall how he inspired me to do something as simple as sticking my thumb out, and to let the road carry me home.

Through my travels, random encounters such as the one I had with Taylor inspired me in a small way, but grew to have such a large impact of my outlook in life. RIP Taylor!

To Taylor!

To Taylor!

Here’s his letter from 2012 and his couchsurfing profile.

Hushbaht!

I am more than halfway through my Kiva Fellowship now, and have been really encouraged by the many Kiva borrowers I have met in the field. It is perhaps timely to take a moment to reflect on a few of them, and share their stories with you here! I am wearing a smile on my face as I titled this post Hushbaht, which means “Happy” in Tajik!

The family!

Meet Magruba, a 33-year old mother of four. Of all the homes I have visited, her home must have been one of the poorest. Walls of mud props up her humble abode in a rural village in the Istraravshan region. From the moment I met her till the time I left, she couldn’t stop smiling. Due to the lack of employment opportunities in this country, many Tajik men end up leaving for Russia to find work. Magruba’s husband is no exception, and this leaves her at home looking after her four children. She had taken out a loan to pay the school fees for her children, as well as to obtain school supplies for them. “The most important thing is for them to get a good education”, she remarked. I met her on a cold day in Spring, at mid-noon it was about 2C. Sitting in her mud-house, I was freezing despite having multiple layers on. Despite the cold and the lack of substantial living amenities, Nasiba continued to wear the largest smile on her face. “Hushbaht?” I asked. “Hushbaht!!” she replied.

Such a beautiful soul.

Meet Nasiba, a 45-year old mother of two. Like Magruba, she also lives in a modest home made of mud-walls. When she found out that her older son needed an medical procedure, she turned to the assistance of microfinance to help pay for the cost of the surgery. When I visited her at her home, she shared that her son has recovered quickly since the operation. Extremely thankful for the help of Kiva lenders from all over the world, she kept saying “Rahmat, rahmat”, which means thank you in Tajik. The small piece of garden outside their home laid bare in the cold, but she was full of optimism and exclaimed, “When it gets warmer, I will be able to grow tomatoes, carrots and potatoes!” “Hushbaht?” I asked. “Hushbaht!!” she replied.

Maksuda making Bulochkas!

Maksuda making Bulochkas!

Meet Maksuda, who already has 4 grandchildren but continues to work hard in life. She recently took out a Kiva loan to start a small pastry business. Most Tajik women bake bread in traditional mud ovens called “tanurs”. One would heat up the tanur with firewood, and when it gets sufficiently hot, stick the dough on the inner walls of the tanur and let the bread bake. However, you cannot bake pastries with a tanur. Maksuda used her loan to purchase a modern electric oven, and is now able to take orders of Bulochkas (pastry roll filled with jam). She makes US$1 for each kilogram of her pastries, and most orders come from neighbors and friends. When I asked her if she could sell it at a higher price, she explained that she would never want to make them pay so much for her pastries! Using milk from her cows and eggs from her chickens, together with flour from the market and her homemade apricot jam, Maksuda makes delicious Bulochkas with her simple electric oven. Of course, given the unstable flow of electricity, she has to wait for the right window of opportunity everyday to turn on the oven! “Hushbaht?” I asked. “Hushbaht!!” she replied.

I hope these stories give you an idea of how diverse microloans are in the developing world. From personal use to support family necessities, to medical emergencies and to start-up small businesses, the availability of microcredit in rural areas provides the much-needed support for many village folks. I was personally encouraged by how happy they were with how little they have – truly a big life lesson for all of us from the developed world.

And here is a final treat, the majesty of mountains in Central Asia!

    

The Anzob tunnel

This past week I had to go down to Dushanbe from Khujand. Its a relatively short 5 hour journey, except it involves crossing through a gigantic mountain range in the middle of Tajikistan.

The quickest way to go through a huge mountain is of course to go right through it. Tunnels are an engineering marvel, without which travel time for many people would been extended exponentially. Prior to the construction of the Anzob tunnel, travel and commerce between the two largest cities in Tajikistan were often disrupted each winter by frequent avalanches.

Of course, the construction of the tunnel (led by an Iranian consortium) was a great thing, but completing the tunnel would have been better. The Tajiks learned a big lesson: never work with the Iranians again. Most people here name it the “Tunnel of Death”, and here is what it looks like inside:

IMG_4585

So there is a tunnel, and by that I mean there is a 5km long hole through a giant block of mountain, but that is about it. Potential hazards at present include leaking ceilings, lack of drainage, zero ventilation, ditch sized potholes and to top it off, plenty of carbon monoxide. It is open though!

Driving through the tunnel was great, you enter one side and it is complete darkness for the next 5km, unless there is a vehicle coming from the opposite direction. No roadlines, no markers, just the silhouette of the cylinder. As a driver, you will have to swerve away from massive potholes, dodge construction equipment littered along the tunnel, and of course avoid oncoming traffic too. In case you are wondering, the stretch is littered with large equipment because construction is STILL underway, almost 10 years after it officially opened.

Needless to say, most of the other tunnels in Tajikistan today are safe and well-built because after the Anzob lessons, the Tajiks turned to the Chinese for help. Thank goodness!

Chinese-build tunnels. embellished with labels!

New Chinese-build tunnels. embellished with labels!

For honor, glory and carpets

Buzkashi, which literally translates to “goat dragging” in Persian, is one of the craziest sports of the ancient world. It is still widely played across Central Asia today. Think rugby meets polo, but switch the ball for a goat’s carcass. Instead of 30 players on the pitch for the former and 8 in the latter, drag-and-drop 200 horsemen onto the field. This is Buzkashi, also known as Banzai-meets-Harakiri.

Banzai meets Harakiri

Banzai meets Harakiri

The origins of the game are lost in history, but I particularly like the version where the people of Central Asia would ride back to their towns (pillaged by the Mongols) to salvage and grab their flock at full gallop. I got to witness the spectacle last week, at Hissar district about an hour outside the capital city of Dushanbe. Here are the pictures as told through my short piece of work on exposure.   

There are multiple versions of the game today, and there are even formal rules set up by the Afghan Olympic Federation to govern the sport, but that is only limited to games played in Kabul. Across Central Asia, you will witness two distinct formats: team play and free-form. The madness I witnessed last week was free-form. Yes, every-horseman-for-himself. I asked my friend Sarhob, “So, in this Tajik-version, how do you win?” He pointed across the field, where about 100 large rolled-up rugs lay on an old truck and remarked, “In this game, each time  you score a point, you win a carpet!” That’s why the truck was parked there! I thought it was the most random one-stall-bazaar ever, in the middle of a crazy horse game. However, like most Central Asia cultures, the honor of winning outweighs the prize of the carpets. I went on to learn a lot more about the Tajik version I was witnessing, including how it is a completely free BYOH (bring-your-own-horse) game, and anyone can ride his horse onto the field to vie for the carcass. If you do not wish to participate, you can simply sit on your horse and hang out at the side. For a moment I thought I could ride a horse onto the pitch to try it out, then again I could also jump of a bridge – same outcome I reckon.

For the curious, here are some FAQs:

  1. Is the goat dead? Yes, it is a carcass. The goat is killed the night before, and soaked in water to make the hide tough.
  2. How heavy is the carcass? Between 25-50kg. It is NOT easy to get hold of that thing.
  3. How do you score? Find your way to the carcass, grab it, fend off 200 other opponents and drop it off between two humps of sand to score.
  4. How long does the game last? Hours, or until the carpets run out.
  5. Are whips used? Yes – both on the horse and the horseman! Ouch.

We got 99 problems, and 99 more.

Tajikistan got the short end of the stick, period. When someone decided to draw lines on a map, many of the “stans’ were given oil, gas and other natural resources. Tajikistan was given mountains. With great mountains come great problems – it is difficult develop significant economic activity in mountainous terrain. As you may expect, unemployment is rampant here and most Tajik people rely on agriculture for a living.

The awesome beauty of the Tajikistan mountains

Imagine if you can plant and harvest 100kg of carrots each season. Now, imagine your same 100kg of output fetching you less and less money each year because of the fiscal weakness in the currency. This is what the Tajik people have been dealing with all these years. In the past month that I have been living in Tajikistan, I think we have witnessed one of the worse devaluations of the Tajik Somoni of all times.

Take a look at this:

devaluation

In 30 days, the value of the Somoni has weakened 15% against the Dollar. That is 180% annualized. It is pure fiscal madness. As many of the vegetables and goods get imported into the country, prices have been rising and the Tajik people are finding it increasingly difficult to afford basic necessities. Just today, a piece of Tajik bread that cost me 2.5somoni two weeks back cost me 3somoni today. Sure, it is less than a dime, but in percentage terms that is a 20% increase in the price! “tajik mumbles tajik mumbles DOLLAR! tajik mumbles tajik…”, the seller muttered. I nodded my head in concurrence and gladly gave her the 3somoni. At the other end of the market, tomatoes and other imported fruits sit and slowly rot away as the high prices have forced Tajik people to stick to local carrots and potatoes instead. On a side note, the implication on microfinance is also very significant. As some lenders take out loans in US dollars, they have to make repayments in US dollars. Since most of their income is derived in the local currency, in today’s climate they immediately become liable for a larger repayment sum than initially planned. Everyone is hurting.

Panjshanbe Bazaar in Khujand

In addition to the chronic problems of a staggering economy, soaring unemployment coupled with food and currency problems, Tajikistan is also plagued with a chronic energy crisis. According to the World Bank, 70% of Tajik people suffer from extensive power shortages during the winter. Despite having a few sizeable hydrolectric assets, they fail to produce sufficient energy during the winter when water flow is at its lowest. Consequently, electricity gets rationed in the big cities, and gets cut in the rural areas. Just when you thought the worse was over, throw “winter” into the equation and see what happens. I am experiencing this right now, in the northern city of Khujand. I have 4 layers on, and my nose feels frozen.

Ever since I moved to Khujand, I have become very good friends with Scarlett. In fact, she doesn’t know it but I consider her to be my very best friend at the moment. Meet Scarlett:

The words S-C-A-R-L-E-T-T are printed on the side this thing

However, and this is no fault of Scarlet, sometimes she fails to be a good friend by producing heat because there is no electricity flowing to her! Electricity gets rationed all over Tajikistan, becoming especially more intense in the winter when the rivers freeze over, thus reducing the flow of hydroelectricity. I am sitting in my tiny Soviet-era apartment making critical decisions every 5 minutes; decisions that involve the lights, Scarlett, the refrigerator, the electric stove and charging of my appliances. There is only sufficient electricity at the moment for two of the above, and I went with Scarlett and the lights. The lights are important because they indicate how much electricity is flowing to the apartment. Right now it is about 50% brightness. At 75% I will get to charge my phone, and at 100% I can get the electric stove and refrigerator going. However, the 100% is not guaranteed to last. So every decision is a gamble. Oh! It just went down to 0% and I guess I will sit in darkness for awhile now. Welcome to the everyday life of people in Tajikistan.

Soviet-era style apartment complex.