Human Geographies of Conflict and Renewal, Lessons from the Old Continent

Human Geographies of Conflict and Renewal, Lessons from the Old Continent

I embarked on a journey this past August that would take me through a diverse set of nations, cultures, and landscapes in Europe. The heart of this trip was a segment in Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro. Holland and Hungary were other destinations along the way. It had been over a decade since I’d been in Europe, and this was the first time I’ve traveled there as an adult with a fuller appreciation of the places I’d be visiting.

I read Mark Mazower’s The Balkans: A Short History to expand my admittedly lean understanding about the history of the region outside of the role it played in instigating World War I, as well as the more recent Yugoslav Wars. One of the first points Mazower makes is to debunk the commonly held misconception that the Balkans are somehow especially prone to conflict for one reason or another. This caution led me to reflect on the history of conflict across Europe and not just the Balkans. I’ll elaborate below with an account of each stop on my trip. Given where I traveled, I found the trip especially poignant as it fell one year short of the centennial of the end of World War I. How conflict unfolded and how the people recovered afterwards in all of these areas are as relevant and instructive as ever, perhaps especially so in light of concerning trends as of late.

HOLLAND

It’s hard to imagine while strolling along the harborside esplanade in Volendam, the placid polders adorned with windmills in Zaanse Schans, or the boisterous canals in Amsterdam that Holland has been through more than its fair share of destructive conflicts over the course of the last 500 years. Indeed, the Dutch Republic was born of the Eighty Years War during which the Dutch wrested independence from their Hapsburg rulers. The conflict took a horrible toll, but in the end, not only did the Dutch gain their independence, they also launched headlong into a golden age that has left a legacy across the globe. This includes my home in Flushing, which takes its name from the town of Vlissingen in the Scheldt estuary.

The marks of earliest conflicts in Dutch history are still visible today. The Eighty Years War broke out in part due to the religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the wake of the Reformation (the 500th anniversary of this just passed). In Utrecht, on a casual night out, my gracious hosts took me to a bar in a building that once housed an underground Catholic church. The facade of the building is understandably undifferentiated from the surrounding buildings, but on the inside, the ceilings are massive. Adornments typically found in a Catholic church occupy the inside, including an organ. Many are unaware of Utrecht’s history as a Catholic stronghold in Holland even well after the Reformation. There is even a historic papal residence in town. Utrecht’s strategic importance as a nexus of trade routes sitting astride a now defunct channel of the Lower Rhine ensured that it would be fought over. Catholics were surrounded on all sides by Protestants and faced such persecution that they felt the need to clandestinely convene away from their neighbors. The Dom Cathedral in the heart of the city was burned and vandalized. The desecrated statuary and other relics are preserved for visitors and natives alike as a silent memorial to this unfortunate chapter.

A defaced relief sculpture inside Dom Cathedral in Utrecht

Anne Frank House in Amsterdam stands as a stark reminder of the horrendous cost conflict fueled by religious hatred. And yet Holland at this point looks no worse for the wear having survived two world wars. It’s a thriving place where the investments the Dutch people have made in building up their infrastructure and institutions put many others nations to shame. This is in no small part due to effects of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after the cataclysm of World War II, in stark contrast to Bosnia which I’ll address later.

Religious conflict continues to afflict northern and western Europe today. This time it’s a renewal of the longstanding tension between Christian Europe and the Islamic world. Extremist groups like ISIS have conducted a wave of terrorist attacks across France, Belgium, and England. Geert Wilders, the firebrand Dutch politician, offers among the most vociferous and impassioned resistance to extending an open hand to immigrants and Muslims in response. He is not alone in this sentiment, as the next destination I visited is also seeing a rise in nationalism in the face of a wave of immigration from Muslim nations.

HUNGARY

Budapest was a true delight to visit, and its impressive panoply of architectural styles captures in stone the city and nation’s long and diverse history. Gleaming new glass and steel constructions, Soviet apartment blocks and metro stations, the iconic Hungarian Parliament, Turkish bathhouses, medieval palaces and churches, and Roman ruins each bear witness to a distinct era. Throughout all of these periods, this crossroads of Europe has been the scene of sweeping changes and has seen wave after wave of invasions.

At the ruins of the Roman city of Aquincum, one can picture what life was like on the very edges of the empire. The threat of invasion from any number of barbarian tribes was ever-present. The high cost in blood and treasure incurred by securing this long Danubian frontier was among the factors that eventually led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. The vacuum of power left by a retreating Byzantine Empire set the stage for Árpád and the first Hungarians to invade and settle the fertile plain created carved out by the Danube and Tisza River.

Ruins of a Roman bath at Aquincum, just north of the Buda side of Budapest on the west bank of the Danube

The Hungarians established a burgeoning kingdom that lasted for several centuries before they themselves were taken over by the Ottoman Empire, a force that will figure prominently in the rest of this essay. Traditional Turkish style bathhouses the Ottomans built in Budapest stand as the most visible testament to their legacy, since mosques were largely destroyed after Christians reconquered the area. It is remarkable to think that I could have soaked in the very same baths that pashas, sultans, and their entourages would have visited 600 years ago.

For the Ottomans, Budapest was a convenient staging point for their ultimate goal: the conquest of Vienna. This was a goal that would occupy The Porte for centuries. The thrust on Vienna was also the galvanizing moment for Christian Europe to organize a united defense against the Islamic armies of the East. Austria gained territory as it pushed the Ottomans back, and it became the next sovereign over Hungary. The restlessness of the Hungarians in wanting to throw off the Austrian yoke would force the Austrians to negotiate the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, establishing the Dual Monarchy with Hungary as a co-equal in the newly established Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The half century following the Compromise would see the ascendancy of the Dual Monarchy and elevate it to Great Power status. The famed Szechenyi lanchid, and Metro Line 1, the first subway in Continental Europe would be built in Budapest during this time. Culture also thrived, Franz Liszt being among one of the exemplars of this period. It was multi-ethnic state in every sense of the word, but in the end the experiment in multiculturalism would come to a catastrophic end, embroiling the entire continent in a war like none before it.

 

The economic dislocation brought on by the collapse of the Dual Monarchy has consequences that still endure. A much weakened Central Europe would later be no match for Germany and the Soviets after that. Europe has done what it can to re-integrate the continent with the institutions of the European Union, but the same tensions that pulled apart the Dual Monarchy a century ago persist. Viktor Orban’s administration has taken a hard-line stance on issues of immigration, just as Geert Wilders advocates in Holland.

BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA

If there’s one itinerary item that highlights the rapidity, brutality, and ever-present threat of conflict, while also showcasing the ability of a people to recover from such conflict, it’s Bosnia & Herzegovina. This crossroads of the Balkans was a centerpiece of Ottoman Europe, and was the heart of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Over centuries, trade interests and invasions brought a mix of Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims to settle in the area. The capital, Sarajevo, retains the physical legacy of these heterogeneous origins. Ottoman era mosques dot the skyline. The main landmark is a square around the Catholic Cathedral of St. Mark. This diversity of religion has been at times a auspicious blessing for Bosnia. Other times, disaster can and has unfolded when there’s been a confluence of the currents of ethnic and religious tension.

 

The old and the new share space in Sarajevo’s skyline

 

One point Mazower drives home in his history of the region is that these ethnonationalist identities were almost non-existent prior to the late 19th century — they arose in part due to the intervention of Great Powers who sought to sow unrest in Ottoman Europe so as to resolve the “Eastern Question”. Even religious identities were fluid during the Ottoman Era as people often found conversion to and away from Islam could be expedient at different times. Mazower recounts that some people would go to mosque on Fridays and attend Orthodox mass on Saturdays. If the imam failed to remove a hex on you, you might go and see the patriarch. Ottoman rule, though clearly flawed and unfair, was at least stable up until the advent of ethnonationalist movements.

The resolution of the Eastern Question cost the Great Powers a world war. It brought about the demise of Dual Monarchy and the Romanov Dynasty, destroyed by the very forces of nationalism they had seeded in Ottoman Europe. The interwar period didn’t bring much relief as economic woes spread. The economic gap between former Ottoman Europe and the rest of the continent was wide, and it could not be closed easily. World War II brought a fresh set of horrors, occupation by yet another in a line of aggressors, but it did spark a successful partisan movement led by the charismatic Tito that would set the stage for a unified Southern Slav state after the war.

The infamous Latin Bridge on the Miljacka River that runs through the old city (Stari Grad) area of Sarajevo. This was the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip that sparked World War I

By some of the accounts of the people we met traveling, Tito’s rule was not only stable, it was also fair and led to prosperous growth in Yugoslavia. But it didn’t last. Brotherhood and Unity began to unravel almost as quickly as Tito was put to rest in 1980. What transpired next was a descent towards internecine and religious conflict. We were led by a tour guide named Meme (short for Memović) on a journey back to the brutal Siege of Sarajevo during which he was born.

Meme noted that even in the 1980s one could see the bonds of unity that Tito had carefully cultivated fraying. Yugoslavian flags and anthems were replaced by those of the constituent republics even before any formal move towards dissolution of the union took place. This process began as Slovenia, then Croatia declared independence and were welcomed by the international community in the early 1990s. Bosnia & Herzegovina was not so lucky.

Meme took us up to the hilltops overlooking Sarajevo and recounted to us the background and setup for the Siege of Sarajevo. This siege lasted 1,425 days (3 years and 5 months), the longest ever in modern warfare, longer than the infamous Siege of Leningrad in World War II. Bosnia’s diverse makeup of Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks, held as a shining example of Brotherhood and Unity, now became the trigger for regional conflict. Yugoslav forces composed primarily of Serbs and Bosnian Serb forces undertook any means necessary to turn back the renewed tides of ethnonationalism that threatened to break apart Yugoslavia. Croats at times fought with and against Bosniaks as they tried to secure their own future as independent entities. The scars of the savage fighting between these sides are still plainly evident in the holes on buildings created by bullets and mortars.

 

Sarajevo Roses — the blast marks from mortar rounds hitting concrete

The Sarajevo Rose and the ever watchful white tombstones that dotted the hillsides surrounding the city were ample reminders of the war, which is why there are few actual war memorials as Meme pointed out. Divisions still remain. Meme alluded that the potential for renewed conflict was real, especially if the economy continued to stagnate. On our ride up to Trebević Mountain, we passed into territory administered by the Republika Srpska, an autonomous region governed by Bosnian Serbs. Immediately, you could see Serbian flags flying. It was from the abandoned bobsled track that Serbian forces launched mortars down on the city, and from the side of Trebević Mountain, their troops took hold of the skyscrapers overlooking what would become known as Sniper Alley.

At Trebević Mountain, you can see the themes of renewal and rebirth, too. The entire bobsled track is functionally an outdoor gallery of street art and there are people who do actually use it for luge. The city and its people stand as a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit even in the face of overwhelming odds and prolonged suffering. Stari Grad is rebuilt. Wandering around the streets at night, you could be forgiven for forgetting a war happened here only 20 years ago. We were there during the bustling film festival, and throngs of tourists eagerly soaked up the atmosphere of the renewed city. But unlike Western Europe after World War II, the nations of the former Yugoslavia didn’t have the benefit a Marshall Plan recovery program and fund, and sadly, the differences are stark in comparison to Holland.

 

CROATIA & MONTENEGRO

Resiliency in the face of conflict when combined with adequate resources in recovery and renewal can work wonders — Dubrovnik in Croatia is a sterling example of this and provides a more proximate contrast to Bosnia. Though Croatia was far from being immune to the impacts of the war, it fared better than Bosnia, partly because it served as the entry point for aid UN ad deliveries. Today, the streets of former Ragusan Republic are teeming with hordes of tourists. You can hardly tell the city was shelled extensively from nearby Montenegro during the Yugoslav Wars. The superficial damage has largely been repaired. Indeed, looking out from its daunting defensive walls over its rooftops, you can see some of the only signs of this conflict in the bright orange tiles of restored roofs compared to the aged brown tiles of older roofs that stood through the war. Bullet holes are there, if you look closely, but not nearly as noticeable as in Sarajevo.

Dubrovnik from atop its famed city wall

Perhaps Dubrovnik’s quick ascendancy can be in part attributed to its historical legacy as a powerful, independent city-state with a prowess for trade. At its apex, Ragusa vied with Venice for control of lucrative Mediterranean trade routes along the network fostered by the Ottoman Empire that eventually connected with the Far East. Circumventing this monopoly was in part a trigger for the Portuguese to seek a new route towards India and China around Africa. Ragusa’s imposing defenses were built with the riches from this trade, in order to protect this very lifeline. To this day, the old harbor of the city continues to be a place teeming with activity. But even this prosperous place was quite literally built on foundations of parleyed conflict. It is said that the Stradun, the main street of Dubrovnik, was once a channel that separated one part of the city as an island. Greeks and Romans inhabited this island while the “barbarians” were kept at arms length on the mainland.

The Stradun at night

From Dubrovnik, we journeyed onward across a short, but painfully time-consuming border crossing into the picturesque environs of the Bays of Kotor. This ria (not a fjord) has also been a point of contention between multiple parties over history. The bay itself provides a sheltered, deep water harbor, so it’s no wonder that it has attracted the eye of empire builders from the Ottomans to Austrians to the Russians. This has kept up even to this day. Montenegro only recently left the orbit of its traditional protector, Russia, in favor of joining the EU despite of heavy investment from Russia. Opinion on this decision remains divided.

 

In light of all this, the Montenegrin national identity has developed a strand of fierce independence, dogged resistance to external aggressors, and defiance in the face of overwhelming odds. We saw abandoned as well as extant villages and farms deep in the remote mountainous terrain of the rural areas of the country. Whenever the Ottomans or whatever other imperial power with designs on Montenegro invaded and captured its urban centers, its people would simply retreat into the relative safety of the isolated mountains. Such a scene is visible just on the other side of the commanding heights of the fortress of Kotor.

 

CLOSING THOUGHTS

It was fitting one of the last sights I saw in this trip was the mausoleum of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš. Njegoš was known not only for his leadership skills but for his contributions to the canon of Serbian literature. His seminal work, an epic poem entitled Gorski vijenac (The Mountain Wreath) tells the largely apocryphal tale of a tortuous decision Christian Montenegrins of old make regarding what to do with their Muslim family, friends, and fellow countrymen. An ultimatum is handed down to the Muslims to convert back to Christianity on a certain Christmas Eve or face the consequences. Those who refuse meet a predictably fiery end. This work is considered seminal to both Serbian and Montenegrin culture, and yet is so controversial that it is sometimes not taught in an ethnically and religiously mixed setting like Bosnia. This, I think, speaks volumes about the scars that many centuries of conflict have left in this region.

 

Mausoleum of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, constructed during the Yugoslav era

As Mazower cautions, it’s all too easy to buy into the tropes presented to us about the Balkans having some propensity towards bloodshed, a place where divisive nationalism is as much a part of the landscape as the dramatic mountains and coastlines. Indeed, the Balkans are hardly alone in inheriting this kind of legacy, as I’ve alluded to throughout this piece, and there are crucial lessons for us all of the various histories and geographies detailed above. From what I saw, signs of historical and contemporary conflict are everywhere. While we were ambling along the alleys and plazas of Dubrovnik, we were also getting news about the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and its violent aftermath. Meme’s caution that “when ethnicity becomes more important than nationality” you’re in serious trouble seemed particularly apropos at this time.

Many of the same threads of risk factors for serious internal, internecine conflict that I saw along my journey are present in the United States today. Political ideology is becoming identity: the new tribe. Underlying racial, religious, and cultural differences are increasingly in sharper relief. Economic dislocation and inequality allows some to genuinely not understand how others are struggling or only just making it. We’ve been waiting for political saviors of our chosen tribe to fix our problems the way we want them fixed, while refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of other people’s grievances. We demand instant solutions for problems that have slowly accrued over generations. These trends are not new to the Trump era. They have simmered for decades. In many ways, these are echoes of the traumas of our own prior internal conflicts that we’ve never truly recovered from.

Violent conflict arises when people refuse compromise and only choose to see irreconcilable differences, eventually dehumanizing those they have no common cause with. But conflict, internal or external, is not inevitable. How we as individuals, communities, societies, and nations cope with a bewilderingly diverse world in which integration is accelerating at the expense of established identities will be decisive. This will be complicated by real physical constraints from continued growth and climate change. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented, and indeed can seem paralyzing.

When I ask myself what I can do, I think the only practical answer is to start from a foundation of sound knowledge of myself, genuinely understand and embrace the diversity around me (especially the views of people who I don’t agree with), draw on these lessons from history as a guide, and commit to serving the greater good, organizing with others to enhance my impact. I’m betting I’m not alone.

2017 May Day in Cuba; First Impressions  —  In Context With Venezuela

2017 May Day in Cuba; First Impressions  —  In Context With Venezuela

Three hours from JFK. 90 miles from Key West. And yet, seemingly worlds away. Four New Yorkers — Alex, Elliot, Emma, and I — waited far too long for checked bags to show up, the first indication we were running on island time, and a socialist island at that. Our driver, Daniel, made small talk while we contemplated spending our loaned allowance of Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) on beer. Once we were all together, Daniel walked us over to our ride. It was a gleaming red 1957 Ford, a steel landship that nowadays only plies classic car conventions in the states.

Daniel turned to us and let us know, even though the exterior chassis was vintage, the engine of this time machine was newly manufactured by Nissan. This car we were in was as old as my mother, but it got us to our destination in style and relative comfort. The interior was surprisingly comfortable. It came equipped with frosty AC, a small LCD screen for music videos, and a slamming Pioneer sound system. The steering wheel had a Hyundai logo on it. As many have pointed out, the classic cars that meander throughout Cuba are a true testament to the ingenuity of the Cuban people. Although we saw plenty of modern vehicles about, they were clearly devoid of the unique character of this ride. Midway through our journey, we took a pit stop for beers, while the car also took a drink of water to cool off from the sweltering heat of the day.

Under the hood of a reworked ’57 Ford

Once we arrived in Trinidad, we made straight for our homestay and set our stuff down, encountering our gracious hostess. We strolled the streets but briefly before meeting up with the rest of our group for dinner. Trinidad, with its low-slung pastel crayon-box houses, recalled the scene I encountered in Ciudad Bolívar back in 2015. I remarked at dinner, “First impressions, Cuba is like Venezuela but less shitty.” Despite being a crude assessment, it does accurately capture certain aspects of my experience.

Trinidad and the rest of Cuba, ideologically and superficially similar to Venezuela, are at this point far better off than their much larger socialist cousin. Both places remind me of what mainland China was like when I grew up in the late ’80s. Apartment blocks in various states of disrepair, a general dustiness, inefficiencies everywhere you turn, bribes to grease the wheels, a dearth of selection at the local markets, these are apparently ubiquitous to this flavor of the socialist world.

But the vast disparities between Cuba and Venezuela quickly become apparent. Even in 2015, people were already queuing for food and basic supplies in Caracas. The face of poverty appeared more desperate, and violence was a real threat for both visitors and residents alike. Nowadays, increasingly violent protests roil the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities. The populace has become fed up with the extreme inflation caused by a mismanagement of the economy. A nation which by all rights should be among the wealthiest and most developed in all Latin America seems unable to climb out of a spiral towards anarchy, having fallen for the trap of reliance on the export of a single commodity.

Contrast the unrest of Venezuela with Cuba today. Cubans are by no means “well off”, but neither are they desperate. There are no queues for food and basic necessities. There are no armed gangs roaming. Cabs stop at red lights at night, because they’re not afraid of being carjacked. Private enterprise on a small scale is being encouraged, and change is coming slowly as the Cubans open up to the world on their own terms. Their most basic needs are met. This isn’t to say, Cubans with ambition are happy to stay put. The Cubans I met all had aspirations of leaving the island, and already had family abroad. Still, they are orders of magnitude better off than Venezuela.

People, Sights, and Misadventures

Moving the thread to a less serious and political tone, the Cubans I met were by and large bursting with friendliness. On the second night we were in Trinidad, I went out during a break before dinner on a liquor run. I had no idea where to go, so I bumbled along asking Cubans for a “tienda que se vende ron”. A guy actually walked with me most of the way there. Later that night, I invited my fellow travelers over for a drink on the rooftop of the homestay I was in. Not more than ten minutes later, the abuelo and namesake of the house, “El Tyty” came upstairs to tell me it was his birthday and that he insisted we join his family downstairs to celebrate. Well, you can’t not oblige that, so we ended up dancing and partying with our homestay owners.

The only snark we caught from people in Cuba was from other tourists/foreigners who were nippy about queues at restaurants and getting into the Cueva Ayala cave disco the first night we were there. I’m guilty of it myself at times: not leaving the big city mentality of rushing to get everywhere behind when I leave the city itself. Speaking of Cueva Ayala, I think all of us were taken aback by the sheer scale of this club inside a cave. A place like that in New York would be charging you a $20 cover and $20 a drink on top of that.

I would have been in better shape for sightseeing the next morning had I not partaken in the now official-because-we-did-it Young Pioneers Trinidad Dollar Mojito crawl back from the Cueva Ayala that night. Kiddie rides were ridden inside El Rápido. Video evidence exists, complete with nonplussed night manager, but will not be forthcoming here. Somehow Alex and I got separated from the rest of the dollar mojito crew. We made our way back to the hostels, and uh, they got a lift from the local Cuban police.

Luckily, waking up drunk the next day means you can’t be hungover. That was good news since we were on horseback for a good portion of the afternoon. I had a blast cantering and whatnot. Can’t say the same for everyone else. Thank god for those homestay breakfasts. I might have died without them.

I found the tour of the Valle de los Ingenios on our way from Trinidad to Santa Clara to be fascinating. I didn’t know much of anything about sugar production. I now know why aguardiente and baijiu have a similar flavor profile. Chinese people are just stubborn and don’t put baijiu in oak casks to make something more palatable like rum out of the first pour of the still. They age their baijiu in clay pots, but hey, who am I to argue with thousands of years of drunken tradition.

My only regret about the Valle de los Ingenios was the one place they were to have guarapo (fresh pressed cane juice) for my water bottle of rum was without electricity that day. This happened to be the only time we were in Cuba that there was no electricity at some place. Humorous aside regarding electricity in Cuba: if anything I encountered a surplus of it in Santa Clara when I stupidly electrocuted myself in a shower — electric water heater inside a shower head.

When we finally got to Havana, I was enthralled by the sheer scale of the place. Ironically, the very lack of full-throated capitalism in Cuba translated to large tracts of historic districts avoiding the sledgehammer. Much of the historic quarter of my own hometown Kunming has been leveled in pursuit of the heady dreams of matching the material conditions of the advanced capitalist west. Not so in Havana, or any of the places I saw in Cuba, where one could spend days wandering the warren of colonial streets. We saw so much it’s difficult to recount in words other than to say that there are parts of Old Havana where you can really feel transported back in time a couple centuries.

For me, some of the highlights of Havana were related to the arts and culture scene. The first night we got back to Havana, we got to experience the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, a unique collaboration between the government and private citizens. The venue was once a cooking oil factory prior to its conversion into a gallery space and cultural hub. The facility is owned by the Cuban government, but the bars and restaurants within are wholly privately run. I asked our guide Alistair if the gallery ever hosts international artists, to which he replied that the space was exclusively for Cuban artists. He also indicated that the spot wasn’t just an exclusive haunt for gringos, that it is quite popular with locals as well.

Aside from that, some of us got the chance to see the Callejón de Hámel, a place that evokes what 5pointz used to be in Long Island City. The entire street is resplendent with murals, and littered with sculptural installations that make it feel like a Gaudí-esque playground. The walk from Old Havana to Vadado via Centro de Havana that took us to there was just as striking. We left behind the heart of Old Havana, romanticized by gringos for its gritty charm, frequented by massive cruise ships, and entered an entirely different realm. Just a couple blocks down from the Malecón, you can glimpse a slice of the quotidian Cuban life, without seeing so much as a single other gringo soul. While some might have balked at the scale and degree of relative poverty here, I can attest that for me, these neighborhoods seemed better off than the blighted shells of areas I had worked in Philadelphia, and that are all too common in rust belt cities in the states.

May Day in Havana

May Day in Havana was the other primary highlight of the trip, and in my eyes, it was truly a unique spectacle to behold. I’m not sure if any other socialist nation takes the day as seriously as the Cubans do (China certainly doesn’t), and you definitely won’t see anything of this scale in the Western Hemisphere. There must have been a couple hundred thousand people lined up along the Paseo marching towards the Plaza de la Revolucion under the watchful eyes of Ché, Camilo, Jose Martí, Raúl, and the next generation of Cuban leadership. This being the first May Day since Fidel’s death, we saw many signs proclaiming “Yo soy Fidel”, “Todos somos Fidel” — I am Fidel, we are all Fidel. The mood was raucous, the air filled with percussion, chanting of slogans, flags of various nations waving (Canada, Venezuela, Turkey, Nicaragua, among others). Emptied bottles of rum clinked around the pavement as the crowd pulsed at every invitation to move forward.

I’m by no means a socialist or leftist, but I can still appreciate the sheer scale and intensity of the march as a statement of opposition to the overwhelming large scale forces of globalism and capitalism that apparently have an air of inevitability about them. Indeed, there’s a certain irony to the nationalist rightist reactionary wave sweeping the West that claims an unfair economic and trade system as one of its core grievances, and yet refuses to even consider the possibility that capitalism could be flawed. Blame the global south, it’s easier that way!

My parents were somewhat appalled that I’d willingly choose to visit a communist country on vacation. As survivors of the calamitous Great Leap Forward, the anarchistic Cultural Revolution, and abortive June 4th movement, the very thought of stepping foot in a place like Cuba is physically repulsive. Why would someone who has enjoyed the fruits of life in a privileged place like the States bother with visiting places like Cuba? It is precisely because this place runs contrary to the prevailing currents surrounding it. Its flag was designed by an American with presumed statehood in mind. Things turned out quite differently. Although Cuba was late to cast of the yoke of Spanish colonialism, once the Cuban people got a taste of freedom, they weren’t turning back. Their tenacious spirit in defense of their right to self-determination somehow persisted against all odds right at the doorstep of the Western Hemisphere’s (and the world’s) great superpower. It is this history that leads me to believe that whatever the future holds for Cuba, its people will be approaching it firmly on their own terms.

The Road To Cayenne

The Road To Cayenne

The road to Cayenne, French Guiana (Guyane Doyen) from Paramaribo, Suriname was arduous, but almost a cakewalk when compared to the journey from Georgetown, Guyana to Paramaribo.

For starters, there wasn’t a four-hour waiting period to cross the border. Our group split up into two separate SUVs from Paramaribo to Albina, the Surinamese border town. The 1.5 hour ride was uneventful and the road well-paved. When we arrived at Albina, the border crossing itself was nearly abandoned. No one else was there besides our group.

 

At the border of Suriname and French Guiana, on the banks of the Maroni River
At the border of Suriname and French Guiana, on the banks of the Maroni River

Once we cleared immigration and customs on the Surinamese side, we were ushered into a large canoe water taxi. This had been prearranged for us, but you could also negotiate with a ferryman on the spot if you had to.

The kind of boats you'll find waiting to ferry you across the Maroni
The kind of boats you'll find waiting to ferry you across the Maroni
Hey, at least it's covered!
Hey, at least it's covered!

Immigration and customs on the other side at St. Laurent du Maroni was also a breeze. Again, we were the only ones making the crossing at the time, and all of us had either EU or US passports that relegated the need for visas. Sadly, the EU passport holders don’t get an entry stamp. As an aside, despite the fact that we had read a Yellow Fever vaccination would be required to enter, the border guard didn’t even bother to ask or check.

Welcome to French Guiana, part of the EU
Welcome to French Guiana, part of the EU

The road to Cayenne from St. Laurent du Maroni entailed a scenic drive through the jungle. We passed Kourou and the European Space Agency’s launch facilities en route, though you wouldn’t be able to tell since you can’t see it from the road.

Iracoubo, a town about halfway between St. Laurent du Maroni and Cayenne
Iracoubo, a town about halfway between St. Laurent du Maroni and Cayenne

Cayenne itself is about what you might expect for a sleepy, provincial French town. When we arrived at 2-3PM in the afternoon, we found everything to be closed for a long siesta, including the Comité Tourisme or Tourist Info Center, closed laughably due to “extreme circumstances”, which I believe involved wine and cheese.

Incidentally, you have to book excursions to both the Ile de Salut (Papillon’s Island, Devil’s Island) and the space center through this tourist info agency. This kind of screwed us for the day after, as we found out to get to both sites, it’s best to book at least one day in advance.

The space center does two free tours everyday at 8AM and 1PM sharp. There’s often a waiting list, so again, book in advance. Also – remember to bring your passport, as it’s required to access the more secure areas of the launch center. These areas also tend to be closed to the public anyways when a launch window is coming up. Only part of our crew attempted to get to both of these destinations, but came up short in both cases. Devil’s Island excursions start at 7:45AM sharp, as it’s a 1.5 hour boat ride across open ocean and they want to avoid rough seas which tend to build later in the day.

Consulate district - since French Guiana is a colony, it doesn't get embassy level missions from other governments
Consulate district - since French Guiana is a colony, it doesn't get embassy level missions from other governments

A few of us had to stay back in Cayenne to take care of the entry visa back into Suriname, while others chose to take it easy. We rented some bikes and rode around town, saw the whole town from Fort Ceperou, which is situated atop a hill in the northwest corner of the town. Bike rentals were only available through one shop on the northeast side of town and required a 600 euro deposit, but the 24-hour rate was affordable at 10 euro.

View of Cayenne from Fort Ceperou
View of Cayenne from Fort Ceperou
Typical French colonial architecture
Typical French colonial architecture

Cayenne, as an overseas department of France, uses the euro, and as such is not an affordable holiday destination when compared to Suriname. However, I do hear that cheap flights are available from Cayenne to Paris. The food was good, but don’t order a bloody mary down there as they won’t put Worchestershire sauce in it (George joked, the French will never admit that an English ingredient is required for anything to taste right).

Some dudes playing dominoes outside
Some dudes playing dominoes outside

As I watched old guys playing petanque, a French variant of lawn bowling akin to Italian bocce, I had time to reflect on one of the most intriguing aspects of this trip: comparing the legacies left behind in each of these places by their different colonial masters. Spain had ruled Venezuela, the Brits had ruled Guyana, the Dutch had ruled Suriname, and French Guiana is still a colony of France.

Calvin found a breakdancing crew randomly in the main square
Calvin found a breakdancing crew randomly in the main square
Tajin au poulet - pretty good Egyptian food
Tajin au poulet - pretty good Egyptian food

Out of the former colonies, it was surprisingly Suriname that impressed us the most In contrast to Caracas and Georgetown, Paramaribo seemed eminently livable, and while certainly not devoid of violence, it felt much safer. I had thought that Venezuela, birthplace of continental liberator Simon Bolivar, would be in a better position today.

Our firsthand experiences and information told to us by locals gave us the impression that the political situation in the region is fairly unstable at the moment. Both Guyana and Suriname are preparing for elections this month. In both elections, opposition parties whose power base lies with the Afro community are vying to unseat the ruling party, which again in both cases relies on support from people of Indian descent. Venezuela has elections later this year, and as Yesman told us, Maduro’s position is tenuous as he simply doesn’t have the same charisma as Chavez. Corruption is a rampant problem throughout the region, rich as it is with mineral wealth and drug money.

We visitors are not in a position to judge, but what we do see is the common desire of all people for a better life, the pursuit of which plays out daily on the streets of Caracas, Georgetown, Paramaribo, Cayenne, New York, London…

 

- At time of posting in Cayenne, French Guiana, it was 30 °C - Humidity: 66% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Bai Wedding In Dali – Ecstasy, Appendicitis, And Travel Insurance

Bai Wedding In Dali – Ecstasy, Appendicitis, And Travel Insurance

 

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The following is the last of 4 guest posts on China by Lei Zhao, who continues to contribute to the Monsoon Diaries adventures time and time again. 

Lei Zhao and I have been close friends since 7th grade of middle school. Saying that we’ve been through a lot together is an understatement. And he’s probably one of the most gifted artists and smartest human beings I have ever known.

Here is his story.

 

 

What’s better than getting married to my sweetheart once? Doing it a second time, in China, and according to the traditions of my people, a minority tribe called the Bai that live in Dali, Yunnan. Calvin asked me to contribute this piece as a unique travel experience.

Though you readers probably won’t be able to experience this exact trip as I’m about to describe it, there are lessons for all travelers within that we can all bear to contemplate, because shortly after the wedding, my wife developed acute appendicitis and had to get emergency surgery in Dali. Also, if you’re ever invited to participate in a local ritual of any kind, anywhere, I say take it, even if you feel uncomfortable intruding. The experience will be well worth it. Seeing the sights and the places is one thing; you don’t scratch the surface of where you’re traveling until you truly develop an appreciation for the way people live.

In Bai tradition, the process of getting married is rather involved. First off, the groom or bride of Bai descent has the duty of visiting the local temple, reporting the marriage to the local gods, and making offerings to secure their blessing. Bai villages each have their own local temple and local god, generally a revered ancestor who accomplished greatness in life. Outside each temple is a temple tree, which symbolizes the vitality of the village. It is a bad omen if your village tree dies or gets sick. I spent the better part of 3 hours on the day before the wedding kowtowing and burning incense to the ancestral gods, along with my father and a village elder who recited blessings.

The night before the wedding, the bride and groom are not allowed to sleep together, but neither can sleep alone, meaning one of your bridesmaids or groomsmen will spend the night with you. That news was broken to me about 4 hours before bedtime.

Walking over to pick up the bride.

 

The next morning, I woke up to a drenching rain. The plans we’d made were for me to pull my wife on a rickshaw around the village in accordance with custom. So, while the family hastily made alternate arrangements for a car, we played the waiting game. And we played it for a long time. A very long time. We finally got under way, more than 4 hours late, starting with me bowing to my parents and to the gods. Then, our entourage started making its way down to where my wife was staying. Along the way, two musicians playing the traditional Chinese suona, a trumpet-like instrument with a piercing and nasal pitch, accompanied us. Not surprisingly, we drew plenty of long glances from onlookers in the village.

As we were walking to the my wife’s erstwhile domicile, I was informed (in the theme of not letting me know about things until just before they happen) that I would be required to sing to be allowed into the place.

In these traditional weddings, the bride’s family puts the groom through the wringer in order to test his worthiness. In addition to singing (I chose Bob Marley’s “Is this Love?”), I had to hand over some red envelopes with cash as a payment to the gatekeepers to let me in. I was given a handful of coins to toss over the wall of the courtyard, too.

 

The gatekeepers await
The gatekeepers await

 

Once inside, the groom’s party is invited to drink two teas, one sweet and one bitter, to be symbolic of life’s ups and downs. We were then treated to a ceremonial meal, which was to provide me with the strength to carry my wife down from her room on my back!

We got into our bridal caravan afterwards and cruised around town, with the musicians playing along the way. Once we got back to my family’s house, we completed a few more ritual kowtow, and then entered the bridal chamber where we exchanged drinks with arms locked, thus signifying our union. We had a delicious banquet reception to top it all off.

Old school: groom carrying the bride
Old school: groom carrying the bride

Arms intertwined, taking shots to seal the deal
Arms intertwined, taking shots to seal the deal

 

That was the fun part. Throughout the few days leading up to the ceremony, my wife had been complaining of chronic stomach pain, which she suspected might be appendicitis. We had originally planned to go to Thailand for a few days, but opted instead to consult with a doctor while we were in Dali. We actually called up Calvin, owner of this fine blog, to consult with him and get his medical opinion.

Chinese hospitals, especially those in provincial cities, are not at all what you’re used to in the States.

First off, if you don’t have connections to the hospital (which we were lucky enough to have), you have no choice but to sit and wait for who knows how long to see a doctor. The cleanliness standards are also, shall we say, not like those of the hyper-sanitized U.S. of A. Men are smoking cigarettes in the hallways of the wards, stains are visible on the walls, and there are no Western style toilets. Furthermore, no meals are provided while you’re in hospital, based on the assumption that you will have family looking after you and bringing you meals.

The kicker was that the IV bags didn’t have monitors on them, so you’d have to keep vigil and page a nurse when the bag runs low, otherwise your loved one will get air bubbles in their blood.

In a Chinese hospital - after emergency surgery
In a Chinese hospital - after emergency surgery

 

It’s a good thing my wife opted to consult a doctor before we headed out for Thailand. An ultrasound revealed a very swollen appendix, and the doctor rushed her into emergency surgery. We were lucky that the appendix hadn’t already burst, and the procedure was an easy and straightforward one. Recovery time was a full 5 days.

 

Dogs sleeping in the hospital
Dogs sleeping in the hospital

 

My wife is fine now, thank goodness! But I am grateful she was the one who advocated for purchasing travel insurance for the trip. Had we not done so, we would’ve had to fork over a few thousand dollars to cover medical expenses, not even including the money lost on bookings we had no choice but to cancel at the very last minute.

I would strongly encourage you adventurers out there to consider purchasing travel insurance for your next trip, especially if it’s a long one, and if it is to a remote and isolated region of the world. The Chinese have a saying: “不管一万,只管万一。”, (bu guan yi wan, zhi guan wan yi), which roughly translates to “Don’t worry so much about spending $10,000, worry instead about the possibility of something going wrong.” Better safe than sorry.

There is a plethora of providers out there, and they are affordable. For the two of us, travel insurance for one month cost $200 through Global Alert. This policy covered all medical procedures up to $1 million, including emergency airlift, as well as reimbursement for cancellations due to medical emergencies.

Take my word for it, as a person who has survived a car crashing into me and breaking my femur, and this, you’re young but you’re far from invulnerable. Don’t play games with your own life while you’re out there trekking the world.

Mutianyu – Great Wall By Public Bus

Mutianyu – Great Wall By Public Bus

 

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The following is the third of 4 guest posts on China by Lei Zhao, who continues to contribute to the Monsoon Diaries adventures time and time again. 

Lei Zhao and I have been close friends since 7th grade of middle school. Saying that we’ve been through a lot together is an understatement. And he’s probably one of the most gifted artists and smartest human beings I have ever known.

Here is his story.

 

 

The Great Wall. So many choices in access points to the actual wall, how do you go about picking one? The most well known site is Badaling, which is relatively closer to Beijing City Center at about an hour and change northwest of the city. However, Badaling has the disadvantage of being the most popular site, meaning swarms of domestic Chinese tourists pour over it each day, especially weekends. It was with this consideration in mind that we chose to go to Mutianyu to see the wall.

Most of the time when you go to the great wall, you either go with a tour group by chartered bus, or you charter your own driver and van. Both these options will easily run you about 200-400 RMB ($35-$120 a person). We didn’t feel like forking over the cash for a private charter, nor did we want to tag along with a tour group that generally forces you to visit souvenir shops along the way.

So, we opted to go with the DIY option – taking the public bus.

Standing room only
Standing room only

 

There are two options to reach Mutianyu by public transit from Beijing: Bus 867 and Bus 916.

Both buses operate out of Dongzhimen Station. Dongzhimen Station itself is easily accessible by Beijing Metro (2 RMB – $0.35 a trip). Bus 867 is the only one that actually drops you off at the entrance to Mutianyu’s Great Wall. However, 867 only runs twice daily to and from the wall: once at 7:00AM, once at 9:30AM to the wall, and once at 1:00PM and 3:00PM back to Dongzhimen. Each option only costs 16 RMB ($4.50) per person per trip.

Bus 916 departs from within the Dongzhimen Bus Terminal. This bus has an express that gets you to Huairou, the county seat in 1.5 hours, and runs every 5-8 minutes. However, you will then need charter a driver for about 60-80 RMB ($10-$12) to get you to the entrance to the wall. If you plan to take the 867, don’t make the same mistake we did in getting there a bit too close to departure.

The bus gets packed quickly, especially in peak tourism season, and we ended up having to rotate the one seat we were able to get.

 

Get ready to sweat
Get ready to sweat

 

When you’re approaching the Great Wall, the bus driver may announce that it will take you between 1.5 to 2 hours to hike from the parking lot and entrance to the actual wall. Don’t fall for this gimmick.These drivers are in collusion with the cable lift operators to funnel customers to them.

Unless you have some kind of mobility restriction, you can easily make the climb in about 30 minutes, though it is a steep hike up stairs.

Once you get on top of the wall, there’s a good deal of walking and exploring you can do, just don’t forget to get yourself a nice cold beer from one of the vendors on the wall as a reward for making the climb.

Ahh.. not swarmed with a thousand mainland tourists.
Ahh.. not swarmed with a thousand mainland tourists.

Cold beer after a long hot climb up the wall.
Cold beer after a long hot climb up the wall.

 

When you come down off the wall, you may want to check out the chute as a way down. This option is about 50 RMB ($6-$7), and is a swift and fun way to get out of the hills, except if a slow person is jamming on the brakes in front of you!

Hope this helps you on your next trek to Beijing if you want to check out the Wall.