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.

You’re Going to Miss…“The Fairest Island Human Eyes Have Yet Beheld.” (Part V)

You’re Going to Miss…“The Fairest Island Human Eyes Have Yet Beheld.” (Part V)


Pictures courtesy of Vivian Trinh, Jan Ferrer, Susan Samol, Edmund Fong, and yours truly.


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“You do not travel if you are afraid of the unknown. You travel for the unknown, that reveals you with yourself.” – Ella Maillart

Havana – May Day

You’re going to miss waking up to a bus ride that will take you back closer to home, knowing that the return trip would be a bittersweet reminder that all good things must come to an end.




You’re going to miss your second, third, or fourth night tour of Old Town, stopping to play tic-tac-toe with the local children on the street, downing a glass of what tasted like frozen hot chocolate, and imbibing oversized beer at a oversized microbrewery on the eve of the country’s biggest holiday.



You’re going to miss waking up at 6am to be groggily handed a survival kit consisting of a sandwich, water and a coke, walking a few kilometers half-asleep to reach the May Day parade, being pleasantly surprised at the complete lack of anti-capitalist sentiment anywhere, and braving the sweltering heat before being swept up in a sea of such positive energy now expected from a community you probably already have fallen in love with.


The Chinese delegation

You’re going to miss the quick glimpse of someone kinda important waving at you from the distance. 


Raúl C himself; Photo taken by Tom Peddle


You’re going to miss slowly recovering from the quick highs of just taking part in the country’s most festive event of the year, and the struggle of a hike through Old Town trying to be as polite as possible to your guide as he says stuff that — despite your best efforts — continues to go in one ear and out the other.


A good idea on how tired we were. Photo taken by Susan Samol


You’re going to miss wearing your nice clothes and meeting up at the main casa before our last official dinner together.



You’re going to miss the fancy dinner in one of the country’s most upscale restaurants, sitting where Jay-Z and Beyoncé had sat only a year before, admiring the photos of other celebrities that had been here, the brain teasers that would last the night, and taking the last group photo as if it was prom all over again.



You’re going to miss the final hurrah by the Malecón, finishing the same way that you started, drunken conversations, dancing, karaoke, bboy battles, and those eternal hugs on the streets as members of our group slowly peeled off with goodbyes one by one…


Dancing to Spice Girls


You’re going to miss being one of the final few left, who would afterwards return to the scene of the crime of the first night we met, flipping off the hole and metal trap doors that almost killed you only 6 days earlier.



You’re going to miss topping off the night by storming the embassy one last time, leaving them with a half raised flag, just because you can.


One of the flags in the middle has been significantly lowered to quarter-staff. That was us.


You’re going to miss giving piggy back rides to random friends, just because you can.



You’re going to miss trying to make the night last as long as possible, just so you don’t miss out on a place that you’ve become so reluctant to leave.



You’re going to miss your final trip to Old Town and back, the relaxed window shopping and subsequent taxi ride back home down the coastline.



You’re going to miss the final dinner and walk down the Malecón by sunset.



You’re going to miss taking in the final few hours of a week you’ll never forget, the bittersweet amusement when “The Final Countdown” begins to play on the taxi’s radio.



You’re going to miss the sudden realization that this hard goodbye was finally becoming all too real.



And most of all, you’re going to miss it long after when we say goodbye…that moment when you finally realize that nobody else for the rest of your life will be able to understand what 30 strangers went through together in 7 days.

And most of all, you’re going to miss each other…

Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 5.36.52 AM


“…Because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” – Jack Kerouac

You’re Going to Miss…“The Fairest Island Human Eyes Have Yet Beheld.” (Part IV)

You’re Going to Miss…“The Fairest Island Human Eyes Have Yet Beheld.” (Part IV)


Pictures courtesy of Vivian Trinh, Jan Ferrer, Edmund Fong, and yours truly.

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“People don’t take trips . . . trips take people.” – John Steinbeck



You’re going to miss settling down in a new city and waiting for our homestay assignments, a brief respite before 2 very memorable days.




You’re going to miss the walking tour around a pleasant little town, and the lazy afternoon drinking iced coffee and searching for bottled water.



You’re going to miss enjoying a private dinner at your homestay before dressing up for the first time on the trip, hearing the first signs of thunder in the distance while walking through the ensuing rainstorm in your nice clothes, jumping over makeshift rivers in the street while looking for our intended venue, celebrating surviving the storm over (once again) cheap cigars and bottles of rum, the impromptu salsa lesson to live music, and the late meandering in the city park as mating dogs prance about you without a care in the world.




You’re going to miss getting up way too early to take an hour hike into a national park, stopping to look at the same bird 10 times as you struggle (so real) to even realize that you just made a terrible mistake and you might be doing this hike completely hungover.



You’re going to miss coming upon a natural spring grove from where you can take another dive in, wading silently into a bat cave but ruining the moment by doing your best Batman impression, and then climbing random rocks to prove your worth as a human monkey.


Jump from here, no big deal.


You’re going to miss (the possibility of) taking a crap in the woods when nobody’s looking, and ignoring all the mosquitoes for the next hour as you hike back to civilization.



You’re going to miss coming upon a unspoiled, barely touched stretch of white sanded beach, finding a strand of hair as long as your arm in your food, participating in an intense game of competitive volleyball with other travelers, finally getting that lazy tan, and the relaxing dip in the Caribbean sea while talking about life, travel, and the future.



You’re going to miss watching another sunset over quiet conversations with your new family, tending to the wounded when one of them steps on a sea urchin, attempting to make letters with bodies for a group photo, and an unforgettable dinner over unlimited rum by the bonfire as it blazed quietly into the Caribbean night…



The ladies
The gentlemen



You’re going to miss the steep “WTF are we going” 10 minute hike uphill to reach a nightclub in a cave — famous for being the site of where a freed slave-turned-serial killer ate his victims many years ago (TMI) — passing around seemingly endless bottles of rum like candy, shedding tears over that depressing moment when you realize that the trip was already more than halfway through, jumping in to defend your family from racism and sexual harassment, and then epically celebrating our limited time with an amazing group of people you would eventually call your home away from home.











And can you miss things you don’t even remember? Yeah, you’re going to miss that too…


The struggle being real


(to be continued)…

You’re Going to Miss…“The Fairest Island Human Eyes Have Yet Beheld.” (Part III)

You’re Going to Miss…“The Fairest Island Human Eyes Have Yet Beheld.” (Part III)


Pictures courtesy of Vivian Trinh, Jan Ferrer, Edmund Fong, and yours truly.

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“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.” – John Hope Franklin

Santa Clara


Ché just got served


You’re going to miss arriving at the grand monument of one of the most controversial revolutionaries in the world, learning about a life both relatable and extraordinary and far beyond what anyone could have expected from a 20 year old doctor-to-be.


The girl in the window represents his innocence
"The Motorcycle Diaries"


You’re going to miss arriving at a city famous for being the site of the last and decisive battle of the Revolution, the lazy walk around town and too tired to think for yourself on what to see, where to eat, or when to stop, the very real struggle to find a place to eat in the shade, and the pleasant victory of tasting their delicious version of a hamburger.



You’re going to miss ordering one hundred scoops of chocolate ice cream for $5 USD (but not waiting over an hour for them to open… that was the worst).



You will miss taking a lazy nap in the afternoon in a futile attempt to catch up on all the sleep you’ve never get back, the low-key rooftop dinner with new friends that has been beginning to feel like a family, the group photos with cigars to look as badass as possible.


The ladies
The gentlemen


You’re going to miss waking up feeling a little more refreshed and grateful for not going as hard last night, the quick exit out the door to leave a town you still barely know.


The famous train that Ché derailed


You’re going to miss stopping your bus in the middle of nowhere…



…and the subsequent 5 minute hike into…well…we had no clue…



…to stumble upon an oasis…



…and having it all to yourself.





You’re going to miss (and crave) this freshly killed pig for lunch afterwards, knowing that whatever I may write here won’t do this meal any justice.



And you’re going to miss the lazy bus ride into a famous town infamous for its nightlife…



(to be continued)…

You’re Going to Miss…“The Fairest Island Human Eyes Have Yet Beheld.” (Part II)

You’re Going to Miss…“The Fairest Island Human Eyes Have Yet Beheld.” (Part II)


Pictures courtesy of Vivian Trinh, Edmund Fong, Susan Samol and yours truly.

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“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” – John A. Shedd 


The Bay of Pigs just got served


You’re going to miss the dreadful feeling of being forced to wake up early the next morning after a night that never seemed to end, being thankfully rescued by a Caribbean breakfast of fresh fruit, juices and eggs, and getting on a bus heading to both somewhere and nowhere.



You’re going to miss seeing a view of seawater bluer than the sky above it, being wide-eyed WTF at the scores of feisty angry crabs standing in your way and ready to fight, the baking sun that made you desperate to jump in, the reluctance of borrowing questionable scuba gear, and the relief of diving into a fresh, cold natural spring afterwards.


First somersault dive



You’re going to miss satiating your unknowingly famished stomachs, passing around endless rounds of crab, lobster, lamb, chicken, rice, beans, juice, and whatever else can be eaten in a 5 mile radius.




You’re going to miss the impassioned history lesson behind a famous beach you just took an innocent swim in, learning not to take for granted the safe sociopolitical bubbles in which we still live.



You’re going to miss arriving in a beautiful city designed by the French and yet unknown to the world, the calmness of losing yourself in the sights and sounds of a seaside ocean house over milky piña coladas and sweet daiquiries.




You’re going to miss the sunset, as if you never seen one before.


You’re Going to Miss…“The Fairest Island Human Eyes Have Yet Beheld.” (Part I)

You’re Going to Miss…“The Fairest Island Human Eyes Have Yet Beheld.” (Part I)


Here we go.

If it’s not already playing, press play. And then start reading.

“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark




You’re going to miss the first thought of uncertain possibility, the idea of traveling to a forbidden country abandoned by history, the weeks of growing anticipation of trusting your life to strangers you feel like you could have known all your life.


You’re going to miss the first introductions in an airport, handshakes with a family you would spend the next 7 days with, the mental scramble to match faces to names and pictures from a blogpost.



You’re going to miss the insecurity of following through pre-boarding customs, the feeling as if you had never been to an airport before, the quiet calm before the storm, the pleasant surprise everything was actually turning out easier than expected.



You’re going to miss descending into the unknown, the silent victory of not looking back.



You’re going to miss the the welcoming chaos, the thought of “OK, What Now?”



You’re going to miss witnessing passing images of a new world outside your first taxi, the realization that you’re not in Kansas anymore.



You’re going to miss the first night dinner and drinks with old strangers and new friends, the awkward pleasantries being done away quickly with over the unending flow of alcohol, the realization that ordering drinks at a bar would be a poor way to spend your money when you can get by just fine with bottles of cheap rum (because you can!), and playing music outdoors without anyone giving an F…



You’re going to miss the first dare, the storming of a compound, your uneasy feelings conveniently swept away by easy inebriation, the thought of having nothing to fear but whistles and holes in the ground.


Dr. Sun and Jan's handkerchief comes to Sam's aid when she trips over a rusty piece of metal and loses a toenail. Alistair tries to help by pouring endless amounts of rum over her wound.
After being taken care of, she falls into a hole a few minutes later.
Her bruise afterwards

Vivian dares to disturb Smaug