The Never-Ending Revolution

“Welcome to hell!” The Cuban man laughs and extinguishes his cigarette on the stoop where he sits, adding to the ever growing piles of garbage on the streets of Havana.

When we ask a thirteen-year old kid, “Are you happy?”, the answer is a nod and a shake of his head. Yes and no. Yes, because he is a child, can play, and has his whole life ahead of him. No, because he is always in want of more. More (and better) food. Clothes without rips and shoes without holes. A roof over his head that doesn’t threaten to fall down on him while he is asleep.

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Fifty-six years after the Cuban revolution, where Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and Che Guevara, joined by hundreds of rebels, claimed the power, the failure of its ideology is a fact. While most Cubans will agree that the revolution was necessary to get rid of the corrupt president Batista who ruled the country with aid of the American Mafia, they’ve also had enough. Life is tough. There is a lack of everything but rum, pork and white bread. One has to stand in line, sometimes for hours, just to buy basic necessities such as toilet paper and soap. And that is only on those days when they are available. Most of the time they’re not. Similar to the once living standards of the former Soviet Union, life here sucks.

Still, the battle-cry of “Viva La Revolucion” is painted on the walls of kindergartens, schools, bus stations and factories. Che Guevara’s face adorns buildings, mopeds and t-shirts. And the TV-anchors mention the revolution at least once in every clip, whether they speak about sports, politics or music. The Cuban brains are washed, tumble dried and ironed from morning to night, day in day out, year after year.

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It’s a land not devastated by war, but by the senseless governing of a selfish leader, who has let fertile fields overgrow and left his people starving. Where you have to stand in line for everything, every day. And the taxes you pay don’t depend on your income, but on your trade; you’ll pay the same amount whether you make any money or none. And although anyone can buy a new car for the reasonable price of USD $250,000, with the average monthly salary at $25/month, it would take a mere 833 years to pay it off. That is, if you forsake eating and other “hobbies.”

With increasing tourism, this will undoubtedly change. You can already see the cracks in the establishment, brought on by the loosening ties on free enterprise. Since Raul Castro took over the reins in 2006, the country has made small but firm steps away from communism toward capitalism. Despite ridiculous taxes, any cook can now open his own restaurant. Home owners are allowed to rent out rooms to foreigners. Bicycle-rickshaws can give rides to tourists. And people are catching on to the fact that providing good service will make them more money. The locals may never be as rich as the foreigners with their fancy sun-glasses and smart phones, but at least they may be able to afford good quality shampoo or an hour on the internet (after standing in line for a few hours to access the state-owned service). And as the world witnessed during the imploding of the Soviet Union, when you give people a finger of freedom, they will grab the entire hand and will never let go.

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So does money equal happiness? Of course not. But as a European or American it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to be able to fulfill our basic needs. How fortunate we are to have access to the internet, free speech and news from the rest of the world. How great it is that we can travel when we want, where we want. And vote in democratic elections.

A fisherman in the French-flavored town of Cienfuegos confides: “All the tourists think Cuba is paradise, but it really isn’t.”

No, Cuba isn’t paradise. Although “hell” might be a slight exaggeration.

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This is Cuba

The lazy rays of the morning sun caress the dilapidated buildings of Havana, as if offering them a last sigh of hope before they crumble to dust. In the hallways, the scent of guanabana and pineapple lingers, and in the distance, the click-clacking of horse hooves on cobble stones remind you that you’re not in New York City any more. This is Cuba.

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Strolling down narrow sidewalks, you pass women in snug lycra dresses queuing up to buy eggs and pig trotters. A man sticks out his head from a hole-in-the wall shop, beckoning you to buy one of his pork sandwiches for 25 cents. You decline with a smile; God knows what part of the animal was used for that funny-looking meat.

High above, long clothes lines adorned with jeans, shirts and underwear flutter in the wind, keeping company with the grandmothers who spend their entire lives on the balconies, gossiping with their neighbors about the life below. They watch you take a photo and ask if you could spare some money, perhaps even a soap? As you turn away, you bump into an electric blue 1953 Buick in immaculate shape, and wonder why five slaughtered pigs have been heaped into the back seat.

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“Senor, taxi?” You shake your head at the young bicycle rickshaw driver. “No, not now, thanks. I’m just walking.” And you wonder if it was wise to tie such a heavy boom box to his bike, adding a few extra pounds to the cargo, then you realize that music will make the day go by so much faster. Through an open door, you glimpse a family crouched up in front of the TV, while their maid is scrubbing the floor. Next-doors, the bar is packed with men, women and children at 11 o’clock in the morning. Ten cents will buy you a shot of cheap rum, but a can of soda costs six times more. You wonder if the government trying to keep their people drunk so they will forget they are hungry.

Shouts of “panadeeero” and “leeeechuga” wake you from your contemplations; peddlers of newly baked bread and lettuce pass by with their wooden carts laden with merchandise. You’re starting to get hungry. What is there to eat today? You opt for a sandwich with cheese that most likely did not come from a cow or goat or any of those usual suspects. It just tastes funny.

The salsa music that flows from the tourist bar is inviting. You give up your pledge to live like a local and settle down at a table among other non-Cubans to enjoy your cup of strong coffee.

It tastes just wonderful.

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Lesotho – Mis-Adventures in the Mountain Kingdom

A lot of people were discouraging when they heard we were going to Lesotho. “There’s nothing to see there”, “The South African side of the mountains are much more beautiful”, “It’s so poor”, etc.

And really, Lesotho itself seemed to discorage us from visiting – it presented us with a huge pothole that blew one of our tires within our first half hour in the country. Unable to fix the tire in Lesotho, we returned to South Africa to get a new tire, and so crossed the South Africa/Lesotho border three times in one day.

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We barely made it to a guesthouse before sunset, and slept in a mudmade rondavel hut in a tiny village. The only thing going on in that place was a football match between the local boys, and a store that only sold canned beans, crackers and cigarettes.

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The next morning it was raining hard. But when the rain subsided, we continued up the mountains. I was set on making it to the highlands, the part of Lesotho that is supposed to be the most dramatically beatiful.

Eduardo swore. The whole way. Those roads are not for sissies. It was like driving on a roller-coaster ride, the hills are just as steep, and the curves just as sharp. Me, in the passenger seat, held my breath and hoped the brakes would not fail.

On one of those sharp and steep curves, a tanker had broken down, the cargo too heavy for the truck to pull. And it was just as impossible for the driver to back up, so he was stuck there. For hours. Maybe forever.

When it started to snow, we decided to give up. No matter how fantastically beautiful these mountains were, and how cool all the people were, it wasn’t meant to be this time.

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Anastasia – The Perfect Child

The definition of happiness for Stacey, a five-year old South African girl, is to go to bed with a full stomach. Nothing more, nothing less.

This is a story about an amazing girl, Anastasia, called Stacey for short. Stacey grew up on the streets of Durban with her parents and brother, but lost her mother to AIDS two years ago. Her daddy took care of Stacey and her brother as best as he could, but without a job or a place to live, life was not easy. The small family slept in parks, pilfered garbage cans for anything edible and begged strangers for any coins they were willing to spare.

One stormy night, Nancy, a middle-class lady, saw the family sleeping under a tree in torrential rain. The sight was heart-breaking. The little girl with the big innocent eyes was drenched, dirty and malnourished. Not even a dog should live like that. Nancy gave the father money for the local shelter so that at least they could spend one night in a warm, dry place. And, half-seriously, Nancy told the father that if he ever needed help, she could take care of his children.

Early the next morning, Nancy’s doorbell rang, and the father handed over his daughter.

Eduardo and I fell head over heels in love with Stacey from the moment we met her. We can’t believe Nancy was so lucky to find her, we wish we had found Stacey first. She’s perfect, in every sense.

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How could a girl growing up on the streets be so well mannered, intelligent and polite? She acts as she would have grown up in a strict boarding school. When we visited a restaurant, Stacey, on her own initiative, cleared the table. She speaks in a soft voice and always asks for permission before taking your plate, or reaching to look at anything, like your camera.

And you couldn’t find a happier child. Everything amazes her, and she is thankful for any gifts, however small. A balloon, bubbles, chewing gum, clothes. I’m sure she would even have been delighted to receive a pair of socks. At the Durban Fan Fest, watching the Ghana-Uruguay quarter finals, Stacey cheered and screamed, danced with some young English boys, and blew her vuvuzela a lot better than either Eduardo or I. She sings, when allowed, and dances as soon as she hears a tune. Eduardo and I would have a blast with her, as we would never stop dancing and singing and checking out new music.

Stacey is absolutely gorgeous. She has a glowing career ahead of her as a super-model, or any other career she would wish to pursue. She is warm and loving. She’s quiet, but not timid. She has an amazing sense of humor with quite complex jokes. And she cares and worries about everyone around her. At only five, she’s as mature as a woman, and as full of life and excitement as a child.

Stacey would be the perfect child for Eduardo and me to adopt. Unfortunately this will not be possible, but we will definitely always keep in touch with her to make sure she is given the opportunities she deserves so well.

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Hanging in Addis Ababa

“It’s Christmas 1984. There are seven million people starving in one country. Doesn’t that make you think?”

That was the intro on the B-side of Band Aid’s “Feed the World” single. Together with Bob Geldof, the reporters of the world first introduced me to Ethiopia in the early eighties. Images of stick thin children with bellies swollen with malnutrition, flies squatting their eyes, and desperate mothers staring into the cameras, begging to please help! Please let my child live.

Little did I know that 26 years later I would find myself in Addis Ababa. The humidity and lushness of the rainy season makes it difficult to believe that there can be severe droughts in this country. And while you see plenty of beggars on the streets, Addis has a certain Cairo-like flair with its Parisian cafes and bakeries, high-end hotels and shopping centers along the muddy roads.

It has a relaxed vibe, for sure. It also feels totally safe to walk down a dark alley at night without a single doubt about arriving safely.

But if you glance just a tiny bit behind the facade, the real face of Addis shines through. Children with ankles shaped like a Z because a broken leg was not tended to. Tin-roofed shacks just steps away from gold and jewelery stores. Malnourished, flea-bitten dogs lying on the roads. Construction sites with scaffolding as stable as a house of cards. Ancient Soviet-made cars gushing out black fumes, making the air almost unbreathable. And a clinic so dirty that Eduardo told me not to touch anything, lest I catch some virus.

I like Addis Ababa, I really do. But would I live here? Never.

Lalibela – Rock-Hewn Churches and Dirty Poor Children

“We’re lucky, it’s raining today! It’s the third day in a row it has rained. We are thankful to God!”

Mikael’s attitude to the rain differed drastically from ours. We prefer sunshine and heat on our travels. But being in Northern Ethiopia where hardly anything grows, we, too, were thankful for the drops that fell that day.

Lalibela lies high up in the Northern Ethiopian mountains – in the middle of nowhere, really. The village is surrounded by agricultural lands where the locals still use mules for transport, herd sheep and work their lands with hook-ploughs. There’s a constant, somewhat sour, smell of burning eucalyptus wood everywhere, as they use it to cook and to heat their homes. In the mornings, the women carry large, yellow plastic containers on their heads to fetch water for the day. Not much has changed in the last five hundred years.

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Although the tourist office charges almost $30/person to view the rock-hewn churches, Ethiopia’s main tourist attraction, nothing seems to go back to the village. The villagers live in shacks just feet away from the churches. Many children don’t have shoes – some don’t even have pants! – and they play football with a ball made of rolled-up socks.

We watched the semi-final between Spain and Germany in a run down, filthy, miniscule bar, filled to the brim with chairs and people, on one of the few TVs in the village. There was an strong odor of stale beer and unwashed bodies. But everyone cheered for Spain, which was great, and of course Spain won!

But despite the destitution, the children in Lalibela dream of a brighter future. They dream of becoming water engineers, pilots, doctors, even the president of Ethiopia. But here’s the hook – they all want you to buy them a school book so they can advance to the next level. Everyone’s father has died and their mother works in a village far away, so they are all alone. How much of their stories were true, and how much was just tear-jerking stories is hard to tell.

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Harar – Now we’re talking dirty

“Faranjo, money!” is probably the phrase you will hear most when visiting Harar. It means “Foreigner, money!” And it seems everyone wants something from you.

Harar is one of the most sacred Muslim cities in the world. But you’d be hard-pressed to call it a city. This ancient trading-post in East Ethiopia, not far from the Somaliland border, seems barely bigger than a sprawled-out market. It’s main drawing card is the old town with over 90 mosques, and the colorful people doing business within its walls.

Merchants, peasants and nomads all gather in Harar to sell whatever they can – mangoes, tomatoes, beans, spices, bread, textiles, used clothes, counterfeit items. Anything. Covered-up women in kaleidoscopic patterns walk for miles to reach the city, carrying their merchandise in woven bowls on their heads. Each tribe with their own style and hues . Men and children load donkeys and slowly make their way to one of the many markets.

It’s also one of the dirtiest places I’ve ever been to. Everything is covered in dust. A “water-program” limits water access to a couple of hours in the early morning and a couple of hours at night. The houses in the old town have neither electricity or running water. Stoned men lay on the street, green froth bubbling around their mouths from chewing the narcotic chat-leaves, oblivious to their own poverty. And children play in garbage containers.

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Opportunists abound, all children, men and women want your cash. Eduardo almost got into a fight with a guy who took him to “his” antique store, which wasn’t his at all, and then wanted a commission. The true owner of the store knew us from our previous visit, and refused the commission. Outside, I stepped in between the Eduardo and the false owner to break up the fight, while a one-eyed old lady stood right in front of me and begged me for money.

The poverty of this country finally hit me in Harar. Complaining about the cock-roaches in our dirty hotel, when the inhabitants of this town most likely have never slept in clean sheets or in creepy-crawly-free spaces. Realizing that most of these people have never had a hot shower in their lives. Seeing a woman wearing just one shoe, because one shoe is better than none at all.

It’s a dirty old town, for sure. But a great reminder of how blessed I am. And how rich I am. And how clean I am (most of the time). And I think I will never complain about anything again in my life.

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