Marcus and I took ourselves on a holiday this past October.
Melbourne > Boston > NYC > Washington DC > Toronto > Montreal > Havana > Melbourne
It was so great. Some photos:
Our time in the US was really quite lovely. We were so lucky to reconnect with quite a few wonderful friends living in NYC, and after a few days I thought I could really see myself living there and taking in everything the city has to offer. Thanks to a long list of recommendations from friends we had an impressive hit list of things to see and do, but in the end what we mostly spent our time doing was just wandering and people watching, particularly in NYC. There are no lack of things to see and do on the streets. I do feel a bit bad that we didn't get to any of the museums and galleries I had on my list, but there's always next time.
I had an interesting conversation with our dear friend Kath about the subtle differences in attitude between Americans and Australians. The comment that stands out is her observation that in Australia, our behaviour is regulated (and particularly when it puts others at risk), but in the US opinions and morals are regulated, and behaviour is of less concern. It's like you're free to do whatever you like in the US, and please or upset whoever along the way, as long as it is coming from a place of self righteousness. For us, no one cares about your morals as long as you're not creating unintended negative outcomes. Such a subtle difference in attitude to personal responsibility. It was interesting to observe this nuance in so many instances - work, public liability, alcohol consumption. I wonder if it has something to do with the differences in the way our two countries were founded.
This was my first trip to the US and in NYC I had quite a few moments of feeling like no photo I could take would be original, no observation I would make would be unique, and a perpetual feeling of "oh, that famous place that I've seen in every tv show". It's a strange feeling - and meant I hardly took any photos! But there's also something to be said for being in a city where even the smallest underground ideas are happening on a global scale - NYC really is the world's creative hub.
Canada was pretty special - very postcard picture perfect with Fall leaves in full colour everywhere we went. We got the full Canadian treatment with a visit to Cottage Country, winery tours, a night at the museum. Pretty spectacular. We even walked home on Halloween with the snow falling around us...
And what's better than spending a couple of weeks with your best friend - the hostess with the most-ess - in her home town?! Wish it wasn't quite so far away...
I totally fell in love with the craziness that is Montreal. While Toronto feels very much like Melbourne, Montreal feels like a confused European country - although you can totally understand how that would happen. The language politics are a mess of imperialistic sensitivity, french arrogance and some kind of cultural paranoia - and I mean that in the nicest way possible. I totally understand why the tension between the english and french speakers exists, and ultimately I feel like it creates a pretty fascinating dynamic. All of that said, the city still feels like a bit of a work in progress. I was really nice to get my french out again after far too long in storage. I loved it!
Cuba was a crazy, complicated, illogical dream. It was so full of colour and movement and such good people.
Knowing a bit about the history was barely enough - the years of african slavery and occupation, independence wars, and of course the Revolution have created a layered mess of contradictions that I still haven't really been able to get my head around.
The country was once incredibly rich, and incredibly corrupt thanks to an abundance of sugar and tobacco and a US backed dictator. International trade has almost come to a complete halt thanks to trade sanctions from the US that have been in place for 50 years. This means that Havana is a sight to behold, with beautiful boulevards that could just as easily belong in Paris or Madrid, mixed in with cobbled together streets that look more like Rwanda. The new part of town has barely been touched since the Revolution, and some parts are falling down more than others. Some of the key parts of Old Havana have enjoyed restoration recently - and it is seriously impressive.
Everywhere you turn you see celebrations of the Revolution, and shrines to Fidel, Raul and Che, as well as Independence catalyst Jose Marti, but just under the surface it's quite easy to see that Fidel's Marxist / Leninist regime has created it's fair share of problems. We had some intriguing conversations with some really clever people (over cigars, naturally), and they echoed our feeling that things were certainly bubbling away. Despite that, there is such a sense of pride for their city, their country and their way of doing things.
Where once the Revolution was revered by the people for the positive changes it created (agrarian reform, impressive literacy and education efforts, greatly reduced rural poverty), the positives have slowly become outnumbered by the negatives. Conveniently though, it is hard to tell which of the negatives are as a result of the government, and which are due to the US trade embargo. Their once abundant rations are now very sparse, and basic supplies are almost impossible to get unless they come from Russia or are grown at home.
What's clear though, is that most Cubans see through the propaganda and recognise that the regime as it stands is on it's last legs. While Fidel is apparently convalescing, his brother Raul has been slowly and slightly relaxing some of the most restrictive limitations on private enterprise, and many people acknowledge a change in attitude is inevitable with Obama in the Oval Office.
I must say though, I think in many ways it would be a real shame. There's so much good stuff, and I can't help but feel that a lot of it could be lost if money flooded in all of a sudden. I feel like it would be a real shame to see this country change its ways for the sake of American tourism and earning a buck. Despite the fact they don't have much, people are so generous and so proud of what they have. Their small commercial operations are run with heart at the centre. Trade limitations make for some really beautiful things - their gorgeous and painstakingly restored classic cars, a real pride in Cuban tradition, and a real sense that they're all in this together. They're beautiful people - like I've never seen before, and I'll probably never experience again. My tiny left-leaning mind almost exploded faced with the complexity of how things work in reality when we do things differently.
If I were you - I'd get there soon. Who knows what will happen to this magical little island once the US decides they should be friends again.
In the meantime, I highly recommend some pre-viewing:
- The Motorcycle Diaries - a feature film starring Gael Garcia Bernal exploring Che Guevara's adventure through South America, which was the foundation of much of his philosophical and political thinking.
- The Buena Vista Social Club - a beautiful film about the rediscovery and reconnection of many of the legendary musicians of Cuba. Really gorgeous stuff and incredible music if you don't already know it.
- Che - a 2-part film by Steven Soderberg and starring Benicio Del Toro. It looks closely at the unfolding of the Cuban Revolution, and also at Guevara's work in Bolivia where he was eventually assassinated.
(EDIT: It was announced today that the US are resuming diplomatic contact with Cuba. Hate to say I told you so.)