Cuba, Vietnam, and Cambodia 2014


Cruel leaders are replaced only to have new leaders turn cruelChe Guevara

Anyone who does not follow the line determined by me will be smashed Ho Chi Minh

*

It was mid-afternoon on the spectacular white-sand beach of the impossibly skinny peninsula that stretched out north-eastward over the Gulf of Mexico, straight as an arrow, until curving sharply at the end like the claw of a bird of prey. I was sitting in a deckchair under the shade cast by a canopy of dried palm thatch that rustled quietly under a soft breeze coming in from across the gently-cracked turquoise water. Examining the bottom of my cup, I poked at the last slushy bit of piña colada, a drink I had become hopelessly addicted to, with a lipstick-red straw, and gazed out at my girlfriend, Kris. She was shell-hunting on the beach with the rapt curiosity of a scientist on the verge of a Eureka moment. Almost as if she could sense I was watching her, she looked up, pushed her hair out of her face, and smiled broadly, her angular Germanic features highlighted by the sun bouncing off the sand. She pointed happily at a large pearl-white, disk-shaped shell in her other hand and mouthed the words: “this is the one”.

It was April 2014 and, although Kris and I had only discovered each other a couple of months prior, we decided to go on vacation together to Varadero, a resort town in the province of Matanzas, Cuba. I have always liked making the distinction between “vacationing” and “traveling” as the former is Dionysian relaxation while the latter, as fun and adventurous as it is, is a more onerous and taxing exercise in the exploration of another country’s geographical and cultural landscape.

On this particular day, while Kris scanned for shells and I lazily quaffed piña coladas, we had just returned to our lovely beachside resort after having traveled for a couple of days to the capital, Havana, where the tarnished and crumbling buildings still emanate an ineffable, majestic beauty. Vintage American cars chug along, on Russian-supplied Lada engines, through the squalid streets where young kids in tattered clothes play baseball with tree branches and bottle caps. It harked back to ‘Hemingway’s Cuba’ in the years just prior to the 1959 communist revolution led by Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl, and Che Guevara, that ousted Fulgencio Batista and brought capitalism in Cuba to a crashing end for decades.

I looked up and down the beach at the western tourists, slathered in suntan oil with waistlines bulging from the limitless avalanche of ridiculously cheap, pre-paid for food and booze – all served up by local staff who are paid so little that, by our standards, they work for free. I figured Che Guevara would spin to the core of the earth in his grave if he could see this sweaty mass of seething capitalism sprawled up and down Cuba’s beaches (and know that his Castro compadres, both now well into their 80s, are still in charge of the country and endorse it). The only thing he would approve of is the ongoing deadlock with the United States, a country that, over time, he grew to despise with about as much toxic venom as the radical Islamic militants wreaking havoc in the Middle East today.

Although I had heard about it before, I was still taken aback by just how much Cuba is still in the grips of the ‘Cult of Che’. Not only does an enormous sketch of the world-famous 1960 Alberto Korda photo-portrait of Guevara’s smoldering glare of militant rebellion take its place beside Fidel Castro’s in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, the image is ubiquitous throughout the city. He remains as worshipped there as, ironically, America’s national pastime – baseball. In fact, Guevara’s popularity extends and endures well beyond Cuba’s turquoise shores. Korda’s iconic picture is emblazoned on the walls of university dorms and the T-shirts of their inhabitants the world over especially, and again ironically, in America.

I have never understood this misguided idolatry for a man who was so well-read, so intelligent, and so gifted and yet so managed to let his anger, at the outset over the exploitation of South American farmers by an American fruit monopoly, convert to a hatred so bitter as to twist him into a ruthless, terrorist thug. This lionized hero of the Marxist-Leninist communist utopia was, despite their admiration for his courage in battle, feared and hated by many of his own men. He personally murdered his direct enemies and, after being appointed commander of the notorious La Cabaña Fortress prison by Fidel Castro in 1959, zealously oversaw the execution of countless “enemies of the revolution” (i.e. real or perceived Batista supporters) by firing squad after bogus collective trials. Death finally caught up with Guevara when, at the age of 39, he was captured by Bolivian troops, dragged through the mud, and summarily assassinated by an alcoholic Cuban exile working for the CIA. After the execution, Christ-like images of Guevara’s corpse circulated throughout the world and he was mourned as, of course, a martyr.

“What are you thinking about, baby?” asked Kris, plopping down in the deckchair beside me and taking my hand.

“Just about our trip to Havana,” I replied in that sort of half-truthful way when you do not want to subject a sunny disposition to dark thoughts. “Show me this shell of yours. The one. I couldn’t see it properly from here.”

“Sure,” she said, rummaging. “Here. Isn’t it cool?”

The shell nestled in her palm had about the same distorted dimensions as a large, hand-made hamburger patty. From its dotted centre bloomed, in relief, what looked like five perfectly symmetrical flower petals, all framed by scores of tiny, straight nicks with bulging heads at the ends, like an explosion of spermatozoa rigidly standing at attention. The base of one of the petals was damaged; smashed through with a hole about the size of a baby finger. “It’s perfect”, I said, touching it. “Nature’s art. Better than anything in our galleries.

“Except for that damn hole,” she said, frowning. “Looks like a bullet hole”.

“To me, that’s what makes it so perfect,” I murmured as Korda’s ‘perfect’ picture of Che Guevara flitted again through my mind. Kris gave me a sidelong glance as the wind, which had been gradually picking up, converted the rolling waves approaching the beach into breakers and my eyes widened. “I think I’m going to go…”

“…for a swim,” said Kris, remarkably reading my mind again, without even thinking about it, and completing my sentences for me.

“Piña coladas and ping pong when I get back?”

“Get out of my head,” she replied as a pelican wheeled through the sky above, plopped awkwardly in the receding surf, and vainly searched for the targeted meal now being tugged back out to sea, making an inglorious escape.

A few minutes later, as I romped around in the chaos of the heavy cresting waves crashing over me, I looked out to sea and thought about the thousands of Cubans who have, ever since the revolution, perished in attempting to flee to Florida, so tantalizingly close geographically, across these temperamental waters on all variety of flotsam, including the ripped off doors of vintage Cadillacs. Suddenly, I abandoned all thoughts of anything as I found myself under the dark shadow of a monster wave towering in front of me. “Awesome!” I gasped, turning my back to meet it as it broke, its force momentarily lifting me off my feet before sucking me under. Bending my knees when my feet touched the seabed, I pushed upwards and breached the surface of the water in an ecstatic panic. Shaking myself like a drenched dog, I saw Kris happily waving at me across the roiling foam. Under the increasing wind, her hair seemed to churn in time with the tall palm fronds behind her. With barbeque smoke coiling through the air, it was almost as if there was a helicopter landing nearby. I was reminded of actor Robert Duvall strutting along the beach in the epic movie Apocalypse Now and spitting out one of his many famous lines, “Charlie don’t surf,” as justification for a brutal attack on a Viet Cong-held village at the Mekong Delta in Vietnam…

*

It was mid-afternoon and Kris and I watched the monsoon rainclouds gathering and moving in fast towards another spectacular white-sand beach of another impossibly skinny peninsula, called Bãi tắm Thuận An, that stretched out north-eastward – this time over the South China Sea. My visons of Apocalypse Now in Cuba, 5 months earlier, had been prescient as Kris and I had landed in Vietnam after a stint working a meeting in Pyeongchang, Korea.

“Maybe we should get inside,” said Kris, touching my hand lightly and wiping a couple of raindrops from her cheek. “It’s starting.”

“You’re right,” I grunted, gripping her hand and lazily hauling us up from our deckchairs. ‘Inside’ was a ‘bar’ not far down the beach which was basically just a large tarp secured over bamboo posts that sheltered a few nylon chairs so threadbare that, much to Kris’s amusement, I went straight through the bottom of the first one I sat in. The “bathroom” out back was a rickety stall with a steel grate in the floor. In front was an over-sized basin of water with a bucket floating on top so that you could wash down the grate whatever it was that came out of you. After using the facilities, I endeavoured to order some beer. The problem was that, for reasons unknown, the door to the tiny fridge was blocked by a wretched-looking mattress with a hard-bitten gang of Vietnamese sprawled all over it playing cards. There was no identifiable bartender so, as the intensifying rain drummed noisily on the tarp overhead, I just hollered at the group for a couple of beers, a request that was greeted by all with vacant incomprehension. A while later, after some animated sign language and mattress moving, I sank into a chair beside Kris protectively clutching two cold beers.

“Not exactly Varadero,” I muttered.

“No,” said Kris dreamily, “but this is pretty damn fucking cool.”

She was right – it was pretty damn fucking cool. Still happily buzzing from the dizzying kaleidoscope of Hanoi’s assault on the senses, we had flown to Huế, a city that had marked, along with Đà Nẵng and Hội An (where we were also to travel to), the bisection of North and South Vietnam prior to reunification in 1976. Initially disappointed by Huế’s seeming featurelessness (a first impression that was soon dispelled) and abundance of tourists, we rented a motorbike and took off to Bãi tắm Thuận An. The ride was awesome, albeit a bit chaotic negotiating the traffic on the way out of the city. I remember Kris holding on to me from behind and audibly praying for her life. After that though, it was just countryside: little villages peddling their wares (mostly junk), muddy water buffalo lumbering through wet, sun-dappled rice paddies, and existential dogs skulking around, doe-eyed, wondering when, where, and how they were going to be eaten. Kris pulled close into me, banged her helmet against mine and shouted in my ear over the clamor: “THIS IS VIETNAM!”

“Goddamn right!” I shouted back. For a while we rode in vain looking for the beach because, as it turned out, the road we were on snaked straight down the middle of the peninsula and did not lead to the beach at all. We were glad for our navigational error though as we enjoyed stopping to take pictures and shelter from the rain, which came as quickly as it went, under the ramshackle awnings of customerless cafés. I felt the thrill of being so far away from home, the gas in the bike running a bit low, and not another foreigner in sight in case something went wrong. Of course, nothing did go wrong, we found the beach in the end and, sitting under the giant tarp mesmerized by the rainy wind lashing the waves, I turned to Kris and put her cheek in the palm of my hand. “There’s nowhere else on earth I’d rather be right now.”

Her blue eyes, as passionately stormy as the sea in front of us, bore into mine and then flickered golden under the sun as the clouds began to break up. “Hey,” she said brightly, “it’s passing over again.”

Not long after, we were back on the beach in a familiar pattern: Kris wandering around hunting for shells and me crashed out in a deckchair, drinking, and letting my mind wander. I looked up and down the beach. In stark contrast to the Varadero resort, there were so few people – a couple of fishermen tending to their traditional Vietnamese fishing skiffs – it almost had the air of abandonment. I had ordered more beers from the mattress people. They were very poor, of course, with their broken-toothed smiles and tatty clothes, but we had been expecting the kind of abject, heart-wrenching poverty of the kind that I had witnessed in India and Nepal a couple of years earlier. We had seen very little of it, so far, and the traffic, although pretty anarchic and spewing staggering amounts of diesel fuel exhaust into the air, actually stopped and waited at red lights. Remarkably, crossing the street was not a death wish. We would continue to be surprised by this for the rest of our travels in both Vietnam and Cambodia.

It turned out that there was a fairly simple explanation for the relative prosperity we were observing. After 20 long years of relentless blood-letting during Vietnam’s Civil War, a Cold War proxy tilt between the communist North, supported by Russia and China, and the anti-communist South, supported by the United States (and France before them), Vietnam underwent reunification in 1976. Saigon had fallen to the North’s Việt Cộng forces in 1975 and, for the next 10 years, the country suffered from the same kind of impoverishment and political isolation as Cuba as a result of unbending Marxist-Leninist communist rule. Then, in 1986, with the Soviet Union in the early stages of its death throes and China no longer caring about anything but itself, Vietnam just made a bonfire of all the decades-long political dogma and threw open its doors to any country, including the United States, interested in investing in it.

Of course, America led the charge and today Vietnam’s cities are hives of buzzing capitalism where anyone can, if they wish, wash down a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken with a gallon of Coca Cola. This was very different from our experience in Cuba where, outside of the gated resorts, the Castro brothers still keep up the façade of their ‘victorious’ revolution (i.e. no advertising beyond government propaganda, no western products, etc.) I figured Ho Chi Minh would whirl even faster in his grave than Che Guevara if he could see his country now, especially considering he died 6 years before the Fall of Saigon and 7 years before Vietnam was officially reunified as a communist state. His lifelong dream, the exact same as Guevara’s, lasted a mere 10 years before the country voluntarily surrendered to, in fact tenderly embraced, the capitalist economic system that millions had died for to resist. Still, despite the cold, dead ashes of their political aspirations, both men forged undeniably romantic cults of personality that endure to this day – ones that were infinitely more successful than any North Korean ‘leadership’, past and present, could ever hope to dream of. We don’t see too many western university students loafing around campuses wearing T-shirts adorned with the image of Kim Jong-un or any of the rest of the deranged Kim family.

“Ahhhhh,” sighed Kris contentedly, collapsing beside me and kneading the moist sand, like bread dough, between the balls of her feet and her long toes.

“Do you still want to go on that trip to States with me?” I blurted out, my mind back flipping.

“What?”

“You know when I mentioned in a few years I want to get my license, buy a motorbike, and us doing a long tour of the US?”

“Yeah, for sure! Why are you thinking about that?”

“Ah, just because we’re on the bike today and it’s so cool. You just see things…” I said as I imagined bombing along some lonely single-lane highway, just after sundown, through the “big-sky” emptiness of America’s Mid-west. I can see us stopping at a brightly lit dot of a roadside and wondering whether the gruff, bearded trucker sitting in the corner eating an impossible amount of ribs is an affable family man or a heavily armed killer roaming the Interstates that vein the haunted landscapes swinging between the big and dangerous sky-scraped cities. I have so wanted to explore better, and see for myself, the heartland of the US. It is a country I have always loved despite its deep and endemic problems (out-of-control gun violence, deep racial tensions, rampant drugs, staggering wealth inequality, waistlines shamelessly boasting outrageous consumerism, etc.) I have loved pretty much every American I have ever met but I really understand little about this colossus of a country which so many, including its allies, view as a juggernaut. It has literally saved the world repeatedly over the past century and yet has antagonized so many Che Guevearas and Ho Chi Minhs to such an aggravated extent that they abandon their incredible intellectual power, creativity, and good intentions in favor of violent revolution which terrorizes, tortures, and murders more people (their own people) than any American company or bomb dropped from a B-52 could ever hope to accomplish. I am thinking about the current “Vietnamization” of Afghanistan and Iraq (i.e. transferring the combat missions to unprepared locals and bailing out) and shudder at the image of the death cult, ISIS, running amok under its ominous black flag throughout the Middle East, poaching the young and impoverished, this time to fight and kill for a cause so completely and utterly devoid of any political or religious acumen.

An airplane’s exhaust vapor silently tore a slithering white scar out of the turquoise sky overhead. No fiery payload to unleash. I suddenly felt eternally grateful that I am too old now to ever have to worry about fighting in any war. “Thank God,” I murmured as the sand crabs flitted back and forth across the beach, their little sand castles rising and falling like the tide of human history. “You want to head back?” I asked Kris, cupping her cheek in my hand. “Bike’s dry now.”

A little later, we were riding through the crumpled road back to Huế. With Kris holding me tight, rice paddies flitting by, I knew I was happy and all the depression and anxiety that has plagued and crippled my whole life had, in that moment, been washed away with the rain in the dirge of the surf singing behind us.

*

One month later, back at our home in Montreal, Kris and I were lying in stunned silence on the couch. We had just finished watching Apocalypse Now with its toe-curling last line, “the horror… the horror…” uttered by a hoarse Marlon Brando (she had never seen it before and, after our travels, we had resolved to watch that and 3 other classics: Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket and The Killing Fields). I stared at the ceiling as she lay in my arms and thought about the rest of our trip. After Huế, we:

  • Biked through the breathtaking countryside and “conquered” Hải Vân Pass which straddles Huế and Đà Nẵng en route to Hội An where, according to our guide (who boasted about eating dogs and rats and whose father had apparently cut off his right finger in the 1960s to avoid killing his own people during the Civil War), “there are no beautiful women.” It was lovely though even if the unattractive women did literally try to spank me into getting Kris to buy something from their shops. The red lanterns, festooning the streets at night, burned softly there like drips of blood fallen from the moon and cradled in a moment of breeze.
  • Flew to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh), Vietnam’s New York where we blistered our feet going on epic walks through the maze of streets, some of them “theme streets” as we called them (e.g. dedicated almost entirely to peddling one product – tobacco, fabrics, appliances, booze, etc.,) everything overhead a crazy jumble of miles of electrical wire, so tangled it looked the work of a grumpy toddler. We had a really good time there together but I honestly cannot put my finger on why it was cool. It was a huge, Asian city that, unlike others I have traveled to, failed to distinguish itself while still remaining cool. Basically, I just cannot explain Saigon.
  • Toured “Coconut Land” in the Mekong delta, by boat, bike, and sampan, at one point eating whole ‘Elephant Ear’ fish as fighting cocks irritably clucked “this is illegal” in cramped wire cages nearby. We visited by boat the bustling Cai Rang floating market – the largest and most colorful in the Mekong delta – where the pineapple melted in your mouth. Even more fascinating than that though was an onshore stop at a bloody local market. Here, frogs (or “jumping chicken”, as our guide described them) were skinned-alive, decapitated and somehow still reflexively breathing. Tied up ducks were crammed into baskets, staring unhappily out through filthy twine. Shellfish were getting their claws and legs hacked off and left to haplessly flip around at the bottom of metal basins. Fish were writhing around in buckets in a milliliter of water on the verge of suffocation. It was a completely mesmerizing orgy of cruelty that no one, except for shocked foreigners, gave a damn about.
  • Took a speed boat up the delta and through a sketchy border crossing into Cambodia where you immediately knew you were in a different country. The river widened to the size of a small lake and the wobbly stilt fisher houses that line the shores in Vietnam disappeared in favor of large tracts of farmland where a variety of livestock roamed around munching and defecating. The pagodas were different too to the extent that the ones in Vietnam have curved roofs while the ones in Cambodia are straight with eye-lash shaped curlicues decorating the ends. We learned a couple of other interesting religious things. First, unlike temples, which are dedicated to the Gods, pagodas are solely dedicated to Buddha and serve as homes to Buddhist monks. Second, Vietnam is unique in Southeast Asia in that it adopts Chinese Buddhism where 3 different Buddhas are worshipped (the fat one you see dangling from the rearview mirrors of taxis is “happy Buddha”) whereas the other countries, including Cambodia, adopt Indian Buddhism where only one Buddha is worshipped, his image being neither fat nor jolly.
  • Spent a couple of days exploring the capital, Phnom Penh, especially the markets. The one we liked best was the ‘Russian Market’ (Psah Toul Tom Poung in Cambodian), named so because during the 1980s, after the 1979 Vietnamese invasion to topple the Khmer Rouge, this market became the foreigner’s market when most of the foreigners in Cambodia were Russians. It carries a wide variety of curios, especially silks, carvings and, bizarrely, a number of stalls selling very old parts for vintage motorbikes. Apparently though, you have to beware the carvings because many are illegal black market items made from stones robbed from temples and pagodas out in the countryside. Still, we left the place happy having made 3 purchases: a wildly colorful oil painting of the Buddha which now adorns our living room wall, a rectangular lacquerware plate for Kris which she keeps some of her jewellery on and a silver ring for me which is embossed with a bunch of elephants. In any event, overall we found Phnom Penh, although somewhat poorer than Vietnam, a lively, bustling and thoroughly pleasant place to be. We loved having evening cocktails at the rooftop bar of our hotel which has a panoramic view of the light-studded skyline.
  • Flew to Siem Reap in order to see the spectacular temple complex of Angkor Wat, a sprawling centuries-old moraine of Khmer civilization and the largest religious monument in the world. In fact, Siem Reap is nicknamed the ‘Great Gate to Angkor’ which kind of gives it short shrift as it is a lovely city in its own right with a great central Old Market (although it is hotter than Hades) and surrounded by a warren of streets crammed with shops, cafés, bars, and restaurants. That said, Angkor Wat is definitely astonishing. I will not attempt to describe these colossal structures except to say that Kris and I, probably like most tourists, were particularly struck and moved by the enormous faces that rise high into the sky and, through the crumbling mossy stone, gaze out across the world from centuries past, the serenity of their smiles far more enigmatic than Mona Lisa’s. Since our arrival in Cambodia, I had sensed a pervasive air of peace and cheerfulness, even in the chaotic cities. Just like in Vietnam, it was hard to believe that less than 40 years earlier, between 1975 and 1979, as many as 2 million Cambodians perished in the horrific brutality of the ‘killing fields’ under the Khmer Rouge, led by another ‘communist revolutionary’ – Pol Pot. This barking lunatic was so deranged he makes Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh look like good little boy Scouts who simply lost their way in the forest after dark. I imagine Kim Jong-un is the only human being on earth who schleps around in a commemorative Pol Pot T-shirt.
  • Took a long night-flight from Siem Reap to Seoul for a couple of days to conclude our travels before flying back to Montreal. We were exhausted and Seoul is MASSIVE, second only to Tokyo as the world’s largest metropolitan area. Still, given our travel-weariness and limited time, we did not do too badly, exploring the city centre especially around the City Hall area and Namdaemun Market, the largest in Korea, where we wandered around eating street meat and feeling almost like we were already back in the West. The next day we checked out the popular Isadong Street, a funky hangout to shop, eat and drink en route to Bukchon Hanok Village, packed with over 900 traditional Korean houses and a popular filming location for movies and TV dramas. Kris and I had very pleasant afternoon drinks on a terrace overlooking the rooftops, which looked like they were made from pottery that could disintegrate if it rained, Seoul’s towers rising up to the south and formidable mountains rising up just to the north. Later, it being the final night of our trip, he just had to go Gangnam for Korean barbeque. Knowing what a tourist trap Gangnam is, we appealed to a guy working at our hotel to suggest a cool place. We are very happy we did too because, thanks to his advice, we enjoyed an awesome authentic Korean barbecue in a packed and lively restaurant where there was not a single other tourist in sight. I sucked back a bottle of Soju (basically Korean vodka but not nearly as strong) which, remarkably, I had not even tried while working in Pyeongchang. It was the perfect end to a really fucking awesome trip.

The long credits of the movie were almost finished. I looked at Kris and thought of the bullet-hole shell she had found in Cuba, which was now out on display in our living room. Younger than me and smarter than me on many levels, sometimes I feel I do not deserve her. But now, searching her face, I saw that it was as serene and happy as the soaring Angkor Wat faces, our bodies fitting together perfectly. I knew that, like the shell arbitrarily washed up on that Varadero shore, I had finally found “the one” to treasure and keep. I realized that, like the history-wounded countries we had visited together, I too might be saved…

*

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