Here’s my latest monthly column as published on 14 October, 2019 on 3 Quarks Daily:
Late morning heat rises in waves over tall grass. It’s an hour and a half drive, sand flies buzzing, to Luwi bush camp, a seasonal camp with just four huts of thatch and grass on a still lagoon, far out into Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, about 300 miles north of Lusaka.
Perched on a cliff above the Luwi River, today the little camp is empty, but for the permanent staff of six – permanent, that is, for the five months each year camp is open. When the rains come in November they tear down Luwi camp and in late April a work crew of twenty rebuilds it top to bottom in order to have it open by June first. We’re first in, a little early at the end of May.
No other guests, just the staff, our guide Aubrey and a European named Grete, who will manage Luwi camp this season. Six months a year Grete is a translator in Brussels (English, French, Dutch and Spanish) and she spends the other six in the bush. Aubrey has a literate streak himself, framing sentences conditionally, starting like “Whereas, with the puku….”
There’s a chill before dawn. We dress hurriedly in the dark and huddle close-in around a coffee pot over the mopane campfire kept burning since sunset. Our party musters under a creeping orange sky as the bush fills with whistled, warbled, clucked and chattered birdsong declarations that yes, I’ve made it another night; my territory remains mine, so you just stay away.
This morning, a walking safari. My wife Mirja and I will walk behind a rifle-toting scout and Aubrey, the four of us trailed by a young apprentice carrying coffee and biscuits, the “tea boy.” Isaac, a stoic, leathery bush veteran with a beret and a .357 caliber Brno rifle, will scout.
The grass between camp and the river is taller than we are. At the riverbank Isaac and Aubrey part it, revealing crocodiles on the opposite bank. Standing in the shadows, before the sun, on a rise just above the water’s edge, I cannot think why crocs would only inhabit the far bank. Watch your feet.
In these first few minutes Aubrey has already explained the three territorial zones of animals: the zone of awareness, the warning zone and the zone in which instinct takes over and the animal attacks. We don’t think we’re in anybody’s zone, but step gingerly onto a ledge a dozen meters above the river, and sit on a log to watch the sun establish sovereignty.
Water lettuce covers the lagoon. A pod of hippos stands noses just out of the water. The river stretches into a long, slow bend to the right, the near shore sandy cliffs. There is another hippo pod a few hundred meters beyond, just before the bend. Nature blossoms with sound. Nothing manmade is here to be heard or seen.
Below the bend on the opposite bank, Guinea fowl go grubbing the soil, the blue of their helmets indistinct in early light. A hippo breaches the brush, late getting back home, and scatters them.
Hippos don’t eat fish. They graze outside the water after dark, eating around 40 kilos a night. Which takes a lot of grazing. This one pauses at the water’s edge, jerks up his head, snarls, snaps ineffectually, and plunges into the river.
“He is having a bad time with the oxpeckers,” Aubrey explains. Oxpeckers are opportunists. In Ngorongoro Crater, in Tanzania, these birds ride on giraffes’ backs and get a nice aerial view. Here in Zambia, these local oxpeckers have water taxis.
The pod rests, still as autumn leaves the day before they fall. Only their heads and backs are visible, the rest of them covered with water lettuce.
Rains from November to April flood the Luangwa watershed, then April until November are perfectly dry. Rivers and streams recede, forcing the animals into greater and greater concentrations, resulting in increased conflict and danger from predators.
For now in May, there is peace. Crocodiles eat catfish in the lagoon. The grass is green and tall and thick. Hippos gorge in the fields and live in the river.
Aubrey shows the way hippos change the landscape as they come and go from the river, creating indentations on the water’s edge that grow when it rains, collapsing the soil into gullies and washing it into the river. Other animals use and widen the trampled paths, which extend far up onto land. Eventually hippo trails may even evolve into rivers.
We set out away from the river on a sandy-bottomed hippo trail a meter wide, the grass on either side too tall for us to see ahead or to either side. Isaac guides us toward a stand of mopane trees.
It’s one thing from a safari vehicle, but holding the attention of a hundred buffalo is an entirely different experience when all that’s between you and the herd is grass. They get our scent and turn with the precision of a murmuration of starlings, presenting a rather more solid wall, impenetrably long. They form up and stare intently. Aubrey’s “zone of awareness.” One steps forward and sniffs for the group.
The sand beneath our feet is a treasure of information. Just now, it holds hyena and leopard prints. Aubrey and Isaac study them and judge they’re from last night or earlier this morning, because they’re still largely undisturbed. If one had overlapped the other, we could judge whether the leopard followed the hyena or, more likely the opposite.
Aubrey brings us to the trunk of a tree to examine puku fur, very soft, and explains that this puku fell victim to a leopard. We know that leopards take the fur off, he says, and this fur is clearly not digested. And, under a mopane with its strong, nearly horizontal branches is a good place for a leopard to take a meal, since at any danger he can hoist his kill up and away into the tree.
We are walking through grass mostly over our heads, with little wildlife, but the spoor puts on quite a show. From Dutch through Afrikaans, spoor means ‘track’ in two senses – first, the scent or track an animal leaves, and second, railroad tracks (A map of the Dutch rail network is a spoorkaart).
Aubrey categorizes spoor for tracking wildlife: aerial spoor, like branches or grass pushed back by passing game, ground spoor, like footprints and sign, and other evidence like droppings or dislodged stones or the water lettuce we see far from the river, which has been carried up on hippos’ backs.
Isaac and his .357 Brno lead us down into the riverbed itself, where there is more than a month of footprint history since the last time it rained: elephant prints with lion prints inside, hippos, every bird and no humans tracks except ours since the end of the rains.
Here is a lion kill. We know this because of the remnants of the victim. Unlike the leopard, lions eat the whole unfortunate animal, and in this dung are fur and bone fragments.
Isaac stares ahead all the time as if something is always about to happen. He scans above the grass with field glasses.
He’s retired from the park service and keen to pass on the oral tradition to the guides and tea boys. He’s strong on the medicinal uses of plants, from increasing lactation to ameliorating skin disorders to preventing miscarriage.
The grass gives way to trees, larger the farther from the river. A particular bird flaps and cries and flies out in front of us. Aubrey says it’s trying to lead us to a bees’ nest, because if we disturb the nest we will help it eat them. (Almost like honeyguides, birds that collaborate with humans to find honey in Mozambique.)
Egyptian geese (Aubrey says) fly over as we sit at a not quite entirely dry lagoon. Aubrey hands around coffee and crouches alongside. Already it’s hot. I reach into my camera bag and I’m horrified to brush against a furry, live thing in there, one very large arachnid. Aubrey laughs and gently picks him up by a leg and puts him on the ground in front of us.
It’s a baboon spider, he says, a type of tarantula. It’s hairy, several inches across and I wonder how long I’ve been carrying it around. Frightening damned things, they are big and robust enough to loosen soil and excavate burrows with their jaws and fangs.
This fellow’s North and South American cousins have barbed hairs on their abdomens which they can fire defensively like porcupines with their quills. It seems these hairs deter would be attackers by irritating their noses. The African variant does not have that capability. It is more likely that inquisitors, like my big fat fingers in my camera bag, will just get bit.
I shudder; Aubrey offers consolation: Another tarantula species called the Goliath Birdeater weighs in at five ounces, with a leg span of twelve inches.
A different kind of spider has built a funnel-shaped web in a tree trunk with what Aubrey calls “telephone lines” extending upward from it to the side of the trunk. Aubrey explains how the spider lives safely below and can tell by the vibration of his phone lines when something flies into his funnel. He is thus called up to dinner.
At first measure, Luwi bush camp was rustic, but after walking in the tall grass over leopard and hyena tracks, hiking along a river where crocs sunned on the opposite bank, and sharing coffee with a stowaway spider, it’s remarkable how lovely Luwi camp looks now, with its thatch cottages and en suite facilities, its pot of coffee and wildlife magazines.
They’ve put on omelettes and sausages. Mirja retires to a hammock to read Surviving in the African Wild while I sit in chairs arrayed around the campfire, moving from one to the next to stay in shade, and we listen to the hippos in the river and the wild array of birds.
The grass in front of camp extends several hundred meters to the riverbank, and heat shimmers at midday. Waterbucks wander in twos and threes. Tiny cumulus clouds daub at the horizon under cerulean sky. Alone in camp we sprawl out careless, camera here, camera bag there, a pile of Wildlife and Africa Birds and Birding magazines over there.
Later, high broken clouds provide escape from the full sun. Now, in May, Aubrey thinks these look like October skies, in the month before the rains. The dry season doesn’t yet hold full sway.
The night sky is simply magnificent. We find south with the Southern Cross. The Big Dipper is upside down, low in the northern sky. The lantern casts unsure light under a splayed out Milky Way.
Aubrey grows melancholy by the fire. Where once he had three sisters and three brothers, now he’s the head of the family. He has one sister, and matter-of-factly explains the others died of “natural causes.”
Motionless, he stares into the fire and into his past, and turns to us. His mother’s brother was ill south of Lusaka. She went to care for him. While she was gone, one of her sons, younger than Aubrey, took ill. They sent word and she boarded a bus home.
A few kilometers south of Chipata, the nearest proper town, the bus blew a tire and his mother was killed. Aubrey’s father was already ill, so Aubrey went to get the body and they buried her the next day. His father lost the will to live, Aubrey says, and died four months later.
“This is African life.”
HIV? He just shakes his head. He has grown concave with gloom.
The price of maize skyrocketed between the end of last year’s store and this year’s harvest. Aubrey tells two horrifying stories he has heard about maize and making ends meet:
A farmer protecting crops surprises a thief carrying a stolen bag of maize. The thief decapitates the farmer and leaves the bag, head inside, on the farmer’s porch for his wife to find. She opens the bag, unsuspecting.
A father is taking his son to the doctor but his son dies en route. The man rolls his son up in cloth and begins the sad return to his village, but has car trouble. A farmer finds the bundle where the car is broken down, suspects theft of his maize, flies into a rage and kills the bereaved father.
Aubrey looks tired. This is all heartbreak and woe.
He tells another story, though, and gradually brightens. It’s hard to understand it all, but in outline, in Zambian folk practice a prospective groom’s uncle on his mother’s side goes to his desired bride’s family to negotiate a bride price – cows, for example, or maybe even simply that they can visit their daughter as often as they want. Once the bride price is settled, an elaborate ritual takes place to get her to the wedding bed.
The groom-to-be arrives alone at the young girl’s village and the mother of the bride leads him to their house. It starts with the young man inside alone. The young girl’s mother brings her to the house. She won’t come in. There is cajoling. Now the door is open. He throws coins; She steps closer.
In the end they spend the night and don’t come out until the next day, and the next day they are married. It’s a festive day with food offerings from both sides of family, and the dowry is delivered. A log is set alight to burn for one month, and during that month a couple must conceive.
The catch is, if the bride isn’t pregnant by the time that log goes out, in a month, the bride’s family can give the boy back. “I am fighting that log,” he smiles. Aubrey is a newlywed.
Lions call out in the predawn while everybody gathers around the pot of coffee. Tropical boubou shrikes sing in duet, so much at the same instant that you think it’s one, with a curious detail at the end of the call that sounds like a cross between a snare drum and plucking a guitar string.
Aubrey’s spirits are bright again. He wants to know about where we live and when he learns Mirja is from Finland he’s apologetic, but he can’t understand how anyone can live where it’s cold.
“The coldest I’ve ever been is at Bangola. It’s over the escarpment,” he says.
The mist was so thick you couldn’t see ten meters, he marvels. He does allow, though, that he’d really like to see snow before he dies and I offer that he might consider Table Mountain in Cape Town. But for Aubrey, South Africa might as well be the moon.
These cute kids must be teenagers by now. From a trip several years ago up to the hill tribes along the Vietnam/China border to Sa Pa.
We’re counting down the days until a new three+ month round the world trip, first stop, Saigon. A photo a day from Vietnam meanwhile.
Here is my monthly column as it appeared Monday on 3QuarksDaily.
by Bill Murray
John Allen Chau, the missionary killed in the Andaman Islands in November, reopened the ‘uncontacted people’ debate. An advocacy group called Survival believes “Uncontacted peoples make a judgment that they are better off remaining uncontacted and independent, fending for themselves.” Most everybody else wants in, missionaries on their missions, doctors preventing disease, linguists to study imperiled languages.
Outside the Amazon basin most of the world’s uncontacted people live in New Guinea. The world’s second largest island is divided between Indonesia in the west where – as far as we know – all remaining uncontacted people live, and Papua New Guinea in the east.
My wife and I took a peek into the interior of Papua New Guinea twenty years ago. To be clear, we sailed up the Sepik River, in the north of the country, a region that has had contact with Europeans since their ships scouted the coast in the late 18th century. European settlers pressed indigenous labor into plantation work on the north coast from the late 19th and then, in the 1930s Australian gold prospectors trekked into the interior highlands and climbed out with eyes big as saucers, having made contact with nearly a million previously unknown highlanders. (Here is a remarkable video.)
Apprehensive but with faith in the civilizing force of the five or six intervening decades, our upper lips stiffened by the hotel minibar, we flew into the highland town of Mt. Hagen, gateway to the interior. Mt. Hagen comprised a single downtown street, a rugby field, airstrip, unkempt housing and not much more.
No tour groups clustered around leaders with flags; no backpackers struck poses of studied indifference. The police lived in barracks, prefab units half the length of a single-wide, where wives and children spilled onto verandas. I expect they’d have preferred thatch.
We shared a ride with a trader from Osaka to the Hotel Highlander, hidden behind a six-foot barricade. Men in yellow hard hats rolled back the high gate, color of a battleship. A fence surrounded the compound and more men in hard hats walked snarling black dogs around the inside perimeter.
The kitchen served dinner and stubbies, which is Aussie for short bottles of beer. Bony chicken is bony chicken, but they curled the tops of spring onions as garnish. A stab at flair.
A small plane carried us to the Sepik River. The pilot, already sweaty early in the morning in a tight short-sleeved shirt with epaulets, wielded a bathroom scale, weighed up his passengers (just my wife and me) and our gear, pulled a pencil from behind his ear and made the figures work on his clipboard.
He flew us to the river at Timbunke, worthy of a jot on the map but as far as I could tell, nothing more than a grass landing strip and six buildings. With road access north to Wewak on the Bismarck Sea, Timbunke was the last town with a road out the rest of the way upriver.
The entire Sepik River cruiser, the Sepik Spirit, was ours. Nobody but us, a crew of nine and captain Graeme, for three days. We climbed onto the third observation deck to view the daily thunderstorm over a savannah menaced by gathering nimbus and churned by sheets of shower.
The Sepik Spirit jammed up onto a sandy spit off Tambanum village and we clambered onto its stand-in shallow-draft landing craft, the proper one having gone clear to Karawari for repair. Every day they had fits trying to start its outboard motor.
The old beast juddered to a stop beside canoes carved from single trees, dragged onshore and parked perpendicular to the waterline. The son of Namba, the village elder, invited us into his father’s home.
Typical Sepik River Village
All these houses of trees and vines stood higher than a person off the ground against animals, flooding and nat nats, or mosquitoes. The littlest baby, just three weeks old, slept under a mosquito net, one of not many concessions to the modern age. Seven poles lashed to two longer ones comprised the ladder to the door. Clay fire-pots allowed cooking inside. Drums, pots and baskets dangled from the rafters.
Tambanum was Catholic, having been converted by a missionary from down toward the mouth of the Sepik. A painting of Jesus hung at the top of Namba’s stairs. Below it was a traditional Sepik carving, in the shape of virgin and Son.
The elder Namba didn’t know how old he was. He had lived on the same patch of ground all his life. He said his father was bombed in this same place – just right there – by Japan. Namba’s son translated. His house, identical, stood directly behind Namba’s.
With a ceremonial fuss Namba brought out the family’s most prized possession, a bridal veil made of thousands of tiny nassa shells. I tried it on, too flippantly. We handed it around. Lawrence, our guide, went full reverential.
“It is byoo-tee-ful!” he murmured.
I suggested it took weeks to weave.
Namba walked us down to his front step and bid us farewell leaning heavily on his cane, wearing a tattered orange Brisbane Broncos T-shirt, ear lobes elongated by tribal tradition, smiling a broad smile ravaged by scarlet betel nut stains.
Ancient pipe-smoking women sat cross-legged along the path from Namba’s house, weaving baskets. A knot of men advised two others with Swiss-made metal tools and hand-carved mallets how to carve a table into the shape of a crocodile.
Two dugout canoes glided down the russet-colored Sepik as if on fire. When river folk caught a fish they smoked it in a clay pot right on the boat. The smoke kept away the nat nats.
Family in a dugout canoe on the Sepik River
Elsewhere by ritual you must come in, sit down, drink Pepsi, make small talk before negotiating can begin. Impecunious Tambanum got right down to business. When a boat tied up they produced a practiced mise en scène of artifacts. And came too quickly with their fallback position.
“Second price twelve kina.”
They had no jobs for there were no jobs, 3000 people with no power, ice or medical care. They built their own houses and taught the arts of weaving and carving to their kids. Their food lived in the river and the trees.
We gave them their first price. That would be the village’s currency income for the day, maybe the week. It took a lot of hand-carved tourist masks for a village to save up for something useful like an outboard motor.
At twilight we’d sit on mats up front with Benny the pilot, watching cooking fires kick up lambent shorelight. Creatures of the night emerged from the forests; the sky darkened with no light from shore to chase it back. Inky sapphire settled over creation, and the deck would be thick as black snowfall with bugs in the morning. They’d sweep it clean.
At sunup, river glassy smooth, we crawled onto the landing craft, destination Angriman village. As soon as they were freed from the ship, the deck hands broke out the betel nut and turned full-animated.
The people of Angriman were the best crocodile hunters on the river. They raised them for their skin. When maybe four years old, a medium sized croc fourteen inches around might bring 200 kina from the Japanese agent who sailed in every three or four months. The biggest would bring 300. Fifteen or 20 three-footers lay about in a wooden stockade.
The croc stockade at Angriman
Each Sepik village selected a councilman. The Sepik Council met every other month or so, sometimes at Karawari, sometimes at Timbunke, and elected a representative to send to parliament.
Peter Mai, the Angriman councilman, greeted us. We gave him a postcard from where we lived, a place with skyscrapers. Four teenaged girls sang The Wonder of It All from a Seven Day Adventist hymnal, and then we stood in a receiving line as the congregants each shook our hands.
The Seventh Day Adventists got here first. Just sailed right up the Sepik winning converts. Now they were losing ground to the Catholics because they’d tried to banish traditional beliefs. They wouldn’t allow traditional dress.
Angriman produced watermelon, Malay apple trees, yams, mulberry bushes and a surplus of smoked fish. With more fruit and vegetables than it needed, crocodiles for sale for currency and fish in exportable quantity, Angriman prospered. But Angriman wasn’t served by a road and unfortunately, it was no longer on the river.
The Sepik changed course some years back leaving Angriman a literal backwater, off the main channel. Still, the crocodile trade yielded wealth: Evinrude outboard motors attached to longboats.
Upstream that night, anchored offshore, we peered into meager adumbrations of an unknown village. Some of the villagers owned kerosene lamps, but kerosene wasn’t to be used lightly. In the new day that village, Mindimbit, came to life as positively mercenary.
One man had brought an immature cassowary, a blue-necked flightless, four-foot bird named Betty from Karawari. He charged a kina a camera for pictures. With the Sepik Spirit a sometimes visitor, Mindimbit was relatively grizzled at the artifact trade. Prices were higher.
Beside three Evinrudes and a Yamaha outboard in a shed of thatch, a frame of two-by-fours and four-by-fours stood unfinished. “They run out of money,” Lawrence explained. Planed wood is just not as practical as traditional houses lashed together with palms. With factory wood there was more to buy. Like nails.
A man named Wesley invited us into his house.
Up the stairs (watch your head!), three women cooked lunch and minded the kids, everybody on the floor. With a shower dancing on the roof, Miss Julie smoked a spatchcocked fish on a little round metal stove. Grandma minded a little boy, several cooking pots and plates of greens, and Wesley’s wife made sago pancakes.
To make the staple food you cut down a sago palm, drag it to the village, skin its bark, chop it into hunks, then smaller hunks, then pummel and pulverize it to pulp, and finally sluice it through banana leaves into a paste and dry to a powder.
Grinning a toothy grin, Wesley’s wife scooped the powder into a clay pot. A fire crackled underneath. With her cup she pressed it into pancakes. She’d press each into a foot-long oval and fold it in half. When it cooled we all tore edges off and popped them in our mouths. Captain Graeme said his wife added powdered coconut for a little flavor.
The sun would set in an hour and the river had smoothed for sunset. Benny smoked his hand-rolled faggots down to burn his fingers while steering through swamp and short grass. The forest rolled back to reveal mountains under cumulus.
We eased up along the north bank of the Sepik. Thatch imbricated a basic provisioning center where we sought curry, matches, tobacco and a Sydney Morning Herald dated March 28th. It was September. But this newspaper wasn’t for reading. It was rolling paper for the tobacco. Three broadsheets sold for fifteen toea.
Outside, imposing, voluble men loitered, but offered only friendly chews of betel nut, gesturing amused instructions. We split ‘em open and popped the nuts into our mouths. You chew, generating saliva, and spit the juice through your teeth, retaining the meat.
The juice is white. You dip a bit of mustard stalk into “lime,” pounded from mussel shell, and chomp it. It turns the juice bright red. Chew, spit, chew. It’s a little bitter and it gets your heart moving a bit, a little blood rushes to your head, everything’s a notch more intense, and then it fades. Think kava, Indonesian kratom or your first deep drag of nicotine.
Going for a swim from the old landing craft
After darkness spread full and complete, Mirja, Lawrence and I sat on rattan and cushions in the center of the Sepik Spirit. Insects threw up a wall of sound while canoes glided alongside silently. Adolescent boys peered in, cupping their faces to the windows.
Lawrence had a story to tell.
“Now I will tell you how our elders taught us the secrets of the spirits.
“I was fourteen. I was working since I was twelve, with westerners. I ate western food. I did not believe there were spirits.”
Still, at fourteen, there was room for doubt.
“It was frightening. We would start at six p.m. and they kept us awake until six in the morning. For days.
“They built a wall in front of the spirit house with a door too small to walk through. They lit the palm fronds over the door into a fire and told us to run as fast as we could and squeeze through that little door, and not to get burned by the falling ashes.
“My grandfather was the village leader so I had to go first. Five boys were behind me. I was scared but I ran fast as I could and I squeezed through that door and up the steps into the spirit house.”
The squeeze symbolized the return to the mother’s womb, because you must reunite with your mother’s spirit as a rite of passage before your father can teach you the spiritual secrets.
“Inside the spirit house, bad news! The men from the village were there and they were whipping us with canes to show us the power of each spirit. Ohhh, and it hurt!”
Lawrence grimaced and held his forehead. His eyes widened so that white showed clear around his pupils. He chewed a knuckle.
“And now it was late, about five in the morning. They gave each boy a betel nut. My grandfather told me the one he gave me was a special one. They told us to chew them, it would be good for us. We spit out the juice and kept the meat inside our mouths.
“They gave us pieces of ginger and told us to chew them. They played drums and these flutes at the same time. I felt like maybe I had a gin and tonic!
“I was dizzy and then I started seeing skeletons dancing and then I had these incredible dreams. And I believe in Jesus and Mary but since that night I have also known that spirits are real, too.
“We believe the father gives us the knowledge but the blood comes from the mother and so it must return to her. So my mother’s brother came from another village.
“The night of the skin cutting we stayed up all night. When it was very late the men made us go into the water and stay for one hour so our skin would get soft. Ohhh, it was so cold!”
Lawrence was sweaty as a bayou preacher. He massaged his temples and pulled his legs up on the sofa.
“When it was time I laid down on top of my mother’s brother. So the blood would fall on him. And they cut me.”
With a flourish he raised his right sleeve to show the results.
“Sometimes they cut your back but I asked they only cut my arms because I had to go back to work.”
He had to have time to heal.
But he didn’t heal. He was infected.
“I asked for medicine but my grandfather refused. He asked me, ‘What have you done wrong?’ I said nothing, nothing over and over but he kept asking me until finally I admitted I had stayed with my girlfriend the night before.
“Before they would use sharp bamboo leaves but now they use razors. I asked my grandfather if the razor was old but he said no it was bought new for this purpose. My infection was punishment for this bad act.”
His grandfather, who Lawrence called, “A famous headhunter,” told him at the end of his weeks of spiritual training that he would have unbelievable opportunities in the future. One of the people he had led on a cruise like this recently offered him a trip to the U.S., and to Lawrence, that was proof positive it was so.
More photos from Papua New Guinea at EarthPhotos.com.
This month’s column in the Monday Magazine at 3QuarksDaily is Inside Papua New Guinea. I’ll publish it here later this week.
Cuba celebrated the 60th anniversary of its revolution last week, with 2018 tourist arrivals at 4.75 million, as Jon Lee Anderson points out, “nearly double that of just four years ago, when President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced their diplomatic breakthrough, which restored relations between the United States and Cuba after a half-century’s rupture.”
Admittedly, U.S. citizens came late to the Cuba tourism game. Canadians and Europeans have been flying in for years, but often for package beach vacations, on which they’d be shuttled from airport to (government-owned) resort for a few days in the sun, never having contact with Cubans other than government-approved resort workers.
My wife and I spent a long weekend in Havana on an early Obama administration “exchange” visit. Here are some first impressions I wrote on our return in March, 2012:
Havana, Cuba: We jump into a priceless, ‘50s vintage yellow convertible taxi and ask for a ride to ‘Old Havana.’ Where in Old Havana? We don’t know. We shrug, everybody smiles and we just go.
Ramon the Cabbie pulls to the curb, fumbles in the glove box, pulls out a preposterously big cigar, stuffs it in my mouth, gives me a light and puts his cowboy hat on my head. Everything is fabulous.
We’re out on the Malecón, Havana’s beloved corniche, the sea to the left, Havana on the right. There’s a couple of side-by-side soccer matches going on in front of a Communist-era grandstand. You can tell Communist design. Not a lot of traffic on the Malecón even though it’s midday.
Down toward the old center buildings fast shedding paint look to have been real showpieces in the past. The past is slipping away fast, though. Water came over the sea wall in one hurricane or another, flooded this part of the city for five long blocks inland, and nothing’s been done to fix it.
Ramon drops us beside the Plaza de Armas. It’s a gorgeous day with a breeze off the sea. People doze in the shade, kids play. There’s a game of checkers. A dog chews a bone.
The little park is a flea market of revolutionary history books, musty encyclopedias, Hemingway novels, and Tarzan comics, but the booksellers aren’t terribly mercantile. They read their books.
Cubans are proud of their collective literacy, a pet Castro project of the early revolution. Kids as young as 14 were sent into the countryside to raise Cuban literacy, from 23 percent at the time to nearly 100 percent today. Literacy and free medical care – those are the Castro legacies you’ll hear about again and again.
The whole afternoon we’re lost in old Havana. We do the slow walk up Obispo Street, the cobbled pedestrian thoroughfare into town. Hemingway’s old haunt, the Hotel Ambos Mundos, is in fine repair. There’s a shrine where they say he wrote The Old Man and the Sea beside a turtle pond. Each turtle is perched on its own rock.
Five old men sing and play over a big spread of sidewalk. A lady shakes a maraca and holds out a hat. Can’t tell if she works for them or she’s the boss, driving these doddering old guys to keep playing.
We hear a good, salacious rumor that famous Americans have been here lately for medical treatment. Who?
The man who tells us can’t name names, but “They can be actors, singers….”
They come in secret because it’s no good to be treated by Communists, “Evil Red,” he grins.
“In Cuba we need a new generation of leaders,” he offers. Right, we say, because Raoul is 80.
“Anyway, Fidel will choose when to die,” he says, and announce it in one of his hours-long speeches.
“Next Thursday at 11:45,” he’ll say.
In 1956 Fidel Castro and 81 other revolutionaries sailed from Tuxpan, Mexico to foment revolution. Granma was the name of his ship. Now it’s the name of the party paper.
The headline in today’s Granma is “Revolucion no, Zarpazo!” It’s a full page potted tract by Fidel Castro, a rant against the coup that brought Fulgencio Battista to power (that’s his predecessor) in 1952.
This morning’s Granma is tiny, just ten pages. It costs 20 local pesetas, less than a penny, but the press run is limited, so some buy an early copy, read it, then resell it after the newsstand sells out.
Granma, the ship, is on display in a pavilion behind glass. You know how when you go to a stadium or arena, it feels smaller than it looks on TV? Granma the ship is the opposite.
You stand alongside a soldier-guard on an elevated platform. The Granma’s all polished and shiny and looks for all the world like Fidel scored a party boat and it would have been more fun just to hang out on board, smoking cigars and drinking rum.
The founding Cuban legend describes steely determination, rationing and hardship on the crossing to Mexico, but I’m skeptical. There’s an enclosed cabin just behind the wheel. I imagine a seven-day interregnum of air-conditioning, alcohol and comraderie before the more poignant (and dangerous) business of revolucion.
Next door in the Museum of the Revolucion, the former Palace, you’ll see Battista’s gold-plated phone, the Presidential toilet (tiled and bare), and a trick door attached to stairs for a quick and sneaky exit from the Presidential suite. Too many rooms of fatigues, boots and war-fighting memorabilia later you’ll see, I guess, the revolutionary omelet maker, a pan in two fold-over parts.
There hasn’t been a Cuban Congress in 53 years. When it last met, in 1959, all these museum relics were brand new. Now the Capitol building is the Academy of Sciences. It’s huge and imposing like the U.S. Capitol, but the buildings directly across the street are run down and propped up, fast slumping into tropical torpor. Buildings are collapsing in Havana at an alarming rate.
Now, revolutionaries don’t arrange flowers. They’re otherwise focused and just don’t have time for aesthetics or city planning or urban design. With the Cuban revolución in it’s 50’s, and no pocket money for beautification, it shows. Havana is listing to the left.
If a building was built before the revolución it’s architecturally Spanish, it’s old and it’s falling apart. If it was built during the next thirty years it’s architecturally Russian, made of concrete and also falling apart. And nothing much besides a few tourist hotels has been built since.
Entrepreneurs stake out the Capitol with their antique cars, sit a tourist down behind the wheel of, say, a sky blue Ford Fairlane with fins, give him a cigar and snap away with the tourist’s camera. Two minutes, ten bucks. It’s smart business, but hang on to that old Fairlane. Don’t even think of buying a new car with your tourist profits because sooner or later you’ll have to prove where you got the money without earning it privately, which is not a good thing to go around doing in Cuba.
It never would do for the self-employed to become wealthy, and it won’t do now in the new, government sanctioned but tightly watched “bonsai businesses,” as the economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe describes them.
Mind you, if you can show that you’ve left your wife and six month old daughter to go off to Venezuela on an approved contract job to earn the money, now that’s just fine.