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The Drag Show

28 Jan

Since they were fully booked we had to move out of Jose and Denis’ apartment after two nights in Havana and into a neighbour’s casa two stories below. On our third evening in town we were invited back upstairs to enjoy a ‘surprise’ that Jose had organised for us. Beyond Cuban rum, which was always plentiful at their place, none of us were sure what to expect.

When we arrived at the apartment we were introduced to Jose’s friend Leo, an attractive young black man who wore a diamond stud in one ear. Leo disappeared into the kitchen when the rum started flowing and the volume of the salsa music was turned up a few notches.

Soon Jose took to the centre of the lounge room, and grasping a tall glass as if it were a microphone announced in an impressive display of showmanship that we were about to meet one of Havana’s finest Cabaret performers. A round of applause please!

From behind the curtain appeared Leo, spectacularly transformed into Esperanza. Wearing a beautiful wig, an evening gown, sparkling jewelery and high heels Esperanza proceeded to dance and mimed a number of Whitney Houston-esq diva ballads. We were privileged to witness at least three costume changes throughout the show.

Of course Alex and Michael received special attention from Esperanza. Both did their best to dance with her when invited on to the impromptu stage which Jose and Denis both thought was hilarious. At one point Jose leaned towards me and asked if I thought Michael knew that under all the big hair and sparkles was a man. I was very sure that Michael was aware that he was taking part in a drag show, but I told Jose that I wasn’t sure as to not destroy his fun.

In the final act Esperanza sang a song whose bold lyrics told the audience something like ‘this is me, here I am, tough if you don’t like it’. As the tune progressed Esperanza slowly started to hemorage her costume. We watched as the heels, then her dress, and finally her wig were passionately thrown to the floor. Next Esperanza started to take off her padded hips and stockings. For a few moments I thought she was about to go the full monty. But the finale ended with an underwear-clad Leo throwing a glass of rum at our little audience. Encore!

Well I never expected that my experiences in Cuba would include a private performance of a very professional drag show in a casa particular, though I am greatful that it did. I was reminded this night just how important it is to leave space in your itinerary for surprises when traveling, as often the most precious experiences you’ll enjoy far away from home are those that are unplanned.

After the show we were asked to hand over a couple of CUCs as a tip, which we happily gave to Leo. Alex and I also presented as a gift the pink wig that I wore during Carnival in Cartagena, Colombia. Leo was appreciative and gave me an earing in return, and asked me to please post him any other wigs, dresses or size thirteen heels that I may come across in my travels.

We spent the rest of the evening continuing to learn how to salsa and to move to regaton, which is very popular in Cuba. Isobelle and I finally mastered some salsa turns that night, but our partners still struggled with the basic ‘one-two-three-and’ steps. That any young healthy man could not pick up this move was beyond Jose’s comprehension.

All of us had a lot of fun teaching Alex an Michael how to move their hips. They finally got it (sort of) when Leo told them that they should move as though they were making love. Perhaps this is the language that all men understand even if Latin blood doesn’t pump though their veins?


Welcome to Havana

26 Jan
From Havana, Cuba

4 January 2010

Our Aeromexico flight touched down at Havana’s International Airport Jose Marti on a sunny winter’s afternoon in Cuba’s capital city.

I was impressed that after we climbed off the plane we only had to wait for a few minutes in a line two-people deep to be stamped into the country by customs officials.

As we could only approach the row of customs desks one at a time, I passed into Cuba ahead of my friends. As my tourist visa was being stamped and I was welcomed into the country I was required to answer a couple of standard immigration questions such as ‘What is the purpose of your visit to Cuba?’ (tourism) and ‘Do you have travel insurance?’ (of course).

Meanwhile Alex, Isobelle and Michael were approached by another customs agent who subjected them to a whole lot more questions about their recent travels and occupations in Australia. I think it was because our party was planning to travel independently in Cuba as opposed to as part of an organised tour group, and because Michael was outed as a journalist and I as a public servant employee that more than an hour of questioning and luggage-examination proceeded.

Being interrogated by immigration agents is never a completely stress-free experience. I was particularly worried when Alex was led away from our party for questioning. I was concerned that he was going to be subjected to a full-cavity search. Luckily for Alex, he wasn’t.

The customs officials were never aggressive in their questioning of us, but they were certainly thorough and there were moments when I thought I would be back at the Hotel Juarez in Mexico City that night.

Each of us were required to elaborate on the nature of our employment. The Customs officials asked me about the nature of the research that I carry out for the Australian Government. They were particularly interested of course in Michael’s work at the ABC. ‘What kind of news do you cover?’, ‘Who is your employer?’, and ‘Are you sure that you won’t be working in Cuba?’…

We also had to identify all the electronics and ‘technology’ that we were carrying. Between us this totaled 4 cameras, 2 ipods, 2 laptops, and 10 blank CDs. The customs agents were particularly interested in the later, which Isobelle carried to back up the many photos she was planning to capture during her holiday. Blank CDs, very suspicious…

The only other country to give me such a hard time getting through customs was China, whose Officials made me tear apart my Lonely Planet upon entering the country. Alex, on the other hand, has been subjected to ‘random’ interviews on numerous occasions in the past year. I suppose that’s what you get for being a Mustafa almost 10 years on from 9/11/01.

I was mildly amused that the customs agents also paid particular attention to Isobelle and Michael’s recent visit to the US, as though their presence there attested to some kind of untoward political activity. Well, I assume that US Homeland Security will give Isobelle and Michael a hard time if they find out that had been to Cuba before returning to North America on their way home to Australia. So maybe some reciprocal harassment of tourists is justified on these grounds. I suppose that the Cuban Government has reasonable cause to suspect infiltration of CIA sponsored spies working to destroy Cuban socialism. Though I am not sure how effective four young and mostly blond Australians (of whom three don’t speak spanish) would be at undermining the one party state.

Another peculiar aspect of Cuban customs were the sexy uniforms donned by its female staff. Like many of her colleagues, the women who escorted me back and forth between the x-ray machines and corner where I was questioned was clad in a short-sleeved khaki blouse and a matching super-short khaki skirt, very high heels, and some fantastically inappropriate fishnet stockings. Classy!

Alex had in fact suggested that we carry extra pairs of stockings with us into Cuba to use as gifts / bribes if necessary as did the US soldiers when they visited Australia during the Second World War. At the time I ridiculed him saying something like “as if anyone wants to wear stockings in such a tropical climate!” Well, whose laughing now?

After clearing customs we headed straight to the Arrivals Hall ATM and we were pleased to confirm that our visa cards functioned without problems. We only had 100 Euros cash on us combined, so we would have been up shit creek without a paddle if our cards and Cuba’s ATMs decided not to cooperate.

Perhaps because we were tired and still a little highly-strung from the interrogation we’d experienced, Isobelle momentarily forgot her bankcard in the ATM, and it was sucked into the machine. Thanks to good fortune and my language skills, we were able to retrieve it upon presentation of Isobelle’s passport.

Finallly outside of the airport we found a taxi that would take us into the centre of Habana for the set cost of $25 CUC. Although the airport is only 25km or so out of the CBD, we passed through quite a rural area (I’m talking sugar cane crops and horse-drawn carts) for some time before entering the city centre.

By 5.00pm we had finally arrived at our casa particular located in a tall art-deco style apartment building in the centre of Havana. The big windows in the living room and bedrooms afforded a view of the Mallecon and the blue Caribbean sea beyond.

We were warmly welcomed by our host Jose and his son Denis, who was more or less our age. Recognising that we were hungry, our hosts offered us bowls of spagettii for dinner which we accepted. The meal was very simple but satisfied our rumbling bellies. We hadn’t eaten anything since the sweet bread we shared for breakfast in Mexico, and AeroMexico had only given us a snack of peanuts on the plane.

After dinner we we for a walk with our hosts along Havana’s Malecon, or ocean-wall. By this time the sun had set. Denis told us that he had to visit the pharmacy to buy some ‘medicine’, and upon his return he surprised us with a bottle of rum which we sipped as we strolled by the sea. Denis also bought us each a small supply of peanuts to enjoy. As these salty snacks are known in Cuba as ‘mani’ and not the cacuhuates they are called in Mexico, I would have had no idea what the women were selling tightly wrapped up in a paper cone unless our new friend had given us this gift.

Soon we found ourselves in the centre of old Habana. It was still warm so we pulled up a chair at an outdoor Brewery bar/ restaurant set up in and old colonial square. Beers on tap were only $2.00 CUC each. We got to know our hosts a little better as a live band played Cuban salsa music a la La Buena Vista Social Club. Isobelle and I were invited to dance with Jose and Denis, who informed us hat we were shit (literally – meirda!) and that we were in great need of lessons. Well, we had warned them!

After our beer and first miserable attempt at salsa dancing we wandered back to our apartment. Our group was buggered and being so we went to bed and straight to sleep, cooled by the sea breeze and calmed by the knowledge we had finally made it to Cuba while Fidel and Raul were still alive.

Dwarf Empire

14 May

Can you imagine a theme park where the main (in fact the only) attraction is an eighty-strong troupe of singing and dancing dwarves?

Such a theme park actually exists just outside of Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province, and we were excited to check it out.

Dwarf Empire opened about 12 months ago to showcase the little people employed perform here on a daily basis. So ridiculous is the spectacle of so many midgets dressed as Roman soldiers, fairies and punks that the park has been successful in attracting the confused attention of the international media.

Western media have debated the ethics of such an attraction, questioning whether the Dwarf Empire really empowers dwarves as the non-dwarf owner of the Park has publicaly contended, or if the whole affair merely exploits the vertically challenged?

Prior to visiting the Dwarf Empire this week I had decided that it was probably more an exploitative than empowering institution, and the most un-PC theme park in the modern world, but one I still wanted to see it with my own eyes.

It took us about an hour to get to the park taking local buses from Kunming, and we were lucky to arrive in time for the 11am song and dance spectacular.

Judging from their applause, the hundreds of Chinese tourists in the audience, including several school groups, loved the show and the performers themselves also seemed happy.

We chatted to one dwarf who told us that he used to work in a car-component factory and was making more money at Dwarf Empire than he did in his previous job. He also shared that many dwarfs have partnered up with other dwarfs after relocating to Kunming, which also added to their satisfaction with life.

In one news article I read, a teacher who brought her young students to the Dwarf Empire reported that the excursion helped her class to understand that little people are people too. But I think the small mushroom houses in the park that are presented to visitors as dwarf homes wouldn’t achieve this end and would more likely confuse the kids.

Watching the UK election in Vietnam

9 May

We made sure to book a room that had a subscription to the BBC. Unfortunately the time difference between the UK and Vietnam, and the wildly unpredictable nature of the results, meant that we had to check out and tune out way before we had a good idea of the election results. After just having the chance to catch up (I prefer the Guardian’s analysis) I am barracking for a Labor-Lib Deb Government. Surely a Lib-Dem / Conservative coalition would destroy the future of Nick Clegg’s Party.

A few thoughts on the election;

Overseas voters:

We met a lot of British people on holiday or working in Vietnam who did not vote in the election. Many were simply not interested in the election or matters of Government in general. They perceived politicians as generally corrupt and little to distinguish the Government from the opposition.

However some Britons we encountered wanted to vote but couldn’t. Registering as an overseas voter is almost impossible for travelers without a permanent overseas address. This means that a lot of young people including gap year students, a huge cohort of would-be first time voters, missed out on casting a ballot. I haven’t looked at demographic analysis of the election though I assume that this cohort would be more likely to support Labor or the Lib Dems (are you reading my blog Zac or Ben?). I would suggest that Britain adopt the Australian system of permitting citizens to vote in Australian embassies if required, ensuring a more accessible ballot.

Preferential Voting

The first-past-the-post system is undemocratic. It was very sad watching seats go Conservative when the majority of voters supported Labor and the Lib-Dems (combined of course). Electoral reform is long overdue.

Siem Reap Best Eats

13 Apr

A quiet City on the Siem Reap River full of markets, cafes, restaurants and bars, Siem Reap City is full is a nice place to hang out. We stayed longer then we had originally intended. Of course Angkor Wat is the City’s most important tourist attraction, which I have written about in another post. Here I wanted to share some tips on where to sleep and eat.

The No.10 Lodge across the Old Market Bridge cost $10 USD per night for a fan room, with cold water and cable TV. Free internet was available in the lobby. I would recommend staying here for the price and location. Like most other hotels in South East Asia, it is cheaper to book bus tickets, tours and any other service through a local travel agent as hotel prices are inflated.

Best meal we had in Siem Reap was at the Khmer BBQ restaurant directly opposite our hotel, the No. 10 lodge. I don’t think the street had a name but if you go to the Lodge you can’t miss the restaurant. We were tempted by the fire, smoke and wonderful smell of roasting meat and the evident popularity of the place full of locals and a handful of tourists. On our first visit we ordered BBQ steak and squid. We were given a plate (actually more like a tray) of vegetables and a number of small bowls of spices and sauces to complement the main course. Two waiters showed us how to eat each dish; my favourite was the barbecued beef dipped in a little bowl of Kampot pepper and salt mixed with fresh lime juice and chilli. Sounds simple – tasted amazing.

We went back to the BBQ restaurant a second time to try what we were told was the local speciality, a BBQ / hotpot cooked at the table for two. The special hotpot bowl looks like a large metal dish with a raised centre. At the table beef is sautéed on the the raised metal the middle of the hotpot while vegetables cook in the tasty but unhealthy mixture of butter and sesame seed oil in the moat surrounding the BBQ plate. When all is cooked to your liking, you dip the meat and vegetables into a creamy lemon-based sauce, which you again mix with lime and chilli to taste, before eating. It was great. I think because we tipped our two waiters at the end of our first visit to thank them for patiently teaching us step-by-step how to eat these Khmer dishes, they were even more attentive on the second night and cooked a lot of our cook-it-yourself hotpot /BBQ for us. I think on both nights we paid for two people between $6 and $8 for plenty of food and beer. Highly recommended.

The Pancake Man deserves to become a Siem Reap legend. At his little cart stationed opposite the night market, the pancake man cooks up fresh banana and chocolate pancakes. The best way to eat these hot little beauties is wrapped in paper as you wander around the numerous street stalls selling clothes, jewellery and souvenirs. Two pancakes will set you back a dollar.

The Temple Bar on Pub Street stages an impressive (and free) Aspara dance show every night at 7pm. The food here, especially the Amok, is good and drinks are sold at happy hour prices.

Run by a Kiwi Miss Wong’s is Siem Reap’s best cocktail bar. Drinks here are pricier then at other places on Pub Street but of a much better quality. Unlike the large two-story Red Piano, Miss Wong’s is small with an intimate atmosphere and the Chinese theme is cute not kitch.

Those on a tight budget will be happy to know that the Night Markets and two restaurants backing on to the Old Market parallel to pub street sell good cheap food ($1 rice and noodles).

Facebook censored in Vietnam!

5 Apr

First I tried to log in using the free wifi connection in my Ho Chi Minh City budget hotel room. Facebook wouldn’t load. I figured my connection might have been too poor see the site.

A few days later I tried to log in from an internet cafe with a good fast connection. Still no luck.

I asked Alex (my permanent tech support guy) why can’t I access Facebook in Vietnam? Alex went to trusty Wikipedia for answers. Turns out that the Government of Vietnam has censored access to Facebook, along with many other local and international sites.

Wikipedia reports that the Government of Vietnam justifies net censorship by claiming this policy aims to protect the population from obscene or sexually-explicit content. However as the blocking of Facebook demonstrates, many of the blocked sites are far from X-rated but contain politically or religiously sensitive materials that might undermine the current Government’s hold on power.

For example, late last year the Government blocked Vietnamese Catholic news online after sites including the Catholic News Agency, Catholic Online, Asia News, Catholic World News and Independent Catholic News covered Catholic anti-Government protests that took place across the Country.

Many Australians are unaware that the Rudd Government has shamefully progressed its policy of internet censorship. Like the Vietnamese Government, the Australian Government claims that the clean filter (where Internet Service Providers such as Telstra and iinet are required to block its clients access to the sites deemed illegal by Government) will only be used to block Australians’ access to child porn sites. But who knows what other sites the Government will decide are too dangerous or inconvenient for Australians to access? If the likes of Tony Abbot become PM, will we see access to information about abortion blocked too?

GetUp! are one group organising against this repressive policy. Visit their blog if you want more information or are keen to get involved in the campaign to preserve online freedom!

Stupid White Men…

29 Mar

I would like to believe that traveling the world provides one with knowledge and understanding of diverse peoples, cultures and politics that cannot be gained from merely reading books (armchair tourists). This theory of travel = intelligence helps me to justify spending so many unproductive months on the road.

Yesterday I met a couple of travelers who proved this notion wrong.

I shouldn’t use names because you never know who may stumble across this blog. The internet has few secrets, right?

Anyhow, yesterday, late on a Sunday afternoon in Siem Reap, Alex and I were sitting in a cheap restaurant lunching on cheap noodles and loklak (a Khmer specialty of beef and egg in a peppery gravy). I first noticed the two middle-aged Canadian women sitting next to us when they were audibly rude to the small troupe of Cambodian kids who were trying to sell postcards and photocopied books to the tourists in the restaurant.

One of the pair of women, lets call her Idiot A, argued with a small child who was maybe ten years old. She told him that if he was really hungry he should ask the restaurant owner for food because surely the manager would feed him if he were starving (yeah right lady!). She proceeded to offer the little boy her dirty leftovers – an uneaten prawn or two – from her plate. When the embarrassed child declined her invitation to finish her lunch Idiot A loudly observed to the child and everyone else in ear shot ‘if you were really hungry you would have eaten what I offered’. Idiot A clearly isn’t aware that in Cambodian culture it is rude to eat directly from another person’s plate. And I don’t think anyone, including children, (in any culture), appreciate being publicly humiliated. When the kid moved on to try and sell his wares at the next table Idiot A proceeded to inform this group of tourists that the kids weren’t really hungry and she knew this because they wouldn’t eat her scraps. I wonder if they were thinking the same as we were?

After this incident the other Canadian woman (Idiot B) started taking to us across the room (okay we were only a metre or so away). First she enquired about what we were eating. The Idiots were interested in the Khmer food we were eating as they explained for the past three months in their travels around South East Asia, they had only eaten green beans stirfried with garlic (a dish called Morning Glory) with rice.

Idiot B continued to share with us. She and her partner / friend had come to South East Asia to find peace. Neither had completed a great deal of research before they left Canada, she told. Both had imagined South East Asia to be a sea of serenity – rice paddies, simple people, small villages, clean mountain air, gentle smiles and conical hats. Boy were they shocked when they disembarked from their Airbus at Bangkok Airport!!! Who would have thought Asia was so densely populated!!! So shocked was Idiot B at this revelation that she had to spend several days in her hotel room recovering from the news that Asia was in fact crowded, crazy, buzzing, dirty, hungry, loud and very much alive.

How did Idiot B move on from this catastrophe? She meditated for a few days asking for guidance, and the universe answered. The pair soon met an old German couple who directed them to a peaceful volcanic lake in Sumatra. They went and found what they were looking for. See how the universe provides? We nodded (laughing on the inside).

How the hell could anyone living in a western country in 2010 believe Asia to be a quiet and calm world? What we would have paid to see the Idiots in Bangkok.

Finally, I asked the women whether they had quit their jobs in Canada before they started their six month long search for peace in Asia? Idiot B told us that in fact, they hadn’t worked for two years before leaving North America. This pisssed me off even more. How can two adults, who haven’t lifted a finger for more than 24 months, be so nasty to kids in a developing country trying to make a buck to support their families?

Over dinner last night we recounted this story to our new Chinese friend New Moon Zhang. He laughed with us and concluded that some naieve people live in incredibly resilient bubbles.