Conversation with a Chinese comrade (Bogotá, Colombia)

Chinese people are easy to find anywhere around the world except, for some reason, in South America. So when a Chinese man at my hostel in Bogotá found out that I was also Chinese, he was so excited to use the language again that we talked into the night.

In his mid-sixties and with 64 countries under his belt, he is not the typical Chinese retiree. And being a Communist party member and one year older than Xi Jinping, the current Chinese Premier, he had plenty of things to say about Communism in China.

He told me….

… how, early on, he got passed over for a promotion within the party when he failed to write a party reflection and honestly admitted that he hadn’t done it. But his friend, who also hadn’t written one, got the promotion because he lied and said he did it but forgot it at home. That was when he learned that you can’t get ahead in the system unless you lie.

…how the husband of a beloved teacher gave honest criticism to the Communist government in hopes of making the country better. And in return for it, the government went after the man until one night when they dragged him out of the house and he started stuffing dirt and rocks in his mouth in a fit of insanity.

…how a friend’s father, who was a Nationalist party member that stayed after the Communists took over, used to keep a detailed journal. After the father’s death, the son went through his journals and what he discovered broke his heart. After the Communist revolution, his father had copied the Communist newspaper word for word every day instead of writing his thoughts.

… how a woman who served the Communist party valiently with her husband went insane shortly after the husband’s death. The community knew of her mental state and took care of her because of her past contributions, but one day she had a fit and accidentally ripped a picture of Chairman Mao in half. Even in her insanity, she knew to immediately drop to her knees and sob for forgiveness.

… and how the Chinese government only recently admitted that the right to not go hungry as a human right. During the great famine of 1963 in which millions of people starved to death, they didn’t even have that. People from rural areas, where no food could be found, went to the cities to beg. But every night they were rounded onto trucks to be taken back to their villages, where they meet with certain death.

China now is very different from the China then, but recently the country has started moving backwards (cracking down on VPN services, developing a social credit system, and restricting the flow of money outside the country) rather than forward. Though the one silver lining, my friend mentioned with a sad laugh, is that Chinese people are still allowed to travel. It’s hard to imagine that this liberty could be taken away, but after listening to his stories, I’m not so sure. I AM sure, though, that he’ll take ample advantage of that privilege for as long as his body – or the government – will allow.

Bucket shower (Trindad, Cuba)

Even though living standards in Cuba have improved, there is still a big gap between it and the West. As a guide recounted,

“Funny story, I had a friend from Canada who came over to Cuba, and I told her that I could apply for a license for her to stay with me so that she could save money. She was saying ‘oh no, it’s okay…’, since she actually just didn’t want to be rude, but she agreed.

“She lasted for 2 days.

“I drew the bucket for her when she wanted to shower, and after 7 minutes, I heard no sound of water. So I went to ask if everything was okay, and she said ‘I don’t know how to do it.’ I had to scoop the water and pour it for her.

“My mother asked, ‘how can she not know how to do it?’ But, I said, it’s not hard to understand. ‘She was born with a shower over her head, she’s never used a bucket before.’

Most guesthouses have shower heads now, but a lot of locals, like my guide, still use bucket showers.

Crime in Cuba (Trinidad, Cuba)

Cuba is surprising safe. More than once, I’ve walked by myself on dark streets in the middle of the night. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but I never encountered any issues.

It wasn’t always this way. The guide in Trinidad took me to a poorer neighborhood (above) called “paipa,” the sound of punches, because people got into such frequent fights. When the guide was 19, she went with her family on a overnight vacation, and they returned to find their apartment emptied. And even 10 years ago, whatever objects that were reachable from the window tended to go missing. If she hung up a pair of underwear to dry overnight, it would be gone come morning.

Now, though, she does her laundry at night and leaves it hanging out to dry without worry. Now, “why would people risk getting in trouble for stealing when they can make money running business?” They have something to concentrate on, which keeps them out of trouble. And they have the means to buy what they want, so they don’t have to steal.

Uncertainty (Trinidad, Cuba)

Quote from a guide: “Every Cuban has their mother’s name and their father’s name. But I say there’s a third name that every Cuban has: uncertainty.”

There are certainly lots of frustrating things that come with life in Cuba, but the guide says that always, her motto is “embrace it”. Accept what you have and do what you can with it.

She does discuss the frustrations with her friends sometimes though. They need to talk about it, as everyone needs a release. They get together for drinks, and for the first three shots they talk about it. But only for shots 1-3. Then, they finish. And they enjoy instead.

Airbnb in Cuba (Trinidad, Cuba)

Airbnb has made a world of difference in Cuba since it arrived around 2 years ago. A local guide in Trinidad that I found through Airbnb experiences explained how it opened up more and more casas (guesthouses) to the world market and also gave entrepreneurs like her a platform to offer their services. It’s a big part of the larger trend of more Cubans opening up business, however small, in recent years.

However, while things are going well with Airbnb now, she doesn’t know if or how long it will last. There’s an inevitable instability that Cubans have come to accept, which she tried her best to convey with this:

“When you are born, the government gives you a bowl made of rope. You’re just a baby, so you don’t know anything about it, but okay, you take it. Then there comes some day when things are really hard and there’s no way out. But you remember the bowl, so you take it out and roll it, and you decide you will follow it to wherever it goes. And you follow it, and things get better. But at the end of the rope is the government, and it can roll the rope back up whenever it wants.”

Airbnb is just the newest thing to follow, and it can be taken away in an instant. She and many others are riding high on the wave now, but they are very pragmatic about an impending crash. As she says,

“My father wants to buy new chairs for tourists to sit in at the farm [where she runs another experience], but I told him that we need to wait. We can’t invest money that we don’t have. We can’t invest for the future – what future?”