Today marks the 21st anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide.
Joy Watson travelled with Network for Africa founder Rebecca Tinsley and others to Rwanda in March. Today, on the 21st anniversary of the start of the genocide, we share her impressions of Rwanda.
“The land of a thousand hills and a million smiles” declares the large billboard that greets new arrivals at Kigali airport in the beautiful country of Rwanda. This marked my second visit to Africa, my first to Rwanda, but was this bold declaration true? I was intrigued to discover what this small, land-locked nation was truly like, not least because it is the same size as my native Wales, which also boasts a large number of hills. But that’s where the similarities seem to end. Wales is surrounded on three sides by the sea, has a population a third of the size of Rwanda and despite political and social injustices laced through its history, did not experience a million deaths in three months, just two decades ago.
As our trip unfolded, it became clear it was going to be one of striking contrasts. We went from visiting amazing life-giving projects funded by Network for Africa, where women and children were given dignity, knowledge, skills for life and productivity, to viewing memorial sites where the clothes of those murdered were draped over pews that had not been used for worship for almost 21 years. The pervasive stench of trauma, desolation and death still hung rank in the air.
As a counsellor, I am used to confronting the effects of loss, pain, abuse and trauma, but what I was seeing and sensing was on a whole different level to that which I had ever seen and sensed before. Here was a country that appeared to have had its very heart ripped out in the seemingly senseless decimation of so many innocent lives. Is it ever possible to smile again after something like that? Apparently so. Admittedly the smiles were slow, reticent, wary, but nonetheless genuine. These remarkable people reached out and responded to kindness, empathy and warmth. They opened up to us in ways hard to comprehend given their experiences. They shared their stories and their lives and the little they have so generously, whilst exhibiting such extraordinary resilience and tenacity.
There’s another tag line bandied around in this enigmatic country: “Rwanda, the heart of Africa.” Whilst I suspect this is a reference to its geographical location, I found myself wondering ‘what if’. What if this stunning, lush, ‘full of potential’ nation were to become the ‘heart’ of Africa? A place of life and energy where the life-blood is pumped carefully, lovingly, equitably to every part; where compassion, empathy and kindness pulse and spill out into all communities and surrounding countries. A place of passion, creativity, colour and restoration, where differences are celebrated and all life is valuable. Now that would be something to smile about.
Copyright © 2015 Network for Africa, All rights reserved.
Saturday, Feb.14: Witnessing the Realities of Cambodia
Our group awoke at around 6:30 to have our first breakfast at the Metta Karuna Center. We shared a buffet-style meal, with baguettes, assorted jams, bannanas and packaged ramen soup. After we all stuffed ourselves with food, we hopped on a bus headed for Banteay Srei, an old temple of almost a thousand years. On the way we passed by small shops with patchy areas of palm trees growing around them. These shops sold many of the same items, which were evidently catered towards tourists. The products consisted of many woven coasters and boxes, bowls and wooden tableware. The vast majority of our group purchased the sweet palm sugar chunks, after having sampled them. They were intensely sweet and buttery, dissolving in our mouths.
Once we arrived at the temple, we learned from our tour guided, Mr. Yut, that the temple was built, designed and carved entirely by women. Observing the many small inscriptions and depictions, we soon realized the skill and the patience that went into this beautiful structure. The temple was constructed and finished by two Angkorian kings, King Rajendravarman and King Jayavarman V. The first king began this project and funded it, with his successor, Jayavarman V, supposedly appointing women as laborers. The intricate and delicate carvings and the small doorways were thought to be too beautiful to have been carved by men. Although this is just a myth, many women did play an evident and important role in Angkorian society. In wartime, for example, they joined in as fighters; they used this temple to pray for luck and victory before battle.
Many children crowded around us as we exited the temple. They held postcards, wooden flutes and other souvenirs. This is a very controversial subject in Cambodia. Many people would have problems with children selling goods to support themselves and their families; however, the parents also exploit their children to conjure sympathy from tourists. Even though we cannot help feeling sympathy for the kids, it is nonetheless a prevalent issue.
After leaving the temple, we visited the Cambodian Land Mine Museum. This museum explained a lot of the horrors that still occur frequently in Cambodia. Many of these victims are children. Some of these children wounded and disabled by these mines have become workers in the effort to clear mines in Cambodia. This effort and museum were greatly influenced by Aki Ra, a former child soldier in the Khmer Rouge, and Bill Morse, an ex history teacher from California. In Cambodia an average of three casualties a week are caused by land mines. This devastation was caused by the U.S., the Soviet Union, and China, who supplied the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian armies as well as the Vietnamese. The complicated web of weapons deals and inner conflicts of Cambodia and Vietnam led to the scattering of billions of tons of mines and bombs in Cambodia. An incredibly shocking and heartbreaking thing Bill explained to us was that young kids would find these mines and cluster bombs not knowing what they were and would pick them up seeing them as interesting shiny objects–the result is obvious. This lack of knowledge is consistantly troubling for the demining of Cambodia, as many outer villages in the forest are uneducated about the dangers and are difficult to get to because of the land mines surrounding them. Many of these victims suffer from PTSD, which is not treated by the NGO. These ongoing tragedies show a harsher and darker side to present Cambodia. Not only are we reflecting on the ancient Buddhist civilizations in Cambodia, but also we are confronting the current events of Cambodia.
After having eaten lunch, we headed for the Ta Prohm temple, a famous and world renowned temple used in such films as Tomb Raider, featuring Angelina Jolie. The temple itself was captivating, as we all witnessed the natural phenomenon of the native banyan trees growing through the temple’s foundation. Another interesting phenomonon about Prohm is the discovery of a stegosaurus carving in the walls of the temple. We aren’t sure if this is just a coincidence or if it speaks to us about the ancient civilization’s scientific advances. It is just another unique element that adds to the wonder of the temple. The temple was built in the early eleventh century as a place of worship for Buddhists. However, by the thirteenth century, the new king imposed a new system of Hindu beliefs on the kingdom, changing the temple from Buddhist to Hindu. The thousand carvings of Buddha were defaced and changed to phallic symbols called Shiva lingam.
One of the amazing aspects of this temple is that it rises magnificently out of the grey rubble and temple ruins. Efforts are being made to restore the temple to its former state. This can be seen as controversial because some believe that the temple should be left to crumble naturally, while others believe that it should be held together to preserve its glory. Photographed by senior Karina Dominguez.
After dinner, we took tuk tuks to an outdoor shadow puppet theater. We watched the performance of the Indian epic Ramayana. The shadow puppet artists used leather silhouettes and incorporated dance movements to act out certain sections of the epic. Unfortunately, the performance was cut short due to an unexpected (and pleasantly refereshing) rain shower. Our curiousity about the ending of the story was satisfied when junior Snigdha Nandipati told the rest of us about the part that we sadly missed.
–Mitchell Capp, Snigdha Nandipati, Angelica Vera
Wednesday, Feb. 11: A Country of Opposites
Vietnam is a country of opposites. From order to chaos, from communism to captialism, and from old to new. Today, we explored these seemingly incompatible worlds.
Walking in a single-file line through the covered corridor at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, it seemed as if we faced a new guard at every step. Despite the guards’ stern appearce with their pressed and intricate uniforms, we were suprised to see them smile at our light-hearted “xin chao”s. However, as we neared Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, the atmosphere suddenly shifted to a more serious tone. The tomb was silent, and all attention was on the angelic body that lies at the core of the Vietnamese communist identity. The tomb embodied socialist architecture through its square, imposing shape, and the sentiment that all who were present were witnessing something much larger than ourselves. Even as foreigners from America, we were able to grasp his ever-lasting legacy. This understanding was deepened when we visited Ho Chi Minh’s humble living quarters, and his conscious decisions to emulate the lives of his impoverished nation.
“Our great president, Ho Chi Minh, lives forever!” the banner hangs aside his Mausoleum. Photograph by senior Olivia Fidler.
After exiting the tomb, we stood in the square and reflected on the tomb and the government buildings surrounding us. Though the government is technically democratic, the Parliament building was situated between Ho Chi Minh’s tomb and the Communist headquarters, clarifying the firm hold the Communist Party has on the Vietnamese government (85% of the Parliament belongs to the Party). This was only the first of many contrasts that we would experience today.
Transitioning from Vietnam’s recent history, we stepped back into the 11th century through our visit to the Temple of Literature. In the thick of modern Hanoi, the Temple of Literature shifted our focus from the power of the collective population at Ho Chi Minh’s tomb to the opportunities of the educated elite. Vietnam’s first national university was restricted to the few that could afford to be competitive; the Confucian meritocracy of old Vietnam was not open to all. The names of graduates were engraved on stone tablets, resting atop tortoises (a Vietnamese symbol of longevity), representing their ever-lasting achievements.
Pictured in the bottom left is a yellow fruit which locals call “Buddha’s hands,” serving as a common offering in Vietnamese shrines, such as this one at the Temple of Literature. Photograph by senior Olivia Fidler.
Shifting from our morning’s focus on the grandeur of Vietnamese history, we met with our pen pals to get a taste of everyday life in modern Vietnam. Becoming acquainted with everyday life in Vietnam was as simple as sitting down with our pen pals at a street cafe. In our small talk, our interests in each other’s differences brought us as close together as our similarities. After lunch, the schedule was ours to control.
Most of the group decided to walk through a market in the midst of rush hour traffic. The stands around the streets were as busy as the traffic, and we were able to buy goods from propaganda posters to cheap toys. The competitive nature of business being done at the market was a stark contrast to the communist ideals we were exposed to earlier in the day.
With horns blaring and motocycles whizzing by, crossing the street with a group of over 20 people quickly became a formidable challenge. Photograph by senior Pedro Gallardo.
To escape from the hustle and bustle of the streets, we retreated to group coordinator Son’s favorite eclectic stop. Our time at Cafe Nola was spent with further bonding with our pen pals over mochas and piano renditions of pop songs.
The singing carried on into the evening as the group headed over to a karaoke bar. We were suprised to find that our pen pals seemed to know the words to American songs better than we did; it was clear that Western culture thrives alongside the Vietnamese tradition. Bonding over less-than-stellar performances of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold,” karaoke was a great final send-off from the pen pals who now seemed like old friends. The farewells were certainly difficult, but we were reminded of the brief but meaningful times we spent together in Hanoi.
Over the past couple of days were immersed in many contrasts, both cultural and political. We are interested in seeing how Hanoi will change in times to come and hope to visit again to see these changes for ourselves.
— Zak Brownlie, Olivia Fidler, Pedro Gallardo
Tuesday, Feb. 10: The Road to Recovery
As we piled onto the familiar red bus after another delicious breakfast, Mr. Long, our guide, began to prepare us for our first destination with a little history.
Agent Orange: accounting for nearly twelve of the estimated seventeen million gallons sprayed over Vietnam, the herbicide was one of eleven used by the United States to clear the foilage and increase ground visibility. Named after the distinctive color of a strip on its shipping container, the compound reduced the cover and food available to the Vietnamese Communist soldiers.
Although its suppliers claimed that the herbicide was harmless to humans and the environment, post-war research quickly revealed that such was not the case. The herbicide, which often drenched those hiding in the vegetation and in close proximity and seeped into the soil as well as water sources of the surrounding area, was toxic, and its effects extend to the present day.
Entire areas of land and water were deemed contaminated and therefore unusable. Those directly exposed to the chemical spray developed cancers and painful sores, and in turn gave birth to children with serious health complications, including physical deformities and mental disabilities. Portions of the estimated four million Vietnamese affected were shunned in fear of the unknown—all consequences of Agent Orange.
However, the Vietnamese are not easily disheartened. Support groups and organizations dedicated to helping the victims soon emerged as awareness was raised, both domestically and internationally. Contaminated areas were, and continue to be, carefully monitored by scientists and used to hold the United States accountable for the copious amounts of toxic herbicide sprayed. The Pineapple Village, founded by affected women who were ostracized from their original communities, helped change attitudes as they sold pineapples for a living and gradually regained acceptance.
We had the honor of visiting one such organization with our pen pals from Hanoi University: the Peace Village, or Thanh Xuan.
Upon meeting up with our pen pal friends, most of whom used taxis, public transportation, or motorbikes to reach the destination, we were escorted into a room with residents of the village for a brief introduction by lead Doctor Vu Son Ha.
Since its establishment in 1991, we learned, the Peace Village has provided medical treatment to over ten million people; the Hanoi branch focuses primairly on providing aid to Agent Orange victims. Their educational and physical therapy programs are specifically designed for the needs of the victims, beginning in primary school and continuing as far as vocational training to help facilitate the students’ integration into society.
We were welcomed by a few of the village’s students with a song called “I Am Not Sad,” which was specially composed for Agent Orange victims to help lift their spirits. In response, we sang “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands,” which allowed the students to participate by clapping their hands, stomping their feet, and jumping around in rhythm with us.
We were then able to visit their classrooms and interact with the children on an individual basis. Given that most of the children were not able to speak, or disliked doing so, our pen pal friends and we were forced to work together to communicate through other means, including pictures, hand motions, and facial expressions. The residents of the village—although the “village” more closely resembles an apartment complex—were also gracious enough to allow us to try our hands at their embroidery pieces, which depicted countryside scenes and cultural sites of Vietnam. As both Hanoi University and Parker students alike struggled to sew in straight lines, we learned that the ease with which the women worked was something acquired over many years, their techniques developed over several of the pieces that took up to five months to complete. In addition to embroidery, the able residents also learn how to weave pouches, scarves, vests, and even jackets in multi-colored, varying patterns to sell alongside their embroidery pieces, handmade bracelets, and crocheted squares.
Pen pals from Hanoi University play with several of the children from the Peace Village, showing them how to use the stamps that were donated by Mrs. Hayman’s second grade class at Francis Parker. Aside from the stamps, the students from the Lower and Upper School donated a variety of art supplies, a world map mural, and a washing machine.
Juniors Simone Tift and Snigdha Nandipati practice their needle point on the machines that the children, affected by Agent Orange, use to create magnificent and unique pieces of art to sell and raise money for the Peace Village.
After bidding farewell to the Peace Village with broken—but improving!—Vietnamese, we enjoyed a traditional lunch of a Vietnamese-style sandwich and bananas, and with the guidance of our friends, we walked off the meal by exploring the surrounding area. We came across another market, and ducked under its entrance into the dark, tented enclosure, shuffling through stalls selling kitchenware and clothes that morphed into produce and shoes became crates of fruit while baskets of hair accessories became cages of chickens, and followed the narrow path for only a couple minutes before exiting back onto the streets and headed to a well-known cafe for a taste of Vietnamese coffee.
After spending the first half of the day at the Peace Village, seniors Grace Sellick, Emma Sheean, Pedro Gallardo, Sam Pryor, Olivia Ghosh, and Olivia Fidler and their pen pals toured the area and stopped to sample traditional Vietnamese coffee and other specials treats at the Twitter Beans Coffee. A traditional Vietnamese coffee is similar to an espresso but is made with condensed milk.
Suspiciously similar in both color scheme, design, and drink options to a certain American chain, the Twitter Beans Cafe provided us with an opportunity to relax, perhaps a little too much as we lost track of time and found ourselves rushing several blocks back to the bus to arrive at the appointed departure time and make a timely arrival at the family home of one of our very own friends, S’on.
We were dropped off across the street and, using the sticky rice technique, crossed the bustling streets and made our way to his home. His mother and father stood by as twenty-five people crammed into their living room. Assorted Vietnamese candy, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and warm tea awaited us inside the Giang household, and as we continued coversation with our university friends, we took in the wandering tabby cat, the first feline we saw on our trip, took in the family shrine, adorned with gold coloring for prosperity and luck, as well as fresh dragonfuit, bananas, and custard apples, took in the large family portrait that hung above a cherry blossom tree design that added a personal flare to the gray walls.
As the afternoon turned to evening, we reluctantly parted from our friends from Hanoi University, and we headed off to the final destination, a traditional water puppet show at Thank Long water puppet theatre.
Established by farmers in the eleventh century as a celebration of a good crop, water puppetry became very popular in northern Vietnam as a form of public entertainment. Made from soft wood easily carved by the non-specialized farmers, the puppets were sculpted into many flexible shapes, such as people, animals including foxes, water buffalo, and frogs and mystical creatures like dragons, fairies, and phoenixes. In order to seal the wood and prevent it from sinking, lacquers were developed to add color to the tan coloring of the wood.
However, this art was almost lost after the war and continued to dwindle as the population struggled to stay afloat and, in turn, had little time for entertainment. This trend began to turn around in 1986, when the economy began shifting from largely subsidized to more free market.
As Vietnam opened its borders once again, tourism revived the art and developed into the complex stories and manipulation of puppets we saw today.
As the puppeteers stood in wasit-high water, they manipulated the puppets in front of a bamboo screen. Coupled with live singing and music utilizing traditional Vietnamese strung instruments and flutes, the show was well received and enjoyed.
We ended the group’s night at a Western-style restaurant, where we experienced a food with a Vietnamese twist, including pizza, spaghetti lasagna, and grilled beef and french fries, and divided into smaller groups that could choose to explore the hotel’s surrounding area or opt to get a head start on the following day.
Following dinner, seniors Sam Pryor, Olivia Fidler and Pedro Gallardo and juniors Nicole Keeney, Mitchell Capp, Rex Winn, and Simone Tift went across the street from the hotel to jump in on a dance exercise with local women in the park, listening to upbeat, electronic Vietnamese music.
–Karina Dominguez, Angelica Vera, Grace Sellick
Monday, Feb. 9: Getting Outside the Comfort Zone
On the morning of our second day, we awoke to the sounds of the many horns from the busy, motor bike-filled streets of Hanoi. After enjoying a Vietnamese version of a continental breakfast, we made our way onto the bus, where we met Mr. Long, our tour guide for the remainder of our time in Vietnam’s capital. As we traveled through the early morning traffic on our way to Hanoi University, Long informed us of different aspects of the Vietnamese culture, including local superstitions, practices, and beliefs.
During the winter season, Hanoi is often covered in a dense and grey layer of smog/fog, and the people of the city can go many days without seeing the sun. Many of the city’s inhabitants wear masks over their mouths to prevent the intake of the smoggy air.
Upon arriving at the university, we met with a student tour guide, S’on, who led us to a lecture hall, where we were able to sit in on a class regarding leadership and motivation. Professor Hoang Gia Thu, Dean of the Faculty of Tourism and Management, taught the lecture in a style similar to that of the classes back in San Diego, utilizing the projector and printed-out slides of his power point to supplement his presentation. Although we were later informed that the classes are usually quite discussion-based, our foreign presence in the class caused the majority of the students to remain silent for the duration of the 90-minute period, reminding us of how we react when exchange students come into our classes at Parker.
Professor Hoang Gia Thu gives a lecture on motivation and leadership, a topic which helps build the foundation of the tourism industry by educating students in management skills.
The rather simplistic and slightly run-down style of the university varied greatly from the more polished and grand campuses in the United States.
After thanking the professor for letting us immerse ourselves in his class, we returned to our bus and left behind “Old Hanoi” and ventured to “New Hanoi” for a buffet lunch adjacent to a large water-park. The buffet, which was rather upscale, seemed to attract both locals and tourists alike, the most of which appeared to be from Asian countries. The wide variety of food, ranging from Taro-flavored Popsicles to fried pupae and mini crab, provided us with the opportunity to try delicacies from many cultures and ethnicities.
One of the highlights of the meal was the dessert counter, featuring a large array of sweet dessert soups and small finger-cakes.
Once we’d had our fill, we all piled back into the bus to return to Hanoi University to meet our pen pals, with whom we’ve been in contact with for the past two months. As so many of the vehicles on the road were motorcycles, it was quite funny to watch our large bus attempting to maneuvre the roads and carve a path through the innumerable scooters.
Upon arriving once again at Hanoi University, we were greeted by seventeen apparent strangers who were, in fact, our pen pals. As we had never physically met them, we played a quick game where we stated three facts about ourselves. From those three facts, our pen pal would have to decipher who we were. When we had all been paired with our respective partners, we had the opportunity to chat with them for a few minutes before going with them on a tour of the university.
Our student tour guides were, themselves, part of the tourism department. As we began to tour around the university’s surrounding neighborhoods, it struck us that each tour given by the students directly benefitted their future careers in tourism in Vietnam. Our tour took a rather unconventional, but welcome, route when we stumbled upon a Catholic church, which led us to a local flower shop and a street fair featuring goods ranging from fresh fish to formal attire.
In a local flower market, we were able to observe varieties of botanicals, many of which held great significance for traditions.
One thing that was apparent while meeting with our pen pals was that they were much more comfortable being close too one another than us Americans were. The girls would often loop their arms through one another as they walked, a concept quite foreign to people who generally abide by respecting others’ “personal circles.”
As we arrived back at the university, we headed to the field to play a series of ice-breaker games to get to know our pen pals better. We were all shocked when they suggested we play games like Mafia, which we all previously believed were games solely played in the U.S. The games were a complete success; in many cases we all burst into hysterics when someone would make a mistake amidst the game.
After we bid farewell to our pen pals, we once again navigated the ever-present traffic to dinner. Here, we ate the spring rolls that the restaurant was acclaimed for. Unlike many of those that are available in the States, these rolls were quite thick and were encapsulated in a very thin, crunchy exterior. Another dish that we got the opportunity to eat was a cold rice noodle dish called bun. On top of the noodles, we poured a special sauce comprised of fish sauce, sugar, green papaya, carrot, garlic, and chili peppers.
As we reflected on our second day in Hanoi, many of us realized that we had used the day as a way to break out of our comfort zones and immerse ourselves in the local culture. We couldn’t wait for tomorrow, when we would be able to work again with our pen pals in the Peace Village, yet another way to step outside our personal comforts.
–Emma Moore, Samantha Pryor, Mitchell Capp
JOE MEDINA, HW MIDDLE SCHOOL VISUAL ARTS TEACHER, ALYSSA SHERWOOD HW UPPER SCHOOL VISUAL ARTS TEACHER AND Peace Works Travel tourS WORKED COLLABORATIVELY TO INITIATE AN ON-GOING GLOBAL COLLABORATION BETWEEN TEENS AT HARVARD WESTLAKE AND TEENS IN CUBA. STUDENTS WILL USE CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHY, CAMERA PHONES, TRADITIONAL CAMERAS, SOCIAL MEDIA AND ON-LINE DIGITAL SKETCH BOOKS AS A MEANS TO EXPLORE AND FORM IDENTITY, AND DEVELOP VISUAL COMMUNICATION. THIS INVESTIGATION AND DOCUMENTATION OF TEEN IDENTITY VIA TECHNOLOGY, SOCIAL MEDIA AND SMARTPHONES IS MIRRORING THE CURRENT CHANGES TAKING PLACE IN CUBA AND UNITED STATES. IN PRE-DEPARTURE WORKSHOP’S WITH HW TEACHERS AND DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHER EUNICE ADORNNO , STUDENTS WILL ACQUIRE SKILLS AND PRACTICAL STRATEGIES IN VISUAL COMMUNICATION, DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY, INTERVIEWS, CAMERA USE, AND SOCIAL MEDIA AS A VISUAL DIARY. THE PROJECT WILL ESTABLISH LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES WHERE STUDENTS THINK AND ACT GLOBALLY AS WELL AS LOCALLY. WE HOPE OUR PROJECT WILL TRANSITION INTO ONGOING GLOBAL VISUAL ARTS -COLLABORATION THAT INVITES STUDENTS FROM AROUND THE GLOBE TO COLLABORATE IN A COMMON THEME. THE COMPLETED PROJECTS WILL RESULT IN A BOOK AND GALLERY SHOW.
Young Cubans prepare their sticks to charge the latest internet “package” with films, television series, software and other similar stuff from foreign origin downloaded from the web.
Cuba has promised its citizens better Internet access in this New Year. The few Cubans who now manage to get online find it expensive and slow.
Warming ties with the U.S. have stirred hope for improved telecommunications. But until then, many residents have devised an ingenious work-around, or should we say walk-around.
On Havana’s Malecon, roaming guitarists play for the crowds resting against the iconic sea wall. In this nightly gathering spot, it’s old fashioned interacting. No one is on a cell, no eyes glued to smart phones.
While Cubans tout their revolution’s free health care and education, they’ve missed out on the digital one. Less than a fifth of the population owns a mobile device; internet access is even lower and cable and satellite TV is banned in private homes.
But surprisingly, Cubans are plugged in. During a lull in the nightly music the conversation turns to this week’s latest installment of some of the U.S.’s most popular television shows.
Julio Rodriguez and his wife Kadiuska Lara rattle off their favorites: Person of Interest, The Mentalist and Hawaii 5-0. Another couple shouts they love Caso Cerado, the Telemundo courtroom drama, and the Discovery Channel.
Without hi-tech offerings, Cubans have found an ingenious way to get nearly real-time entertainment, as well as the latest magazines, apps and even video games. It’s called the “Weekly Package,” and it’s passed, bought and sold hand-to-hand on external hard drives and memory sticks throughout the island.
Rodriguez says 80 percent of the country watches “the Package,” that’s his unscientific opinion. But it couldn’t be simpler; all you need is a DVD player, which is legal on the island.
In the living room of his small apartment outside Havana, Iyawo sits in front of a computer screen. He won’t say his full name since what he is doing is illegal in Cuba. On Saturdays, he goes to his distributor, who has downloaded the entire package — about one terabyte of data — from a satellite.
By the time Iyawo is back to his house there’s already a line outside. That day he charges about $5.75 for the whole thing, by Monday the price drops in half. Smaller memory sticks full of pre-selected shows are cheaper.
On a recent day, the latest “package” of offerings included everything from the latest episode of Showtime’s Homeland, Univision’s Sabado Gigante and even anti-virus software updates. There were also advertisements for Havana restaurants and a local kid’s party decorator. Looks like capitalism to me.
“Capitalism with the face of socialism,” snaps back Iyawo. “Because what I’m doing is making things better, not worse. I’m providing a service.
And Iyawo he insists it is pure entertainment. The package does not include anything political or pornographic, that’s why he speculates the government permits it.
And the government says it will permit more access to the Internet in 2015. In a state newspaper last week, officials announced improved services, including Internet access in mobile devices, although no timetable was given. For now, Cubans continue to line up and pay up.
On a busy street in Old Havana, in front of the state-owned telecommunications company, Danier Lopez waits in a long line to get inside on one of a dozen computers.
The connection is expensive, Lopez says, about $5 an hour — about a quarter of a monthly minimum salary. And it’s slow. Lopez says he spends most of his time waiting for pages to load. Cuban censors also routinely block some websites. Lopez says he has a Facebook page but hardly ever sees it.
Reinaldo Escobar, an independent journalist for the prominent website 14ymedio.com, eagerly awaits better service too. Sympathetic western embassies allow him to use the Internet free, but he pays a political price for the service. The government publishes photos of him entering the embassies using them to argue his work is subversive. He says change is coming.
“The changes are moving in the right direction,” Escobar says. “Unfortunately, they are not moving at the speed or the depth we need.”
Just last week, Escobar and several other activists were detained by state security forces just hours before they planned to attend a free speech protest.
JANUARY 05, 2015 3:34 AM ET
The world’s last relic of Marxist-style economies relaxed their policies yet again this week to allow the first wholesale agricultural market farmers have seen for generations. Since 2008, when the reforms of Fidel’s brother Raul began altering the economic legacy of the infamous Cold War Castro regime, over one-half million small businesses have been encouraged to innovate, employ and operate in the service sector. What impact will this incremental embrace of capitalism have upon the socio-political landscape? Can Cuba maintain a closed social order while it expands its economic principles and operations? Historians and culture-junkies, pundits and politicians, documentarians and artists speculate wildly divergent theories of the enchanted island’s future.
Upon one thing they all agree: Cuba will change. See it now, and be a measure of that transformation. Read on.
Bill Morse, Director Cambodian Landmine Museum, Siem Reap
Briggs Boss, Sophomore, Thacher School
Stacy Serrette, Teacher and Dean of Student Life, Emma Willard School
Paul Rusesabagina, Real-life Hotel Rwanda hero who saved over 1200 people during the Rwandan genocide.
Shirley Hahn, Beverly Hills, California
The Santa Barbara Independent
Alex Greer, Junior, Laguna Blanca School
Kelly Bennett, history teacher, Santa Barbara Middle School
Alexandra Kall, Francis Parker School
Spencer Barr, English Teacher, Santa Barbara High School, California
Stacy Serrette, Director of Student Life, Emma Willard School
Eric Taylor, Francis Parker School, San Diego, California