There are liberties so fundamental that we don't think about them, like reading any magazine we want or cracking a joke about our inept politicians. For too much of the world's population, these and other transgressions could land you in jail.
Flying back from Cuba, I stroll into a bookstore at Toronto's Pearson Airport––and find myself gazing in wonder at the myriad shelves of books, and the rows and rows of magazines. This is like encountering old friends: back in the world of books––and controversial ideas.
The reason for this state of wonder: I would hazard a guess that there are more books and magazines in this place than in all the bookstores of Cuba put together. And I would hazard a wild guess that there are more cellphones and Internet terminals at Toronto Airport than in the whole of Cuba. Home Internet access is not permitted in Cuba: the few cybercafés that exist cater mainly to demand from tourists, with usage prices well out of the reach of the average Cuban. Billboards all over the country commemorate Castro's 1959 revolution, but the information and communication revolution of the past three decades seems to have given Cuba a miss by a wide margin. Access to foreign news media is deemed far too dangerous by Cuban authorities.
Travel to a place like Cuba gives you a whole new appreciation for rights and liberties taken for granted in North America. That includes a host of unwritten rights and freedoms that are not covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Like the right to access BBC news on TV or Internet, or a woman's right to wear make–up or sunbathe in a bikini, or the right of a couple to hold hands in public. Here are a few more liberties we take for granted––but which may be severely curtailed elsewhere.
BURMA: The right to crack jokes
Repressive regimes are not noted for their sense of humor, nor their tolerance to satire––particularly satire directed at them. But some courageous individuals still take them on. Prominent among these in Burma (Myanmar) is a vaudeville troupe called the Moustache Brothers, composed of two brothers and a cousin. In 1996, two of the Moustache Brothers, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw, let loose with a string of satirical jokes at the expense of the military regime at a special performance in Rangoon in honor of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The two comedians were quickly arrested, tried in a closed court, and sentenced to seven years. There were sent north to one of the toughest hard–labor camps in the country. Miraculously, they survived the ordeal (many do not). Due to pressure from Amnesty International, they were freed in 2001, but were forbidden from performing for any Burmese audience. To survive, the Moustache Brothers discovered a loophole: if they performed only for foreigners, the regime would overlook it.
The Moustache Brothers stage nightly performances for tourists, in their living–room in Mandalay. The performance is a strange repertoire of vaudeville, slapstick comedy, and traditional Burmese dance, but steers clear of overt political commentary. In October 2007, the BBC reported that Par Par Lay had been arrested for taking part in anti-government demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in Mandalay. His fate is unknown.
CHINA: The right to walk the dog
Beijing is where they make the rules in China––from rules about how many children a family can have (one, in theory) to rules about what you post on Internet blogs (sentences of ten years have been handed out to cyber–dissidents voicing contrary opinions). And rules about dogs.
Dogs were eradicated from the streets of Beijing long ago as a health hazard, but are now making a comeback as status symbols among the nouveau riche. The one–child–only policy may have something to do with this dog mania, as canine companions have become something of a substitute for children. But tall dogs are in hiding in Beijing, and their masters live in fear. Dogs can only be walked at certain hours in the evening, and they must not exceed certain dimensions of height and weight.
The height limit is 35 centimeters. If a dog exceeds this height, it can be put down on the spot by vigilant authorities. 'Put down' means the dog could be hooded with a bag and bludgeoned to death––right in front of the distraught master.
IRAN: The right to swim––together
The Islamic Republic of Iran pursues a strict policy of gender segregation. A prime instance is swimming. At Caspian Sea resorts, parts of the coast are sectioned off by large curtains that extend deep into the water, dividing female–only and male–only beachfronts. And hotel pools post notices of hours for men to swim in the morning, and women–only in the afternoon. That means husband and wife cannot bathe together.
Women in Iran (rich ones) fare better at mixing with the opposite sex at ski resorts, where little skin is revealed. The basic idea is to make women appear as dowdy as possible. This year, according to the BBC, Iran has seen one of the most ferocious crackdowns on un-Islamic behaviour and improper Islamic dress by authorities for at least a decade. Tens of thousands of women have been warned or arrested because of their attire--skinny headscarves, skimpy overcoats, or "unconventional make-up."
Of course, you have to put all this in perspective; Islamic regimes have a seemingly endless list restricting the freedoms of women. None could top the former Taliban regime, which instituted a complete ban on women singing or dancing in public––and threatened to chop the fingers off any woman who dared to wear nail polish. The regime threatened to stone to death any person who dared to contact the opposite sex if the person was not a relative.
The Foreigner as Media Conduit
If you visit a country where the information flow has been reduced to a trickle, take a sheaf of foreign magazines and newspapers from the airplane. These items make wonderful gifts for news–deprived locals. Even the inflight magazine will be well–received, and women love the fashion magazines. Should these magazines be intercepted in customs, just explain you were reading them on the plane.
Some foreign news media may be available in the lobbies of high–end hotels––hotels bound to be expensive to ensure the media stays out of the eyes and ears of locals. To maintain an illusion of normality, countries like China allow foreigners wider freedom and access to international media. For instance, Western programs like CNN broadcasts may be piped into an expensive hotel via satellite, but not available to the general public (satellite dishes are strictly controlled within China).
Michael Buckley is author of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (Avalon Travel Publishing, USA, 2006), Heartlands: Travels in the Tibetan World, (Summersdale, UK, 2002), and Tibet: the Bradt Travel Guide (UK, 2006). The latter book is supported by a website, www.himmies.com. His last story for Perceptive Travel was Breakfast in Bhutan.
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