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    • For me, it was Cuba. Everything about Cuba shook me to the core: it felt like some surreal time-travel, transporting me back into Soviet Lithuania, only with palm trees,Caribbean heat, and better music. It was an incredibly sad and powerful experience to see how similar the Castro and the Soviet regimes were, to hear stories almost exactly the same as those I heard from my dad and granddad, to see the same longing for the world and the same despair in people's eyes - and the same resilience and dark, bitter humor, and subtle nuanced art that's also a form of protest.

      When traveling, what was the biggest culture shock for you and why?

    • Waaaaay back in the day, in the Navy, we pulled into Sasebo, Japan. I knew very little about Japan (1981) but, once the liberty bell rang I could hardly wait to hit the streets. Growing up in whitebread NorCal in the 60's and 70's (way different now), initially I was sort of shocked how Japanese had no interest in learning or communicating in english and I sensed no concern on their part that they were not catering to the great Amerikan like in every other port I had visited.

      Ultimately, I respected that and I am still amazed how the Japanese culture has kept itself intact and also expanded their brand amongst the millennial to be the world leader in absolute wackey reality tv shows. I guess in their exclusion some could call that racist, but, I prefer to just consider them keeping their culture in tact.

    • I will never forget it. My wife and I were circumnavigating Germany by car for a week, venturing into beautiful neighbors like Austria. This was before the border with Czech Republic opened. As we drove North along the border, I could see some German cars speed through the border and just nod as they went through.

      I tried a few border crossings and was always turned away. My wife was having a fit because our rental car agreement didn't allow us to go into non-EU countries. The curiosity and sense of adventure got the best of me and I simply sped through the next border crossing and nodded like we belonged. My poor wife.

      We drove for 6 hours, North to the border of what had been Eastern Germany, stopping in a few villages. Shock. We simply couldn't fathom what we were seeing. Germany had flowers on the balconies, people bustling, it was clean and modern. The Czech Republic in the day had grim cement apartment buildings, washed with rust, broken up roads, rusty smoky dump trucks with coal that lumbered slowly into the villages and dumped their coal into the street. Then villagers slowly pushed wheelbarrows out of their homes to bring coal inside.

      We were nearly out of gas by the time we reached the border and the agents were not amused. We spent 30 minutes trying to explain ourselves and none of us spoke the other's language. They finally let us through.

      We've been back to the Czech Republic many times since and what a transformation. However, one of our friends there said we never should have crossed the border when we did because the government then didn't mess around.

    • Yeah I still remember Lithuania being like that very vividly. It seems amazing it's only been 28 years of independence.

      There's still a very palpable difference between Western and Eastern Germany, though. We rode across Germany two years ago and it was like we crossed some invisible border into the east. Funny how that just sticks. And funny how people still react to the words "Eastern Europe". Ah, THOSE parts. Although we were never that eastern at all in the first place!

      I think another huge culture shock, albeit a very positive one this time, was in the San Blas islands just off of the Panamanian coast. There, among the indigenous Guna people, women were the main breadwinners and property owners and there were many transgender people taking up female roles - totally normal and OK with the island communities. It was like this amazing alternative world out there!

    • For me, it was Morocco, especially Marrakech. I was in my early twenties and had set out to see all of Europe in a year, idiot that I was. After traveling through England, Holland, France and Spain, we decided to take a quick side trip to Morocco. After almost getting robbed at knife point in Tangiers, we took a train south. Since we were trying to do everything as cheaply as possible, we rode 4th class, which turned out to be a boxcar with wooden benches and no heat or windows. We were alone until the middle of the night (and in the middle of nowhere) when suddenly the car filled with people carrying live chickens and goats. Then they all got off at the next stop and we were alone again, wondering whether it was the hashish or it had really happened.

      In Marrakech we stayed at a cheap pension just outside the souk, or market. It was total anarchy--camels, musicians, snake charmers, money changers, food and spice vendors, hustlers of every kind. It was during Ramadan and I remember people sitting at restaurants with their soup in front of them waiting for the cannon to go off at sundown, signaling that they could start eating. I don't know what it's like today, but then, it was a good idea to pay some kid to be your "guide." Basically, that meant that he would fend off the other hustlers for you, which was a good investment. You had to bargain for everything, even in the post office, and they were perfectly willing to ask twenty times the going price without batting an eye, just in case you were dumb enough to accept. They had plenty of time to bargain. By our standards, everything was so cheap that we didn't worry too much about getting the very best deal.

      I think the shock was mostly due to my own inexperience at the time. Since then, I have traveled to other countries where accommodations were more primitive and communication was more difficult, but I never felt more like I was on another planet than on that trip. Oh, and we decided to ride first class on the train back to Tangiers, which was money well spent.

    • I was in Cuba briefly in the late 80s. The Soviet Union hadn't collapsed yet, but it had stopped subsidizing Cuba, and the consequences were all too clear. Gasoline was scarce. People got into lines without knowing what was being sold. As a foreigner, I could shop at stores that were off limits to natives, and people were constantly giving me dollars so that I could buy them underwear. What was most striking was how their isolation gave them an exaggerated idea of what the rest of the world was like. All Americans lived in mansions with leopard skin rugs on the floor, one guy thought. He must have seen a smuggled videotape of Dallas. The total lack of advertising was refreshing, but the shabbiness was a little depressing. As a 60s leftie, I remember when we thought that the Cuban Revolution was a model of how socialism could work in the third world. It was sobering and sad to confront the failure.

    • How fascinating! I had a similar experience to your Marrakesh adventures in Egypt some fifteen years ago. I traveled there alone and I was seventeen, and it just seemed like a different planet, although it was probably a lot less colorful and crazy than your Morocco decades ago. Still, the complete and utter Cairo chaos with camels and donkeys and butchers and perfume oils and kids and prayers, and then the stark, unforgiving desert - I was blown away.

      Just like people in Cuba, we in Soviet Lithuania too stood in lines without knowing what was being sold. It's funny what things you remember - I was only a kid when the Soviet Union fell.

      Some time in 1989, my dad got sent to an arts conference in Sweden, something pretty unheard of back then, and of course Sweden was the modern, chic, dazzling West in our eyes back then. My mother told dad to buy me some sneakers - an unspeakable luxury in a country where kids had two options for shoes: leather sandals, either in red or black. Sneakers, on the other hand, was a whole different ball game. Sneakers was America and rock and roll and freedom.

      However, my mother got it into her head that the Swedes probably had different shoe sizes, and she worried my dad would get the wrong size. So she measured my feet and cut out a little wooden stick the length of my foot. My poor dad had to go into shoe stores in Stockholm with that ridiculous stick, to measure the coveted sneakers for size. He was mortified - but he got me the sneakers, and they were the most glorious sneakers ever, white with pink velcro straps - a splendid, glorious beauty in the world of the tatty leather sandals.

      I can see how Cubans thought all Americans lived in mansions. In Havana, we were often quoted ridiculously steep taxi prices and when we said no, we were met with genuinely surprised, "but it's nothing to you!".

      Hearing Cubans speak Russian to me, or telling me how they studied in Riga or lived in Bulgaria, but most of all, asking anxiously, "when did it all change for you? How long did it take? Oh, it's too late for me, then..." - that was beyond surreal and so heartbreaking.