Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s Around the Bloc illustrates clearly the dilemma of American activist-travelers of a certain age: Where do you go when the old familiar destinations turn out to be not at all what you expected? For those who reached traveling age between the mid-1990s and 2001, the choice couldn’t have been an easy one. The fall of global Communism wiped a wagon load of totalitarian states off the list of attractive trouble spots, and resurgent global terrorism had not yet drawn the attention of dewy-eyed do-gooders to the Middle East and Central Asia. Griest took the old school path and visited the nations that had captured the imaginations of idealists of her parents’ generation: Russia, China, and Cuba. Not only did she discover that the Red Menace was not what it used to be, she stumbled into cultures that were significantly more complex than the Amnesty International literature might lead one to believe.
Griest left her home in Texas and spent several months in Moscow in 1996 as a participant in a college language study program. An enthusiastic supporter of liberal causes, she hoped to encounter in Russia the kind of grassroots activism she only dreamed about in the States. She envisioned rallies in the street, political posters on every available surface, and students shouting for reform. What she found was a country exhausted from decades of oppression and years of social turmoil, a country whose citizens were more eager to seize the long-awaited opportunity to live well than to find new things to complain about. Still, Griest made Russian friends and immersed herself in the culture—more so than in either of the other two countries she writes about in Around the Bloc—until, by the time she returned home, she had fallen in love with the country and its people, even if they were not the people she had expected to meet.
In the summer of 1997, after graduating from journalism school, Griest traveled to Beijing on a fellowship which secured her an editorial position on a Chinese newspaper. Griest found it difficult to enter into Chinese culture—centuries of suspicion of foreigners is not easily pushed aside by one idealistic American—and despite the precedent Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989 (or perhaps because of it), she found the Chinese to be even less willing to rock the authoritarian boat than were the cynical Russians. Perhaps because she spent her visit in the metropolis of Beijing, Griest’s experience in China is far less enlightening than that of Peter Hessler, who was at the same time teaching English in a small city in southern China, an experience he writes about in the insightful River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze.
Finally (for the purposes of this book), Griest spent 10 days in Havana on a clandestine adventure with a friend. It is during this segment of her journey through the remnants of Communism that Griest becomes the most thoughtful about what it all means, and she begins to grapple with the self-contradictions of student activism. How can one wear a Che Guevara t-shirt at the same time that one preaches about the evils of totalitarianism? Should one condemn Fidel Castro for the pain he has inflicted upon his people, or should one praise him for the tremendous social stability he has brought to Cuba? Despite what armchair protesters might want to believe, there are no easy answers, and Griest is forced to reexamine much of what she thought she knew about the world.
Griest acknowledges many of the contradictions in her world view, but she is frustratingly blind to others. Why, for example, does she see, apparently, the homogeneous national identity of Cuba as a positive thing, when she, on the same page, wallows in guilt over her own previously held preference for an American identity over the Latina half of her heritage? Is it the Latino flavor of the cubano melting pot that makes it morally superior to the American one? Would Griest have looked favorably upon the Soviet approach to ethnic identity, in which those ethnic groups who were not Russian (Jews, Georgians, Belorussians, et al) were forced to subjugate their native ethnicities in deference to a Soviet identity? She missed experiencing it by a few years, but it certainly bore a remarkable resemblance to the Cuban mode she admires. Whatever her rationalization, she notes nothing troubling when a young Cuban tells her, “The way you grew up negating your roots in order to be accepted by your society—that could never happen here. We all know we’re Cuban.”
Lapses such as these are the major indication of Griest’s immaturity; the minor ones can sometimes be endearing, at other times disconcerting. Her writing, for the most part sharp and effective, occasionally falls into undergrad clumsiness, such as when she uses the word “palpable” when she means “palatable,” or “instillation” when she means “installation.” More disturbing is her infrequent tendency toward juvenile and inappropriate frankness. Do we really need to read her semi-graphic account of the loss of her virginity to a forceful Russian suitor? Such episodes push the balance of the book away from half-serious pseudo journalism toward high school confessional.
Around the Bloc shows Griest to be nothing so much as a promising young journalist. At times undisciplined and often naive, she is, nonetheless, an observant reporter and an energetic participant in the stories she writes. Her book is fun—although it would probably be more fun for a reader young enough to see clubbing as the highlight of a trip to Havana—and if it is an imperfect first book, it at least makes one optimistic about the potential for a second.