Around the Bloc

Villard / Random House

March 9, 2004

As a high school senior desperate to escape South Texas, Stephanie Elizondo Griest listened up when a CNN correspondent offered the how-to-be-like-me advice of “Learn Russian.” Though she barely knew enough of her mother’s native Spanish to communicate with her Abuelita, Stephanie enrolled in Russian at the University of Texas, commencing what would become a four-year, 12-nation tour of the Communist Bloc that shattered her preconceived notions of the “Evil Empire.”

In Around the Bloc, Stephanie relates her experiences as a volunteer at a children’s shelter in Moscow, a propaganda polisher at the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece in Beijing, and a belly dancer among the rumba queens of Havana. She falls in love with an ex-soldier who avoided radiation clean-up duties at Chernobyl by slitting his wrists, fights to feature the Spice Girls in print, hangs out with Cuban hip-hop artists who rap about Revolution, and makes difficult realizations about the meaning of democracy and social justice. She also learns how to buy vodka for a Russian dinner party (one bottle per guest plus one), stumbles upon Beijing’s underground gay scene, marches with 100,000 mothers demanding Elian’s return to Cuba, and gains new appreciation for the Mexican culture she left behind.

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  • Selected as the 2007 Mayor’s Book Club in Austin Texas
  • Won “Best Travel Book of the Year” Award from the National Association of Travel Journalists of America for 2004
  • Named a “Substantial Book Read” by National Public Radio, Summer 2005
  • Named a “Best Book of 2004” by the San Francisco Chronicle on December 12, 2004
  • Featured in the New York Times Book Review’s Recommended Summer Reading edition on June 6, 2004
  • Featured in USA Today
  • Named Texas Monthly Magazine’s “Book of the Month” for March 2004
  • Named an Editor’s Pick/Summer Beach Book by MSN Shopping
  • Named a “Bitch Read” by Bitch Magazine for Summer 2004

Reviewed in:

  • The New York Times Book Review
  • The Washington Post Book World
  • San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Book Review
  • South China Morning Post
  • Texas Monthly
  • Conde Nast Traveler
  • Latina Magazine
  • Hispanic Magazine 
  • Estylo
  • World Pulse Magazine 
  • Bust
  • Bitch 
  • Planet Magazine 
  • Houston Chronicle 
  • Orange County Register 
  • Texas Observer 
  • San Antonio Current
  • Austin Chronicle 
  • Austin American-Statesmen 
  • Corpus Christi Caller Times 
  • Alcalde
  • The Daily Californian
  • The Collegian
  • Savir
  • SomosPadres

AND online at:

  • Latinidad
  • WomenWriters
  • PopMatters
  • Artist-At-Large
  • FreeWilliamsburg

Interviewed on:

  • Nuestra Palabra’s “Latino Writers Having Their Say” on 90.1 FM KPFT Houston, Texas
  • “A View from the Other Side” on KNON 89.3 FM Dallas, Texas
  • NPR’s “Musica Suave” on KEDT Corpus Christi, Texas
  • Texas Public Radio’s “Texas Matters” KSTX San Antonio, Texas
  • “Sexto Sol” on KPFT Houston, Texas
  • “The Jack Riccardi Show” on KTSA San Antonio, Texas
  • “Public Exposure” on KWPX in Washington State
  • and the Web site Vagablogging


In Moscow, Stephanie:

  • volunteers at a children’s shelter
  • studies at Moscow Linguistics Institute
  • gets attacked by a belligerent babushka in a Metro for admitting she’s American
  • falls in love with an ex-soldier who slit his wrists to escape clean-up duties at Chernobyl
  • joins a “Take Back The Night” feminist rally
  • observes an underwater menage a trois at Shans’, Moscow’s premier gay discotheque
  • gets chased down a dark alley by a pack of drunken Russian men
  • consumes 12 shots of vodka in one sitting
  • realizes that open elections and a free media does not make a democracy

In Beijing, she:

  • polishes propaganda at the English mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party
  • fights to save the Spice Girls from the Censor Board’s wrath
  • eats fish lips, chicken feet, and yak penis soup (losing her vegetarianism in the process)
  • learns the art of saving face the hard way
  • hangs with China’s most controversial painters
  • studies a form of belly dance with a young Muslim Uighur woman
  • dates a Chinese college student who carts her around on the back of his bicycle
  • learns family secrets during a visit from her mother, including why she was raised more gringa than mexicana

In Havana, she:

  • stalks Fidel Castro
  • marches with 100,000 mothers demanding the return of Elian Gonzalez to Cuba
  • hangs with hip-hop artists who rap about Revolution
  • smokes a lot of Cohibas
  • belly dances with rumba queens and a particularly fine king
  • distributes medical supplies to a children’s hospital and school supplies to students
  • realizes she really needs to learn Spanish


“Another Gen X traveler, equally astute but far lighter-hearted, is the Texan Stephanie Elizondo Griest. As a teenager, Griest already knew she ‘had to get the hell out of Corpus Christi,’ so she took the advice of a CNN correspondent she met at a journalism conference and learned Russian. AROUND THE BLOC: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana(Villard, paper, $13.95) is the often hilarious tale of this female Candide’s voyage through Communist and formerly Communist countries: in Moscow as a student during the 1990’s, later in Beijing as a journalist under the Luce Scholars program and finally in Cuba as a clandestine tourist.

“Griest is a charming guide, easily making friends and blending into the local scene — so effectively that she even finds herself assuming some of her new companions’ less appealing characteristics, as she herself readily admits. Her stint as an editor at China Daily, a newsmagazine that is the official English mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, is typical. At first excited by this ‘prime opportunity to experience censorship firsthand and observe a state propaganda machine at its source,’ she is outraged by her colleagues’ cynicism and obstructionism. But after a year on the job, she realizes that she has become as obstructionist as they are.

“Griest provides an eye-opening glimpse of the reality behind American headlines that can themselves be propagandistic. Her description of Havana at the height of the Elian Gonzalez hysteria offers a bizarre, through-the-looking-glass reflection of the furor, and her discussion of Muscovites’ common fears and worries shows that the new post-Communist ‘democracy’ is as shaky as the old system, perhaps even more so. ‘Instead of worrying about the K.G.B. knocking on their door at midnight, Russians now feared huligani kicking it down or — if they were biznesmeni — Mafiozi gunning it down.’

“Around the Bloc is not only superb travel writing, it is also a beautifully written story of self-discovery. As a college student, Griest was ‘a militant-vegetarian-Chicana-feminist,’ but in Moscow she makes little headway against the ‘primped and preened’ Russian women. ‘Moscow felt a lot like Dallas,’ she observes. ‘No respectable woman would dare run down to the neighborhood kiosk without base, concealer, blush, eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara and lipstick.’ Her vegetarianism ends in Beijing, where shish-kebabed scorpions and snake blood turn up on the menu. And her Chicana pride turns to humiliation in Havana when her Spanish won’t sustain even the most basic conversation.

“Although it’s full of serious reporting, Around the Bloc is a delightful book, imbued with the high spirits, good will and openness of youth — and strangely reminiscent of that travel classic about the Jazz Age, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.” — Brooke Allen


“At an early age, first-time memoirist Stephanie Elizondo Griest knew she wanted to hightail it out of her hometown, Corpus Christi, Texas. Fortunately for her, she also decided to become a journalist. In high school, she heeded the advice of a CNN correspondent to learn Russian. Thus were born her obsessions with Marxist ideology and Communist bloc countries — their culture, their politics, their leaders-gone-psychotic — and what it all means to her personally. A spunky storyteller, Griest has written an extremely readable memoir that educates as well as entertains.”


“As with truly successful travel writing, Around the Bloc suggests that our best journeys often lead to discoveries within ourselves.”
— Georgia Jones-Davis


“Twenty-four-year-olds should not write memoirs, but Stephanie Elizondo Griest earns a conditional exception with her charmingly self-effacing memoir Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana (Villard). Following a year of study in Moscow and a year as a journalist in Beijing (the Havana stay, just two weeks in length, is a bit of a bait and switch), the self-proclaimed “militant vegetarian Chicana feminist” from Corpus Christi found her expectations blown up and her American veneer melted down. Around the Bloc reads funny and sad with equal frequency, and Griest’s engaging point of view has the earmarks of a journalistic star in the wings.” — Mike Shea


“Plucky young Texas journalist eager to see the world decides to make Communist countries (current and otherwise) her terrain. Adventures ensue: vodka-soaked parties in Moscow, a forbidden gay bar in Beijing, rumba sessions in Havana. It’s a zesty expedition through three wildly different cultures, each in strikingly similar predicaments.”


“Bump into Stephanie Elizondo Griest in Whole Foods and it would be easy to conclude that she is who she appears to be: a 20-ish hippie chick, living in communal vegetarian splendor. What might escape your notice is that she’s a Russian-speaking Phi Beta Kappa journalist who has compiled an impressive memoir of her journey through three lands whose political landscape was, and continues to be, dominated by a history of communist rule…. Therein lies the charm of the story: a smart, daring, accomplished young single woman ready to thoughtfully explore other countries and draw her own independent conclusions.” — Steven E. Alford


“When Griest was a high school senior in Texas, a CNN correspondent told her that if she wanted a globe-hopping career like his, she should learn Russian. Four years later, she went to Moscow and spent a semester at a linguistic institute, beginning a four-year period of travel (1996–2000) to 12 nations, including much of the former Soviet bloc and Communist China and Cuba. Readers will quickly intuit just how little of Griest’s adventures made it into this account, as a two-month Central Asian trek gets a single sentence and Eastern Europe falls completely by the wayside. But there’s little opportunity to regret what’s missing because of the captivating stories that Griest does choose to tell. From the sight of an old woman stealing canned goods from a shopper who’d passed out in a Moscow grocery to the aggressive banter of Havana black marketers, Griest has a journalist’s eye for compelling detail. Her youthful romantic attraction to “the Revolution” is slightly less attractive, at times treating the largely defeated Communist movement as almost exotic, and naïve daydreams about matters like the “damn good loving” she might find from angst-ridden Beijing men can occasionally induce winces. But she doesn’t flinch from depicting the brutal effects of authoritarianism and economic decline, or how her experiences hastened her political and emotional maturity. Though still raw in places, Griest’s writing shows great promise; she may wind up joining Tom Bissell in the vanguard of a new generation of travel writers.”

PW Forecast: Author interviews, an NPR campaign and marketing to college students could jump-start sales of this low-priced trade paperback.


“As someone who thinks that nirvana is a 10-hour Brazilian bus ride, I can’t help but love this book. Griest is a chatty, intrepid traveler who has woven her own coming-of-age story against the backdrop of three world capitals and the drama of three complex societies. She has also written a classic, profoundly American story of loss of innocence — “Never before had I been held accountable for what I represented.” — Barbara Belejack


“Armchair travelers have rarely had it so good as they do with Texas native Griest’s memoir of her jaunt from Austin to Moscow to Beijing to Havana and beyond, which reads like one part informative history lesson on the People’s Revolutionary struggle and one part Hope ‘n’ Crosby road movie…. Griest writes with an eye toward the common experience, and does it in an immensely entertaining fashion. There’s none of the musty feeling of a lecture on Communist history in her book – if anything, it feels like a long, long note from a friend on the road who just happens to know a whole lot about Marx, Engels, and Red all-stars. Her four-year journey across the crimson map is nearly as much fun to read as it must have been to undertake: smart, sassy, and informed. And the reader, of course, doesn’t have to worry about the Russian Mafia.” — Marc Savlov


“….Griest has for more than a year attracted the attention of elders in Texas writing circles. The consensus seems to be that she will someday be A Force To Reckon With, a writer to whom Texans will have to answer, perhaps a counterpoint to the right-wing Texan author and think-tanker, Michael Lind.” — Dick Reavis


“….despite its political-sounding premise, the book reads more like letters home from an adventurous friend than a cold social analysis. We learn as much about Griest’s relationships with the people she meets as we do about their experiences with communism. Her ability to seamlessly combine description and analysis allows her to present a huge amount of historical and factual information without losing your attention… Like any good traveler, she freely admits to what anyone who has ever spent time far from home eventually realizes — the more you learn about far-flung places, the more you really learn about home.” — Kate Daloz


“It is noteworthy that the writing improves with the sex; with the idealistic gloss a bit tarnished. I guess naiveté works best when it’s over.” — J. Stefan-Cole


Here is what people are saying about Around the Bloc:

“Opening Around the Bloc is rather like popping the cork off a champagne bottle. This book fairly brims over with a refreshing zest and sparkle, which, one imagines, is probably an apt description of its author, as well. Stephanie Elizondo Griest, who embarked on her own Pilgrim’s Progress around the world’s greatest former (and current) communist capital cities, has written a delightful account of her curious journey. Full of humour, compassion and a great degree of personal candour, Around the Bloc is clearly just the beginning for this gifted young writer.”

— Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary LifeThe Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan, andGuerrillas: The Inside Stories of the World’s Revolutionaries

“A stunning first. Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s memoir is a coming of age odyssey every American should read. Around the Bloc does more than tell a story. It vibrates with humor, insight and honesty — a rare gem.”

— Anchee Min, author of Red Azalea, Katherine, Wild Ginger, Becoming Madame Mao, and Empress Orchid

“A Chicana in China y mas! Who wouldn’t want to partake in Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s ongoing love affair with adventure? Unlike some travel stories where a smug author painfully tries to convince themselves (and their readers) how well they can adapt to foreign soil, Miss Stephanie, my dear beige sister, confesses full frontal vulnerability. She is the awkward tourist, the savvy traveler and… one hell of a writer! As long as there are books like this, one never needs to redeem mom’s frequent flyer points to experience true adventure!”

— Michele Serros, author of How to be a Chicana Role Model and Chicana Falsa

“Stephanie Elizondo Griest has the soul of an adventurer, the heart of a child, the wit of a jester, and the mind of a wise old woman. Lucky for us, she also has a pen.”

— Deborah Copaken-Kogan, author of Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War

“Forget about J-school. Stephanie Elizondo Griest practices journalism the way it should be practiced. I wish I could have been hiding in her suitcase at each stop along her remarkable journey.”

— Tom Miller, author of Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba

“A delightful and saucy romp through strange places and even stranger states of mind. Griest is not only an inspiration as a traveler and observer—she is darn funny too.”

— James O’Reilly, publisher, Travelers’ Tales

Around the Bloc is a page-turner. I was hooked by the second paragraph… Griest is a witty raconteur with an acute eye and amazing ability to connect with a rich collection of characters, through drink, dancing and dinning. Her four-year journey through communist capitol cities is an absorbing tale of political, social and personal discovery. She is a gutsy woman, a talented journalist and a fun travel companion. Please take me along next time!!”

— Marybeth Bond, author, Travelers’ Tales: Gutsy Women; editor, Travelers’ Tales: A Woman’s World

A chat with Stephanie Elizondo Griest (circa 2004)

1. How did a girl from Texas wind up in the Communist Bloc?

My senior year in high school, I attended a journalism conference that featured a keynote by a rockstar CNN correspondent who’d covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. His stories of Revolution marveled me. I mean, the only thing that people take to the streets and shake their fists about in South Texas is football. When he finished, I ran up to the microphone and asked how I could be a foreign correspondent just like him. He looked straight at me and said “Learn Russian.” So I did. Although I barely knew enough Spanish to talk to my abuelita, I enrolled in Russian at the University of Texas at Austin that fall and four years later jetted off to Moscow. While there, I grew obsessed with communism. How did such a seemingly utopian ideology go so terribly wrong? Between 1996 and 2000, I visited a dozen countries that experimented with communism in the 20th century, although I only write about the capitols of three — Russia, China, and Cuba — in the book.

2. So what did you do in each of those countries?

I ventured to Moscow to study the language and establish a career as a foreign correspondent. Russia had other plans in store for me, however, and I ended up volunteering at a children’s shelter and falling in love with an ex-soldier who escaped clean-up duties at Chernobyl by slitting his wrists. I set out for Beijing as a Henry Luce Scholar next, hoping to be censored and oppressed and slip political dissidents dumplings filled with subversive messages through the iron bars of their prison cells. Instead, I fought to run the Spice Girls on the entertainment page of the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, where I worked as an editor. In Havana, I belly danced with rumba queens and hung out with hip-hop artists who rapped about Revolution.

3. Were you ever scared?

Getting chased down a dark alley by a pack of drunk Russian men on the anniversary of my first month in Moscow was pretty terrifying. But my major fear factor was the reoccurring nightmare that one of my friends or colleagues might get in trouble for telling me something they shouldn’t. I grew so concerned about this in Beijing, I started self-censoring my phone calls and writing notes in such elaborate codes, I could barely understand them myself. Looking back, I realize this was paranoia: unless you’re a diplomat, foreign correspondent from a prestigious paper, or activist from a major organization, most governments could probably care less about you. At the time, though, it gave me a lot of anxiety.

4. It sounds like you had a few culinary adventures on the road. Tell us about one. 

You take a certain gastrointestinal risk when you travel, but I ate absolutely everything in Russia and never had a problem. This gave me something of an attitude — my stomach is made of steel! — so when I arrived in Beijing, I started snacking on delicacies like chicken feet and yak penis stew, again without a problem. Then a colleague invited me out for Mongolian hotpot, which consists of dangling assorted raw meats into a boiling caldron with a pair of chopsticks until cooked, then dunking them into spicy sauces and eating. The caldron burned the hell out of my fingers, though, so I didn’t let my chicken cook long enough. Big mistake. Around 2 a.m., the cramping began: contractions that literally caused me to sit up in bed and scream. Like giving birth. To Satan. That morning, a friend escorted me to the hospital, where I got diagnosed with “Beijing Belly.” The doctor told me to drink lots of Sprite and return if the cramping hadn’t subsided within 24 hours. Amazingly, at precisely 2 a.m. the following day, it did. Morale of the story: cook your Mongolian hotpot carefully!

5. In the beginning of the book, you lament the political apathy you encountered on your college campus in Texas. Indeed, one of your motivations for traveling to the Communist bloc was to see if any “Revolutionary Spirit” still lingered. Did it? 

Concepts like democracy and social justice didn’t seem terribly pressing on anyone’s mind in Russia or China in the late ’90s — at least, not among the circles I traveled in. The Muscovites I knew were more concerned about their friends and families getting bumped off by the Mafiya, while Beijingers craved economic and social stability. Only in Havana did I meet students and hip-hop artists who wished aloud that they belonged to a time defined by consciousness instead of consumerism.

Soon after I returned home from the Bloc, though, I discovered that the political activity I had sought overseas had taken root in my backyard, with the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. Two weeks after September 11, I joined the movement at a peace rally in Arizona (where I, ironically enough, got called a “fucking Commie” by a man in a truck for holding a peace sign). I’ve since grown involved with organizations like the National Coalition Against Censorship (where I run a youth activist group) and and have realized that demonstrations are not — as I once thought — romantic acts of passion. It takes a pretty dire situation to rile millions of everyday citizens out of bed to march in the cold for world peace. For example, starting an unjust war in which thousands senselessly die because of weapons that never actually existed.

Rather than lament the fact my student body was so apathetic in the early 1990s, I should have been grateful that we didn’t have quite so many heinous reasons to demonstrate.

6. You write a lot about the loss of cultural identity in both the Communist Bloc and the United States. Can you tell us what this realization meant for you as a biracial (Mexican/gringo) American?

Stalin, Mao, and Fidel tried to vanquish centuries of religion, tradition, and ritual by forcing their people to conform to socialist culture, but hundreds of thousands of citizens around the Bloc defied them. Non-ethnic Russians risked the Gulag to distribute underground samizdat printed in their native language during the Soviet regime; Uighurs and Tibetans prostrated before their gods in their officially atheist “Autonomous Provinces.” Meanwhile, back in the United States, those of us who haven’t needed to fight for our culture have often deserted it. In some ways, capitalism has done an even better job of dissolving cultures than Communism. My travels in the Bloc really forced me to question why I had never invested time or energy in my Mexican heritage. By the end of the book, I conclude that a knowledge of Spanish would gain me a greater intimacy of my people, my family, and of myself.

7. What conclusions did you draw about the “Evil Empire”?

That writing off an entire nation of people as “evil” is morally reprehensible. Corrupt individuals within it — yes. But never an entire population. My greatest fear is that the Red Scare that terrorized our nation for half a century has been replaced by the Green Scare of Islam. I cannot believe that we have learned so little from the mistakes of our past. How many people must die before the leaders of this world realize the insanity of branding entire populations “Evil”?

8. How did your travels transform your perceptions about the United States?

Having realized the devastating ways propaganda had clouded their nation’s concept of reality for so many decades, my Bloc friends were constantly challenging me to do the same, about my own. So I did — and found some pretty disconcerting similarities between our respective ideological frameworks. The Soviets revered mass murderers; we honor presidents who kept slaves, sent indigenous people on death marches, and waged brutal wars on developing nations. China’s news gets filtered through the State; ours through mega-media conglomerates. Cuba may not hold democratic elections, but can we really claim to after our disastrous 2000 presidential election? And what about our USA Patriot Act, or our clampdown on immigrants from Muslim nations, or our stifling of civil liberties, or George W. Bush’s warning to the world: “You’re either with us or against us”? Rather than point out the holes in others’ truths, I realized that I should be investigating the ones in my own.

9. You strongly advocate traveling sola for single young women. What did it teach you about yourself?

Mother Road changes each of us in profound ways. I found that as I traveled, all of the identities I spent my entire college career cultivating began to peel off one by one. My vegetarianism drowned in a bowl of yak penis soup; I compromised my feminism by putting up with men who did me wrong. I never felt less Chicana than I did in my mother’s homeland Mexico, where my Tex-Mex Spanish was barely intelligible to the people with whom I so badly wanted to connect. Traveling built within me a foundation that allows me to stroll the world’s passageways with confidence. It taught me the difference between being alone and being lonely, and made me ever selective of my company. I have become such a self-sustained, self-contained unit, I’m expecting to self-pollinate any day now.

10. What is next for Stephanie Elizondo Griest?

I’ll be spending much of 2004 traveling cross-country on my “Bloc Party” book tour and, I hope, conquering my fear of driving. (Note: if anyone sees me hyperventilating on the side of the road, please hop in and take over the wheel!) 2005 will be my year of “moving on.” If you start counting from the day I enrolled in that Russian class, I’ve been working on “Around The Bloc” for 11 years — a third of my life. I’d like to focus my future travels in Spanish-speaking nations — in particular Mexico — and attempt to regain some of what has been lost in my mother’s family’s migration to the United States. That will likely be the subject of my next book.