Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Year 2017 in Review

The Bar at Habana 162
Ugh, has it been almost a year since I last blogged? That makes me a terrible blogger. I was just reading the blog of someone I met last year who I consider a good friend and an amazing inspiration.  Melissa, who you can find at, visited El Salvador twice and made a big impression on me and everyone she met. She is a tiny, beautiful and driven force of nature and runs a multinational social media consulting agency. As a digital nomad, she is always on the move and must hit dozens of countries a year.

Melissa brunching with us in San Salvador.
I know a lot of people would love to be a digital nomad but (1) it ain't easy making a good living just on the internet and (2) changing countries every few weeks or months is more than most people can take. Melissa has these both covered and manages to do it with flair, a positive attitude, and a very serious physical disability.

The ladies dancing at the Katrina (formerly Don Qiote on Paseo del Carmen)

Anyways, she found me through this blog which makes her the second very interesting globe trotter that I have met through this site. The other is Mark who is currently heading from Nairobi to Mombasa by second class train.

A coffee shop built into a VW Combee on Paseo del Carmen
Melissa was in town to visit a local contact she had made and connected with me through my blog. We met for dinner and hit it off quite well (she enjoyed me sitting under this very large picture of a boy peeing on my head) so ended up hanging out some more. She came down again quite recently on her way to Cuba. I did some advance work for her but wasn’t able to change my schedule to hand out in Havana with her.

I am sure she was laughing all meal, watching this kid pee on me.
It has been a busy year and managed to make it up to Toronto quite a few times during the summer. I went up with Stefan who came up from Brasilia to do my usual Toronto, Ottawa/Montreal, and Owen Sound tour. Oh, and as it was his first time in Canada, Niagara Falls as well.

Yes, the beautiful Niagara Falls and Stefan, both behind me!
He wanted to try all of the typical Canadian foods so that included some good barbecue at Stacks on Yonge Street. We got the platter that is covered in ribs, pulled pork, bbq chicken, brisket and about 3 lbs of fries, bread, baked beans and mac and cheese ... and with the help of Rene and Nancy, we finished it!

At Stacks and I think Rene was willing more food to appear.
Also in Ottawa we hit my two favourite places. Fritomania in Orleans where the Vietnamese owner spent 16 years perfecting one dish. He fresh cuts fries, makes a deep and delicious home made gravy, and then layers the curds and bacon through the fries to make an amazing poutine.

The chef owner of Fritomania. A man who revels in perfecting and doing one thing very very well.
Also met up with Claudio in his old stomping grounds. We went to the Italian festival and ended up at the Prescott for tall beers and pizza.

Claudio holding court at his old stomping (literally) grounds with Stefan, Rob and Tracey.
But my local friends there, Chris and Tracey, joined us and told me to try the meatball sandwich. I was a bit skeptical when it came out - it was two meatballs between two slices of white bread, with some gruyere melted in side, and covered in spaghetti sauce. But I was so wrong. It was a delicious meat on meat experience with lots of melted cheese. I will go back everytime I am in Ottawa.

Thank you Chris for introducing me to this beauty. Well, maybe not a beauty, it looks like a dog's breakfast but it was delicious!
Also managed to de a beer run to the Marché Gravelle, Le roi de la bière for a car load of cheap beer.

Officer, I did not transport this beer over provincial lines.
And the weekend coincided with a beer festival at Landsdowne Park.

My son Elliot was coincidentally in town and we met, of course, at a beer festival.
Back in Ontario, we made it to Sushimoto so that Stefan could experience the glory of the extra large sushi/sashimi boat.

Stefan holding the boat.

Maria Jose trying to make friends with the boat.
Also made it there with subsequent visits with Maria Jose and Crystal visiting from Havana.

Crystal finally meeting the boat.
I also took Stefan and Warren to Lahore Tikka on the Danforth where Stefan said he had the first authentic Indian/Pakistani food since he lived in Delhi.

Thumbs up to authentic curries! 
And, interestingly, to Owen Sound where Jeff has perfected the cooking of picanhas, Brazil’s favourite cut of meat.

O mestre de picanha!
Instead of grilling the outside and taking half cooked slices off, he cooks it in a very hot covered bbq and then lets it rest in a Dutch Oven so that it is perfectly rare in the middle.

Rare picanha with farofa and kimchi.
I don't often talk to people on planes but this year, I made three friends on various Avianca planes. On one, I was seated by a lovely woman named Candida who was, sadly, in El Salvador for the funeral of her mother. We were talking about Toronto where she had lived for more than 20 years and she mentioned that she worked at a Portugese food store. Turns out, it is the Nosso Talho and they have the best Black Angus picanhas for an amazing price. I think I bought about 15 pieces last year, all for Jeff to cook.

And I met the lovely and charming Linda Houle in Bogota and she was game enough to take the Transmillenium down to Restrepo for some leather shopping and lunch. And we ended up ... of course at a Bogota Brewing Company pub.


I was visiting my good friend of many years, Karin, who I first met in Havana 20 years ago. Linda was visiting Jennifer who is at the Embassy and lived around the corner. We all made it to one of those private restaurants with no signs that had a Mexican tasting menu with some great interesting innovative foods.

Eating fancy Mexican in Candelaria.
I was able to meet up again with Linda in Montreal, along with Fatima and her daughter Maria Jose. And we were joined by another friend who moved to Montreal from Bogota, Natalia.

Natalia and me in la Colombe drinking our own wine.
We ate at a great set menu place called La Colombe which had a BYOB policy which we took full advantage with two bottles of bubbly and four more bottles of wine. In retrospect, probably a bit much for 6 people. Then a lovely walk through the nearby park and through the streets. Linda, a former opera singer, graced us with a rendition of O Mio Babino Caro on Duluth. We managed to make it to the very trendy Majestique bar on St. Laurent where the girls made eyes at the very handsome mixologist, David, recently transplanted from Vancouver.

At the Majestique with David at the bar.
We had a great AirBnB in Mile End, very close to Natalia and walking distance to everywhere we wanted to go. We were also around the corner from St. Viateur Bagel so we had lox, onions, capers, cream cheese and bagel brunches. We grabbed some on the way out of town and I sent Fatima and Maria Jose in. Turns out the baker is from Mexico and the counter guy was from Colombia so Maria got a free bagel!

Maria Jose with a shop full of latinos.
I also learned something very important about Montreal. If you go to Schwartz’s before noon, you can get a parking spot in the street in front of the restaurant and get a table without lining up!

Linda and  me posing with our sandwiches.

So we all met up again for lunch the next day for some amazing smoked meat sandwiches (extra fatty again for me), fries and two kinds of dill pickles.

The ladies with their sammies.

Wrapping up my trips to Owen Sound, I spent a few days helping put up this gorgeous cedar fence with Darren of

Daniela showing off her skills.

It amounted to cutting boards, sanding and staining them, then hanging and nailing. We also drilled fence posts with a crazy gas powered auger, mixed concrete and set posts. It was, by far, the most tiring job I have done in 30 years. I actually had to go into the kitchen mid-morning to eat some food to fuel my body since I had no energy whatsover. It was a great experience and makes me appreciate my desk job, pecking away at a keyboard and moving paper from the printer into file folders.

The fence a third of the way finished.
Highlights in Canada including a visit to Coffin Ridge Winery near Owen Sound. They had big Muskoka Chairs!

Coffin Ridge!
And we had several flights of wine. Delicious!

Jeff wearing Fatima's hat against the harsh summer sun.
Havana wrap up ... I think I was there for work about 7 times. Mistimed one trip so I was caught by Hurricane Irma. My plane was supposed to leave on the day that it hit so it was obviously cancelled. I was staying in Vedado with Delia which was a good thing since she was in a cast for a broken leg and needed someone to keep her company.

Her house is in a good place in Vedado, high above the hill and well away from any flooding or storm surge and close to hospitals so on a high priority electrical grid. Initially, Irma was supposed to head north to Miami well before coming close to Havana. I planned on being without power for 24 hours and planned accordingly - made sure the cisterns will full of water, had a few packages of pasta and 24 beers on ice in a cooler. That may sound a bit nonchalant but I have been through 4 major hurricanes and what you need to do is stay inside when it hits and then you have to bear through the aftermath of between one and five days without power. Hence easy to cook food and cold beer. Sitting in a tropical country after a hurricane with no power (which means no fans or air conditioning), being hot and a bit stressed out, nothing is better than an ice cold beer.

We lost power the day before Irma hit.  I think the blowing winds knocked a tree branch that took down a cable. Amazing, the electrical company was by in the morning to fix the line. It was amazing as I thought all the crews had headed to the interior of the island where the storm was expected to hit hard. Then around 6:00 pm, the company shut down power to the whole city to protect the grid from the storm. Instead of sweeping north, Irma kept creeping west towards us so she gave us a good grazing before finally making the turn to Florida. The tree in front of Delia’s house was badly damaged when some idiot thought it would be funny to torch it. The branches were well weakend and Delia had made several requests to the city to cut the branches down before they fell down. The city said they had to get the electrical company involved to shut down the high voltage lines so it never got done.

Of course Irma knocked all the branches down and the biggest one was laying right on top of the cables. This being Cuba, a bunch of neighbours came by with step ladders and machetes and hacked at the branch, laying on top of a high voltage cable, and finally pushed it off.

Before, not looking great.
After the first day, the power was restored to Calle 25, just below us, so we were hopeful that we would get our power back. My two cell phones, laptop, tablet and bluetooth speaker were out of juice so we went by a friend’s hair salon to charge out devices. We were welcomed very nicely and had to get creative on charging since there were already about 9 other people there from the hood charging their devices.

After, looking just terrible.
We had hoped for a 24 hour loss but it turned out to be double that. We had Delia’s new choreographer staying with us, Jose, and visits by Santiago and Maria. We played a lot of dominoes, smoked a lot of cigars, drank a lot of beer and rum, and ate a lot of pasta. The worse thing that happened was we ran out of beer so we made a run and got two more cases.

Santiago, Jose, Maria and Delia playing dominoes. Again.
But we got our power back after 48 hours and became a centre of respite to many of our friends who didn’t get their power back for another two to three days. We kept our fridge fool of cold beer, had lots of rum and cigars, made lots more pasta and kept a domino game going of the time.

Sharing our power, cold beer and food.
Here are some random shots in Havana. Someone took a delivery of concrete blocks ... delivered on three bicycles.

Yes, how you deliver cinder blocks in Cuba.
And went to Havana as a guide/fixer for my friend Edgardo from San Salvador and four Korean Canadian dudes from Toronto.

Edgardo about to enjoy his first Pizza Bella Ciao
Everyone just fell in love with Cuba and I like to think I was a good guide and took care of everyone well.

Elena on a work trip from Miami!
Oh, and ran into an old dear friend, Elena, randomly at Starbien. Great seeing her but also sad that they shut down this great paladar and put the owner in jail.

Korean homies from Toronto enjoying Maracuya daquiries at Chacon 162

Celebrated a rare birthday in Havana. Knowing it would be challenging, I invited my friends to Tien Tan in Miramar to have their Mongolian Hot Pot. On a hot night. With no a/c or fans. And yes, it was very hot but I very much appreciated Matt lying to my face and saying it was a delicious dinner instead of saying that it was one of the worst meals he has had in Havana.

Birthday dinner with the offending Mongolia hot pot front and centre.
Had a visit from Bill and Susan from Perth whom I have not seen in 30 years! Amazingly, as important as they both became in Western Australia, they were still the same friendly and warm people that I knew back in Toronto when we all lived in the UofT Married Residence.

Bill and Susan in front of the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso
Caught this cruise ship slipping through the channel and out into the gulf. There was another cruise ship waiting to take its spot. Lots of ships but a lot less tourists in Havana. We heard there were enormously high vacancy rates in Havana since the American tourists stopped coming after the rules were changed for them. And since the Cubans tripled their hotel prices, none of the European or Canadian vacation packagers bought blocks of rooms so they stayed mostly empty.

One of many cruise ships visiting Havana
From Central America, discovered this great sandwich at La Taberna, a beer hall near the Zona Rosa. Ian and I have shared many of these.

Ian and me enjoying a $10 sandwich
Also made it to Guatemala City with Fatima for Brandon and Laura’s Robbie Burns dinner, complete with 12 types of whiskey and a flaming haggis.

Looking back over 2017 with all the great meals and the 50 flights to ten different countries, the thing that makes me happiest was connecting with friends from different countries, often meeting in different places. To see someone you are fond of in one country with its distinct climate, culture and vibe and then seeing them somewhere else is a great and interesting thing. Hope to see lots more friends in lots more places in 2018.

A wise pint glass at the Irish Pub in Usaquen.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Santiago and la Habana

The Andes from Providencia
 Another trip to Santiago and still lots of new and cool things to do. Everyone says the city is great except for the terrible pollution. I have been very lucky to be there on clearer days and in the picture above, you can actually see the ski village in the Andes.

Didn't make it to the Mercado Central but we did go to the big seafood wholesale market about half an hour from the Providencia neighbourhood.
Awesome fish and seafood market!
Shocking prices for seafood! Well, I wasn't surprised that salmon was about $5/lb but we got a kilogram of big white clams for $1.50! If I lived in Santiago, I would be eating seafood all the time. Probably better that I don't since my GF is allergic to shellfish.
Scallops gratinado and champagne. Why not?
Elizabeth worked her magic and after quite a bit of work cleaning, rinsing and prepping, we had scallops and mussels gratinados. White wine, garlic butter, parmesan cheese and toasted bread crumbs. And giant plates full.
And Mussels!
I also did a simple white wine, olive oil, onion and garlic clam steam that was quite tasty.

I try to be a low maintenance guest and don't expect people to spend hours driving me places ... but my hosts were kind enough to take me out into wine country. After a lot of research, we settled on a country estate and a very small vineyard.
The parking lot of the estate ... as far as we got.
The estate was lovely, from the outside, but after being told that we could come and visit, the idiot guard said there was a private function and we couldn't go in. We waited for 15 minutes as he called up from the gate trying to find out if we could just walk around the grounds (well before the event) and we finally said f*ck it and left.

We drove by many vineyards including the ginormous Concha y Toro installation ... but didn't stop. I wasn't interested in seeing big coaches and hordes of tourists. We finally ended up on a very small and deserted road and came up to a gate guarded by probably the oldest person working for G4S. He looked like he was 80 years old!

He checked us off a very short list and sent us up through the fields of grape vines and up to this beautiful estate. We parked and made our way up to the restaurant.
Lovely wine with our afternoon snack.
It only had about 10 tables and was about a third full. We were early for our tour and tasting so we decided to have a light snack washed down with a fantastic bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.

We finished up and went to find our tour guide who happened to be hostess at the restaurant and cashier, I think. We stepped out and she walked us through to the vines and ... was surprised to see that our tour group was just us! She said that there were two other people but they would catch up a bit later.
Our awesome guide Salome
Our wonderful guide Salome told us about Haras de Pirque, where the owner combined his love of horses and wine to create a beautiful vineyard in the Maipo Valley. She told us about the grapes and the soil and how this lovely valley and rolling hills created a great micro-climate for producing outstanding grapes. Its true that wine only comes from beautiful places.

It was so peaceful and serene and quiet. Salome said she lived in the area and only did tours once a week but wished she could work there every day. The grape harvest was coming up in a few weeks so it would be all hands on deck and she, and everyone else in the valley, would be working.
Salome has taken quite of few of these shots.
We tasted the almost fully ripe grapes, cab sauvignon, carmenere, sauv blanc and they were tiny and very sweet. Then a tour of the plant and checked out the giant wooden barrels. The building was in the shape of a horseshoe and the fountain in the middle had a glass bottom ... that was the skylight for the underground cellar and tasting room.

We finally met up with the other two people just before heading to the tasting room. Lovely couple from Wyoming doing a wine tour of Chile and Argentina. She was a vegetarian chef/owner of Sweet Melissa's in Laramie. How cool is that? But too bad she is going to miss out on the seafood and beef in the area! That is why I believe strongly in being a flexitarian so you can enjoy everything life has to offer.
Inside the horseshoe and looking over the fountain.
 Salome set out some very lovely glasses and had us try four wines. The final one was a 10 year old cabernet sauvignon that had tremendous presence with its colour, bouquet and quite a refined flavour. She only poured about an ounce each and there was a ton left in the bottle so I asked if I could have a bit more and she said "no." Ha ha, no hard feelings, I had a lot of wine that day. And very charmingly, like the young Concha y Toro woman at the wine festival, Salome liked cigars! So I gave her a couple of nice Habanos that I was carrying around. And I also said I would come back with a bottle of Canadian ice wine since she had never tried that and was curious.
In the tasting room.
So meeting Salome was probably as interesting as visiting my first Chilean vineyard. It was wonderful to meet someone with such a passion for wines who was able to enjoy living and working in such a beautiful, tranquil, and isolated ... almost fairyland, full of positive energy. They were recently bought by Antinori, the giant Italian wine conglomerate but I think they are taking a light hand with their management.

Danny keeping me well supplied with good beer.
Such a short visit and on my last day, I walked up to Avenida Providencia and met up with Dany, Marisol and Mia. Dany is quite the Chilean gourmand and brought me to Tip y Tap for some traditional food.
Some of my favourite foods in the world, all on one plate.
I had this nice appetizer with grilled shrimps and veggies and smoked salmon. 
More raw meat! And chips.
Then steak tartar, french fries, and artesanal beer. Frickin yum!
Mia, my charming luncheon companion.
Also managed to grill some delicious rib eyes and various types of kimchee washed down by some kick ass wines. And then off on the red eye to Lima where they let me stay in the lounge for my eight hour layover rather "inviting" me to re-register  (i.e. pay money) after my four hour Star Alliance allowance ran out! Still, it was a long trip and I was relieved to get to Havana where a cold beer and a cigar was waiting for me.
Del Frente, before the lunching hipsters rush.
Just briefly, had a nice meal at El Frente but it is getting too crowded with American hipsters! Ate three times at Bella Ciao, once at Nero de Seppia. 
Not Tibetan monks but cold Canadians.
Went to Cocinero on one very cold night (which meant we could actually get into the place, frickin American hipsters ruining another place) and they kindly handed out orange fleece blankets so we could stand being there. Also went to 4You for some drinks where, if you can believe it, we ran into a crowd of about 12 wannabe hipsters from Buffalo, NY! Then it dawned on me ... spring break in Havana. Yikes.
Danny back at Meson de la Flota!

Great to see everyone back together.
  Highlight was seeing Danny Villalonga coming back from Ecuador to dance flamenco with Ana Rosa of Grupo Ecos! Haven't seen them dance together for about 7 years.
Flamenco a second night at Tablao under the Gran Teatro.
My last chance to see Grupo Ecos before their 6 month tour in Turkey.
Had many late nights and closed Fabrica de Arte at 3 am and then closed another bar in Miramar at 4:15 am. Huge line up as usual at FAC but some of our compatriots have VIP cards so no waiting, no cover and we could go out onto the terrace of the VIP bar and smoke cigars. Have to get me one of those.

Hmm, apparently we are the hipsters at FAC.

Notable new restaurant, the Buena Vista Curry Club. I haven't mentioned it before since they only had a soft opening with a partial menu. But they now have Vindaloos, Butter Chicken (which was very tasty), and Tikka Masala (of course) to go with all their roast meats. They brought two Tandoor ovens from India along with Vilmar, the Indian hotel trained chef. He makes great Naan bread. And the best part, the place is cigar friendly! I brought some kimchi making supplies for the chef and they gave me one of the owner's giant custom cigars and a Chai Rum for dessert. And the kicker is, they have a large live band playing on the mezzanine that is a bit too loud BUT they have the last remaining orchestra member of the Benny More Orchestra. That is amazing.

Delia waiting for the curry!
The week also saw the baptism of my best friend Delia's son Jose, now residing in Miami. 

Enjoying cigars and the terrace with Pedro.
So Pedro came down from Toronto and I got to meet Christy's lovely adopted daughter Ester who now live in Rome. Lester was also down from Toronto with his two great kids Diego and Isla and it was awesome getting together with everyone at Delia's house (where I lived for about 7 years). 

The lovely senoritas Ester and Isla.
And another old friend of the house saw Lester's FB post on his way from Bolivia that same day and came by to play dominoes. 

Wonderful to sit out on the terrace with many bottles of rum, big cigars, and the family playing dominoes!

Jose's lovely wife Arlin

First time in 20+ years I have seen any of this family in a church!

Everyone in their Sunday best.

The Priest's assistant was a bit casually dressed ... Miami Heat sweatshirt, shouldn't be a surprise!
So made it for the first five minutes of the baptism before I had to head for the airport but that was nice to see as well.

Then after some ridiculous travel days, a short two hour flight home to San Salvador.