Saturday, June 6, 2009

From San Salvador to Havana

The Malecón on a warm summer night
I know this is a Blog about El Salvador but I was in Havana last week and wanted to talk a little about my old home. Went there for a blessedly short one week stay and, you know what? It wasn’t that bad.
The Cubans are being very careful about Swine Flu. Maybe half the people in the arrivals corral are masked and they handed out forms before immigration. The immigration woman said I didn’t have to fill it out, then I went through, had my bags x-rayed and then Public Health stopped me and said to fill out the card. I did but I was carrying stuff and my writing was terrible so the nurse was kind enough to redo some of the info. Then she asked me the same questions that were on my form ... which I answered "no" to all of and then she let me past. Got my giant bags full of car parts and diapers and food and hot sauces and dancers stockings and got stopped by customs for having large and heavy bags. The woman asked what I had and I shrugged and said clothes ... and she said "and" ... and I said and "food" ... and she said "and" .... and I said, and toilet paper? Ding ding ding! Right word and she said, go through.
Out into the hot and humid Havana night, a bit of rain falling. Got home and straightened out my stuff and got to sleep after a cigar and most of a bottle of rum with the British guy subletting my place.
Ah, Havana ... incredibly bad Internet, safest streets in Latin America, my fish guy very nervous about delivering lobster tails to me since he thinks they are installing surveillance cameras at the corner, kids playing in the parks all day and into the evenings without any parental supervision, taking it up the bum on cell phone charges, going out for drinks and having a sandwich and fries, two cocktails, a beer, three double rums, two Baileys and two juices (the latter for the Jinateras that tried to chat us up) for a tab of $23, my assistant being late two hours for an important meeting and arriving frazzled after calling the taxi company about a dozen times, and walking home a bit wobbly at 5:00 in the morning (twice) through dark streets carrying a wallet full of cash, my iPod and camera after playing dominoes and not having a whisper of a problem.
So I ate pretty well. Went to a newish paladar (private licensed restaurant) calle La Paila just south of 51 on 88B in Marianao. Of course it is stupidly hard to find because they took the sign down to get fixed. We had to call two different people to get vague directions to even come close to it. But it was worth the hunt. I had a very tender octopus starter with toasted garlic with a basil sauce and then their Cuban beef filet with a blue cheese sauce drizzled with chocolate. Tasty! Then a shot of Barrel Proof Havana Club and a complementary cigar. Also made it to El Aljibe and filled up on their rice and beans and delicious roast chicken ... oh, succumbed to the German french fries as well. Also had a nice meal at El Template at the harbour.
Meetings in Old Havana, meeting in Vedado and no taxis around so I walked from La Rampa to Calzada y C - maybe about 20 minutes. It was so nice to just walk around since it is a bit risky for a gringo (or a chino) to walk around San Salvador.
A bit of flooding in Vedado - note the funny black pod on the pole,
neighbours think it is a surveillance camera
Weather was great but we had a couple of good soakings. My place is near the ocean and at the bottom of the hill where a lot of Vedado is so when it rains, the water comes streaming down and makes little rivers of water on the south to north roads. It flooded the underground garage a bit not nothing too bad ... only a problem if we get heavy rains for 6 hours straight. A lot of the city floods and one time I was driving and the water was cresting the top of my hood. For a crappy old Nissan Sentra, that is a challenge. Two things will get you through that much water - keep gunning the engine so air is constantly being blown out the exhaust and hope that a bunch of kids will come to your aid and push you through - and tip well afterwards.

Happy diaper recipients in Plaza Vieja

My second last day was a lot of fun. Went down to Old Havana to deliver a big box of diapers and wet wipes to a friend. Hung out with her and had several coffees in a great café in Plaza Vieja, opposite from the Austrian brew pub. Had a couple of capuccinos which were very tasty.

Another view of Plaza Vieja - the apartment where my friends live
Then a couple of friends visiting for the weekend met up with me and we had lunch and then went to the artisanal market in Old Havana. They were hemming and hawing a bit so I yelled at them to buy something - buy art, photos, it was all so cheap. I ended up getting three photos including a hilarious one of a woman in a laundromat staring down Che. The prices were sooo cheap for the photos - $15 for a large one of the Malecon and $10 for the 8x10s that I almost felt like offering more. I bought two paintings as well - a little tourist throwaway that must have taken literally five minutes to paint but it was $15 and really evocative of Havana and the other was a much more complex arty piece painted by the former historian of the Camaguey Ballet - the vendor wanted $100 and said it was negotiable so I offered $80 and he said $90 so I said $80 and he said $85 and I said $80 was fair and if I could have started at $60 if he wanted to play games. So $80 it was.
Then off with the friends for some libations at the Café Oriente for some fancy cocktails including their Adam and Eve which, bizarrely, won first prize at the International Cocktail competition a few years ago. I have the recipe from a feature we did for Cubaplus magazine a few years ago:
Havana Club 7 Years Old: 30 ml
Green Apple Liquor: 20 ml
Martini Bianco (white vermouth): 20 ml
Campari Bitter: 5 ml
Stir with ice and serve straight up in a chilled martini glass. Garnish with two apple hearts pierced by an arrow and placed on the rim of the glass.
The bartender who came up with this drink wasn’t there and the guy filling in was too lazy to cut two hearts but he did make a nice one out of papaya.

My best friend Delia

I split to go home to prep for a party at Delia’s house. Delia is my best friend in Cuba, a roommate of many years, and the person I would go to if I ever had a really serious problem ... like several years ago when I was involved in a traffic accident when I hit a young girl who ran in front of my car. Delia held my hand when I met with the police, when I found my lawyer, she paid my bail, and then went with me to Cien y Aldobo (the Lubyanka of Cuba, the headquarters of the police and secret police and the most feared place in Cuba) where I signed my detention order and, after showing proof that I had payed my bail, flipped it over to sign my release order [when we finally went to trial, the prosecutor was saying it was my fault and asked for a sentence of two years of limitation of my liberty (which is not imprisonment or even house arrest but that I couldn’t leave Cuba for two years - weird!) but after all the witnesses spoke, the judge withdrew the charges ... whew!).
Cuban chicas at the party

On the other hand, whenever Delia needed someone at her back, I was there. I payed for her wedding reception when she was in a dry spot business-wise. I went to Toronto when she was there visiting her son and acted as her chauffeur and hand fed her sushi for a week.
So I asked if I could have a party for my friends at her house ... and kind of forgot it was her birthday a few days after and said "it’s a party for your birthday" and she’s like "you forgot my birthday again." But no harm no foul and we decided to go ahead with it. A friend cooked a 30 lb leg of lamb, Delia made the salsa, I brought the tortillas and cheese and made a mole sauce for the pulled pork. Also brought cans of corn and jalapenos for a spicy topping and 30 lobster tails for grilling. Now the lobster in Cuba can be delicious and is generally cheaper than hamburger (which costs more since it is imported and the lobster is caught just off the shore). The problem with ordering in restaurants is that they tend to cook it for about 15 minutes more than they should. Also, when you buy it in the streets, they always always say it is fresh but it ain’t always the case. This time, they were great. Fresh and sweet and very white. I made a basting sauce out of garlic, extra virgin olive oil and butter, showed Jan how to butterfly and clean out the thingee, and grilled them until just barely done. Well, probably overcooked a few but I was running around trying to get the taco buffet set up, saying hi to new arrivals, and I was so busy I forgot to take pictures!

30 lobster tails ready for the grill

Delia was screwing around shooting tequila (we gave her two bottles of the good stuff for presents) so while all the food was out, none of the tortillas were. So people were loading up the plates with all the taco fixings without tacos and - the horror - were putting all the condiments on top of the lobsters. I guess they thought that the cooked lobster looked a little bare. Oh, and most people were putting grated cheese on the lobsters as well. I tried not to freak even when my friend Carlos came back with a cheese covered tail and asked for a refire ... which I did without stabbing him with the tongs and he made me try it and ... it .... was ... delicious. So f**k me, I’ll have to try that next time ... some kind of modified lobster rockefella skank with cheese and spinach or something.

Danny and Ana Rosa flamencoing

Party was going well but we were running out of beer. I had brought two cases and asked the foreign invitees to bring beer but almost no one did. I should explain that Cuba is probably the only country in Latin America (maybe even in the world) where a working man can’t leave work and have a cold beer. And that is because the vast majority of beer (and all the good stuff) is sold in Convertible Pesos and costs about a dollar which is two days average pay! So most Cubans can’t afford to drink a lot of beer and when it is at parties, it goes fast. I felt kind of bad that we were short but I also bought a case of good rum so it wasn’t like people were short of booze.

Miguel singing his heart out to an appreciative crowd

I had invited some good friends that have a flamenco dance company. Normally, I just invite them to hang out (I used to be their business manager and patron) and the girls are terribly addicted to chocolate which I always have at parties. This time I asked if they would do a few numbers and they said they would be happy to do so. They came with a singer, guitarist and three dancers and after they ate, we moved around some furniture and they did a great, intimate, and funny performance that everyone loved. I paid them with a four pound bag of Hershey minis ... but got hit up for a donation of $300 to buy stuff for staging their next performance which they are going to use for their very first ever tour outside of Cuba! They are off to Greece for month this winter ... so if anyone is in Greece and needs tickets, let me know.
So the party went on for a while. It was actually very small since Delia and I only invited close friends. We had maybe 40 people and there was some dancing and a lot of drinking and then some dominoes - which is the true national sport of Cuba. High spirited play, some really mean spirited bad winners who really rubbed the losers faces into it (which is very normal for Cuba), some tears, spilled rums, numerous delicious cigars, a lot of laughter ... and then the walk home at 5:00 a.m. If you have never experienced a party in Havana, you are really missing out.

One of my favourite photos of Grupo Ecos - snapped at the Teatro Mella during a weekend run where they played for 12,000 people

Next day had some final meetings and the head of the flamenco company came to take me to the airport. This was the deal for me buying car parts for him - an obligation that I feel that I have since it used to be my car. I used to have a registered office in Havana and had a couple of cars. When you-know-who said there were too many foreigners in Cuba, they decided to kick out half the companies including all the foreign lawyers so I lost my Audi to the police in a really ridiculous charade of governmental b.s. The Nissan we held onto until I was stopped by the cops (who had big lists of all the cars they were hunting down). I had to go to an office on the coast in Miramar and I sat there, in the shade with a nice ocean breeze, reading a book. I ended up chilling out for 8 hours which made the police very nervous that I wasn’t getting upset over the delay in processing my repo. Every few hours someone would come out and say the wait was almost over. At the end, some high ranking guy gave me a letter and apologized that I could only have 3 days to sell the car before I had to turn it in. I was shocked and amazed that they were even giving me the chance to drive away in it!

When Hurricane Wilma came to town - Parque Almadeo Roldan from my balcony

So I put the car in the garage and kind of forgot about doing anything about it for a year until Hurricane Wilma blew past Havana and threw an 18' storm surge at us which required us to move the car. During hurricanes, you can basically do whatever you want with your car. You can leave it in the middle of a public park, drive the wrong way on any road, and drive around without license plates ... and the police won’t bother you. We ended up putting the car up the street on Calle C between maybe 13 and 15 which was a good idea since our garage completely filled up with water. It took about 3 days for the water to recede and to clean out the garage and Fatima went to put the car back in the garage ... and started it but then the car ran out of gas, right in front of the Chinese Embassy. When she got back with a pop bottle full of gas, there were two security cars and a cop car waiting for her. They said they had their eye on the suspicious Sentra with no plates for days. Fatima called me asking me to bring the car documents which I happened to have in one folder. I brought it to them, they spent 30 minutes reviewing the documents and calling in on their radios and I said goodbye again to my trusty old 1989 Nissan Sentra (solidly built in Japan for the Canadian market) and, bizarrely, the cops handed back the documents and said I could go! So figuring that I had to do something with it, I decided to give it to my friend, the director of the Flamenco company, since he was getting around on buses and a bicycle. The transfer needed to be signed off by two vice-ministers (of Foreign Investment and Culture) which took a long time ... and 8 months later, the car was his!
So I got a drive in the Nissan to the airport. He has a general permit to go there but not a specific one to drop me off so we went into the parking lot and walked to the terminal in the rain rather than have him being stopped by the cops and questioned. Everything was fine but they were renovating the duty free shop and had moved half the cigars to the gate shop and I was sent there and then they tried to send me back but I held firm and got my cigars! Poor woman at the cigar counter was trying to do all the math in her head since they cash register had been turned off ... I hope she isn’t short too much money at the end of the day. Last funny thing to happen was watching the baggage coming off the plane I was going to board. One guy went into the hold and another guy was on the other end of the conveyor belt chucking bags into a truck. And he was being supervised by 4 people! At one point, it even got up to five. After the truck was full and drove off, the next truck was late in coming so the guy inside the hold came out and was metal detector wanded by one of the supervisors! So I guess he could only steal something made out of plastic or glass. One reason for all this security is that the Canadian travel agents association complained to the Cuban Government that they had been receiving numerous complaints of bags being broken into - so they added security to watch the supervisors who watch the workers. Ah, Cuba.

One worker, four supervisors

Flight was fine although the airline appears to be cutting costs and is buying food from the Havana flight kitchen. I was given a plate of lasagna that was so large that it was oozing over the sides of the plate. The bread was stale and the cake dried out but I didn’t touch those since I barely finished the lasagna and had indigestion for the rest of the flight. Reminiscent of Cubana’s "Tropical" class which was kind of like a business class but not really. On those flights, economy passengers would be given a tray of food with various edible and inedible objects ... and Tropical class passengers would get ... two trays!

Bus class meal ... Cuban style

We had to stop at the ridiculous San Jose airport which was apparently designed by someone who has never actually flown before.
El Salvador was great and I was third off the plane, second through immigration, and miraculously, my bags came out first and second on the conveyor belt. I have mixed feelings about this - with the amount of luck I had with that, I figure that I will never win a lottery in my life.
Back home and it is great here. Had some good beef, KFC one night, made a red Thai curry with coconut milk, leeks, zucchini, bamboo shoots, baby corn, wiskil (small soft squash), green onions, jalapeno, and fresh basil leaves over jasmine rice. And lots of good cold beer.

After living in Cuba for 13 years, I normally am not excited about going back but this was a good trip. Saw most of my friends and lamented/celebrated all those Cuban friends that now live abroad. I acted more like a tourist than normal and ate out a lot and I suppose that is why I enjoyed my trip. So if you haven't made it to Cuba yet, definitely go and go soon before it gets worse/better!


  1. Hopefully the travel restrictions would be rescinded and people from the US can freely travel to Cuba soon. Sounds like you lived in some interesting places. I'd love to go to Cuba and many places in Central and South America. Right now, my kid (soon to be kids) is too young for any serious travel. Food is always the centerpiece of any travel I have done. Live well.

  2. I have heard that the new administration has removed any funds that were on hand to prosecute Americans travelling to Cuba ... so while there is a prohibition from spending money in Cuba (I think under the Trading with the enemy Act) there should be no negative consequences. You should try to go before all the changes happen and it becomes even more f**ked up.