Saturday, November 7, 2009

Havana and Back to San Salvador

John preparing to whiff on a ball
I had my first visitor of the year! John came down from Ottawa to visit his kids in Guate and took the bus over to San Salvador. We got in two rounds of golf at Veraneras and ate some fine meals. I took him to the Mercado Antiguo Cuscutlan - the very local market/restaurant/bar that serves all the interesting local stuff. He had the seafood soup and loved it. We asked what was the base of the stock, expecting to be told that it was boiled fish heads and bones with lots of shrimp and lobster shells ... but sadly, my favourite waitress brought out a package of Knorr Mariscada soup base!
Then off to Cuba for a business for a week and had a pretty good time. Havana is a great place for tourists to visit but not as nice if you have to live there. That goes for both the Cubans and the foreigners living there. Two of my friends lost the plates for their car when their companies weren’t renewed (this happened to two cars of mine a few years ago). There is also a lot of nervousness verging on panic due to the new restrictions of the repatriation of funds. The Government is doing it because they have no money but this has also meant that there is very little new money coming into the country ... except for American companies who were in town for the Havana International Fair. It boggles the mind that some companies still think that they can come to Cuba with deep pockets, sell products to Cuba with very thin margins, develop good relations, and then sell long term. If you are one of these companies, good luck!
Outdoor dining area at the Club Habana - see the container ship and
the Cuban National Sailing Team on the horizon

Highlights of the trip would be going to El Aljibe and being driven by a beautiful diplomat in her beautiful 2009 Jeep Grand Cherokee which is like being in a Rolls in any other country. Then meeting a friend at the Jazz Café on Paseo and being allowed in without paying the cover and seeing Irakere playing with a visiting Japanese kick ass percussionist. Then knocking back Glenfiddich at $2.50 for a long pour until the bottle was empty. Walking home along the Malecon at 3:00 in the morning with beers in hand.

Rene and me enjoying single malts and cigars while the Grammy winning jazz group Irakere plays 30 feet away.

My Cuban friend from Toronto was down visiting his sister who had just had a baby so I met him in Havana with 400 diapers bought at the Costco in San Salvador. Handily, he had rented a car (a tiny little Hyundai that looked like a toy. It was so narrow that our elbows were touching) so he helped out with some party purchases. We went to a store around Calzada and D and I asked for 60 cans of beers. There was one woman at the cooler cashier and she, and a 7 year old girl, loaded the beers into some empty cases. You can imagine how long this took and the lineup that developed behind us. A woman waiting started chatting with us and tried to get us to buy some nice yucca she had. Another woman, who I think worked at the store, came over to see what was going on and asked if we were having a party and if she could come. As pretty as she was, I didn’t think that that was a good idea.
Poaching lobster in butter. Actually, more like deep frying.
Then served in a delicious taco.

I was able to get 40 lobster tails but no cabbage. Grilled some tails with some red snappers on a charcoal bbq on my terrace. Delish. Then did butter poached lobster with homemade refried beans on a flour tortilla with fresh pico de gallo with cilantro. Double delish. Dominoes and salsa to round out the night. The partying got a bit away from us since I went over around 1:00 pm and we started drinking beer and Don Julio tequila and we didn’t stop until 1:00 am.

A light dinner in Havana

Coming back was a bit hectic as I had to fly through San Jose and Guatemala City on the way home to El Salvador. I did this to avoid a long stop over in SJO and also because Guate has a great duty-free store. They always have a buy one and the second one is half price deal going on. I have seen this for tequillas and champagnes and this time it was for whiskey and perfume.
A whack of Johnny Blue and stuff for only $210 in Guatemala.
Hope it isn't all Chinese knock-offs!

Arriving in San Salvador, it was hot and humid but great to be home. I told the guy at immigration that my residency card was still pending an investigation (of exactly what the heck I actually do in this country ... which is mostly cook and play golf) and I didn’t know the status. He was kind enough to leave his desk to go to an office to find out and found out that my card was ready for pick up so I saved the $10 for the tourist card. I had called about 7 times previously and there was either no answer or was transferred and put on ignore. I went to the office a few days later, paid fee on top of fee on top of fee (is this a new Funes thing?), and then was told to come back the next week to get the card. I told the officer that I was told the card was ready but it turns out that either the system or the card making machine was down. Oh well, trip 4 coming up.

So back at home I asked the caregiver for my Mother-in-law how she was and she tells me "mal". I ask her why and she said that her 4 year old son has bronchial asthma and she couldn’t take him to the hospital because she was working. I said fine but why didn’t his caregiver take him in and she said she left money to do so but it didn’t happen. I asked how he was now and she said better and that he only needs some pills that always help. I asked her what they were and she mentioned ampicillin - and I asked how many pills she buys and she said 2 or 3! So I explained how dangerous that was and how that it could make her son more ill by only partially taking out whatever bacterial infection he had while leaving the stronger ones to keep on growing. So I told her that she had to listen to the doctor or ask the pharmacist what was the minimum dosage she had to follow. I am thinking about her son’s asthma and asked her if she cooks with gas or wood in her house - and she says wood! Gas is heavily subsidized here so it will only cost about $5 a month ... but then again, wood is free and if you don’t have the $5, you are going to use wood even though everyone, from a recent University of Berkeley report to illiterate countryfolk, know that it is bad for their children’s health. So I spoke to Fatima and we are going to give her a countertop gas range and her first tank as part of her Christmas bonus.

After this conversation, I am feeling a little better and head off to they gym. Fatima drops me off and I work out and then walk back. One of the two regular guards lets me in and I ask, again "como estas?" He says fine and asks how I am and I say "bien" and he answers "como siempre." That means "like always" and obviously, there are a few ways of taking that. I take it to mean that I am a foreigner with money and don’t have a care in the world.

So the caregiver brought her son to the local public hospital and he was admitted and they gave him a 7 day cycle of antibiotics and she knows to use all 7 pills. Fatima and I went shopping and got a 4 burner gas cooker, tubing, clamps and a valve for about $40 in total. The first tank will cost about $25 so for $65, we just drastically improved the air quality of a family of 6. I am going to send this E-mail out to everyone who regularly gets cigars from me and, if they ever want to see another free cigar, they will donate US$65.00 to my new "Good smoke, bad smoke" campaign. How ironic that one good Cuban cigar can cost $75 while $65 can improve a family’s life.

Yes, MJ is that skinny - size 0 dress.
And yes, I am that fat - tipping over 190.

My stepdaughter MJ recently graduated from law school and we attended the ceremony. She is at the Jesuit run University of Central America. I have always said that El Salvador has a very interesting and very long national anthem. Now I have proof!

The proof!
What official choir anywhere in the world needs to have the words to their anthem in front of them? Only El Salvador! Anyways, the ceremony was interesting and she looked great. Several months ago, she entrusted me with the task of buying her graduation dress in Canada. Now this is a pretty big deal so I ended up buying four different dresses to give her a pick.

MJ shaking hands with some important dude.

I think she wore the right one - she ended up on the cover of the UCA supplement in the Prensa Grafica today. She was nervous because she was the first one on the stage to accept her degree. She did a great job, didn't fall off her 4 inch heels, and looked very confident and composed. Afterwards, we went home and cooked for a cocktail party for all her friends. We had Mojitos and Cosmos, champagne, veggie dips with hummus and babaganoush, bacon wrapped chicken in a sweet chilli glaze, twice baked potatoes with bacon, cheese, and sour cream, chicken wings, and little salmon mousse and cucumber sandwiches. Later, they all headed off to a club called Envy.

We are in the midst of a lot of rain due to Tropical Storm Ida blowing past neighbouring Nicaragua and Honduras. Ironically, we are at the end of the hurricane season and Cuba has escaped clean this year ... but Ida may yet turn into a hurricane and hit Pinar del Rio. We should be having sunny dry days but we seem to be getting more rain now than we had in normally wet October.

Off to a wedding this evening. It is my good friend’s daughter who has decided, at the age of 21, that it would be a good idea to get married. She hasn’t finished school yet and her boyfriend is working but they will have to live with his parents until she starts working and they can afford to rent their own place. Naturally, my friend is not overjoyed with this decision. We bought a nice crystal vase at Portico and then thought a bunch of gift certificates to local restaurants would be a good idea (to give the couple the chance to get out of the house for some dinners). Sushi Ito didn’t have them but Chiles, Bennigans and Los Cebollines (Mexican) did. But get this, while all of them had gift certificates, none of the restaurants actually had any on site. They all said I had to drive to their main offices to get them. W T F. I spoke to the Chiles manager and asked him if thought it was reasonable to have me drive across town in bad traffic and in the rain to give him $60. He didn’t think so and disappeared and came back with some certificates! Bennigans basically blew me off and said I could go to the office or not get them. The Los Cebollines guy said that I could order them and come back to pick them up but this wouldn’t work for us so we got him to make the request to his office to have them delivered to another restaurant nearer to us ... so hopefully we will be able to get them en route to the wedding. It is being held in the bride’s mom’s cantina bar! Specializing in cheap cold beer and boquitas - small snacks such as fried tortillas with fresh cheese and avocado and deep fried chunks of pork! Now that’s wedding food.

A bit about El Salvador ... big news is that 12 Arena (right wing) Assemblymen have gone "independent" which means they can and probably will vote for the FMLN (left wing former guerillas in the civil war). Now why would they cross the floor and give the Frente a majority in the Assembly allowing them to pass a lot more initiatives? Word on the street is that the former president, Tony Saca, is being investigated for corruption and this deal will guarantee that he won’t be prosecuted. Hmm, maybe that is why Tony’s cousin led this little rebellion.

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