Thursday, April 18, 2013

Visit to Cuba

Fresh veggies and fruit in Playa

I thought I would write about a recent trip I took to Havana. I went with a couple of Korean businessmen who are based in San Salvador and the two teenaged sons of one of them.

Their trip was to look at some opportunities in the textile industry and also some commercial retail operations. I was able to get them a decent price at the Hotel Nacional which is always the best place to stay on your first visit to Havana.
Cuban showgirls!
Caught a show at the Parisienne which is like a mini indoor version of the Tropicana but with more white dancers. 
The show at the Parisienne
As you can see, the stage is right on top of the audience so you certainly get a good view of the show. Drinks aren’t too bad there but always ask the price first of anything you order and try to avoid the food – there are much better places.

Like Chansonnier where I ended up going back to a few times. They have done some more remodelling so it is even more hip and trendy looking. Hector is letting us smoke in the vestibule now and when I asked him to put on some music, he had some great chill lounge tunes for us. I also got to meet the Italian chef who came out to say Hi. We asked him to make us his best dishes and he sent out great eggplant and octopus starters and then a sweet potato ravioli that was fantastic. Not huge portions but very tasty.

Dining at the Chansonnier
I ended up going back with some friends including Shana and Jose who used to work for PWC in Cuba about a dozen years ago and are now based out of Amsterdam. Shana hasn’t changed at all and Jose lost about 80 lbs and they both look fantastic. They brought their kids as well and they were super well behaved in the restaurant.
Built solely for tourists in Old Havana, but still great food and service.
Also went to this place in Old Havana which I think was in the Feria de la Artesenia building. I would normally avoid places like this like the plague but one of my Cuban associates suggested it and knew a lot of people who worked there. Food was delicious, service was great, and the singer was amazing. I asked for my three favourite songs “Cuarto de Tula”, “Como Fue”, and “Oye Como Va” and they did a shockingly good job. I sometimes forget how incredibly talented Cubans are.

Celio Perez Martinez belting them out.
 We also walked through Old Havana which the guys from El Salvador liked because it was such a huge area and it was all safe to walk through. In El Salvador, it seems like the only safe street to walk through at night is Paseo del Carmen – although you are seeing more and more people out at night in other neighbourhoods.
Can I have my camera back?
At one point, we were all at the Capitolio and we had to get back to the other side. Since there were 7 of us, we needed two cabs. I asked some guys with the old cars how much and they said $12 for each cab. I pointed out that there was a Panataxi van parked across the street that we could get to drive us for $5. So they said $20 for two old cars and I said no and they came back with $12 for both and we struck a deal. The visitors wanted to take some pictures so the guy who brokered the deal took my camera to take some pictures. This is me trying to get my camera back!
Very large canvas, asking $140
We then went to the big artisans market in the port area where I made everyone buy something. I looked at dozens of great paintings but decided just to buy one small one and some photo prints. 
Berta's first piece since having her baby
Oh, we also went to visit Jurgen where we all bought paintings albeit at a much higher price. Here is some of what we got. Jurgen’s wife had her baby and she is back painting.

Three of the paintings we bought from Jurgen.
I met up with Shana and Jose when our mutual friend, Ana Rosa the flamenco dancer, told me that she was in town. I got a lift from them in my old Nissan Sentra – my first car in Cuba which I donated to the dance company (the process only took 8 months! I needed to get the signatures of two Vice-Ministers, one in Foreign Investment and the other in Culture). A 1988 B-12 model, made in Japan, sold in Canada and still running! A bit smelly inside as they replaced the fuel injector with a carburetor. They couldn’t afford a good VW one so they bolted on an old Lada one so quite a strong gasoline smell inside.

25 years old and still going strong! Ana Rosa and Miguel posing in front of the mighty B-12.

Walking through Old Havana, we came through the Plaza de San Francisco and was amazed to see that my old office, the first place I worked in Cuba, had been converted into a luxury boutique hotel. This place used to be a dump! Lots of water and power outages, an unsafe rickety elevator that encouraged everyone to use the stairs, pretty dark and dirty. Now it is a couple of hundred dollars a night.

Lobby and reception desk in my old office building.
Hanoi took me to his favourite hole in the wall restaurant. A tiny tapas place in Old Havana called El Chanchuello. When I heard tapas, I figured small portions so I ordered 3 for us to share ... which we barely finished as the Cuban chef had a different notion of what a tapas was. Tiny place, two floors, great food with the plates being $4 or $5 each, rock music. 

Delicious Cuban tapas and it's all organic!
Oddly, there were a lot of tourists there since it was a bit out of the way and they could afford to spend a lot more. But I suppose it was high season so Old Havana was fulling of turistas. The table to my right had guys from Brazil and Australia and a woman from Japan. To my left was a German couple who had ordered their food before we sat down and then watched as we were served first (Hanoi knows the owner). We finished our huge dinner and they still had not received their food and they were getting angrier and angrier and got quite rude with the waiter. They finally slammed down their beers with a loud “scheisse” and stormed out.
Great vibe at Chanchuello
I can sympathize. One day, I had an hour free before my next meeting so I ran down to Barrio Chino where I knew I could get at least a caja on the spot. But I went to Tian Tan and asked the waitress and then the chef if they could get the food out to me in 20 minutes so that I could eat and then drive back to Vedado. They said yes ... and we waited ... 20 minutes ... 30 minutes ... 40 minutes and we finally got the food. I called in and found out that my meeting was cancelled so I was able to eat a relaxed meal.

The band at the bar.
Walking through Old Havana and I was out of cigars so we checked out some bodegas and found some 1 peso cigars. For 4 cents, you can get a decent cigar in Havana. Hanoi wanted to hear some music so we went to the Centro Cultural Asturania. I really like the third floor resturant, la Terraza, for their braised and grilled leg of lamb and the great guitar playing dudes. I never knew about the downstairs bar but what a coincidence that the place had some paintings by Jurgen and the late great Lorenzo was the interior designer. Elaborate cocktails for a few dollars each and we met the band and their manager outside in the lobby where we were sitting smoking cigars. It was an all girl band, all graduates of el ISA, with four mulattas on the instruments and a blanca lead singer. Very nice jazzy stuff and my friend fell for the tall skinny keyboardist so I suspect he will be dating her when I get back to Cuba in a few weeks. Great bar, great vibe, great music.

Also managed to get to the Asador del Rey where we had a whole roasted suckling pig. Oh, we went to El Palenque which used to have the best service in Havana. I was telling someone about the service and told them to time how long it took to get a coffee. I ordered it from a passing waiter and it was in front of me in 40 seconds! Unfortunately, the old manager got old and the people got lazy and the service became terrible. My friend got into a fight with the kid who takes orders at the big bbq pit so he refused to take his orders. Then he found out that I was friends with him and didn’t want to take my order! But there is a new younger manager there and the service is getting back to the past levels. They have a few private dining rooms that are amazing – linens, good china, lots of wine glasses, very good a/c, and a private washroom. I still have to ask for the bbq pork to be hot and cooked.

Another great trip to Cuba.

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