Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Havana and Buenos Aires

I have been reading a few other blogs and have come to realize that my blog isn’t very helpful regarding living in El Salvador. Plus, to be frank, this country is great for many reasons but it is small, somewhat limited, and life here is a bit dull compared to some other countries.

So I will continue to mix entries on El Salvador with other cities and countries that I have been lucky enough to visit.

I recently got back from Cuba. With the explosion of free market retail in Havana and with the lifting of travel restrictions and with many hundreds of thousands of Cubans with Spanish passports, there are a huge number of Cubans traveling to Ecuador and Panama to purchase clothing, accessories and small light items to import into Cuba for sale.  Flying routes connecting to these countries see business class seats full of upgraded Cuban flyers. I was unlucky to be on a plane with about 40 of these mulas.

You always know when you are on a plane with a lot of Cubans. They are loud, expressive, drink quite heavily, and carry on loud conversations across aisles and sometimes back several rows. As an overly polite Canadian, I actually like and admire Cubans for not really giving a damn what you think.

Yeah, second last in the customs line up!
So the flight was fine and I came loaded with three checked bags and three carry-ons full of crap for my friends living in Havana. Landed early, cleared immigration quickly, and went to the baggage carousel and waited ...  and waited ... and waited. Finally there were only two of us and the Russian woman who works for Taca went looking for my bags and found them still in the back. Of course the xray showed some items that needed to be investigated further.

Okay, that’s fine. I open my bags all the time for various food stuffs like jalapenos and tortillas. Unfortunately, and here is the part about being unlucky to be on a plane with mulas, I got into a line with 15 Cubans with giant bags full of literally hundreds of items of clothing that had to be checked by hand, piece by piece, before they could get to me. The majority, maybe 25, of the mulas were in another line and just had to have their bags weighed, pay about 1,500 Cuban pesos (about USD 60) and go off to make their hundreds of dollars selling the clothes to the public or to kiosks. There were a varying number of customs officers ranging from a high of 5 and down to 2 when I finally got to the head of the line two and half hours later. I complained to a supervisor who went to an office behind us and yelled at someone to finish the flight off.

That's the pregnant woman that got me.
This very pregnant woman comes out (not in uniform since it wouldn’t cover her large belly) and I start complaining to her that everyone in the line was there for a commercial purpose, bringing in goods for sale, and the customs officers are running their own commercial program, charging people lots of duty for bringing in goods, while I was just a tourist coming in to visit friends for a week! She wasn’t sympathetic and opened my bags to discover a large ceiling fan for a friend and a big bag of heavy medals for the international school swimming meet. She called over the supervisor and I complained to him and he looked at what had triggered the xray and the search and said I could go. So pile everything back into the bags and head for the door to be stopped by the guard who said I hadn’t paid yet. More yelling back and forth and finally three hours and 45 minutes later, I am out!

My friend was still waiting for me and I had to have a few cold ones to revive myself.

Havana is still powering forward with free enterprise and commerce. I attended a meeting put on by a Cuban service provider where they gathered all their big foreign customers to fill them in on recent legal changes and to provide information on new procedures and services they were offering. This was quite extraordinary since these Cuban companies normally just work for other Cuban Ministries and empresas and now they were actually trying to do more work, provide more services, and help foreign companies expand their businesses.
Made it to some of my favourite paladars. 

Delia and I enjoying a leisurely lunch
Had a nice 3 hour lunch with Delia at Starbien on 29 between B and C in Vedado. A nice white wine and shrimps, octopus and fish. Also had great brick oven pizza at Carboncita. Took a chance and ordered food at the state run 19th hole at the golf course and the food was pretty ghastly – the food was old, smelled off and was badly prepared. The jamon Serrano sandwich was actually just processed cooked ham.

Champagne? Why not.
Found a new place called Mediterraneo Havana on 13 between F and G in Vedado which we went to after hearing there was a cute waitress on the upstairs terrace. She was cute but even better, they had a good cheese plate with a slice of parmesan, blue, a semi-soft and fresh house made ricotta. And they had a risotto made with porcini mushrooms and home-made sausage that was so good that I went back the next day to have it for lunch. A different cute waitress and I split an order of the porcini risotto with the seafood risotto which wasn’t very good. Definitely will go back for the porcini one and will bring some truffle oil to drizzle on top.
Giant baby octopus with pesto sauce
What else ... checked out La Fontana for dinner and ordered the grilled pesto octopus and a seafood plate for appetizers and was brought so much food that I couldn’t get through it. It was supposed to have the busiest bar at 3 in the morning but it was pretty quiet up until we left at 1:30 am. Someone said it was done up like Miami style and, a tribute to the great designers in Havana, I thought it was a bit cheesy and shabby compared to some lounges I have seen like Milanos and Cocinero.
The lads at la Fontana before things got ugly
So a fast 6 days in Havana and then flew home via Buenos Aires. I was shopping tickets to get the best price for the most miles and found a flight back to San Salvador via San Salvador to Lima to BA to Lima to San Salvador. Lots of points but it was a 23 hour trip which included about 9 hours in the Lima airport. It is big and nice and they have an okay lounge that has a sleeping room with chaise lounges and showers ... but they only want to let you in for 4 hours for Star Alliance Gold card holders. Actually they will stretch this to maybe 5 hours and I went early on the way back and she said I would have to leave in 4 hours but she didn’t find me to chase me out – maybe because I was asleep.
Stefan getting creative in the flea market
Long trip later, I hit Buenos Aires for the first time! Got through immigration quickly having paid my $150 reciprocal fee on-line (that is for the multiple that is good for 5 years). Got my bags quickly and out the door. My friend told me to get a taxi from Manuel Tienda Leon (I think that was the name) and I had the choice of paying 340 pesos or USD60. That was close to the official rate of 5.4 pesos to the dollar and to avoid changing money, I paid the USD 60. The hand off was really weird because I was told to wait at a spot and then this guy comes over and says he is my driver. I said where am I going and he said he didn’t know – so I made him go back to the counter to verify that he worked for the same company and was not some random taxi driver who was going to ask me for more money or worse. He was a very interesting guy named Julio Cesar whose mother gave him the “JC” initials since he was born on December 25. He gave me a good run down on the economy and politics of the country and blames the politicians for f*cking up such a resource rich country and reducing it to a third world economy. Julio explained his economic manifesto to me and said that Argentina should lease half their land to China and the Chinese could start farms and ranches and mines and processing plants and factories and pay a share back. Then all Argentines could retire and let the Chinese do all the work. Sounds like a good plan to me.

My buddy Stefan is one of my closest friends from his years in Havana but we hadn’t seen each other in eight years. I was a little apprehensive that he might have changed (diplomats often get large heads when they get promotions) but he was the same and showed me awesome hospitality. He had a very nice two bedroom apartment in Palermo with a killer view of many of the downtown parks and the big river.
Lovely architecture! Also demonstrations and riot police ... this is Latin America.
So began a 6 day odyssey of beef eating and Malbec drinking!

I had some preconceived notions of course. There are a lot of Argentinean steak houses in San Salvador and they usually serve steaks that have been butterflied open and are very thin so hard to cook medium rare. I have also tried a lot of mid-priced Malbecs that were okay but not great and often with a slightly bitter taste.
First dinner at Don Julio's

Stefan took me to his favourite place, Don Julio’s which is a very charming rustic parrilla. The walls are covered in shelves holding empty bottles that I think have had their labels inscribed by clients. They have a great salad system where you can choose exactly what you want and get and pay for just that. I love arugula which we ate daily in Cuba (until a storm surge flood during a hurricane killed off the plot planted in Miramar) but rarely in ES (sold in tiny little bags for two bucks) and they had it everywhere. Along with onions, tomato and parmesan cheese, a perfect salad for me. Stefan ordered a wine which was fantastic – fruity and full but a bit acidic which helped cut through the fat of the 5 steaks he ordered for the three of us. 
3 of the 5 steaks ordered.
And we ate them all.

I should explain that Stefan is a marathoner and Ironman having completed two of those insane competitions. So the calories were no problems for him. His girlfriend Mary is a really lovely woman from nearby southern Brazil. She is a former model and still looks like and eats like one – so not a lot of help with that much meat on the table. As for me, when the beef and wine are that good, I can pull my own weight.

So I was happily surprised to see that they cut their steaks very thick and prefer to cook them medium rare – the call this jugoso or “juicy”. The rib-eye or “ojo de bife” was one of the best I have ever had. Nicely charred on the inside and super juicy and rare on the inside.

Shopping with Mary.
Stefan was working during the days so Mary was kind enough to spend her days with me showing me the city. We took the subway to Florida Street which is a long pedestrian shopping area stretching several blocks. Had my first empenado which was warm and meaty and very tasty. Also did the tour of the city on the open topped double decker bus. Stopped off in Recoleta to take pictures and to have lunch. Stefan told me that they were treating me for all of my meals that week so Mary insisted on paying for every lunch. A rather disconcerting experience having a beautiful woman paying for me all the time but I got used to it.
Hanging out with about a thousand tourists in Ricoleta
Also did lots of shopping. While the official rate was 5.4, the Blue dollar rate was 9.3 and I changed a few hundred at this rate. Ended up getting some great shirts at Zaras. Mary explained to me that Argentinean men are dandy’s and there are as many men’s clothing stores as women’s. Also went to a bunch of shops looking for a purse for Fatima and Mary was very helpful modeling them for me.
I think my favourite part of the city was Palermo Soho, a nice walk from the apartment and full of funky shops and cafes. I had a great salad there topped with another perfectly cooked sliced steak. Met some very interesting shop keepers. One men’s store had great shirts and the gay floor guy spoke perfect English and was very helpful and accurately predicted that we would come back and buy a shirt they carried. Went to a place next door full of edgy pieces and the shop girl was super pale and lethargic and looked like a heroin addict. We had to get buzzed into another place and after picking up a bag on a table near the window, the old guy sitting behind the cash register came out and glared at me as he reset the piece on the table. I asked the older woman working there who made the bags and he said the old man did. She also showed us a replica Birkin Bag he made and was selling for around $300. I'd buy one but my sister wouldn't think that was very cool! Another shop was full of hip clothing with a sales guy, in t-shirt, jeans and Doc Martins leaning back on a table looking tough, who glared at us as we came in and I “Buenos tardes”, glared at us as we walked around, and glared at us as we left without ever moving or speaking.
Dining at La Cabrera - Charming room, great service
We wanted to hit the best steak house parrillas in the city so we called La Cabrera to make a reservation but they were all full up but they did have an offer where you could line up outside at 7:00 pm, get a table, and if you could eat and get out by 8:15, they would give you a 40% discount. I think about 30 people were outside at 7 and every one of them looked like a foreigner with mostly Germans and Brits I think. Obviously, they didn’t mind eating earlier. 
An 800 gm strip loin at la Cabrera
We were a tad rushed but had 2 lb steaks, another great wine, more arugula salads and it was about $60. Headed back to smoke some big Cuban cigars on his 22nd floor balcony.
Churrascaria? Why?
We also managed to hit the churrascaria on the waterfront past the city airport. I forget the name ... something like Rodizio. When we got there, we had no problems parking with only 3 other cars there. This giant two level restaurant was virtually empty although there were two tables of Asians – Chinese businessmen with their large families. I asked the waiter about them and he said that Chinos often come to the restaurant very early. The buffet was pretty good – lots of seafood like big head-on shrimps and smoked salmon, lots of carpaccio and cold cuts. Stefan ordered a nice Malbec and we started a small scene trying to accelerate the deliver of beef to our table. Lots of sirloin, filet and then the picanha. I have to say that I finally had more beef than I could comfortable eat or even look at. Then some giant desserts (included in the price) like molten brownies with ice cream. I had an amazing grapefruit ice cream.

Stagger out to the car and we decided to take a drive through the park to check out the trannies. Hmm, a LOT of cars and some pretty chunky ladies. One tranny was quite animated with a nice rack and a tiny mini-skirt from which extended her very large unit which she was flapping in the wind. Surprisingly big, especially on such a cold night!
Great way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon - drinking wine out of plastic cups, eating steaming hunks of grilled meat with your fingers, and smoking big cigars with a big view
On Saturday, we went to a parrilla bbq at a friend’s place. They had the top floor with a giant built in charcoal grill. Our host would cook big hunks of beef and nicely marinated pork, then cut them up into big pieces and serve them on a platter for us to eat with our fingers. Along with big pieces of fresh bread, lots of chimmichurri and great red wine drunk out of plastic cups, it was a great way to spend a rainy afternoon. Oddly, there were no Argentinian men amongst the approximately 20 people there. Most of them were interesting expats - one was half Canadian and half Argentinian with a foreign service Dad. Another guy was Iranian from Texas! Also a smattering of diplos, NGO workers, and Brits from whom I heard the word Argie for the first time in years. I was hoping to speak to an Argentinian who wasn’t a waiter, taxi-driver, bartender or shop clerk but none of these expats invited a local male. There were two lovely Argentinian woman who I was able to meet and speak to. I asked them why this group didn't mix with the local guys and they said that perhaps they found the men to be too arrogant. They said that the men could be quite the dandies as well.

Splurging at Osaka
That night, we went to a Peruvian Japanese fusion restaurant called Osaka. My family is originally from there so I had to check it out. We tried 9 appetizers and some were amazing but the sushi was surprisingly bad – the rice was terrible and way overly compacted. My favourite was a dish made of small cubed raw salmon and small cubed fresh pineapple dressed in ginger and sriracha with what might have been toasted ground sesame seeds on top. Again the service was pretty good and very flexible. They had a no cigar rule but the waiter asked the other three couples if they minded and they said no so we were able to go out onto the terrace to smoke big fat ones and finish our wine.
Diego used to be a member of the Havana Golf Club and I gotta tell you, he looked better back then.
Went to a bar called 878 one night. Took us a bit to find it because it was an ultracool place with no sign (makes you wonder how they stay open). We finally found it when I spotted a big burly guy in a suit texting on his phone – doorman, voila! Great long wooden bar, great mixologists, and some interesting local cocktails. One was made with Cynar, a local aperitif made with artichokes. My favourite was a cocktail with vodka, triple sec, campari and grapefruit juice. And while leaving, I reportedly made friends with the doorman and gave him a big Cuban cigar. This was my instinctual reaction to a possibly hard to get into bar in case we want to go back and there is a line up.

Gladys wrapping up my photographs.
Last day, Sunday, before my flight, we took the subway to Catedral Station to go to a big outdoor flea market at Plaza Dorrego that stretched like 10 blocks through the city. I bought some great photographs by Gladys Blanco, ate two delicious and really filling beef empadados, got some books in Spanish and a hand painted shirt for Fatima and a cushion cover for her collection. 
Eating empanadas in the flea market
Keeping to Stefan’s schedule, we briskly made it back to his hood and had plenty of time for our last steak – this time at a place a block away from his house. I ordered a rib-eye with an arugula salad and he said I should try the mollejas or beef cheeks. 
Mollejas .... yum!
They came grilled to the table with quartered lemons and they turned out to be sweet breads and were perhaps one of the most amazing things I have ever eaten. I spent a long time slowly chewing each piece and washing it down with another excellent Malbec. I never saw the prices of the wine but I think Stefan said we could get great wines for around $10 each.
My last steak. Goodbye Argentina, goodbye beef.
I thought I would get sick of the beef but, other than the night in the churasscaria, I never did. I couldn’t finish my steak so I asked the waiter to take it to the kitchen and put it in some bread and wrap it for my trip home to ES. Oh, and I learned what’s up with the chimichurri sauce. They sell it in bottles and have it at every steak house but every version was a muddled olive oil condiment with too much stuff in it like oregano and other herbs, pepper and vinegar. The recipe that I was taught, and which I love, only has fresh chopped parsley, garlic, salt and extra-virgin olive oil. This restaurant was the first place to have what I thought was authentic chimichurri – turns out this is a different version called chimichurri provenzal.

So back to the apartment, call a cab and this time the ride was half the price using the pesos I had changed at the Blue rate (and getting a discount for using the same cab company). Quite a long ride out to the airport and passed a lot of car clubs meeting at the side of the highways. Airport was big and noisy and there was a big line-up at immigration. It made me think of how different Canada is where we don’t have to pass through immigration when you leave the country – just check in, bag check, gate check and then airplane. Argentina, Colombia, El Salvador and Cuba all have exit procedures. Europe as well where your passport gets stamped when entering and leaving.
A lovely visit with a lovely couple.
Went to a very nice lounge and had a few cold beers while catching the golf. Then bought a big box of Havanna Alfajores and boarded the plane to Lima. Eight hours there and slept very well in the lounge and then onto the plane to El Salvador. Landed at home, hit the duty free store to stock up the whiskey larder and then out to the sunshine and heat.
Puerto Madero from a tour bus
Buenos Aires was definitely a great place to visit. Lovely city with lots of gorgeous European style architecture and lots of shiny condo towers. Some lovely rustic areas like Boca and Recoleta (although the later seems to exist to cater to tourists) and great food and shopping. I bought three slim fit shirts that would look good on me except they won’t fit over the big belly I developed from eating all that food.
It's the Falklands!

My only regret was not meeting and speaking to any Argentineans. Over lunch one day, we started chatting with the people on the other end of the table. They were Venezuelans and super friendly and happy to talk about Chavez and socialism and what countries they had visited. Maybe next time?

For many of us, Argentina is that big country down in South America with Evita Peron and the Falklands conflict and the terrible economy. As rich as the city seems, and it could easily pass for any city in North America or Europe, I hear the country side can be equally poor. I heard that much of their problems stemmed from their corrupt and ineffectual politicians and that consider it a tragedy that their country is the way it is.

At the turn of the century, emigrating Europeans had a choice of going to two different countries with very similar economies, natural resources and job prospects. One was Argentina and the other was Canada. Now the countries are vastly different and Canadians are charged $75 to enter Argentina for the sole reason that Argentinians need a visa to enter Canada.

I paid double that fee to have multiple entries for the next five years. I hope to go back soon, eat more steaks and share a few bottles of wine and some cigars with some locals!