Friday, May 2, 2014

Havana and the Top Ten Reasons to Visit Bogota

Hanging out with the cool kids at Cocinero.
Another week in Havana and another fun trip through the airport. For some reason, they sent our plane to a gate with a broken bridge so instead of a quick exit from the front of the plane, we had to deplane from the back of the plane, down the stairs and onto buses. As it was, we got to the terminal pretty rapidly as the first busload had to come back to where our second bus loaded since there were apparently 8 Cubans returning from Ecuador without their passports. Some of them were in business class and none of them seemed particularly worried while Immigration officers came onto the bus and went over their documents.
Plane, bridge, airport. What am I doing on this bus?

Then to the airport and my bags came off quite quickly but my three tags were covered in customs gobbly-gook. Luckily I was sent to the search line quickly so I was first in line. Unluckily, there were only two desks opened and both had women returning from Ecuador with the huge bags full of hundreds of items of clothes. The wait lasted about 40 minutes by which time there were about 10 people behind me. Three or four were tourists who almost made it out before being stopped by the mean final customs officer by the exit doors and sent back for checks. They all went to one of the two desks hoping for a quick search before being sent into the growing line up behind me. This being Cuba, the supervisor spotted a couple with a 4 year old daughter and told a customs officer to man a desk and check them out. After doing so, he went away again and left all of us still in the line. After being properly seasoned, the supervisor took me and the guy behind me to an xray machine and ran out bags through. She asked what I had and I replied “mostly food”. She said okay, I could go ... and proceeded out of the customs area to be stopped by that final woman who told me I had to get my bags checked. I explained that I had just come from the line and the supervisor had xrayed my bags and told me I could leave. She asked which supervisor and I said the tall blonde woman at which point they yelled out a conversation across the customs area with the first woman insisting that I had to open my bags and the other one saying let him go. And the supervisor won and I was out into the heat and humidity of Havana.

My friend Boris was there to pick me up and we stopped at the first gas station for some beers. This being Cuba, of course there was no Cuban beer and our choice was Heineken or Becks. Picked up two moderately cold greenies and off down the road.
Cohen enjoying the dancing girls!
The week was quite busy with work and spending time with one of my closest friends, Tracey who had lived in Havana for about 16 months a decade ago, visiting with her son Cohen. My first night there, went to the Meson de la Flota to catch the flamenco company Grupo Ecos. They were excellent as always and the dancers remarked at how serious but very attentive Cohen was, watching them.  Food was pretty good as well with the camarones el ajillo, garbanzos fritos, and seafood brochettas being the highlights. Then big fat cigars with lots of Cuban rum of course.
The new brew pub in Old Havana
Ended up going to the new Salm brewpub on the harbour road in Old Havana three times. Food was just like the first place in Plaza Vieja, quite poor but the beer was excellent. It looked like Habaguanex had purchased a top of the line system worth probably a few million dollars. Won’t take them long to pay for it since the place was completely full over the 3 hours we spent there on a Sunday afternoon with a continuous line up running outside. 
Claudio cutting me off.

And very nice to see that the vast majority of people were Cubans. Tourists will come of course since the place was directly adjacent to the Artisan’s Fair with their many fine painting vendors. We sat at the bar and found a great beer maid named Ismary who was super fast with the beers, filled the mugs up nicely, and always had a friendly smile.

I have heard that the Government intends to move all commercial shipping to the new Mariel Port and to convert the huge Havana harbour into a more commercial and tourism oriented area with a marina. Sounds like a great plan.

Of course the highlight of the trip was eating out in Havana. I have been kind of against eating at State run places since they don’t really seem to care but there are exceptions. El Palenque has a new and younger manager who has been working hard to get the standards back to where they used to be. Cuba is a communist state so the workers have a lot of rights and sometimes they just don’t want to work. Palenque is famous for its charcoal grilled pork which is served chopped up and covered in mojo (a sauce made of garlic, oil, lime juice and onions). It can be quite delicious, especially when you specify that you want it cooked and hot. Don’t make the assumption that the waiter knows this!

The cool outdoor space of BellaCiao
I hit some of the regular and great paladars. BellaCiao for the great ravioli y amazing spaghetti arrabiata – the latter was done extra al dente and extra spciy. 
Server of the week - at BellaCiao
Amazing service as well – very attentive and with a real authentic smile like she really wanted us to have a nice dinner and was happy that we enjoyed the food.
Amazing shrimp at a restaurant that I cannot publicly mention. If you want the name, PM me.
Also went to an Italian restaurant a bit off the beaten path in Playa. We had a large table of 14 and the owner just sent out one appetizer after another. An oven baked cheese covered berenjena, asparagus covered in blue cheese and bacon, beef carpaccio, and the freshest, sweetest shrimps I have ever had. They were so fresh, in fact, that they were only delivered by the fisherman after we had arrived at the place. All this was followed by three kinds of fresh made pasta served family style for all of us to share. I would tell you the name and location but the people I ate with asked me not to since they didn’t want to see this place overrun.

Returned to the Litoral on the Malecon. My three friends all had the small mesa fria – a $7.50 small plate that you could load up with cheeses, salamis, olives, quail eggs etc  - and that was enough to fill them up.  I had a longish conversation with the waitress about what was their freshest fish. She said the owner of the restaurant was a fisherman and served the fish he caught. We settled on a red snapper dish that consisted on a rolled filet served on a bed of mash potatoes and a pastry wafer with a white wine sauce. The fish wad delicious ... but the very last end of the fillet had an ammonia smell which contradicted her claim of freshness. Oh well, I have been lied to about fish in many many countries.
Old boys night.
Hung out one night at Las Terrazas on the third floor of the Centro Andalusia and came across an old friend from a decade ago. Erwann from France is back in Cuba and doing some good work. We used to go to Megano for beach volleyball and bbq's and lots of dominoes nights. He is also a great surfer (from Brittany) and taught me how to surf in Santa Maria. After a nice grilled dinner, we retired to the cigar lounge where PJ unearthed a rare bottle of the best white rum produced in Cuba.
Yes, the rum was indeed exquisite.
One thing I haven’t done in about a year is to have a dominoes night. We used to have huge parties at Delia’s house with up to 175 people spread out through the house. Live jazz band on the ground floor, salsa and meringue on the terrace, chill out lounge on the third floor balcony and the drunks on the roofs with their bottles. We used to order whole roast pigs and have cases of beer and rum. Then the parties got smaller and smaller and duller and duller until they were so bad, we had to put them out of their misery. What happened? We got old and lost our mojo.

So I called up Yeye and said, let’s do a dinner and a small domino night. The first thing she said? “I am not going to cook dinner!” to which I replied, “Yeye, I have known you for 18 years, of course I know you aren’t going to cook.” So Boris and I took off in her car and picked up 4 orders of El Aljibe roast chicken dinner special and a case of beer and a couple of bottles of rum.  We brought our own large plastic bucket which they filled up with about a gallon of their delicious black beans. We had specified fresh chicken (not lunch leftovers) and they insisted that that is what they packed  ... but I forgot to specify moist chicken or extra sauce so it was pretty dry. Mind you, I ate mostly the rice and beans.
Domino! Proximo!
Very small group at first, just Delia, Boris, Jhonny and myself. Then Jan came by with his gf, Fito, Victor from Fla and the murderous pair of Victor and Emanuel who proceeded to destroy everyone at dominoes. They looked like twins and I was pretty sure that they were communicating telepathically but they eventually lost. Plenty of food for all and we didn’t finish the beer or rum despite playing until 4:30 am. Ah, just like the good old days.

Flying back home I decided to go through Quito and Bogota. Quito was supposed to be a 5 hour stopover and I was looking forward to catching a nap in their nice sleeping room … until they announced that all transit passengers had to clear immigration and pick up their bags. Now does that make any sense? Was this to save themselves the hassle of having to man one door for me to go through and one security shift to xray my bag? Yikes. Okay, immigration seemed amused that I planned to visit their country for 3 hours. Get my bags, xray again and out the door to a cold terminal but at least a lot of shops were open. Or rather, they were in business but all of the staff appeared to be lounging together in one of the seating areas.

I knew the check in counter wouldn’t open for a few hours so I headed outside to spark up a cigar. Luckily I had a few tetraboxes of Cuban Planchao rum so I cracked one open to sip while I smoked for the next hour. I have a cigar smoking buddy in Quito and I texted him to come out to the airport for a cigar and a drink but, alas, it was 1:30 am and he was probably asleep.

Okay, check back in, make it into the lounge, hit the sleeping room and have a brief rest before boarding the next plane to Bogota. I have no recollection of that flight but it did land in Bogota and my bags did come out quickly and my buddy Kyoharu was waiting to pick me up. Kyo’s wife works for a foreign oil company so he had a security driver who was very nice and came in very handy when we were out and about.

My friend Mark had recently moved from the funky and bohemian Candeleria area to Chapinero which was much more centrally located, close to the places he taught English, and much closer to the Transmillenium public transport lines. One thing he didn’t know was that the area is called Chapigay due to the dozens of gay clubs in the area. You could call his immediate neighbourhood Chapisupergay since there were 4-5 clubs directly below and around his apartment. Made for noisy evenings but at least there always taxis around. We went for a walk looking for some beers and everyone was super friendly and invited us into their clubs even though I said we were straight. Like doormen the world over, one guy was a big fan of cigars and was chuffed when I gave him a fresh Habano.
How spicy do you want it? Hot, hotter, or WTF?!
Mark told me that a friend of his ignited a medium sized internet storm when he posted an article on the 10 things he hated about Bogota. I think this is it -
Street meat in Bogota!
Now I have visited Bogota 4 times in the last few years and I can say that I really like the city and here are my 10 reasons why:

1.  Bogota is a giant, cosmopolitan, busy, noisy, bustling and active city. Having grown up in Toronto but having lived in the smaller and quieter Havana and San Salvador for the past few decades, I have really missed the great urban vibe.

Empenadas, chicharrones, sausage, morcilla y patacones.

Colombian soup counter.

Chicken Ajiaco

2.  The food is great, and I am not talking about “international food” or any lame Latin American fusion bullshit. I am talking about the great local food like Ajiaco (chicken soup with potatoes and garnished with avocado and cream), hot crispy and meaty Chicharrones, and Chunchullo which are grilled beef intestines. 
Chunchullos with fresh arepas!
Not only is all this local food great, but the locals actually like it! I have been in many countries where the more refined (white) people won’t eat the local specialities like sopa de patas here in El Salvador. And the street food is pretty good from the Chorriperros (grilled sausage on a big bun with fried onions, crispy potatoes and lots of mayo, ketchup and mustard) to the fresh cooked potato chips. I don’t know how these old guys get chips so crisp with their tiny pots of oil on their pushcarts but they do – make sure to ask for the hot ones fresh out of the oil. 
A corriente in the Restrepo market. Thick fish soup, then a big ol plate of carbs with corn, yucca, potato, rice, avocado and onions and tender beef in gravy with home made hot sauce.
And for lunch, there are hundreds of places selling Corrientes from between $1.50 to $5.00 which consist of a hearty soup with a plate of rice, veggies and a protein (chicken, beef or a fried fish) and unlimited fresh juices. Always varied and always interesting. 
Bandeja paisa
And if you are really really hungry, try tackling a bandeja paisa – a large platter covered in rice, a bean stew, ground beef, arepas, avocados, fried eggs and hot chicharrones fresh out of the oil. Oh, and sausages. I went to one place along Carrera 7 and thought I was hungry and ordered the dish. Barely got through a third of it. Asked them to pack it up and, outside in the rain, a teenager was asking for money for food. So I asked him if he wanted the rest of my baneja paisa and he said yes – asked for a fork and the staff were bemused as I handed over the food to the kid. Oh, I should mention that there are great hot sauces – if you want it hot, you will get it hot.
Very excited to be seated in the front row of the Transmilenio Falcon!
3.  The Transmilenio. I know, this is very contentious because most people hate the system and there are huge demonstrations against them. And hard for me to say since I have only used it about 6 or 7 times and never had to wait an hour to get to my bus loading a half a block away or watched the fourth full bus pass the station. But no system is perfect and it still moves over a million people a day for less than a dollar a ride and the system was far less costly to set up than an underground subway system (which, admittedly, would be better in the long term and  which is being looked at now). Using it at certain times, it is much faster than taking a cab and a pretty interesting ride. I actually got bounced out of my seat in the very last row of a double articulated bus (they have triples too) and got about 3 inches of air.
Two of my favourite people - Dani and Gaby, about to dig into
Cochinito Pibil pulled pork tacos.
4.  Friendly people who are happy to have a conversation and aren’t afraid to speak or don’t think they are better than you – a common occurrence in this region. I have met interesting people in all kinds of places. Stand beside one of the big bbq restaurants with the big hanging grill over the big wood fire and the grill man will cut a piece of meat and hand it to you. For free!
Not sure if Angela is laughing with me or at me.
5.  Great places to hang out from the high end Andres Carne de Res in Chia to the low end Cuerdas Acero Rock Bar. 
After lunch cigars with coffee, rum and live music in Chia. What else do you need?
The first place took 3 hours to drive there and back but the food was worth it. The second place, we needed to use a washroom having drank many pints in the Candeleria BBC and walking back to Macarena – we bought a beer out of guilt and ended up staying for the next four hours. They had the video or song of every song we could think of from Elvis to Metallica to MJ and they played them all for us in their 15 seat bar.
On the Transmilenio heading across the city.
6.  Great neighbourhoods and party areas. So so far, I have stayed in a working class area in the south, in Macarena and now in Chapigay. I have visited the Zona T party area a few times and have always had a great meal. Candeleria is funky and bohemian, Parque 93 has numerous places to hang out and my favourite BBC where I can sometimes smoke a cigar (depending on which way the wind is blowing), Usaquen with its old colonial buildings (and a BBC of course), and numerous other places I don’t know the names of.
Simple food at a fancy place in the Zona T
7.  Stuff to buy like leather goods in Restrepo. Now if you know me, you know that I am a fan of brief cases and shoulder bags. Man bags, satchels, murses, whatever …. I carry around cigars, cutters, lighters, sunglasses, cell phones, cameras, umbrellas, and an iPad and this shit won’t fit into my pockets. Much cheaper than El Salvador, Argentina or Ecudador, Colombia produces very high quality bags and I just picked up three of them in Restrepo. They wanted 100K, 90K and 80K for the three bags and negotiated a price of 240K pesos which is about $120. My problem is that everyone sees the bags and wants to have one so I keep having to buy new ones. 
Closing the deal at the jade shop.
Also, very good jade although good luck trying to buy one. I spent 4 trips trying to find a trustworthy contact and in the end, I just jumped in and started visiting shops. I was looking for a stone for $1,000 and eventually found some that I liked. A bit less than a carat but nice colour, nice clarity but with a lot of occlusions. Had no idea if they had been heat or chemically treated (everyone said that they only used oil) but I did get the price down from the initial $1,600 to $1,000 so I figured that was okay. Then found another place that had a better and bigger stone for the same price. Then went to the washroom at this jewellery centre and was buzzed in by a woman so had to look at her stones. Found one I liked and she let me walk it downstairs to the other dealer where I compared stones. So out of about 20 stones at three dealers, found the one I liked. Still not sure if I got a good deal or if I was ripped off!
A nice selection of beer at a tiny bar. In a car park!
8.  Beer. Oddly with neighbouring Chile and Argentina producing so much wine, Colombians love their beer. From the local Aguilar and Poker to the slightly more expensive Club Colombia (clara, roja y negra), to the high end Apostle and Tres Cordilleros, the beer is excellent. And the best of them all is the Bogota Beer Company with their 19 (and growing) locations. I think I have been to about 8 of them and the draft beer is awesome.

9.  Modern and efficient airport and really cheap taxis! Visiting Toronto, the thought of taking a taxi from downtown (say a club a John and Richmond) to my folk’s condo at Yonge south of Finch, makes me physically ill. That ride would probably cost $50 which is a weeks pay in El Salvador (and 2 months pay in Cuba). In Bogota, you can take a cab for a half an hour through half the city and it will still be less than $10. And a ride to the airport is about 25K pesos or $12.50. Awesome.
Ivonne looking particularly fetching trying to unload food off her plate.
10.  Women. Hope this doesn’t come across as sexist but there are many beautiful women in Colombian and of all shapes and sizes and colouring. I sometimes would see the most stunning woman walk by or working as cashiers at the supermarket. I should say that there are also a lot of good looking guys – something that isn’t true of every country in the region. Sometimes the DNA mix works … and sometimes it doesn’t.

So that is my list of the top ten reasons I think Bogota is a great place. I look forward to visiting again and again to drink the beer, eat the food, and to hang out in a great city.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

San Salvador, Havana and Buenos Aires

Hoping to pick up this Jugen Rodriguez painting the next time I am in Havana
 Another dry season and our Canadian visitor’s period is coming to an end and it went by pretty well. My parents came down for a 7 week trip and it was actually very relaxing and pleasant having them around. It helped that I took off for 2 of those 7 weeks and I also didn’t try to get them to do anything. They are in their late 70’s and were quite content to hang around the condo and read and watch TV and Korean novellas on-line. My Dad took a one hour walk each morning all through the neighbourhood (he only got lost once!) and my Mother did a couple of jigsaw puzzles.

Home made sushi and sashimi
I think they only saw the ocean a few times and only went to a pool once. We did have sushi a few times which was quite nice and lots of my favourite Korean and Japanese dishes.

They also took the opportunity to get some major dental work done and it cost about 30% of what it would have been in Canada. Plus Dr. Mendez here speaks fluent English, is up on the new techniques and materials, and has great equipment.
Toasting Misa with Veuve

My son Elliot came down for a week and we had a nice dinner with Fatima’s daughter and toasted my late sister’s birthday with her favourite Veuve.

Elliot and I got out 3 times to the golf course but no surfing this year.

Elliot and I went to the Joyo de Ceren archaeological site for the first time. I don't know why I haven't gone before. Only a half hour from the city, it is an amazing Mayan village that was abandoned and then preserved by a volcano. It was super cheap to go in ... and we were the only ones there! The property was very nicely set up for a walking tour and they had some nice copies of some of the artifacts for sale.

Excavated village at Joyo de Ceren
So I finally got my permanent residency status. It took me a bit longer than normal as I am in a common law relationship and not officially married. And in five more years, I can become a citizen and get my passport –which I will probably go for so that I can vote and travel through South America without paying the ridiculous reciprocity fees levied against Canadians.
Fatima looking quite important at the show. "Use the stick! The bigger stick!"

Fatima's Don Bosco school had a music and choral concert at CIFCO that we all attended. They were waiting for some dignitaries and kept thinking my Dad was the Japanese Ambassador and kept trying to get us to sit in the VIP area. There were about 200 kids in the orchestra, 300 kids in the choir, and over 4,000 kids in the audience! Elliot mentioned that he thought the sound mixing would have been extremely difficult to set up ... and it was and they couldn't use most of the speakers due to the feed back ... which meant the volume was too low ... which meant that 4,000 kids got extra bored and would not shut the f**k up despite numerous request to do so. But we were in the second row so we were able to hear better than most.

Padre Pepe on the left and 4,000 screaming kids.
The elections happened and it was quite the ride. All the newspapers’ polls showed the right ring Arena in the lead. The FMLN (Frente) weren’t worried as their polls showed they were well ahead – and the newspapers are controlled by wealthy right wingers so they weren’t particularly accurate. The former  president and head of Arena, Tony Saca, had formed a new coalition party called Unidad and was spending a lot of money on signage in the weeks prior to the election. He didn’t have a chance to win but I guess he (and his financial backers) felt it was worth the investment to try to grab a bunch of votes and then play kingmaker (in exchange for money and power) when the first election ended in a stalemate (Salvadorn law requires the winning party to have a majority of over 50%). But too bad for Saca that they only got 10% and the Frente was just below 50%. Heading to a run-off, there was no need for the Frente to negotiate with Saca for his votes as most were going to go to Arena anyways.

Arena was pushing the message that the new leader of the Frente was a more radical socialist and would push ES towards a Venezuelan styled mess. It didn’t help that Venezuela was melting down. It also didn’t help that a mysterious Ferrari had crashed into the roundabout and abandoned just below the presidential residence in the wee hours of the morning and left there ... with everyone knowing that President Funes was the owner of a dubiously acquired Ferrari ... and he shows up later with a broken hip. The residence is on Avenida Masferrer which has been renamed Masferrari.

Second round rolls around and it is very very close. Out of 3 million votes, they are only about 6,500 votes apart.  There are allegations of impropriety on both sides. I saw a picture of an Arena supporter trying to buy votes and being apprehended by the police … which was not reported in any newspaper or TV reports – again, likely due to most media channels being controlled by the wealthy right. I do know one person living in Illopango who had her vote bought for $20 and some Pollo Campero. That amount represented more than 2 days pay and the chicken was a bonus! The sad part is, I think she did vote for Arena out of fear of being caught out. I think for the next election, Frente should explain to everyone that a secret ballot is one of the foundations of a democracy and everyone should “sell” their votes to Arena and then do what they want to do in the voting booth.

So after the very close initial count on the night of the election, the electoral tribunal says they cannot call the election and will review the numbers. The leader of Arena, Norman Quijano, is actually a very well respected politician and was the excellent mayor of San Salvador for many years. He is being handled by a Miami campaign manager who has done a very good job of keeping a tight leash on Quijano ... until election night when the candidate finally took control of his campaign and got up on stage and says Arena was robbed of the election and that the army is standing by to enforce democracy. Really. Fascinating to see someone committing political suicide on live TV.  Even his diehard supporters were surprised by his brain fart.

So lots of commotion and Arena is demonstrating at the electoral tribuanal’s headquarters and the riot police are out which ends up ruining our Tuesday night beers and cigars at the Bennigan’s which is in the adjacent Torre Futuro where we can’t get to in our cars. Sanchez Ceren, the leader of the Frente, is doing a fantastic job of saying nothing, just like during the election campaign but he looks good in a suit and smiles and nods like a trustworthy uncle.

And, after a week, the tribunal calls the election for the Frente ... and nothing happens. People are just tired out from the week and let’s move on already. There is some fear that President Sanchez is going to go stark raving communist but at least this time, my American friends aren’t getting ready for the Frente administration by planning to sell all their assets and flee the country before everything is confiscated. Everyone is just hoping it doesn’t get too weird here.
I wonder if Hilary is going to do a repeat appearance and come to President Sanchez’s inauguration. Probably not but who knows, Obama was here a few times.

Great design and art work at O'Reilly 304 in Old Havana
So what else? Went to Cuba for business and was taken to some new and wonderful places. 

And great food but why don't Cuban chefs clean their shrimps! This happened everywhere I went and had to ask the owner to tell the chef to clean his shrimps!
Here is the funky O’Reilly 304 pretty deep in Old Havana.  Wonderfully renovated with some kick ass art and really good, fresh food simply prepared and great service.

Fancy Elite with no customers
Also went to the very fancy Elite where the rooms were tres chic and stylish but with mediocre food and no customers!

Delia and Manuela at Opera in Vedado
An Italian friend opened up the very interesting Opera restaurant and lounge. He wants to promote slow food and slow living and renovated his big old Vedado Mansion and set up a pool table and some interesting food. I think I had the rabbit and it was quite delicious although a bit underdone (slow food takes a lot more time than we gave him to cook our dinners).

Yo, Jose! Memorial flowers celebrating Marti's birthday. What do the "S's" stand for?
Another Italian place, Italia en Cuba, had been open for a year and my friend Claudio said the food was terrible. But I was in touch with the owner over Tripadvisor and he urged me to try the place and his new chef from Italy. So we go there and the owner doesn’t speak English and has no idea who I am so clearly he has cleverly hired a social media consultant. But the food is really good and adds to the evidence of the inverse relationship between decor and food quality quite commonly found in Cuba.

Smoking friendly area of El Litoral
Hmm, disputing this somewhat is the El Litoral restaurant on the Malecon just west of the US Interest Section. The place is gorgeously designed and has an outdoorish covered dining area (the former car park) where we can eat, watch Michael MacDonald DVDs with him singing “What a fool believes” on big screen TVs, and smoke cigars. 
The cold table with some tasty treats

The food was good but not amazing but they had a pretty good cold buffet table just like at that Italian place in the Melia Cohiba. Turns out the old manager of that restaurant opened up this place. Be careful what you choose though – the cheeses were good, as were the olives, but the salamis and sushi were not good. I went with my friends who were hosting me and Matt wanted to invite a work related person. His wife and I were like – no, don’t make us entertain your boring work connections again! But he called up the guy anyways and there he was, some writer from Toronto. Turns out this John Morris was a former station manager of CFNY – one of the greatest radio stations in North America. They were, I think, the last non-format station on the continent. That meant that the DJay could play anything he wanted – punk, classical, blues, whatever. This is where I became a fan of new wave music – Talking Heads, Thomson Twins, Human League – and discovered Jazz with lots of Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett being played. So I spend a good few hours asking John about the old days at the station and he tells me that he hired Dave Marsden and has some good stories about the Ramones and other visitors to the station.  I am so chuffed to meet John since CFNY had a profound effect on me and turned me from an Asian study robot into a music loving, free thinking, less of an Asian study robot. Then I started Djaying parties and finished high school and was expelled and suspended by the University College and the University of Toronto (respectively) in the same year, all thanks to the music!
Secretary General just drove by, time to wave my baton.

It was a bit of a weird week with the big Cumbre in town and the house I was staying at was one street over from the meeting hall. Lots of closed roads as the heads of a few dozen Latin American countries were in town. Everyone (Cubans and foreigners alike) were going crazy trying to drive in the city with numerous roads being blocked and magnificently exacerbated by Cuban traffic police with their randomly invented arm and baton swings. Hand a Cuban cop an illuminated baton and watch the weirdness commence. I know of a few occasions where drivers stopped in front of the cop to ask him, what do you want me to do? What does that twirling mean – should I go, should I stop, should I turn? Here is an example of a cop with a baton on 5ta Avenida as Ban Ki Moon drove by.

The Haggis being piped in by a Cuban bagpiper!
So if the week wasn’t unusual enough, Robbie Burns Day came around and I was invited to a single malt and haggis night.  Wow, never been to a dinner party where I had whiskey as an aperitif, with starters, with dinner and with dessert. Lots of single malts and lots of good blends including Johnny Gold and Blue. And the Haggi were smuggled in from England and were delicious! As was the lamb and the mashed potatoes and I think there was a trifle. Thanks to Laura and Brandon for the invitation and for being wonderful hosts. Ended the night with scotch and stogies on the pool deck. Looking forward to having Laura and Brandon visit ES when they get posted to Guatemala in the near future.
Cuban design work

Leaving El Salvador this time, there was a big sign at the airport saying that all residents travelling to various countries, including Argentina, were required to have a Yellow Fever vaccination. Now I encountered this once before entering Brazil and the guy was saying something in Portuguese that I could not understand until he got tired and waved me through. Turned out he was asking to see my Yellow Fever vaccination card. So now that I am a permanent resident, I figured I should get the vaccine. I asked around at the foreigner’s dollar hospital and they told me to go to a local policlinico in Vedado. We go there and just missed the nurse so my last chance is to go back the morning of my flight. She’s there this time and is happy to give me my vaccination and an international vaccination card she laboriously fills in by hand. Since it is a Cuban hospital, there is no way to bill or charge me but I managed to get her to accept $10 to buy some sweets for the nurses.

Hanging out with Stefan, my funk soul brother.
Head off to Argentina to visit my friends Stefan and Mary and all is good until I start feeling a bit under the weather. Then headaches, fever, joint and body aches and I am in bed for 3 days from a crappy reaction to the vaccine. Mary got me some really good drugs for my cold symptoms and was on my feet in a few days. 

Fantastic views of the city from Stefan's condo in Palermo
Fatima was supposed to fly down on a stand-by ticket but the flights were very full and she didn’t want to risk getting stuck in Lima on the connector. So we didn’t do a whole lot except eat lots of great steaks and drink some delicious wines. Went to Don Julio’s, La Cabrera and the La Catedra across from his condo. 

We didn't have a reservation at La Cabrera (need to do it a day in advance) so we had to wait a bit but got in for the popular second sitting. We were given a great table right at the front and beside the bar ... but it came with the oldest and slowest waiter in the place. It looked like he only had 4 tables and he had the shortest distance to walk to the bar and the kitchen pass through but he took forever! Other tables had wine, water and appetizers before we even got water ... and they came in after us! Still, the food was amazing and worth the wait.

Mary and Stefan looking super chic in front of La Cabrera

Food finally arrives and it was great.

We also tried a Korean restaurant in the big Chinatown. Had to get buzzed in and the place was quite nice except for a huge hole in the ceiling over one table. Big place with maybe 15 tables that could seat 8. We were the first ones there and there was no menu! Just a set meal that cost about $15 each. The appetizers came out and it was pretty good - the was chap chai, scallion pan cakes, then they brought bulgoi and sam gap sal (pork belly) for grilling, and then mandu (dumplings), large head on prawns for grilling, some spicy soup, and then large fresh oysters for eating raw or grilling. All that food for $15 ... but no kimchee! WTF! Probably couldn't get the right dried chillies for it. I spent a few hours that afternoon looking for it in all the giant Chinese stores with no luck. But happily they did have lots of cold beer and Soju.
Mary showing proper Soju pouring form.
The blue rate was even better this time – I think it went from 8 to 12 pesos to a dollar so I was able to buy Fatima some more very well made purses for about $100 each. Great quality, materials and designs.
The very amiable chef cutting a hunk of rib eye for me for a snack.
Stefan decided to host a big churascaria bbq and arranged for a chef to come. We went to the local Carrefour to buy charcoal and he later bought about 40 lbs of beef at the Jumbo. A few cases of wine and we threw together some salads. His condo has a ground floor pool and a great set up for a big bbq with an enclosed area with A/C in case it rains and is humid. 

Guests included friends, colleagues and training partners. The woman to the left of Mary is the female masters champion Iron Man competitor in Argentine. Great pipes.
I think there was 2 lbs of meat per person and we ate it all! Amazing cuts of rib eye, sirloin, flank, ribs. Then we sat outside and smoked cigars and tried to finish all the great Malbecs (unsuccessfully).
Hanging out with Stefan smoking cigars on his balcony.
Oh, I forgot that I had left Cuba with 9 paintings that Jurgen wanted me to try to sell in El Salvador. Mary was interested in two of them so I was carrying them in a separate tube.  At the stopover in San Salvador, I put the paintings down at an ATM … and forgot them there. I spoke with one of the airport managers who kindly went looking for it with me but it wasn’t anywhere to be found. When I got back, I called the airport and they had them! One of the cleaners had noticed it and turned it in to the lost and found! I was sure that they would be adorning the walls of someone’s house in LA or Washington. I think that I have good Karma as I always turn in items I find and tell people when I get too much change back.
One of the paintings I lost (and found) at Comalapa Airport in El Salvador. Still for sale if you are interested.
Back in San Salvador, I had to frame the canvases. I had been paying two different stores to box and stretch the paintings but the price had been jumping up from $100 to a quote of $160 for some large pieces. Then I found a guy who would do them for $50 each but he took forever and used hundreds of tiny nails which he noisily hammered in instead of using a staple gun.  So I had my parents bring down a cheap Stanley mitre box and saw, bought some cheap wood for $7 per 2.4 m and some small metal “L” brackets, wood screws and a staple gun. It took about 30 minutes to do the first one and I figure I got it down to 10 minutes in the end. The cost dropped to about $10 per painting. Then I needed more wood and Fatima stopped by a lumberyard and got me wood for $2 each so I figure I got the cost down to $3. From $160 to $50 to $3 … quite the savings. Mind you, the wood is much thinner but plenty strong.
More art for sale here in ES
So I had all these paintings in my house and was looking to place them at galleries. The main problem is that there isn’t much of a market here for paintings, especially expensive ones. I found a gallery who would take them to sell for $300 but would keep a 33% commission. I figured that price and that commission was a bit high.  Some friends of mine here were trying to help me and one of them was involved in decorating a new 24 room hotel in Tunco. They came by with the owner and the designer and decided to try hanging 4 of them.  I went down to visit the property and we made a deal for 4 paintings at a reduced price. Then I sold two others to a friend so I can go back to Cuba with some money to buy more art from Jurgen.  You can see his stuff on his website at
And this one too.

I still have a bunch of paintings if anyone is interested!