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!

No comments:

Post a Comment