I’ve long wanted to visit Cuba and last week I finally had an opportunity to do so, traveling with Brother Li Wei, Sister Alicia Homrich and Patricia Tome, aka Comandante P.
Patricia is making a documentary about Cuban food and has been to Cuba three times over the past few years, so she provided us with advice and organizing knowhow for this trip.
Our official objective was to attend a conference on theater and related arts known as Mayo Teatral and this turned out to be a bonus since all of the performances we saw were quite good, including in particular a modern dance sequence called “Casi Casa” or, according to my translation “Almost a Home.” This involved a lot of male-female interaction, some of it incorporating stoves, furniture and vacuum cleaners.
We also saw some films, two of which were documentaries about Cuba and one of which was a German film with Spanish subtitles called Lichter or Lights. Lichter focused on Ukrainians who had made it to Poland but who were trying to get into Germany against the aggressive policing of the German border guards. It was very well done and brought to mind all the borders where rich countries attempt to keep poor people from getting in, including the Florida Straits that separate Cuba from Key West.
We landed at Jose Martí International Airport on Monday afternoon, May 10, and after descending from the plane onto the tarmac, were led to an entrance that looked like the backdoor to some kind of warehouse. Not too big on formal niceties at JMIA. After we had gone through customs, etc. (which didn’t take too long), we headed out to meet our ground transportation. Actually Patricia was delayed by a great deal of questioning from the authorities, but, according to one of her questioners, it was because they liked her looks.
Arriving at Jose Martí International Airport
On the way into Havana I saw an old blue 1952 Ford that looked just like the first new car our family owned and I hoped to see another one during the trip so I could photograph it and show Dad. No luck there.
Cuba does have lots of old cars, and for some reason, there seem to be more Chevrolets than any other brand. Some of them are falling apart, some have been repainted badly, but some look very spiffy. A few were pimped up so they looked like something Cheech Marin might have tooled around East L.A. in.
We stayed in a private home called Casa Nelson that had been converted into a kind of “pension” maintained by Eric, a very friendly and good natured guy in his 30s. Eric provided us with breakfast every morning, featuring a good sized plate of sliced fruit, bread and honey, guava paste, mixed fruit juice (freshly prepared and including various mixes of pineapple, guava, mango and I’m not sure what else).
Breakfast at Casa Nelson
Our place was in Old Havana, which is the area inside of what used to be the city walls, walls that were constructed to defend from pirate raids that came all too frequently in the centuries before 1800. In Old Havana the streets are rather narrow and the sidewalks extremely narrow. Since Casa Nelson is in a poor section of town the streets were not the cleanest in the world. I won’t say they were the least clean though, because I’ve stayed in some mighty sketchy neighborhoods in my day. I noticed my Cuba Lonely Planet Guide recommended that foreigners not walk the streets in our neighborhood after dark, but we did so without worry. For one thing, violent crime is very rare in Cuba due to the vigorous police presence. That’s one advantage of living in a country where the government decides what its own limits are in the area of law enforcement. Obviously there are disadvantages to this, which we can save for future discussion.
Old Havana Street
Lonely Planet says “Don’t go to Cuba for the food.” My own advice is “Don’t go to Cuba for the food.” I hate to say this because everyone was so nice to us and our experience was wonderful in almost every regard. But the food in most restaurants is merely edible. Our first evening dinner was not even up to a standard we could call "bland." We ate at Don Lorenzo’s which had been recommended to us as a good place not far from our pension. However, the prices were high and when our food came, some of it was so badly prepared that we couldn’t even eat it: inferior watermelon, lousy chicken, not-very-good bread, and even below par stuffed plantains. And the wontons - to call them lousy would be unfair to food that is merely lousy. They had the texture of stale bread and the flavor of Styrofoam (not that I've ever eaten Styrofoam, so I'm guessing here). Some of Don Lorenzo's food was passable, but none of it was good. The high point of the dinner was watching the rooster in the giant cage next to our table sexually assault his mate. Also, since the dining area was on an upper floor, we could look out the window onto the streets of Old Havana and watch the sights.
Alicia, Patricia, Li Wei and those #^@%-ing Chickens
The low quality food was disappointing to me because in Florida we have a lot of Cuban restaurants that serve great food. Some of the Florida Cubans (especially those with strongly right-leaning political views) are convinced that people in Cuba are starving. There may have been food shortages in the 1990s, and there are specific shortages today, but food in general is readily available and nobody seems to be suffering from malnutrition.
One of our culinary highlights was our visit to Havana’s Chinatown or Barrio Chino. On Tuesday afternoon Li Wei and Alicia and I walked on 23rd street while Patricia made some arrangements with the film institute with which she has been working (ICAIC) and as we looked around in a local market we ran into a group of Chinese students who had come to Cuba to study medicine. They clued us in on the best Chinese restaurant, and the next evening we made our way there.
Barrio Chino, La Habana
Barrio Chino includes several blocks in Central Havana (not far from Old Havana), but the most colorful part is a single narrow alley flanked on both sides by Chinese restaurants with lots of red coloring including red lanterns. Our destination, Tian Tan Restaurant, was on this alleyway, and when we got there we understood why it was preferred. Almost all the Chinese restaurants were owned by people some of whose ancestors were Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, but who had intermarried into Hispanic- or African-Cuban families and whose recipes seem to have been diluted along with their Chinese DNA. However, Tian Tan was owned by recent Shanghainese immigrants who remembered their homeland cooking style. An added advantage for us was that Li Wei is a native of Shanghai and he was able to speak in Shanghainese and establish a special rapport with the owners. OK, we didn’t get a big discount or anything, but we did get a very friendly reception. The food was good, the best meal we had on our entire trip, in my opinion.
After dinner we walked back to Old Havana and stopped for mojitos at an outdoor table in the Plaza de la Catedral. A boy of about 10 or 12 tried to sell us trinkets and seemed to fall in love with Patricia. Also, Patricia explained the basis of her disdain for European and other foreign men who come to Cuba to pick up poor Cuban women, referring in particular to a 60ish Spaniard at the table next to ours who was hooking up with a 30ish Cuban lady. In fact, Patricia, not shy about expressing her opinions, let the Spanish gentleman know how she felt about his behavior. He seemed to take her sharp words in stride. This wasn’t the last time Patricia confronted strangers with her candid opinions. Que Valor! (No, I don’t know how to do the upside down exclamation point.)
The Cuban government is working to restore the plazas and other parts of Old Havana to their historical beauty and is doing a good job by my lights. So here are the things I liked most about Cuba: the friendly people, the beautifully restored neighborhoods and the luscious music.
Plaza Vieja in Old Havana
Lively Evening Concert on the Plaza
That’s enough about Cuba for now. Later, time permitting, I’ll say a few words about our trip out to the countryside. Ciao.