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The tantalizing aroma of tropical wood, sweet flowers, rich earth… land came wafting over the waves. The fragrance drew us in, filling our nostrils; more pungent the closer we got. It smelled like paradise. It is amazing how being away from land and all its smells heightens your senses, and 27 days at sea our noses were starved for the smell of growing things.
That morning sailing into the Marquesas the scent was incredible. I am sure that some of it must have been missing the smells of land, but nothing could parallel that fragrance… if I could make a perfume to rival that smell I would make millions.
When the sharp green cliffs jutting sharply out of the deep blue ocean finally came into view I nearly wept. The French Polynesian islands were stunning. Gauguin hadn’t done it justice.
As we jubilantly sailed into Hiva Oa harbor, marveling at the stunning landscape more than ready to check in and disembark. The harbor had 6 or 7 other boats in it and was well-protected by the steep slopes that rose sharply to three sides.
With sinking hearts we realized that it was a Sunday. We couldn’t check in. We couldn’t leave the boat, and even if we wanted to, not that it mattered because nothing was open. But after almost a month at sea I was a little stir crazy.
As soon as we anchored Sato San and Toshi San helped me put the paddleboard in the water and I went for a little excursion. I paddled up to a few boats anchored near us and said hi, and then I saw it.
A little black pony standing in the surf! I paddle boarded faster, determined to make it to the beach. I wasn’t *supposed* to go to shore before we were checked in, but it was a pony. Surely there were exceptions in those cases, right?
I paddled to shore, and a bit before I got there, a young man joined the pony and started washing him in the surf. I hesitated a moment, but paddled into shore.
“Bonjour!” I called using almost the extent of my abominable French. I did take two years of French at University. Unfortunately now my French is on par with my woefully lacking Japanese. My Marquesan is even worse.
The pony’s owner, James, was a tall Marquesan around 15 and though his English was worse than my French he let me pet his pony and invited me for a ride. Large for a pony, the sleek black horse was about 14 hands, just short enough that I could get on without a mounting block even from a rocky beach.
He led me along the beach with a rope around the sleek black pony’s neck and then somehow asked if I knew how to ride. When I told him that I did, he adroitly fashioned a rope bridle for my steed and gave me the reigns.
I took the little mount for a little trot up a hill through lush vegetation and into a little meadow at the top. I hadn’t ridden in a while and am not used to riding bareback in the first place so I slowed his jouncy little trot to something I would be sure not to get shaken off. He was a willing mount, well cared-for, and I was delighted to be on a horse again.
I was glowing when I made it back to Umineko. This was unquestionably the best welcome I had had to any country.
Unfortunately, the options for dinner or food had narrowed significantly. On the up side quarantine wouldn’t be able to take any vegetables from us. On the down side, we were all but out of fresh food. I had used the last of our potatoes in a curry a few days earlier. The difficulty for provisioning for a long passage… you don’t want to get too much food because in many countries customs confiscates fresh food and meats.
I’d done pretty well, but we had a modest dinner of pasta with Japanese seasoning packets. Each one comes with 2-3 individual servings and usually dried seaweed or some dried seasoning to stir in. In Japan these individual seasoning packets for pasta are common. They are incredibly easy too, just make the pasta and each person sprinkles whatever packet they want over their pasta. They are perfect for sailing especially if you have crew members with individual preferences.
Some people like to get huge economy-sized pasta sauce or other provisions, but I find that often I won’t use all of the sauce up before it starts to go off so I really do like the individual packet approach, at least for some things. There are a ton of flavors and this way each person can have whatever flavor of pasta they want. No mixing in eggs, milk, heating pasta sauce, sautéing onions and garlic to make it tastier. No muss, no fuss. Not the most healthy food but a real lifesaver when you don’t have a lot of provisions.
We would have to wait until Monday to get some fresh veggies, fish, and other provisions. And French baguettes… I couldn’t wait for the baguettes…
50 meter waves swallowed the boat! The wind was gusting up to 60 knots! The sails were in shreds, the autopilot broke, the water maker broke…
Given the horror stories about sailing you’d wonder why anyone would ever want to get out on the water. But the thing is that talking about good sails isn’t interesting. Who wants to hear about the exhilarating 9-knot sail with 12 knots of wind and a current in your favor? It is wonderful, but like all happy families being alike so too are great passages. Describing how the yacht sped over flat seas under brilliant blue skies can get old fast. But that’s exactly what happened.
We were on the Galapagos Express, the current speeding us along. Of course had it been up to me, we would have stopped in the Galapagos. Of course I wanted to see the legendary islands and it was also a wonderful way to break up the 4,000 nautical mile passage. Sadly the captain wanted to go straight to the Marquesas.
Still, the sail was so glorious I could hardly complain. Fast, smooth, and idyllic. At night we were even serenaded by a stow-away cricket.
The sail was so smooth that cooking at anchor is often rougher. And after our intensive Panama provisioning we had an extremely well-stocked galley so cooking was ideal. Simple is still always the best though and salads are wonderful for warm weather.
I abhorred cabbage before I started sailing. Well, I liked the pickled varieties, sauerkraut or kimchee, that is. Still, coleslaw made my hair stand on end. When I heard that cabbage was the cruiser’s lettuce I was not excited. I think I would prefer a diet of hardtack to one of coleslaw.
But the more I experimented with cabbage, the more I liked it. Far more than simply the coleslaw I knew as a child, I have come to see it as an under-appreciated, extremely versatile, and surprisingly nutritious vegetable. We always have cabbage on board on Umineko. It is in some of my favorite Japanese dishes, featured widely in Korean cuisine, and many other dishes one wouldn’t necessarily think of it.
From hating cabbage to relishing cabbage salads (don’t worry… I’m still not sold on coleslaw) and numerous other cabbage dishes. This is one of my favorites; a super simple tasty and nutritious cabbage dish.
Stow Away Quinoa Cabbage Salad
- 2 c quinoa, cooked
- ½ onion finely chopped
- 2 c cabbage, sliced
- Juice from 1 lime
- 1 T rice vinegar
- 1 T sesame oil
- 2 t soy
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/3 c cranberries
- In small bowl stir together lime juice, rice vinegar, oil, and soy and set aside
- In large bowl mix quinoa onion, and cabbage
- Pour dressing over and mix well
- Stir in cranberries
- Season with salt and pepper
*This salad can be stored for days and is just as tasty. Maybe even more!
tires and lines for transiting the canal
The Panama Canal. After months spent going through locks on the Erie Canal I was finally transiting the legendary Panama Canal. This was the big time. The man-made cut severing the umbilical cord of the Americas. A channel through between two oceans.
We had visited the lock museum and seen the cars pulling along the monstrous container ships. Now it was our turn
We anchored a mile outside of the canal with the other boat that had been in the previous WARC, Sprit of Alcides. It had been nice to reconnect with people we knew and we were looking forward to rafting up with them, or tying our boats together, as we transited the canal. We were waiting for our canal adviser to be dropped off.
Alcides with Panama Canal tire fenders
The Panama Canal Authority, PCA, requires that every yacht have an adviser on board as the canal be tricky to navigate. The PCA appoints
these experienced advisers to help ease passage through the canal. The captain doesn’t have to take the adviser’s advice, but the advisers are experienced. If their advice isn’t heeded things may go awry.
A fast ferry motored up to Alcides and dropped off their adviser and they were on their
way. We watched forlornly as they pulled up their anchor and motored toward the canal. When would we go!? We had the same transit time. We had made plans to raft up together! We’d met. Discussed which side we would raft up on and put the massive tire fenders and canal gear we had rented on the opposite side to protect ourselves from the walls!
going into the canal
Jose, our adviser made a few phone calls. Bad news. Things had gotten mixed up. We were going in the following transit. We would raft up to a Canadian catamaran transiting. We were less-than-pleased. But we couldn’t think too much about it. There was a lot to think about to transit the canal.
I fed Jorge dinner, cornbread and chili with biscotti for dessert, while the 6’2” Panamanian he briefed us. We’d heard most of it in the WARC briefing, but it was good to hear it again.
Because there were five of us on Umineko, we hadn’t needed to to hire extra people to be line handlers on Umineko, but that meant that we were all new. We had to pay attention to our adviser.
boats rafted up
It was dark before we reached Gatun lock, but the canal was so bright it almost seemed like day. Motoring into the massive channel rafted up to the boat was awe-inspiring. Even with a cruise ship called Prince of Tides of us and another catamaran rafted up to a monohull behind us the cavernous lock still seemed empty.
Almost as soon as we entered the canal the monkey fists were lobbed onto Umineko by the Panamanian line handlers on shore. The WARC briefing had warned us about these soft-ball-sized lead-filled knots of rope potentially breaking windows, solar panels, crew member’s head, or other more fragile parts on the boat. Whether we had fantastic line handlers or were just lucky every one of the monkey fists hit their mark. We quickly grabbed the fists and tied our dock lines to the rope and secured them to the boat.
the Monkey Fist is far more intimidating in person
After traversing locks in the Erie, Darwin, and on the ICW, I thought I knew about locks. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The gargantuan locks were on a completely different scale. It is as much like those in the Erie Canal as an elephant is to a mouse. You’d think navigating locks, taking slack in and letting it out wouldn’t be a big deal.
Unfortunately there were a few complications. Jose’s English was questionable, and he had trouble understanding and communicating with the Japanese captain and rest of the crew. I spent what felt like hours line handling and trying to play translator. Add to that we were transiting in tandem with the other catamaran we were rafted up with. And of course enormous amount of water roiled, eddied and churned around the boast trying to pull us this way and that.
Even so, we did make it through unscathed. We never bumped one of the towering concrete walls. We didn’t have to transit with a container ship. None of our cleats were ripped off. And thankfully we didn’t sustain any damage to captain or crew from the monkey paws. But this was only our first lock. We would tie up to a mooring in the middle of Gatun Lake that night. Tomorrow we had two more locks to get through. And we had an audience for the Miraflores lock where the visitor’s center was.
On any boat it’s almost mandatory to have snack food around. After all, keeping something in your tummy is a good way to prevent seasickness. Unfortunately keeping snack food around with voracious Japanese men can be somewhat of a challenge. I would open a bag of cookies, look away for a minute and poof! No more cookies. If I baked them it would be even worse!
My secret weapon, was to make biscotti. This recipe makes about 90 biscotti and happily these crunchy little biscuits last for weeks. I would still have to ration the biscotti. I would hide the majority of them and put about 20 in the cookie box each day.
But not everyone has voracious crew mates on board so you might want to halve this recipe.
Monkey Fist Apricot Poppy seed Biscotti
- 1 t salt
- 1 ½ t baking soda
- 4 c flour
- 6 eggs
- 1 c sugar
- ¼ c poppy seeds
- Zest from 1 lemon
- Juice from 1 lemon
- 1 c apricots, chopped
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- Line 2 loaf pans & with greased parchment paper
- Press dough into pans
- Bake 30 minutes
- Cut into ⅛” slices
- Lay out on cookie sheets. You may have to do several batches depending on the space in your oven.
- Bake additional 15 minutes or to desired crispiness.
I’ve found leaving the biscotti in the oven after you turn it off is the best way to get the biscotti crunchy without singeing them.
Varadero isn’t Cuba,” countless people told us. It’s just for tourists. You can’t see the real Cuba there. When we got to Havana I had to agree. Havana seemed like a different world from the famous beaches, performances, and posh hotels catering to foreigners of the lauded beach town.
But when we left Havana it was the same. Everyone told us Havana wasn’t the real Cuba. So what is the real Cuba? Cuba isn’t one country. Every city and place I visited was completely different from every other place. Havana: the post-apocalyptic Cartagena and most photogenic city I have ever visited. But less than an hour away, the sleepy little town of Jaimanitas, is ideologically a world apart.
Cien Fuegos: a charming well-ordered town with a Peruvian feel to its downtown. On the Southern coast, it was never built up for the visiting American jetsetters in the 40s and 50s so it doesn’t have the feel of an abandoned once-great city. No, everything is clean and seems like it runs quite well. Well, most things. Internet access and the marina not having a shower were the two things that really hurt. Internet access may be painfully slow and expensive in Havana and Varadero but it is possible. It wasn’t even possible at the posh hotels in Cien Fuegos when I visited. Like stepping back in time.
Speaking of stepping back in time, about an hour’s drive from Cien Fuegos lies Trinidad, Cuba’s oldest city and a UNESCO world heritage site. Weavers, artists, and other artisans with purses made out of coke can tops and every other recycled product set up their stalls along the narrow cobblestone streets. Trinidad is a tourist trap, but the history, culture and the feel of the place make it delightful anyway.
Trinidad was charming, but I was almost more surprised by the countryside. It is something entirely different entirely. Truly like stepping back in time. People ride horses, use oxen to pull carts. More often than not the buses are wagons drawn by horses. Men cut down high grass with sickles on the roadside. This wasn’t going back to the 50s. This was going back several centuries.
The Cuban government doesn’t want tourists visiting the countryside. Well, to be fair it isn’t really geared towards tourism. Buses don’t go there, there aren’t tourist accommodations in the smaller towns. My visit to a home in the country was a trip to a yachtie’s boxing instructor’s house. I visited a yachtie’s boxing instructor’s home. unfinished cinderblock home reminded me of some of the country homes I had seen in Zambia. Nothing that I had seen in my travels in South America, but the house was according to the yachtie, far and away nicer than what it had been just a few months before. He had built it himself and was inexorably proud of the place. Surrounded by banana trees, it was nice that he had fresh fruit so close.
The country life, according to an expat yachtie, who had lived at Marina Hemmingway on and off for 7 years, was the real Cuba. The Cuba that tourists didn’t see. But I am not sure that I could define any one part of Cuba I saw as the real Cuba. Everywhere is so incredibly different from everywhere else. I would love to see more of the countryside, to visit the tobacco plantations, and explore the mountains. Maybe even discover the “real” Cuba. There is always next time.
Not that salmon has much to do with Cuba, other than that I made this delicious dish while Umineko was in a marina in Cuba with frozen fillets we had bought in the United States. To be perfectly honest I didn’t even see salmon on a menu while I was there, but this dish is too tasty not to put up.
Sloop Soba Salmon
- 1 T ginger paste
- 2 Cloves garlic, minced
- ⅓ c mirin
- ⅓ soy
- 2 T sake
- 2 T sugar
- 1 T sesame oil
- 4 salmon fillets
- 400 g soba
- Boil soba about 5 minutes
- Drain and run cold water to stop cooking, set aside
- Mix sake, soy, sugar, and ginger paste in small bowl stirring until sugar is dissolved, set aside
- Fry garlic in sesame oil in large skillet about 3 min over med heat
- Cook salmon fillets in oil, 2 minutes per side, just enough to brown
- Place salmon on plate
- Pour sauce into skillet and cook until mixture comes to a boil and starts to thicken
- Return salmon to pan and cook 2 minutes more on each side, sauce will reduce to glaze
- Serve over soba noodles
Cruisers and sailors are some of the most interesting people. I haven’t met a single citizen of the high seas who wasn’t at least a little bit out-of-step with the white picket fence world. The lifestyle lends itself to the quirky, quixotic, fanciful, and fantastic; those special people for whom life is about exploration, learning, and perusing new experiences. It brings some of the
I met Vetenar a 43’ fountaine pajot catamaran, and her fantastic crew in Marina Hemingway. Steven, Alex, Alex, and Hillary. From the start their passion and curiosity, were clear. Steven and Alex had founded an organization called Globe Hackers. An organization of explorers, adventurers, and “people who think they can.”
Globe Hackers champions travel, learning, exploring, and making the world a better place. Their goal is connect like-minded people and to provide a better understanding of the world. They produce films and write about unique and fascinating places, as well as people and organizations around the world that are doing extraordinary things.
I have started writing for Globe Hackers and look forward to doing production work with them in the near future. I highly recommend checking them out. This is a video they did of a dinner party we had. http://www.globehackers.com/any-given-meal/
Floridita, Hemingway’s favorite bar
Touristic Havana can be expensive, or at least the prices can be comparable to the US. Often even at higher prices selection is limited (I couldn’t find something as simple as flour in Havana to save my life). But if you know where to go, or are lucky and stumble across them, there are wonderful hidden treasures to be found for next-to-nothing.
While walking through the streets of Havana Vieja, a Cuban invited an Australian couple into his house and sold them 4 good-sized lobster tails for 5 CUC! I never had that happen, nor as a girl walking around on my own would I have gone inside a strange Cuban man’s house alone. I found my treasures other places.
We were running out of seafood on Umineko so one of Marina Hemmingway’s expats took me in search of fish on his scooter. We asked several Cubans on the streets of Jaimanitas, a suburb of Havana. Most of them shrugged their shoulders, but at last a little Cuban grandmother pointed out the house where a man had fish. The man opened his freezer and it was brimming with frozen fish. He took out one enormous bag of fillets, followed by a large bag of lobster tails, and finally an enormous block of grey-brown something.
“Cangrejo,” he told me. Crab. After a bit of bargaining he sold me 5 kilos of cleaned crab for 8 CUC. We were eating delicious crab on Umineko for months. As Sato San’s favorite American dish (and one of mine) is crab cakes. This is perfect as crab cakes are extremely easy to make, freeze, and then heat up again as needed.
If you have the ingredients, I definitely recommend making a bunch of crab cakes and freezing them for a passage. They are easy to make, easier to heat up, and are always a hit.
Catamaran Crab Cakes
- 1 lb lump crab
- ½ large onion, finely chopped
- 2 T mayonnaise
- 2 T Dijon mustard
- 1 T old bay seasoning
- 1 T lemon juice
- 4 eggs
- ¼ c green onions, finely sliced
- 1 c bread crumbs
- Stir all ingredients together until mixed but not too much (leave crab lumps) in medium bowl
- Heat large skillet over medium heat until hot
- Spray with cooking spray
- Spoon crab mixture onto skillet in ⅓ c portions
- Press down into patties
- Cook 3 minutes
- Flip and cook another 3 minutes
- Enjoy then or freeze for later
Crab cakes freeze extremely well and are great for heating up underway
Wandering the streets of Havana Vieja is like a photographer’s wet dream. I walked from the historic Hotel Nacional with its crystal chandeliers, ornate furnishings, and pictures of stars who had visited from the 1920s to today. I walked through the crumbling sections, with the locals playing football, baseball, or dominoes in the street, and finally to the touristic “Havana vieja,” refurbished, reconstructed, and fit for outside eyes.
Like a post-apocalyptic Cartagena, vines and decay are well on their way to reclaiming parts of the city . Stunning art deco buildings are crumbling in disrepair. Bullet holes in buildings stand as ghostly reminders to the class war that ended Batista’s era of opulence. It would be tragic, but for the vibrant Cubans living in the ruins. The juxtaposition of the glorious architecture and the inhabitants, each one a story in him or herself is incredible. It is like walking back in time.
Cars from the ‘40s, and ‘50s line the streets. I had heard of this phenomena, but I thought it would be one or two, but no. Every second car is a beautiful vintage automobile. The engines have been replaced by Russian diesel motors, but the shape that they are in is fabulous.
One of my favorite corners had a building that said it all. The skeletal remains of a building with the street sign “Havana” still hanging on the corner. A Canadian cruiser I know lamented the art deco buildings falling into ruin. No amount of reconstruction could help these buildings. Not when the rebar skeletons of the buildings had rusted and collapsed.
According to him what they needed to do was just to tear the buildings down and rebuild them from the inside out. Brushing up the exteriors wouldn’t prevent the building from collapsing in a year or two. When I peered inside some of the buildings I was shocked. Many of the buildings with passable exteriors were destroyed inside. But with Havana a UNESCO world heritage site it was illegal to tear the buildings down.
In the potholed streets surrounded by dilapidated grandeur, fruit sellers pedal their wares, children play games, and day to day life continues. But one story up, buildings appear in better repair. The people leaning out over their balconies and interacting with one another from on high fascinated me. The colorful clothes hung out to dry and their residents washing windows, chatting, or gazing out at their surroundings piques the curiosity.
I am overjoyed that I got to see Havana when I did. Before it was flooded with American tourists. Before it was remodeled into something else entirely.
This French toast is a delightful twist on the normal style. More than that you can just throw it in the oven and then everyone’s breakfast is ready at the same time.
To me rum always gives French toast a little something extra and, of course, some of the best rum in the world comes from Cuba.
My absolute favorite rum is a Cuban brand called Legendario. The sweet nectar is certainly meant to be sipped in small quantities than mixed or (god forbid) used for cooking. Okay, it’s more of a liqueur than a rum. Even though I didn’t actually use this delicious drink in cooking I thought a picture of the bottle was necessary when writing about Cuba.
Cutter Cuban French Toast
Makes 6 portions
- 1 ½ c butter
- 1 ½ c sugar
- 2 T molasses
- 2 t cinnamon
- 1 t nutmeg
- 1 French baguette, sliced in about ½” slices
- 1 T vanilla
- 8 eggs
- ½ c milk
- ½ c rum
- 2 T sugar
- Preheat oven to 350° F 170° C
- Combine butter, 1 ½ c sugar, molasses, 1 t cinnamon, and nutmeg in saucepan
- Cook over med-low heat stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves and mixture is uniform
- In a small bowl whisk together vanilla, eggs, milk, rum, and remaining t cinnamon
- Arrange bread in greased baking pan in two layers (a lasagna pan is ideal)
- Pour egg mixture over bread
- Bake ½ hour or until center has risen slightly
Remember to take all of it out of the pan immediately. When the sugars cool they will harden and stick!
Salud! Education! Seguridad!
Cuba’s motto and Castro’s battle cry. Health, education, and security. Well, Cuba certainly has all of those things, but at what cost? Cuba has an excellent health care system. In fact the Cuban government is encouraging foreigners to come for medical tourism. Unfortunately, especially in smaller towns, it is difficult to even get soap.
Even in Havana women come up to tourists begging for soap. They have a wonderful education system, completely free. Though many Cubans informed me that much of it is indoctrination rather than freedom – education, but only if you pledge your loyalty and life to the Party. Numerous Cubans I met were self-educated to avoid this system. The other problem with this education system is that people with doctorates end up working as garbage men, surgeons as bartenders. An education is a wonderful thing, but it only means something if you are able to utilize it.
As far as security goes, Cuba has very little crime which is wonderful. The flip side is that the government rules with an iron fist. One of the expats told me that there was a robbery at the marina a few years earlier. When the yacht owner complained four employees were fired.
On my way to Havana University I met a 40-something Cuban man. Jorge was tall, slim, and delighted to talk about life in Cuba, he sat with me on one of the benches and chatted for over an hour. Since Raul had come to power people were able to privately own certain things and have businesses. There were also more religious freedoms which extremely important to Jorge.
I strolled around the beautiful grounds of Havana University. Its stately architecture and wooded park reminded me a little bit of Columbia. Not 15 minutes later two Cubans approached me. Going to Cuba you are told never to talk politics in Cuba but it seemed like every Cuban wanted to tell you about their life.
I won’t say a word about politics, but listening to Cubans is another story and it is fascinating hearing the different viewpoints. When these two, a man with skin the color of a café ole and startling blue eyes, and a short plump woman, approached me I was extremely curious to see what they had to say. I listened, fascinated as they recounted the glorious history of their beloved government. Batista’s government was racist, sexist, and above all classist. Then the revolution changed everything. Now Cuba was egalitarian, truly a utopia to hear them talk. “Salud! Education! Seguidad!” seemed to be every third sentence. Their fervor was impressive.
They offered to take me to a student bar that foreigners couldn’t go to alone. There we could continue our conversation. I should have declined, but I was curious. Besides, I had another hour to kill before I met the French Canadian expat from the marina at the University. We went to the student bar, just a few blocks away the Cubans spouting propaganda the entire time.
The bar itself was all-but empty. We ordered drinks and talked. After a few minutes they started talking about the monthly allowance for food and the woman pulled out her ration card. She didn’t have enough to eat and she had a son, could I please help? Cubans were only allotted a certain amount to eat every month. They could buy more but because the monthly salary was so low it was hard to get by.
There it was. The pitch, the begging. Unfortunately often Cubans, especially younger Cubans, are effusively friendly to tourists because they want something. In my experience it has always been money. Sadly, quite a few Cubans try and romance lonely tourists, aging men or women, and get them to marry them.
If your government is so wonderful then why do you need to beg for food? I thought, but bit my tongue. They clearly didn’t see it that way.
I didn’t have much money so as badly as I felt I couldn’t give her anything. No, I didn’t want to buy cigars from them either. Then they came with the check for the drinks. This was another scam, they had arranged it with the restaurant to “invite” a tourist and have her pay for their drinks and they would get a portion of the profits.
I didn’t like it, but I did pay 10 CUC for the drinks. I was paying for the lesson. It was an eye-opening afternoon. When I met the French Canadian, he told me that as an ex-pat living in Cuba on and off for 3 years he only had one Cuban who he would call a friend. Tourists were walking ATMs. They would never steal.
Cuba is an extremely safe country, but begging, sob stories, and scamming tourists into handing over their money was standard. As friendly as they seemed, Cubans didn’t really want to be friends… they were looking for an “in” so they could find a way out.
I’m not entirely sure if I believe everything that he told me, but I was certainly more on guard after that. We took the circuitous (and extremely cheap) bus system back to Marina Hemmingway. As soon as we were back I went to the galley to do some baking. After the bitter experience, however interesting, I needed something sweet.
Guavas are ubiquitous in Cuba and Central America so guava paste is common in deserts. In Colombia one of my favorite snacks is called bocadillo con queso, which is basically guava paste with salty cheese. The combination of sweet and salty is delectable. Many shops also sell buns filled with a bit of guava paste and salty local cheese.
Not surprisingly these guava and salty cheese buns are popular in Cuba as well, but are more for special occasions. In honor of being in Cuba I decided to make guava feta buns. The Cuban kitchen cookbook says that traditional Cuban bread is a delicious sweet bread with eggs.
Unfortunately those days are long gone. With 5 eggs allotted per person per month Cubans have to use their eggs wisely. The other problem is that flour in short supply (I couldn’t find it in any local shops in Havana or Jaimanitas and no one could tell me where to get some). Generally Cubans just buy their bread from a local bakery that bakes two or three ways of baking the same bread dough (buns, longer baguette loaves, and maybe hard bread sticks).
I took it old school. Instead of old-fashioned Cuban bread I substituted Heave Ho Challah. The resulting guava feta pastries were delicious. For something a little different these pastries are a lot of fun. You can buy cans of guava paste in the Hispanic section of most grocery stores in the States and most places in the Caribbean and Central America.
Gaff Guava Feta Pastries
1⁄2 recipe Heave Ho Challah bread dough
1⁄2 c feta cheese crumbles
1 egg beaten (optional)
Preheat oven to 350° F 170 ° C
Divide dough into plum-sized balls
Flatten each ball either with palm or a rolling pin into circle
Spoon 1 T guava paste and 2 T feta in the middle of each circle
Fold edges around paste and cheese forming either little purse pockets or crescent rolls
Brush with egg wash for a beautiful golden brown color
Bake for 20 minutes
What is the most famous band from Cuba?” Sato San asked me over lunch.
It was our first day in the country and we were exploring Varadero. So far the famous beach town had offered little but street vendors and tourist traps. Even the locals had told us emphatically that this was decidedly not Cuba. We had found the least touristic-looking restaurant we could and had a meager lunch of bean soup, rice, and fried fish. Sustenance, not much more than that.
“Buena Vista Social Club,” I answered without hesitation. I had seen Ibrahim Ferrer, one of their original members, almost a decade earlier in Slovakia and was eager to see the entire band. More than a band Buena Vista was a phenomenon, I tried to explain to my captain. They were amazing. They had won international music awards, there was a film about them… Yes, they were definitely the most famous Cuban band.
After lunch we wandered back down the main strip and stopped in a dance studio on the way. One of Sato San’s main reasons for stopping by Cuba was to learn salsa after all. A slim woman sat behind a podium-like desk to the left of the entrance, her hair pulled back in an elegant bun. She was clearly a dancer.
There was a concert tonight that dancers from her studio were performing at. Buena Vista Social Club was playing with another salsa group at the open-air concert hall. Tickets were $5 CUC if we bought them at the dance studio but $10 CUC at the door.
It was at the other end of the island from Gaviotta Marina, where we were staying but buses ran late that night because of the concert…
She had me at Buena Vista Social Club. Getting to see them in Cuba? On our first day?! I couldn’t believe my luck.
After dinner we caught the bus to where the woman had said the concert hall was. It was the same double-decker bus we had taken downtown that morning. I confirmed with the driver that it really was running late that night. To my relief it was.
The streets of Varadero were uncannily dark as the bus rolled past. Some of the restaurants and bars had patrons in them, but not a streetlamp nor shop light was turned on. This didn’t seem like the Cuba I had heard so much about with its vibrant night life. Was there a power outage?
We arrived at the concert hall at 9:00. Right on time, or at least when the concert was supposed to start. We had to wait 20 minutes for the beautiful sheet-music metal gates to open. The box office wasn’t even open yet for Mori San and Taira San to buy their tickets! Cuban runs on the same time as most of Latin America.
The concert was more of a welcome to tourists and visitors to Cuba. Buena Vista Social Club preforms several times a week in Varadero but this was the season opening. Umineko’s crew sat in the second row of folding chairs sipped our $2 CUC mojitos, one of my favorite classic Cuban drinks, and watched welcome speeches given in Spanish, French, Russian, and English. Then came the fireworks kicking off the start of a new season.
Professional dancers, representing the dance school put on a show, followed by buxom women in feathered costumes I am pretty sure were strung together with red dental floss filing through the crowd and dancing with men in less-risqué costumes . The rest of Umineko was far more enthusiastic about the latter than I.
By the time the first strains of Buena Vista’s set started the venue was packed and we were on about our third mojito. The energy crackled as the dancers came alive with their fiery quick-footed salsa steps.
Whirling and spinning their bodies moved in perfect time to the spicy, sultry strains of music to stir the soul and show the essence of Cuban culture. The new incarnation of Buena Vista is as talented and dedicated as the great musicians who came before them. Trumpet solos to break your heart and move the feet. You can’t not smile when listening to the salsa-y strains of Cuban music.
We took a taxi back to the marina our spirits high. Everyone had told us that Varadero wasn’t really Cuba, but this had been a more perfect welcome to Cuba than I could have imagined. If this was the country I had heard so much about I couldn’t wait to see more of the art-music-filled country.
I gave the dinner that night a Latin twist: quesadillas and Latin Landfall Salad. We hadn’t gone provisioning yet and didn’t have many fresh vegetables left. This salad is fantastic for long passages because most of the ingredients are long-lasting or can be used out of a can. Not to mention that it’s extremely simple to throw together and tasty as well. You technically don’t need to use an avocado but it’s a lot better if you have one on hand.
Latin Landfall Salad
(Black bean, corn, avocado, tomato salad)
2 c (1 can) corn
2 c (1 can) black beans
2 c cabbage
1 c onion, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1 avocado, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Juice from 2 limes
¼ c salsa
1 t salt
1 t pepper
Mix all ingredients (except avocado) in large bowl
Gently stir in avocado
Enjoy as side dish or main course
I slipped on the snorkel and slid off of the paddle board into the shallow aquamarine Bahamas waters. Looking down I saw the shapes of 5 rays hiding under the sand, their tails sticking up just their eyes exposed, watching warily. The ethereal form of one meter-wide ray glided gracefully past. He must have given his brethren some sort of signal. I shrieked in surprise (as much as one can shriek around a snorkel) as 5 enormous rays exploded upward in a cloud of sand. That was the start of it.
I had promised to find lobster in the Bahamas. The last time I was sailing there it seemed that the islands were thick with them, hiding in every rock and crevasse. We had eaten them until we couldn’t face another bite of lobster. This time was different I had found lobster! Paddle-boarding up to a fishing boat, but Sato San wanted to actually hunt lobster. Wild lobster. Today was our last chance. Our last stop before George Town, then it was on to Cuba.
We anchored off of Leestocking Cay and I looked approvingly at the rocky coastline. Rocks and crags… this was lobster territory. We dinghied slowly over to the rocky shoreline to search for the lobsters that were surely hiding there.
Taira San and Sato San in the dinghy, me in tow on the paddleboard looking for potential dinners. I stopped several times to pick up a couple of conch and some interesting fan-shaped shellfish that stuck out of the sand. In case we didn’t find any lobster it would be good to have a back-up plan.
Sato San, Taira San and I split up and did a thorough scouring of the area, checking under rocks and crannies from one beach to the next. Sea cucumbers, dozens of dead conch, thousands of miniscule transparent fish, but not so much as a lobster antenna to be seen. Near the second beach I saw Sato San again who suggested we head back to the dinghy. I was all for it, over an hour in the water and I was getting cold.
As everyone else had flippers and I didn’t, I was the straggler. Not that I minded. The ocean-life was beautiful, especially in the 3’-8’ waters near the shore. The porous volcanic rock hosted a myriad of fish and sea life. Still, I was half on the lookout for dinner.
From out of nowhere, a lithe grey shape whizzed up to me and slowed for a swim-by. My eyes widened. A dolphin! I hadn’t seen a single dolphin since leaving the States almost a month earlier and now one swam right past me! The dolphin turned tightly to hook back to swim within a meter.
His soft black eye looked inquisitively at me as he swam past. If he had been wearing a cap he would have doffed it. A few feet further the dove-grey gentleman looped back swimming back towards me. My heart soared. I could hardly believe it. Less than 5’ long, my dolphin friend had to be a teenager. He clearly fascinated by the strange creature in the water. Still, he had small notch out of his left flipper, maybe curiosity had gotten the best of him another time.
The spritely character swam inclined his cute snub nose to look at me before circling out a meter away and let out a high-pitched squeal. I tried to make a similar high-pitched sound, but dolphin is even harder to pick up than Japanese. After a few minutes of interaction my new friend swam away. I watched the tail grow fainter and fainter in the water.
Suddenly, to my delight, the dolphin was back at my side. He started big 5’ loops around me. One towards the surface, another diving to examine me from all angles. Time stood still as he started swimming in faster, tighter circles around me. I could have reached out my arm and brushed him, but somehow I sensed that wasn’t proper dolphin etiquette.
We danced, me twirling around almost in place his circles were so close. Not wanting to miss a second of the experience I drank everything in. The aero(hydro?)dynamic rounded lines that slid through the water with ease. The trim figure, but most of all the expressive features. I had read of dolphin’s intelligence, but experiencing it first-hand it struck me deeply.
He drifted out several feet and rolled over on one side exposing his belly to me. I rolled over in the same move. When I let my legs drift down, he “stood up” in the water, his tail near the bottom, head near the surface mimicking my upright stance. We were imitating one another!
When my friend surfaced for air and dipped back under the waves I smiled. This was another mammal. We had the bond of air-breathers in this underwater world. I wanted more than anything to be able to communicate. His deep intelligent eyes and actions, told me the dolphin clearly wanted the same. But I was the slow ape in his fast-paced world. After 10-minutes I stopped being quite so interesting and my friend swam away leaving me with a warm sense of connection.
It lasted about a minute. As soon as I turned away and begin to swim back to the dinghy a menacing grey dart-shaped form took my friend’s place. Ice-cold chills crept up my spine as the razor-sharp lines of a 4-foot barracuda cruised up and hovered a meter away from me. I wasn’t about to turn my back on this sinister character. If the dolphin’s eyes had seemed playful, this character’s cold, flat eyes and jutting teeth screamed one thing: danger. I hoped and prayed the dolphin would come back to no avail.
I called for Sato San and luckily he was nearby with a lobster spear and frightened the predator away. Luckily, I had taken off my ring. I had no desire to offer swimming destruction any shiny temptation. We got back to Umineko the boys lamenting the fact that we didn’t find any lobster. I opened up the fan-shaped shell to reveal more than just the slimy sea creature. Two baby lobsters were living in the shell too! One red and the other clear, both around the size of an eraser! Hey, they asked me to find lobster – they didn’t specify what size.
I cooked the conch and the disgusting slimy fan-shaped shellfish in a seafood biryani. The adorable baby lobsters are my new pets and live in a shallow bowl of salt water with half the shell. I am hoping to find an appropriate home for them in George Town.
Douglas Adams may not have been too far off in So Long and Thanks for all the Fish. Dolphins might not be extraterrestrial but who’s to say they aren’t as intelligent as humans. I don’t want to anthropomorphize dolphins. They are an entirely different species. Their surroundings have caused their brains to develop in very different ways from us. But they are intelligent, curious, inquisitive, and interested in exploring and learning about their world.
I think that it would be anthrocentric of us to claim humans are smarter than these creatures. Intelligent in different ways, of course, but humans could learn so much from these creatures. I long to communicate better. I know that scientists have been working on it for years, but if somehow we managed to crack the dolphin language…
Backstay Seafood Chana Biryani
1 lb conch, chopped
1 fillet fish, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 lb squid
2 c rice
1 c chick peas, cooked
½ onion, chopped
½ carrot, chopped
5 cardomom pods
1 t cinnamon
2 t garam masala
1 t turmeric
2 t grated ginger
1 t cumin seeds
½ t coriander seeds
1 t salt
3 c water
2 c rice
¼ c cranberries
½ c cashews
Cook seafood in pressure cooker about 20 minutes
Sauté garlic and onions in oil in deep pan for about 3 minutes
Add carrot and cook another 2 minutes
Add spices and stir until veggies are coated
Add rice and stir until coated
Add water and bring to a boil
Steam for 15 minutes
Add chick peas
Drain seafood and stir into biryani rice mixture