I cried when we left Cuba. I had to! Well, if I wanted to leave, that is.
Half-sunken ship in Cien Fuegos marina
Immigration always makes me nervous, no matter how many times I cross a border I invariably tense when dealing with the shifty border officials. You never know what hoops they will make the foreigner jump through or what taxes, bribes, or fines they will expect you to pay. Or if they are just in a bad mood or are bored what power trip they will try and pull. Crossing the border from Zimbabwe to South Africa the South African border guards made us wait 24-hours and then threatened to make our bus wait another 24-hours before they would let us in the country. Border guards have absolute power and you know what they say about absolute power.
Now I understand entry formalities, countries don’t want bugs coming in on foreign food. They need to make sure no one is bringing drugs, weapons, or anything from a long list of banned items that a country might quarantine. But exiting is usually a breeze. Especially in a yacht. The United States, the Bahamas, and many other countries don’t even need you to get an exit stamp! Cuba on the other hand is quite different.
It was raining our departure day. A miserable drizzle that soaked everything. It had been interesting to visit Cuba but I was more than ready to get on to Panama. The longer we were there the more I realized it: Cuba is decidedly not a country for cruisers. At least not cruisers who don’t like getting stuck in red tape.
We finished a last-minute provisioning before heading out and waited for the dock master to check us out.
He showed up right on time, he brought a massive entourage with him. I gaped as a formidable gentleman, clearly in charge, two women, and a man with a large German shepherd in tow, all filed onto Umineko. Suddenly the spacious saloon seemed cramped.
The dock master explained to us in his limited English, that the gentleman with an air of authority was the customs officer. He needed to check our boat to see if we were taking anything out of the country that we shouldn’t.
head of immigration in Varadero
What not to take leaving the country? I was confused. I was more baffled when the dog was led on a once-over of the boat. Looking for drugs, the dock master explained. Apparently Cuba wants to keep their drugs within the borders.
The customs stepped up next. Peering at me over his bushy grey moustache. When he asked if we had anyone on board who hadn’t been on board when we had arrived I understood. He was checking for stow-aways or people trying to escape.
No, I told him, just us.
Had we bought any Tobacco during our stay? He asked next.
No, I told him… my heart raced. I didn’t have a receipt for the expensive cigars I had gotten.
Had we bought any art?
Art? Well, I couldn’t really lie about that given one of my fellow crew members had the numerous paintings he had bought hanging all over his room to prevent the fresh paint from sticking.
I led him around the boat him looking in every cabinet, nook and cranny for anything we shouldn’t be taking out of the country. Then he got to Mori San’s berth, practically wallpapered with paintings he had bought on the streets of Havana.
The officer told me he needed to see the receipt. A game of telephone-translation between Mori San who only spoke Japanese and the officer who was limited to Spanish ensued. We didn’t have receipts because the paintings had been bought on the street.
Hanging paintings covered in garbage bags
The officer was not pleased with that answer. We couldn’t take the paintings out of the country without the receipts, he insisted. At once it made sense. Cuba was a communist country: the artwork the painter produces doesn’t belong to the painter. It belongs to the government. Buying a painting directly from the painter was essentially stealing from the government. But how could I explain that?
The officer was getting annoyed with me, the crew and captain were frustrated with me. I continued showing the officer the Port hull, apologizing and allowing myself get increasingly upset. By the time we reached my berth, tears were welling up in my eyes.
He sat me down on my bed and explained to me that he knew it wasn’t my fault. He would let it go. This once. But he could get in a lot of trouble for what he was doing.
I don’t know if he wanted a bribe. After he told me that we could go I did my best not to look at him. I never found out why the women were there, nor did I want to ask anything. I just wanted to leave before they found an excuse to keep us.
After the unexpected exit stress I was all for cooking a simple dinner. One of my favorite cruising vegetables is kale. It lasts weeks and weeks without showing its age, and doesn’t bruise or squish easily either. Better yet it’s packed full of vitamins and minerals. Some people like to eat it raw but I’m not quite so hardcore. I prefer to steam it.
But steamed kale can be a little boring. Just little splash of kombu soup stock can transform it into one of the most delicious things imaginable.
Kombu dashi is a common ingredient in Japanese cooking. It is a soup stock made out of seaweed. Though it is generally sold as powder, you can also buy it in little bottles. Powdered dashi is great to throw in miso soup, or other recipes. However, I really do like bottled kombu soup stock better especially when using as the main flavor in a dish.
Captain’s Kombu Kale
- 4 c chopped kale leaves, stems removed
- ¼ c kombu soup stock
- Chop leaves into bite-sized portions.
- Cook large pot with ½” of water at the bottom
- Drain and toss with kombu soup stock
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
Hiroshima Pizza? I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when the captain of the Japanese boat told us that’s what he would be making for the potluck with the American boat I was crewing on. When I tried the actual dish I immediately fell in love with the delicious dish.
A year later I was crewing on the same Japanese boat making okonomiyaki myself.
The captain, Sato San’s “Hiroshima Pizza,” is actually called okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a popular Japanese food, often described as “Japanese pizza.” He called it Hiroshima pizza because he hails from Hiroshima and makes Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.
Okonomiyaki is really more of a crepe than a pizza. To be totally fair it’s a unique dish. The crepe steams a mountain of vegetables and the other side is sealed with egg, seafood, and bacon. Well, really whatever you want. Okonomiyaki, means whatever you like baked or grilled a combination of the Japanese words okanomi, however you like and yaki, baked or grilled. Versions vary widely, I learned Hiroshima style, but I never use bacon or sliced pork for mine. Traditionally squid is used, but around the world we have substituted squid, conch, and on one special occasion lobster.
When writing this recipe I realized how complicated it seemed. It’s a lot of preparation but making okonomiyaki really isn’t difficult. You just have to follow the steps.
This is a video Globe Hackers made of an Okonomiyaki Party we had in Cuba
Makes 6 okonomiyaki
- 1 cup bean sprouts
- ½ head cabbage very thinly sliced
- ¾ cup spring onions, in 5 mm slices
- 1 cup squid
- 2 Tablespoons sake (optional)
- 4 packs ramen noodles
- 4 slices Bacon (or thin sliced pork if available)
- 4 slices cheese (I use individually wrapped Mozzarella or Swiss cheese slices)
- 12 eggs
- Squid chips (or crunchy tempura bits)
- Fish powder
- Aonori (ground seaweed)
- Kewpie mayonnaise
- 1 large, flat griddle. This is integral for making okonomiyaki. A pancake griddle can be used
- 2 spatulas
- 1 soup ladle
- Whisk flour and water together into a thin crepe-like batter and set aside
- Cut the cabbage into quarters. Slice the cabbage as thinly as possible. Place in large bowl, set aside
- Chop spring onions into 5 mm sections. Place in bowl , set aside
- Cut squid or seafood into ⅛ strips, pour sake over to kill the smell, set aside
- Cut bacon slices into thirds, arrange on plate, set aside
- Boil ramen noodles in water with 1 T oil (to prevent sticking) for 2 minutes (slightly al dente) pour into colander and run cold water over to prevent cooking too long, and set aside
- Heat griddle over medium heat and oil
- Put ½ pack of ramen noodles on griddle. Let cook 30 seconds to release moisture
- Season with black pepper and okonomi sauce and mix together and move to side of griddle
- Oil griddle and pour 1 ladle-full of batter smoothing it into thin circle
- When edges of crepe start to lift, sprinkle with fish powder
- Using spatulas lift noodles onto top of crepe
- Place one slice of cheese over noodles
- Arrange large handful of cabbage over cheese
- Layer bean sprouts, spring onions, and squid (or tempura)chips on top
- Lay bacon on top of heap
- Drizzle ½ ladle full of batter over top
- Allow to cook about 2 minutes or until the bottom browns slightly
- Slide spatulas under either side of the crepe bottom and flip okonomiyaki quickly. Be sure to flip towards you.
- Cook for about 5 minutes allowing the inside to steam and until the bacon to cook to a golden brown. Slide okonomiyaki to one side of the griddle
- Oil center of griddle and place about ⅙ of squid in middle cooking for about 30 seconds
- Arrange squid into a barrier ring and crack 2 eggs inside.
- Mix eggs together and lift okonomiyaki on top
- Cook another 2 minutes, until eggs are golden brown
- Flip onto plate and squirt okonomiyaki sauce and kewpie mayonnaise on top in whatever pretty pattern you like
- Finally sprinkle aonori on top. Serve and enjoy!
Don’t be too upset of you can’t finish your okonomiyaki dinner. I love fresh okonomiyaki, but leftovers are almost as good. Better, some would say.
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
Cuba is one of the most fascinating and frustrating places I have visited. The local population and the foreigners are in two worlds and the government does everything it can to keep them separate. Cuban citizens aren’t allowed in marinas if they are not working there. No Cuban who isn’t on official business, in other words checking a boat in or out of a marina, is allowed on a boat or even allowed to stay in the same hotel room as a foreigner.
Because of this, several of the expats living at the marina had married Cuban women or rented flats outside of the marina so that they could be with their girlfriends. I heard stories of foreigners who had rented a hotel room for a night with a Cuban girl, but the hotel made the foreigner rent two rooms. The whole thing seemed strange to me from the start and the more I learned the more unsettling.
The average monthly wage for a Cuban is between $18-25 CUC a month, or about $20-28 dollars. Doctors or garbage men it doesn’t matter. The wage is the wage. Cubans aren’t paid in CUC, or onvertible pesos, though. They are paid in pesos nacional, or national currency. To reinforce the separation of Cuban and foreigner there is a dual currency system. 1 CUC is 24 pesos nacional. In more touristic areas foreigners are charged about 30 times as much as locals.
The dual currency system actually did not start because the government wanted to separate the locals from foreigners though. A little over a decade ago, US dollars were flooding the black market to the point that it was in danger of destabilizing the economy. To fight this, the Cuban government came out with CUC and told Cubans that they would buy their US dollars with this new currency at a 1-1 rate. And thus the dual currency system came into being.
Now CUC are strong, worth about $1.20 USD (and there is also a tax for converting USD to CUC. If you
go to Cuba I suggest bringing Euro or Canadian dollars) but the dual currency system is annoying to say the least. You can buy some things with pesos nacional but not with CUC and vica versa. Almost any shop in more touristic areas will only accept CUC from foreigners, however the local markets only deal in pesos nacional.
I love going to farmers markets, or any open-air market with fresh produce and local color. They always seem to have better produce and fresher products. Not to mention the fact that I am er… frugal and would rather have adventures to stretch my money than fall back on the easy option.Street stands in Havana sold produce as did the Saturday market in Jaimanitas, the town within walking distance of Marina Hemmingway. There isn’t a whole lot of variety in the markets, but they generally have tomatoes, small onions, and bananas. Sometimes eggplant or beets and I did see lettuce once. Curiously they don’t have potatoes though.
Backstay Basil Tomato omelet
1⁄2 c milk
1⁄4 c fresh basil
1 T dried basil
1 tomato, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1⁄2 small onion
2 t olive oil
Whisk eggs and milk together
Sauté onion and garlic in 1 T olive oil small skillet with dried basil about 3 minutes
Heat 1 T olive oil in large skillet
Pour in egg mixture and cook 2-3 minutes until solidifying but slightly liquid on top
Spoon onion mixture over more liquid half (for some reason 1 side always cooks more quickly on Umineko)
Lay tomato slices over onions
Place leaves of fresh basil over tomatoes leaving several sprigs for garnish
Fold other half of cooked eggs over ingredients
Cook another 2 minutes
Divide and garnish with basil sprigs
“I don’t like hyenas. They’re so ugly! They just look vicious,” the French-Canadian man stated. That was how the argument started. Bev, the lovely Australian cruiser, chimed in against the hyena. I wasn’t having any of it. Hyenas fascinate me. This maligned straw-man of the Serengeti. Everyone thinks of them as canine, but they are genetically closer to cats. It always upset me how people just assumed that they were mean and evil because they didn’t fit our paradigm of beauty.
I had wanted desperately to see them on my safari in Etosha park in Namibia. We saw everything else– a leopard, lions, rhinos, elephants, and almost every other large animal in the park. All but hyenas. The lone hyena we had seen was all-but invisible through the torrential rain.
I was delighted that Havana’s zoo had a pack. Several leggy hyenas paced in one cage. A crowd of people gathered around watching the animals. Adjacent to the popular animals was another cage which held a lone animal. The petite creature stood gazing wistfully out utterly ignoring the juicy steaks laid on the ground.
With over-sized saucer-ears and a rounded black nose that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a plush teddy-bear, the hyena had a sweet, almost chow-like face. Her dark eyes gazed up at me and she shuffled over to the cage’s corner where I was standing.
I put my palm up to the cage and the tan snout delicately sniffed it before making a little “whuff.” The teddy bear nose pressed closer into the fence’s large openings and a cold, wet nose brushed my hand. Moments later the hyena lay down next to the fence. I felt badly for the poor thing. This pack animal was being kept separate from her friends. Sure she could see other hyenas, but no contact.
Almost without thinking, I reached through the wire and gave her back a tentative scratch, watching carefully to see her reaction. The spotted girl stretched her paw forward and leaned into my hand. She couldn’t have shown enjoyment more clearly if she had used words.
The coarse, shaggy coat was stiff against my fingers as I continued to pet the good girl. In a clear, “no here,” the hyena rolled over on her back for a tummy rub. I, of course, obliged and she stretched her neck out, closing her eyes.
15 minutes I pet the hyena while a brazen stray cat munched her steak lunch. Suddenly she opened her mouth and I immediately withdrew my hand. What was she doing? Still on her back, she bit at the wire fence between the two cages. I watched amazed as the young girl rolled over onto her feet, carefully closed her jaws around a metal bar, lifted it and drew it to one side. She was trying to open the door! I wished I had more time to get to know her but the others wanted to see the rest of the zoo as well.
What possessed me to pet a hyena? Well, I really wasn’t thinking. It did just happen organically, looking back a number of factors made me do it.
1. Zoo patrons could go directly up to the cage. For the big cats, raptors, monkeys, crocodiles, and other clearly dangerous animals barricades prevented silly patrons from animal/patron contact
2. She clearly had had a good deal of human contact
3. The hyena initiated the contact. That said, I was still wary of any change in her behavior. Wild animals are wild, even if they are in a zoo. In other words, don’t try this at home kids.
Havana zoo may not be the best-funded zoo, but it is unquestionably the most interesting zoo I have been to and certainly the most hands-on. Aside from the hyena, a zoo keeper let me pet a hippo who ambled over to the fence and the deer and antelope were all quite happy with people giving them handfuls of grass.
Many of the cages did not look particularly nice or natural, though the park was wooded and did have nature surrounding. However the animals did seem sleek and well-cared for and many of them had babies or young ones. The jaguar had two blue-eyed cubs, there were young lionesses in the lions cage, as well as numerous others.
By the time we left the zoo my companions were singing a different tune about hyenas. Intelligent, sweet and altogether misunderstood, we all agreed.
As we were leaving the zoo I spotted oyster mushrooms. I didn’t feel entirely right taking them, but Bev talked me into it. No one else was going to eat them. After all, we had seen older oyster mushrooms in several other places in the zoo. Mycology clearly wasn’t popular in Cuba. After agonizing over the decision for a few minutes I finally decided that we were going to have an oyster gnocchi pasta for dinner.
This really is a post of don’t try this at home. My parents are mycologists so I grew up learning about mushrooms. I would never have picked wild mushrooms if I hadn’t been certain what they were. That said oyster mushrooms are delicious. You can buy them in more and more groceries and farmers markets around the world. They are white and have a faint odor and delicate flavor of oysters hence their name oyster mushrooms.
Fresh mushrooms do make a delightful change in the everyday fare and I was overjoyed to make a dish around these “choice edibles,” as the mycologists call them. Altogether it was a fantastic first full day in Havana. I may not have seen anything of the legendary city or its famed culture, architecture, history, or music, but going off the beaten path and improvising is what life is all about. Right?
I never travel with fresh mushrooms, but I absolutely love cooking with whatever fresh local delights I find. If you manage to pick up some oyster mushrooms in your travels, this is a delicious way to cook them. Even if not, the wine sauce is pretty tasty by itself
Oceanic Oyster mushroom Gnocchi
1 package gnocchi
1⁄4 c butter
2 cloves garlic
1 lb. oyster mushrooms, cleaned and chopped into bite-sized chunks
2 c white wine
1 t corn starch
1 t thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Cook gnocchi in boiling water about 7 minutes
Drain and set aside
Sauté onions and garlic in 1T butter about 3 minutes in large skillet
Stir in salt, pepper, and thyme
Add oyster mushrooms and butter, sauté another 2 minutes
Mix corn starch into wine, stirring well
Pour wine mixture into skillet and cook another 5 minutes over medium-low heat
Divide gnocchi onto plates
Pour sauce over each plate
Sprinkle dried cranberries over dishes
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