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How We Feasted in Cuba

February 19, 2016


The minute Mike and I heard that relationships were thawing enough for US citizens to visit Cuba, we wistfully began wishing we could go “before it gets ruined.” Not long after that, our friend Elizabeth Turnbull announced that she and her Cuban husband Roberto Copa Matos, who own the Cuban restaurant, Old Havana, in Durham, NC were planning a culinary tour of this fascinating country. It did not take much to convince us to go, even though it means I will have to continue to drive my rusty, rattling, 1996 Ford pickup truck another year or two. Who cares about having a stylish car when you get the chance to have a little salsa infused into your soul?

We went, we ate, we threw up what we ate, we saw the sights, we missed a few sights, we stayed in glorious hotels and in sweet Cuban homes. We swam in the ocean and in crystal cave pools. We drove ourselves across rutted roads awash with mud and up a breathtaking river lined with Royal palm trees and cave-studded mountains. We danced on a rooftop high above the Havana cityscape as the sun blazed its last dying rays of the day. We met fascinating, kind people, some of whom we could not, because of the language barrier, exchange a single thought except how happy we were to have met them and how much we hoped to see them again. And now we are back in the good old USA. As I settle back into home and the comfort of my own bed, I’m taking the time to process the experience a day at a time. Join me! I don’t think you will be disappointed in reliving these wonderful days with me.


Day 1.  February 6, 2016

Getting to Cuba is not easy. I would say impossible to do it on your own, so I am glad we left all the arrangements to the pros. You can’t go as a tourist just yet, but you can finagle your way if you are part of a missions or educational group. We went on something called a “people to people tour,” a “friendship” tour, so to speak, where we met with many Cuban citizens, enjoyed meaningful conversation, and generally worked on cultivating personal relationships. Think visiting people’s homes, meeting artists and musicians, touring farms, getting to know the farmers, and then meeting the chefs who prepare the produce from the farm just visited. And eating. Lots of eating. LOTS of eating. Don’t go on a tour called “Feast on Cuba,” led by a chef unless you are open to gaining a pound or 20.

We left from Tampa because, as we have heard, Miami is a nearly impossible departure point for Havana. It takes nearly all day to get to the tiny island nation just 90 miles southeast of Miami because of all the submitting of passports and visas, hurrying up and waiting that have to take place. After the short flight to Havana, we stepped out into bright sunshine, walked down the steps onto the tarmac, and made our way to a tired terminal building to wait in yet another line to be cleared through customs.

If you go, do not expect a lot of smiles from the officials at the Havana airport. You are entering a Socialist country, and they take their laws seriously. They scrutinize your passport, and your face. They tell you to take off your hat and stare at the camera. “Don’t smile,” they say, and when you get tickled with suppressed hysteria after all the tension of waiting, they stare at you until you get your giggles under control before they snap your picture and release you into an airy building where beautiful spotted Labradors run around, dragging their leashes, sniffing here and there. Do not pick up their leashes in the mistaken assumption that the dogs are lost and walk around with them, trying to find their owners. You will be reprimanded (I told Mike to leave them alone, but he was sure somebody needed to take care of them).

If you are part of an elite group, as somehow we were, you get to go to the VIP lounge where you will be treated to some interesting pastries and all the liquor you could possibly want while you wait for your luggage to be cleared through customs and your visas to be examined one last time. (For the sake of international relations and the health of our children, do not share information about this little perk to college students in search of a Spring Break destination)

There is no question that you will have to use the bathroom while you are waiting unless you have a bladder the size of a small city cistern and you have been smart enough to pee before disembarking the plane. Be sure you have followed the advice of your tour director and have secreted your own stash of toilet paper in your purse. Also, it is a good idea to have prepared your thigh muscles for the delicate art of hovering over the toilet rather than sitting. Toilet seats apparently are illegal in Cuba, for they have universally disappeared. If your toilet flushes, it is a lucky day. Almost as lucky is if you have a bucket and a functioning sink so you can fill it up and do your own flushing if the toilet mechanism has rusted out. Not so lucky is when you do not have running water in the sink. We were partly lucky in the VIP lounge. The toilet flushed but the sink did not have water to wash our hands. Sani wipes become a girl’s best friend.

After we were given the all clear, we wobbily gathered our belongings and headed for the  government-owned luxury bus that was to be our mode of transportation for the trip, and we made our way to the Hotel Nacional, the government-owned luxury hotel that was to be home for 5 nights.



hotel terrace

Back terrace of the Hotel Nacional

hotel benches

If you saw The Godfather, you may have heard of the Hotel Nacional. It was the grandest hotel in Cuba during the heyday of glamorous vice when the Mafia ruled the island. It sits on the shores of the Atlantic, facing north, on a promontory that has been heavily armed for the last century and a half. On the grounds are several large cannons, relics of the Spanish-American War, pointing toward the United States. Also on the grounds is a labyrinth of tunnels built in a prior century but reinforced and roofed over during the Cuban missile crisis (the Cubans call it the “Crisis of October, when the Imperialist Americans threatened the safety of the nation”). Like us in 1962, Cubans apparently believed that a little bit of concrete can protect you from a nuclear attack. I can’t help but wonder if they also taught their children how to cower under their desks in the event of a bomb landing on their schools. Looking at the museum there in one of the bunkers, which told the story of the missile crisis, I was more terrified than ever at what nearly happened in those dark days when Kennedy and Castro rattled their swords at one another.


Warfare used to be simpler



bunkerBunker where people expected to be safe during Nuclear war with the US?



How scary is this?

But I am getting ahead. The Hotel Nacional was built long before the Cuban missile crisis. It was built long before Fidel Castro and Che Guevara took a hard look at what was happening to the people of Latin America and decided something had to be done. It was, in fact, opened in 1930, built by Americans for American tourists to come and behave badly with impunity. If you think Las Vegas is a den of iniquity, you should have seen Cuba in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. People of means—and I mean great means–flocked here to enjoy the casinos, the shows, the drugs, prostitutes, music, and all the other pleasures and vices this lovely island hosted. Early on, they came to escape the dreariness of America afforded by the Depression and Prohibition, and then, once the place had gained notoriety, it became the hangout for rich and famous. Paris Hilton’s grandfather once owned the National Hotel. Everybody in politics or popular culture who was anybody came to the Hotel Nacional at least once.

While the Mafia and its American clients were having a ball at the Hotel, Cubans were not allowed in, except as service providers. Blacks were not allowed, either, although an exception was made for Nat King Cole, who showed his appreciation by giving marvelous concerts. Slavery was abolished in 1886, but the mentality that people of color existed strictly to make white lives easier remained for long after. Oh, it was the place to be for the wealthy, the privileged, the unprincipled, and the lily white!

The Hotel Nacional reflected all of Cuba, and its story marks the history of the country. Like the hotel, very little of the whole country existed for the benefit of Cubans. Most of it was controlled by Americans and huge American corporations. Because prohibition and other pesky anti-vice and anti-monopoly laws back in the States made greed more difficult, the Mafia also found it a safe haven. The CIA had no problems with the Mafia having such control, because it  wanted to keep this island neighbor an American satellite. Fulgencio Batista, who started out as the elected president of Cuba, happily climbed into bed with the Mafia for just a tiny share of the take, and he also enjoyed the protection of the CIA, even after he suspended Cuba’s constitution and made himself dictator. He did not give the term “dictator” any positive connotations.

You can guess what happened. Some Americans got filthy rich. The US government bolstered Batista in order to maintain control over the political landscape. People in power in the US government enjoyed fantastic perks and unlimited license in Cuba. For example, according to award winning historian Enrique Cirules in his book, The Mafia in Havana, the Dulles brothers single handedly dismantled the efficient and cheap trolley system in the city just because it competed with the bus line they happened to own. By the way, one brother was the head of the CIA, the other was Secretary of State. Such shenannagins were easy when the place exists merely for our pleasure, the dictator is too busy amassing millions for himself, and the people don’t matter.

Eventually, the inevitable revolution happened. Batista and his corrupt, brutal government was ousted, the Americans left, the wealthy Cubans who had backed Batista fled in a panic. The Hotel Nacional served as a backdrop for the drama of the time. It was the birthplace of the “26th of July Movement” in 1953, when Castro began preaching revolution. His first attempt to overthrow Batista ended in disaster, with Castro being imprisoned for a year, but the ideas that emerged in those hotel rooms solidified Revolutionary sentiment in the country. On January 1, 1959, at the triumph of the Revolution, the hotel staff took over as Castro and the new government of the Revolution nationalized everything from plantations to factories to hotels that had been owned by the wealthy. The Mafia was driven out. It is a bit of an exaggeration to say that anyone remotely connected with Batista, or anyone with too much wealth who was foolish enough to remain in the country was summarily dragged out into the town squares and shot, but it is not much of one. The people had thrown off the yolk of American Imperialism but had succumbed to the iron fist of another dictator.

From my scant history knowledge, I understand that socialism in Cuba was initially not a given. In 1959, immediately after the Revolution, Castro made overtures of friendship to the US in the hopes of recognition, aid and support. Eisenhower refused to even meet with him, and instead imposed an economic embargo, forcing Castro to turn elsewhere for aid. At first, the Soviets did not want to meet with him, either, calling him a representative of the “haute bourgeoisie,” suspected of working for the CIA. Later, however, Khrushchev embraced him, sent food to the starving people, and then began sending more than economic and humanitarian aid. Weapons crossed the Atlantic. In 1961, it was becoming apparent that the situation was getting too uncomfortable, so President Kennedy agreed to help a group of expatriated Cubans launch an invasion to overthrow the fledgling government of the Revolution. However, according to most accounts, at the last minute, he discovered that Russia had placed nuclear weapons all over the island, and they were not afraid to use them in the event of a US invasion. Kennedy called off the American involvement after the Cuban expats had set sail, failing to inform them that they were on their own, and somehow the Castro government was notified of the impending invasion. The hapless invaders were met by hostile fire as they landed at the Bay of Pigs. The rest, as they say, is history. Right after that, Castro announced that the Cuban political system would embrace Soviet style Socialism. Free enterprise, freedom of thought, and Christianity were banned. Christians caught practicing their faith were dragged before the firing squads. Christmas was abolished, making Fidel the ultimate Grinch. We suffered through the Cuban missile crisis, and the people of Cuba suffered through one of the most repressive regimes of the 20th century.

That’s just a little history represented by the grand old hotel that we entered the first day of our visit to Cuba. No wonder we found the place intoxicating. And we still had time to explore Havana!

Off we went before dinner to check out the city. Havana architecture is diverse, and it is grand, and it is sad. It is like a regal old lady who has fallen into poverty but has refused to give up her jewels. She still wears her tiara, her rings, and her pearls, but she is covered in grime. Her teeth are falling out, and her poor dress has disintegrated into a tattered rag.

I’ll talk more about the architecture in my next post, “Day 2,” but I know you are interested in the old cars, so I will take a moment to slake your curiosity: Yes, they are everywhere! Grand old 1957 Chevys, huge Buicks, Fords the size of boats, with swaths of chrome, fins and stripes, and loose suspensions, in every delightful, intense color imaginable. Most of them are in terrible shape, despite the loving care people have poured into them. Cracked windows are repaired with duct tape. Radios are missing, leather interiors are in shreds, rust worms its way over the chrome. But they run. They belch black smoke, they rattle, and they sway, but they run, the horns certainly work, and they look marvelous! You can’t help but look at them, smile, and say, “Viva la Revolution!” for a tiny moment as you feast your eyes and ears on all the color and noise.

pink convertable

old cars

Our first diner in Havana was fabulous. The restaurant our hosts chose for us, La Casa, is a part of a new economic loosening experiments that is giving Cuba new life. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, aid to Cuba dried up, and the US embargo helped to make the Cuban people suffer a time of terrible hardship. They called it the “Special Time,” and it meant a time of near starvation. Our host, Roberto Copa Matos, came (escaped) to the United States some 15 years ago, so he has a good grasp of how hard life was then. He had one pair of shoes, discarded army boots with most of the eyelets missing so he could not really lace them up. He was literally hungry all the time–some days he did not eat at all. A university student for part of that time, he lived on the 17th floor of a student apartment building, and the elevator did not work. You get the picture. Life was really, really hard.

In the last few years, in an attempt to bring back some stability in the economy, Castro has allowed the introduction of a few private enterprises. They are, of course, government controlled and heavily taxed, but they are bright spots on the Cuban economic, cultural, and culinary landscapes. La Casa, our restaurant the first evening was the result of such a business. And dinner was fabulous! The building had been refurbished. We were treated to a performance by musicians who had played in some of the American clubs before the revolution. I am allergic to seafood and fish, so my diet is limited, but I did not suffer for the fact that I could not eat the lobster or fish that everyone else raved about. The chicken tasted like chicken tasted when, as a child, I visited my country relatives houses for Sunday dinner. It was, in short, the perfect introduction to our Feast on Cuba tour.

Day 1 was an adventure, a pleasure, a resounding success. Stay tuned. Over the next day or so I will return with an account of our continued feasting in Havana on Day 2

at la Casa

With our host, Roberto Copa Matos (far right) and one of our new Cuban friends



From → Cuba, food, travel

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