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Feasting in Cuba, Day 5

March 1, 2016

February 10, 2016

By now, word is out that we are on a culinary tour, and every tourist in town wants to know about it. With a slightly desperate look in their eyes, strangers track us down, grab us by the collar and say, “Are you on the culinary tour? How do we get on that one?”

This is an indication of what I have been suspecting for some time now: By almost any standards, authentic, non-Anglicized Cuban food is nothing to crow about. Those of us on the culinary tour have been treated to the very best. We are led by a Cuban chef and a Cuban travel agent whose primary purpose is to find us the best restaurants. And while the food is extremely fresh, from well-run, organic farms, and has been very well prepared, it also has been predictable. I have had a more mediocre time of it than anyone else, being allergic to fish and seafood, so  until now, all my entrees have been poultry and pork, and it always has been prepared in basically the same way: grilled, with very little seasoning. All of us have been served black beans and rice at Every. Single. Meal. Shredded cabbage, papaya, pineapple and yucca have been at nearly every table, with a rare cameo  appearance of tomatoes and sweet potatoes. I can understand why people are mobbing us in the elevators and the lobby to find out where to get something good to eat.

Our guides have also worked very hard to keep us safe. They vet every restaurant to make sure they make their ice and wash the vegetables with filtered water. There is a reason for this. Look around you and see how many people are green around the gills. My guess is some have been cavalier about the “Don’t drink the water” rule.

We are getting out of Havana for the day to go see Viñales Valley, Cuba’s version of Yosemite. It is a grand valley ringed by the Sierra de los Organos, much different from our beloved mountains back in North Carolina and Tennessee. These mountains are craggier, less undulating, pockmarked with thousands of caves. I can imagine they provided excellent hiding places for privateers roaming the Caribbean in the 15th and 16th centuries, and can’t help but wonder if there is any booty still resting up there somewhere. This is not the place where Castro and his merry band hid out during the long years of the Revolution (that was in the Sierra Maestra at the southeastern end of the island), but if those mountains are as riddled with caves as  the Sierra de los Organos are, I can understand why the Revolutionaries managed to elude Batista’s army for so many years, from 1953 to 1959.

house in the valley

Vinales Valley. If you look close, you can see caves up in the hills.

 

 

 

Two members of our group were not with us today. I have mentioned that the streets and sidewalks of Havana are full of potholes and construction holes. Our friends Ruth and Rick had gone out for a walk last night, and Ruth fell into one of them, banging up her face and chest, and badly wrenching her arm (it was a deep hole!). This gave her the  chance to experience not only the health care system of Cuba, but also the kindness of the Cuban people. The minute she fell, everyone nearby rushed to her aid, helping her up, summoning a taxi, and getting her to a clinic. She proclaims the medical care excellent. While it would have been free if she had been a Cuban, she was charged $200 to get checked out and patched up. So now you know that if you fall and hurt yourself while in Cuba, you will be well taken care of. Just bring some cash.

Riding through the Cuban mountains and valleys, I was struck that the farms and the houses were small, but tidy and colorful. We did not see any dilapidated trailer parks or the kind of ragged “hillbilly” houses you so often encounter in the poorer communities of Appalachia. Before the Revolution, huge plantations, mostly owned by foreigners and worked by landless peasants, grew all the produce. After the Revolution, Castro nationalized the plantations and divided them up, giving the people who had worked the land up to 100 acres each to call their own.

I was impressed by what this seemed to accomplish. Everywhere we looked, we saw beautiful little farms, perfectly tended. It seemed to be a good model: smallish farms, with the owners working for themselves and maintaining their homes and land with the pride of ownership.

tidy house

neat houses

Of course, there is a dark side to this idyllic situation: People who backed the wrong side of the Revolution were lucky if all that happened to them was losing their land and their homes. If they had been too sympathetic to the Batista government, they lost their necks as well. Of those awarded land, not everybody got 100 acres. The number and quality of acerage parceled out depending upon one’s status within the Revolution hierarchy. The farmers who did receive a good farm have never had complete control over it. They are beholden to the government to provide a certain amount of produce, and they do not actually own everything they grow. The oddest thing I discovered is that the government owns every single cow in the nation, and Cubans are not allowed to eat ANY beef! It is reserved strictly for tourists. As our local guide, Wendell says, “Cows are as sacred in Cuba as they are in India, but for different reasons.”  I wonder how they are going to keep Cubans from driving through MacDonald’s when the embargo is lifted and American companies are welcomed back into the island.

At lunchtime, we stopped at a place dominated by a giant mural painted on the side of the mountain. I’ll just post pictures here and you can get the idea.

mural

The big mural. See all the caves?

 

 

mural info

mural closeup

The mural up close. I don’t know why they took the time to paint all of it in stripes rather than in large swathes. Every inch of it looks like this.

 

 

I also picked up another Cuban boyfriend here (sorry Gualberto, for being so fickle) who offered me a ride on his sweet ox. I’ve never seen a cleaner beast, or one better cared for. It was a pleasure to ride him.

ox ride

Me with my new boyfriend. I was having too good a time riding the ox to notice that he has his hand on my knee

 

 

Lunch was roasted pork. As always, it was perfectly prepared and accompanied by shredded cabbage, papaya, and pineapple, but I am really missing spices, variety, and some good old Southern style vegetables. I was very happy to see tomatoes, which I gobbled down and then licked the plate. The tomatoes are delicious here, but I do not know why they are stingy with them when they are grown on every farm we saw. They certainly are not at all stingy with the pork, chicken, fish, papaya, pineapple, or yucca.

mural village

Beautiful open air restaurant and pavilions. Lunch was pork roasted that day on the premisis

 

 

We had planned to visit some caves (“Indian Caves”) and take a boat trip along a river, but even though we had already bought and paid for reservations, when we got there, we were informed that too many people were visiting that day and we would have to wait several hours before we could take our turn. Of course, we did not have time for that, so we lost the opportunity. Another example of the bureau of tourism selling tickets that they knew they would not honor, and they were not inclined to refund our money. Their attitude is that it was not their fault that we refused to wait around.

We were not particularly disgruntled by this. Everyone in our group has a spirit of adventure, and we easily shrugged off these little setbacks. However, I mention it because incidents like this point out the fact that Cuba is not ready for mass tourism. Early in my first blog post, I had said that Mike and I had wanted to go to Cuba “before it got ruined,” but I was thinking in terms of a future of MacDonalds and KFCs on every corner. In reality, the ruining will be, not from American fast food joints taking over, but from the collapse of an infrastructure that will not be able to handle thousands of Americans descending on this small island. Already it is becoming a big problem. In November 2015, four tour busses per week came to Indian Caves. Now, just 3 months later, there are 10 per day! No effort has been made to curtail the number of visitors at this tiny, out of the way natural wonder. Busses were parked EVERYWHERE, tearing up the grass and the shoulders of the roads, blocking traffic, and making walking a hazard. This is an indication of what is happening all over Cuba. Last summer, a cruise ship showed up into port only about once or twice a week. According to the preservation architect who showed us around Havana on our second day, the expectation is that 10 cruise ships per day will be coming into Havana alone during the next year. Currently, only about 15 charter flights from America come to Cuba daily. Under the new agreement with the United States, commercial airlines will be increasing the numbers to over 100 per day. Do you think that might pose a teensy tinesy problem for an island whose bureau of tourism is run by people who really don’t care if everyone finds a place to sleep?

We arrived back to Havana late because the bus got a flat tire and we had to limp back slowly (there were 4 tires per axle, so most of us moved to one side of the bus to redistribute the weight, and we made it. Our driver was resourceful). By then we were starving. Since the place we were supposed to have eaten dinner had cancelled on us, our guides did their best to find a place and vet it for cleanliness and reputation.  Guarijito’s was fun, sort of like a Cuban version of Hooter’s. The waitresses were clearly hired on the merits of their looks and not on their cognitive skills. The food, however, was good, and most everyone really enjoyed it, especially my friend Wally who raved about his shrimp. I had beef for the first time. It was shredded and covered with a type of barbeque sauce. I have since learned that the only way you can have beef in Cuba is to: a) not be Cuban and b) eat it shredded.

After that, we were happy to pile back into the bus and make our way back to the hotel. It had been a long, but interesting and beautiful day.

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  1. Feasting in Cuba, Day 5 | deborahghining

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