October 21, 2013 by vivalafiona
I got very excited the other day when I spotted a yellow bi-plane flying over Trinidad. You beauty, I thought, another unique attraction we can offer tourists when we open for business: joy flights in an antique plane. However, I was soon to discover that the plane is used for fumigating Trinidad, La Boca and the surrounding countryside. We receive regular flybys to kill of any dengue carrying mosquitoes. As there is still plenty of insect life at Casa de Los Mangos: spiders, butterflies, miniature frogs and the occasional world’s tiniest hummingbird near the house it can’t be too harmful. I am waiting for the lime trees to blossom to check out our bee population.
Osiel and I went for a stroll one Saturday afternoon to inspect the early nineteenth century Baroque architecture that provided Trinidad with its UNESCO world heritage listing, mostly in search of ideas for our renovations and also to visit Casa de La Trova (traditional music venue) to listen to his favourite local band (you know the one, Miranda). I was to discover that I know more people in Trinidad than I thought. We met various friends and acquaintances along the way and stopped for a chat and lots of cheek kissing, both of which are obligatory here when you meet someone you know. Old fashioned social etiquette rules here. Osiel is greeting people all the time and in Cuba when you spot someone you know in the street you usually greet them with a goodbye (Adios), not a hello which I still find quite strange. Conversely tourists are greeted with a Hola (Hello). By the time we finally arrived at the outdoor garden venue, the band had finished playing. This is still a beautiful place to enjoy a drink either on the veranda of the former colonial home or in its large courtyard/terraza beneath a grape vine. The veranda also acts as a dance floor.
We continued our walk in the historic part of town and met a musician friend of Osiel’s who invited us to his house. Out came the guitars, various members of the family and neighbours arrived and within minutes we had our own private gig going. Although it is true that not all Cubans can dance, sing or play a musical instrument, a good many can and do, and what’s more will at anytime of the day with their friends and family. You don’t have to spend much time walking through the streets to witness this. As I sat in the rocking chair enjoying the breeze that came through the open front door (they are almost always open in Trinidad) I smiled to myself because the spontaneity of this professional level musical performance is one of the things I find so charming about Cuba. I once witnessed something similar in a park in Vinales, after the local Casa de la Musica had closed. Two guitarists, a few very good voices, some clapping hands and a few beer cans providing percussion with a mixed crowd of tourists and locals adding harmony, all performing to an audience of what appeared to be every stray dogs in town.
A member of the musical family was getting married the following week, to a Mexican girl he met over the phone (Cuban don’t engage in internet dating yet because few have access to computers), and we offered up our garden for the wedding feast afterward. A huge pig was cooked over an open fire, which took all day and Osiel and I provided lots of guacamole, fresh lemonade and mojitos whilst the guests chatted, sang and got acquainted with the bride and her Mexican girlfriend/bridesmaid. The children spent most of the day playing in the pile of sand and pebbles we have in the front yard waiting to be converted into concrete. Perhaps, we thought afterward, there is another business in the offing: a wedding reception venue.
My mango chutney, made with mangos the size of a butternut pumpkin, but sadly lacking dried dates and flaked almonds, is a winner in Cuba too, some of my former colleagues at Allen and Unwin will not be surprised to hear. We recently enjoyed it with friends over a serving of fried pig’s liver, washed down with red wine. I never thought I would enjoying eating offal but in Cuba where red meat is scarce and nothing goes to waste you get your protein and iron from whatever source you can and unfortunately there is a lack of green vegetables available on the streets. Having just finished reading Michael Pollan’s In Defence of Food I don’t feel so guilty about the fat or offal consumption. In fact, as he also endorses the consumption of wild animals and vegetables, I can finally confess to eating a Cuban delicacy, the jutia, which looks a little like a large possum but is in truth from the family Rata. The meat is brown and when cooked in a pressure cooker it is very tasty indeed, and no, it doesn’t taste like chicken! More like goat. I have eaten guinea pig a few times in Peru and jutia is definitely tastier and more fulfilling than that.
Whilst in Havana this week, in search of bathroom fittings, we went to one of my favourite restaurants, Los Naldos. We had previously been there with our first Aussie visitors Mady and Sandra. This time, perhaps because I am suffering daily cravings for broccoli and zucchini, I noticed there was not a single green vegetable on anyone’s plate. But rather piles of pork, chicken and the occasional steak, potato and gravy with the odd prawn or oyster. Even when I asked for a side dish of vegetables I was served malanga (taro) with onions. So now I am on a mission to add greens to the diet of all our friends and family. Fortunately I have a champion in my step daughter Erika who thinks a meal is a plate of pepino, lettuce and cabbage with salt and lime. A visit to the local agricultural supply office led to the discovery that we can purchase all kinds of vegetable seeds, including broccoli, so I would welcome some advice on its cultivation in a tropical country from any green thumbs or gardening experts.
Though Cubans aren’t big on consuming green things they are big on being Green in terms of the environment. It helps to lack a consumer culture or the financial ability to over consume. In Centro Havana I discovered a Fast Food I would treat my nephews to: carbonated drinks with real fruit juice, served in small glass bottles (none of this super-size business) which are not to be taken away but rather consumed on the spot and then and returned to the shop keeper for recycling. Sandwiches wrapped in paper and deep fried sweet potato served in paper cones are also on the menu. In fact all over Cuba you will find street stalls selling fruit smoothies, sugar cane juice or fruit juice in glasses fashioned out of old bottles. The same stall, sometimes government owned but now increasingly private, will serve ham, chorizo and/or cheese rolls and sometimes something similar to fish fingers. A small gathering of people will be standing around chatting and or silently enjoying their snack before handing back the glass and/ or plate. There are no North American Fast Food outlets in Cuba which is another of its charms. So come on over!
P.S Also recently read Babylon’s Ark about the South African who helped rescue animals in the Baghdad Zoo (he of the Elephant Whisper fame) and although it is a bit of a boys own adventure there are some compelling stories about George W’s war, Saddam’s family and the daily lives of Iraqi’s during the first 6 months that are definitely worth reading.