April 12, 2014 by vivalafiona
The renovations to Casa de los Mangos are progressing slowly. Our architect decided to exit the country for a month before he provided us with house plans to submit to the local council. This means the verandah will have to be left till last. We can, however, renovate to our hearts content inside the existing house so the bathrooms and the guest room are currently being transformed. Two inspectors arrived at the gate one day to politely reprimand us for erecting a fence along two boundaries, without seeking council permission (our builder advised us this was not necessary) A quick payment of the license fee the following day meant all was forgiven.
There is an enormous amount of construction work going on around here and Cuban builders seem to have an obsession with flat concrete roofs. One reason I believe is because they are cyclone proof and another because a second story can be easily added. Apparently no one considers how impossible it is to ventilate a roof made of concrete slab. Our house has a pitched terracotta tile roof supported by timber beams which rest on the brick walls with a hands span of space in between for air to flow in and out. Given that the house if over 100 years old I figure it is reasonably cyclone proof. Most of the old houses in Trinidad have huge solid timber beams and enormously high ceilings. Today, however, it is very difficult to get your hands on timber as most of the native forests were wiped out and what is left is now national park which explains the third reason for the concrete roof fad.
I found a vegetable farmer in Topes de Collantes, the mountains behind Trinidad who not only grows cauliflower, lettuce and herbs but also cultivates strawberry plants, something few Cuban’s have ever eaten except in ice cream. Now I just need to find someone who grows broccoli and zucchini to satisfy my cravings. Our initial attempts to cultivate broccoli failed. It has been suggested that we put the seeds in the freezer before planting to trick them in to thinking they have just had a winter.
Our little farm is now growing Red Bananas (indios) which I first encountered in Tanzania. The skin is red and inside the fruit is more orange coloured than yellow and very sweet. They make excellent banana smoothies. Next on the list of things to plant is custard apples, white guava, coffee and passionfruit. Our tomatoes, okra, papaya and onions, apart from those mauled by the slugs and crickets, should be ready to pick in a month. The avocados have ripened and I am finally earning an income. A very nice man, who definitely doesn’t suffer from vertigo, comes twice a week to climb up the 8 metre high trees with a net attached to a long narrow bamboo pole in hand and yanks the avocados off the branches. Cuban avocados are the size of large eggplants and weigh at least a kilo each so not something you want to fall on your head. We are currently experiencing quite strong winds from the north so there is a risk of just that. I have now mastered the art of catching avocados with a hessian sack so they don’t bruise on their descent to the ground. You can find our avocados selling from road side stalls all over town and there is plenty more for the New Year.
We have had a few birthday celebrations here recently including 2 year old Alains and 4 year old Nylas. They both had the most enormous cakes (photo included), kilo’s and kilo’s of sugar content. I may have mentioned before that the icing on most cakes here is made from merengue. Cuban’s cleverly leave the serving of the cake till last so parents get to experience their sugar charged children in the privacy of their own homes. Small boxes of leftover cake and other treats are handed out as they depart from the party. There are Pinata’s here but they tend to be filled with useful things like colour pencils and rubbers (erasers) rather than lollies.
One day whilst cycling home from visiting Osiel’s parents, we saw a rather large man with a stetson style cowboy hat carrying a tray of tall cakes, wrapped in plastic. A closer look revealed that they were double layer cakes, made of panatela and flan. Panatela is a cake that Cubans cook in a pressure cooker. It is a butter cake I suppose, without the butter, made with flour and powdered milk and often flavoured with guava jam or juice. A flan is a crème caramel, cooked in a metal mould floating in water inside a pressure cooker. Very few Cubans have gas or electric stoves. This man, Frank, puts the two together, the flan on top of the panatela and produces a four or five inch tall sweet tooths delight. I see him walking all over town with at least 8 of these on a tray at different times of the day. This is one small business that is thriving in Cuba.
Saint Barbara, the patron saint of artillarymen, is much celebrated here on the eve of 3rd December (her feast day is 4th December) but mostly by the AfroCuban community. She represents one of the Santeria/African male saints, Chango who is a bit like Thor, God of Thunder. All night parties with lots of singing and drumming could be heard all over Trinidad. Tough luck for the non Santerian neighbours. I thought I was hearing music drifting down the hill from the Casa de la Musica until I noticed it was 2.00 am. Only on New Years Eve do the venues here, other than the cave disco, stay open much after midnight.
Cuba had its ANZAC Day last weekend, a remembrance day for all those who fought in the Angolan War. A little known war between South African backed, (back in those very dark days of the Apartheid regime) forces and revolutionary Angolans who supported a socialist party. It was I guess Cuba’s Vietnam. I don’t believe the government ever gives out figures of the number of deaths but I believe casualties were high. A large street procession complete with brass marching bands and floats passed by our house on its way to the cemetery for a service.
The cemetery is in the neighbour-hood opposite our house and I regularly witness large groups of people making their way there. The government provides a car and pays for the burial of all its citizens. As most Cuban’s don’t drive or own a car the hearse or truck is usually the only vehicle in the procession. The mourners travel on foot or push bike. As this is almost a daily sobering sight it certainly encourages one to put the small irritating stuff into perspective.
We just had a tropical storm which gives me an opportunity to have a shower in the courtyard. The rain pours off the hot terracotta tiles and creates instant hot showers in two corners. I usually grab the shampoo because this is better water pressure than currently exists in our bathroom (soon to be rectified). All the cleaning utensils, mops, brooms etc get turfed out in the rain for a clean as well as our gardening clothes and the doormats I finally tracked down in Havana.
I have to confess that I started writing this blog in November and now its almost Christmas and our house is still a construction site. We fall into bed exhausted most days and I am now sporting a callous on the third finger of my right hand from all the painting, where once there was one from hours of handwriting. I have finally settled on a colour for the house, so the exterior is next and the good news is that we have finally found someone who sells paint tints/dyes so I can produce the colours I want. The bad news is that a brush, used in a circular motion, is the only thing that can apply paint properly to rough concrete. I was so thrilled when I discovered paint rollers in a shop in Havana but turns out it was a waste of money. Even the ceilings are a challenge as Cubans love decorating theirs with miniature concrete staligtites (staligmites?). My lack of enthusiasm for this effect went unnoticed by our builder. Can you imagine trying to paint those?
We employed another builder to lay clay tiles in the courtyard, a job I have been wanting to complete for weeks given that the tiles arrived back in October, by horse and cart of course. Our regular builder decided to spend some of his salary on his own house and took a week off, without notice, to renovate his house. He has in fact a habit of going AWOL to fish, have a nap or take long weekends to visit his wife’s family in the mountains. I learnt long ago that one mans idea of work is another man’s siesta. When he discovered we had brought in some extra help he decided he didn’t want to share the job and quit. Luckily for us the new guys, one of whom is an engineer and fluent in American English, are proving to be very diligent and reliable.
We decided to risk the councils wrath and go ahead with the construction of a verandah along the western side of the house. The architect we employed in August has still not provided us with plans so he has been sacked. We think we have enticed another to take on the job after supplying her with lots of our delicious avocados. The avocados worked with a bunch of council electricians too. Osiel was having trouble with some wiring and asked if they could take a look. It took 5 of them half an hour to solve the problem and cost us a bottle of rum and 20 avocados.
I have just spent a lovely few days and nights playing tour guide for an Australian couple who are on an island hopping tour of the Caribbean. My first visit to the beach in months reminded me of how beautiful the coast is here. Playa Ancon is a nice stretch of white sand beach and tourquoise blue tranquil waters, just like the travel brochures promise. We took a train ride into the Valley of the Sugar Mills which is now full of milking cows and vegetable farms rather than sugar cane. The old American steam engine was not working so we got the Russian diesel one instead. Hello this is Cuba. Riding in the open air carriages we could have, had we wished, sipped on a mojitos or pina coladas and did listen to a troubador perform Cuban and Mexican songs. The train stops at a former sugar cane plantation where a huge slave tower was erected to impress the future wife of the Sugar baron and to keep an eagle eye on the slaves.
Just in case you happen to be in the vicinity, or know someone else who will be, Trinidad is celebrating its 500th anniversary next month, January 2014. There will be a week of music and dance in the streets and various venues around town, with all the big name bands from Havana playing for free. (I am still reeling from the news that the Rolling Stones Australian March tour had tickets priced at $1200.00 and they sold out instantly). Market stalls are set up all over town selling cowboy hats, shoes and clothing, toys and lots of Cuban fried fast food.
We now have a pig in the shed. So now you know what we are having for Christmas lunch. Bunyip, our dog is not too happy about it and I’m not sure if I am either. Another mouth to feed and I have no idea what pigs eat. There is no pet food in Cuba, you need to cook it yourself. Our dogs dine on leftovers mixed up with sweet potato and milk or yogurt, bananas and mango when in season. The cat gets cooked fish, mostly sardines but occasionally snapper. My Dad says the cat eats better than he does. I have a feeling the pig is going to be eating lots of avocados.
Hoping you and yours have a Merry Merry Christmas. My very Best Wishes for 2014. May it find some of you visiting Trinidad, Cuba and all of you in good health and fine spirits.