Thursday, October 29, 2009

Luck in Havana

I am sorry that you will have to twist your neck to see this properly. Sigh,.

If the first thing that you should see on entering a Cuban’s home is an elephant’s derriere, try not to be overly offended. Cubans are generally very warm and hospitable people and mean no insult. But elephant trunks bring good luck, unless you have them pointed towards the front door, in which case all the luck will flow out as you walk in.

And speaking of front doors, if you start to wonder why many of them have little strips of red cloth tied to them, as do the back bumpers of many cars – especially vintage ones - wonder no more. Its not to remind people to shut the door after they leave, nor is it an attempt to prevent vintage bumpers from falling off. Its more good luck. And given the impressive age of many of the cars around, you’ll appreciate that a little piece of luck can go quite a long way.

A few days ago, a little piece of luck dropped straight from the heavens and landed right on the top of my head. This was thanks to some spiteful little Cuban bird which I had chosen not to share my lunch with while eating at the Al Medina restaurant.

Apart from the wildlife, Al Medina is a very nice little Arab restaurant in an old colonial casa in Havana Vieja. Many of the dishes will be familiar to Jamaicans – Lebanese or Syrian delicacies like hummus (not as good as ours in Jamaica – too grainy and not enough garlic) kibbie, salads, grilled chicken (which tasted very much like every other piece of chicken I’ve had in Cuba), pita bread, babaganoush (or however that is spelt – but its the eggplant dip), lobster kebabs and other bits and pieces. You can sit in the courtyard, with grape vines above and an old gurgling fountain behind, stupid little birds flitting around and looking harmless. Nearby there is a well behaved parrot chatting away to no one in particular and sitting safely in a cage – no threat there.

A Cuban band plays on – “Guantanamera, guajira Guantanmera..... Guantanameeeeeeera, guajira Guantanmera” – is obligatory. Much like ‘One Love’ must be heard by tourists in Jamaica at least 10 times per day. But you may also get some Stevie Wonder. And the Beatles ‘old hit “Hey Jude” lives on in Havana and the Al Medina – but with a salsa twist.

Back to my little piece of luck, which is still sitting on top of my head. Oh, how the band smiled. Oh, how my Cubana laughed. Its good luck she said – it will bring you money. I quickly wiped the stuff off – only to find out that bird excrement is the colour of all other types of animal excrement and not white at all - shattering another of my treasured myths. As I went to the bathroom to intensify my clean-up campaign the lady outside (who expects you to pay her a couple coins for keeping the bathroom clean) smiles and says “Suave – mucho dinero” – Good luck – much money. Perhaps she meant much money for her. She got that one wrong.

I can’t promise you the same kind of luck – but I can promise you a most pleasurable dining experience at the Al Medina. Expect to pay about 25 convertible pesos for a meal for two, including beer (I needed that trust me). And its a good opportunity to vary your diet from the usual Cuban fare.

Please though, if you do go and see a stupid little bird with an evil smirk on its face, do me a favour and throw it a piece of bread. Directly at its head, and as hard as you can. And while I’m still waiting for that big bundle of dinero, I do feel lucky that at least elephants (trunks pointing where they may), cows and pigs don’t fly.

Copyright © Richard Browne

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Havana Neighbourhoods

I am staying with a Cuban family here in Havana, in a two-bedroom apartment – maybe the same size as mine in Kingston, maybe a little smaller. Louvers for windows. Burglar bars – which I find a little surprising. Glass front doors, which I find even more surprising. The balcony I’m sitting on is painted an aquamarine colour – in contrast to the khaki, grey and white apartment block opposite. Both blocks are about five stories tall, and both look like they are in need of some loving care. Residents have made alterations – this one with glass windows, that one without burglar bars, this one with mustard coloured walls on their balcony, that one with plants.

Some neighbours across the street yell over the traffic to have a conversation with a family on my side of the street. “Oye! Como estas?” the conversation starts, as it starts to rain yet again. Now here they come across the road dodging raindrops and bringing Nestle’s ice cream to celebrate something or other together.

This neighbourhood is called San Agustin, and the apartment blocks look like they were built about 40 years ago – post-revolution in other words. Each block contains about 100 apartments I’d guess. Some of the street is lined with palm trees – a symbol of Cuba. Perhaps some were blown down by recent hurricanes.

I’ve been to a few parts of Havana – Havana Vieja is the oldest part, with bits of the old city wall still visible. A cannon at the Morro Castle across the water still sounds at around 9:00 p.m. every night. Originally this was to warn residents that the city gates were closing, but now the tradition serves to attract hundreds of tourists each night to witness the ceremony, complete with soldiers in 18th century uniform. Its quite a spectacle, and the roaring boom makes you jump, even as you know it will happen. And should it sound at 8:57 instead of 9:00, as it did for me a few nights ago, it makes you jump even more. But if tourists are willing to go out of their way to watch and hear a cannon go off in Havana, then surely they’d be willing to do the same in Port Royal or some of our other forts.

The nearby neighbourhood of Havana Central has the Capitolio, which is a copy somewhat of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. Well, I haven’t actually been to the one in the States, but this one is spectacular and supposedly more detailed. Marble everywhere. A massive statue inside, and a faux diamond under the dome, which is the point from which distances in Cuba is measured.

The next area over (moving East) is Vedado, which means forbidden. Houses were not allowed to be constructed here, so as not to obstruct the view of any oncoming attacking ships. So Vedado developed later, mainly in the early 20th century, and contains many beautiful and ornate homes for the wealthy at the time. Its also home to several bars, restaurants and hotels. Nothing in Kingston really compares – but the closest thing may be the Golden Triangle.

Next to that you have Miramar – where the really wealthy used to live before the revolution – and now the relatively wealthy still do. Some years ago, Argentina’s Maradonna spent some time here recovering from drug abuse. Its where our embassy is along with most others – except of course the American, which does not have an embassy in Cuba. They do have a interest section – which is a bit of a skyscraper on the Malecon (Havana’s famous sea wall) and which looks to be much bigger than the US embassy in Kingston.

San Agustin is not much next to these neighbourhoods. But its real. The rain is really starting to fall now, I better get in before I do some damage to my lap top.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Rocking in San Augustin

Here I am sitting in an old rocking chair, on a balcony in San Agustin, - a suburb of Havana which is hardly mentioned in the tourist guides. Birds chirping all around, old cars chugging along. I can smell Sunday lunches being prepared in near-by apartments. Sometimes mingling with the odour of exhaust fumes.

Its about 2:00 in the afternoon, and lunch is cooking in a pressure cooker. It’s a cut-up chicken which had been marinating in vinegar, onions and garlic with some sliced potatoes . No scotch bonnet in sight. Cuban-Americans crave this vinegar as apparently they can’t get anything like it in Miami. It doesn’t seem all that special to me, but then again maybe we too have fantastic vinegar. The rice cooker has about finished its job, and there will hopefully be black beans to go with that, for a dish called Moors and Christians – the white rice representing the Christians and the black beans the Moorish invaders.

The street is quite busy – with just about every form of automobile passing by. Here comes a Lada taxi. Now a motorbike – male rider carrying a rather large woman stuffed in a canary coloured jumpsuit. Now one with a sidecar – yes they still exist.

Dominoes are being played in the distance – you can hear them banging on the table and occasionally being shuffled, but without the boastful voices that you might hear in Jamaica. Perhaps the players need greater concentration as they play with a double-nine as opposed to our meagre double-six.

There goes a bus, quite full, and blaring salsa music – “Baby, te quiro, baby te quiero o o “ as it lets off about six passengers. Now an army jeep. And now a beautiful old American car from the 1950s – a powder blue Pontiac with a white roof and trim. These museum pieces serve mainly as taxis – its only $1 peso CUC to Havana Vieja in one of these – but up to $20 CUC if you take a tourist taxi. No bicitaxis (rickshaws to us) have passed yet. They are being outlawed in Calcutta, but they abound in Havana – and London’s Soho for that matter.

There’s not much in the immediate area, but nearby is a little park, which you get to by walking to the end of the street and crossing the main road. A vacant piece of land has been used as a makeshift garbage dump, familiar to Jamaican eyes. A little shop near the park sells Cuban fast food – not patties, but pizzas and ham sandwiches and the like.

Walk down the street and you’ll find a little shop selling basics – well, I know they sell sodas, not sure what else. You’ll also find a cambio – a little shed behind security fencing, with two attendants and a security guard. These cambios are everywhere and are open long hours, making it really easy for me, tourists and Cubans to exchange their FX into convertible pesos ( CUCs). Credit cards are hardly accepted however, and I can’t seem to get anything out of the ATMs. If you get stuck though, the bank at the Hotel National will give you cash on your non-American credit card, at a charge of 11%. So if you are thinking of visiting, take along as much cash as you are likely to need – and unless you want to be taxed 20%, make sure its not American dollars.

Whether you need to get cash or not, the Hotel Nacional is well worth a visit, and is ranked as one of the best hotels in Cuba. But as I sit here watching the Cuban world go by, and hunger for that lunch, I think that maybe I am getting a better taste for the real Cuba than I ever could in one of the five star hotels in Havana proper.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Thoughts on the news

There are a few interesting storiies in the news right now which I wanted to comment on...

First of all, I don't see anything wrong with a man who had illegal sex with a 13 year old girl (i.e. RAPE) being extradited to the US to pay for his crime, even if it is some 30 years after the fact. Why wasn't he extradited before? Who cares if he can make a movie? What about Joe Blow who did the same thing and can drive a truck well - should he be able to get of Scott free too? Did Switzerland only get this boost of doing the right thing only because of a recent extradition treaty? On what basis can France and Poland protest?

Secondly - if it is so awful for a Third World Muslim country to have nuclear weapons - then why was the dictatorship in Pakistan allowed to get away with it? The ruler of Iran may be crazy, it is true, but there is some level of democracy there (believe it or not). And their crazy neighbour Pakistan (a dictatorship at the time) has the bomb. Calling them unstable would be a compliment. Pakistan has one because India got one. Why India needed one when they have more poor people than anyplace on Earth (apart maybe from China) is beyond me. Maybe its because their neighbour China got one (did they?) Penis envy? And what about that craziest of all nations North Korea? So far only one nation has murdered thousands of innocents with the use of the bomb. Lets hope they don't have that idea again - though I wouldn't expect this President to do something like that.

Thirdly, lastly and definately leastly, if I was the Prime Minister of Spain and my family looked like the Adams family, I would also want to protect them from having their images shown publically.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The poinlessness of soap boxes

One year after the house of cards called Lehman Brothers collapsed , and bankers are rubbing their hands in anticipation of their Christmas bonuses. If it weren't for the fact that I am hoping that they will send some of that cash my way, I'd be up on a soap box telling them to make atonement. Maybe Chairman Mao had the right idea after all.

On a slightly different plane - about that soap box - I think its high time we moved to beer crates. Soap boxes are piddly little things no more than an inch hich and three inches long. They are constructed of cardboard, so unless you leave the soap in them, they are unlikely to support your weight. And even if they did, they'd only give you an inch more of height. Pointless.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Not a bad day

Went to Strawberry Hill in the Blue Mountains today. Very nice, but very closed. And it poured with tropical rain which you could see coming from a mile away - first obscurring the view of the mountains to the north, and then enveloping us. But through the drops we could still see sunny Kingston some 5,000 feet below, the Palisados, Port Royal, Lime Cay and the sunny beyond.

Then we went down to Irish Town where we lunched on curry and barbeque chicken (deciding against the cow foot with broad beans) at Crystal Edge, with its view of the lush green valleys. For desert we had cups of Blue Mountain coffee from Cafe Blue along with slices of rum cake and cappachino cheese cake.

Winding our way down to Papine and then Kingston we stopped at the art gallary in Liguanea and then went on to the Bolivar Gallary in Half Way Tree. This is a treasure trove of paintings, books and antiquities. A load of buddhas and gongs and Tibetan pray flags and the like had just arrived from India.

Then back home where we drank Havana Club and Appleton and then a glass of Guabita de Pinar (Seca) before settling into a supper of steak, fresh salad and fried rice.
All together not a bad day.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

What's so bad about a loose upper lip?

Unlike Jamaicans, the English love to make their lives uncomfortable.

Why be warm inside when you can be chilly? Why drive an automatic when you can drive a manual? Why have a mixer on your bathroom taps when you can fling your hands between the boiling hot and freezing cold? Why have the butcher remove the nasty stubbs of inedible chicken feet when you can pay for the extra weight and then deal with removing them yourself? Why buy bacon without the inedible rind when you can buy it with? Why have cable tv when you can limit your view to 4 or 5 pathetic stations?

The list, I'm sure, goes on.

Why have AC in your shops or offices when you can sweat during the summer heat, for example?

Give me a loose upper lip to a stiff one any day.