March 28, 2011

A Taste of Havana

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Embargoes, Fidel Castro and Miami’s Cuban sandwich. What else do we know of this isolated Caribbean island of Cuba? Encased in a seemingly impenetrable bubble, Cuba proved to be a compelling destination for Spring Break — the more foreign, the better! Armed with a tattered 1988 travel guidebook on Cuba, a culturally humongous appetite to boot and a dash of intellectual curiosity, I made my way to Havana, the capital city of Cuba.

Once our motley crew of twelve broke through the Cuban bubble, we quickly came to realize that this is a land with a clear distinction between ‘you’ and ‘I.’ Our rental car plate number began with a “T,” minting our “Tourist” status literally on our behinds. We went around being ripped off constantly, as the currency exclusively reserved for tourists channeled us only to non-local, over-priced establishments that screamed extortion. As we sauntered along the rustic cobbled sidewalks of old Havana, locals either threw guesses as to where we came from (“Japón?”, “Chiiiina”?), jiggled heartily on their rocking chairs or simply eye-balled our stinking foreignness.

In turn, we transformed into the Bill Murrays and Scarlett Johanssons of the film Lost in Translation, engaging in frequent rounds of charades when harassing locals for directions. Daylight-savings hit us the first night, when we least expected it, as if exacerbating our sense of loss and disorientation. It didn’t help that Havana felt like an uncompleted cardboard film set, with its grey crumbling walls and piles of detritus, yet at the same time boasting an air of baroque grandeur in its court-yarded villas and tall archways.

It was only when we stepped off the Arcadian sidewalks lined with colorful Bauhaus-style buildings, away from the scrutiny of curious on-lookers and into our casa particulares (homestay apartments in native speak), that we felt like we were somewhere real. What greeted us was almost always a warm, big-bellied lady in a sundress, gesturing us to enter the dining room, where a spread awaited. We gushed down sweating cups of Cuba Libre (“Free Cuba”), a national drink of coke, rum and lime as ironically named as it is. We feasted on crispy fried plantains, Moors and Christianos (rice with black beans), flavorful grilled chicken, fresh salads and pink guava fruit. After sickeningly saccharine desserts splashed with syrups and caramel, we chatted and laughed till our mojitos ran dry and our Ché Guevara shirts reeked of cigar smoke.

I especially liked what I call the Cuban laugh. It is a seismic event — it originates deep in the belly, gains strength as it rolls upward and bursts out in a full throttle roar, often followed by rumbling aftershocks. It was triggered when we asked our casa owners for French toast and soup for breakfast as a departure from the same guava-preserve-and-crusty-bread combination we had been eating for half a week. It came from a server when I was pressing him for the bill at a restaurant (going “Rapido, Rapido!”), not realizing I was in a society more used to being laid-back than rushed. Of course, things erupted when I told locals that they could visit me anytime in the States.

Being the ardent foodie that I was, I must say I was disappointed by Cuban cuisine. It was uninspired, monotonous and highly predictable, as if a stark reminder of Cuba’s socialist D.N.A., one that failed to reward differentiation and competition. A bocadillo (sandwich) was nothing more than a slab of processed cheese and a slice of deli ham pressed between cold, white bread. Our supposed sweet treat at a renowned Coppelia (ice cream parlor) was twice the size of a Cheesecake Factory and filled with lines overflowing onto the roads. However, with a grand total of one ice cream flavor, we left with half-eaten plates of gloop, failing to decipher what that flavor was in the first place. Where were the vibrant Creole flavors which the Big Easy made our nation fall head over heels with? Where were the fragrant paellas, cheesy quesadillas and stuffed empanadas I was salivating over just thinking about them on our Cubanair flight to Havana?

Then it dawned on me by the end of the trip that it is not that Cubans don’t live to eat — they are just easily contented. This is Cuba, a nation extremely proud of itself, and feeling no pressure to prove it. Cubans seek pleasure in the simple things in life, judging from their insouciant, carefree lifestyles, a sense of neighborliness where everybody knows everybody, and an inner contentment free of capitalistic opportunism. Cuban cuisine is a peasant cuisine, unconcerned with the niceties of measurement, order or timing, yet it is extravagant in its inclusiveness and heartiness. I must say I enjoyed one night squeezing in a tight dining room with my eleven travel companions, passing down clay pots of beans, salty rice and fresh langoustine, under the occasional flicker of a flimsy overheard lamp and the sparkling gaze of our caring hosts. Or sitting on our casa rooftop and counting stars over rum, peanuts and yuca, humming to the beat of African drums and bean shakers.

Or getting the feeling that Cuban food erased all differences between ‘you’ and ‘I.’

Original Author: Brandon Ho