One of my favourite meals is in a typical thatched roof Cuban restaurant ‘El Palenque’ under tall palms and surrounded by mango trees in the countryside.
I learn that the palenques had their origins in the 19th Century in the days before slavery was abolished. Slaves would escape and hide in fortified enclosures where they could grow crops and raise pigs and chickens. Edmundo remembers the Palenque in the home he would go to outside Havana with his family in Mariel. If the slaves ate the Roast pork with Mojo sauce (sour orange), and the crisply fried chicken with black beans and white rice (for Moors and Christians’ says Edmundo), they must have been doing well. My delicious half a chicken meal cost all of $3 out here. Boris has come up with a winner again.
We are lucky to have the Cardinal Archbishop of Havana celebrate the Mass when we go to the Cathedral on Sunday morning.
There’s also quite a moving ceremony of Baptism for some grown children during the Mass. Afterwards, we say hello on the steps of the Cathedral and of course I’m in trouble with Edmundo for not kissing his ring. The anthem-like hymn at the end of Mass, “We stand for God and for his Glory” was sung with unusual gusto by the local congregation. I learn that this particular hymn was the theme song of many demonstrations, and previously prohibited by the regime. Even the dear old black lady wrapped in a red Air France blanket as a shawl in front of me joined in loudly.
We head east along National Highway 1 hugging the Caribbean Sea coast and get lost trying to find the statue of the Christ, ‘El Cristo de Habana’ standing majestically on a hill across the bay from the City of Havana.
The inscription written by the artist, Jilma Madera, contains very some very beautiful words worthy of reflection: “ . . . I had a special interest in undertaking a project based on the figure of Christ . . . Christ the man . . . Leader of his time . . . I could manage to make the statue full of energy and firmness, with a face that shows serenity and to be sure of himself. I have managed to create Christ the man…”.
From this vantage point, I can only now fully appreciate this well-planned city of domes, spires, boulevards and parks laid out below me. It truly belongs somewhere in Europe, not on a tropical island in the Caribbean where in better times it was referred to as ‘Pearl of the Antilles’. Edmundo says, “only Buenos Aires in all of South America comes close to Havana but time hasn’t stopped there.
I could not imagine Havana staging a Fashion Parade with models, male and female, strutting the catwalk. Edmundo has front row seats next to the flamboyant designer and choreographer of the show. I’m still trying to fathom where these ‘fabulous’ gowns are sold; who has the money to buy them; and where they’d be worn and shown off to effect. Of course, with Boris in action, the evening ends up with our shaking hands and meeting the models in their dressing room.
It’s difficult to have a ‘commercial’ conversation with Boris. He is so sanguine and accepting about owning nothing in this communist system. He certainly doesn’t understand the concept of mortgages, and buying and selling houses with opportunity for capital gain. He was listening to Edmundo attentively on this subject (perhaps more than on Religion), but then shows no sense of deprivation.
Our “Man in Havana”, Boris, delivers again with tickets in the Stalls of the 5-tiered Gran Teatro de la Habana for the Opening Night of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s performance of ‘The Nutcracker. 90 year-old legend, Alica Alonso, Director General of the Ballet and choreographer of tonight’s performance is in attendance in the centre Balcony seat. Edmundo says, “she is admired but hated by ‘Cubans in Exile’. She exchanged sponsorship of her art for her freedoms and that of her country and is accommodated by the regime. Cubans in Miami believe that her premature blindness is a punishment from God”.
Javier Tores is the Premier Danceur and Anette Delgado is the Prima Ballerina for tonight’s performance. The dancing and costumes are wonderful but the audience greets every intricate movement with applause and I get to feel that we are at a Variety Show. There wasn’t much music to drown out thought. The orchestra is a bit under-powered and doesn’t match the quality of the dancers. The Childrens Ballet of Hamilton Canada provide 40 ‘extras’.
We attended a private party in what was once a palatial home right on the sea in the fashionable Miramar district of Havana. It is now a workers club and was decorated with yellow balloons and a giant screen that showed slides of the lives and loves of the guest of honour using every ‘dissolve’ ever made by Microsoft and Apple.
Havana’s most popular singers and three drag queens (reminding me of the ‘Purple Onion’ of my youth in Sydney forty years ago) entertained the guests for three hours non-stop. Bohemians of a Cuban variety and artsy, hairdresser types were there in force.
Tropical gardens in what was once the Villa Mina provide a lush natural setting for the still popular ‘Tropicana’ outdoor cabaret in the suburbs of Havana.
Popular in mobster times as a club/casino, it still hasn’t lost any of its drawing power. It’s full with tourists every night and most paying nearly $100 for the privilege. Showgirls dance on the huge main stage in a swirl of flashing lights, as well as concealed platforms suspended above the stage and in flood-lit tiered gardens on the side. Some of the girls in their dusted-chocolate coloured net stockings and very little else are so pretty, Edmundo quips, “it’s nearly enough to make a man stray’. The highlight of the evening was when the prettiest of the showgirls came down from the stage and chose me to dance with her.
We have a wonderful Cuban contact here in Havana acting as our guide. Boris is the best friend of Edmundo’s personal trainer in Miami, Osmany. They used to work together here in Havana as models for tourism promotion. Boris is now a popular and well-respected fashion photographer and has no desire to travel abroad. “I cannot live anywhere else. I love my family; my friends; I love Cuba”, he says.
While touring yesterday, we stopped at the Church of Jesus of Miramar (where Edmundo celebrated his “First Holy Communion”). It still functions as a Capuchin church and is in reasonable repair. Edmundo points out the beautiful murals of the Stations of the Cross that run above the doors and windows right around the church. He starts to elaborate on the Stations but it was irrelevant to Boris, a ‘child of a Communist education’ where there is no mention of God let alone any understanding of religion. We were surprised to see Mass and Confession times outside and Boris commented, “I thought Confessions were only in the movies”. . . . Edmundo has been intent on ‘converting’ him ever since!
Our visit presents so many opportunities for Edmundo to explain to Boris what the Catholic faith is all about. Edmundo’s missionary fervour was already raised a notch last night when Boris quite innocently asked (over our second bottle of Chilean red wine) at dinner last night, “What is God? Why believe in a God who allows tsunamis and hurricanes”. To Boris, the wonders of Creation, children and flowers, are from Nature. “I’m just part of the Animal Kingdom”, he says. The first step in Edmundo’s plan is to change Boris’ Russian-inspired name!
Here in the Monastery of St Francis of Assisi, I observe Edmundo becoming most intense when explaining the Host in the Monstrance that we were inspecting in a glass display case in the museum. We walk on through the magnificent cloisters and see many fine examples of Crucifixes, and a Pieta that attracts Boris’ photographer’s eye first, but also piques his interest in hearing more of the ‘story’ that Edmundo is telling. Unfortunately, I can’t join in as they’re speaking in Spanish. Later, Edmundo tells me he gave up when Boris asked “how long was Jesus alive within our system?”
Before leaving, we visit the gardens and see the bronze statue of Mother Teresa with a dear old lady on the seat next to her saying the Rosary. A walk-in Baptismal set under shade trees behind a new Greek Orthodox Church in the corner of the gardens provides me with an opportunity to explain in simple English what we mean by Baptism – but probably too much for the poor Boris for one day. It’s difficult talking to an atheist. All our Christian upbringing and reasoning doesn’t equip us well for that. But that’s not going to stop Edmundo!
As a reward for being so attentive, Edmundo suggests we take Boris to the rather extravagant Café del Oriente located on the Plaza opposite the old Stock Exchange building and the Terminal Sierra Maestra (named after the mountains in Oriente province where Castro landed from Mexico). The restaurant has a large U-shaped Bar with beautifully patterned marble floors, high ceilings and dark wainscoting on the walls. We order our usual selection of small ‘starter’ courses and after my delicious $3 fried chicken meal of yesterday, I splurge on lobster and shrimps in a coconut sauce. Guess which one was better?
Edmundo and I enjoyed a trip to Havana in 2010 – and our local guide opened not only many doors, but opened our eyes to life as it can be lived even in a community as repressed as Cuba.
After the ‘bun-rush’ around the breakfast buffet in the dining room on the first morning, I’ve taken to ordering a plate of papaya and a cup of tea in my room before starting the days. Fortunately, Edmundo doesn’t like early starts, so this gives me some added lee-way to get my pictures and notes of the trip ‘on paper’.
Our rooms are comfortable, overlooking the ‘central park’ of Old Havana. Internet access is fairly fast but I’m only just starting to remember to log out after each usage to preserve the precious hours on the pre-paid card.
On our arrival in Havana three days ago, all airport staff are wearing face masks for fear of Swine Influenza. The only form we have to fill in on the plane is for Health check, and one bright spot for me is seeing the lady who scrutinises the forms wearing a white nurse’s uniform, complete with white shoes and a white nurse’s hat! Some old customs die hard. The airline terminal is dimly lit. The baggage retrieval is chaotic with only one carousel in operation for flights arriving together from Paris, Cayman, Cancun and Mexico City, but we get through. In this melee, Edmundo’s childhood memories are of a bustling international airport in Havana, larger than the one in Miami at the time.
After rising at 5 a.m. in Miami and negotiating the bedlam of check-in and security at Miami International Airport on the busiest Sunday of the year (we should have known better than to travel on the weekend after the Christmas holidays!); then in Cancun having to retrieve our bags and catch a shuttle bus to the right terminal; and stand in line again for check-in while lifting our heavy baggage so many times through x-ray machines and the like, we are pooped. We decide to eat in the hotel and discuss our program for the week with our guide.
All we’ve had to eat today is peanuts on both flights. I’m hungry and we head for the Steak House. The shapely dining room hostess greets our guide, not us! He is a fashion photographer and this young lady has been one of his models. We are off to a good start and are offered complimentary champagne while Edmundo orders some sausages and the very Spanish de piquillo pimentos to pick on. We don’t know where, or in what period, we are in in this dining room of red and gold flounces, and polished wood.
We take off on foot for the first sightseeing expedition of Old Havana. . . . pictures tell more than a thousand words . . . please click on the slideshow and view the photos in full screen and follow our first day.
Here’s a new address for you to follow our touristic activities in Havana next week:
Dinner with friends at Susan and Bill’s home on Sunset Island, Miami Beach tonight was a happy-go-lucky affair. This was the last party for this decade, (and there was some argument around the table whether the new decade starts today or in 2011), but it is definitely the last party on this trip to Miami. Should I sound relieved?
Susan hasn’t changed one bit since we first met and worked together in New York in 1975. In fact, I took my mother Connie for afternoon tea on the front porch of her brownstone in Grammercy Park when she visited me from Brisbane all those years ago, and she was most disappointed that the ‘lovely Susan’ was already married. I’ll let the slideshow tell the stories of the other guests.
HAPPY NEW YEAR! (and best wishes for the start of the new decade, if you’re one of those who believe it is this year).
Edmundo hosted a wonderful dinner party last night to celebrate the arrival of Victor and Dr Patrick from Australia. Champagne flowed; hands were read (Victor was so “closed”, Todd had to read his eyes instead!); and José gave a rousing rendition of Handel”s “Creation March” for the guests – a little recital likes days of old – before repairing to the dining room for Regina”s delicious repast.
Edmundo”s surprise helicopter tour of the Beaches and Bays had to be abandoned at the last minute but the guests enjoyed the cruise past the homes and boats of the rich and famous on the islands just as much.
After three weeks of repeating after Edmundo”s Cuban trainer, Osmany, as I lift a weight or count the repititions of exercise routines, I still have difficulty in counting to ten in Spanish unaided. My “right brain” must be atrophied or something like that. I”ve now resorted to the children”s dictionary to give it one last attempt before the final training session prior to departure for Havana on Sunday.
uno (oo-no), dos (dose), tres (trace), cuatro (kwat-ro) . . .
Osmany”s stretching routines seem to work every muscle in my body and it leaves me with an amazing sense of “walking taller” after every workout. I know what”s on my agenda for 2010 back in Sydney, Lee.
Crab claws and Gulf shrimp with Peggy”s homemade mustard sauce with a whole 2oz can of Colman”s dry mustard! What a way to start the evening repast!
After a traditional exchange of gifts around Peggy”s Christmas tree, we sat down to a splendid home-cooked repast – starting with seafood in the Italian style. Unusual to me were the accompaniments for the roasted milk-fed veal – whipped sweet potato with banana; wild rice with pecans and dried cherries; and a five mushroom ragu.
Susan”s traditional home-made nut cake with frosting topped off the happy evening.
The wines were absolutely delicious and even after the many glasses of Billecart Salmon Brut Rosé Champagne during the exchange of gifts around the Christmas tree, I woke with a clear head.
And now to party!