No amount of research or advice from fellow travellers, not any of the multitude of documentaries or published texts available in any library can prepare you for Cuba. This is one country, and I have visited several in my existence where prior research to visitation is essential, but still does not prepare you for what lies ahead after your arrival. The best advice I was given was to ‘Go With It’, have no expectations and for want of a more inventive phrase to just ‘Live In The Moment’. This is the Cuban way. Make plans yes, as you do for any new adventure but in Cuba don’t expect them to unfold accordingly. Five minutes wait can turn into two hours and don’t ask how long something will take. If you find yourself in a long queue for example at a bank or a supermarket chances are the vendor/teller is having a nice chat oblivious to the line of people waiting patiently behind. This is the Cuban way and no one seems to mind! When you get your head around this, you will be fine.
We are in Cuba for the music of course. Of the many facets to this country, the music has been our motivation to visit. Musicians who wish to perform in Cuba need an official invitation, one of which we were lucky to receive from the Havana International Jazz Festival. Without this, we were not officially recognised as performers there and was an essential document needed for customs next to health insurance certificates.
Needless to say, the music is present everywhere you go. If it was on the streets, in the bars, in the theatres or restauraunts, it was there and always excellent. I thought I had mastered maracas in Australia and couldn’t have been more wrong as was offered an impromptu lesson when one of these maraca masters witnessed my questionable technique. They can do it in their sleep and even before they are born at a guess.
The food on the other hand, is not so. You would think that a Caribbean Country with Spanish, African and South American influences would have a somewhat exotic cuisine base. Theoretically this makes sense but realistically was not the case for us. Who ever heard of Cuba as a world food force the likes of Italy, France or even Sydney. When you spend time there, you realise why so. They eat and market seasonally which is a good thing in any foodies books. It’s just what is available and to whom which makes eating compared to what we are accustomed in Australia a daily challenge. As a chilli addict, was having major withdrawals discovering nothing of any heat was available. Anywhere. Including at the fresh produce markets I visited with my Casa girl who through a lost in translation episode as she no English and I no Spanish, purchased a bag of miniature capsicums disguised as ghost chillies. They looked promisingly hot. Alas they were not, with little flavour to speak of.
At the beginning of the trip we decide upon the breakfast option at our Casa for an extra five CUC a head. (I decide later in the trip to prepare our own breakfast as we have access to their kitchen in order to save our diminishing cash supply – mostly everything must be paid for with cash in Cuba). This is always an omelette, slices of processed ham, cheese, papaya chunks, pineapple or guava juice, bread rolls and coffee. The coffee is very good. Coffee is one of Cubas main exports next to rum and tobacco, so mercifully they do know how to make a decent espresso. Out of the three separate Casas we stayed in there was virtually no variation in the breakfast presented to us, with the exception of bananas or pineapple instead of papaya. With the uncertainty of food options in the streets, the fruit was welcoming as it very well could be just rice and beans for the rest of the day. We ate many bananas.
Our first restaurant in Cuba, not knowing any better and dog tired from travel was a tourist trap. It was the closest in proximity to our Casa and Lobsters are ordered. We are in the Caribbean, right? Wrong. Anthony Bourdain in No Reservations has sung praises of the Cuban Lobsters. Perhaps he dined at one of the more affluent expensive tourist restaurants which do exist commonly in Cuba, but these are out of our reach finacially being a five piece band on a guitar-string budget. Tonight the taste is tantamount to fried rubber. Taking the iniative I enquire as to the special of the day – In broken English the waiter recommends the squid ink rice with shrimp and octopus. It’s dark, almost pitch black however very tasty. A wiser choice than the lobster at this establishment. Advice for future travellers to Cuba – go for the specials. There is an element of freshness to these dishes as opposed to the menu options designed purely to cater for the Western World palate.
Our next dinner outing is at a Casa Particular around the corner from ours. This is a private home with a dining room set up in the front and always an affordable option so locals often dine in these homes too. Here we can expect a typical Cuban meal of which I am curious to try. The menu is entirely in Spanish (the tourist restaurants always have English translation) so our menu decoder in the back of the Spanish phrase book comes in handy. First course is a vegetable noodle soup and is very good, not needing any extra salt and served with lime wedges. So far so good. Second course is salad. Every salad you order in Cuba appears the same way – Thinly sliced tomatoes, cucumber, an avocado cube and a mountain of grated cabbage on the top. This one also had additional ingredients: One boiled broccoli floweret, finely diced boiled to within an inch of it’s life carrot and a few unidentified green leaves. There is no dressing. Unimaginative but healthy which is what I remind myself during consumption. The third and final course arrives. Picadillo is a traditional dish of ground beef, capsicum, raisins, ham, beans and rice. It is in a mound shape on the plate and next to some fried plaintains, also another Cuban delicacy. If any spices have been used here I am unable to detect them. Right about now I’d murder for chilli sauce or Himalayan Sea Salt! Still, a cheap and cheerful meal with a few bottles of quite good Chillean wine has cost us around thirty Australian dollars for the five of us so we are happy and content musicians.
Back to the music. After a brief sojourn to Cienfuego and Trinidad across the country and back, we are slowly getting into the Cuban Swing. Of these two towns Trinidad was the most beautiful. Vibrant colours, cobblestoned streets, loudly coloured Chevrolets navigating the narrow streets, music music music and a long awaited dip in the Caribbean Sea via Anacon Beach. Our travel from and back to Havana to visit these places was also colourful. Hurtling down the ‘single-laned-suicide highway’ dodging horses and carts, tourist buses, potholes and other travelling vehicles of varying speeds left us fairly frazzled! My knuckle bones white from the trip and grip, no seatbelts, thirteen of us piled into an elongated Jeep and only half a seat for the 300km journey. I do pray we make it to Havana in one piece. Stan says, just don’t look. We stop to refuel at a farm rather than a service station off the road down a lumpy dirt track. The motor still runs while petrol is poured into a funnel into the tank and the driver smokes a cigar nearby. I don’t look.
Finally, it’s the day of our first gig. By now we are used to being given very little information in relation to what we are doing till the final minute. The festival program, fresh off the press has just been handed to us. We have learned not to ask questions as usually is answered with a shoulder shrug. We get told what we need to know, when we need to know it and ‘hurry up and wait’ has taken on a brand new meaning in Cuba. Our soundcheck time is 1pm and they tell us we need to be there at 11am. OK. Except it’s now 1.30pm, we haven’t yet soundchecked and the program of four bands starts at 2pm. ‘Should we eat’ I suggest? Yes, says Mary but make sure you are back here for soundcheck. Whenever that will be. Then we are told that we will be on second, rather than first. So we sit out the first band, but are told half way through their performance that we will be on third now. Only to be informed next we will be last. This is Cuba afterall, things change at the last minute and we are beginning to realise this. Also, we are to perform for no longer than thirty minutes maximum. So when we finally get our spot, at 6pm after waiting around for hours, we give our thirty minute adrenalin fuelled performance everything we’ve got. My word, we do.
As the week goes on we are making a few inroads into this country and just how they live and operate on a day to day basis. Staying in a Casa enables ground-level knowledge being right in touch with the locals, language barrier and all, an experience not to be had if a tourist hotel option is taken. This becomes most apparent when we decide to start cooking for ourselves and need to shop for ingredients. We have a stove-top and some very basic kitchen utensils so why not? Just what to exactly without any knowledge of produce available or where is our next challenge.
We’re pointed in the direction of a supermarket co-incidentally located next to the Jazz Club and situated opposite the famous Riviera Hotel (Frank Sinatra’s old haunt). There’s aisle after aisle of canned, boxed and plastic packaged items. Bag upon bags of rice, pasta and lentils and an extensive frozen food section, not much in the way of vegetables other than one lonely bag of frozen broccoli. No eggs in sight. Looks like dinner tonight will be pasta and a canned pasta sauce. There are no spices whatsoever other than one Maggi brand labelled Sazon and at a price of 1CUC, this will not break the band bank and is our only option. There’s one whole row of identical plastic oil bottles labelled ‘Soya’ telling me Olive Oil is out of the question. Blindingly flourescently lit, the power went off for about ten minutes while we were waiting in another long queue at the checkout. No one seems fazed, taking the opportunity to chat with each other rather than pull out their smartphones to stare at screens in order to pass the black-out time. Wifi and internet access exists but is not widely available or affordable yet in Cuba. A refreshing prospect. People talking to each other again. Who’d have thought.
Back at the Casa and into the kitchen I go. Glenda our host is curious and watches on as to just what I will prepare there. I cook the pasta (in bottled water), heat up the canned sauce and serve to the band. She appears fascinated and all the while chuckles. I wish to ask her what is so funny, but she no English and I no Spanish so we laugh together at who knows what. It’s ridculous to me because I never cook this sort of thing up at home. And until I learn how to speak Spanish properly, I’ll never know what amused her so.
However, I must somehow communicate with her as I want to visit a fresh produce market and she would know. Even Bourdain says there is a great one and the translator book helps now more than ever. She comprehends my desire, and even better will drive me there herself in the morning in her carro. Turns out it is three blocks and two streets away from the house and is the exact same one Bourdain went to.
We make the short journey to the marketplace in her Fiat Polski, a bright blue tiny two-door with no boot leaf-blower-engine sound-alike car. Luckily she knows all the vendors here and does my negotiating and paying for after I just point at stuff and open my wallet. Everything here is in season and every stall has all of the same things on display. Tomatoes, onions, garlic, cabbage, cauliflower, pumpkin, capsicums, carrots, okra, cilantro, bananas, papaya, pineapples, limes, guava, avocados and mangoes. I buy some of everything as it all looks wonderful. (I do find out later the mangoes are actually out of season. They were of stringy texture, but tasted pretty good and was a welcome alternative to the ever-present papaya). The avocado is enourmous and will take a few days to ripen. Took a week as it turned out and was a complete meal for all of us when it did. I calculate this abundant fresh fruit and vegetable supply has cost around $6.50 AUS, and will see us out for meals over the next week.
Then there was the meat section. Slabs of pork, different cuts and sections all displayed on an unrefrigerated bench top in the open with a couple of blowies hovering. Bourdain had gone there but I’m afraid I just couldn’t bring myself to do the same. I know the boys of the band would have loved me to bring home the bacon but being a temporary vegetarian won’t hurt them. Plenty of opportunity to resume their carnivoric diets back in Australia Xmas day and beyond.
I decide on a pumpkin soup first, as we’ve now a huge chunk of it plus carrots, onions and garlic galore. Normally I’d roast all of this drizzled in Olive Oil then wizz it up with stock and spices and re-heat on the stove-top. Roasting is not a possibility in Glendas kitchen as it turns out. I point to the oven she possesses and she hand gestures wildly while repeating ‘Non, Non, Non!’. I figure this translates as it’s on the blink. So it’s all in the one big pot on the stove, boiling furiously. Glenda has a blender thankfully so I can wizz it up in this. I must use my imagination when it comes to seasoning this soup with the absence of stock. I use the Maggi Sazon and wait for it…a generous dash of Havana Club. Amazingly, the end result is delicious. I ask the band to guess all the ingredients. One of them correctly guesses the rum. (My recipe for ‘Rumpkin Soup’ is at the end of this blog).
Wonders never cease in this country. We’ve kindly been invited to the British Ambassadors palace for their Xmas party with lunch included in exchange for a private Manouche concert, a fair enough trade. The guests were a mix of Ambassadorial staff and representatives from other Embassies, around forty in total for this pleasant afternoon soiree in the grounds of the stunning building. Which, co-incidentally was located three blocks from our Casa, within easy strolling distance for carting accordion purposes. The catering for this was, as you’d imagine generously salubrious. Large platters filled to the brim of more of the same seasonal cuisine – rice and beans, cabbage salads, cucumber and tomato slices and lashings of avocados. And an endless supply of the omnipresent Mojito. There are barbequed pork steaks piled high as well as fat chicken breasts. (Our Embassy girl Alice mentions she has never seen such fat chicken breasts after a year of service in Cuba and where these would have been obtained she couldn’t comment). Of course, the band pile their plates to capacity then have seconds and thirds. Then we play for them. They don’t usually have live music at these do’s, so they are very appreciative of this. It goes both ways as we haven’t eaten like this yet either.
The most interesting of facts the British Ambassador to Cuba informed us over lunch was that Mick Jagger had been for drinks there a few weeks before us. Turns out Mick is angling for the Rolling Stones to perform in Havana at some future point. He has been laying the groundwork for what will be, when and if they can pull it off, a concert of a lifetime. Because, the Rolling Stones are by a long shot Cubas most endeared band ever. And they have never performed there. This is a valid reason to return to Cuba I decide right there and then. The Ambassador will keep us in the loop with developments <insert smiley face here>.
Amidst the communication, banks and food challenges we are met with everyday and our subsequent overcoming of these, the Jazz Festival has been running alongside and we have been performing and also watching other fantastic and diverse bands from all over the world. To our delight, our music has been received very well by both Cubans and international visitors alike. It was a major undertaking getting our five piece band Feel The Manouche to Cuba. With the fully funded Pozible campaign generously supported by family, friends and fans our mission was successful. One of the venues the Cafe Miramar even invited us back for an unscheduled encore performance on the last night of the festival. Gestures such as this are uncommon and made us feel that all the effort was worthwhile. We made many new friends and contacts, both English speaking and non as communication through music the universal language, we’ve now seen first-hand absolutely applies in Cuba.
Cuban Rumpkin Soup
2 Brown Onions, chopped
5 Garlic Cloves, chopped
1 Kilo Butternut Pumpkin, peeled and chopped
6 Carrots, peeled and chopped
4 Tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 Mashed Banana
Mango pulp (I used half a large one plus juices)
Handful of Coriander leaves
Juice from one lime plus the zest
I TBS Sazon (Or seasoning of your choice, sea salt good)
1/2 cup of Havana Club Dark Rum
- Fry onions and garlic till soft and fragrant
- Put all remaining ingredients into the pot and bring to the boil
- Simmer for an hour
- Let cool and transfer to blender in batches and return to pot reheat
- Swirl through Rum
- Serve garnished with coriander