Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas in Havana - Tour Day 3

December 25, 2018
Havana, Cuba

Tour Day 3 – Christmas in Havana

Christmas Day in Havana
It's Christmas, our final full day in Havana, and the lightest tour schedule of our week in Cuba.

Our first, and basically only, stop today was a morning visit to an organic farm in the eastern suburbs of Havana called Alamar, near where our tour guide Linett lives. It's a quick trip via the tunnel under the La Bahia de Habana (Bay of Havana), but considering the state of maintenance of nearly everything else in Havana, I'm glad to not have to commute through it daily. In Alamar, we see many more of the typical concrete block apartments. Linett tells us that Cubans can buy their own home or apartment, but the government owns all of the land. Since citizens can't necessarily build outside the boundaries of their existing buildings, some have taken to digging out un-permitted and dangerously executed basement rooms as their family expands. Easier to be a risk taker when you have little to lose.

We were initially not super excited by the thought of being shown a farm, prepared again to hear how since the Triumph of the Revolution all Cubans are fed nutritious, free, organic food. But we were pleasantly surprised by our tour, due to the enthusiasm and humor of our charming guide, Isis.

Isis is the daughter of the farm's founder, and was a fount of knowledge about the farm. She had her patter down, and knew what was going to interest or amuse the group, throwing in barbs about both her homeland as well as the U.S., where she's traveled extensively. I was glad to hear her acknowledge how narrow the Cuban diet is, especially when it comes to vegetables. Green peppers, tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and cabbage are about it, and usually more of a decorative addition to a plate of beans, rice, and pork or chicken. Isis is enamored by non-Cuban vegetables, and was particularly passionate in talking about Brussels sprouts, to humorous effect.

We spent about 30 or 45 minutes walking around the farm, listening to how they make due with very little in the way of supplies, and how lack of money is a big part of why organic farming has gained (a little) steam in Cuba since labor is more affordable than fertilizers and pesticides. She was quite proud of the long beds of worms they keep to create compost, as well as clever methods they use to keep insects away by confusing them with colors and intermixing plants.

Isis went on to say that they have to guard the farm not just from insects and birds, but also other Cubans. They must protect one of their most precious cash crops, the mint that they can sell to pricey tourist hotels and restaurants for the millions of mojitos that must be made. Apparently, thieves will come in the night and tear up whole rows of the precious ingredient.

She's very interested in the Slow Food movement, and was excited to be able to tell us that she had gotten to go to Chez Panisse in Berkeley after receiving a gift certificate from Alice Waters herself. After hearing Isis's passionate talk about her family's farming crusade and constant battle to overcome various struggles, I think several of us were welled up hearing that she was actually able to make it to Chez Panisse.

Leaving the farm as a misty rain started, the rest of our planned day consisted of a quick stop-off, while on this side of the bay, at an Ernest Hemingway statue, located in in Cojimar, a spot where Papa liked to fish, and then off to our lunch restaurant, Cafe Ajiaco. It was a pleasant but unremarkable meal, of, you guessed it, ropa vieja, chicken, beans and rice. We were served a traditional Cuban ajiaco, a tasty soup made with meats, corn on the cob and potatoes to start, to mix things up a bit. We discussed our individual plans for the remainder of the day with the group.The Chinese father/son duo were off to Chinatown, the Jewish woman off to see the synagogue, and the rest of us planned to head back to Habana Vieja.

After being dropped back at our hotel, we walked the malecon much of the way from our hotel toward old Havana, taking some time to sit in the Paseo del Prado watching the locals out enjoying the day. It appeared that at least some of the more affluent residents had exchanged gifts, as we watched some young girls putting on a bit of a roller skating exhibition on what we decided were their new wheels they got for Christmas. 

We also came across a pair of our tour mates sitting in a bar enjoying some cocktails and watching the scene, which made us happy. The place we found for a beverage (and more importantly, banos), was pretty awful. It looked to be an ice cream parlor, that had a menu of coffee drinks and other beverages. It looked easy and quick, so we went in despite the television blaring obnoxious cartoons at full volume. We asked for ice cream, but apparently they had none. Also none of the coffee drinks or sodas we tried to order. The only item they had was espresso - and a terrible one at that. We can't wait to return.

It ended up being quite a bit more walking and quite a bit less drinking than we had counted on, so we took this opportunity to hail our first 1950s taxi to get a ride back to our hotel to freshen up before drinks, and then dinner. For the ride back to our hotel, we found ourselves in an emerald green Ford, complete with Playboy sticker on the dash (and a Lyft sticker on the windshield). We were seated on meticulously fitted, clear plastic, protecting yet not obscuring the original upholstery. Don't ask us what year, we're very much not good at cars.  But it sure was a fun ride!

Our pre-dinner drinks plan was to head to the top floor bar at the famous Hotel Nacional a short walk from our more modest accommodations. We had read somewhere that this stylish old bar was worth heading to for a cocktail. Going in to investigate, we took the elevator up to the top floor and wandered around hallways of guest rooms, seeing no sign of a bar. Heading back downstairs, we found a hotel employee who told us that the upstairs bar had closed maybe 20 years ago! So she walked us over to a first floor bar called Churchill that would have to do. 

It was a tiny, but clubby-feeling place, with a single white-shirted, black-vested bartender behind an old, curved wooden bar.The British bloke sitting alone next to us helped complete the imperial feel by ordering a Romeo and Juliet Cigar, Winston Chruchill's preferred brand, and having the bartender light it for him. With a single tasty round of drinks ingested, we decided to head somewhere a little more local-feeling for food.

We ended up at Los Amigos, a restaurant across the street from our hotel, and somewhere we remembered Anthony Bourdain going his first time in Havana. They were able to (barely) squeeze us in to the tiny dining room, in what was clearly someone's home not too long ago. In fact, with the occasional child running through, there are likely still rooms somewhere out of view in this place where people are still living.

Looking at the photo-printed laminated place mats and menu, we set our expectations low. And while the food was nothing remotely resembling anyone's definition of gourmet, it was delicious. Probably our favorite of the trip. For me, it was due to the delicious vinegary, slightly spicy sauce served with the meal. I'm not sure what it was for, exactly, but we put it on everything. My favorite was probably just the rice and beans smothered in delicious sauce. Caroline was enamored by the tostones - fried plantain - which were also very good, especially doused in said sauce. And Christmas dinner in Cuba wouldn't be complete without a Havana Club 7-year rum. Salud y feliz Navidad!

Tomorrow morning we say goodbye to Havana until Friday, the night before our flight back to the States. We're in for a long bus ride to Trinidad, on the south side of the island. We're both looking forward to seeing a different side (figuratively and literally) of the country.


Touring the urban collective farm with owner-farmer Isis. For this tour, we were combined with another group of Americans, including a guy from Mill Valley, CA just down the road from us. Being part of this large group made us very grateful that there were usually only seven of us.
The farm, in all of its gorgeous red-dirt and green-leafy glory!
Farm colors
When all you have is an old bus window, a bus window is what you use.  Similar to what we've seen in Mexico, deprivation breeds ingenuity.
Isis, the wonder farmer!
More crops
Cojimar, where Hemingway used to like to fish. Pre-lunch tour stop, complete with requisite musician, check!  I'm pretty sure this one played Despacito, as well. Of course.
We were invited to check out the Hemingway statue.  We weren't really sure why we needed to be dropped off by the bus in order to see this.
When in doubt, take a selfie!
Requisite seaside couples selfie!
Lunch began with a traditional Ajiaco
At Cafe Ajiaco, a typical Cuban family-style lunch, but with the addition of an over-cooked piece of fish. Oh well.
We were treated to the usual Cuban hospitality, including a demonstration of the restaurant's special coffee preparation



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