Cuban Diary Day 3: Cigars, Salad and Salsa

Monday, 9 May 2016

This morning Caridad got up at 6:30 as usual and the rest of the morning until breakfast was as yesterday. One exception was the strong smell of cigarette smoke in our room in this non-smoking hotel.

At 8 am, we went down to breakfast. The same spread was there as yesterday. (Maybe it was exactly the same food!)  Caridad stayed with the hard-boiled egg option and tried the French toast and what she thought was corn bread. The French toast was tough, and the other bread (which was not corn bread) was just o.k. Another choice turned out to be a block of almost-raw potatoes that she abandoned after one bite. Lazaro had similar bad luck. In addition, now that the toaster was fixed, it was impossible to get to it because other diners blocked access. We shared a baguette to test whether we had unfairly judged it by its looks: it was tough and we had not misjudged it as inedible. At the end, Lazaro found some unpitted dates for both of us that were edible . So far the best choices are toast, hard-boiled eggs, and dates. The rest is inedible: raw, runny, rubbery, tough, and/or fried hard.

We met our guide in the lobby before 9:30, and the group was finally on the road by 9:45. The lady with the room next to ours mentioned the strong smell of cigarettes in her room, also.

First, we went back to Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabana (the fort we visited last night) because some group members wanted to buy cigars at Ron’s Tabaco Cafe, the cigar store there. Because it was still early, we were able to meet Jose Castelar Cairo (also known as Cueto), the five-time holder of the Guinness World Record for making the longest cigar. The progression of lengths is 11.04 meters (April, 2001), 14.86 meters (May, 2003), 20.41 meters (April, 2005), 45.38 meters (May, 2008), and 81.8 meters (May, 2011). We saw the cigar itself looped around in a glass case in a room with awards he had won and the desk where he works. He made a cigar while we were there. (Curiously, Cueto does not smoke.) After some confusion about the key to the cigar room (the key was not there, the key was there), the group concluded its purchases of cigars and rum .

Back on the bus, we headed to Organoponico Vivaro Alamar, an organic farm. Our tour there was led by the daughter of one of the founders. Her name is Isis Salcines, but “Good Isis” she assured us; she had her name long before the other ISIS. We learned a lot of common-sense gardening information, including the work done by marigolds and earthworms. Marigolds are used as an insect repellent, to protect crops from damage caused by insect pests. Earthworms are used to create fertile soil from pig manure, rice husks, and sugar cake (left over from sugar cane processing). We learned that earthworms can live up to 16 years.

Isis told us that Cubans do not eat many vegetables, only a little lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and cabbage. Cubans see vegetables only as a garnish. This explains the tiny “family-sized” plates of salad we get at restaurants. Vivaro Alamar grows many vegetables and herbs, which (after giving their required share to the government) they sell at farmers markets and to restaurants. The oldest employee on the farm also advises locals how to use the herbs recommended by their doctors for various ailments. Isis has visited the US several times, and was featured in a documentary, made in Bennington, Vermont, about organic gardening. Her father, Miguel Angel Salcines López, made a TED Talk on the subject. While we were there, she received an exciting phone call from her husband, a chef: after two unsuccessful applications, he has been granted a visa to visit the US and meet with other chefs in California.  (The farm has a website at http://farmcuba.org/index.html#home. This website was developed by students from Elon University of Elon, North Carolina. Our tour members might just recognize our tour guide in a picture on the website’s About page.)

After this, we went to the Ajiaco Cafe, a paladar (private restaurant) for lunch. We were served a stew, small salad, appetizers of fried breaded fish, freshly-baked bread, chicken, fish, rice, rice pudding for dessert, and strong Cuban coffee. This meal was as good as last night’s. Our end of the table agreed about how horrible breakfasts have been, but we are laughing it off.

The next stop was Ernest Hemingway’s Finca Vigia museum. This museum will be the subject of a separate blog post.

After this, we were returned to the hotel to freshen up. Our guide made reservations for part of the group at La Fontana and arranged for cars to take us there. Actually, it was the bus driver who arranged for our taxi. We two will go by regular taxi, while the more adventurous ones want a convertible old car. It is a five minute drive to the restaurant, and the cost difference is 15 CUC vs. 30 CUC. We would like to ride in a convertible old car when there is more time and the journey, rather than the destination, is the focus of the ride.

After blogging and a short nap, we took our taxi (longer than five minutes, definitely not walkable) to the beautiful restaurant La Fontana, where they were expecting our group of seven.  A few minutes later, the other five of the dinner group arrived. They had ridden in a Buick convertible, three to a bench seat front and back, costing them 7 CUC each. The meal was very good and cost 75 CUC, including the 10% service charge, (around $88 USD) for the two of us.  We were finished and ready for the bus when it arrived.

After a short drive, we arrived at the Noche de Fiesta Cubana! for a welcome party with live music. The place used to be a popular “night club” for youth but was closed down because the area was unsafe and (it sounded like) there were incidents of violence. The youth are interested in reopening this club. There were two professional dancers waiting for us and we enjoyed a one hour lesson in salsa dancing, Cuban style. Ten of our group were there. After a hot hour of exercise, we were glad to be back outside in the breeze. We were back at the hotel at about 10 pm.

Tomorrow we begin our tour day at 9 am, which is one half earlier than usual.

Stay tuned for more of our Cuban diary. If you want to catch up on the first days, read:

Eight Days in Cuba: an Introduction

Cuban Diary Day 1: Arriving in Cuba

Cuban Diary Day 2: Squares of Old Havana

Cuban Diary Day 2: Views of Old Havana