Food Feature: Havana good ol' time

Signs of a bygone era still linger in Castro's Cuba

Cuba is a land of great natural beauty — a lush tropical island with miles of unspoiled beaches and national parks full of stunning flora and fauna. It boasts a highly educated and charming people, a vital culture and some of the most infectious music you'll ever hear.

The peaceful island nation remains (officially) off-limits to the average citizen of the land of the free, however, due to the absurd blockade the U.S. perpetuates in defiance of every moral and ethical principle (not to mention political instinct) held by reasonable people and governments the world over. Unless you have official academic, church/charity group or journalistic business, the only way to get here is surreptitiously, via a third country, and even then U.S. citizens, if caught, run the risk of incurring heavy fines upon return for violating the embargo.

Cuba's crime, of course, is that 75-year-old Fidel Castro and the revolution he brought to what used to be America's offshore playground in the 1950s continues to thrive, despite the ups and downs the island has endured. Fidel has survived eight U.S. administrations and, recent health scares notwithstanding, he is likely to outlive Dubya's term as president — not to mention Cheney's term on Earth.

The country has come a long way from the dark days of the early 1990s when, bereft of former Soviet funding, Cuba literally went hungry and the electricity was only on for a few hours a day. High quality water is still in short supply, resulting in rationing of that and staples like rice. But since the U.S. dollar became the country's second official currency in 1993, an entire shadow economy has developed. Anybody who has contact with tourists — like Elian's dad — need only garner a dollar a day in tips to more than double their income, gaining them entrance to special stores with a variety of consumer goods. In general, shopping for food is restricted to outdoor markets; grocery stores as we know them simply don't exist.

Havana is a bustling city of two million souls, with plenty of splendid colonial architecture in various states of repair, some hideous functional structures dating from the days when money poured in from Moscow and the inevitable international-looking modern high rises. Along Havana's main tourist shopping drag, Obisbo, Gucci and Versace are sold in boutiques on the same block as run-down cafes and ice cream outlets and state-run drugstores that look positively Victorian. It is bordered to the north by the justifiably famous Malecon, a four-mile-long sea wall much favored by strollers, joggers, lovers and dreamers. From here, the Florida Keys are almost within view.

A mile or two to the west of downtown is the relatively ritzy area of Vedado, centered around La Rampa, a street of lively bars, restaurants and nightclubs. Performing everything from recently revived sounds in the Buena Vista Social Club vein to salsa and dance music with hip-hop overtones, ace musicians and singers vie for your attention. I stayed in the very pleasant Hotel Vedado, whose $50-a-night single room with AC also included a breakfast buffet. (Much cheaper accommodation is also available.) The most valuable piece of advice I got before my trip — "Eat a large breakfast in your hotel, it'll be the best deal and probably the best food you'll get all day"-- proved true. Succulent papaya, guava, pineapple and mango compete with sweet pastries and all the eggs you can eat, alongside some less impressive "meat" fare. Dinner in a small privately run restaurant usually costs from $4-$12 and the quality is variable.

Symbolism is big in Cuba, and images of Che Guevara are everywhere. Yet, in the course of seven days in Havana I spotted very few pictures of Fidel himself, and just one of Elian. Even the legendary American taxis from the 1940s and '50s, symbols of a bygone era, are becoming scarcer as modern times catch up. A short ride for two in one of these, negotiated with the driver free-market style, cost more — even with six other passengers — than a late-night air-conditioned dash across town alone in a flashy, metered 2001 Mercedes, with Earth, Wind and Fire blasting away on the CD player.

After the bustle of downtown Havana, it's a pleasant break to get away to the modest estate on the edge of town where Ernest Hemmingway spent most of the last years of his life. It was here that he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1953. The book is loosely based on Capitan Gregorio Fuentes, a fisherman from the nearby coastal village of Cojímar, which can just be glimpsed in the distance from an observation tower Hemmingway had built beside his house. Though Hemmingway died in 1961, Fuentes, who was one of his closest friends for 30 years, lives on in Cojímar. This summer, a half-century after being immortalized in fiction; he turns 104. There may be a lesson there for anybody hoping Fidel will drop out of sight in the near future.


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