27 May 2011

gone fishing



25 May 2011

Hemingway's Cuba

Adam, this post is dedicated to you.

Last year, while still at Knox, one of my closest friends had told me that he really wanted to go as a post-graduate chaperon on the unofficial Hemingway trip  to visit Florida and Cuba. I'd never really considered going to Cuba before he mentioned this, and when the opportunity to travel with my synagogue presented itself, I thought, "Sure, why not?".

I knew almost nothing about Cuba, other than it being the forbidden fruit to any casual American traveler. I skimmed the itinerary not really knowing what we were doing, holding onto the idea that on our trip we would be swinging by the Ernest Hemingway Estate out in the hills of Havana. I must also admit that the only work I've read of Hemingway's besides a few short stories, was The Old Man and the Sea - and while we're confessing things here, I read it back in eighth grade, so over 10 years ago. Before I left for my trip, I asked my friend if he could suggest something for me to read of Hemingway's to prep me for my visit - and lo and behold, he told me to read anything he'd written while living in Cuba.

I walked into Myopic Books back in February and stumbled upon this beautiful hardcover edition of Islands in the Stream, three books following the  life of a middle-aged artist, Thomas Hudson in three distinct Caribbean locations: Bimini, Cuba, and The Sea. I've read the first two books in the three part series, and I have to say, there is just something so wonderful and poignant about the simplicity of Hemingway's prose. He gives you just the right amuse bouche of details that allow your imagination to let the story take form. And like one of my favorites, JD Salinger, he finds a way of neatly and promptly wrapping up a story with almost no time left - such an amazing quality.

La Floridita
La Floridita was one of Hemingway's haunts in Havana. An old street-corner bar a hop skip away from our hotel in the central downtown area of the city. Old striped awnings, a live band playing the Buena Vista Social Club, black and white photographs of various celebrities, and a life-sized brass sculpture of Hemingway placed at his corner spot at the bar. They serve Papa Hemingways, which are a frozen drinks made of grapefruit juice, and a double shot of delicious Cuban rum, a drink that Thomas Hudson downs nearly a dozen of in the Cuba portion of Islands in the Stream. How magical to be reading a story about such a real character while simultaneously drinking delicious daiquiris at the place where both he and his author hung out regularly.

hemingway at his corner spot at the bar
who wants a daiquiri
a delicious, cool, refreshing daiquiri

The Hemingway Estate
Following my glowing reviews of Hemingway's writing and my recent obsession with everything in Cuba, it will come as no surprise that visiting the Hemingway Estate was one of the highlights of my trip. Hemingway bought his place in 1931, and stayed there off-and-on until his death in 1961. Rumor has it that Ava Gardner once swam naked in his pool - among other celebrity visitors. Dogs laze about the property but there were no cats, for Hemingway thought that the cats on his property were bad luck. Though we weren't able to physically tour the interior of his home, I was able to snap some photographs through the open windows. It was very cozily decorated, the perfect mix of a man's taste for mounted animal heads and the lightness of a woman's touch.

the guest house at the hemingway estate
the front porch of the hemingway house
for whom the bell tolls
 views of the living room
the tower his wife mary had constructed for him
one of the bedrooms. his typewriter is on the ledge beneath the mounted animal head. he wrote standing up.
the study
the bathroom. the writings on the wall document hemingway's weightloss as he battled cancer towards the end of his life
hemingway's closet
the library. all of the books and written documents contained in this house have been copied to micro-film for preservation purposes.
light coming through the trees on the back porch area
in the dining room
views of havana from the tower
inside of the tower. mary wanted heminway to write up here, but he hated it, and never did. 
me at the top of the tower
the pool
hemingway's dog cemetery
 visitors left their mark on the bamboo 
one of the many lazy dogs
me with hemingway's boat, pilar
mom and i with hemingway's boat

23 May 2011

Consuming in Cuba

Tess, this entry is dedicated entirely to you.

Over the course of the last year, Edie and Andy has evolved into a very food-oriented blog, so it should come as no surprise that I would feature some highlights of Cuban cuisine on my most recent adventure. I left for Cuba thinking, Cuban sandwiches, black beans and rice, plantains - BRING IT ON! But left with a completely different taste in my mouth regarding the way in which the selling, buying, and consuming of food is treated in Cuba compared to the United States.

Cuban black beans, rice, chicken, gravy
The welcome dinner at an open-air thatch roof restaurant in Havana

First let me explain the currency - then I will try my best to explain the way in which food is purchased. There are two types of currency in Cuba. The Cuban Peso and the CUC (the Cuban Convertible Peso, pronounced cook). As a visiting tourist, the only currency I touched was the CUC, which right now is trading at .87 CUCs to $1 USD. There are roughly 25 Cuban Pesos in a CUC - but don't worry, it's not as confusing as it sounds, since the only converting I did was from USD to CUC. In addition to figuring out the currency, let me include that there are no ATMs and no credit card machines in Cuba. I repeat - NO ATMS, NO CREDIT CARDS. Which meant that we had to take out a lot of cash, and conserve as well as convert all of the money we brought. Once you run out, you're out, so if you're really good at Monopoly, Cuba might be a fun place to visit.

The average Cuban makes about 30 CUCs a month - about  $34 USD. But they are paid in Cuban Pesos - so in order to spend their paycheck, they have to convert their money, and in doing so, they lose a fraction of their earnings. This money is expected to cover their living expenses. A lot of the appliances and clothes they own are brought over from the US by family and friends that come to visit Cuba. I once heard an anecdote that a taxi driver and a cigar roller both make more than a doctor in Cuba, and based on the tips that a taxi driver makes, as well as the highest ranking cigar worker - this anecdote is actually true.

In Cuba, there are different kinds of stores. There are ration stores, which accept Cuban Pesos and ration cards. They sell products like sugar, tobacco, cooking oil, feminine products, rice, beans, etc. As a single family unit, you have a neighborhood ration store and a ration book that documents how much you are buying and how much you are allowed to buy. In Cuba, resources can be scarce, so this keeps everyone's buying in check. I don't have a photograph of the actual ration store we visited (because it was forbidden), but it was pretty much just a walk up window with some jars of the product they were selling, and the rest of the goods stored in back.

There are also Cuban Peso stores, which sell odds and ends. We stopped in one of these stores for a moment in Cienfuegos, and it felt kind of like a dollar store. It's a mish mosh of goods, some of it handmade, a lot of it cheaply produced. I remember feeling like there was nothing in the store that I would really want. Plus I couldn't shop there because they only take Cuban Pesos.

Another store we visited was one of the markets. CUCs are the main currency at the markets - so if you are a Cuban and you are shopping here, you have to convert your Cuban Pesos (the currency you are paid in) to CUCs in order to go shopping. The markets carry fresh produce, a lot of which is local, including mango, plantains, and other tropical fruits.

There are also local bakeries and butcher shops. The ration on bread is one roll of bread per person per day, or one loaf of bread for a family per day.

Outside of a local bakery

As I've mentioned previously, Cuba has less resources. It's an island the size of Pennsylvania with a single short rainy season and roughly 300 days of sunshine. Understandably, sustainable agriculture is extremely difficult to maintain. The tomatoes we ate everyday came from South America. All the eggs and chicken, as well as a lot of the grain was imported from the United States through subsidized humanitarian aid (they get our grain surplus). In fact, eggs and chicken are rare enough, that they are rationed. About 10 eggs per person per month, and about 1 pound of chicken per person per month. Beef is a whole other story as well. There simply isn't room or funding to support beef, so beef is completely controlled by the government. You can only buy it at government run restaurants and stores. Milk as a product of cattle is also highly controlled - Cubans only drink cows milk until the age of 5, and then they drink powdered and soy milk. If you are caught poaching or selling beef on the black market, you could face up to 10 years in a Cuban prison. So in short, they eat a lot of pork, a lot of seafood, and a lot of rice and beans.

There are several different types of restaurants we ate at. Hotel buffets - stocked with absurd amounts of food for the European and American visitors. We drank cafe con leche every morning, and I just found out that the milk we were drinking in our coffee our servers were not allowed to drink due to the laws on milk. Government run restaurants - we ate at some restaurants on the side of the highway on our day trips that I'm assuming were government run. The hotels were also most likely run by the government. We at a fair amount of Cubano sandwiches at these places. Palodars - palodars are privately run restaurants in peoples' homes. The word palodar comes from the word "palette", and the food at the palodar we ate at was lights out. We had to walk up an old flight of stairs in this funky old structure and ended up in a converted apartment. These restaurants are run by entrepreneurs and they are heavily taxed by the government.

There aren't as many choices. I know it should have been obvious before I got there - but wow, there aren't really any choices. Beer: you have dark (Bucanero) or light (Crystal). Soda: regular (Tu Kola) or diet (Diet Tu Kola). Forget about McDonald's and don't bother asking for Coca Cola, because they simply don't have it. I'm pretty sure Cuba is the only place I've ever been that doesn't have fast food and hasn't been touched by Coke or McDonald's.

I left Cuba feeling extremely conflicted about my overall relationship with food, as well as my existence as a consumer. I felt a wave of relief when I realized after my first day there that I wasn't being advertised or marketed to 24/7. How refreshing to be in a place where one buys what they can, buys what they need - and by golly finishes everything on their plate. I came to Cuba looking for delicious food, for flavors to match my experiences - but I left realizing just how much food I throw away in my house. I left wondering why I eat as much meat and dairy as I do, when there are other nutritious ways to feed oneself that leave less of a negative impact on the environment.

Material Goods
I felt really foolish having gone shopping for a "vacation wardrobe" to visit a place where new clothes are sold in overpriced government run stores, on the black market, or brought over from the US by friends and family. Living out of a suitcase does wonders for one's relationship to their clothes - I for one felt inspired by having less, wanting to figure out as many permutations for my pieces as possible. I also returned home feeling excited to attack my closet to figure out how to trim it down, because it's not the things in our lives that matter. It's the way we spend our time and who we spend our time with.

In conclusion, I'm making an honest effort to consume less. As for food, I'm going to try to eat less meat - to go out of my way to not buy it. If it's local, if it's organic, if it's raised humanely, or if it's simply in front of me cooked at a bbq, I'll eat it. But I don't really need it. Same goes with clothes. If it's local, if it's handmade, if it's used, if it's absolutely necessary, if I have room for it in my life. But right now, I'm finding that simplicity is the key to happiness.

And now for the food photographs!
Plantains - good fried and in chip form!
Walking through the market

Havana at Sundown

Blouse: J.Crew
Jeans: Gap
Flatforms/ Necklace: thrifted

Blouse: Levi's
Skirt: Thrifted

Cuba: The Cars

One of the main things people told me to do while in Cuba was to photograph the cars. As soon as we walked into the parking lot of the airport, everyone in my group immediately began to photograph the 50's American automobiles - some beat up, some in really great condition. But as the days went by, we grew used to seeing these ancient things driving around, like dinosaurs roaming the city streets. It's pretty amazing to think that these things are still running, but you have to take into consideration that they don't really have a choice other than to keep them running. Plus the mild weather does wonders to keep a car in good condition. There are some newer cars - Russian cars came in after Cuba closed up in the late 50's, and now cars and buses from China are a part of the traffic scene. Though it's dangerous that there aren't airbags in these things, I happily went with the time-warp every time one of these cars drove by!


22 May 2011

beauty in everything

I carry a fortune in my wallet that says something that is very special and very important to me. It reads:

"You find beauty in ordinary things. Do not lose this ability."

In Cuba, I found this fortune especially prevailing in everything I experienced. My postcards back home wrote of the strange beauty I found in the decay - and the juxtaposition of crumble and ruin with the brightly painted shades of buildings. Initially, I felt an overall sense of neglect towards the architecture and landscape - but neglect was then transformed into a deep love for a place that has very limited resources and many strict rules regarding provisions. That said, I thought about the resourcefulness, resilience, ingenuity, and creativity of the people inhabiting this space - and was absolutely inspired by how people not only make-do, but in some cases, thrive on their craftiness and elbow-grease. The idea of seeing a 14-foot ceiling as the potential for a room with a loft above it is common in a place where space is at a premium and there's no such thing as real estate.

I left this country feeling as though objects and materials have so many uses - and that we waste and squander so much in our every day lives. I like to think that I can see the multi-purpose in anything, but sometimes I lose sight of that in favor of convenience. Additionally, I walked away from this experience feeling that there's nothing quite like a fresh coat of paint, and to quote the lovely James St. James, "It doesn't matter what you look like! I mean if you have a hunchback, just throw a little glitter on it, honey, and go out dancing!" Because what is life really? A series of messes, of piles, of things that are crumbling - begging to be cared for and attended to with love and patience.

a tip: a building is in poor condition when a tree is growing out of the walls or ceiling.
in search of materials for their own entrepreneurial construction and renovation projects, many people turn to abandoned buildings, deconstructing them brick by brick for their own purposes. the sign on this building declared that this building was a historic site and that poaching materials from it was illegal.