Thursday, January 31, 2013

Yes, We Have No Bananas

Where to begin. Of all the days spent in Cuba, the first day remains a blur, dominated by clearing customs, TSA and the immigration Nazis in two countries within hours is enough to jangle even the sturdiest of world travelers. There were lines and more lines controlled by non smiling or non English speaking people, not because they couldn't speak English, but because they didn't have to, since most of the people in line spoke Spanish.

View from El Morro Castle overlooking Caribbean Sea

Where I had been cautious in my packing by making sure everything fit into my rucksack and one bag, others in line toted huge packages of green plastic shrink wrapped goods to take into Havana. Some of it was identifiable as car tires, bulk toilet paper or paper towels. There were tools and plumbing parts. Things that I would later learn, are impossible to purchase in Cuba thanks to the United States 60 year embargo coupled with the fall of Russia back in 1991.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, Cuba was left hanging with no trade partners, America turned its back on Fidel Castro, ticked off because he kicked them out of their favorite playground, and nationalized and confiscated American holdings in Cuba. JFK mounted a boycott and tried unsuccessfully to assassinate El Presidente a number of times over the years in retaliation.

Stuff like that makes for some harsh feelings to say the least. With no one to trade with, the island fell into decay, so to speak, unable to sustain itself. While it is recovering, total recovery has been an arduous process with some things still in short supply, as the United States continues to sulk about losing its Caribbean playground, while paying more attention to the feelings of the displaced, rich white Cubans in Miami than the brown ones in need in Cuba.

This Cuban scenario is similar to the one played out between the US and Haiti when it sought its independence from France. The US allied itself with the white Europeans fearing a slave backlash on its own turf. US actions continue to reverberate today in modern times as both Haiti and Cuba are left to struggle while the US turns a deaf ear and shrugs.

Another thing in short supply that took me and Marie by surprise was the fact that there was a banana shortage. A banana shortage in a place sometimes referred to derogatorily as a “banana republic.” A place that supplies the fruit to the rest of the world. But there was a good reason for the shortage.

Balcony view in Old Havana

Seems Hurricane Sandy blew all the ripening fruit off the trees when she hit the island, so plantains and bananas were scarce. The same held true for coconuts too. Sandy did a number on the island. If we didn't see actual destruction, we saw red roofs on buildings. The red a sign that it had recently been replaced. We saw whole neighborhoods of red roofed homes and buildings during our travels, especially in and around Santiago de Cuba, which is at the opposite end of the island from Havana.

I was blown away by the “oldness” of everything. The cars, American mainly, dating back to the early 50's, yet still running. The buildings harking back to precolonial times, still standing, still useful, still occupied. Some painted and renovated while others were in varying states of decay and disrepair. Old faded decadence covered over with new, vibrant paint. Brilliant colors guaranteed to offend any housing or condo association in the US that can't see past beige or white or other boringly neutral colors of American status. Old, decayed, but clean. Very clean.

La Ferminia Restaurant Havana, Cuba
Tapas serving at La Ferminia

Following our city drive through, we were taken to La Ferminia a restaurant that served Tapas style. Back in the day, when the wealthy, primarily white Cubans fled Havana in the wake of the revolution, they left their belongings, their homes, their cars and all of their stuff. Those homes became “found” materials and were eventually put to other uses. Many of these homes were transformed into restaurants. They became what are called Paladars. It's like going to dinner at a friend's house, where your friend hires servers and a band to entertain you. Comfortable.

More to come..

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