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The Cuban Journals: Mas Frijoles Por Favour (More Beans, Please) ~ Saturday, February 16, 2008



The hotel continues to fascinate.

In order to not feel too bad about paying $750pp for a week here, given that the price dropped by so much the day after we booked (but even what we paid was cheaper than the airfare to Havana, I remind myself), I have decided that we have paid this sum for a taste of what it is like to vacation in a country where Communism, embargoes and pre-existing widespread poverty have combined to produce a place like our Hotetur.

It's not just one factor but a combination, I'm sure--and presumably, since others who have been to four and five star resorts haven't seemed to have noticed these things, there's also something to do with management and tight margins at play here.

One of the most striking things, outside of our dingy room, which is at least clean (if you don't include the bedspreads and the curtains, which are also brown-tinged by dust), is how run down and, in some cases, filthy, things are here.

One or another of the two, tiny elevators seems to be perpetually out of order, and on our first night, we were told by one of the other guests that the elevators, for some reason, do not stop at the fifth floor, so she always has to walk up to her room. The mirrored walls of the elevator are scratched and marked up by lines of cellotape adhesive. The tape and whatever it affixed is long gone, but the glue obviously remained behind and collected bits of grunge.

We've started taking the stairs.

The front lobby is funky in that retro-kitsch way, though I'm not convinced it was retro when the place was originally built. The colours are bright, the fonts are funky ("Reception" is spelled out with wooden cutouts, but the "c" has come half unaffixed and tilts drunkenly). There are potted palms all over, and the design of the vast, elegant seating area of the lobby--which doubles as a cafe/hangout for guests--is ingenious. It features open windows lining the top, and a lowered ceiling in the middle, which channels the cross drafts into the lobby, and provides a cool, breezy respite if the afternoon heat proves too much.

Still, like much of the hotel, upon closer examination, all is not as elegant as it seems. The comfortable, inviting rattan chairs all feature grimy, stained cushions that are often a little damp and unpleasant to sit on.

The main restaurant is the same. At first glance, it seems nice enough, but the devil is in the details. Presumably, it is either:

a) too expensive to have the table cloth covers laundered,
b) too expensive to have a second set of table cloth covers available to alternate, while the other set is being laundered,
or
c) too expensive to have someone who is in charge of removing and replacing the table cloth covers and getting them laundered.

A final possibility is that no-one working there cares much about the table cloth covers, one way or another.

You may be wondering what I mean by "table cloth covers." I don't know the official term, but often at restaurants, you'll see an underlying table cloth (often white linen), and then a second, smaller, often contrasting, table cloth laid over the first, at an angle. Usually, it seems like it's partly expedient--the contrasting colours don't stain as easily (because they're usually a darker shade), they add flair to the tables, and they're easy to strip off and replace with fresh ones regularly, then bundle off to the laundry.

Well, this place has such table cloth covers, in a pale purply-pink, fleur de lis pattern. But, the person in charge hasn't seemed to have cottoned onto the idea that they need to be washed. In consequence, they are filthy: spotted with stains and blotches that are no longer remotely identifiable (though I don't know that I'd feel better if I could actually name the kinds of foods that caused the stains). They're so dirty that, under any other circumstances, I wouldn't place my cutlery on them. But, alas, instead of having the usual bin of cutlery that buffets often feature (right beside the plates), here, the waiters and waitresses lay the tables with the cutlery, so it's already sitting on the stains.

Being the polite Canadians that we are, we just accept this, try to ignore the filth, and eat our breakfast/lunch/dinner.

The food is equally interesting. My joke about the beans, as it turns out, is not so far off. Most meals do feature beans--and tasty ones too, often as not. I had to laugh about lunch today: it actually featured three separate dishes containing different kinds of beans in various preparations, often mixed with pork or bacon bits.

I don't know what the standards are outside of the resort, but I have read enough about Cuba itself to know that while this might not be fare that I'm accustomed to--and there may only be one or two dishes that, with my rarefied tastebuds, I might actually be able to eat (i.e. my dislike of chewy, fatty or gristly meat--in fact, I've started avoiding the meat altogether whenever possible... hence, my newfound love of beans in all their glory), there's more food, and more variety, here than many people in this country get access to.

Fifteen or so years ago, after the collapse of the USSR, and the consequent disappearence of subsides and financial aid to Cuba, the daily food intake of everyone in the country dropped by an average of 1000 calories a day. Their entire economy and approach farming had to change to accommodate the sudden loss of Communist markets willing to purchase their sugar at a subsidized rate. In addition, the US tightened their embargoes, certain that Cuba's regime would collapse any day, after the changes.

Instead, they restructured their entire approach to agriculture. They diversified, instead of growing vast monocultures of crops. The lack of gasoline (again because of the embargoes) forced them to return to older methods, and their dwindling oxen population was suddenly brought back into action to help with the tilling of the fields. I think at the beginning of the so-called "special period" the oxen population was at ~50K. In recent years, it's up to almost half a million or so.

Because fertilizers and pesticides are expensive, they had to go back to older methods of managing pests and helping things grow. Cutting-edge research (education is free in Cuba and many people have advanced degrees--and agricultural sciences is a popular subject) created ever greater refinements in pest control and the use of methods of crop rotation and the like.

Now, all these years later, most people have regained that 1000 calories per day.

But, some things are unchanged. Meat--especially beef--is still rare, because of the extraordinary amount of resources required to raise even one head of cattle.

Much of the beef we get at the resort is stringy or gristly, but it's likely more than most people in the country have access to. Since I hate the idea of the people clearing the plates away--who perhaps have families without access to anything but the most basic supplies--seeing large chunks of wasted meat on my plate because I end up gagging at the crunchy and chewy bits, I figured it's wiser to just avoid it.

At any rate, though, the food is plentiful, and Tom and I have both learned our lessons: don't take large helpings the first time round and avoid the meat whenever possible. If something is good, you can always go back for more.

Many of the dishes, both at the main restaurant and the pizzeria, are interesting because they seem to be distant echoes of some dish we might recognise. The pizza, for instance, tastes like no pizza I've ever had before, in North America or Europe. It's as if it were made by someone who is just following a recipe and has never actually tasted either the North American or European varieties of pizza (as, indeed, is likely the case) and who is, perhaps, missing key ingredients and substituting others out of both necessity and a lack of awareness of how different it will make the food item taste.

For instance, the kinds of cheeses available here are limited--I think there might only be a couple of varieties. Certainly, the cheese that's used on the pizza doesn't taste remotely like mozzarella, or the three cheese blends we get in NA. Ditto the tomato sauce. The crust is more bread-y than any other pizza crusts I've ever eaten.

The same goes for the desserts. The frostings on the little cakes glisten and appear oily. They taste nothing like the frostings we get in North America--I'm guessing that maybe whipping cream or some other key ingredient is hard to come by, so maybe they use oil and egg? A dessert square tasted basically like flour and sugar, which made me wonder whether vanilla essence is hard to come by. And so on. It also brings home to me how much we take for granted with regard to the kinds of ingredients we can get in NA--the idea of not being able to get hold of vanilla essence (even if that's not the taste I'm missing) has vast implications, as a powerful reminder of how supply chain, international trade and infrastructures enhance our daily lives in small but cumulative ways.

It's very interesting to try to guess at what difference in ingredients causes any given food to taste so different here. I'm starting to suspect this resort is in some kind of no-man's land. I don't know that the meals feature anything like actual Cuban food--more likely, they're trying to cater to our tastebuds, but don't know how, or can't quite pull it off because of limited resources.

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::Posted by Anduril Elessar @ 1:11 PM::::

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