Archive for December, 2015

My Cuban Adventure, part 1

December 26, 2015


Music, friendly faces, socialism, dance, horse-drawn carriages, rice and black beans, vintage autos, restored and crumbling buildings, shredded cabbage, pina coladas, cigars.

I’m back from two weeks in Cuba with Global Volunteers. The team I served on was made up of twenty people from ages 22 to 86.

our team

The other team of thirteen worked in another city, Sancti Spiritus. I spent most of the time in Ciego de Avila, a city of 110,000 people in the middle of the island. American tourists are not yet allowed to go to Cuba but we were

there to do volunteer projects for our sponsor, a Baptist Church.Eduardo, the pastor, was welcoming and open-hearted. His nineteen-year-old son, Junior, was our constant companion and was quite the fashionista.Ramon was our local go-to guide. He seemed to know everyone and everything in Ciego de Avila. We called him “the Mayor.”


There were three projects: a two-acre community vegetable garden, maintenance at the church and community center, and tutoring. I did the latter for two hours in the morning and everyone tutored for two hours in the evenings.

Like many developing countries, the first thing to know is not to throw toilet paper in the toilet. It goes in a basket next to the toilet. By the second day this was automatic.

I left my journal at a location in Cuba. Luckily it was found and will be returned to me by the end of January. I’ll do a day by day separate blog when I get it. Today I’ll expound on the food.

I was amazed at the availability of food, including pork, beef, chicken and fish. Every meal, breakfast included, had a tray of sliced cucumber and shredded cabbage.

For breakfast we ate from the buffet at Hotel Ciego de Avila where we stayed. The spread included: fresh cut pineapple, guava, a fruit not quite oranges, and papaya; pourable yogurt, rice pudding, the equivalent of applesauce made from guava, and cake; fresh juices which we warned not to drink because they were made with suspect water; hot dishes of spaghetti or pasta, cooked vegetables, sausage, ham, cheese and chicken fingers; omelets or fired eggs made to order; cereal, dinner rolls and “toast” that was sliced dinner rolls baked in the oven; and coffee, tea, hot chocolate and hot milk.

We ate lunch at the community center where we tutored. The fare was sandwiches on French bread. The choices were ham, ham and cheese, cheese, canned chicken salad, tuna salad and tuna with cheese. The people who worked at the garden often brought us fresh lettuce, radishes, pineapple and cucumbers. IMG_1055


We had freshly squeezed guava, papaya and pineapple juices. Two days we had pizza. It was thick crusted, had cheeses not mozzarella, topped with all manner of meats and veggies and served in long square pans. I was not thrilled with lunches.

After the first week my roommate Ginny Ryan and I skipped the sandwiches and ate at restaurants suggested by our adult students. In each restaurant we were the only non-Cubans. One day we ate at La Flotanda, a restaurant in the artificial lake behind our hotel. We walked across a bridge, passing a metal sculpture of a fish.


I had excellent fried fish and plantain chips for the equivalent of $1.50, including a cola. The cola had sugar but only one hundred calories per can.

cola with 10 calories per can

Another day we ate on the Boulevard (the pedestrian street in the middle of town) at Tia Maria’s. I couldn’t decipher the menu so we both took stabs at chicken dishes. Mine was pounded chicken sautéed in oodles of butter. Yummy. Ginny had Chicken Tia Maria which turned out to be Chicken Cordon Bleu. I had plantain chips and a soda and Ginny had a beer. Our total tab was $4.00.

Our last day in Ciego de Avila we ate a Don Pepe’s, also on the Boulevard. They only served pork. We again couldn’t figure out how each entrée was prepared. Mine turned out to be rather tough, thin pork steak. Ginny had delicious roast pork with a light gravy. And of course I ordered plantain chips. The manager sent over mini pina coladas that were delicious. We had a pop and a beer and It was $5.00 including a huge tip.

For dinner we ate at a few different places. Our most frequented places were Garnish Restaurant and El Crucer. They served much of the same fair: vieja ropa (a pulled beef dish,) thin pork and chicken steaks, fried and baked fish, the shredded cabbage-canned green beans-cucumber salad, sautéed vegetables, rice and black beans, yucca, plantain chips and flan. The Garnish also served lobster tail, tostone relleno, shrimp scampi, and fiedo (a delicious chicken noodle soup,) and a dessert called Sicilian cheese which was like a light cheesecake. El Crucer served us seafood paella.

One night we ate at Ranchon, a restaurant in the park behind our hotel. They specialized in vieja ropa. At many restaurants we ate in one or two long tables. It was hard to find white wine in the restaurants but the beers were great. Cristal was the light beer and Bucaneer was the heartier one. We also drank pina coladas. I sampled the two colas and some of the other pops.

dinner at Rancheron

On the first Saturday we went to a neighboring city, Moron. We ate lunch at Rancho Palma, which had a lovely setting and hammocks for a siesta after lunch. Two men used a grinder type of thing to squeeze the juice from sugar cane and they sold it with or without rum and it was called coktel vigia.

That evening we ate at Don Papa. The last Global Volunteers team had presented the owners with an American Flag and it was displayed along with ones of Cuba, Canada, and others. The fried fish was delicious. I didn’t have the huge charred pork chops. Some people said they were tough while others raved about them. We were serenaded by a band. One of our group, Dexter, was asked to play some of his songs. He sang one he wrote for his mother, who died recently. It touched my heart and made me a melancholy for my daughters and my mom.

Dexter performing his songs in Moron.jpg

The food in Havana was the same as Ciego de Avila. One night we went to 3rd and 20th. We ate on the patio. I sat by the outside grill and was a sweaty blob by the end of the night. They only had last minute notice that the forty of us would be dining there. The drinks were great but the fish overdone, as it is in many Cuban restaurants where we ate.

We had lunch on Friday in Havana at Lucecito, a music cooperative. The patio setting underneath a thatched roof was quite romantic and the food good.

On Saturday, after two informative lectures at The Council of Churches, we ate a bountiful lunch cooked by volunteers. It was the usual fare except one appetizer. The fruit had the consistency of a pear, but it didn’t taste like a pear. The stuffing was a mixture that tasted like ricotta, cream, and cottage cheese.

Our last night in Havana we ate a huge restaurant that specialized in el alhibe, sleeping bean soup, that is poured over rice. It was the first spicy dish I’d had in Cuba and loved it. They also had the most tender chicken that tasted like it was marinated in a lime and maybe cilantro. A band played the whole time we dined. The pina colada was too strong for me so I gave it to Dexter.

Ginny and I also felt it was our civic duty to investigate the ice cream parlors, heladerias. The, Copelia, one on The Boulevard, always had a line. We got on the line one afternoon and were seated with two young men. They were university students and members of the local baseball team. The day’s flavors were fresa (strawberry,) chocolate and plantain. The guys and Ginny ordered all three. I asked for the fresa and chocolate. Imagine my surprise when nine sundae dishes of ice cream appeared. Apparently only one flavor per sundae glass. The guys ate theirs up, I gobbled most of mine and Ginny made a valiant effort to finish hers. The ice cream was tasty but the texture was icy. The charge for my two sundae dishes was the equivalent of sixty cents.

A week later we went to the heladeria in the park behind our hotel. The architecture was quite modern and it sat on the lake. We were the only customers on a very hot afternoon. The flavor choices were fresa and montamondo. We had no idea what that was. I went for fresa and adventurous Ginny went for montamondo. The latter turned out to be chocolate chip. This ice cream was tasty and had a much better texture than the crowded ice cream shop we’d visited last week. And it was about half as expensive.

That’s as much as I remember about food without my journal. Another installment soon. (more…)

A New Adventure

December 1, 2015

I’m off to Cuba on Friday! I decided I needed some adventure and I’m not into rock climbing or horseback riding.

When I investigated a trip, I decided on Cuba because I wanted to see it before it was MacDonaldized. Cuba isn’t open to American tourists yet, but lots of companies are doing “cultural exchanges,” an authorized purpose.

I looked into RoadScholars (a cruise,) Global Volunteers, and Fathom Cruises. RoadScholar used to be Elderhostel and I knew my mother took many wonderful trips with them. The cost was at least $3600 for a week. Lynn and Al Bagley are taking this trip and I’m excited about comparing notes. Fathom Cruises, a division of Carnival, offered one for $3600 plus $500 of fees for 8 days but they didn’t start until the end of May. When I looked up the average temperature, 90 degrees, and humid, I decided that was too hot for me.

The Global Volunteers program was two weeks for $2800 but as a returning volunteer it would be $2600. To that I had to add $540 for the round trip charter flight from Miami to Havana. And of course all the trips required a round trip airfare from Phoenix to Miami. I decided to go with Global Volunteers. I’ll be teaching conversational English for a week and doing “cultural interaction” in Havana for a week.

Global Volunteers ( took care of the Cuban Visa and the charter flight arrangements. The organization doesn’t allow volunteers to give personal gifts but sent a list of items the projects needed. I was surprised and excited to find one of the items, Spanish-English dictionaries, at the 99 cent store. I bought thirty of them. I scoured my house for extra pencils, pens, markers, and notebooks. I usually stock up in August when the Back to School sales are going on. I also looked through my flannel board stories and made a small flannel board to take. I put these things in a suitcase and weighed it. Thirty-eight pounds. Suitcases have to weigh fifty pounds or less or the airlines charge extra. I couldn’t take my usual airline, Southwest, with no charge for luggage, because they don’t go to Miami. So I was going to pay for any piece of luggage. My son Max suggested I take an old suitcase of only the supplies and leave it in Cuba. Brilliant! Then Global Volunteers informed me that the Cuban charter airlines charged two dollars a pound after forty-four pounds, including carry-ons! My luggage is going to be expensive but part of the cost of donating items is the cost of transporting the items. At least it’s tax deductible.

I got the packing list, Spanish language study, and itinerary. I checked the Weather Channel and it’s going to be in the mid 70’s during the day and the mid 60’s at night in Havana and the small rural place we’re going, Ciego de Avila. I’ve loaded up on mosquito repellent, sun tan lotion, and over the counter drugs like allergy and pain medicines. I also put in tea bags as I’m fussy and don’t like herbal teas. I’ll have a roommate. Hmm, do I snore? I don’t know as I live alone with my dogs and they don’t complain. Better include Breathe Right strips.

Money. Dollars cannot be used in Cuba. I went to my branch bank and the foreign currency teller happened to be there so I got $400 worth of Euros which I can then change in Cuba for the local currency. American citizens can only bring back $400 worth of stuff, and only $100 can be alcohol and tobacco products. I asked everyone close to me if they wanted cigars and I’ve already forgotten who said “yes.” Since a good cigar is ten to fifteen dollars each, I won’t be bringing back too many. (I’m a clutz and would not attempt to bring back alcohol, knowing the glass would break before I got home.) I read an article in the Sunday New York Times travel section a week ago by a journalist who did a cigar tour of Cuba. I cut out and kept the part that reported the best cigars.

I went to the library and checked out some learn Spanish Cd’s to play in my car and some guide books. They helped me review the geography and history. One suggested some fiction books and I downloaded a detective series by Leonardo Padura. I finished one, Havana Black. It was a good mystery and immersed me in modern Cuba.

Of course things on the home front got complicated. I’ll be gone for all of Hanukkah so my family will do the gift exchange the day after I get back, which meant all the presents had to be bought and wrapped before I left. Also my computer and printer died and needed to be replaced. A new computer is always a steep learning curve. I’m not going to take my computer, only my phone to take photos. Data is way too expensive to call or send photos.

I had scheduled the dogs’ dental appointments for before Thanksgiving at the gentle dentist who doesn’t use anesthetic. Unfortunately, the dogs needed more care than she could provide. So, as I type, Sparky and Louie are having extractions and cleaning under anesthetic by a surgeon, another unanticipated expense.

But I won’t’ let finances get me down. I’m determined to be carefree and embrace the adventure. I’ll write about my trip when I get back.