I love a good cocktail, especially one with a rum base.
So when I knew I was going to Havana, I was as excited about going as I was about all the rummy cocktails I knew I’d get to drink.
Cuba is, after all, rum country. It’s also home of the mojito, the daiquiri and the Cuba Libre – all made with rum and lime juice, my other favorite ingredient.
But it was the mojito, the perfect refreshing antidote to hot days, that looked forward to downing.
Unfortunately, my first Havana mojito sucked!
And it wasn’t just that it needed more sugar. We tried that and it still tasted ‘off.’
So did the next one at the second bar.
The mojitos I’ve had in New York and elsewhere – the taste I’ve come to love – are a delicate balance between rum, sugar, mint, lime juice and ice. Even allowing for slight variations in the taste of the ingredients and the quantity of each that was used, I couldn’t explain the big difference in taste between Havana’s mojitos and New York’s.
I was disappointed.
I just knew the mojitos in Havana would have been good, so good, I’d be drinking them instead of water. And I knew I’d be raving about them when I returned home. I just knew!
Instead, I found myself doing what I do when I’m out and can’t find my favorite brand of spirits, I revert to something that’s foolproof: in this case, rum and coke.
(Yes, even though Cuba has its own brand of cola, this American import is available, especially in tourist areas.)
Now, there’s really nothing wrong with my backup drink: rum and Coke or the rum, Coke and lime mix called Cuba Libre. But since my taste buds had been primed for weeks in anticipation of the mojito, it felt like a poor substitute.
Several days later, while we were having lunch in a hotel restaurant, I noticed something that to me explained why the mojitos tasted so different.
There, on the bar, were rows of glasses. Each had sugar, lime wedges and several sprigs of mint leaves. How long had they been sitting there, waiting?
Could this slow marinating of these two ingredients account for the difference in taste?
Even from where I sat, I could see that the mint leaves had wilted to a deep green and a brownish yellow was slowly overtaking the vibrant green of the wedges of lime.
I watched as a waiter walked over, picked up a glass, added rum and ice, muddled the ingredients and served it to a diner.
I’m not a purist. Neither am I one of those people who thinks food has to taste the same everywhere, you know, like McDonald’s?
But you cannot convince me that that wasn’t the reason for the difference.
Cuba‘s well-known for, among other things, its architecture. However, after 50 years of neglect, many of its now historic buildings are falling apart. Many others struggle to retain their majestic beauty.
I can only imagine how splendid these buildings looked back then.
We should have stopped at La Floridita for a daiquiri, but didn’t.
Previously supporters of the revolution, the Bacardi family left Cuba rather than let the regime nationalize their business. Bacardi is now headquartered in Bermuda.
A few people have asked me why I went to Cuba. In case you’re one of them, here’s why.
To me, Cuba is like the neighbor behind a wall that you hear but you can’t see.
In Western Jamaica, where I grew up, from very early on, I could hear Cuba from my house through the sometimes faint, sometimes clear sounds of music and voices in a language I didn’t then understand. Over the years, I created my own narrative of the place adults talked about in sometimes panicked, sometimes hushed tones.
I wondered about the people, who it was explained to me, could not leave. I tried to imagine what it would be like not being able to leave or do whatever pleased me.
The image I had, even at that age, was of being trapped, being imprisoned. No, no one wanted that.
Cuba was the Caribbean’s bogeyman – there was always the fear that what happened there could also happen in Jamaica. And many Jamaicans were, understandably, concerned.
Then as I grew older, stories began to come out. Stories told by my mother of two aunts – sisters of her father’s, my grandfather – who went to Cuba, married and never returned.
l also found out that another grand-aunt, this time on my father’s side never returned either.
Between 1916 and 1940, it is estimated that approximately 300,000 Jamaicans went to Cuba in search of work. No one knows how many returned despite being allowed to following the revolution.
My paternal grandfather did. As did my godfather and a family friend – all spicing their Jamaican English with Spanish words and speaking Spanish among themselves – clear signs to everyone else that they had been “a foreign.”
Some of those words became so commonplace, they became part of the lexicon. I didn’t realize until I started learning Spanish in high school that these words were.
My fascination with Cuba never waned – blame that privacy fence, the closedoffness of it. And with family connections, it isn’t a place I could put out of my mind easily, despite all that I learned from my Cuban friends.
When I decided to visit, I told each of them in turn. Not one objected.
My family wanted me to look up the ones who never returned.
But, in the end, I went for me.
Fifty years of repression have not dampened the spirit of the Cuban people. The country hasn’t lost its grandeur, its style or its flare. And I’d go back tomorrow. Because now I have my own images to match the narrative of my childhood.
If you’ve been reading my posts about Cuba and would like to travel to that country, there are a few
things to keep in mind.
Despite the Obama Administration’s recent announcement of further relaxation of the ban on U.S. citizens spending money in Cuba and expanding the number of airports that offer direct flights there, Americans still need special permission from the Office of Foreign Asset Control to enter Cuba.
But if you can’t wait, here’s what you need to know before you go.
Getting There: Fly to another country (Canada, Mexico, Bahamas, Jamaica, etc.) and get a flight to Cuba. I flew first to Jamaica, purchased my ticket (I had made a reservation beforehand but I don’t think the price would have been different) and left for Havana the next day.
Visas: You’ll need a visa to enter Cuba. Not to worry, it can be purchased from the airline or on arrival. It costs about $30. Your passport will not be stamped.
Accommodation: There are several companies online that will book your accommodation, whether you’re looking for a hotel or a casa particular (B&B). I used Cuba Accommodation.
While you’re there: Since U.S. issued credit cards are not accepted for use in Cuba, cash is your best option. Unfortunately, U.S. dollars carry a 10% service charge when you change them for Cuban Convertible Dollars (CUCs) so that $100 will be only worth $90. I brought mostly Canadian dollars but I could have brought UK pound or Euros. I did have some U.S. as backup, which I changed eventually. You can change funds at the airport, banks and Cadecas (exchange bureaus).
We used CUCs for most of the things we bought – from souvenirs to food. But if you plan to take the bus, for example, you’ll need pesos, the currency Cubans use.
If, at the end of your trip, you have CUCs remaining, you can change them back.
Departure tax: Speaking of leaving, you will be required to pay US$25 departure tax. No exceptions.
Transportation: Cuba has a good system of transportation including road, rail, air, buses and taxis making it pretty easy to get around.
Cuban Food: I wasn’t very impressed with the food we got at some of the restaurants but what we had at paladars, those small, family-run eateries, was exceptional.
Cuban Art: If you buy art while on your trip, you’ll need to get a license from the Registro Nactional de Bienes Culturales to take it out of the country. The license costs 10 CUCs for 1-5 pieces from the same artist. If you don’t get the license from the Registro, you can get it from a Registro Specialist at the airport but it will cost you more – 7 CUCs per. Without a license, you will not be allowed to leave with your purchases.
Cell phones: Your U.S. cell phones won’t work in Cuba and calling out can be pretty expensive, about $3/minute. If you really need to call home, head for a major hotel.
Email: If you need to send emails, go to a major hotel and, for a fee, you can send emails or surf the Internet. You’ll need to bring your passport for identification.
Cigars and Rum: Don’t forget Cuban cigars and rum are not allowed into the U.S., so enjoy them while you’re there. Also, make sure if you purchased anything that’s stamped or tagged Made in Cuba (Hecho en Cuba) that, if possible, you remove the tag. That would be a dead giveaway to U.S. Customs.
Bear in mind, Cuba is a Communist country and almost all activity by its citizens and visitors is monitored.
When we arrived at the airport, we had to let the immigration know exactly where we would be staying and a few days later, someone did come to the casa particular to check that we were there. Cubans aren’t allowed to have American visitors in their homes.
Neighborhood watch groups (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) which were set up to keep watch and report on any internal and external threats to the revolution, still patrol neighborhoods to sniff out illegal activities – whether criminal or political.
Used to being connected 24/7 in the States, my first day was an adjustment but it was great to disconnect and focus on being on vacation and enjoying all that Cuba has to offer. And there’s a lot. We spent a week in Havana only and there was still a lot we hadn’t seen.
If you remember these things, you’ll have few surprises when you get to Cuba.
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Santeria is derived from the Yoruba religion of West Africa. Followers believe in Olodumare (God) and his manifestations (Orishas) that help them in their daily lives, if they follow the appropriate rituals.
Shango represents virility, strength and sexuality. His color is red and white.
Ochun (or Oggun) is the god of iron and mineral and anything made of iron or steel.
Yemaya is the queen of the seas. Her colors are blue and white.
Obbatala is the god of peace, the creator of the world and the father of the Orishas. His color is white. As I write this, I’m listening to Bobi Cespedes‘ Rezos. Listen to her tribute to Obatala.
Babalu Aye can tell the future. His color is purple.
Eleggua (Eshu) is guardian of crossroads and roads and the protector of travelers. His color are red.
When our travel agent told my friends and me that she’d booked us for two days in Victoria Falls, we balked. None of us was convinced we’d need that length of time to look at water, no matter how spectacular it was. Boy, were we wrong!
We arrived in Vic Falls on a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon after a pleasant trip from Johannesburg. As we left the arrivals lounge, we were greeted by the sound of drumming and singing. We couldn’t help but watch as this agile and athletic group of musicians greeted us. It was a fitting welcome to Zimbabwe.
Since we were leaving the next morning to watch game at Hwange National Park, we knew we had only a few hours to see the Falls. Our plan was simple: check in at the hotel, grab a bite to eat and head out.