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The Intrepid Vegetarian Files: Cuba, part 1

December 19, 2012

I’d been warned that Cuba wasn’t going to be easy. They are poor and vegetarianism, unless practiced for religious reasons, is understandably rarely practiced in such countries. To boot, Cuban cuisine is renowned for its blandness – pork, rice and beans is the staple dish, and just as you might think ‘oh great, well just the rice and beans is OK’, for some reason they often add a bit of pig skin to the rice.

I arrived in Havana very tired and very hungry after meagre and uninspiring food on the Virgin Atlantic flight from Gatwick. But thank God, there was pizza available in the hotel’s cafe!  Now, I am under no illusions that pizza is always the fail-safe option, having had a bread-crust-with-plastic-cheese concoction once in Uruguay, but I thought the Cubans couldn’t do that much worse with it… could they? Pizza with seasonal vegetables. This comprised of tinned carrots and what tasted like tinned onion, sitting on far too much tasteless, gloopy cheese sauce. Comprehensively disgusting.  ‘Oh, no’ I thought, the next two weeks are not going to be easy.

I was on an organised excursion, one of hundreds of the Europeans tourists who zip about the country in big air-conditioned buses. This isn’t my usual mode of travel, liking as I do to rough it with the locals, but I’d read that Cuba is hard to get around by yourself.  So the next day we all climbed aboard our bus with our guide, Freddy, and set off for Santa Clara, stopping for lunch at a government-owned roadside restaurant where I dubiously picked over some un-indefinable buffet bar salads. Still, I’d already discovered that the rum measures were large and cheap, so the drinking front was looking OK.

Santa Clara is where the rebels won a decisive victory in the revolution, there is a model of the army train they derailed there and Che Guevara’s mausoleum is nearby.  The town itself is pretty unremarkable as Cuban towns go, but walking down the street there is one of my favourite memories of the trip. I was traipsing up a dirty, narrow back street trying to avoid the battered old Ladas and Chevvys that came chugging past, when jazz music began to play. As I reached the door of a drab, decrepit building the music got loader and when I peered inside I discovered a full jazz band, dressed in matching white suits, on the stage of a theatre all draped in red, playing an afternoon concert for enraptured audience. Down the next street, a young guy stood chatting with his friends, his double base propped up against the kerb, and a women rushed past carrying a flamboyantly decorated cake… in Cuba there always seems to be someone hurrying down the street with a cake. The old American cars, the converted-lorry buses, the rickshaws and the horse-drawn traps paraded past the ration shops and the racks of Che t-shirts. You could sit and watch the traffic here for hours, I can’t imagine doing that anywhere else in the world.  I thought of the line from Blue Nile’s, ‘Let’s Go Out Tonight’, ‘where the cars go by…’. It seemed an appropriate song and it stuck with me for the whole trip… it’s sad but hopeful, a bit like the run-down villas, the battered cars and the stinking streets, but there’s always a good night to be had wherever you are on the island, with a salsa band always on hand and unending supplies of Havana Club.

It was one day into the trip and I felt I was already figuring out what Cuba was all about, to hell with the manky pizzas.

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