Going beyond “La Zona”

You know it’s time to go home when lying in bed watching a compilation of the greatest fights on The View on YouTube becomes an attractive option. Actually, I’ve been going pretty hard so I feel like it’s time to rest up a bit and slowly start easing myself back into reality mode… Emphasis on the word “slowly” of course. I’m not done yet. I decided to escape from “The Zone” today and see what kind of life lies beyond it’s borders. I’m glad I did… My opinion of Santo Domingo has done a complete 360. Santo Domingo outside of the Zona Colonial is a completely different world. As to be expected of course… Historical centres, colonial zones or whatever you want to call it are always going to be more tourist flavoured than local but nevertheless they’re usually a hub of activity. Somehow in Santo Domingo it’s the reverse. The Colonial Zone here seems a little tired and lifeless. I guess another issue for me is that out of all the places I’ve visited, the Dominican Republic is the most “Afro”… Not that there’s anything wrong with that of course but for me it’s the culture that I feel the least affinity with.

Anyway what the Zone lacks in energy, the Dominicans certainly make up for it in other parts. I walked north up Avenida Duarte to Ramon Caceres metro station and then took the train and went and checked out a couple of high end malls, Sambil and Agora. Avenida Duarte is the main commerce route for low income earners. The entire road is wall to wall shops, stalls of all kinds and people. To describe the scene as “chaotic” would be a complete understatement. There’s no way photos or words can do it justice… It has to be experienced. The photos I’m posting here are of Avenida Duarte… As I said before, they really don’t capture the atmosphere. One thing I can’t get past noticing all the time, and Avenida Duarte is a prime example, is how dirty the city is and how much trash there is in the streets. From the cities that I’ve visited in my time, Santo Domingo is second only to Manila in terms of dirtiness. No-one seems to use bins and no-one seems concerned either… I was carrying my trash around with me but when I bought something and my hands were full to receive the goods and change I too hurled my trash into the street. It seemed really weird to so brazenly litter in front of hundreds of people and no-one blinks an eye.

The malls were as you would expect them to be… Air-conditioned and full of beautiful shops and beautiful people.  





Santo Domingo city tour: Day 2

I had a good night’s sleep last night and woke up feeling good…So, I thought I’d better continue the city tour today before New Year’s Eve kicks in. I felt a bit better about “the Zone”. I really think the problem is just the extreme heat and humidity. Everyone is so lethargic and pissed off because it’s so freaking hot. Anyway, I was done with walking around in the midday heat so I got a ride around town with this guy…
He totally looks like a crack dealer (not that I’ve ever actually met one but this is how I imagine they look like) but is actually a very respectable and polite church going family man.

First stop on today’s tour was the Columbus Lighthouse which is actually a lighthouse, mausoleum and museum all rolled into one. It supposedly contains the remains of Christopher Columbus and is built in the shape of a cross to represent the christianisation of America. It’s one of those kind of places for which photos don’t do it justice. From a distance it kind of looks like it might have been designed by a Romanian dictator, but close up, it’s quite an impressive structure.

 Next stop: The Universidad Santo Tomas de Aquino, the first institution of higher education in the new world. It’s now a church, however.

The statue of Fray Anton de Montesinos: A Spanish Dominican friar who was a missionary on the island and preached against the enslavement and harsh treatment of the indigenous people of the island.

And a few other random shots…


Ciudad Colonial Santo Domingo

I went for a stroll around my hood today and took a few snapshots. The Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo is the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the new world and so is the home of the first cathedral, the first university, the first commercial street and the first viceregal residence in the new world. The heat and the sun were diabolical… And I like travelling in hot places! Even with sunglasses on I was squinting and I only lasted about 90 minutes walking around and then I had to take refuge in the frozen foods section of a supermarket to escape the heat. I didn’t get to see a lot… I’ll give it another crack tomorrow!

Perhaps I’m getting tired and a little jaded at looking at Spanish Colonial architecture but for me, the historical significance of it being the first settlement in the new world is much more exciting than than the visual of it. While some of the buildings are certainly attractive, there’s a weird vibe in the city… I can’t quite put my finger on it, but just feels dodgy, which for me takes away from the overall impact of the city… And it lacks the energy and vibrancy of Havana or even Mexican cities. It’s only my first day here and there are many other parts to the city so I probably shouldn’t be too hasty in my judgements… But I will anyway… Whereas in Mexico, Cuba and Colombia I felt some kind of connection with the people, here I’m getting nothing.  I just feel like everyone wants to rob me.  But I’ve still got eight more days so we’ll see. Maybe it was just the heat of the day giving me “baked brain syndrome”.

Traveling in these parts as a single male traveller, you come across more than your fair share of pimps and prostitutes. Again comparing and contrasting Havana which probably has the highest amount of prostitutes and hustlers as a percentage of the population anywhere in the world… And on top of that, the city is decaying… But the Cubans have a toughness and confidence about them and somehow manage to take the crumbling city and all it’s hustlers and “own it” I’m not suggesting for a minute that any of them enjoy it and wouldn’t trade places for a better life in a heartbeat… Nor would I want to trade places with a Cuban… But from purely a superficial touristic point of view, it doesn’t seem so bad. Walking down Calle El Conde, a pedestrian only street and the main shopping street in the old city, in the middle of the day, it was just full of prostitutes and chintzy souvenir shops… But again just felt dodgy and a little weird.

They say that the world is your mirror and that the measure of mental health is the ability to see good in everything, so I hope I can come around and snap out of my negative first impression of the city.

Anyway here are some of the snaps I took. The first one is my street, Calle Hostos. I’m staying in the green building in the middle apartment.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor, the oldest cathedral in the new world, was begun in 1512 and finished in 1540. Because it was the first, it was built in a Gothic style. That’s not a bad thing but the later cathedrals in other parts of the Americas were built in a Renaissance or Baroque style which for me has more visual impact.

The Alcazar de Colon, the oldest Viceregal residence in the Americas…

Calle El Conde…

 And some other random shots…


Medellín to Santo Domingo

Last stop on the tour…
And I’ll be honest, the only thing I’m thinking right now is, “How short a period of time is it reasonable to be back at home before I start planning to go away again?”

The stomach bug in Havana was a bit of a speed bump but hey, it gave me something to write about at lest. Otherwise it’s been an amazing trip. It just seems to get better and better and I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to travel and see the world.

I didn’t write much in Medellin… Everything went incredibly smoothly without any incident. It’s a great place for an urban vacation. Among Medellin’s many virtues is the incredibly laid back, low stress and mellow vibe of the city. I put that down to the fact that pretty much the entire population of the city is stoned… But hey, I’m not judging nor saying that’s a bad thing. And as the taxi driver on the way to the city from the airport said, “Medellin… Mucha rumba!” And he wasn’t lying. For the last five days or six I pretty much lived without a conscience… Partying like there’s no tomorrow and eating as if obesity, cholesterol and heart attacks didn’t exist. But hey… I lost weight and I feel great! It makes me think I’m doing something wrong with all the brown rice, celery juice and Bikram Yoga I do at home.

The flight to Santo Domingo went well, except that the guy at the Avianca counter who checked me in must have been on his first day on the job, or he was stoned, or both… It literally took 30 minutes to check in. He made me change the flight because he didn’t think I’d have enough to to transfer. 90 minutes seemed reasonable and the airline allowed me to book it anyway. Despite the fact the time keeping is not the Colombian person’s forte, Avianca run an incredibly tight ship. Then he studied all my onward tickets for ages and had to call other staff members over to inspect them as well, like he had never seem a ticket before… Anyway, finally everything was ok and I was off.

The flight went well and landed in lovely Santo Domingo at about 5.30 p.m. Out of all the cities so far, Santo Domingo has by far the “heaviest” entry procedure. You get the full narco-pedo treatment… Photograph taken, all ten fingers fingerprinted, luggage sniffed by dogs and then everything x-rayed again. It was smooth sailing though and once I got through Kénol, the guy I’m renting the apartment from, was there waiting to pick me up. 

I only chatted to him briefly in the car but he seems like an incredibly nice guy. He’s from Port-au-Prince in Haiti and is in Santo Domingo studying medicine.

We arrived at the apartment in about 30 minutes. This is my street for the next nine days…
The apartment is fabulous…. Two bedrooms plus lounge and dining with a gorgeous dining room table.  

 Kénol has a Haitian friend who has offered to be my personal chef, (for a price of course) … I’m thinking of taking him up on the offer just so I can feel like Madonna for the next nine days. And I’m in love with the dining room table!

I only arrived a couple of hours ago and just had a quick walk around the hood. I’m staying in the Colonial Zone, which incidentally was the first European settlement in the new world… It looks nice but out of all the places I’ve been to so far… and this is just my first impression… it has a bit more of a dodgy vibe than the other places. Anyway, we’ll see.

I’m always comforted when I see this sign…


Getting into the Christmas spirits

I’ve been getting into the Christmas BIG TIME over the last few days… I mean literally, getting into the Christmas spirits, like rum and aguardiente. I wasn’t a huge fan of aguardiente when I tried it first in Sydney, but I’m slowly coming around. It’s anise flavoured and there’s one in Medellin that’s sweetened with sugar so it goes down very easily. And staying so close to the alcoholic Disneyland of Parque Lleras, it’s difficult not to partake. It’s legal to drink in the streets so you can just buy some drinks and sit in the park and get happy!
And hey… In Colombia it isn’t a party until the accordions come out…

Paisas are REALLY strong drinkers… I mean REALLY REALLY STRONG… I met up with some friends that I had made on my last trip here one year ago…

From left to right: Robinson, Andres, Martin and Carlos. We went out to a bar the other the night in Centro Medellin. We went through two bottles of aguardiente until the bar closed at 4 a.m…. Then we came back to my apartment along with a whole bunch of other people we invited from the bar and ordered two more bottles. This city is really cool…. They have liquor stores that deliver to your home at any hour of the day, even at 4 in the morning! We continued going till about 7.30 in the morning… And I kid you not, they all went to work afterwards! I don’t know about the others but Andres started work at 8 a.m. I don’t how on earth they managed it but they did! They’re my heroes!

As for me… the partying, all the deep fried food and the constantly having to communicate in Spanish is taking it’s toll on me a weeny bit. My usual energetic, calm and tolerant self is feeling a bit fatigued and cranky. I had a little run in with this little chica the other day. I admit, it was possibly my fault…

Anyway… With service here, for me, I feel a bit of a cultural gap. Particularly in supermarkets and smaller, cheaper shops the staff seem to be on a mission aiming for the lowest possible stress factor, which is not a bad thing as long as you take a book along to read. And often, they don’t seem to acknowledge your presence in any way when you come up to the counter… Maybe the custom here is for the customer to just call out to them. I don’t know but it’s different to what I’m used to and my Spanish isn’t good enough to do it politely.

That shop is a kind of mini-supermarket, liquor store and cafe all in one. I went there the other day to buy a pineapple but when I go there I decided to have a coffee and bunuelo before entering and embarking on said pineapple purchase. I must have waited at least ten minutes at the counter and she continued about her business just ignoring me. Again, I don’t know if I was supposed to shout out to her or what but it felt a bit weird. Finally another staff member came to serve the customers but she served the people behind me first. So, eventually I gave up. I decided I didn’t really want a coffee anyway and went off and bought my pineapple. I may have accidentally let out a slight groan, rolled my eyes and flicked my nose in the air as I stamped my feet and walked off. Unintentionally of course. After I bought the pineapple I decided I DID want that coffee after all… I went back to the cafe part and this time just called out Un cafe Americano y bunuelo por favor”… This time she made eye contact… She looked me in the eye AND JUST SCREAMED at me. I don’t know what she said but she got the coffee and bunuelo and then walked off and wouldn’t accept the money. I left the money on the counter but it was a weird experience.

And that’s about it.   


Beyond Parque Lleras

Now that the diarrhoea has dried up, toilet time is happy time… I haven’t been ambushed by any psychotic Latin women either, so I feel like I’ve got absolutely nothing to write about. I’m warning you in advance… In order to keep up my blog writing, I’m going to have to resort to the thing I hate most… The lunch photo. As I said before, if your mind has exceeded it’s bandwidth, turn off right now. You won’t lose anything by not reading this.

So anyway, today I thought I’d try and make it beyond Parque Lleras and went and met my good friend Luis and hung out with him. First we started off with lunch in the restaurant where he works. I probably could have studied the menu a bit longer and made a more sensible choice, but hey what the hell, I threw caution to the wind and ordered this little puppy…

It was seriously good, but there’s really no deluding yourself that there’s anything even remotely healthy about it: French fries slathered in beef and onions and lots of salt. I licked the plate clean.

We decided after lunch to go to Parque Arvi, which is “1761 hectares of pine and eucalyptus forest located in Medellin’s eastern mountains in the Santa Elena district.” We took the metro from Poblado station …

to Acevedo station and then took the MetroCable up to Parque Arvi.

It’s a large park and it was getting late so we only saw a part of it… But the part I saw was indeed very beautiful, peaceful, clean and fresh (and all those sorts of things).

I channelled my inner Von Trapp family child and went and ate some fresh berries…

After the park, we headed to good ol’ downtown.. You know… The lights are much brighter there. You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares. So go DOWNTOWN… Things’ll be great when your downtown! Last year, the big Christmas lights display was along the river and it was seriously SPECTACULAR!! Apparently this year there are roadworks near the river so they couldn’t hold it there… You’d think they could have timed that a bit better! So they moved it to the downtown part. I’m sorry if I offend any Paisa, but compared to last year, this is a big let-down. But nonetheless, I had fun.

And finally, off to inspect Medellin’s new little baby… their version of the light rail, the Tranvía de Medellín.


Lovely Medellin

My plan was to write a blog post every day while I’m on this trip but I’ve missed a couple of days recently. There have been a variety of reasons for that but the main one is that it’s a lot easier to write when some disaster happens… But since leaving Cuba and Lisi’s truck loads of lard fried goodies, things have gone spookily smoothly.

Landing at El Dorado was a joy. All the airport staff are really helpful and friendly and even the immigration officers are nice. I had stood in the wrong line… Apparently I was in the line for Colombians and not for foreigners… When I went to the counter the immigration officer says to me, “You know you’re in the wrong line”… I apologized, started to go away and stand in another line and he says, “No problem, stay here… Just so you know for next time”.  Can you imagine the same scene in Sydney?

The flight to Medellin went smoothly as well. Avianca is a really nice airline. The cab driver drove like a racing car driver from the airport into Medellin. This time I didn’t make the mistake of staying too close to downtown. I realised two things last time by staying close to downtown: 1. Downtown Medellin particularly at night is not for the feint of heart and 2. I am feint of heart. So this time I headed straight for El Poblado. I have a beautiful duplex in a tree lined cul-de-sac 5 minutes walk from Parque Lleras with it’s ever-so-helpful chewing gum sellers and you can walk the streets at night safely. Parque Lleras is basically like an alcoholic Disneyland… It’s a one-stop shop! As soon as the taxi pulled up to the apartment, the security guy called out, “Are you Martin?”… He opened the gate, handed me the key and I was in! And there were no overly dramatic women crying over broken washing machines!

It’s a really beautiful two level duplex apartment. I did a quick tour of the apartment when I got in and there was for a second that “You know you’re in Medellin when…” moment when I opened the kitchen cupboards to see what there was and amongst the herbs and spices was a large glass jar of marijuana… And not even leaves, but buds! I would post the photo but I’m scared it will come back to haunt me one day.

El Poblado is really nice. It’s a vastly different scene to the other side of town. There’s no reason to leave… and I haven’t for the past three days. The people here are extremely nice. I went to the shopping mall the other day and the security guy personally escorted me to the shop I was looking for when I couldn’t find it! People gave up their seats for me in cafe the other day because there weren’t any left… Maybe I just look old and they felt sorry for me!

I had a bit of “You know you’re NOT in Sydney when…” moment when I invited some people around on Saturday who I had met last time. We were on the balcony at 4 a.m. drinking aguardiente, blasting music at Mardi Gras volume, calling out to passers by on the street… And no-one complained, called the police or threatened to sue. Life went on.

The food here is really good. It’s a bit more “American style” than anything else but really nice. I’m enjoying things that I don’t usually eat like this wickedly delicious Peruvian “Sanguche de lomo saltado con papas”…
And just a couple of snaps from Parque Lleras … 

And Parque El Poblado…


Leaving the island

I didn’t want to leave Cuba again with that same “Get me the hell outta here” feeling… It was a lot better this time but still I breathed a HUGE sigh of relief when I left. It was a relief but at the same time a strange feeling. I felt good because I COULD leave but bad because 11 million Cubans are stuck there and sense of shame that I lived for 9 days like a king (relative to the rest of the population) and still that drove me crazy!

People in Cuba are REALLY, REALLY poor. The more I spoke to the locals, the more I realised how bad the situation is. Doctors make 40 CUC a month, which is absurd enough but a lot of other people working regular jobs make only 10 CUC a month. Prices in Cuba are cheaper but they’re not THAT cheap… Surviving on 10 CUC a month in Havana is like trying to survive on $100 a month in Sydney. It’s no wonder that everyone is out on the streets hustling.

Cuba has a tourism fuelled economy. There are other industries… Clearly the beer and rum industry is huge… But at times it seems that tourism is the ONLY money spinner and the heat is really on the tourists to support the economy. If you’re the type of person who has a heart in is sensitive to the needs of others, it’s hard not to get affected by it all. One night I gave a guy a few CUCs (in Cuba they pronounce it like “cook”) to buy some food… I bumped into him the next night and he was gushing gratitude because I had done this. I was happy that I could help in a very small way but it makes me sad to think that these people are so desperate that they have to beg strangers for their daily food or to buy them a beer or water or whatever. It’s hard to put it in words but it’s saddening.

I was happy that I could help the people I came across in a small way but at the same time I would be lying if I said it didn’t drive me crazy. It’s not about the money… The money I gave away has no affect on me whatsoever but just to have all these desperate people relentlessly hounding you for something is tough. But of course, it’s tougher for them.

Anyway, finally it was time to leave the island. I had already lined up Lisi’s husband, Ronaldo to take me to the airport. He’s is a nice guy… He also doesn’t have a regular job but is also hustling for work. The flight was in the afternoon, I had packed the night before and I had just the right amount of money for transport and some food and water at the airport, so no dramas there. I just had to wait for Alejandro and Karmin to give them back the keys. They didn’t show up in the end… They sent Karmin’s mother Milagros instead. Milagros means “miracles” in English but the only miracle there is that no-one has ever slapped her (maybe they have?) because she’s a bit of an old grouch. It turns out it’s her apartment.

Ronaldo is not a licensed cab driver… Obviously! I don’t know exactly what the law is there but it seems I couldn’t be seen handing him cash at the airport as I was getting out of his car, so Lisi kept drilling me all morning, “Don’t forget to pay Ronaldo the money BEFORE you get to the airport!” Sure no problem. We were standing out the front waiting for him to come by with the classic American car when Lisi says to me AGAIN, “Don’t forget to pay Ronaldo BEFORE you get to the airport”… So I thought I’d give her the money there and then. “Here it is.” I gave her 30 CUC … 25 CUC is what a taxi would cost plus 5 CUC tip. Suddenly something got lost in translation and she thought it was a personal tip for her. She hugs me and gushes, “Gracias mi amor. Te amo!… Now don’t forget to pay Ronaldo for the transport BEFORE you get to the airport.” Oh Dios! And then Ronaldo arrived with the car. The money wasn’t a problem except that it was all the money that I had and now I had no money to pay Ronaldo for the ride to the airport.

I got in the car and asked Ronaldo to stop at the ATM. There are very few ATMs in Havana but luckily there was one just round the corner from the apartment. There are two machines there… I used it twice and walked past it a few times. Both machines were always functioning and although they were constantly in use there was never more than about one or two people waiting. Of course in situations like this, Murphy’s law always applies. We got there and one machine was out of order and there was a queue for the other one so long it was like Leningrad in the eighties. I begged some of the women to let me queue jump… They were ok with it so I went to use the machine. Just as I’m about to insert my card into the slot a completely psychotic Cuban woman jumps out of the queue and starts screaming hysterically like I had just raped her daughter or something…. “THER’S A QUEUE AND YOU GET TO THE END OF IT”. A bit of a struggle ensued …. I exchanged knowing looks with all the other woman. You know, that look that says, “She’s psycho, right?” Anyway, we let her use the machine and then I used it after her

Back in the car, I paid Ronaldo the money and we were off. Normally it takes about 20 minutes to get to the airport but it took him close to an hour. I don’t know if he was trying to dodge the police or wanted to do a lap of honour but it seems like we drove around most of the island before we go to the airport. Eventually we did get there but time was a little tight now.

I saw the Avianca sign in the distance as I entered the departures area. I rushed up… It was a beacon guiding me to the promised land… I felt like I had been wandering the wilderness for forty days and forty nights and suddenly here was my oasis. It was the most beautiful sight ever. I checked in and then it was off to immigration control.

The scene is Immigration was crowded and chaotic, to say the least. There was an airbus load of hysterical Russian women, running late for their flight Aeroflot flight to Moscow screaming, “Time! Time! Time!” It wasn’t a pretty sight and there must have been a sale on home hair perm solution in Moscow before their trip to Cuba. I like to think of myself as an extremely non-judgemental and unprejudiced individual but the truth is that I am a bit judgemental and prejudiced. Had it been any other nationality wanting to queue jump I wouldn’t have had an issue. Even though I had been in exactly the same situation only an hour beforehand, I couldn’t help but pretend that I didn’t understand what these Russian women were carrying on about and made it a bit difficult for them to get through

All’s well that end’s well… We all made it for our flights. I was the last person to board mine and it was one of those phot finish boardings… I raced up to the gate and straight away they called out, “Are you Martin Koskins?” Anyway, I was through and on my way to the promised land.

It was a long and tiring day but once we touched down in Colombia it was smooth sailing. Colombian people are so nice and even airport staff are really nice and helpful. I’m staying in a gorgeous little cul-de-sac in El Poblado, Medellin just five minutes stroll from Parque Lleras. It feels like Paradise! I never want to leave.

The view from my room…


Last day in Havana

My last day in Cuba and I finally feel 100%… Thank God!

Meanwhile, I have a bin full of beans, rice and various meats and a kitchen full of bugs and flies buzzing around said beans, rice and various meats, me scouting around the streets like a criminal trying to find somewhere to safely dump the evidence and wondering how I got myself into this stupid situation. I think it may have all started with the soup… But anyway, “all’s well that end’s well”. The rice and bean nightmare is over for now.

Today was a great day… I was like a prisoner being released from my toilet prison. I feel sorry for the cleaning lady who has to clean up after four days of my diarrhoea.

I went and met the lovely Alejandro and Karmin and had a chat to them… Then, I just walked around the city, people watching, having some mindful moments and sitting in cafes drinking Mojitos (strictly NO ICE though… But I’ve got to say, warm Mojitos are pretty foul) and listening to the bands playing. At first I dismissed them all as being too touristic. Yes, they are put on especially for the tourists and it’s mostly tourists who go and listen but that doesn’t make them any less talented or any less amazing. The music was fantastic (well worth the diarrhoea) and seems to come so naturally and effortlessly for them.. It got me thinking about Australia and what we’ve got for talent… X Factor and the Minogue sisters??

It’s my second time in Havana so I knew exactly what to expect, and admittedly the biggest problem this time was just the illness but nevertheless I had a moment today thinking about the past 9 days and I thought if I had stayed home and gone to work for 9 days straight and painted the outside of the house in my spare time, then that would have been easier and far more relaxing! But anyway, it’s all about experiencing life… And even if it’s a bad experience, it’s all good because it makes you appreciate so much more what you have at home and how blessed you truly are.



Another day, another toilet

It’s Day 4 since the diarrhoea started. The medicine is working and I’m definitely getting better. Although it’s going frustratingly slowly and between the diarrhoea and the side effects of the antibiotics, I feel pretty crap! The last three days have been spent in my apartment just going between the bed and the toilet or sitting on the balcony staring out to the sky and sea. I’m starting to go a little bit “loco”.

The last two nights I managed to get out of the apartment for a bit… But the furthest I can go and still be within safe sprinting distance of a decent toilet is Cafe Bim Bom at the end of my street on the next block. Despite the name “cafe”, it doesn’t actually serve any coffee, only beer, rum and soft drinks. I saw a whole lot of people sucking on these little 200 ml tetra packs and I thought, “How cute, they’re all drinking juice”…. Turns out it’s rum. The other side of the road is Hustler Central and Cafe Bim Bom is where they come to drink. Across the road on the Malecon Sea Wall (the world’s longest sofa) again, is the same scene but feels slightly less desperate. 

Hustler Central by day with the Hotel Nacional in the background… It’s a vastly different scene by night.

Cafe Bim Bom by day…   

 Again, a vastly different scene at night.

The Malecon by night…

I spent the last two nights sitting in Cafe Bim Bom drinking water and chatting. As a single non-Cuban sitting there by yourself, you’re pretty much a freak magnet. The scene there runs the range from low-life drunk and desperate to freak show (we’re talking face tattoos) to regular decent people who are just doing a job to support their families. Some of them have their sales pitch firmly set on “repeat” while others, when they realise you’re not interested in their goods and services, will drop the act and chat about their families and the sorry state of the economy. Some have day jobs… I met one person who worked in a factory making sanitary pads for women by day and hustler by night… I thought that was pretty funny! Others don’t have any other job and don’t see the point. “If I doctor only makes 40 CUC in a month, what’s the point in working?” It’s really sad that a government degrades it’s people to the point where being a street hustler is a viable career option.

Anyway, hanging out in Cafe Bim Bom by night can best be described as a “character building exercise”

Meanwhile, Lisi keeps trucking in loads of fried rice, beans, lentils, pork and chicken. She doesn’t want to accept the reality of my situation that as nice as her food is, I just can’t eat it in my current situation. I tried to explain in my bad Spanish that I come from a long line of eaters so if I turn down food it’s because there’s something seriously wrong. I tried to educate her on the “less is more” approach so for at least two meals she made soup… But somehow she still managed to cram half an animal and a sack of potatoes and carrots in each bowl. The taste is very good… It’s mum’s classic hearty home cooking… Just not appropriate at this time. 

I think she is a genuinely very kind person but a large part of it is self serving. It’s her business and I’m her little cash cow. I’ve been agonising over what to do about this situation. I hate wasting food but I just can’t eat it. It’s too much and too heavy. Last night I ate her fried rice, beans and chicken and was on the toilet all night. This morning it was fried rice with lentils, fried pork and fried onions. I know she has a family to support and people are very poor here so I thought about giving her money NOT to bring me food, but that would just be too rude.

Cubans generally are into really ginormous portions of food. Even when you go to a restaurant, one serving of food in any other part of the world would easily serve a family of four. I guess it comes from being poor and not knowing if and when you’ll get the next meal. One person told me that because most Cubans can’t afford to go to a restaurant very often, that when they do go they want to feel that they’re getting their money’s worth. I would have thought half the portion at half the price would be the way to go because it’s impossible to eat that much food comfortably in one sitting.

So anyway, regarding Lisi, I decided that the best solution in order to maintain “face” with her, support her family, preserve my sanity and stomach, was to simply accept the food, pay her the money, toss it in the bin, return the plates an hour later with a big smile on my face and say, “Delicioso!!!!! Estoy llenisimo!!!” I hang my head in shame that I’m doing it and it’s not something I would do under normal circumstances but… desperate times call for desperate measures. I just need to find somewhere to dump the evidence because the lady who cleans the apartment also lives in the building and I’m sure she’ll blab to Lisi if she discovers it.