The vastness of what we experienced during our week of spring break in Cuba overwhelms me a little even now. And I know that if I were to volunteer abroad during my year off next year in a developing country, as I currently plan to, that I would again be shocked by my experiences and the sights - but starting off small, slowly easing into new cultures and different ways of life, is important.
Every idea I've had to begin writing brings up new stories from our travels to the Caribbean island; each day was filled with it's own few chapters as if pulled from a novel. That's the lure of holidays and experiencing places, travelling to somewhere completely new gives us the chance to return with a backpack overflowing with stories and the excitement that comes from the thrill of it all. The trouble is always figuring out how to explain it all when someone asks the broad question of "how was it?" So, I'll begin when it really did all start.
The idea for Cuba began sometime last year, when we started fantasising about a tropical holiday during spring break. We had just returned from a few days in one of BC's interior ski mountains, and the idea of sitting somewhere hot and tanning on the beach was idyllic, even if our holiday was no where near a luxury beach resort kind of week. This idea of hopping on the plane this year to Cuba sat with us for the summer, for the fall, and until finally just after Christmas when flights were booked and we started looking into casa particulars, essentially bed and breakfasts run by Cuban families all across the country, to stay in a few different towns including Havana and Viñales in the country. After hostels and other budget accommodation, casa particulars are the cheapest option to stay in Cuba. For the equivalent of around $30 a night, three of us were able to stay in room with clean sheets, towels, and a bathroom complete with shower. Breakfast and dinner are also served in the casas for additional cost, and although we tried breakfast and dinner once at two of the three casas we stayed at, the atmosphere was minimal despite the food being delicious and overly abundant.
Each day had moments of excitement and new experiences that I remember in bursts now. Sometimes I remember the little Spanish I picked up, and reply with ci to someones question, or as I try to find something I mutter to myself, 'Dondé ésta...' There are also the conversations with inquisitive friends that cause me to remember a peculiar moment in a bicitaxi cruising through Havana as I try to recall the highlighted moments to satisfy their undying curiosity. There really isn't any one moment to call the highlight, from Havana (or Habana) to the Valle de Viñales, and finally to spending a couple of nights in Matanzas, one moment leads to another, onto explaining the people we came across, the situations were got into and the ones we almost got caught up in, and from there are the other adventures to be had. It's an intricate and detailed pattern of events. A tightly woven web, but I guess that's just how life goes.
This photo captures many of the cities attractions and features, a mix of 1950s cars and shops, and the new luxury items from China, including fancy new cars, a new line of Transgaviota buses for transporting hundreds of tourists to and from their plush resorts to only the best attractions in Cuba. Driving these cars are exuberant men who shout to friends they see in the street, some stopping in the middle of the road for a quick chat. And instead of slowing down at uncontrolled intersections, many drivers speed up and blare their horn loudly to alert any sleepy cars. But they aren't reckless, and instead share the road with bicycles, horse and carts, and bicitaxis, two person bicycle taxis pulled by one hard-working guy.
I really loved meeting all these different people, who had experienced life in a very different society from our own. There were men at the book sale in Havana's busy streets that were looking to find work in Canada sometime in the near future, and were hoping that each of our countries would relax regulations so that he could start a new life. At the moment, it was more profitable to sell books to eager tourists in the streets than his own government job as a school teacher. So, he worked longer days to support a family.
In Cuba's valley towns there was a lower pace of lifestyle, cowboys rode horses through the streets, and large trunks came tumbling down the roads at 5 AM to pick up workers for a day in the tobacco fields. I loved this atmosphere with kids playing soccer in the street, and everyone staying up late to make sure they could catch up with friends in between doorways and on street corners. Even in Havana, kids played a game of baseball in a side street, or jump rope as the occasional car came down pushing them to the sidewalks briefly before carrying on.
In Viñales we explored the jardin botanical that has been growing for the past one hundred year. In the centre of what looks like a vast jungle of cocoa, mango, and banana trees, tobacco and flowers, is a small colourful cottage where a family lives. They take care of the jardin, and upon your entrance through the bright red gates will lead a tour around the paths of the garden. In our sparse Spanish and our guides limited English, we had fun deciphering the Spanish names of plants into our well-known English terms.
For a closer look into the beauty of Viñales, we were lead by a local on horseback through the tobacco fields and among the farmers who plow their fields with oxen. In the morning we set out, the sun was just beginning to warm our backs, and we rambled along through the fields and dirt tracks. As it began to get hotter, we stopped at an old man's house a top a grassy hill, where he served us hollowed out coconuts with rum and honey. Looking out, we could see the town of Viñales and spreading out from that an array of checkered houses and tobacco fields, and among that a small amount of corn and rice fields. It was amazing to experience rural Cuba with it's slower pace lifestyle, and laid back farmers on horseback in gum boots and smoking a Cuban cigar. For me, riding horses through Cuba was the perfect moment.
There is so much history in Havana. And in Cuba. Between the crumbling buildings and streets piled with rubble are places built in the early 1900's, and some of these places, recently restored into colourful attractions, have the undeniable beauty and amazing craftsmanship in ornately decorated columns, marble floors, and painted ceilings particular to that time period.
Among this revolution and restoration of the buildings there is the life of the Cuban people. Things seem to be on the brink of change with the widespread access to the Internet, and this newness of ideas flowing amid buildings which have stood for hundreds of years casts an exciting atmosphere among the people. However, if you stop to listen in broken English and reply in haphazard Spanish, the views of the Cuban people seem to reflect both gratitude and frustration with the revolution. A change in their country which both propelled a movement but now seems to have stagnated their countries development.
Sometimes, moments put you back into the 1950's while spending time on the streets of Havana or walking in Viñales' fields. A lineup of 1950's style cars at a crosswalk puts you into a different decade, as does the image of three cowboys on horseback trotting through dirt tracks just outside of your bedroom window. With this mismatch of modern and past culture, this country is unique in it's own way. That's the beauty of exploring new places, and places so different from home. There are windows into the history, and the people, and into the hopes and traditions of their lives.
Quinoa and Goats Cheese Patties
Print recipe here!What I loved about the food in Cuba, and I know that no one goes there for the food, but it was still delicious, was that the ingredients were all so simple, fresh, local, and tasty. They used simple ingredients like fish and chicken, which was cooked or fried in a sauce, and served with rice, and often beans. In the valley we had a greater variety of fresh fruits and vegetables such as bananas, shorter than the ones we have at home, and much sweeter. Our host family went into their back yard and came back with a bundle of tiny little bananas, and offered us one each, which we devoured greedily, enjoying the sweetness of these pale green goodies.
This recipe follows a similar principle, simple, fresh ingredients for a decadent dinner. For best tasting results, use locally grown vegetables, and if you have access to it, local goats cheese.
Serves 2 (makes 4 patties)
1/4 cup uncooked quinoa
1/2 cup warm water
2 tbsp soft goats cheese
1/4 cup cottage cheese
1 medium carrot, grated
1 large (2 small) garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
salt and pepper to season
1 tbsp grape seed oil (for frying)
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the uncooked quinoa and warm water. Bring to a boil.
Reduce the heat, and simmer covered for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine goats cheese, cottage cheese, grated carrot, egg, and minced garlic. Stir to combine.
Add in the cooked quinoa slowly, mixing between each addition to prevent the egg from cooking.
Sprinkle chili powder, salt, and pepper in, and stir well.
At this point, if you're mixture is not sticking together well, or has too much liquid, add in rice flour 1 tablespoon at a time. It should be sticky and hold its shape.
Heat a frying pan over medium-low heat with 1 tablespoon of grape seed oil. Using a 1/4 cup measuring spoon, ladle the quinoa mixture bit by bit into the frying pan and press down to form approximately 1 inch thick patties.
Cook for 5-10 minutes on each side. Lower the heat if they brown (or blacken) too quickly, or the oil begins to spit, and raise the heat if after 5 minutes there is no colour change.
Enjoy with Baked Tomato Salsa
, or use instead of meat patties in a gluten free burger bun.
Enjoy! xx S
Labels: batter, burgers, carrot, cheese, chili, cottage cheese, cuba, fresh, fried, garlic, gluten free, goats cheese, holiday, patties, quinoa, vegetarian