“We’re home!” exclaimed Keller as we both stretched from our seats to get our first glimpse of Cuba from the plane. His declaration was marked by a big bear hug and a hand grip. I can feel Keller’s excitement at seeing his grandfather’s country for the first time. I certainly felt it myself, as did the other passengers who all erupted in cheering and clapping upon touchdown at Jose Marti Airport. I don’t recall that ever happening on a flight before. We were minutes away from meeting my uncle Raphael, cousins Jorge and Gabriel, and the rest of the Torriente family.
The reception we received at the airport was something out of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” where not only did my cousins and uncle turn up. Cousins, in-laws, neighbors and family friends were in attendance. A line from another movie comes to mind.
Seriously, it was an overwhelming but incredibly sweet welcome, evident of the warmth of the Cuban people—a homecoming that was long overdue. I loved it.
We landed in Havana (or as its known in the Spanish-speaking world “La Habana”) but we had another two hours to go to reach our destination of Varadero, a Cuban seaside resort known worldwide except in the United States. Jorge, his uncle Juan Carlos, Keller and I packed into a rental car while the rest of the welcoming committee hung back to await the arrival of my sister, her children and my mother on the following day. We drove a small way south and dropped Juan Carlos off at what seemed like a desolate location, so he could hitch a ride back to Havana and we could continue onward with our journey.
Nearly every road we traveled was a two-lane highway marked by very sparse signage—only the speed limit and the occasional billboard celebrating the revolution. While the lack of signage was not particularly helpful to my cousin who seemed to get turned around a few times, there were virtually no distractions from the lush, green scenery that flew past the car windows. Mangoes, papaya and coconut trees grow along the highway from Havana to Varadero.
“Are we free to pick the mangoes?” I naively asked.
“It all belongs to the state,” replied Jorge.
Viva la revolución.
Since we landed around lunchtime, Jorge picked a roadside restaurant, Restaurante la Marina, to dine at. To call it a roadside restaurant is really underselling it with its marina-themed décor and its extensive seafood menu. It’s an establishment that I would expect to find at a beachside resort overlooking the ocean, not overlooking a desolate highway.
The restaurant is a perfect example of private enterprise on the island that has taken hold in the years since the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Cuba has been slowly introducing private enterprise on the island, starting with the resurgence of tourism nearly 25 years ago and more recently the establishment of private businesses and home ownership, albeit in limited quantities.
It was the home cooks that pioneered modern entrepreneurship on the island by converting their dining and living rooms into restaurants or “paladars.” As Cuba has slowly opened its country to foreign businesses and food rations have eased, Cuban cooks have been making great use of all the resources available to them to start the burgeoning of their own culinary revolution.
¡Viva la revolución!
While not quite at the level of other cuisines in the Caribbean, its beginning to show promise and the proof lies in the meal we had at Restaurante Marina.
The restaurant immediately put me in a frame of mind for seafood while the drive along the Cuban countryside made me long for a mojito. I had intended to order the lobster at a reasonable price of $14, but I ended up sharing a seafood paella and a shrimp cocktail with Jorge. It seems we both have an affinity for seafood. It was over lunch that we began to discover the commonalities between two long separated cousins.
While the paella was quite good, it technically was not paella in the traditional sense. Nor was it prepared like the seafood paella that westerners have come to enjoy. Seeing that Cuba is still under communist rule, with all the limitations in commerce and trade that Cubans still face, I was prepared to lower my expectations and allow some grace for the chefs who prepared this tasty meal. This first restaurant was quite good, even with my adjusted expectations.
Everything was fresh and freshly prepared. The shrimp in the shrimp cocktail tasted as if it had been in the sea just a few hours before while the salad as colorful and crisp in appearance, tasting like a summer harvest. The mojitos were refreshing while making use of the entire mint stem, root and all.
By comparison the buffet meals at the state-run Tuxpan Hotel where we are staying has a familiarity to it after several meals. Overall, I can’t complain—the resort is all-inclusive, and the staff has been generous with the adult beverages. A small tip guarantees a larger refill of your drink over the first one. The meals have been hit or miss depending on what’s being served, though thankfully, it’s hard to screw up black beans and rice—a staple of every Cuban diet. Nearly all the meats including chicken, fish and steak are prepared fresh by a chef on spec at a sauté and grilling station and that has been outstanding nearly every time. The vegetables served, however, are nearly always canned with a few exceptions. With my adjusted expectations, I appreciate these gems in the hotel’s buffet. In a country where people make more money working in the hospitality industry than as a professional, the service of course is outstanding. The hotel staff is always happy to be of service.
Though our meals so far have us readjusting our expectations, Keller had it right when he declared that we were home. As children of Cuba, our meals have been an appropriate homecoming.