An American Perspective of Visiting Cuba

Cuba is an opportunity to relive life as we enjoyed it in the 1950s. Being in that warm and friendly country is experiencing an environment held motionless in time for more than 50 years.

That does not mean that the country is not progressing, only that it had its more noticeable growth period in the years before 1959. The 2.1 million people who live in the capital city of La Habana, the official name of we call Havana, see infrastructure improvements constantly. The problem is that the improvements are constantly slow! To the 11 million residents of Cuba this is not an inconvenience, it is simply the way things are.

A recent Go Eat Give cultural mission to Havana, Cuba, provided an opportunity to meet and work with Cubans who were doing a variety of things to make their small island an appealing place to live.

We worked with farm workers, healthcare professionals and artists.

We found they were completely welcoming to Americans. Together we picked beans, worked on a public art mosaic wall drawn for us by an internationally-known artist, Jose Rodriguez Fuster, whose works have been exhibited in Cuba, England and France, and spent time serving an afternoon snack in a home for the elderly.

Participants of Go Eat Give tours engage with local artists as the group did in Havana.
Participants of Go Eat Give tours engage with local artists as the group did in Havana.

It was a revelation to learn that in Cuba, which mostly remains a mystery to our country, the literacy rate is 99.8 percent.

Even though our languages were different, we mostly could communicate with a few words and often our own brand of sign language that might result in hearty laughter. As we crossed the city many times, it was evident that this was very much a city of younger people with a median age of 39 years for men and 40 years for women with about 50 percent of the population being between 25 and 54 years of age.

Beyond the numbers, there is a youthful aura that permeates the Cuban culture. Live music everywhere. People walking briskly pursuing their everyday schedules. Wide smiles greeted us wherever we went. In some restaurants the musicians would choose one of our group and begin dancing among the tables. We soon felt more like one of the family than outsiders visiting a place that has been forbidden to us for decades.

Using the word ‘decades’ reminds me of the spectacular collection of American cars from the 1950s and older that truly adorn the streets. Chevrolets, Cadillacs, Plymouths and old Ford Fairlanes. They are all there looking bright and beautiful. Cheery Yellow, Soft Lavender, Fire Engine Red, Bright Blue, Kelly Green, Deep Purple. Shiny and in pristine condition. Many cars still running because the owners have found ingenious ways to replace parts or create parts to repair the automobiles of which they are so proud. Just being on the streets of Havana is like going to an antique car show!

We were told that crime is low in this quiet but busy country. They attribute much of that to the fact that the Mafia was banned from Cuba along with their gambling and casinos that flourished before the 1950s. Drug use is not prevalent and the HIV health problem affects only .1 percent of the population.

Architecture throughout the capital city is reminiscent of historic Europe. Lovely, gracious facades with graceful arches and molded friezes. The Cuban capitol looks like our capitol in Washington. Sculptures and historic statues are situated from large airy squares to small tree-lined parks. Some statues have traditions such as if you touch the man’s bronze beard and hold his bronze hand, your wish will come true. A few modern, less interesting buildings are found tucked in among all the antique structures. Their presence provides an attractive contrast.

Contrast between old and new architecture in Cuba.
Contrast between old and new architecture in Cuba.

The most outstanding modern building is the art museum that is exciting both inside and outside. It is a huge complex of several buildings that has an extensive collection of traditional, modern and art deco exhibits. The areas are open, well-lighted and broad enough to make the presentations professional and captivating.

The capital in Havana, "Just like Washington's!"
The capital in Havana, “Just like Washington’s!”

As you exit the museum, directly across the street is the Museum of the Revolution that was originally the Presidential Palace. Behind it is a glass-enclosed building that displays Fidel’s yacht, Granma. This structure is surrounded by a park featuring military icons: tank, airplane, missile, truck, guns. It is a must to visit both. Not only for the information but for the contrast of two Cuban histories.

Which brings us to the Fidel Castro history. It was amazing to us that there is next to no symbols of their leader of more than half a century. I saw only one picture and one wall-size silhouette of him. His image does not appear in the hundreds of kiosks in the public craft market nor on colorful postcards. Quite the opposite of the handsome Che Guevara. His picture or likeness is everywhere from postcards to small prints to the entire wall of one of the larger mid-rise buildings next to Fidel’s image. The Cubans we met, with whom we had long conversations in English, said that they do not know where Fidel is and that he is rarely seen. He is simply part of their history.

Cuba, the mystery country, located so close to our Florida Keys, remains shadowed in our own United States embargo, but Cuba is there nonetheless. Their culture touches ours in many ways going back centuries. Our own vibrant Cuban neighborhoods have brought wonderful traditions, energies, music and food to our country. Our shared family values and hardworking populations are reflections of the other. We came away feeling enriched and content with our Cuban cultural mission experience.

Havana's answer to McDonald's, great local eating establishments.
Havana’s answer to McDonald’s, great local eating establishments.

~ By Barbara Rose, president of the consulting firm for non-profits, New Generation Partnerships Inc.. Ms Rose visited Cuba with Go Eat Give in November 2014. Her article also appeared in Global Atlanta

Qooqqut with unforgettable dining

What crosses your mind when your tour is called “Qooqqut with unforgettable dining?” Certainly not orange overalls, open air high speed boats, and battling trade winds in search of a lone restaurant located 50 kilometers away from civilization! Apparently, this is what I had signed up for during my recent visit to Nuuk, Greenland.

We met at the harbor of this world’s northernmost capital city, and noticed parked sail boats, water taxis, even a small cruise ship at the dock. But my guide pointed to our ride for the evening – a 7 passenger open raft with a motor attached to the back. Given the windy cool Arctic temperatures we were about to be faced with, overalls were mandatory, to be worn on top of the layers of sweaters and parkas I was already laden with. John, our Danish tour guide, warned me that it will be cold “like riding on a motorcycle at zero degree Celsius for two hours.” That’s why I look like a baby Polar Bear in this picture!

overalls for boat trip

We started off slow as we left the city and sped soon enough reaching 50km/ hour in the little boat. At first, I enjoyed the scenery – we had a beautiful view of Nuuk’s colorful homes, the statues of Hans Egede, and backdrop of a few new buildings against rocky hills. We whiz passed emerald blue floating glaciers, and within 10 minutes had reached very secluded areas. There was nothing but open waters, mountains and ice as far as I could see. After that, it was cold, wet, windy and bumpy for a VERY long time. John, our guide, explained to the passengers that this is how the Vikings traveled to dinner and the areas we were traveling through were Viking territories. I’m not sure what kind of restaurants the Vikings favored.

blue ice glacier

The second phase of our experience was fishing for entree. We stopped near a mountain where the water was deep enough to fish for cod and redfish. Line hooks were pulled down and everyone caught something. The catch was just pulled into the boat and stored for the chef who was going to cook us dinner that night.

catching redfish in Greenland

Another 20 minutes ride to the island of Qooqqut. It was a very scenic small village surrounded by hills, some green shrubs and lush backgrounds. The water was calm here and reminded me of Scottish Highland or South New Zealand.

Qooqqut arrival

The lone Qooqqut Nuan restaurant is run by husband (Greenlandic chef) and Thai wife. They also have a restaurant in Nuuk (at the harbor) and use to work at another one on the island that burned down.

Qooqqut Nuan restaurant.

The restaurant serves upscale Thai food using local ingredients. Wine/ beer was reasonably charged $10 per drink, and dinner was included in our tour. I ordered the Fish Dinner which had a huge platter with many interesting creations – red curry with shrimp, cod with spinach, redfish with sweet and spicy hong kong style sauce, and redfish with mildly spicy red curry. It came with a big bowl of salad (rare in this part of the world) and steamed rice. I also tasted Penang reindeer, a Greenlandic Thai fusion, with gamy chewy sliced pieces of meat that were probably hunted on the island, cooked with sliced onions, red and green bell peppers. The flavor were divine and unfathomable how someone could run such an upscale kitchen in the middle of nowhere. For dessert, I opted for European style crepe pancakes with ice cream and fresh fruit (watermelon and orange).

Greenlandic shrimp with salad

fish platter

Penang reindeer

During the delicious dinner, John informed us that in case we can’t make it back, there were hostel rooms behind the restaurants that were pretty nice to spend the night at. He also kept some sleeping bags on the boat, just in case we ended up on another uninhabited island. His tours generally ended around 10pm, but with the midnight sun this was not a problem. Now that it was end of August, and it was already past 10,  and getting dark, but we still had an hour to go.

Its a pity that we weren’t able to enjoy the jaw-dropping natural beauty, the secluded surroundings of the lone restaurant, instead headed right back into the dark waters. An afternoon hiking around Qooqqut, soaking in its fresh air and relaxing with its views, would have been a good addition to the itinerary.

The ride back was not as bumpy, but felt much colder because of the darkness and slight rain. The memory of a fabulous dinner was rapidly overtaken by my head and neck pain and a frosty nose. It was 11pm when we returned to the harbor. The city looked dead. John called us a cab to take us back to Hansina’s Guest House.

I would definitely take this tour again, but during the day, in a covered boat, and spend some more time on the island.

Touring Greenland offers Qooqqut with unforgettable dining tour for DKK 895 ($179) per person, which includes 2 hours of sailing, some time for fishing, and a two-course dinner. Drinks are not included. Warning: if you have prior neck or back injury, you may not want to take the bumpy ride.

How to Pray for a Husband in India

Traveling, for me, is not only beautiful and enriching because of the deep histories, architecture, gastronomical culture, languages, and myriad of landscapes and climates; it is beautiful as you are exposed to so many people in the country, while you are journeying to the destination.  Through the people is how we are able to break down barriers, share stories and ideas, identify commonalities and transcendence, and find a sense of openness, excitement and inspiration yet accompanied with a sweet humility and peace. The people are where the real “heartbeat” of travel, and for me, where the real enchantment lies.

My journey and encounter with India was no different. The moment when I stepped on my connecting flight from Qatar to India, the aroma of curry and spice, the long grey beards, the traditional Indian dress, bindis, and more importantly the abundance of turbans, made it crystal clear that I was on my way to India. I was traveling solo and on my way to meet Sucheta and Dipak who were coming from USA. I was one of very few non-Indians on the Qatar Airways flight and curiosity quickly overcame me. At the time, I had been living in Spain, and certainly was no novice to travel, yet, for me India brought such an array of thoughts and feelings, as it was my first voyage into the eastern world, one perceived to be exotic, mystical, and very complex. I felt like little Ms. America in the midst of the unknown.

gina shopping for sari

On my flight, I came across a jolly old Indian man with bright pearly whites, a turban and a beard who just kept smiling at me.  I felt welcome as he started to communicate with me in Hindi (he quickly realized I was clueless) and even more grateful as he began attempting to teach me some of the local language.  He did it with such enthusiasm and such support as I stumbled across the words and the pronunciation so much so that three rows of seats in the airplane were laughing.  The passengers would all nod with encouragement as they saw me desperately trying to connect with them.  We shared snacks and smiles and it was then that my angst turned to comfort.

Arriving in New Delhi was fascinating and overly stimulating especially at 3:00 am in the morning.  My senses were on overload because of the entire aroma, the taxi company ripped me off, and I felt like an actress walking on the red carpet as I exited the airport.  My hair was blonde at the time and well the Indian’s didn’t see people like me very often so they looked at me in complete fascination and wonder.

Gina & Sucheta at a wedding in New Delhi

Upon awakening on the first morning, I was greeted by a serene and kind Indian grandmother who had prepared an authentic meal and later she and her friend took me to purchase my first Salwar Kameez and for my first ricksaw adventure.  We followed the afternoon sharing our ideas of love and they shared with me their love stories and the Indian culture and arranged marriage over chai.  Seriously, I thought, someone please pinch me.  I am halfway across the world speaking to two lovely older women about love and life.

And the Indian hospitality continued to unfold throughout my stay.  The people that I encountered along the way not only opened their homes, they opened their hearts.

The majority of the rest of my stay was with Sucheta’s grandmother, an absolute beauty, in Chandigarh.  She shared authentic meals, chai and conversations, and more importantly she integrated me into her morning routine where we feed the roses and the birds.  She persistently encouraged me to pray to god for a husband and assured me that god would listen.   Not sure where they came from, but I wasn’t going to argue, I rolled with it.

Gina with Sucheta's grandmother

My experience also included being invited to an authentic Indian wedding and to prepare, I received the full induction of the sari and accessory shopping experience.  The vibrant colors and array of textiles, patterns, beautiful bling, and intricate details to the parties and the weddings, the Hindu ceremony and the feeding of the fire, the food, the family, and the friends were certainly all elements to make ones spirit soar.   The Bollywood dancing and actually wearing a sari, a sleeve of bling bangles, was purely icing on the cake.

The stories are endless, the prayers of the tour guides, the countless picture taking with the locals, family meals, shopping and learning about the countries trends and natural resources and most importantly what makes India go round.

gina with mehndi

It was indeed a vivid country, with a plethora of religious and economic contrast, world-renowned tourist destinations, rich traditions, customs, and history. My writing could certainly go on for days about my humorous and embarrassing culture shock moments, the perplexity of seeing the stark and heartbreaking divide between the rich and the poor, to describing the elaborate details of the Golden Temple, going solo to the Taj Mahal and getting prayed over, (again for a husband), to a “How to dance Bollywood guide” as all of those created an amazing experience for me, yet, I do believe what is everlasting, was the hospitality and care of my local friends, and whom I would refer to as teachers.  I am eternally grateful for having gone to the land of enchantment with a native, as the insights and authenticity were invaluable. We shared perceptions. I was able to challenge ideas and opinions with those with deep cultural awareness and insights, which proved to be very thought provoking and at times, quite enlightening.

For the intellectually curious and spiritual seekers looking to experience India, I would recommend really integrating yourself into the culture via a local as the experience will be richer and more rewarding than you can imagine.

 ~ By guest blogger, Gina Cooper. Gina traveled with Go Eat Give to India in November 2012. 

Discover Artisans and Food Traditions in Le Marche, Italy

Many visitors to Italy have enjoyed the wonders of Tuscany, but relatively few have discovered and experienced the unique charms of neighboring Le Marche.

Le Marche is the region in east-central Italy nestled between Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, and Umbria. Our destination is the bustling village of Mercatello sul Metauro, located at the foot of the Tuscan-Umbrian- Apennine mountains, only a couple of hours east of Florence.

Luisa Donati invites you to share a week with her at Palazzo Donati, her family’s home, which dates to the 1700s. Situated on the main square of Mercatello sul Metauro, Palazzo Donati is a private home upgraded with modern amenities.

Luisa opens the doors to her family’s Palazzo and invites you to enter the peace and authenticity of a by-gone time. You’ll discover and experience a way of life which preserves the grace and culture of the Renaissance, in a small town largely undiscovered by tourists.

Here are some of Luisa’s favorite things that she will share with you. . .

  • Tasting of Le Marche wines
  • Renaissance ceramics in Urbania
  • Lunch at Isabella’s organic farm, “La Pieve del Colle” with a view of the landscape depicted in Piero della Francesca’s painting “I Trionfi”
  • Cooking class using local wild herbs and flowers
  • Hands-on class in the traditional art of fabric painting
  • Clara, Princess of Carpegna, hosts a private tour of her palace
  • Feast prepared by members of the Accademia del Padlot, a fraternity of nine men dedicated to food preparation, wine tasting, and good times
  • Tour of the stunning underground caves at Grotte di Frasassi
  • Shopping for foodstuffs at the market followed by cooking class taught by a local mama
  • Visit to the paper-making museum in Fabriano and a workshop on the ancient craft of making paper
  • Plenty of free time to shop, meander, and day-dream

To book, contact Luisa Donati:  info@palazzodonati.com; Skype: luisadonats; Mobile +393394016247 to inquire about this tour.  

 

 

Growing Rice in Bali

Continued from Farm to Table in Bali

Next stop on the Paon Bali Cooking Class tour are the rice paddies where Wayan tell the students about agriculture in Bali. He stops at a site where Julia Roberts was filmed biking in the movie, Eat Pray Love. With a backdrop of mountains (many of which are volcanoes), palm and coconut trees, surrounded by endless fields of rice, the views are breathtaking! Continue reading “Growing Rice in Bali”