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The Delectable Diary of Hayley Harland: Our woman in Havana - 3 bean chili & sweet potato

28 February, 2012

Our woman in Havana - 3 bean chili & sweet potato

Havana is never what you expect it to be. No amount of high-colour glossy photographs of vintage American bangers or wrinkly ladies with vibrantly painted, crumbling backdrops will prepare you for its reality. The culture-shock doesn't come in the form of dirt, disease or language barriers, it is more that everything you are used to no longer exists because this is a country that runs a little differently than the rest.

Last November, I quit my job so that I could follow my heart and most importantly, my gut. I would get to the end of each day feeling like my brain had been shoved in a blender and after a few years of perseverance I concluded that it just wasn't the life for me. So I stayed up all night making preserves for a month and hawking them to randomers at Christmas fairs. Then I got on a plane to Cuba. I thought, Christmas in Cuba, why not? There will be dancing in the street and jolly men jangling on guitars like in Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, and even though there won't be snow, a nice tan and plenty of vitamin D will more than make up for that. But as I said, Havana is never what you expect it to be.

I took my boyfriend, Sebastian along for the ride and we arrived in the warm night air at our casa particular (a private Cuban home). It was a stylish and modern apartment, where beautiful, smiling Lilly greeted us. We saw nothing but the streetlamps of Havana, the beyond draped in inky darkness. We knew nothing of the view that would embrace us the following morning.

We spent two weeks, waking up with the sunrise, deep apricot smudged across the horizon through an early morning smog. We took breakfast on the balcony, drinking in that spectacular view of the sun-drenched city under a rich blue sky. We walked along the Malecón to the centre of town with a salty breeze speckling our faces. It has recently been made legal for foreigners to take the communal taxis and some days we would catch a ride along with seven or so other people, crammed into these colourful banged-up metal containers, horns a'blaring, choking with petrol fumes. But it was worth it for only a few National Pesos, peanuts in comparison to Cuba's other currency, CUC. We would walk through Habana Vieja, the old town trying to avoid the most intelligent and persistent of hustlers, admiring the art, the architecture and, "Beautiful laydeee, come in my dress shop, it free to try," coming from the back door of somebody's living room, the differences to home.

Some days we would just meander around our neighbourhood, Vedado past colonial mansions once opulent, decaying into disrepair with still as much of an impact on the eye as the day were built. Imagine the resplendant parties they must have hosted in the 50s. Everyday, 2 or 3 homes in this city disappear, the people who live there becoming part of the rubble, so you wouldn't expect there to be much to party for. But even though there wasn't dancing on the street, there was music in the air and we had a party anyway. There were jazz clubs, concerts, a bit of salsa and gallons of mojitos, we had friends and it became our home for a short while.

It was difficult to leave Havana but we were ready to continue our adventure in Cuba. On Christmas Eve, we hired a car to drive to the town of Remedios where a huge fiesta takes place all night long. Two neighbourhoods battle it out to see who has the best parade and fireworks. The pyrotechnics are homemade of course, the streets are packed, people hop over exposed electric cables but the rum galore flows freely. Huge barrels of boiling oil roast street food, which if they were to topple over, would result in hundreds of civilians being deep fat fried as well. This is one night where the police don’t really get involved, if a building burns down, it’s just considered part of the kindling. If the health and safety weirdos were to visit this place, they would have a breakdown. Or so I’ve heard...

With the scent of freedom in the air, we were excited to hit the open road. But in a country where little funding goes towards road signs, we had to stop several times to look at the map. We had barely escaped the Big City before 3 bandits sporting fake police uniforms, trained in the art of distraction, got into the car and pinched our wallets. It all happened so quickly, by the time we noticed, they had diffused into the scenery. They may as well have been ninjas.

So we limped our way back to Havana with a debilitating slow puncture in our shit-heap of a hire-car with only ten cents to our name. We expected to be greeted at the British Embassy with a cup of earl grey and a mince pie but when we arrived, a security guard with broken English told us that it was closed. Everybody was on their jolly holidays until 2nd January. In peak tourist season. How nice for them.

The most important thing was to get a roof over our heads for the evening. But even the ritziest hotel in town wouldn’t accept a parent's card over the phone from England. The sight of a lavishly decorated Christmas tree in the grand lobby of the Saratoga hotel was enough to reduce me to tears and I practically begged the clerk for a room. It could have been my empty stomach thinking for me, but I could've sworn the Christmas angel began speaking from behind me:

‘I overheard your story. I’ll give you some cash so you can get by for the next few days. I don’t know you, but you seem like good people.’

I turned around to meet James, not the Christmas angel but a friendly New-Yorker with sleek silver hair and clean-cut glasses. This was the last night of his illegal visit to Cuba* and he offered to lend us 500 bucks and take us out to dinner. By this point our British stiff-upper-lips had shriveled to the size of raisins and naturally, we accepted his kind invitation.

We agreed to meet James after finding a place to stay and headed back to Casa Lilly to see if she had found us a place to stay. We felt terrible for interrupting their family christmas celebration, the children were opening their presents and supper was bubbling on the stove, but we had nowhere else to turn. Lilly and her sister Sandra had rung around the whole neighbourhood to ask for a room and one place had said "yes".

Iznaga and Alicia welcomed us into their home that stood right on the Malecón. It must be one of the safest houses in Havana because they are situated in between both of the heavily guarded US Interest Sections. It was a modest, comfortable and homey apartment and it was just what we needed.

We met James back at his hotel and the concierge gave us crappy directions to a restaurant called La Casa. After an hour of searching and a terrifying trip over a rickety bridge into the dodgy end of town, we admitted defeat and paid a taxi to guide us to our paladar, a privately owned restaurant. We were greeted with open arms by the exuberant host into shades of neon and the glittery drip of extravagant water features. It was like stepping back in time... to 70s kitsch Miami. The food was brilliant, playful and oh so 70s too. Prawn cocktail, turkey slices and then came the dessert. Coconut icecream in no less than a coconut and pineapple sorbet frozen into a hollowed out pineapple. My mojito, infused with a leprechaun green mint syrup, was beginning to make me feel a bit strange. If the day had bean a nightmare so far, it was now turning into a surreal dream.

James was great company that evening, he lifted our spirits and after dropping him back, we indicated sleepily into our driveway. Suddenly, there was a screetch of brakes and the long, loud blare of a car horn. A car swerved around us and alarmingly came to a halt. Out popped the skinny boy who had been queuing behind us at the rental office that morning - what seemed like an age ago. Only, it wasn't him, it was his evil twin. He strutted towards us agressively, shouting insults in Japanese and I screamed at Seb to turn the car around and drive. I thought we were going to die and Japanese Hulk was going to do the deed. My surreal dream had turned into a game of Grand Theft Auto. Speeding off, we thought we were clear of him but then the police pulled us over to find out what the commotion was about. We weren't sure of the drink driving laws and we knew that we were at least 1 mojito down. We said nothing to each-other but we were both thinking, "That's it, we're going to prison, this has been officially the unluckiest day of my life."

Seb managed to talk us out of a dangerous driving arrest but the following morning, Christmas day, I ended up in the back of a police car anyway. We were escorted to the station to make our report in a rather dramatic fashion. Unfortunately, that was the most exciting thing that happened all day. There was a lot of confusion due to the language barrier and a lengthy wait, a 10 hour one, with a lunch break to punctuate the boredom: prison slop that nobody dared eat. The chicken slop smelled old and rotten, and the potato slop was anemic grey, don't even get me started on the dog mince slop. The chief of police had developed a rather adorable crush on the chief dinnerlady and they were both eyeing us closely. We didn't want to offend our hosts so we invented different ways to make our plates appear empty. I knew that if I was home in England at that moment, I would be stuffed silly on a delicious feast cooked by my dad, not shaking with low blood sugar and pretending to eat.

Seb & I © Yo Yim

Over the next few days, the Foreign office in London concluded that there was no way to get money to us other than via the embassy because of the US embargo. We had wired money with Western Union but it was stuck in Guantanamo Bay. The Western Union clerk just looked at our despairing faces, clearly not understanding the gravity of our situation, "Fly to Puerto Rico," she grunted. Well, that wasn't possible since we had nothing with which we could pay for tickets!!!

Like Blanche DuBois, we "relied on the kindness of strangers" and strangers came out of the ether to save us. 6 people in total leant us survival money until the end of our trip, more offered us a roof over our heads, we saw Trinidad and Cienfuegos, we went snorkeling, Alicia cooked us the most heartwarming stews with fresh herbs and deep fried malanga fritters and most importantly, friends offered us solace. In the end, we didn't need a stupid embassy.

On our last morning in Havana, more than a month after our arrival we gathered at a small cafe on Linea for breakfast with all of the beautiful people who had helped us. We filled the place. We couldn't have been luckier. We said goodbye to our friends and as I walked to our final destination down the Malecon in the bright blue early light, past the baseball field and the sound of joyful cheers, I sobbed my heart out.

Thanks to Jacques, Eric, Kinane, Lilly, Ramone, Sandra, Michael, Liz, Camillo, Orlando, Aria, James, Alicia, Iznaga, Jo, Pierre, Yo and our nerve-wracked parents. Life would be very different without you all.

Accommodation in Havana

If you ever need a place to stay in Cuba, look these people up. They both run professional and friendly B&Bs and the quality of your stay and the standard of food will be far better than most of the hotels.

Casa Lily
A modern and bright 50s high rise apartment that looks out over the city. The family speaks perfect English and Ramone used to be a tour guide so he knows exactly where to visit in Cuba.
Calle G, No 301 entre 13 y 15, apart. 13, Vedado, Havana
(537) 8324021

Sra. Alicia & Sr. Iznaga
A comfortable home with kitchen access and beautiful views in prime position on the Malecón. Kind host, Alicia is a delicious cook and Iznaga offers a private taxi service.
Malecón No. 209, apto. 3B, e/ J y K, Vedado, Havana
(537) 8367350

3 Bean chili & sweet potato

I came up with this dish before I left for Havana, it is my interpretation of what I thought Cuban cuisine was going to be like. I was warned there is a lot of beans, rice and sweet potato and I scoffed at a friend who upon his return, confided in me that he couldn't look at a single kidney bean, ever again. I thought, when food tastes this good, how bad can it be having to eat it every night? But as I said, Cuba is never what you expect it to be.

Apart from a few fantastic paladars and casas, which I will talk about in future, the food was generally herbless and lacking in any variety. Rice, beans and pork/chicken. For every meal. The problem is, some ingredients are hard to find because they are in short supply and sold at different times of the day. Everything has to be grown close by in the organoponicos which is wonderful but has its limitations. But do you come to Cuba for the food? Not particularly. You come for the music, the beauty, the people, the difference.

  • 3 Cans of different kinds of beans
  • 1 Large onion, diced
  • 2 Cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 Red pepper, chopped
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 Can chopped tomatoes
  • 2 Tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 Whole star anise
  • 1 Tsp sweet smoked paprika
  • 1 Glass of red wine
  • A ladle of beef or vegetable stock
  • Roughly 1 tsp chipotle chili, depending on how hot you want it
  • Four big sweet potatoes

Preheat the oven to 180ºC and bake the sweet potatoes for 50 minutes.

On a low heat, soften the onions and peppers in the oil then add the garlic and fry for a further 2 minutes. Pour in your wine, boil for a minute then add the tomatoes, tomato puree and stock. Bring to the boil, add the star anise, chilies and paprika, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the beans and simmer for 5 minutes, until they are warmed through. Serve on the sweet potato with some rocket.

It is rich, healthy, unquestionably delicious and rehabilitated my relationship with beans after returning from Havana.

* Americans pay a massive fine and risk imprisonment by the US government if they spend US dollars in Cuba so American tourists have to fly via South America or Canada and conceal where they have been.

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At 28 February, 2012 19:39 , Blogger Sebastian von Holstein said...

We certainly had a hard time, but we met some gob-smackingly beautiful people on the way - these gorgeous pictures do a great job of summing up what can only be described as a full blown adventure. Super blog post Hayley! x

At 28 February, 2012 23:21 , Anonymous Sarmado said...

I really enjoy your style Hayley but i must say that this is the best yet!! Brillliant blog post!!

At 01 March, 2012 10:02 , Anonymous Denise said...

Of course you told me this before, but reading it again...what a story you've been through! I love that your turned it into a fantastic post though and met wonderful people along the way!

At 02 March, 2012 09:50 , Blogger Hayley Harland said...

Thank you guys. I had to quell the sobbing whilst writing this, it brought up so many emotions. I could've written much much more but I've been scolded in the past for blog posts that keep people reading all day. Will have to make it a book! x

At 06 March, 2012 22:56 , Blogger The White List said...

Fantastic post! Your blog is brilliant!!!! You are amazing! Have a great week!!! :-)



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