There’s nothing quite like entering vacation mode with a suitcase to pack. However, that’s an art I seemed to have forgotten when I started. Two plus years of never boarding a plane had done its number on me and I was woefully unprepared for a trip outside the country. How many clothes to take? Shoes? Personal items? What to pack?? Added to this dilemma, there are new rules and regulations to follow now.
Our chosen destination Cuba beckoned! Hurry up, it seemed to say, we are waiting for you.
I don’t do well in heat and yet I loved Cuba. It was different over there because I wasn’t following a schedule. I had packed a notebook but never wrote. I had packed a book to read but didn’t go past the first short story. This was my third time in the beautiful, lush, island country – one in a chain of islands created millions of years ago - where the beaches are clean, the sand soft as powder, the waters so spectacular in their blue, green, turquoise fusion you might think your imagination is playing tricks.
We hired one of those classic 1950’s car, a Bel Air, and with the top down, drove with the wind whipping up a delight to the town of Varadero. Our driver, ever the courteous Cuban, took pictures for us. Then a horse and buggy ride through the town itself. Even here, the buggy driver pointed out places of interest and although, he spoke mostly Spanish we could make out what he said. We had booked a day tour to Havana which I was looking forward to since I have been there before and knew about the old colonial buildings and the really beautiful shops. However, it was heart rending to find most of the haunts I loved devoid of action – the after effects of the pandemic, I supposed, as I trudged along the cobbles stoned paths of old Havana. I tried looking up the cute boutique I had shopped at before, but couldn’t find it in the row of many shuttered doors. I had come here to recover from my own burnout but the devastation wreaked upon our global community by the pandemic is ever present. Each one of us bears a scar or two.
Cuba does not import produce, unlike in the west, offering locally grown fruits and vegetables in season. This way one gets to enjoy the local cuisine. Tostones, that's pan fried green plantains, and rice and black beans, quickly became a favourtie. Breakfast was always a plate of juicy mango slices, guavas, watermelons and pineapples. Then there were the unforgettable smoothies made from mango, guava, papaya, watermelon or pineapple. Your choice. Cuban food is typically meat-centric bearing heavy influences from Africa and Spain because of the slave trade. The famous Ropa Vieja, meaning literally old clothes, is a dish of shredded beef cooked in tomatoes and served over fluffy white rice. The name comes from an old Cuban tale of a man who was too poor to buy meat. Instead, he shredded his clothes and cooked it praying it would turn to meat. Miraculously, it did. The dish is a symbol of hope and resilience in Cuban culture. I fell in love with the Yuca, another word for Cassava root. Boiled or mashed, or cut up like French fries it was always present at the buffet. Cuban desserts with their combination of tropical flavours and warming spices are mouth watering to the extreme. You must have some, at the very least, if not a whole lot. The Arroz Con Leche or sweet rice pudding made with rice, milk, sugar, lemon zest and sometimes star anise, is sinfully delectable. Cuban shortbread cookies, the flan, and my personal favourite Dulche de Leche Cortada - milk and sugar cooked over a slow fire until thickened into a rich caramel milk curd and infused with cinnamon. We loved it because it tasted like gulab jamoon, a traditional Indian dessert. Similar to our Indian culture, in Cuba food is at the center of celebrations and everyday life.
Driving through the countryside, I was constantly reminded of my hometown Hazaribagh. The same green hedges, banana and mango trees lining the roads, gated houses sporting pink tiled roofs with gardens along their sides, meadows and fields. Nostalgia running rampant.
Now that I have emerged from hibernation, I am filled with hopes for the future. We had been hearing a lot about airport line-ups and were somewhat nervous. However, everything went well, despite a last-minute fumble when the pilot announced they had forgotten an animal in the hold from the previous trip and the plane had to reverse, open the hold and let the poor thing out. That set us back about forty minutes but at least, the pet and its owners were re-united. Despite these hiccups, our arrival in Cuba and consequent vacation in a fabulous duplex that was a stone’s throw from the most beautiful beach I have ever seen, went without a hitch.
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