The Spirit Of Havana: From Rations To Restaurants

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

It’s the time of year when New York City, with its formidable brilliance, becomes softer, intimate; enchanting if you will, and I’ve never felt more grateful to have it at my doorstep. The city seems gentler in December — lights strewn from one avenue to the next exude the warm glow of holiday cheer, savory scents flow from restaurants babbling with vibrant company, stores boast whimsical displays in illuminated technicolor, and the sound of cozy laughter coats the air like a thick, plush blanket.

In December, my favorite pastime is to go on a month-long tour of all the restaurants I have been meaning to eat at throughout the year. These jaunts are the perfect way to celebrate the season as the simple pleasure of sitting around a hearty meal with loved ones can’t be topped. It’s a luxury I take for granted. Friends, family, elegant cuisine, and the advantage of being able to enjoy it all whenever it feels right. Yet the joy and glamor that will reign in the city during the next two months makes all the sadness in the world stick out like a bruised lip.

And although kindred spirits will join together to help others in need during this holiday season, there are still many who will deal with unforgiving circumstances, believing that hope abandoned them long ago. In her recent article, Havana’s Family-Run Restaurants, Michelle Jana Chan of the Financial Times, quickly discovers how famine has eliminated feast in most of Cuba.

For years now, most residents have lived on rations, making food a necessity and little more. “Several people told me they had given up caring about the taste of what they eat,” writes Chan. She goes on to quote the words of her taxi driver: “The fruit is ugly, the vegetables dirty and the meat is covered in flies. You need to spend six months here to understand the situation, not a few days.”

During her journey, Chan is disheartened by the scanty city and its outskirts, from the barren bodegas, to the paltry farmland, to the skinny frames and drawn faces of people by the roadside. But among the strife, Chan finds a silver lining in the form of  paladares, or family-run restaurants.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in the mid-’90s, the Cuban economy collapsed, prompting Fidel Castro to open the country’s doors to tourism. He allowed the paladares to offer meals to tourists so long as the small restaurants agreed to abide by the conditional terms ordered by the government. And in the midst of despair, the comfort of a good meal refused to be left behind by determined families who dared to run these inventive eateries.

The story of the paladares is one of an unyielding hope for happiness and the quest to find a better way. It is a lesson for the world that is quickly absorbed, especially during a time of year when most are counting their blessings. And I am reminded, when walking the glimmering streets of New York, that it is the spirit of a place that makes it come to life: no matter the hardships or brilliance, hope can always be found in those who believe in it, and in the simple comforts that we savor as precious luxuries.

[Photo by nikkiprice/Flickr]

By Maria Russo


About the Author

Maria Russo is a freelance writer who loves natural wonders, good eats, ethical travel, and boutique hotels. Her work has appeared on the Huffington Post, USA, and A Luxury Travel Blog, among others.


When Maria is not writing for her all-time favorite site (that would be The Expeditioner), she spends her time blogging about foreign jaunts and delectable food experiences for her site: Memoirs of a Travel & Food Addict. She is also up to no good on Twitter (@traveladdictgrl, @expedmaria).

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