Tag Archives: cuban food

Lost in Cuban Translation

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When was the last time you felt like a 5-year-old? If you live in a foreign language like me, it was probably yesterday.

Maybe it’s because as an adult, my English grammar and pronunciation very rarely need correcting. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer and pride myself on how I wield words. Or maybe it’s because the person doing the correcting – consciously or not – establishes an immediate power construct in which I’m the perennial underdog. Reasons aside, having my speech corrected makes me feel like a child (or special needs adult).

So too, does not knowing the word for something – a handicap reserved for foreign language speakers and kids. Struggling for how to say bruise or gutter, ravish or rhetorical is a quick, sure smack down to the ego let me tell you. It doesn’t help that my husband too often gives me a dumfounded look when I ask him how to say things like hydrant or drain. Adding insult to injury: when he does remember a word or is listening closely enough to correct my pronunciation, it is nearly always in the presence of studiously hip (and oddly competitive) Cuban intellectuals. Thanks buddy.

Written Spanish is another issue altogether. Like many, I occasionally write a Cuban word as it sounds, resulting in glaring mistakes (and dogged corrections by readers). Nothing as bad as pescao or toke, but still.

I admit I’m prickly when it comes to this language business. I suppose my command of English – hammered into me by a family of grammar Nazis and Scrabble fanatics – colors my approach to Spanish and feeds the neurosis. Why else would I want five choices for how to say ‘disgruntled’ en español? Some days I’d settle for just being able to find the word for ‘upset.’ Sad, but true.

Yet, even while I’m beating myself up for calling a crutch a woman of mixed race (‘muleta’ is quite different from ‘mulatta’ after all), Cubans often comment about how well I speak, saying my accent is 100% cubano. The aforementioned hipster intellectual class excepted, of course.

Such unsolicited props for my verbal skills provide a temporary ego jack, it’s true. But some words continue to elude me. In fact, I’ve realized after nine years of living here that some Cuban words have no English equivalent whatsoever. Am I wrong? Let me know.

gaceñiga – I discovered this treat back in my first days here in Havana when an older gentleman with salt and pepper hair would peddle past our microbrigada several times a week yelling ‘gaceñiga! gaceñiga!’ Since no one sold much besides bleach and brooms out that way, I was intrigued. After a cajoling, linguistic tango, my husband equated this long baked confection with a pound cake. It’s unclear whether his comparison stems from his verbally-challenged tendencies or his unfamiliarity with baked goods, but to call a gaceñiga a pound cake is like calling a groupie a music critic. Definitely not a pound cake, it’s not a stöllen either. However, a fresh gaceñiga does resolve breakfast nicely. (This is not to be confused with Sponge Rusk, or as the Cubans say esponrrú, another favorite over this way).

descampó – This is one of those Spanish words that makes English jealous. How efficient and to the point! Just one word to say ‘it has stopped raining.’ You’d think the nose-to-the-grindstone Anglos would have come up with this one word wonder instead of the expressive, expansive Spaniards.

guara – Elusive little bugger this one. In a previous post and under pressure, I translated this as ‘moxie’ or ‘pluck.’ But since then I’ve heard a couple of different meanings for guara and now I’m not so sure. Anyone? Anyone?

mantecado – Given that ice cream is one of my minor addictions, this one has chapped my ass since the early days. Mantecado is an ice cream flavor (and only ice cream as far as I’ve been able to determine) that has been described to me as ‘the absence of flavor. Like cream-flavored ice cream.’ While the ‘manteca’ stem of the word would suggest butter or fat of some kind, if it were truly cream-flavored it wouldn’t taste so blech. I’ll try anything once – especially a new to me ice cream flavor – and once was enough for mantecado (NB: a pox on the waiter who told me vanilla was the flavor of the day when what he really meant was mantecado).

pena – I’ve saved the best for last. Most people translate pena as embarrassment. But that’s a gross simplification for a very complex concept (among the most complex in the entire Cuban character if you ask me). Pena is something so ingrained in generations of Cubans it’s like a dominant gene. If you know Cubans, you know what I’m talking about.

To start, pena is intrinsic – it’s not caused by outside forces. Whereas falling in a hotel lobby or having your period in a white pair of pants is embarrassing, neither is a cause for pena – not for a Cuban anyway. It’s also a slippery concept, pena, and is more like a state of mind because it’s so individual. At its most base, it’s related to how one’s actions will be perceived and received by others.

‘I don’t want to ask to borrow a cup of rice. Me da pena.’

‘I want to go to her house, pero me da pena.’

‘Will you flag down a car? Me da pena.’

Pena is so powerful it can lead people to inaction, which is a paradox given Cubans’ seemingly innate desire and ability to resolve problems. Some people suffer so acutely, they’re labeled penoso/a. If you’ve been here and had something go mysteriously pear shaped or unaccountably awry, look to pena.

Me? I’m completamente sin pena.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Expat life, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

Wild Camping in Cuba Part II

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I dared say it but the shocker was our Río Hondo campsite proved to be perfect. Or quite nearly so, which for Cuba (that land of many problems and the tendency to exaggerate the possibilities, +/o progress of the solutions), is close enough.

By day, we fished and snorkeled to the throwback sounds of horse carriages clip clopping across the bridge overhead. By night, we made Godzilla-sized shadow puppets to candlelight on the underside of that same bridge. It was especially marvelous at night, that beneath-the-bridge spot: as shiny cars sped turistas (see note 1) to Trinidad and pre-Cold War trucks rumbled towards Cienfuegos, their headlights picked out the arches of the cement span’s railing. Each individual arch illuminating and darkening in quick succession made it look like zippers of light revealing and concealing celestial secrets too fast for us mere mortals to grasp. It was a rapture of sorts.

Our food situation, on the other hand, was nothing short of dire. This area of Cuba, like others, is experiencing severe drought (see note 2). Even under the best of circumstances the only things that grow around here are mamoncillo, anon, and maribú (see note 3). What’s more, in spite of having all the right equipment and being the most enthusiastic fisherman to ever draw breath, my better half can’t fish for shit. Fit for bait was all he caught after days and nights of determined fishing. Pobrecito.

Luckily, we were saved by a combination of Cuban solidarity, which is de rigueur, and honesty, which is anything but. The first came in the form of chilindrón de chivo brought to us in a pint-sized ice cream container by our neighbors. The hubby had been fishing with them a couple of mornings already so they knew what we were up against. It wasn’t until we were licking the sauce from our fingers that my guy clued me in: we were eating that goat thanks to a bus that had brought the poor fella to its untimely (and hopefully swift) end earlier that day. A tip o’ the hat to the cook (and the driver) – that was hands down the most succulent goat I’ve had since Morocco and the tastiest road kill ever.

Cubans are, how shall I put it? Infamous for their honesty. It’s a complicated issue; way beyond the scope of this dashed off post about our little camping escapade, but let’s just say that my husband – he of the rough and tumble Pogolotti neighborhood – was skeptical at the prospect of abandoning camp in search of food.

‘The propane tank is going to get vicked. We have to camouflage it.’

I hated to point out that we could easily replace that standard tank on the underground market in Pogolotti or any number of Havana barrios just like it. Meanwhile, our killer Sierra Designs tent (over a decade old and still going strong) was quite another matter. Not to mention the ThermaRest mattresses, the snorkel sets, and Stew Leonard´s cooler which may be better traveled than you.

But hunger called, which was how we came to walk away from our temporary home, its entire contents free for the vicking.

We waited until the sun headed towards the horizon, when families 15-strong started carrying their giant iron pots crusty with chivo and congris, domino table and chairs, inflatable toys, and sleeping babies off the beach. Despite our growing anxiety at leaving camp, it was fun bearing witness to these end-of-day operations. I watched as one drunk grandpa had to be hefted onto to his son’s broad back from where he lay passed out on the sand. The old sot hung there slack as a grade school backpack as his son picked his way up the vertical rusted ladder that connected the bridge to the beach.

As the sky shot pink and purple through the fading blue, we made our move. Jumping in the car, we drove a handful of kilometers up the road, to the seaside hamlet of Yuagananbo. There, high above the road built into the side of a mountain of rock, is a casa particular with rooms for $6 a night and meals for two.

My husband was as nervous as a guajira touching down at MIA, her packet of ‘definitive exit’ papers in trembling hand, the farther we got from Río Hondo.

‘Should we go back?’ he asked.

And eat what?

‘Let’s get the food to go,’ he said.

We’re already here. If they’re gonna steal stuff, they’re probably already at it. Let’s enjoy ourselves.

Which is exactly what we did: gorging on pork chops and rice, salad and plantains, washed down with provincial tap water that would undoubtedly reacquaint me with my old friend giardia (see note 4). I didn’t care. We were gone about an hour and a half. Upon our return we peeked around the pylons. It reminded me of that feeling you get when you bound down the stairs and through the door in New York or San Francisco to find your bicycle no longer chained to the pole where you left it. We held our breath briefly, unconsciously before realizing not one tent pole or pot holder in our camp had been touched.

The next day, we took it a step further. We had to. This time we left early in the morning and made our way 20 kilometers down the road to Trinidad and the promise of a market. It was a dicey proposition not only for the length of time we’d be gone, but more so since it was Sunday. Markets close early on Sunday. Worse, every single Cuban that is able to get to the beach on any given summer Sunday does. Río Hondo would be mobbed. Already the ’56 Chevy’s and loaded down horse carts were disgorging baseball team-sized families near our camp. But we are, when all is said and done, people of faith (which can probably be said for the majority of people who choose to remain in Cuba -although they might not call it that). So we left.

Trinidad was good to us – which isn’t always the case. In spite of being a gorgeous colonial town and World Heritage Site with white sand beaches within easy cycling distance, it has a rep. Women hold infants begging for milk (in spite of state rations until age 7 and a nationwide breastfeeding program with WHO-certified hospitals for teaching same), children plead for pens and candy, and spousal-hunting is a recreational sport – in Trinidad, they’re on you like white on rice. T plates or no. But we laid in a slab of pork and some okra, a couple of avocadoes, onions, string beans, and limes with nary a ‘hey fren! Where you from?’ to be heard. A few stares gripped me as I wolfed down a paper cone of chicharrones, (my guilty pleasure), and a strapping dude offered my husband a private room as he sucked down a cold Bucanero, but that was it. We even visited my old friend who’s living large since I listed her house in the edition of the Lonely Planet guide I wrote.

But after four hours, it was time to head back to camp. When we got there the beach was in full summer swing with folks launching themselves off the bridge into ‘Deep River’ and couples necking in the shallows between pulls on a plastic bottle of cheap rum. Hubby’s foot was heavy on the pedal as we neared. I laid a hand on his thigh.

‘Don’t worry.’

Famous last words, which in this case turned out to be true: our camp, once again, was undisturbed though scores of people frolicked about. My guy prepared a tasty pork chop feast and as I dug in watching the lightening storm on the horizon, I was happy that the human race could surprise me like that and happy still, that I live in Cuba. Now had we been camped 20 kilometers from Havana…

Notes

1. In Cuba, rental cars brand tourists via telltale scarlet letter ‘T’ plates. There is no “passing” with one of these babies, though I often wonder what happens to Cuban Americans who roll up with T plates. Do they get the same hustle and show as the rest of us? The same offerings of lobster dinner, private rooms, and pretty young girls from ‘frens‘ trotting alongside the moving car in bad Ed Hardy knock offs? More interesting still, what happens to Cuban Cubans – those who live here – who pull up in a T job? It’s only fairly recently that these folks have been allowed to rent cars and I wonder whether it’s splintering the social hierarchy even further? And if so, is this is a move towards normalcy or away?

2. Ironically enough, three of the 10 (or 12 or 16, depending on your source) golf courses underpinning Cuba’s new tourism strategy are strung along the coastal stretch of which I write.

3. The last is a nasty, invasive, thorn-studded mess that reaches tree proportions and blankets huge swaths of the island’s arable land. Anón (which tempts me to make a writerly joke about unattributable fruits or nameless queers) is something you can find in your exotic fruit section but for which the name in English escapes me. Readers? Mamoncillo, on the other hand, I have only seen in Cuba. It’s a cherry-sized fruit encased in a thin green shell; its slimy texture and unremarkable flavor is reminiscent of a lychee nut. In the summer, Cubans of all sizes and stripe walk the beaches and streets clutching leafy branches heavy with the fruit; they peel and suck (mamoncillo literally means ‘little sucker’) the flesh around the pits which they spit out wherever.

4. I’ve had giardia twice already in eight years here. To be fair, once I caught it in a Pakistani tea shop while covering the Cuban docs working there post-quake so that doesn’t count, but this nasty microbe does like our water. Most Cubans I know have had it. So my traveling friends: don’t drink the water unless it’s treated, boiled or bottled.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, cuban cooking, environment, Travel to Cuba

Chicharrones are a Drug

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Cracklings, lardons, chicharrones – I don’t care what you call them, fried pork rinds are a drug and should be regulated. At least over here in Havana where I’m double fisting my way to a quadruple bypass. I scare myself, so untamed is my gluttony for these nuggets of greasy bliss. They really are narcotic and I got hooked quick, which is what the best drugs do…

I’d lived quite a while in Cuba – years already – without thinking twice about chicharrones. I’d had them here, there, and elsewhere, but I wasn’t impressed. Like salty poofs with the carne flavor twice removed. What I didn’t know is that the chicharrones I had been eating all those years are known as chicharrones de viento. Loosely translated to mean salty poofs with the meat sabor twice removed.

Imagine my surprise to learn then, that a completely different category – an entirely different universe of chicharrones! – exists out there just waiting for me to discover it. And I have.

For the uninitiated, my new vice are chunks of pork rind and fat – ideally with a Chiclet of meat on top – fried in their own grease. I have an addictive personality, I admit (with the caveat that I’m convinced it’s genetic) but the ferocity with which I was/am hooked is frightening. There was no desire phase. Things went straight to I need it, now. Euphoria? None. In fact, I sicken myself with each sinful square and body and mind are conscious of it, complicit.

I know there are people out there who can relate.

I was in the Yucatan some months ago with the fried pork monkey riding my back like a freckle. In the supermercado they sell 25 different kinds of rinds – from the poofs to something approximating the junk I craved. The latter, while good, were just this side of mass produced. Tasty, but processed, if only a little. Counting my blessings (after all, even a cut drug controls the jones), I left the store, crossed the street and found myself facing a simple kiosk manned by a big, jolly Yucatecan mama carving up all things pig. Ears, entrails, loin and yes. Yes.

I waited my turn making the small talk you make while waiting on line in Latin America. When I was up, I told the jolly mama what I wanted. She looked at me knowingly. Knowingly I tell you! and started heaping the glistening squares onto a swath of newspaper with her bare hands. ‘How much do I owe you?’ I asked as she bundled up the goods. ‘Nothing, it’s on the house.’ Just like a dealer: the first taste is free so you’ll be back, hankering for more.

Not long after, we were at a family celebration here in Havana following the usual script: catching up, sharing stories and a big meal, wrapping up with smokes and singing if Octavio or Jorge feels like pulling out the guitar. On the day in question, we were at the smokes part when the neighbors invited us over for a round of dominoes. When we made our way to the back yard, there was rum and dominoes of course and a platter piled high with empella. Oh my.

Methadone is to heroin what chicharrones are to empella.

What’s so special? Not much – they’re simply super chiquito chicharrones. The stuff I craved cut up really small. Now that I think about it, now that I’m practically dry dreaming of empella, I realize it wasn’t just their diminutive size. It was that each morsel had the little Chiclet of meat on top, which when coupled with the deep fried fat on the bottom…dry dream turns wet.

So I’m just back from Haiti. And although I made three simple welcome home requests (‘salad, salad, salad’), my hubby surprised me with not only an ensalada gigante, but yucca with mojo and a bowl brimming with homemade chicharrones. What a guy (and that’s just the G-rated portion of our programming)!

A couple of days later, my sister-in-law was butchering a quarter pig when she sawed off a huge slab of rind and fat bejeweled with those key cling ons of meat. Now I get my fix right at home.

And home feels very, very good right now.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad