(Chickens mi tia hustled up for us to eat during our visit in 1999)
By now I’m sure you’ve been religiously watching the 7th season of the vastly popular Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. This season [promises to be] filled with lovely landscapes of many countries I’d love to visit and do what I do best: eat and talk (and wear high heels!).
As the season progresses, The season premiere, set in in Cuba, was no different than his previous episodes for which he’s clutched himself well-deserved Emmys. They’ve all been catchy, engaging and excellently produced. Each installment, cleverly shot, leaves you wanting to go and experience the place for yourself. If like me (and my dad), you actually want Bourdain’s job!
It came as no surprise then that he’d finally make it to Havana, of all places. The forbidden pearl of the Caribbean. From a success POV, it makes TV sense: unbreakable regime, abhorred dictatorship to many, inaccessible island to most and glorious to so many others. Those elements translate into high ratings.
As the show aired, my family and I watched it together bi-coastly in high hopes of Anthony accurately illustrating the island, more specifically, our home city that is torn apart in so many ways. For the sake of not belaboring points already highlighted by my father in his review of the show, I’ll be more frank. But before I do that, I would love to thank those who read my dad’s piece. I liked how he penned his thoughts and am grateful for the response all of you gave him.
Papi made sense. But he was far too kind to Mr. Bourdain. Don’t get me wrong, No Reservations is my favorite food and travel show. Hands down. As for my father’s recap, I recognize he has a more intimate connection to Cuba. After all, he was 29 when he left. I was barely 2. But our passionate feelings for the island aren’t watered down by generational gaps or a disparity in our respective luxuries. Rather, we share the same ardent emotions but express them in our own personal ways colored by our individual experiences.
My father hasn’t been to Cuba in over 30 years. I was there 10 years ago for the second time. And truthfully, my personal encounter and experiences in Havana were nothing like Anthony portrayed.
(A street I walked for two weeks during a visit. My tia’s street in Cojimar, c. 2007)
So I have to ask, what is the truth? And why did Bourdain shy away from showing Cuba for what it really is? One of the commenters in the first installment of our assessment hit it spot on when she noted that Bourdain is usually very outspoken and open about the realities of the cities he jaunts. If you’re a regular viewer of No Reservations, you then know that Bourdain is not short for words. He tells it like it is. His Beirut show was very candid, very emotional. His show on Haiti was not very forgiving either. But I appreciated his “in your face” assessment of the situation in that country.
But he grossly failed to do that with Cuba. Of course, he was very clever in his opening VO disclaimer that this epi would be received with much criticism in some quarters. Well, yeah. You’re on the island with an American who is fascinated with beisbol and all of the other lovely things Cuba does offer. Of course, he’s going to see the “pretty,” if you will. But in sad reality, that’s just not what Cuba or Havana is about.
Sadly, Anthony did not show us in just terms what Cuba is really made of. He didn’t get to the gut of the city. To the neighborhoods where real people live -with the exception of a brief escapade to munch on a tamal from a street vendor. He didn’t talk to the woman that has to stand in line under a scorching sun to extract water from the pipa, the water truck that makes its rounds so people can get what they can — oh yeah, because there’s no running water as you and I know it. He had running water and electricity every day, all day — I’m sure of it — otherwise there’d be no lights to light the set; no tape to show his fans.
(El Morro en Cojimar, East Havana– a military lookout)
Let me just focus on food before I briefly touch on one other single important State matter he mentioned. I know for a fact that things have not gotten better. Not even since his visit in October 2010. Firsthand recounts from close Cuban friends who visit quite often and my paternal grandmother (whom just returned from a one month visit in June) indicate deteriorating conditions.
Food continues to be severely scarce and inaccessible. Sure, if you have fulas, American $$,you can buy pretty much anything that is available. But with average monthly wages documented at $16 USD, it’s hardly believable that the paladar, that quasi-privately owned home-based restaurant where Tony so cheerfully dined in, turns 200 guests per day. He even looked surprised considering the small and quaint size of the joint, holding only 16 guests at a time.
(Mi tia’s friend climbing a coconut tree in her yard for my mother to enjoy)
I was particularly happy to see the farmers’ markets! I wasn’t able to visit any while I was there. I do know the markets are growing and open to the general public. Great! But another omission by Tony and his journalist host is that you have to pay with American dollars. I won’t stretch the truth and claim every single market only allows dollars, but more of them require cash payment in greenbacks. If you’re slick, you can swindle your way around that. That’s what Cubans are about; a constant hustle for survival. Not owners of uber successful and NY-kinda busy wholes in the wall. Well, unless it’s endorsed by the government.
One such paladar would be La Guarida.
Back to those glorified paladares. I was remarkably interested in his take on them. What he failed to mention and totally glossed over, making them seem like the place to be, is that they are heavily taxed by the government and at a whim’s notice can be shut down by Castro. Much like my late maternal grandfather’s thriving dry cleaning business was stripped of operating licenses and equipment. That was in 1961, but seemingly not much has changed in the ways the government throws its weight around and exercises its power and discretion. Another case in point was a wildly popular paladar owned by a black woman– a family friend. Her guests: Hollywood stars. When I first entered her gorgeous and all decked-out home, I was kinda starstruck upon seeing portrait-sized framed images of A-list actors like Danny Glover. That paladar is no longer open. And not by choice.
Okay, maybe we can chalk that up to bad business. Maybe. But what about the infamous ration book that Bourdain mentions en breve as if it were normal and acceptable? As if the the majority of viewers knew what he referred to. While it is the norm for Cubans as they know it, in this free world, in 2011, how can any one rational person wrap their beautiful mind around the notion of being told what you’re going to eat each month?
Let me paint a bad yet true picture. If you have a child under the age of 2, you are given an allowance of a certain quantity of milk per month. No sooner than that child turns 2 years and 1 day, the milk allowance is removed from your card. Same goes for meat, poultry, eggs and many other staples.
But Bourdain didn’t expand on that. I’m talking food here, not politics.
I held one of these libretas during my 1st trip to abuelas’s house. My jaw dropped as I flipped through the faded cream pages and cringed at the idea that my late grandmother and living aunt were told what they could eat. My parent’s also had ration cards, so I’m sensitive to that omission in the show. If not listed in the ration card, your street hustle for food becomes an obvious, full-time job. A true story: My tia sold clothes we sent her in order to purchase a full-sized hog to feed us during our 14-day visit. Poor little pig was eventually slaugthered in the fly-infested backyard. Of course, I passed on eating swine, but I had plenty of chicken… the very chickens you see in that picture above–my tia’s personal hustle.
And somehow Bourdain was able to paint this colorful picture of a Cuba where food, “good food,” is accessible and readily available to enjoy. The mojitos in that swanky and aquatic-themed bar looked like the perfect libation, the arroz congri was was a perfect brown color and the lechon was succulent at the paladar. But my tia doesn’t eat like that every day, or even often, for that matter. And neither do her friends or her neighbors. Or anyone I came in close contact to the two times I’ve been there.
It’d be nice if they could regularly eat the very food that originated there. But the majority can’t.
( a traditional Cuban meal recently prepared by my brother’s new wife)
See, access to public establishments, usually occupied by international visitors, is not always open to natives. It may seem unreasonable and again unfathomable that one can not freely enter a local restaurant or hotel. But that is Cuba’s reality. And I experienced it. I was unceremoniously rejected and not allowed in La Bodeguita del Medio, one of Havana’s most famous restaurants, because I was mistaken for a native cubanita—yes, I was speaking Spanish. My aunt and I were also not allowed in The Nacional– the fancy hotel were Bourdain rested his head during his visit. I was simply allowed to take a picture standing hundreds of feet away.
I could go on and on about food and the dubious regard Bourdain had about “delicious” food, but I have to take issue with his bold and inaccurate assertion that the Revolution produced three good things: the preservation of old cars, education and free healthcare. (I have to admit here that, although partially in jest, he briefly mentioned that the three worst things the Revolution had delivered were breakfast, lunch and dinner.)
Like my father, I won’t make this a political statement. Just simply telling it like it is. When my grandmother died in 2005, an efficient ambulance response could have saved her life. But let’s assume her massive heart attack was untouchable by even the best medic. How about my dad’s cousin, who only in his late twenties and healthy as a stallion, died of pneumonia for lack of adequate treatment and medications? Sure, young people die of pneumonia in many other poor countries, but none claim, as a strident propaganda tool, to have one of the best health care systems in the world! I’m sure many of you cannot guess that any hospital admittance requires you bring our own light bulbs, sheets and other basic necessities. But he thinks healthcare was one of the good things the Revolucion gave the island.
Ahh, the wonders of the socialized, free healthcare so lauded by Bourdain!
I’m insulted. My grandmother died at the hands of that regime. My dad’s cousin died at the hands of that regime. And my aunt doesn’t have access to migraine medicine unless we send it to her.
(My late grandmother at age 19)
I echo my father’s sentiments in that the crafty and over-saturated video shots were appealing and so attractive that I couldn’t help but smile at the Euro-esque street they panned to. It was lovely for sure. It didn’t even look like Cuba, actually, it could have been any other Latin American city. Not one laden with broken up Chevy’s, kept together by “tape” and other scraps Cubans know how to creatively use. That’s the problem. That’s the Cuba for Tony and the likes. It’s not the Cuba I know or the Cuba my family on the island lives every day.
I suspect much of his decision to stay away from this gross and heart-breaking truth is to save face and keep the lines of communication open. I’m sure he’d like to go back. No one wants to be black-listed from entering a country. Plus, with the opening of Cuba very possible in the next decade, there’s no doubt it’ll again be the gem of the Caribbean, much like it was in the 40s…and 50s…an island Bourdain will likely want to revisit. After all, he did say it was one of the most beautiful cities he’s been to, and he’s been to a lot.
I was initially excited about watching the show and will admit I enjoyed watching it. But as I rewatched it over and over again, I couldn’t help but to feel the negligent disservice he’s done to you (if you watched). A star like Bourdain, one known for his witty mouth and point blank opinions, should not fear any repercussions in showing the good, the bad and the ugly. But he did in this case.
It’s TV, so I get it. I won’t say kudos to him for producing a severely skewed view of the island where I was born. But I do laud him for finding interest and charm in my people. We are a colorful and resilient bunch.
And because of this very sensitive episode, I just may finally make plans to go back this year. And then I’ll really show you what Cuba is all about… [that is, if the government let's me in after this post.]
With no reservation.