Blogs > News-Herald Food and Travel

Food and travel captivate Janet Podolak, who chronicles both for The News-Herald. Get the back story of her three decades of stories here. Guest bloggers and fellow News-Herald staffers also periodically share details of their trips.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Cuban anthem to Jose Marti heard all over Havana

Floral tributes to Cuban poet and hero Jose Marti were placed in front of his statue on the May 19 anniversary of his death in 1895. My Havana hotel, the Ingleterra, is shown in the background. Words to "Guanatamera," from   Marti's poems, have made the song into an anthem that's heard everywhere.  
I heard the song Guantanamera everywhere during my recent visit to Cuba - sung on street corners, in pubs and in Havana's many squares. I recalled the Sandpipers version, but until I went there didn't know it's become a virtual anthem in Cuba. Its lyrics are based on the poetry collection "Versos Sencillos" by Cuban poet and independence hero Jose Marti.

Marti's writing got him in serious trouble for the first time in 1869 when he wrote passionately about his support of the rebels during the Ten Years’ War. Cuban landowners were seeking independence from Spain and wanted  to free the slaves. Marti, who was only 16 at the time,  was convicted of treason and sedition and sentenced to six years’ labor. His parents' intervened and got his sentence reduced after a year, but he was exiled to Spain. The irons he was held in scarred his legs for the rest of his life.

Statues of Marti are all over Havana, including in the center of a leafy square opposite the hotel where I stayed the first two nights. The entire neighborhood dates from the era in which  Marti lived and on the May 19 anniversary of his death in 1895 bouquets of flowers emerged from nowhere around the base of that statue. Havana’s main airport is the José Martí International Airport, his Jan. 28 birthday  still is celebrated and various postage stamps featuring Martí have been issued over the years  Cuban exiles in Miami and the Castro regime in Cuba   even argue over his “support:” both sides claim that if Martí were alive today he would support their side of the long-running feud. Click above to hear it now as sung from a rooftop at an outdoor restaurant in Havana.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Gifts brought home from Cuba

This necklace, crafted from a silverplated fork left behind when Batista supporters fled Cuba in 1960 , was  something I bought at a craft market near downtown Havana.

No I didn't buy any cigars or bring back any of Cuba's delicious rum. I couldn't legally even bring back coffee, which I found to be rich and full bodied.

Works of art and handcrafts are the only things Americans can bring back from Cuba because of the U.S. embargo.

Cubans will gladly sell us those things but if we're caught smuggling them into the USA the penalties are harsh.

Each of the six members of our group were offered a cigar after a delightful rooftop meal in a downtown Havana paladar, a restaurant established in a home. The building had been owned since 1929 by our host Mickey's grandfather and operated as a restaurant by his parents. He played professional baseball with the Cuba National team  until retiring several years ago to go into the family business.
After Mickey clipped the ends of each of our cigars and showed us how to get it started we all tried to smoke it without inhaling.

I nearly choked on the taste and I think I may have turned green, but some of our group members seemed to enjoy it. I left it in the ashtray when I finished my dessert.

The next day we visited a huge arts and crafts  market the size of a football field near the waterfront where I ended up buying some paintings and a necklace, pictured above, that reminds me of an octopus, one of my favorite underwater creatures.

It's made of a silverplated fork, cutlery left behind when the rich supporters of Batista got out of town after the revolution that brought Castro to power. We were told that their estates fell into the hands of their servants, which live in them to this day. The silverware was confiscated by the government which held it until a few years ago. That's when they released it to crafters for making into jewelry.

The young woman who sold it to me spoke excellent English and told me that she had previously  worked as a teacher of English to elementary school teachers, working for the state. But she said she's doing much better financially making and selling her jewelry in this crafts market. While teaching she earned about $15 a month. She makes much more now selling the necklaces and bracelets for $7 each. She still has her state health insurance, as  everyone does,  but now that she's on her own she is no longer eligible for the paid sick leave she'd be paid for several months as a state employee. She also has a home, paid for by the government, and her children are getting a good education, she said. Class sizes are, however, about 40 students to one teacher.

 And if she should become ill she'd be in a precarious economic condition. So, she said, she is saving more than half of everything she makes.

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Monday, May 26, 2014

Just back from Cuba

That's me in an old car serving as a taxi in Havana.  
A week without cell phone,  internet, or credit cards in Cuba underscores the profound impact those things have on our lives here in America. They've so fully permeated our existence we barely realize it until time is spent without them.

Cubans in downtown Havana wait in line to inquire about getting cell phone service.

It's not that they aren't allowed there, but the Cuban infrastructure doesn't support them very well.

The biggest crowd I saw in Havana was not at a soccer game but outside the cell phone company. Despite the fact that a Cuban young person's greatest expense is for cell phone and internet, many people want both.

I expected a Communist police state, abject poverty,  rundown buildings and lots of old cars. I found a socialist society in which every Cuban gets free health care, free education through college, lifetime housing, a guaranteed job and a monthly allotment of food. I found music everywhere, gorgeous well kept architecture, and a happy exuberant populace proud of their land and eager to share it.  Workers in Cuba earn about $15 a monthly and more than 90% of them work for the state. But almost everyone has a side job in which tips from visitors boost their income. That sheds a new light on poverty.

Many of the old cars dating from the 1950s serve as taxis for visitors, and many are beautifully restored. But there also are plenty of cars just like the 10-year old Toyota I drive along with several types of Russian-made vehicles

Since the U.S. embargo, which began in 1960, American have not been permitted to go there and to spend U.S. dollars. In recent years that prohibition has been relaxed and we can go to Cuba legally on person-to-person visits. I'm just back from such a trip framed around culinary Cuba. US citizens also go there illegally, traveling through Toronto, Jamaica or another country for which Cuba travel is not prohibited. Canadians have been taking winter vacations there for years, and whether they come legally or illegally, Americans are the second greatest number of visitors. Although on the surface the prohibition doesn't seem to be strictly enforced, the penalties can be severe, both in terms of fines  and jail time.
I'll be writing lots more about Cuba and what I discovered there so I hope you will follow this blog and my travel sections, which run the second Sunday of each month.

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Headed to Cuba

The I'm soon headed to Cuba on a legal people-to-people study trip flying from Miami. Most go there illegally from Toronto, Jamaica or another Caribbean island, since Americans have been permitted legally with only a few licensed operators.

Im expecting to be restricted more than the  illegal travelers who can rent cars, smoke Cuban cigars and drink the rum - all things I expect are unlikely on the licensed trip. Those going illegally brag about how cheap Cuba is, how nice the beaches are and its lively nightlife. My Canadian friends, who can travel to Cuba legally and have been doing so for years, also speak of how inexpensive it is and how friendly the people are. My friend Judy suggested I bring guitar strings and Advil which are hard to get in Cuba and will help me make friends.

It's not cheap to go legally since there are licensing fees which are passed along to the traveler.

The study aspect is culinary, which is right up my alley. We'll be going to a cooking school and farmers' market, meeting chefs, producers, and restaurateurs. I know very little about the group I will be joining, except that it is a small one with just a dozen people and the tour operator is a reputable one.

I'll  be learning the ins and outs of both types of travel and will be writing about it in coming weeks. I wont be taking my laptop because I'm not expecting to find wi-fi, so for the next week or so I'll be off the grid, just  taking notes and photos the old fashioned way. But it's worked for me in the past, so stand by to share what I discover.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Memorial Day weekend with Civil War

Learned a lot while talking to Civil War reenactors for the story that will run Monday about the Memorial Day weekend encampment and reenactment of the Battle of the Wilderness at Lake County History Center. I learned from Gary Dunn that development of rifles in the latter years of the Civil War helped the North immensely. Muskets,  which were used early in the war, were a smooth bore weapon and why what's called Napoleonic tactics developed for fighting. That's when soldiers line up toe to toe in a straight line and march forward firing at their enemy, which was likewise lined up opposite them. Rifles, which have barrels with grooves, Dunn told me, had a range of 100 yards and would allow soldiers to fight individually and take cover behind trees and buildings. And from Greg VanWeys I learned there are many similarities between the terrain at the history center and that of the Battle of the Wilderness, so that is part of the reason they chose to renenact it at 2 p.m. both Saturday May 24 and Sunday May 25.  It's been choreographed   by commanders and officers on both Confederate and Union sides among the reenactors so it's authentic but neither spectators or participants will get hurt.
I thought I knew something about the Civil War but these guys put me to shame. Check out the story on Monday and you'll probably find out a few things too. Better yet go to the history center on Memorial Day weekend. The good folks there have lots of food and fun planned for the weekend, with activities for all.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Its cable cars the original San Francisco treat

A  cable car makes it way up San Francisco's Hyde Street leaving the Fisherman's Wharf neighborhood behind 

There’s rarely time enough to experience all of San Francisco, so I chose my free time carefully when I was recently in town for a conference.
Riding the cable car is always near the top of my list, so when I discovered that San Francisco is now part of the CityPASS program I jumped at the opportunity. The program collects must-see attractions and bundles them with unlimited Cable Car rides plus  Muni buses and rail for seven days. It also includes a one-hour Bay cruise, an aquarium visit and a visit to either the Exploratorium or the de Young Museum.
So folks like me, in town for a conference, can make the best use of whatever free time is available.
I checked into the Mystic Hotel by Charlie Palmer on Union Square, grabbed a map and discovered the cable car line was really close. What’s more, CityPASS had left a ticket book for me with the front desk. I had a really bad cold and wanted nothing more than to hop into bed, but I just couldn’t resist the cable car.
So I walked a few flat blocks to reach the tracks, alternating Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde cable cars. The two lines split  on the other side of Nob Hill at Washington and Mason near the Cable Car Museum and each went its own way toward Fisherman’s Wharf. I was on the Powell-Hyde line which ended up closer to Ghiradelli Square.

The city’s cable car line dates to 1873 when metal rope manufacturer Andrew Hallidie  felt sorry of the overworked horses carrying passengers up and down the city’s many hills and invented a better way. The cable cars became so popular  that at one time eight companies operated a total of 22 lines in San Francisco.
Today there are 41 cable cars in service each with a capacity of 60 people. In a year, more than 7 million people ride the cable cars.
Eleven miles of cable runs beneath the city’s streets, moving at a steady 9.5 miles-an- hour. Each car is operated by a grip and a conductor, the grip operating  the device that grasps hold of the moving cable beneath the street to haul the car uphill. He and the conductor operate the brakes to slow the cars down on their downhill run.
The grade is 17 percent over Nob Hill and 21 percent along Hyde Street, so it’s definitely a fine option to walking and a bit of a thrill ride for kids.
It was a fine spring day and I wanted to be among those hanging onto the car’s upright poles to ride on the outside of the car. As another car approached, the grip warned us to suck it in so as not to sideswipe the passengers hanging onto the approaching car. But my cold caused a fit of coughing and soon I was back inside sitting safe and secure on a wooden seat as other passengers moved away from me.
Stops are every few blocks and passengers need to watch for cars as they disembark.
I got off at the Cable Car Museum, which is where  the cars arrive and depart daily. One can look down onto pulleys which thread the cable through big figure-eights and back into the system The museum also has one of the very first cable cars and exhibits  which show how it operates. A fine little gift shop offers unique souvenirs, including a cable car  bell I now have on a wall next to my back door.
Learn more about cable cars and other San Francisco treats at  Read the May 11 Travel to discover  a walking tour of of one of the city's oldest city neighborhoods.

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