Running out of luck in Trinidad, Cuba.
In the Cuban town of Trinidad, the comforts worth travelling for are en la casa, writes JOHN IRVING.
Julio is waiting for me at the huge blue door of a colonial-era house in Trinidad, on the south coast of Cuba. It’s a casa particular, or B&B, and Julio is the grandson of Señora Riselda Miranda Gomez, the owner. He’s dressed in army camouflage and a Fidel Castro cap. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s only five years old, you’d think he’d just come down from the Sierra Maestra.
Once inside, I nickname him “pequeño Comandante Julio”, little commander, and everyone laughs: Riselda, her daughter Jamylady – Julio’s mother – and her son Roberto, a guitarist who spends his days strumming in the rear courtyard and his nights performing at the Casa de la Música on the other side of town.
For centuries Trinidad was relatively isolated from the rest of the island – the railway arrived here as late as 1919 – and the town still keeps very much to itself and its traditions.
Take cocktails. Havana has the Daiquiri, the Mojito and the Piña Colada; Trinidad has Canchánchara, a blend of rum, soda water, lime juice and honey served in an earthenware copa. It’s named after the place that invented it, the taberna La Canchánchara, just off the Plaza Mayor, which is where I’m headed after a morning’s sightseeing.
“Una Canchánchara, por favor,” I ask the waiter. His muttered reply includes the words “limón” and “malo”. The limes are off, and so is the Canchánchara.
For lunch, I’m looking forward to another Trinidad speciality, the signature chicken dish at the Restaurante El Jigüe, at the end of the same street as the taberna.
“¡No hay pollo!” declares the waiter with disarming candour. We’re out of chicken. Never mind: since pollo El Jigüe apparently consists of shredded chicken in tomato sauce with cheese on a bed of spaghetti, maybe skipping lunch is a blessing in disguise.
I’ve booked dinner at the Trinidad Colonial restaurant, which, according to one guide, is known for its “renowned international cuisine”. Housed in the pretty Casa Bidegaray, a 19th-century patrician palacio, it looks like a dream but turns out to be a nightmare. My filete de pescado a la criolla, which I imagine as tropical and fragrant, instead turns out to be scraps of an unspecified fish in a red glop. The glum waiter’s attention appears to be on other things. Maybe she’s more concerned with making it home in the dark – it’s raining, and the cobbled streets are pockmarked with potholes.
I catch a glimpse of a man wearing a toque in the kitchen. I presume he made the meal but I wouldn’t bet he was a chef.
I ask for the fruit salad. “¡No hay frutas!” I’m told.
It’s an unforgettable evening.
Back at the casa, Señora Gomez is watching television – the usual nightly archive footage of La Revoluciòn. Her impressions are more Hollywood than Havana.
“How handsome they were,” she says of the barbudos on the screen. ‘‘I once saw Fidel in the flesh. He got married here in Trinidad. Muy guapo!” Very handsome.
The next morning, she prepares a breakfast of dazzling variety: disquito de queso blanco, a cream-cheese toasted sandwich, with scrambled eggs, followed by guayaba jelly, manì, or peanut butter, pineapple juice, plantains, bread, honey, and café de montaña, mountain coffee, from the Sierra del Escambray nearby. And, later, Jamylady mixes me a proper thirst-quenching Canchánchara with ice.
The matriarchs treat me to a masterclass in hospitality, and I learn a little something about Cuba. Here, it seems, home is where the heart is.