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We’re in the school newspaper!

6 Feb

We’re in the school newspaper!

Vivero Alamar was highlighted in an article I wrote for Elon’s student newspaper, The Pendulum, this week, where I focus on the farm and Cuba’s transformation into a sustainable agriculture and organic farming hub.

The article was in both the print and online versions of the paper.


Food in Cuba, Part One: Oh, Those Tourist Traps: Hotels and Restaurants

3 Feb

There are so many things that make Cuba Cuba. Our website,, only highlighted a fraction of the amazing things we saw. Although the website spotlighted the farm we visited, we experienced many other scenes just as vivid as what you see there.

So much of our project was about food, which is the end product of the majority of what was produced on the farm. Being tourists, we got to experience the best of what Cuba has to offer. This is the first of two posts on the food we ate in Cuba, this one focusing on the touristy, hotel meals we had. After the jump are some of the things I (or we) ate.

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Anthony Bourdain’s Cuba vs Our Cuba

13 Jan

Although I watched Anthony Bourdain’s Cuba episode of “No Reservations” before the trip, it didn’t register until now, when I rewatched it in preparation of this post.

Everything Bourdain says is true. Cuba is beautiful, absolutely gorgeous, but in a very unique way, much like the country itself. Nearly everything has a coat of rust, a sense of dilapidation about it, but the cracks and faded colors are as much a part of the country as the wrinkles and bad teeth of some of the inhabitants. Cuba’s unique situation — an educated but poor country, whose citizens are forbidden to travel and largely do not have Internet access — has given it that “frozen in time” look, a phrase often repeated, but the citizens are as modern and forward-thinking as you would find in other, more developed countries.

This episode both opens and closes with baseball, Cuba’s national pastime. Although we did not get the opportunity to witness a game, we did pass by the Estadio Latinoamericano, where the Industriales play. Like everything else in Cuba, the stadium is run down — buildings like this, especially such a public one, would never get into half as bad a shape if this was in the U.S. Like Bourdain points out (37:00), things don’t work, and food options are essentially nonexistent, but that’s not the point; it’s what makes Cuba Cuba. By far the most interesting thing in the whole episode (22:54) are the professional augmenters, fans licensed by the government to hang around and debate baseball. These are the guys who need their own show.

Anthony Bourdain and “No Reservations” is of course primarily about food. Although we were both tourists and so could only eat in specific places, Bourdain’s experience was far more luxurious than ours, and he admits as such. The restaurants we were taken to, mostly in Old Havana, where we stayed, were geared to tourists — their prices were in CUCs, Cuban’s tourist currency (yep, there’s a different, and far less valued, local currency known as Cuban pesos), and often menu descriptions were in English in addition to Spanish. He highlights specific restaurants and mentions Spanish food, all while discussing Cuba’s situation with his fixers. No fixers for us, but we’ll have more on the food we ate in upcoming posts.

Bourdain briefly mentions Old Havana at the 26 minute mark, a neighborhood both extremely touristy yet meant to be a local hubbub. Indeed, despite all the tourist restaurants, a block or two off the main roads yields “real Cuba” — although real Cubans are everywhere. Bourdain stays at the famous Hotel Nacional (12), which is where all the famous people stay. The hotel even has a wing dedicated to all the entertainers, heads of state, businessmen and athletes who have stayed there. Anthony Bourdain was not listed.

Cuban food may not be well known outside of rice and beans (which he does sample), but they are gaining a reputation in the organic farm world, which is what we were there for. He visits a bustling city market (13:01), quite different from what was essentially a little farmstand near the entrance of Vivero Alamar, but the food’s the same, as is the curiosity that everyone brings their own plastic bags.

One food none of us sampled, to my knowledge, was tamales, which is the street food Bourdain craves. We did pass vendors selling pastries (ask Rachel about that delicious coconut ball I regrettably didn’t buy), most of which we couldn’t identify.

Man, I am getting hungry, and I’m really jonesing for one of those coconut balls. They’ll be more posts about food on our trip, next time with pictures!

The Pearl of the Antilles Through a Boy’s Eyes — Cuba in 1941 (Pt. 3)

5 Dec

This is the last post by Neff’s father, Robert, on his time in Cuba in 1941.

Our two-car cavalcade pulled to a stop in front of a beautiful colonial building identified by a sign at its entrance as “Sevilla-Biltmore.” Inside there was a tree- and flower-festooned restaurant, which opened upward through the apartments on four sides. Ours was three stories above that patio, so I could look down into it at night when the music drifted upward – or I could watch strollers on the Prado from our shuttered front windows. It all seemed pretty glamorous to a ten-year-old boy. There were fluffy towels – fresh each day – and bougainvillea flowers in vases atop all the flat surfaces. Food was rushed up from the kitchens below whenever we called for it, and everything they prepared was new and different to me. My favorite was quickly identified as Picadillo a la Cubana (Cuban hash) which was ground beef laced heartily with peppers, onions, tomatoes and garlic. The aroma was stupefying! The taste was even better.

A few days after we had unpacked and gotten used to the apartment routine, the black Buick took us on a three-hour drive to the east – to a place called Veradero, which I learned was on a projection of land called the Hicacos Peninsula. The du Pont family from Delaware had a big house there, where we had dinner after walking on the whitest beach I had ever seen. All of the men smoked rich-smelling cigars after dinner, and when I asked where they came from they laughed and said that Cuba was home to the world’s finest cigar factories. I got to visit one of them later, and was amazed at the process. People at tables selected aromatic, long brown leaves to roll together, and they continually licked the leaves as they did so, to help them bind. After one experimental “lick” I was convinced it was a job I didn’t want! But my Dad became a devotee of Cuban cigars and I have always associated that aroma with his celebrations of special events.

That same black Buick came each weekend to take us to a succession of Cuban sites, from the great Bacardi Rummery to pineapple plantations to the wonderful colonial government buildings, including a white and gold-trimmed Presidential Palace where President Fulgencio Batista had his offices. During the week, we wandered down narrow streets, where activities were secreted behind walls which extended all the way to the curbside, making it difficult for cars and pedestrians to pass one another. We could peek inside at homes, tiendas and little bodegas, all hidden when their heavy wooden doors were closed at nightfall, but exposed and lively during the day. Of course, we got to visit the Morro Castle and many of the harbor buildings, and to listen to stories about Havana’s early history. One weekend was dedicated to the story of the Arawak Indians, who preceded Columbus’ discovery of Cuba and who were dispersed by the Spanish Conquistadors.

There was an American School in Havana, where I started classes a month or so after our arrival. Most of the students were the children of American businessmen or diplomats – and most of those were older than I. I preferred playing in the park or skating on the Prado with the Cubanos of my age who I met easily. From them I acquired a working knowledge of their language and a good sense of the area’s geography. Both helped me to take my parents to local restaurants and to decipher the menus. Soon we were comfortable in Havana and making plans to entertain my aunts at Christmas 1941.

Alas – that did not happen, nor did the refinery get built. On Sunday, December 7th, my Mom called me in from the Prado and told me to pack quickly. In answer to my question “Why?” I was told hurriedly that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. (I assumed that Pearl was one of the many visiting American ladies who had too many Cuba Libres at Sloppy Joe’s on Saturday nights, and couldn’t connect that to a need for me to pack on a beautiful Sunday.) Once I got a few answers, I understood that the wars in Europe and Asia had finally converged upon America, and my father was being rushed back to begin addressing the country’s need for lots of aviation fuel. We boarded a destroyer and sailed at high speed out into the open sea beyond Morro Castle. This time there were no gaping passengers on deck, but I took a last glance back at The Pearl of the Antilles.

The Pearl of the Antilles Through a Boy’s Eyes – Cuba in 1941 (Pt. 2)

3 Dec

This is the second post as told from the perspective of Neff’s father, Robert, who was in Cuba in 1941 as a youngster.

A month earlier, my father had returned home at the end of his work day in a large petroleum products’ refinery on the banks of the Delaware River and told us we would soon be spending time in Cuba. He was the general manager of that nearby refinery, and I figured that he was pretty good at his work because I had heard him speak for the US oil industry at the Petroleum Building of the New York World’s Fair. He had explained that the war in Europe was disrupting the international flow of petroleum products, as the Germans’ submarines were sinking many tankers and freighters. Now he was telling my Mom and me that President Roosevelt was proposing the construction of a new refinery in Cuba, from which product could be moved to many points in the USA without chancing hostile submarines in the Atlantic shipping lanes. He was to research the refinery project – and we were going along to Cuba while he worked there.

Initially, I was a bit miffed by the changed family plans, because at age 10, I was entering the highest grade in Billingsport Elementary School, and now I’d be missing the chance that sixth-graders always got to be the big shots there. However, as our ship cozied up to its dock, I could already hear music in the distance and see bright flowering vines climbing trellises everywhere. Those kids diving for coins were replaced by others offering to show us the sights of Havana or playing stringed instruments and singing in a language which was new to me. There was enthusiasm everywhere, and I decided this was going to be a great adventure. Maybe even better than the sixth grade at Billingsport School.

My Dad was already talking with a gentleman whose black Buick – with a driver – had come right down to the dock. A porter was putting our luggage into another car, and my sightseeing was interrupted as I was asked to say hello to Mr. George Messerschmitt. Well – that’s what I thought his name was. It was easy to remember because Messerschmitts were the deadly German planes we saw in newsreels. About the third time I said his name wrong, my Mother corrected me softly – “It is Ambassador Messersmith, Bobby. He works for our government here and he’s taking us to our apartment to get us settled in.” We piled into the second car and headed into Havana. The cities I knew were Philadelphia and New York – but this was different!

For one thing, the traffic was chaotic. Cars moved aggressively through knots of pedestrians, horse-drawn wagons, unsteady bicycles and hawking vendors. Police on little stands wearing crisp uniforms directed the traffic grandly and no one seemed to pay any attention to them. After a few minutes our car turned onto Paseo el Prado, which I learned later marked the division between “Old Havana” and “Centro Havana.” The Prado, as it was called, had a broad, tree-lined walkway running between the opposite directions of traffic. The walkway was inlaid with tiles in intricate patterns, and handsome marble benches outlined its route. Well-dressed people walked under the trees or read newspapers on the benches, but kids on rollerskates darted through the strollers, taking advantage of the acceleration which the Prado’s downward slope provided. This was to become one of my favorite pastimes in Havana – skimming down the Prado’s length and hopping over the curbs with Hector Comacho, who taught me well.

We passed the Parque Central – not quite so large as New York’s Central Park, but filled with beautiful palm trees – and then the driver stopped at the intersection with Zuletta Street and pointed to a low building with arches along the sidewalk. “Sloppy Joe’s Bar,” he said with a sly smile to my parents, who nodded knowingly. It was the gathering place for most adventurous foreigners visiting Havana, all hoping to catch a glimpse of Ernest Hemmingway sipping a Cuba Libre (Bacardi Rum plus Coca Cola and a sliced lime.) Lots happened at Sloppy Joe’s, but it was not for ten-year-olds. Neither were the gaming casinos and teeming nightclubs which were attracting so many Americans to Havana in 1941. My new home was the “IN” place for tourism.