Thursday, January 24, 2008

Being Cuban for a Week

Okay, so I'm half-Cuban all the time. But, we went to visit my Miami Cuban family last week and I felt more Cuban then. Less Cuban, too, since I have barely any Spanish. We had a lovely time, anyway, and I was assured that I look exactly like a member of the family. We were warmly welcomed by my uncle & his partner. J says it's the best vacation she's ever been on and is ready to buy a condo down there. It was her first time to meet my uncle's partner, who is one of the most debonair men I've ever met. It was also her first time to meet my dad.

It had been very warm in Cleveland the week before we went, so I was satisfied to see the snow falling as we loaded our bags in the car. It's always more fun to leave for a trip to Florida when it's very cold in Ohio. Our trip was uneventful, which is always a blessing, until we arrived in Miami. We'd gotten an earlier flight out of Orlando and were looking forward to a little extra time in the sun. However, the rental car shuttle took an hour (and repeated phone calls) to come pick us up from the airport so we could rent our car. It took another chunk of time to get through the process and drive off in our Ford Taurus. Very understaffed and inefficient, not to mention the car being of a quality that it easily fit in no matter which bad section of Miami we entered. It looked somewhat out of place in the tony section of Miami Beach where my uncle lives, but we didn't get stopped by suspicious police, at least. My uncles gave us a warm welcome and we visited over wine and country pâté made by my uncle. He gave us a tour of his art and antiques, as well as introducing us to the cats, coconut palm, mango tree, key lime tree and orchids in his yard. It's amazing to me that there are such things right in his yard. What there aren't any of in his yard are lizards. J says there must be a certain radius around the house which is completely free of lizards because of the scads of outdoor cats my uncle has.

My dad came for dinner, my first time to see him in 10 years. Now that he is divorced, he seems more able to maintain relationships with family. I guess the 5-years-older-than-me wife was the deciding factor in his long second absence from my life. He is all kisses and "mi hija"s now, though. He brought a box full of baby bananas from the tree in his yard. As we were looking in the box, he pulled out a small jewelry box and said, "Oh, this must be for you." He'd gotten me a pair of 1/2 carat diamond studs. They are lovely, almost a blueish tint, but I don't really wear studs much. I put them on right away, of course, and may end up getting a second hole in each ear just so I can wear them. The sentiment behind the gift makes it even more special. We had wonderful lima bean soup that my uncle's partner made, along with real Cuban bread, for dinner. I love real Cuban bread and just can't find it north of Tampa. I am always griping to J about foods I can't get up here. After our visit, she believes me. I think her own personal "Why can't I get this in Ohio" food is churros. But, more on that later.

Tuesday, J made me a lovely plate of fresh fruits and cheese, with toast, for breakfast. We ate quickly and headed south to Monkey Jungle. I am deeply grateful for MapQuest and my good sense of direction. It was a long drive, but there was so very much to see. I love long drives for that very reason. Monkey Jungle was the only thing J really wanted to do while we were there. She left the rest in my hands. She loves monkeys, a girl after my mama's heart. Monkey Jungle is located in farm land, on a road crammed with tropical plant farms, fruit farms and even an alligator farm. As if Florida needs more of those! I will never forget the time several years ago that my mom & I drove through the Everglades and I counted 109 alligators! We paid our admission, bought boxes of dried fruit and entered the jungle. We saw all kinds of lusciously colored birds in cages and noticed that there were little monkeys running on the wire cage above us. The motto is "where humans are caged and monkeys run free" and the monkeys seem to have the humans well-trained, too! There are little food bowls hanging from chains all along the paths. The monkeys will rattle the chains or lower bowls to get people's attention. We then put food in the bowls and the monkeys quick eat it before others come and take it from them.

We attended a feeding session in the rain forest, where dozens of squirrel monkeys leapt onto a feeding stand and picked their favorites, bananas, peanuts and such. We were pelted with several empty peanut shells, but weren't, to our relief, peed or pooped on! Then, we saw more monkeys get fed at a pool of water. There was a tiny baby clinging to its mama there. Very cute. We saw an orangutan and a silverback gorilla go through their training routines. They say the silverback, King, likes to watch T.V. (Ellen DeGeneres and the Weather Channel being his favorites) and to dance when he's just doing whatever he likes. We spent hours looking at the spider monkeys & their very bizarre genitalia, the lemurs with the warning to stay back at least 5 feet, the tamarins with their beautiful orange fun and beautiful little faces.

When we'd finally had enough monkeys and J had gotten a monkey figurine made for her by a mold machine just like the ones she used to see at the zoo as a kid, we headed back to my uncle's. We paused for chocolate-covered strawberries and a fabulous fresh strawberry shake at a farm stand on the way. We had lunch at El Pollo Tropical, the Miami version of KFC with wonderful broasted chicken and delicious Cuban side dishes like yuca, plantains, black beans & rice. It's one of my dad's favorite places to eat and I had fond memories of it from my earlier Miami visits. Then, we popped in Wild Oats and got some cheeses, granola, beer and fruit to share at the house. I drove J along Ocean Drive, her first view of South Beach. She kept saying, "Look at that!" We kept driving along A1A until we reached Haulover Beach (not the nude section) and stopped to put our feet in the water. It was windy & cool, but kids were swimming, the parents bundled up and watching with big grins. I had to call my mama from the beach. Back at the house, we watched a DVD of my uncles' trip to Iguazul Falls in Brazil/Argentina while my uncle's partner cooked arroz con pollo for us. Yum! There was even flan for dessert.

Wednesday was V Day, with trips to both Vizcaya and Versailles. Vizcaya is a gorgeous villa built in the 19-teens by James Deering, one of the co-founders of International Harvester. We had some coffee in the tented gift shop, then went in to ogle the amazing furnishings and art. My favorite things were the views and the kitchens. It was fun to imagine the parties, the visitors, the house right after it was built. The very coolest thing was getting to see Samuel Yellin's work in person. He's a famous blacksmith my mom has talked about a lot and seeing his work, I can see why he became famous! Stunning! The bay out back was blue and beautiful. We had fun wandering through the gardens, especially when we saw girls having pictures taken for their quinces. Vizcaya is one of the favorite spots in Miami for quinceañera pictures. The first quince girl we saw was wearing an obscenely short denim skirt, a halter top, tall boots and a tiara. Absolutely surreal. Her friend was taking pictures of her. J said at first, she thought she must be a prostitute, based on the clothes. The other two girls were in much more age-appropriate clothing, one in a fancy wedding-style gown, white with red accents, and the other in a slightly-too-old but body-covering sparkly, tight sheath. My dad told me all about the events he did at Vizcaya back when he was one of Miami's most sought-after lighting and sound guys, parties, weddings, fashion shoots.

Lunch at Versailles was stupendous. I'd never eaten there, as my dad doesn't like it much. But, he doesn't really like Cuban food much period. He's more of a buffet guy. We split an appetizer sampler with croquetas, empanaditas, yuca frita (amazing) and mariquitas. Then, J got chicharrones de pollo and I got masitas de puerco. Both came with black beans, rice and maduros. I had two cortaditos...they make the best Cuban coffee in town. We were too full for dessert, but we did wander over to the bakery for a couple more cartaditos. Fabulous! Then, we walked around Calle Ocho (the heart of Little Havana) a bit, stopping in a drug store, where I got scolded for not knowing Spanish. In Miami, everyone can tell I'm Cuban. I was automatically given Spanish menus at Versailles, but they revoked J's after looking at her & she was given an English one instead. After visiting with my uncle while his partner cooked, we had more new food. He'd made tasajo, a very, very salty pork dish. The salt is cut by eating it with boniato, a white sweet potato, and corn.

To Be Continued...

1 comment:

Todd Lappin said...

Hello! I'm the editor of Everywhere magazine, a new, user-generated travel magazine based in San Francisco. Everywhere is sold in print on newsstands. I'd love to talk with you about publishing part of this post in our next issue, as part of a package we're doing about Miami. Any interest? You can reach me at Cheers.