Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cuba Diaries: Day 10 - Notable People I Met in Cuba

Here's the twelfth installment on my trip to Cuba to study their urban & suburban agriculture and agroecology. This is the fourth to last diary in this series and it covers my last full day in Cuba. Tomorrow's diary will cover an 'agromercado' (farmers' market) we visited on our last morning in Cuba before heading to the airport. The day after that, I plan to write about the transition from Cuba to Cancun which was, quite frankly, a shock. And the last diary will be about the BS I experienced upon re-entering the United States.

Today's diary, however, is about several notable people (both Cubans and Americans) I met during my trip.

Fernando Funes: Shockingly, there is no Wikipedia article for Fernando Funes. We were told that someone important was joining us for dinner, but when I met Funes (as we called him) he seemed like just a friendly guy with enough English to crack slightly inappropriate jokes and generally communicate what he's trying to say (although sometimes when he gets really excited, his English abilities totally break down). Despite his unassuming manner and appearance, Funes is considered a father of agroecology in Cuba. Since Wikipedia is not of any help, you can learn more about his work from a book he co-edited, Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba.

Funes is the guy on the right. I'm on the left. Farmer Daniel (who grew the fruit in the juice we're drinking) is in the middle.

Fernando Funes-Monzote: As you might have guessed from the name, Fernando Funes Monzote is the son of Fernando Funes. He's pretty amazing in his own right, and his PhD thesis is called Farming Like We're Here to Stay: The Mixed Farming Alternative for Cuba. You can hear him in an interview about Cuban agriculture on Deconstructing Dinner. You can also read a piece he wrote about the introduction of GE crops to Cuba. I didn't get to speak to him for very long but ladies, this man is MUY GUAPO.

Bruno Henriquez: Bruno laughed as he said to me, "I AM a rocket scientist!" He was so down to earth that it seemed odd (even to him) that the career he excelled in was generally known as one reserved for geniuses. Bruno's a physicist who used to work on space station stuff with the Russians before the USSR fell. When the Special Period began, the Cubans put him to work figuring out renewable energy. And he did.

When I first met Bruno, he said, "What do you think of nuclear?" I gave him a funny look as I tried to figure out how to respond simply to such a complex subject. Finally I said, "I don't like it."

"I love it!" said Bruno. "On the sun!!! The best place for nuclear reactions is on the sun!!!" Good one, Bruno. I suppose that's a joke that many non-physicists wouldn't get, but I did vaguely recall that nuclear reactions DO take place on the sun. Bruno was endorsing solar power, not nuclear.

As we sat and chatted, he casually noted that one room in the building was set up horribly for passive solar energy and that the heavy winds making it hard to open the hotel's door could be fixed easily by opening a few nearby windows. I remarked that these were brilliant observations and he replied, "It's elementary." In my head, I added, "My dear Watson." Seriously, why don't we have a Bruno in the U.S. who could work with the full backing of the U.S. government to reduce our national carbon footprint?

Catherine Murphy: Catherine is an American film maker who fell in love with Cuba in 1992 when she came for three months and ended up staying for most of the 1990's. In 1999, she wrote a paper called "Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis." Then she worked on the film The Greening of Cuba. Catherine has continued on as a film maker and now she splits her time between Cuba and Caracas, Venezuela. Her current project is about Cuba's literacy campaign of the early 1960's.

Catherine Murphy

Tito Nuñez: Before I arrived in Cuba, I wondered why the heck the tour planners were so eager to introduce me to a vegetarian chef. By the end of the trip, when I met Tito, I understood. Cubans may grow a lot of incredible sustainable produce but they sure as hell don't know how to cook it. Nor do they want to, it seems. They want white rice (with or without black beans) and MEAT. So it truly IS a big deal that Tito Nuñez has a successful vegetarian restaurant in Cuba.

Tito's actually an industrial engineer. In the 1980's, he was stricken with diabetes, allergies, and gastritis. He was the son of a doctor and a nurse who ate a very meat-heavy diet while growing up. When he was a kid, patients gave his parents animals as gifts for Cuba's Doctor Appreciation Day and his parents would have a butcher come over to kill the animals for meat. Tito hated that bloodbath, but ultimately he became a vegetarian for health reasons and only subsequently became passionate about the ethical reasons for vegetarianism.

Tito Nuñez

Right around the time the Special Period started, Tito began looking into the link between vegetarianism and health. During that time, food in Cuba changed rapidly. Suddenly, all of the food they previously got from European Socialist countries were unavailable and Cubans needed to figure out what to eat. At Cuba's botanical garden, suddenly the plants began to look a lot like dinner. In 1991, Tito began looking into which plants in the garden could be eaten and ultimately he created a vegetarian eco-restaurant at the botanical garden using the plants from the garden. Tito learned a lot during this time, and he worked with university professors to educate himself about the plants as well as learning the restaurant business.

I'm skipping some of Tito's history because I can't understand my audio recording of him speaking well enough to accurately, clearly (and grammatically) tell his full story. Ultimately, he opened a new eco-restaurant called El Romero in a town called Las Terrazas, 51km (31mi) west of Havana. Las Terrazas is an eco-community with a hotel that attracts many tourists. The restaurant is relatively small because when he founded it, he wasn't sure how popular it would be. Now, he's expanding it.

El Romero (The Rosemary) restaurant produces about 70% of its own food in an adjoining 100 sq. meter garden. I've visited many vegetarian and vegan restaurants in the U.S. and I've eaten at U.S. restaurants that have roof gardens that provide a small amount of the food served. I've also eaten at many "farm to table" restaurants that get much of their food from local farms. But I have never, ever seen another restaurant that produces 70% of its own food. He's even got a flock of chickens for eggs.

The restaurant is remarkable not only for being vegetarian but also for its extreme avoidance of plastic and other unsustainable materials. The chairs and even the drinking straws and take-out containers are all made out of plants. He uses a solar water heater and a solar oven. He does his own canning and sprouting. He composts all of the restaurant's waste. And, of course, the menus are on recycled paper. In the future, he'd like to use soy wax candles for light and a wood stove to cook his food.

Tito's got a few projects he's working on to spread his ideas about vegetarian cooking. Instead of a cookbook, he created a CD you can put in your computer to view each of his recipes. The advantage to the CD over a cookbook is that it has an incredible search function so you can select which ingredients you have and what you want to make (a soup, a salad, dessert, etc) and it will give you a list of recipes. Tito also works with a school to produce the school cafeteria's vegetables in its garden and to introduce one day a week without meat. And he's affiliated with Slow Food International.

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