Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Cuba: Havana

May 1, 2016
Strolling along the Malecón in the evening
In March, we ventured out of the capitalist world for the first time and into communist Cuba. Steph had wanted to go to Cuba for years, ever since she edited stories about Cuba as part of her first job. As with Berlin, she was fascinated by a place with so much living history. She wanted to see how U.S. policy had shaped Cuba and to understand how Cuba was changing as it slowly liberalized. Cuba wasn't necessarily at the top of my destination list, and we weren't thrilled about sneaking into Cuba illegally, so we initially prioritized other destinations. But when Obama announced the loosening of travel restrictions in 2015, we knew that we had to go.

Plaza de la Catedral in Habana Vieja
There are still no direct commercial flights from the U.S. to Cuba, so we first spent a night in Cancun to allow for not-unlikely delays and left for Havana the next morning. As the plane entered Cuban airspace, the flight attendants sprayed the cabin with a scented disinfectant, with a vague explanation and assurance that the spray was not harmful. The passport control lines were long – each visitor had their photo taken – and the lines we picked kept stopping due to outages on the agents' computers. Eventually we reached a station where we were asked to fill out a health declarations form (we mistakenly said we had come through Mexico; most of the other passengers said something else and skipped this step). The next step was the cadeca (abbreviation for casa de cambio) to change our Canadian dollars to Cuban convertible pesos, aka CUCs (pronounced "Cucs"). (We used Canadian dollars because there was still a 12% conversion penalty on USD, though that penalty was eliminated while we were there.)

Streets in Habana Vieja
Our casa particular had arranged a taxi for us (for the same standard $25 CUC as getting one ourselves), and the car was modern by Cuban standards, a beat-up but still probably 21st-century Chinese sedan. Like all the cars we rode in Cuba, there were no seat belts. The driver drove like a maniac (creating a third middle lane in a two-lane highway) and shouted on the phone the whole ride. The road from the airport to Havana Vieja (Old Havana) was full of propaganda billboards, with slogans such as Patria o muerte, ¡venceremos! - "Fatherland or death, we shall overcome!" (There is no advertising anywhere in the country, except the signs on stores themselves.) At one point the driver made an extended gas/pit stop. He left the doors closed, and the window handles were missing. It was 80 degrees outside and humid, so we opened the doors. The wind against the open doors caused the car to start rolling backwards into the street... I reached forward and pulled the hand brake.

After we arrived at our casa and I tried to pay the $25 CUC, he of course claimed he had no change for $30, and just wanting to get out of his car, we didn't argue. (Fortunately most of the other drivers we dealt with afterward were much more savory.)

The casa where we stayed for the first three nights wasn't very good, but the location in Old Havana was great. It was on the third floor of a semi-restored, five-story building. Each floor had two apartments, with the front doors leading to open walkways off of which were several rooms. Over the walkway's waist-high railing (which you didn't want to lean against too hard), one could look across to the other apartment's walkway, or down the building's open center to the ground. (The structure makes sense for a hot climate before air conditioning.)

Some time before we arrived, the ceiling-mounted A/C unit in our room broke off its mount, so we were put in a smaller room for the first night while it was repaired, sharing the owner's bathroom by night and crawling (literally) through the workers' scaffolding in the afternoon.

On that first evening, after putting down our bags, we went out to explore. Like many in the neighborhood, our street was being renovated and was full of ditches, some 4x4 feet wide and at least that deep. Only the narrowest cars could maneuver around these, and we narrowly skirted their edges in bicycle taxis over the next few days. Our street also had a disproportionate number of jingueros, hustlers who surrounded us offering "help" of all kinds. No, gracias.

We had made a reservation that first night at O'Reilly 304, a very highly-recommended paladar (privately-owned restaurant). It turns out they have two locations across the street from each other, and we had unknowingly booked the newer one, a terrace on the second floor of a building with no signage at all on the front door. The food was excellent: we ate gazpacho, lobster risotto, seared tuna with teriyaki, and mojitos and daiquiris with generous proportions of rum.

On our second morning in Havana, we covered some basic tourist sites: the Plaza de la Catedral de San Cristobal (Christopher Columbus is, perhaps strangely, considered a saint in Latin America), the Taller Experimental de Gráfica (artists' workshop, where we bought a small painting of a coffeepot), the Plaza de Armas with its used book fair (full of biographies of revolutionary figures and some cocktail recipe books). The Museo de la Ciudad was unfortunately closed for renovation. (Likewise with the exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci's inventions.)

Restored Museo de Arte Colonial in Habana Vieja
The colonial section of the city founded in 1519, Habana Vieja is a neighborhood of fascinating contrasts — decrepit buildings stand next to artfully restored colonial palaces and cobblestoned walkways intersect with rubble-strewn alleys. A few years after the Cuban revolution, the government planned to pave over a street when one of the city's preservationists, Eusebio Leal, lay down in front of the trucks to save it. Over the following decades, Leal has saved hundreds of landmark buildings in Habana Vieja and restored them to their former splendor. His office now operates 16 hotels, a tour company, restaurants, museums, a radio station and more, taking in millions of dollars in tourist revenues to fund preservation, thus attracting more tourists and funding more preservation. From a very interesting article about the Havana Historian's Office:
Leal reinvests half of the profits in new preservation work and half in social programs, such as establishing health clinics, schools and senior living centers in the old city. ...
He is keenly aware of a paradox at the center of his life’s work: The tourism that is saving Old Havana could destroy it. A familiar pattern in tourist meccas around the world is for waves of comparatively rich visitors to overwhelm and distort local culture. Leal’s solution is to preserve people as much as buildings; he is trying to create an infrastructure for daily life to continue.
We walked down Calle Mercaderes (one of the beautifully restored streets) and ate lunch at NAO Bar, another of the city's privately-owned paladares. The food was pretty decent, with black bean "hummus," fried yuccas, deep-fried "malanga" fritters (a Havana staple), gazpacho, and coffee over ice. There was a 2010 edition of the Moon Cuba guide in our second casa, and it described how a few years prior, there were 600 paladares, but only 40 left in 2010. Today there are again hundreds, many of them excellent, but it highlighted the wild swings in Cuban fortunes.

Afternoon beer at a "microbrewery" in Plaza Vieja
At 2 p.m. we had scheduled an "Old Car Tour" in a 1955 Cadillac Eldorado convertible. (Because where else would we be able to ride a beautiful antique like that?) Supposedly the only Eldorado remaining in the country, the car was in pretty great condition. The speedometer ironically had markings up to 180 MPH, but the driver drove very conservatively. I wondered if the motor was original – it sounded very smooth, unlike most of the other cars on the road, but having never driven a 1955 Cadillac before, I had nothing to compare it to.

The novelty of the car itself wore off fairly quickly, but the tour was fantastic. Our English-speaking tour guide, named Nacho, had been an interpreter for the government years back, and had some amazing stories, including organizing a 1992 summit to review the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and escorting and translating for Robert McNamara. As we looked at a bunker next to the Hotel Nacional, he recounted how people partied in bomb shelters during that month with U.S. warships on the horizon — if the world is about to end, might as well enjoy it.

He took us to a bunch of places we wouldn't have thought to go as tourists, like the Parques de las Almendras (Almond Park) on the western side of the city, where we watched a real Santeria ceremony and he explained the voodoo dolls strewn around the grounds (and lamented the lack of resources to keep the park clean). See photos from Parque de las Almendras.

We walked through the banquet halls of the Hotel Nacional – notorious for hosting, in 1946, the largest gathering of American mafia bosses in history – with walls covered in photos of celebrities and world leaders that stayed at the hotel. Obama stayed at the same hotel later that week — maybe his photo will be up the next time we visit. We saw crews setting up the stage where the Rolling Stones were scheduled to play two weeks later. We drove through the neighborhood where foreign diplomats live, and past one of Fidel Castro's former homes. (For the last twenty years or so, Nacho has been a freelancer, making a living with photography, musical event planning, and tour guiding.)

View of the street from our casa
Wednesday morning, we went to a bank to change more Canadian dollars to CUCs. It operated like a normal bank, with a short line for the tellers, and we were in and out in 15 minutes. (European tourists we met were able to use their debit cards at ATMs; the U.S. banking embargo still prevents Americans from doing that.) Next we went to an Infotur office (one of the state tourism agencies) to inquire about a few things: First, we wanted to know if it was feasible to visit the tobacco-growing town of Viñales without staying overnight (we ended up booking a tour, more on that below). Second, we had heard about several contemporary dance troupes in Havana and wanted to see a show, but being offline and not seeing any newspapers for sale, needed some help finding schedules. We were unlucky on this front: they all either had no shows that week, or were performing ballets, which didn't interest us.

We checked out the Almacenes de San José craft market. Some of the paintings were cool and original, there were some interesting wood pieces, but for the most part the wares were repetitive and not that appealing.

Sunset over the Malecón
Hotel Nacional, host to the largest gathering of American mafia bosses in history in 1946
We did take advantage of the ETECSA (state telephone company) branch in the building, however, to buy a local phone card, for making dinner reservations. This was an interesting interaction that involved Cuba's two currencies, which reflect its dual economies: government salaries and services for locals (like food shops for staple goods) use moneda nacional (US$1 = MN$25) and generally involve very small sums, but any service that might cater to tourists is transacted in "convertible pesos" (aka CUCs), which as of this month is back to a 1:1 peg with the U.S. dollar. For example, a piña colada cost $3 CUC, a taxi ride between $5-10, a meal at a good paladar at least $10 CUC per person (and the best ones much more), while the stats still say the average Cuban makes less than $50 US equivalent per month, in moneda nacional.

So when we tried to buy a calling card, the clerk said $10 CUC (=$10 US), and we were about to pay when the clerk asked us which countries we wanted to call. "Just to Havana" - "oh just Havana! then you don't need this card, you want a local card" - for $10 moneda nacional (40¢ US)!. But there was a catch-22: We didn't have any MNs, and they wouldn't accept CUCs for the local cards; but the cadeca at the airport wouldn't give MNs to foreigners. As we had this dialogue, a man in the adjacent line pulled out a $10MN bill from his wallet and slid it across the counter toward us. (And he wouldn't take CUC in exchange for it!) So we had a calling card, which proved to be very useful. (And we never needed MNs again for the rest of the trip.)

The huge differential between the CUC and MN economies isn't just a result of the influx of tourist dollars - Cuban exiles in the U.S. are sending a lot of money back to their families (the first casa we stayed at seemed to be run in some kind of partnership with relatives in Miami), and the locals running successful private businesses are earning incomes in CUCs (a casa particular room costs around $35 CUC), so that money recirculates. There is talk of Cuba unifying its currencies and only using MN. With the U.S. embargo (which is essentially a global banking embargo) starting to come down, and foreign money flooding in, it's going to be fascinating to see how the Cuban economy handles the transition. Will there be millions of people unable to afford basic goods, resentful at government layoffs and foreigners pricing them out of their neighborhoods? Or will government workers smoothly transition off the public payroll as more industries open to private enterprise? Will a flood of foreign cash cause excessive inflation, as tourists start filling the cheap eateries previously only intended for locals? Or can the Communist government foster a sustainable growth rate?

Six lanes of traffic along the Malecon and no crosswalks
For lunch we took a bicycle taxi to El Chanchullero — which the guidebook described as a small, clamorous, graffiti-ridden dive-bar serving up fresh food and well-made drinks — but it was closed for renovations. Instead we walked to La Terraza, overlooking the Capitolio building (modeled on the U.S. Capitol building), which was recommended for BBQ. We enjoyed delicious ribs and ceviche (and of course more rum cocktails). Below us on Paseo San Marti (aka Prado Blvd - confusingly many streets in Havana have "old" and "new" names, used interchangeably), they were paving the street, to look fresh for President Obama's visit in two days.

After lunch we went to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and enjoyed six centuries of paintings of the Cuban countryside and people. The top floor was "post-Revolutionary" art, and it was actually hard to tell if a lot of the pieces were pro- or anti-revolution. I would have assumed the former, because it's a state-run art museum, but they sure didn't look pro-Communist. Like one piece depicting workers having their brains removed certainly looked like a dig at Communism to me. Or maybe it was a dig at capitalist workers. Or maybe the artist was messing with everyone, who knows. Anyway, the museum was definitely worth the visit.

It was another very hot and humid day that called for ice cream. This was surprisingly hard to find in the neighborhood around the Capitolio. It seems probable that ice cream is not yet one of the industries in which private businesses are allowed. There is an apparently-popular state-run ice cream company, Coppelia, which serves two flavors, chocolate and vanilla. (We tried both later and they were very mediocre.) Anyway, in lieu of ice cream, we relaxed in the lobby of the Hotel Sevilla. I read Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (written in Havana and about a Havana fisherman) and Steph read Telex from Cuba, about Americans in Cuba during the revolution.

Later, we passed by the Museo de Chocolate, recommended in our guide book, and figured that was close enough to ice cream. It was absolutely awful: we ordered an "aztec chocolate" drink and a "cold cocoa" — the former had no spices at all and was nearly tasteless, the latter was just terrible, so after two sips of each (to make sure) we paid and got the hell out of there.

Our dinner plan didn't go so well either. We had made a 9 p.m. reservation at Ivan Chef Justo, a Spanish restaurant recommended online as one of the best in Havana. We got there at 8:55 and were asked to wait 25 minutes. OK, no problem. After 30 minutes or so, we asked if we could get drinks at the bar while we were waiting. (Their bar was more of a station for mixing drinks to bring to tables, rather than to sit at, but we made it work.) We were finally seated after 10 p.m. The menu was on a chalkboard with titles and no explanations. The waiter rattled off descriptions in Spanish and immediately asked us what we wanted to order. Um, how about a minute to think about it. 15 seconds later, he's back trying to upsell us on a bottle of wine and asking for our order. Steph ordered the paella, and was informed it would take another 45 minutes to prepare. At this point we were pretty annoyed - this was supposed to be one of the top paladars in the city, not a crotchety government restaurant - so we just left. Quite hungry by this point, we were saved by O'Reilly 304 (where we had eaten the previous night at their "terrace" across the street) - this time we lucked out on the last open table at their main location, and ate another fantastic meal. There was even a jazz trio playing a set, a long and very well-improvised jazz rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't she lovely."

Stay tuned for Havana part 2 and more from our trip.

- Ben (photos by Steph)

Havana: Parques de las Almendras

Voodoo doll from a Santeria ritual
Santeria ceremony

- Steph

Wine barrel liquor cabinet (or, the never-ending project)

March 12, 2016
We have amazing wineries all around us in northern California, and often pick up bottles in Sonoma, Amador, and Mendocino. We also like to make cocktails. And beer. (Basically we like to drink, in moderation.) We had a habit of buying $30 bottles at wineries, then wanting something cheap for dinner, so we'd keep buying $10 bottles while the expensive collection grew (at one point reaching 23 bottles). On the hard-liquor side, we've built up a nice collection, and have a general budget rule of one new type of liquor per month (and replenishing what runs out).

We needed a good place to store all these bottles.

Since we love wine, and I love woodworking, a wine barrel seemed like the perfect structure. Barrels are big, sturdy, and pretty. I imagined liquor in the bottom half, wine in the top half, and a mixing station on top. I used SketchUp to visualize the concept. (The barrel and bottles came from SketchUp's "3D warehouse" of free models. I also envisioned a door opening on a side hinge, but left that out of the sketch because it was too hard to neatly slice curved wood in 3D space.)
Designing the barrel in SketchUp
First, I needed to procure a barrel. New ones (often imported from France) are very expensive and in high demand in wine country, but they only last a few years (since the "oakiness" that they impart into the wine diminishes with each use), so theoretically there should be a large supply of used barrels. I would ask whenever we visited a winery; they all had wait lists for used barrels and I never heard back. Then one day in July, a few days before we were set to move from SF to Berkeley, Steph happened to look on Craigslist, and someone half a mile away was selling a wine barrel. I called him up immediately and told him I was on my way. It fit nicely into the back of our Subaru hatchback. It was labeled "2007" and had been used for Merlot, with a wonderful Merlot scent coming out of the stopper (technical term "bung") hole.

We hauled the barrel up to our third-floor apartment, and since we were about to move, it sat in the corner for a few days, before we hauled it back down to the moving truck. Then it sat for a while in a corner in our new place while we settled in, waiting for the "new project itch" and a free weekend.

I figured I would need to put the barrel on its side, but didn't want to scratch the wood, so the first step was to build a little scaffold to hold the barrel (as well as allow it to be turned easily).

I needed to: cut out the door; cut and re-attach the metal hoops (attached with square nails) to accommodate the door; sand the outside and (if possible) the inside; polish the rusted metal (galvanized iron) hoops; and apply stain and finish to the outside.

I didn't know anything about how to work with a barrel, and learned a number of lessons the hard way.

To cut a door out of the barrel, I bought a "jab saw" from a Japanese tool shop around the block, and starting from a drilled pilot hole, sawed along a seam.

Shortly into doing this — presumably there was some reason, but I don't remember what it was, and in hindsight this was a bad idea — I decided, rather than saw vertically along the seams, to take the whole barrel apart. Then I could just saw a few staves horizontally to make the door.

Much like arches on buildings, wine barrels are held together simply by the forces of the curved wood pressing against each other. The staves are perfectly shaped and have grooves into which the circular boards at the top and bottom fit. The hoops hold it all together, causing the staves to bend a little, which locks everything into watertight shape. There are no glue or nails, except two short nails on each hoop. Adding glue to the boards when they're not under tension – as I did with the door pieces (and initially with other staves as well) — actually causes them to be distorted from their natural under-tension shape, and the barrel can no longer be reassembled.

On the upside, disassembling the barrel did let me sand the boards very smoothly on both sides. The inside in particular had a very rough texture. Fortunately the Merlot scent survived the sanding.

Polishing the hoops was a huge project in itself. Made of galvanized iron, they rust very easily, and they had a rusty/dirty/corroded appearance that I wanted to clean.

So I started sanding. And sanding... and sanding... A hand sander clearly wasn't going to get the job done, so I used my "mouse" detail sander. (A belt sander might have worked better, but I don't have one.) The metal's appearance was changing, gradually, but wasn't necessarily getting nicer. (And there were 6 hoops to do.) It was grinding through sandpaper sheets at a crazy rate. Metal has all kinds of molecular layers — articles online discuss the "highs and lows" of metal surfaces, basically microscopic hills and valleys in the surface that all have to be smoothed out — and the in-between layers actually looked worse than the original rusty look, so once I had started, I kind of had to finish (Steph helped too).

Stages of sanding the metal
At one point, I thought maybe sanding wasn't the right method after all, so I went to the hardware store to get ideas, and they suggested a metal shining kit: a buffing disc (attached to my drill, since I don't have a buffing wheel), and polishing compound. This was fairly effective, but in the wrong way: it produced a mirror shine, and I wanted more of a matte. (It also didn't substitute sanding completely, just the last stages.) So I went back to sanding.

My sanding setup was outside on the picnic table, hoop held down by one hand, orbital sander in the other, and vacuum (to suck up the metal dust) turned on with the hose right next to the sander (gripped between my knees or taped down). It was loud (the neighbors must love me when I'm working on these projects), and tedious. I wore noise-canceling headphones and went through many podcasts. Altogether, I probably sanded for 24 hours over numerous weekends. The final result looks great, but (other than maybe using a belt sander) I have no idea how I could have sped up the process.

These dots took longer to grind out than the top rusty layers.
Final result on the right.
With the hoops ready to hold the barrel together again, I could reassemble the barrel. Given how it's designed to all fit together perfectly under tension, this wasn't easy. With Steph's help, bungee cords, a mallet, and trial-and-error, it finally came back together. The missing door pieces made it a little tricky, and their staves' remaining tops and bottoms had to be forced back into place with metal braces.

Then I stained the outside. I tried a few colors on the bottom, where they wouldn't be visible, and picked a dark brown called "Jacobean." I finished it with semi-gloss polyurethane. (This was going to be indoor furniture, so I could use water-based finish, which isn't as toxic-chemically-smelling as oil-based finish.)

At this point, the barrel was basically functional: it looked good, and could hold liquor bottles on the bottom, and a mixer on top. We brought it inside and loaded it up, and it sat that way for a few weeks.

The next step was figuring out how to put wine bottles in the top half. I considered a whole bunch of options. Dowels positioned horizontally, attached somehow to the back of the barrel (or a board abutting the back) would create a minimalist look, but there wasn't a good way to attach the dowels securely. I could build a standalone wine rack of some kind and install it inside, but that would take up a lot of extra space, and attachment would again be tricky.

I liked the idea of the bottles just fitting into holes on a board by their necks. I made a three-bottle proof of concept to measure how large and widely spaced the holes would need to be. I considered two narrow top-to-bottom boards, one vertical row of bottles on each facing opposite each other, but that would have cut into the bottom-half space.

Some of the wine rack designs I considered. Bottom-right is getting to the final design in SketchUp.

What I ended up going with was a single board, for 5x3 bottles, secured in place with another board at the bottom (attached with corner braces) and more corner braces on the sides and top. 15 wine bottles weigh about 40 pounds, and this seemed like a very solid construction.

The barrel was now fully functional and was put into commission.

All that was missing was the door. This turned out to be much harder that I imagined, because the surfaces were all curved. The door weighed around 7 pounds, and with only a single hinge in the middle, the door would torque the hinge, bending it and sagging down when opened. To use two hinges, however, they would have to allow for the surfaces to be abutting when closed but an inch apart when open. Normal hinges can't do that.

I went to several hardware stores half a dozen times trying to get ideas and playing with different hinge types. Nothing worked. A specialty cabinet hardware store in SF recommended an expensive SOSS "invisible hinge" – I was optimistic about that, and spent a while drilling and chiseling out the mortise for it to fit into – but it immediately buckled under the weight.

I tried various cabinet hinges, which allowed for some offset, but they were designed to be at 90° closed and 180° open. I needed 180 closed and 270 open, and no one seemed to sell such a thing.

I considered offset knife hinges, but their installation is really tricky, and with the barrel already re-assembled and in use, it wasn't feasible to set up a router jig to do it right. (I also don't have much experience with router jigs, and didn't want to ruin the whole thing.)

I thought maybe if I could reduce the weight of the door, it wouldn't torque a single hinge too much. Router, sander... the weight dropped to ~4 lbs, but it still didn't quite work.

This sub-project lasted for several months: I'd have an idea, go to the hardware store, test it, fail; put it aside and hope for some new inspiration. Then I'd notice the door still sitting there wanting to be mounted, and repeat.

Eventually, I decided to go back to the original standard hinge, but instead of being positioned flat on the front, having it close into a folded position. This required a little chiseling of the door (over the hole originally cut for the "invisible hinge"). It worked! The door still drops a tiny bit, but it doesn't look bad, the hinge isn't bending or breaking, and it looks really nice when closed.

And that's it! We have a wine barrel liquor & wine cabinet!

- Ben