An antidote to the narcissism of cruising around Phuket for two days on Amanpuri's junk hit me a day later in the face in the form of the drive into Manila from its airport.
The sight of people living in cardboard refrigerator-packing boxes, tending little bougainvilleas outside the entrance, and sweeping up relentless filth on the sidewalk in front, made walking into the foyer of the Peninsula quite philosophically riveting; even more so since the entire foyer was red.
It was Valentine's day!
Should I find a valentine, or lie around the pool and write the latest account of my travels? I opted for the pool. I am here for a week. My cat and traveling companion Felicity is staying with friends who have dogs she can terrorize, a laundress to air her bed, and a maid to chop up chicken livers whenever she yells for them. Prying her out of Manila will not be easy.
The Philippines Valentine's day in is a mixed blessing: the difficulty of finding the right day for taking out one's wife when one's number one mistress and at least one lesser expect the day to be theirs as well. It is definitely a day for someone to see red. I prefer Chinese New Year when everyone gets little red envelopes stuffed with cash. Here the day is first about food so in the bar of Manila's Peninsula hotel my friends were discussing how to make a red menu for that night.
They looked to me and I sounded off: "There are Page Mandarins (shipped in little red envelopes, I presume) that are a confluence between Minneola tangelos and Clementine mandarins and certainly preferable to Purple Peruvian or Red Thumb potatoes. Magenta watermelon radishes by themselves are a bit spicy, even when sliced paper thin and treated like carpaccio, which reminds me that perhaps the first course would be just that – using very red grass-fed beef – with red sweet onions. But onions and garlic are not usually part of romance except at an impassioned grande bouffe, so we'll stick with blood oranges or bergamots. Red roses infused into their juice would take care of the necessary and ubiquitous rose problem and perhaps even start a trend."
"After the first course the red theme could involve beets when organic, heirloom, and small, roasted, and served with cold-pressed organic canola oil. An aphrodisiac even, but who knows what they will stain? Salmon always works, since its oils open up the tubes. Then there are maroon carrots, and if those are too cooling of the blood, then red Kuri squash (also a bit cold) and endigia – another confluence, this time of Treviso radicchio and Chioggia chicory. It would be very good if dressed in the rose-petal-bergamot juice."
For dessert I suggested renting a big screen and show the movie Woman on Top. That way, if all else fails, one could have a dessert of red chilies, because we know they work – at least in the film. Or chilies stuffed into pomegranates so that each person would have to slice and suck out the juices. Or rhubarb, which I adore.
"Of course, if by dessert you are still at the table, none of the above is working." Rich Filipinos hate to interrupt white foreigners, but one of them whispered to me to please shut up. Nicely. "Order some champagne," she said. We chilled a magnum of a pink and got down to what I saw as the real business of Valentine's since I did not fancy anyone in the foyer and looking elsewhere through their ubiquitous bodyguards was too much work.
Negronis straight up in frozen glasses (no orange peel)
Chilled oysters, red Ancho-chili granita
Carpaccio of grass fed beef with a julienne salad of magenta watermelon radishes dressed in sesame-jasmine-canola oil
Gosset champagne rose
Poached warm wild Atlantic salmon with a red rose-petal Hollandaise
Regaleali Sicilian rose
Red Endigia Salad with black truffles and hazelnut oil
Stewed rhubarb with pomegranate sabayon, minced red chilies, and "Woman on Top."
Dom Perignon rose en magnum
One of the guests was from Mexico and about to return. During dinner she told me I had an obvious passion for the tropics so filled me in on news of the muxe tradition in Oaxaca's Juchitan, as well as of the cross-dressing of Aztec priests and their sex-changing bisexual masses. Hearing this I thought that I should accompany her to Mexico. There, she said, I will engulf you in chipoltes, green coconuts, passion fruit, pumpkin seed mole, sibil p'aak, relleno negro, buche, enormous fresh crab claws from Celestun, and mangoes so ripe that they will drip down your chin. And bags of fresh jicama sauced with squirts of picante sauce, cut up sun-ripe melons, and roasted corn on the cob slathered with mayonnaise and dusted with chili molido. She promised to tell me all about the cannibalism of the Aztecs and the sacrificed warrior's hearts perfumed with smoked chilies.
"After all that," she told me, "you will have a chili-perfume loving soul."
Singapore was once dominated by travesties of such courage that Sir John Raffles in conquering them said he had never seen greater fierceness in any human beings. 'Fierce' was the word my butler used to describe his sexually crossing-over companions, saying that there is always at least one staff member in the hotel for whom the question "Are you Jeanne or John" is always the question. He was no exception. He could have been either. I didn't ask which way around it was since his nameplate said "Mike," but he wasn't acting like it. What was certain was that it must be just as complicated for Singapore officials having to choose between Aphrodite and Cotton Mather as it was for our Mather Yankee ancestors terrified of the pleasure of the flesh but having to read from Proverbs 7:17:18: "I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon/ Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning." Certain also that the aloe would have instantly relieved any sheet burn on their knees sore from the missionary position.
After many a glass of champagne in the marble tub looking out to the harbor while contemplating all this I decided that somehow the transvestites were the clue, but how? As I was well into the second bottle of La Grande Dame, the hotel caught fire; the floor below me was in flames. This hotel is a converted 150-year old French nunnery and my suite of rooms had been part of the dormitory for the orphan boys. Was I now haunted by the ghosts of mischievous pre-pubescent arsonist gamins?
The banging on my door should have been firemen, but turned out to be a San Francisco socialite who yesterday had seen me arrive in the lobby. She stood at the open door clutching handfuls of jewelry; some junior Bulgari, but most of it serious Fred Leighton. As Denise tightened the diamonds around her throat, Mike-Michelle, cooing over the jewels, was transfixed. Maybe it was just the white sweat shirt that Denise was wearing emblazoned in yellow diamonds saying "SWEATSHIRT."
"How do we get out of here," Denise shrieked seeing that Mike now hysterically Michelle would be of less help than yesterday's jewelry unmasked as paste.
I replaced my fluffy Frette bathrobe with the nearest clothes, grabbed my passport and tickets out of the safe, ran back for my collection of Edwardian cufflinks and Noel Coward's cigarette holder, and headed to the elevators with a jewel-laden Denise and a shrieking Michelle carrying Felicity in her carrier. We ignored the sign at the elevators to take the stairs after doors from one of the elevator banks opened briefly to show it packed with firemen. Something in Malay was translated by Michelle as 'run for it,' but I figured that if the elevators were working why take to the stairs. Half way down in the elevator the doors opened in error to show a wall of fire, a lake of water, and a pandemonium of firemen.
Mike stopped screaming, Denise clutched her surgically enhanced neck not completely disguised in diamonds, and I announced that the best place to hang out was the dining room. I prayed that the champagne was on ice. Might as well have lunch while one's Armanis burned.
After that close shave and despite the smoke in the dining room making the food taste a bit like toxic waste, the fattened duck liver sitting on top of a teetering lobster claw hanging precariously from a mound of wild mushrooms was not bad. Perhaps the toxicity in the air was the charred tuna. Denise wondered why she had ordered such a silly dish anyway and asked the waiter if it was fresh. A stupid question, since he would never say it was not. My preference would have been for frozen Japanese tuna because then it would taste as if it came just out of the water and not as if it had been raised off New Jersey or, worse, in Hong Kong harbor.
'Either raw or from a jar,' was my sound advice. 'Charring ruins the flavor of raw and never cooks it enough to give flavor except for burnt flesh. Grilled tuna is not just emperor's clothes, but a whole court covered in medium rare fish. Charred or course."
"Now don't be fresh, dear."
"Enough of Berkeley Birkenstocks," I said, referring to the California chef who had come out to tell us the virtues of freshness, "Singaporean transsexuals, and hysterical chefs (if that is not oxymoronic). My point is that fresh is always better than frozen."
"I thought I just explained that it isn't?"
"Not nearly well enough!" she withered. "What is in your freezer at home?"
I told her that if I had a home and a freezer it would be filled always with vodka and in the summer with gin and ice cream. Also fabulous French butter, and water-rendered goose, duck, or chicken fat. The rest of the list would include pureed real tomatoes bought at the height of summer when perfectly ripe; berries, pureed by hand through a sieve and mixed with sugar syrup; stocks made from left-over carcasses and put into servings-for-two containers; meat sauces for pasta; essence of wild mushrooms bought at their cheapest, marinated, grilled broiled or sautéed, chopped up and put in the container with their juices. In their short-season the juice of blood oranges; Meyer lemons and Rangpur lime juice mixed with sugar syrup to keep their fresh taste; and anything you want to keep only for a week until you have time to make it into soup or a sauce. Or put on toast.
"Anyway, the greater the cook you are the less you will mess with perfect ingredients. In the tropics 'fresh' is often hoisted on its own petard, so frozen tuna from Tokyo would have been better."
Later that afternoon I was switched to the penthouse while some of the floors below me were sealed off and lots of i-lang i-lang flowers were carried around the corridors to cover the smell of the soiled-laundry closet where the fire had started. Michelle kindly showed up with lots more Cananga very odorata and crammed it into my bed and bathrooms. Felicity was given a bath after she peed herself in the carrier after hearing Mike's high-pitched screams and seeing the firemen with axes.
So now I am sitting high above Magen Bay on St Thomas listening to Israel Kamakawiwoole, sipping 25 year old Cruzan rum, and wondering if my taste buds will ever return to normal. While shopping for lunch I had a run in with Scotch Bonnets without even knowing it and, as any judge will tell you, ignorance of the law is no defense.
In this case it was the law of knowing that around any roadside stands in the islands when you ask the stupid question "Is it hot," the greater the silence, the hotter the chilies. And the greater the hooting, howling and laughter amongst the islanders after you leave, the more trouble you are in.
But of course once you have bought the old Snapple bottles full of Mexican tile red sauce, or the one with red, yellow, green, orange and a few other-colored chilies in white vinegar, you just have to try it. You may circle them for hours with every piece of common and previous- experienced sense you have going overtime in your head with warnings, but sooner or later you are going to put a finger in one of those bottles.
In my case the it was getting late enough so that the aquamarine waters of the bay below me had turned to dark robin's egg blue as I finished 20 laps in the horizon pool between my two pavilion villa; the pleasure high from the swim shut off the constant battering of the common sense warnings and I stuck a finger in the red puree.
The jungle around me has gone quiet since my scream. If there had been howler monkeys in the trees, they wouldn't bother to try howling again. They had been forever outdone.
The bottle fell to the counter and made a puddle which now I would like to have those thick gloves emergency workers wear when cleaning up an Ebola outbreak. But first there was the question of the emergency in my mouth. I wanted to squeeze a nearby whole tube of aloe vera sunburn cream in my mouth, but made do with cold half and half instead, since it was closest at hand in the refrigerator. That worked only to put me off cream forever as it warmed up and curdled.
Nothing for it but to jump back in the pool and stick my mouth over the nozzle pumping re-chlorinated water back in it. That seemed to work.
Now two hours later the growth around the house seems still very quiet. I think all the animals have gone down the road to howl and laugh with the very jolly ladies at the stand whose only reply to the heat question when I bought the sauce, was a long, slow and effective rolling of the eyes.
All she said to me was "don lak hot, hot hot." I still don't know whether she meant me or her.
I just know they heard the scream.
My eyes wide open started with the guy standing under the no smoking sign above the floor-model ashtray installed by the Cancun airport authorities. I was amused by this odd marriage of authority and personal choice, but when aboard the plane I saw the emergency door hammered back into place after something had obviously hit it from the outside and punched it in, I wanted someone to be in charge.
The pilot announced that we were flying into the island at only 17,000 feet because we had no oxygen and that the plane was too old to go higher anyway. My usually friendly relationship with the azure waters of the Caribbean soured.
I was on my way to see the old stones of Havana and to dive at the Gardens of the Queen, 80 kms south of the mid section of the island of Cuba, off Jucaro on the coast of the Ciego de Abila province.
Once on Cuban ground I was happy to have my feet firmly on the floor of a 28-year old Cadillac convertible even though it made more noise than the old plane. The sign from the airport pointed "Kid Chocolate," pronounced like "latte," but before I could ask what it was we were deep into the old, glorious, stones of this Cohiba-smoke-filled city. And glorious it must have been. Street after street of perfect Greek Revival buildings in eloquent disrepair. Later, coming out of El Floridita bar at midnight I saw the buildings were in even less than semi- darkness, the street lamps lighting up only some figures in a blinding purity of white against the buildings' 50-year and somber lack of paint.
Not to worry that they were sixth-day priests of Santeria Yoruba Iyabo I was told by a glorious young revolutionary guide, "they are less dangerous than Priests. The worst that can happen is that they will cast a spell on you if you look at them in the wrong way."
Havana already had me spellbound on the first morning when, en route to a local food market, our Russian Lada, born in 1979 and clocking in around 435,000 kilometers, decided to take a rest. Well earned, but inconvenient for us.
Slowing very gently to a stop, we passed around the only remaining handle for rolling down the windows, and looked out on a curious, but smiling neighborhood. Three dogs, a couple of cats with tails languorously in the air, four men, two women, a policeman, and two teenagers came on over and leaned on the car. "What's happening' and what was happening was exchanged. Everyone, in this land of overworked cars, understood. Within minutes we were helped out of our red Lada into a green one of a man who lived right there and had a few hours to change from watching the dogs go by to earning a few bucks. A few of the neighbors squeezed in too, just in case anything more and exciting might happen.
Five blocks down the road it did.
A market had just occurred where two streets met. A huge old American truck, piled high in the back with the most beautiful carrots I have ever seen had stopped in the middle of the intersection. The sight of them prompted one of the experts in chance encounters next to me to exclaim how 'happy' the carrots were. He was talking about their obviously inner glow. Then I looked out the window and saw piles and piles of red onions and large white cabbages, all of them also glowing, on the grass verges on all sides of the intersection. No one seemed to be buying or selling, but we sat on the grass and passed around someone's bottle of hours-old fiery white rum and commented on the mango tree in full bloom, the chalk drawing of the Mona Lisa on the wall, and paintings on the same wall of women with paradise birds in their hair.
No one seemed surprised. It was very 'whatever' infused with a lot of art.
"So where is this Kid Chocolate market," I asked the gathering. After they had picked themselves up from rolling in the street with laughter, we had another few pulls on the rum bottle as they wiped away their tears. "He was the first world champion boxer of our country," they all very proudly announced.
"A real mangon."
The translation of "mangon" got lost in the fumes of rum, and it was not until we stopped at an exhibit of Korda, the man who took THAT photo of Che, and I saw the words written under his photo from Juan A. Caruso's song Alma de Bohemio, or The Soul of a Bohemian, that all became clear for me.
Si es que no vivo lo que sueno
Me voy con les estrellas
Which is all about what the letter from his best friend said to commemorate Korda: now that you are dead Korda, all the husbands and boyfriends of all our woman can rest easy, and the women will begin to be miserable. The woman curator, with tears in her eyes, said "he smoked, drank, and had his fill of women, lots of them, so how wonderful is that?"
Long live that revolution, at least. But not Fidel, was the consensus.
"Socialsim or Die," they grimaced.
Our life should be "Live well, Love a Lot and Well, and then Die."
At least Fidel knew to keep the tourists away from the Cubans. The Habaneros might learn to have Nescafe for breakfast. And the tourists might learn to love samba, dancing before sex, mountain coffee beans ground minutes before brewing over a wood fire, and the feel of old stones heaped up around them at midnight, a full tropical moon illuminating the loneliness of the Malecon and the ghostly figure of a Santeria god.
The one that lives in sugar cane and turns it into rum.
At least that is what the parrots in the faded old beach conservatory in the hotel told me. I asked them "What happened to all guests dressed in wide- lapelled gabardine double- breasted Gary-Cooper suits as they hold in the crook of their arms Viscounts, Death in Venice ruffled countesses, and Myrna Lowe-draped flappers in off white silks?"
The tall and handsome security guard cooed at and scratched the ear feathers of my brilliant macaw with whom I was conversing. The same guard who the evening before had stuck his tongue almost down to my companion's knees when he kissed on his way out of the hotel and her way in. Then he asked for her room number, exactly as I told her he would do. After all, if security is not allowed upstairs who is?
Off we set in the Lada again, this time to see all the famous painters of Havana in their studios, particularly a stop at the Consejo Nacional de las Artes Plasticas to see the Ernesto Garcia Pena show. I bought "A caballo regalao no se le mira el colmillo" oR, "If you are given a horse, don't look at its teeth.' For us, its mouth.
Then to the Museo de Danza filled with the music of Carlos Gardel and his alma criolla to look at photos of Serge Lifar and Alicia Alonso. Afterwards we walked the Malecon, full of fellow strollers seeming happy in themselves, emotions on the sleeve, at least on the sidewalk. Everything seemed to be emotionally charged and there was a tempo, a lot of watching the world go by with all the time in the world. Even watching the progress of more dogs down the road seemed to be mesmerizing.
Mesmerizing for me was the restaurant on the Prado called 361 that called to me: an unpainted but not unloved child of the London Ritz dining room. Like a dancer wanting to retire but cannot. The whole street was saying come and save me.
I saved a young painter at the open-air art fair instead. Each night we would ride around in a 1963 Cadillac convertible, riding along the Malecon in the moonlight, then on to the disco at the Hemmingway Marina where he and his friends told me that 'The Revolution is very Tao – very much the Way. It is not all about one but about all of us.'
"All we need is a little more money."
When he left there was an email for me: "Cubans think with their heart. I am happy to be always in your heart."
This was all a bit much so it was time to make my way down south for some real sharks.
On heading out from the coast at Jucaro "La Revolucion" passed us by. She was doing 2 knots. Not more than 10 feet long, canopied and painted the colors of conflict, in her stern sat two large Cuban women smoking Churchill-sized puros and sipping Cuba Libres they way they should be made: 2 parts rum to 1 part Coke.
"La Revolucion" was steering herself.
When I saw the flotilla of silky sharks following our boat in anticipation of the next morning's diving I thought seriously of joining La Revolucion instead.
The next morning, after plunging into the open ocean an hour away from the floating hotel, all fifteen of the 5-foot silkies said everything with their eyes, and those were on me.
The sharks wanted my socks.
I was diving with sharks because, after growing up on the beaches of Sydney, I had all my life been terrified of them. Now it was time to test them and myself. Underwater is the only place to do it and not lose one's feet, unless they are covered in very white socks. Those came off right away, and the silkies sped off to sniff my friend's silver flippers.
By that time I was down 60 feet against a comforting coral wall being cruised by a 200-pound grouper with baleful eyes. He was charming enough for me to not notice why the silkies were staying on the surface and not following me: several enormous reef sharks acting like Tomahawk cruise missiles a few feet from my head. The grouper was unconcerned, so I adopted his philosophy, staying out of their way, though they never missed me by less than 4 inches.
Until the biggest one followed me when I left the shark feeding. It would not give up cruising me in ever decreasing circles, though without bad manners. In a moment the shark was at waist level close enough that I had to pull back. That is when I wet myself, filling up the leg of my wetsuit, unnoticeable to the other divers, but causing the shark's eyeball to enlarge and to give an uncalled for very large gulp in the vicinity of my ankles.
I had removed the white socks but not the yellow fins.
Later in the boat the dive-master, who had gone up the boat's ladder quickly and before me instead of being the last out of the water, laughed loudly and said that 'if I insisted on wearing socks the same color as the carcass of the grouper hanging over the side of the boat, what did I expect?'
"Want to see a carcass," I said? And pushed him over the side into the maelstrom of Silkies vying for the remaining bones.
That was when he was wet both inside and outside his dive suit.
For pottage and puddings and custards and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.
Obviously the great Ogden Nash must have had ancestors back then as well, and I must have my dates mixed up about when the pillaging white folk settling in Massachusetts were hungry. Who was raising wheat and where?
But I am straying from the path and the point that undoon-ness was very much on my mind recently on a tropical island remote to the United States, and held by it to be a prime example of a country undoon, to give a BBQ for my island friends. Temporarily 'undoon' since I had heard that there was nothing in the way of decent provisions to cook with.
I had been lured by the setting: my vast, sunset-lit rented penthouse terrace overlooking the Caribbean, complete with a charcoal-fired BBQ pit and outside speakers, from which music even better than Ricky Martin (but still Puerto Rican) was to be played and the booties to be shaken even more lithe. But first I had to shop for food.
On this island, as on many still (thank god) to be developed nations, that when a direct question is met with polite deafness, not to repeat it. Shortages are potentially politically iffy, or just downright embarrassing. But when it comes to finding and looking at outdoor, or even indoor, food markets I am a glutton, even greedy, and kept asking if there were any. After two trips to this island and constant asking of the same question, the pressure of the BBQ broke the silence:
"Meet us tomorrow outside your house and we will take you to the market."
I had never seen an underfed person on that island yet, nor an overfed one, so I figured something civilized, and not excessive, was afoot in this island's food world. Having to take one's own shopping bag was a first sign of good sense and everyday propriety. Then, after I had changed my dollars into pesos, there it was: a long shed of stalls piled high with garlic, Calabasas (or all kinds of squashes and pumpkins), sour Seville oranges, yucca roots, many kinds of sweet and not potatoes, beautiful little golden pineapples that filled the air with their perfume and fruit flies, huge paw-paws, christophene, purple and white onions, red and gold peppers very much the worse for wear for having been lifted off the truck of some tourist hotel, non-European cucumbers (almost the national dish of Caribbean islands, and called, often, just "salad"), quite ripe Key limes that made my mouth water for a Mohito, grapes (that hotel truck again), and various Mediterranean-looking tomatoes, the kind that are ripe but still have green bits in them. A vegetarian BBQ was not what I had in mind. What about meat or fish, I asked?
"There are no fish here."
The silence after that statement meant I was to leave it silent.
"But for meat, we go over there."
This was nothing like Tangiers, if the city reminded me very much of the sounds and smells. Nor was the market. I saw no anatomical things hanging from hooks that had eyeballs at one end and a tongue at the other. This was a shed just of pork in various pieces, mostly legs and a lot of fat with skin to cook for chicharones or maybe just to enrich refried black beans. Then I saw some much smaller and redder legs labeled carnero, or lamb. Or at least one leg looked like lamb; the other – leaner and less round – looked like Great Dane.
The only dog meat I had ever seen or eaten was in China and it was stewed puppy, so I cannot say I knew if this leg was dog, or even that particular breed. All I can say, cutting to the chase, is that it did not cook like lamb, did not carve like it, taste like it, or in any way seem like it. But it was delicious and everyone's favorite of the two.
Yes, we did get that BBQ going that evening, and here is what I served.
Lots of Cuba Libres
Australian "Jacob's Creek" red and white wine from Duty Free
Roasted peppers with fresh tomato chutney
Cucumbers with chili molido and mint (found in neighbor's pots)
Rice, black beans, and yucca mash with garlic butter
Two barbecued legs, at least one of them lamb
Grilled chicken legs (the breasts go to the tourists) that had been marinated in Seville orange, garlic, and "cooking wine" (please don't ask)
Pineapple caramelized in raw sugar and rum
Not an earthshaking menu, thought he terrace did shake a bit to the music. Cooking it I was reminded of another quote sent to me by the same friend in New York as she read the forward Real French Cooking with a forward by Curnonsky who says: "You do not make a new dish by pouring fish soup over a sirloin."
But the highlight of the evening was after the salsa lessons when the 80-year old grandmother, excited by watching her 18-year old in-the-army grandson (my salsa teacher) gyrate his hips a foot off the marble floor while dancing with his mother (her daughter), cut the music, and sang "Verea Tropical," or the Tropical Way.
A lot of the time I can think of no other way or Way. Around 4 in the morning, rum in one hand, an Esplendido in the other, looking out onto the moonlit Caribbean, I knew that this, no matter what anyone says, is far from a country undoon.