^ Welcome to my beautiful Cuban home-away-from-home. Looks like an old Spanish castle, doesn't it?
But technically, this home is not in Cuba at all. Because I was a guest of the Ambassador of Malaysia and stayed here in his official residence, this house stands on Malaysian soil.
^ That fact was hard to grasp when I first climbed out of the car and stood staring in the driveway, the Cuban sun beating down on my jet-lagged brain. Once I stepped inside, the cool entry hall did indeed feel familiarly Malaysian, from the shoes lined up at the door and the portrait of the Prime Minister to the proud display of mini Petronas Towers and lacquered Islamic art.
^ But my goodness, what a gloriously beautiful and enormous house.
The ceilings soar twenty feet high overhead.
Curved arches and doorways echo from room to room.
Intricate moldings and heavy tapestries add layers of ornamentation.
^ The courtyard is straight out of my exotic tropical mansion fantasies, complete with wrought iron railings, a splashing fountain, and all manner of leafy green jungle plants.
^ Most breathtaking of all are the living and dining rooms. Two comfortable seating areas - each one bigger than the average American family room - sit side by side in the living area.
Coffee tables sparkle with coordinating displays of colored gems collected in Cambodia.
Lush red pillows punch up the cream-colored upholstery with satin and gold accents.
Art collected from Vietnam stirs the imagination.
French doors layered with brocade and sheers keep out the pounding sun and open to the terrace and pool.
And a dining room table for eighteen - big as a bowling alley - is crowned with an appropriately gigantic chandelier,
As I tiptoed through the rooms, I felt like a palace intruder. I wondered if it was possible to feel at ease in such a fantastically formal residence. I doubted that this showplace could ever feel like a cozy home.
Then I was called to lunch.
At the far end of that diplomatic dream of a table, near the kitchen door, I found six homespun place mats, one of them clustered with simple serving bowls. Spicy smells of Malay home cooking rose up as everyone came running and slid into their seats.
From the top left, clockwise:
sambal, fried chicken, hard boiled eggs, shrimp and sambal, cucumber slices.
Suddenly, this massive, majestic house didn't feel like a palace or an embassy or a castle at all.
This felt like the friendly home of my newfound Malaysian friends, a place where I could eat nasi with my hands and take second- or even third-helpings of delicious home cooked meals, and sit long after we had finished eating to talk and talk and talk.
And that is exactly what we did.
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Check out more stories about my once-in-a-lifetime trip to Cuba and my wonderful friends who lived there: