Waiting, waiting, waiting
Waiting for things to get better
And then along comes Mr Trump
The first thing any Cuban will tell you is that their education is free. The second thing they tell you is that their health care is free. They tell you this with pride, and rightly so. But then they move on to politics and how their lives are so hard. They have had 55 years of the Castro brothers during which time nothing has improved. They watch the world’s economy improve and grow while they live just as they did 55 years ago. They want the Castro Regime to end and they desperately want change.
They are waiting, waiting, waiting.
But no one seems to know if change will come.
Meanwhile they survive, but only just. As Raidel has told us no one makes enough money to live on, not even doctors. They talk of life in America. Some dream of nothing else, others tell us they have friends or family who made it to the States but they too struggle. The cost of health care in the States is beyond their comprehension and it cripples their friends who are there.
This is the 21st century and Cubans want what others have. They want food. They want their own mode of transport and they want internet, a connection to the outside world. All three are hard to come by. In a country that prides itself for its socialism surely food is an equal right for everyone and yet at times it seems a privilege here.
Cubans know that every few blocks in America there are huge grocery stores with shelves full of the most fantastic variety of merchandise. They find this impossible to understand. Their supermarkets are the size of a 7/11. They are not super, and hardly qualify as a market, and they are few and far between, mainly because there is no merchandise to put in them. The supers we have seen offer no fruits or vegetables, no fresh meat or fish, just packaged goods – and the choice is minimal. An average store has maybe three aisles of shelves, and often one or more of those aisles will be completely empty. And if you find that hard to believe this is a grocery store in old town Havana, with empty shelves and forlorn customers leaning on the counter as if waiting for a miracle
In Cuba, you don’t go into a store with a shopping list. There is no point. You go in when and if you have money to buy whatever they have, whether you want it or not, because tomorrow it will be gone. We learned this the hard way on our second day. We are lucky because our apartment in Havana has a grocery store a block away. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that no one drinks the water in Cuba. Our landlady graciously supplies us with two bottles of water and when we looked in the store on our first day we see there is a huge pile of bottled water for sale. We assume that bottled water would be permanently available so we didn’t bother to get any. The next day when we need water the entire display of water has gone. And they never get anymore while we are in Havana
A grocery store may have an entire aisle without anything on the shelves, and yet the next aisle will be fully stocked . But when you look closer you see that it is just one product filling the aisle. The grocery store, just like the shopper, buys what ever it can whenever it can and if that happens to be boxes of juice then the shop buys every box that is available and fills it’s shelves.
This store is pretty standard and has three aisles. Each aisle has one product on it, so basically the store just has 6 items for sale. In this case it is pasta
mayonnaise, potato chips, cereal, and assorted soft drinks. Like most stores it has a separate corner for alcohol and has a large array of different rums and little else. They always have rum. Every shop, however empty, seems to have rum.
Fresh milk does not seem to exist in Cuba. Long life milk does exist but is often hard to find. There is a powdered version that you mix with water which sounds disgusting and is fortunately unavailable as well. But there is an entire aisle of breakfast cereal. There just isn’t any milk to go with it. If you buy the cereal you then have to go search other stores for milk. Life for Cubans is a constant search for basic foods, milk, water, fruit and vegetables.
To find fruit and vegetables, you have to look for a produce market. We have only seen one, and Alice Waters would not be happy shopping there.
Mostly these items are sold on carts wheeled around the city.
or in wheelbarrows
or even just over the shoulders of a hard working man
Although this is a tropical country where everything should grow easily the choice is always extremely limited.
Protein is even harder to find. Occasionally we will see a man selling fish on a street corner. He will just have whatever he caught that morning (hopefully) which is not much. If business is good he will have bought himself an old picnic cooler in which to display the fish, but mostly they just have the fish in a washing up bowl sometimes covered with a cloth to keep the flies off, but not always.
We have yet to work out where you buy meat.
Or cars! There are no cars for sale in Cuba. You never see a car showroom, and almost never see a modern car. New cars have been unobtainable since the embargo was placed on the country by President Kennedy. So Cubans have to manage with the cars that were imported before that date, which explains why every car we see is a classic and why they are kept in such immaculate condition. There is no way to replace them. It also explains why the roads are deserted. There is no traffic because there are no cars. Even the cars that are on the roads seem unsure that they belong there. Almost all of them are 60+ years old and it is a testament to the will and skill of their owners that they are still going. It is a very strange world that has these beautiful wide boulevards with not a car to be seen
One small bonus to this situation is that there is no rush hour. You can drive through the streets of Havana at 9am or 6pm and all you will see are the buses, some as old as the cars, overflowing with people.
The only place that you can see a vaguely new car is at the car rental agencies. They have cars that may have been made this century, although it is hard to tell because they are made in China and look something like a 20 year old Nissan. I am happy to tell you that we were able to get a rental car. It is listed as an MG5 which sounds good but isn’t. MG is or was a British car. But there is nothing British about this MG. It costs us an unbelievable $100 a day and the most that can be said for it is that it gets us to where we want to go (or has so far). But to Cubans it is highly desirable and we are warned to always lock it and park it at night under street lamps. We nervously check each morning to see that it is still there. It is a sad reflection on Cuba that someone would want to steal it.
And then there is the internet, another sad part of life in Cuba. A very few ingenious people have somehow managed to get wifi in their own homes, but do not want anyone to know. Wifi is only officially available at “hotspots” in each town, provided and controlled by the goverment. Usually these hotspots are in parks or squares and there are so few of them that the government provides a list of where to find them. The list for Havana names just 22 places. Smaller towns have just two or three. If you don’t have the list just look for a park where crowds of locals are sitting using their phones.
It is rare to see a computer, most people have managed to buy or acquire a phone but very few have a computer.
But finding a wifi “hotspot” is just the start of the process. To get the internet you must buy an internet card from a government run office called Etecsa. The cards cost $1 for an hour of internet access. They have $1 cards and $5 cards (five hours). There are even fewer Etecsa outlets than parks. You can look for a small office with the name Etecsa over it, or you can look for a long line of people.
You can easily be in line for 30 minutes, only to be told when you get to the counter that they have just sold the last card. We learn to ask if they have cards before we stand in line. You are only allowed to buy three cards at one time and you must produce ID to do so. We have yet to find anywhere that has the $5 cards.
The process is slow and laborious as your ID information and the numbers on the cards you buy have to be entered into a computer by someone who is not proficient at typing, but is very proficient at chatting to their fellow workers. It is an extremely frustrating experience but we have to learn to accept it just as all the Cubans do.
Standing in line is how Cubans spend a huge part of their time each day. Because of the shortages and the small number of stores, a line quickly forms outside a store that has stock of a particularly desirable item. If Cubans see a line and have money in their pocket they automatically join it because they know that they should buy whatever is being sold.
The Ectecsa stores also sell phone minutes, another reason for the lines
There are lines for bread
lines for a drink
even lines to squeeze into the back of a truck
There is a protocol for standing in line. Cubans do not try and push in line, but neither do they stand in line. They hang about sitting on a wall if there is one, or leaning against the wall looking exhausted. When you see a line you must ask who is the last person waiting and they will tell you. You then know that you can go and sit on the wall until that person is served. All very civilized, but somewhat frustrating for a tourist who has yet to learn the protocol.
These are the hardships that face the Cuban people. For the tourist who is willing to be flexible it is what makes the country fascinating. It doesn’t detract from the amazing City of Havana, to me anyway, it adds to the appeal. I am here to see the world, and this is definitely a different slice of it
However there is one area which affects the tourist as much as it affects the Cubans. At this point dear readers. It is another of life’s necessities but one that requires a little delicacy in describing it. If you are slightly squeamish you may not care to read about the public toilets. The good news is that there are public toilets, not many but they are there.. The bad news is that you never ever want to use one unless it is absolutely uncontrollably necessary. There is an attendant at every toilet who is easily mistaken for a street person. She (I will call her she for convenience, although sometimes it is a he) sits outside on the pavement on a dilapidated folding chair and waits for her unsuspecting prey. If you attempt to enter the toilet she leaps to her feet faster than you thought possible and bars entrance until you pay her an unspecified sum of money. It appears just a few cents is enough. As an unsuspecting tourist you might understandably expect that this person is being paid to keep the toilet clean. It soon becomes abundantly clear that this is not so. You might also expect there to be toilet paper. This is not so either. You have to ask the unfriendly attendant for toilet paper. If you are unlucky, she won’t have any (quite common). If you are unluckier, she will. If she does she will hand you one or two alarmingly flimsy little paper squares totally unsuitable for the job at hand. Once inside the toilet the smell and the squalor hits you. The lady sits outside because she can’t face being inside. Of course if she cleaned occasionally things night be better. But she does not. There are no toilet seats. You are not allowed to throw paper into the toilet as the system can’t handle it, so you deposit your two used pieces of toilet paper into a bucket next to the toilet which is already full of other peoples discarded paper.
Next, you would really like to was you hands. You are encouraged by the sight of a wash basin. It may be dirty but it does have a tap. What it doesn’t have is hot water, soap or a towel.
You will not be surprised to learn that this is the one place you will never find a line. No one, not even Cubans want to use these toilets.
Welcome to Cuba