The only way to get around in Cuba as a tourist is to meet people. Otherwise, you will get swindled right and left.
And, as it is becoming clear to me, the only way to exist in Cuba as a native is to know a lot of people. Because no one place or one person can access everything. Things are just too rare.
Yesterday, one of my hostesses, Sara, took me with her to go around the commercial center in Matanzas – essentially the shopping district, where all of the stores are. I think they are all in one place because many are needed to complete a shopping list.
Each store is very limited and unreliable in what they’ll have on any given day. At the grocery we first went to, there were frozen meats (chicken, hamburger, steaks, shrimp, lobsters), beer, rum, wine, juice, oil, mayonnaise, candy and chips, dry pasta, canned sardines, peppers and tomatoes, jarred olives, onions and garlic, cigarettes, protein powder, beans, cornmeal, rice, non-refrigerated yogurts, hot dogs, ice cream, toilet paper, baby food, salt in large bags, cleaning supplies, ironing boards and pots and pans. Today there were no eggs, though, and no milk at this particular store.
“Sometimes yes,” Sara said, “sometimes no.”
There are other stores that have milk at a particular time, but maybe no meat. Or bread.
When stores do have something, for the most part, there is only one brand for everything – one main kind of toilet paper, one main kind of soap (which explains why everyone and every casa smells of the same scent), one main kind of juice, etc.
Produce is sold in separate storefronts, which are closed on Mondays. However, Sara prefers to shop for produce on the streets, where it’s fresher, she said. She picked up some long beans from a man selling out of a wheelbarrow and a bin tied across the handles of a bicycle, and I bought an avocado the size of my face.
There are other stores for electronics, soaps and lotions and home goods, although most stores are a mashup of all of the above, sometimes with food as well. In one store we walked into, at the counter were bundles of plastic cutlery, toothbrushes and socks, all in a row. At most of the stores, there is a man at the door who will inspect what bags you have on you, and upon your departure, inspect your bags again as well as your receipt. Some stores require women to check their purses in cubbies before entering.
And there are all kinds of other “stalls” on the street, too. Sara stopped at one point to buy a steel scrubbing pad from a man sitting on a stoop selling a handful of them as well as cheap disposable razors and batteries out of a suitcase.
In general, she has to visit six or seven stores, she said, to get what she needs, plus street stalls. For everything else, neighbors and friends help each other out. As I mentioned previously, Sara and her family are very well off in Cuban standards. Sara is an engineer and her daughter, Edelys is a dermatologist. They dress nicely and have a gorgeous house and wine that tastes like wine and not something that came out of a litter box. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have to scrap, too. Last night, Edely’s husband, Armando, who is a bartender, told me that she makes only $60 a month. He asked me how much money she would make in the U.S. and I almost felt sick telling him. Then I told him he could make almost six figures as a bartender in the U.S., too, at the right place.
“OK,” he said, and paused before smiling. “We will come with you in your suitcase.”
When I left Sara in the morning, I wandered around and then sat in the Parque Liberdad for a while. Since this is the only place in the city to access wifi (which you pay for by the hour, at a nearby hotel), the park is very lively and the benches are almost always full. It’s a beautiful park with a stage in the middle although I haven’t seen any performances . At sunset, birds descend on the many trees and form a loud squawking symphony.
While I was in the park, I made a new friend – Ariel.
Now, I know it sounds like I’m meeting a lot of dudes here and that is true, but Cuban women seem to hate me instantly. And the guys I’m meeting seem genuinely interested in showing me their city and their country without expectations. (OK so two of them may have professed their love after a couple of days — whatever.)
Anyway, going around with a Cuban is infinitely easier. (“There are two prices in Cuba,” Ariel said. “One for Cubans and one for tourists.” It seems like there are two sets of rules for everything in Cuba.) When you’re with someone, people stop whistling at you and taxis don’t try to swindle you and you know where the hell you’re going.
I was on my way to a former 1800’s era French pharmacy which has been converted into a museum, and so Ariel came along and acted as translator. Then, he took me to a restaurant near the university Camilo Cienfuegos where we drank mojitos and had the best fish I’ve eaten here – grilled simply with salt – with plantain chips and lime. The food here overall seems to be much better than it was in Santa Clara, but you do pay for the better quality AND I AM ALMOST OUT OF MONEY.
After the museum, he took me to some artist studios along the river. My hosts had told me to walk by the river because it is “very beautiful and natural,” but in reality, the shorelines are piled with trash and the opposite end from the city is lined with shacks. From there, we went up to Monsarate – the mountain top – in the afternoon, where we had more mojitos and an absolutely incredible view of pastures of horses and the ocean beyond. The best part, though, might have been the journey there and back in the side car of a motorcycle taxi (Ariel got on the back of the motorcycle). The driver had helmets for us and he just took off down these pedestrian-crowded streets, weaving around running people and dogs and all of the many potholes in the streets.
I had dinner and napped for a while and then met up with Ariel and a bunch of his friends – including two Cuban women that didn’t hate me – and we all went to a different discotheque that was definitely better than the first one I went to and definitely more fun and safer feeling with a group of people.
I got my salsa on! But for the people there, the most popular songs were probably the American songs, which were bad club songs from 15 years ago. It’s pretty hilarious. Also, I had asked Ariel earlier in the day what was good to wear to the club and he said “normal” – so I showed up in ripped jeans and a t-shirt. They, meanwhile, were wearing starched shirts — but they seemed to think I had dressed the nicest of anyone. The girls fawned over my jeans like they were something special. It’s strange. I really think people here are just entranced by Americans, one way or another.
Most of the others didn’t speak any Spanish at all but we communicated with my Spanglish, and every half hour or so one of the guys would look at me, yell out “HEY LADY! WHAT’S HAPPENING?” in English and crack up laughing.
After paying for my cab last night, I have a grand total of $2.50 to my name, just enough for water for today. My friend from California has supposedly landed and is going to be bringing me more cash, but her phone isn’t working. She better get here or I am going to be dying in this place.
Also: SO excited to speak English.