Dance on an Empty Highway – Cuba 1991

“In case anyone asks, tell them you’re our cousins visiting from Canada,” Raul instructs us in Varadero as we drive off in a massive 1953 Oldsmobile, our transportation for the week.

I wonder how Claudia (a young Latin American friend who’s come with me on this trip), born of Bolivian parents and 8 shades darker than I am, and myself who, although pretty fluent in Spanish, am obviously not Latina, could be cousins to people who have never left Cuba and don’t have any relatives living in the U.S. or Canada.

We are in the care of Raul, his wife Julia and their daughter Yany, part of the crowd at Pablo’s house last year when I invaded their lives.  As agreed via telegram the week before, we meet them down the street from our hotel where they wait next to their massive 1953 Oldsmobile, our transportation for the week.

Cuba’s Towns and Countryside

Claudia and I try to look as nonchalant as possible as we heave several large bags of supplies down the block to the car.  Raul and his family will be showing us the countryside on the south side of the island.

I don’t ask about gas coupons.

Our first stop is Santa Clara, where Raul and Julia live.  We’ll stay the night before heading out in the morning.  Once again, as soon as we arrive, people magically multiply.

Raul and Julia live on the second floor of a two-story house; their eldest daughter lives downstairs.  In Julia’s kitchen there is a two-burner hot plate, sink, small fridge and wood sideboards for the dishes, with the table and chairs outside on the roofed verandah.

The bathroom is similar to the one at Pablo’s: modern plumbing and the ubiquitous pail of water for flushing purposes.  Another pail is in the bathtub.  When it’s time to shower, we’ll heat up some water on the hot plate, pour it into this pail, add cold water to make it a comfortable temperature and ladle it over ourselves.

“You have soap?”  I spot the rarity next to the sink.

“You’ve been here before.” Julia laughs.  “You know about our soap problems.”

I wonder if she saved this bar of soap from my visit last year.

Claudia and I bring cooking oil, bread, tomato sauce and other canned goods from the Intur (tourist) store in Varadero, along with another supply of soap and shampoo.  And chocolate bars for dessert, a luxury for Cubans who live outside tourist zones.

Claudia enjoys answering everyone’s questions about what she does in Canada – she’s in college studying to be a dental hygienist.  Raul talks to me about where we’ll be going and what stores we can get to – U.S. currency is still illegal tender and a few people have handed me their dollars for safekeeping until I can spend it for them.

More Cuban Hospitality

When lunch is ready we sit elbow to elbow around a formica table, perched on vinyl-topped chrome chairs.  I’m surprised at the quality of the meal: rice and beans, of course, but also yucca.  And buttery soft avocado.  There’s even a bit of homemade rice wine.  It’s harvest time and friends in the countryside have donated the extra food.

Living in rural areas has its advantages.  Food is easier to acquire, though the harvests are controlled to enable distributions to Cubans in other areas.  But when in season a certain percentage of fresh coconut, mangoes, bananas, oranges, avocado and other fruits and vegetables are permitted for personal consumption.

Or for donating/bartering/selling.

And those with access to tourists can acquire things people in the rural areas can’t buy.

Black Market Trading – Cuban Style

It is a booming and ever-growing industry, and to my surprise, the authorities usually look the other way.

They know not much will get done here otherwise.

Raúl explains how it works for him:

Officially he’s a night watchman at a factory, but without much raw material entering the country, there’s not a whole lot of inventory that needs watching.  So he keeps his name on the government employment checklists to qualify for ration cards, but hires an elderly neighbour to fill in for him, who is grateful for the extra pesos he earns without having to exert himself too much.  Raúl then freelances as a handyman a few days a week and earns more pesos in the illegal underground economy than with his regular job.

In theory, what is supposed to happen is that when someone needs, for example, a plumber, they fill out a requisition form, hope it lands on the right desk at the dispatch point, then wait for the plumber to show up.  In reality, said plumber usually does not show up, so myriads of underground handymen, mechanics, plumbers, etc. are kept busy making sure things actually do get done.

Another Soap Tale

After a sleepless night (I’m bunked with Yany, who talks and thrashes incessantly in her sleep; Claudia doesn’t fare much better downstairs with the eldest daughter), we head out to an Intur store on the outskirts of Cienfuegos.

I ask for soap.

“How much?” the cashier asks.

“A whole box.”  Raul answers for me.

I wonder how much is in a box.  Three or four, like the packages of Dove or other brands in Montreal?

The cashier leaves to ask her supervisor.  He comes out, looks us over, sees me holding a bunch of U.S. bills so agrees to one box.  Then he lugs over a large cardboard carton and plunks it down on the counter.

75 bars of soap.  $18 U.S.

It doesn’t take long before I understand just how useful soap can be.

Empty Gas Tank – Again

“We need gas.”

I don’t like hearing those words in Cuba.

I’m sure I have no more goodwill left with any Poder Popular official we may meet.  Besides the fact that we’re not driving a tourist rental, I don’t have gas coupons and no means of getting any.

We pull up to a pump in front of an old building at the side of the road.

“Maybe they’ll take American dollars,” Raul says to me.

I wouldn’t count on it, I think to myself.

Things may have changed somewhat here but I’m not sure bribery has become an acceptable means of negotiation or barter.  You just don’t want to get caught with U.S. money if you’re a Cuban, especially if you’re far away from easy access to tourists.

“Do you have any gas?”  Raul asks the attendant.

“Do you have ration coupons?”

“Pesos.”  Raul responds.

“No, only with coupons.”

“Will you accept U.S. dollars?”  Raul nods to me in the back.

I don’t like the way this conversation is going.

The man fortunately doesn’t pay me much attention, nor is he the least bit interested as to why two foreigners are in the back seat of the car.

“No, you know I can’t do that.”

I knew it.  We’re screwed.

Cubans, however, are not easily swayed.

The Power of Soap

Raul leans over and pulls out a couple of bars of soap he had stashed in the glove compartment.

Bribery by Soap

“What about for some soap?”

The man eyes the soap, hesitates, then tells us to wait.  He goes into the building and returns a couple of minutes later.

He leans in towards the car window and gives Raul a paper bag.

“I can give you 20 litres of gas.”

Raul nods and puts the soap into the bag.  The man stuffs it into his pocket and then pumps the gas.

Claudia and I stare at each other.

I sure wish I’d known this trick last year.

Cuban Countryside – Poverty and Hospitality

We have gas.  We have supplies to share with whoever we meet.  We should make it to the mountains today.

We’re sleep deprived, it’s hot and our grip on upbeat and cheery for the sake of our hosts is weakening.

Somewhere along the highway to god-knows-where we turn onto a dirt road.  We’re surrounded by fields, some horses graze nearby, and in the distance I see the outline of the mountains we may or may not get to today.


A family wants to meet us.  Undoubtedly some other long-lost newly invented cousins.  Introductions.  Questions about Canada.  The by-now familiar routine.  The lady of the house serves us fruit juice and Claudia and I give her a few bars of soap and a bottle of cooking oil.  She’s thrilled with this small gift.


Outside we feed berries to a pig grunting in the mud.

When the time comes to use the bathroom I’m shown a door just off the living room.  It leads directly into an outhouse.

The air cools off  and a rainstorm thunders its way toward us.  Sheets of rain turn the dirt road into an oozing mud trap.

Naturally, this is when someone decides it’s time to leave.  Impassable roads are not a problem here.

We say our goodbyes, pile into the vehicle and Raul steers the car towards the –  field.  If you can’t use the road, cross the pasture.  We bounce, bump and careen our way past startled horses and towards the highway.  The car is not entirely watertight – two of the windows are missing.  Claudia and I try to cover the openings with a couple of our plastic bags, but we’re laughing too hard to accomplish much as the rain slaps the bags against us.

Getting from point A to point B is never boring in Cuba. (read part 2 here)

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