Helping out in Cuba’s “Special Period” – Part 3

I’ve driven straight into 1959.

Not many people are on the streets, and hardly any vehicles, except for an occasional 40-year old Chevrolet behemoth.

The town must have been lovely at one time with its pastel-coloured houses and their red-tiled roofs. Now it needs several coats of paint and the broken patches of cracked plaster and stucco repaired.

Typical street

(To read the previous post, click here.)

I don’t see any stores. We drive slowly by row-houses and a few children playing in the street. One woman wearing a worn cotton dress leans against a door jamb, arms crossed, and looks over at the car. We pass a small group of 2 or 3 women who also turn to stare at us. Not exactly hostile, but no one smiles or nods.

I feel very out-of-place.

Neighborhood Watch, Cuban-style

“Probably members of the CDRs.” Pablo says to me matter-of-factly.

“The what?”

“Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.”

What?

I’m told they are a kind of neighbourhood watch (more like a spy network) – residents who volunteer to check what’s happening on their streets and report on any unusual activity. I get a prickly sense of the car’s license plate number and a description of its driver being jotted down somewhere.

When we finally arrive at Pablo and Carmen’s, it’s dusk. I’ve been driving for about six hours and want to eat something. And use a bathroom. Or latrine. Maybe a chamber pot.

First though, I meet their youngest son and he helps us unload the car, hurrying everything past some hens clucking behind a small enclosure next to the house and on inside.  The young boy then scurries behind the house, with a few of the smaller bags.

“He’s going up on the roof.”

“On the roof?” I ask.

“That way no one will see him carry the bags. He’s bringing them to our friends. We can’t keep everything here.”

Good lord.

Cuban Life

The kitchen is small, a plastic tablecloth over the table, a few metal chairs tucked around it, and a two-burner hot plate for a stove.

Lunch time - Cuba 1991

There is a Russian-made television set in one corner of the living room, a couple of armchairs, and the most comfortable wood rocking chair I’ve ever sat on (a traditional hand-made Cuban chair, as I learn later).

And I get to use the bathroom. A regular Western-style bathroom, with toilet, tub and small sink.

Carmen apologetically shows me a pail of water to use for flushing the toilet, and though I tell her I don’t mind at all – I’ve used much worse – I’m not sure she believes me.

Granma
I see a copy of Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, beside the toilet. A few pages are missing. And though I’m sure it serves the purpose, I’m glad I have my own supply of tissues for my bathroom breaks.

Rations in Cuba – 1991

I’m surprised when several people arrive – not many families own telephones here but somehow word gets around quickly.  The women bring bowls of rice and beans into the kitchen; being on rations isn’t going to stop these Cubans from sharing what they have and showing whatever hospitality they can manage. On the long drive here, Carmen had shown me her ration book and explained what was available for them to buy:

Ration card.jpg
Cuban ration card

Per person:

3 eggs a week

½ litre of milk a day if there’s a child

5 lbs of rice per month

4 lbs of beans

Though cheese is on the list, it is rarely available

1 pair of shoes a year

One bar of soap per person per month.

Problem is, for the past two or three months, there’s been none. Nor any shampoo. They make do with baking soda and rainwater.

Cuban Hospitality

Carmen slowly reheats the beans on the hot plate, adding water so they won’t stick – cooking oil is also in short supply. I’m ushered into the living room which is soon crowded with people introducing themselves. And they all seem related through blood or marriage to either Carmen or Pablo.

I’m asked about the weather in Canada. About Montreal. What does it look like, is it a big city? Are there many stores? What do I do for work? What does the office look like? What is snow like?

“What kind of food do you eat?”

Of all the questions, that last one stumped me.

What do we eat? It’d be easier to describe what we don’t have available. And how do I describe it to people who have lived with such deprivation for so long?

“Lasagna.” I figure that’s an easy dish to start with.

“What’s that?”

“Long rectangles of pasta.” I get quizzical looks from everyone.

“Uh, spaghetti? Only wider? With layers of tomato sauce, different spices.  Or ground beef. And cheese.”

I may as well have been speaking Mandarin. For people raised mostly on rice and beans, lasagna is incomprehensible.

Pablo disappears into a side room then comes out and hands me some American money. His son gave it to him in Montreal, knowing that I could use it in a tourist store for his parents. Their nephew David is amongst the crowd, and he quickly hands me some folded up American bills he’d stuffed in one of his pockets. He and his friend Luis worked for a time in Varadero and have held on to the dollars they received as tips.

A long discussion then ensued about them helping me drive back to Varadero, using their dollars in the stores there for some clothes, storing the stuff at their relatives so they wouldn’t get caught on their way back home, and having a mini-vacation themselves on the beach.

I’m flabbergasted and appalled at how complicated a simple thing like buying clothes is here.

But right now, it’s time to eat. And as hungry as I am, I feel guilty eating their rationed food. How will they manage tomorrow with even less?

Cuban rice and beans

Beans, rice and fried yucca are piled onto my plate. Everyone is anxious that I eat enough, and I’m just as anxious to limit my portions. And I know they know, but they also want the dignity of not being charity cases.

By the time supper is over I’m exhausted. I say good-bye and we plan our day tomorrow, going to the tourist stores and, somehow, a way to get more gas.

After not too much sleep on a lumpy mattress, and showering in cold water, I eat breakfast – a strange egg concoction of something or other, served by the surliest waiter this side of Moscow – in the rowdy, wild west atmosphere of the hotel’s cafeteria-style restaurant. A group of Chilean deep-sea fishermen have set up camp at the hotel and want to make sure everyone knows it.

Shopping – Cuban Style

When I walk out of the hotel Carmen and her nephew are getting down from a horse-drawn wagon “taxi”.

“We can go into the store if we’re with a tourist.” Carmen explains as we head over to the tourist store next to the hotel.

Well, aren’t the authorities generous.

We enter a small variety store with the ubiquitous tourist beach towels, t-shirts, a few books, mostly in Spanish and mostly about either tourism or the Revolution: Fidel’s “La Historia Me Absolverá” (History will Absolve Me) and Che Guevara’s “Diario de Bolivia” (Bolivian Diary).

More importantly, there are also a few racks of pants, blouses and shorts for men and women, and shampoo and soap. Carmen and David show me what they want and I pick up the items.

When I bring everything to the counter, the cashier looks at Carmen, then at me.

“Are you friends?”

What the hell? Why is this their business?

“Uh, yes.” I reply, trying not to sound too pissed off.

“From where?” I glare at her. I want to slug the smirky smile off her face and tell the meddling little CDR snitch that it’s none of her goddamn business.

But I’m not the one who has to live here.

I get to leave soon. Maybe Carmen knows this lady. Maybe they pass each other on the street, or see each other in the ration lines for their rice quota of the month.

Bread day, Cuba
Bread day, Cuba

“I’m from Canada.” I try to keep my voice even. Carmen and David don’t say anything.

I’m fuming as we leave the store.

“Is it always like this here?”

Carmen tries to calm me down.

“We’ve never had anyone from another country visit us.”

Lord have mercy.

My brain de-fogs.

Again.

They have a son in Canada, who fled the country during the Mariel boat lift. A foreigner, from the same city as their exiled son, drops in to visit.

Which naturally raises suspicions. What exactly are Pablo and Carmen up to?

I don’t know if I’m more upset at what just happened or the inhumane U.S. embargo against Cuba. A small minority of Cuban exiles in Miami seem to exercise a whole lot of control over U.S. policy. And these same people will hypocritically ask me to bring down funds for their relatives to help them out, all the while noisily protesting against any attempt to alleviate the suffering caused by American-imposed restrictions.

Fulgencio Batista
Fulgencio Batista

Yeah, I get that Castro rules with an iron fist. So did Batista – yet the U.S. seemed to have no problem with him, they backed him on his second return to power.

But right now, I don’t want my presence to cause any grief for my new-found friends, despite Pablo’s assertions to the contrary.

I need to get out of here.

Once I get some gas.

(The last part of this adventure can be found here.)

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