Published: June 30th 2011July 19th 2010
In 2006 I flicked through a travel book and came to rest on the pages that homed Cuba. Immediately I had a rush of nostalgia, like the long lost and expatriated veteran coming home. Only I was a stranger to this place. I saw pictures of chipped paint and crack facades revealing beneath the era of the colonial empire. And that of the new world, ironically the world of the 1950s with USSR branding and mid-century American cars. I wanted to go there beyond in place and time. I wanted to get lost in its paved streets and hapless routine, like the people had, staring from their crumbled terraces, expected nowhere and with no place to go.
40 minutes into arriving in Havana I found myself outside a ration shop. I was with a man and a girl who perhaps posed as his daughter, for he was white and she, bearing no resemblance was Afro-Cuban with vitiligo blanching the sides of her face.
“Look inside” He told me. The counter was dirty and bare apart from the cash register remnant of a foregone era. Steel drums with labels sat on shelves above and bored worker watched me. A scratchy blackboard prescribed the ration per head per month of milk, beans, rice and other staple food. So this was communism . . .
I'd literally just arrived from the airport, thrown my bags in my room and returned to the sidewalk when a tall Cuba stopped me. He asked me the standard prerequisite conversation starters, like where are you from? What is your name? Told me I was pretty and as quickly as he had come, disappeared. So a few paces into Old Havana later, when the ration guy stopped me, my guard was sufficiently down. After another round of polite questioning he asked "You want to see famous church?" At course at the time I suspected it was a ruse, but a harmless one borne of curiosity and in light of the presence of his supposed daughter, I agreed to see it with them.
It was on the way to the church one block away that he stopped me outside the ration store and encouraged me to look in. If the workers in there were interested in me they failed to show it. At the church I was enthusiastically ushered in during mass and given a short lesson in broken English on the religion of Cuba. The ration man did little to adapt his volume amidst the faithful and instead competed with the priest telling me to take photos of this statue and that wall. "Everyone in Cuba is Roman Catholic, we believe very much, all Roman Catholic, what are you?" To his benefit I told him I was too, what harm could a white lie do? But when he dropped on his knees in front of a statue of Mary and demanded I do as well, the equivocation of justice was met in my embarrassment.
After a horribly awkward few minutes of praying for the moment to end, he rose to his knees and I followed him out.
Outside the church I was lead to a less populous area of town in the Afro-Cuban art quarter where the balconies above stood paper mache dolls and the streets were painted in retro coloured graffiti that I completely failed to understand. (In hindsight it looked a lot like La Boca in Argentina but with some voodoo influence. The particulars now evade my memory). At this stage I was more concerned of my whereabouts and ever cursed with poor navigation, I began to grow weary of how far I ventured from the main roads. I started looking around to see if this strange little man had less charitable plans for me. Nothing is for free as it goes and now I wondered what reciprocation was in store, so when he produced a pre-written note it all started to make sense. Lacking sleep and poorly written I stumbled to make sense of the inscription: Needs milk, something about tourist stores, something about Russians and US embargoes.
"Ok?" He asked
"Have no money" I lied
"Have money at hotel?"
"... Ah yeah but -"
"You get milk, for baby, we are family in Cuba"
I tried to rationalise for a moment and found myself confounded by this request, how sinister can the purchase of milk be? Perhaps I thought he could sell the milk for less, but then at what profit? And although the whole thing screamed scam, how expensive could milk be?
I relented and soon I was escorted in another direction to a door barricaded by an Afro-Cuban shop tender that eyeballed my guide with naked distaste. It didn't feel right but I was committed, curious and found the alternative of racing down the road, well, a little awkward. In any case, I hadn't a clue which direction to run, I was lost. Ration man spoke with the shop 'owner' with a tone of a beggar while others began to gather in number. I felt like I was wearing a clown suit which was accentuated when the shop tender looked over me with distain. He pulled aside the cage on the door and then I was being carrying in with a tide of people. First in line at the counter, milk powder, as it turned out, was being stacked in haste into plastic bags. The bill came to CUC36 which is the equivalent of AUD54!
Finally my voice found me and although I could only lament in English I assured him I was buying one packet only. The shop tender regarded me with impatience as my ration man took all but two packets out. I double checked the labelled pricing, handed over CUC11 and burst out onto the street. Ration man stood outside at a distance "You go this way" He pointed up the road and was gone.
I raced back to my hotel, and passing a fat prostitute swore to never again be conned even if I didn't quite understand how I had been conned.
In Cuba a dual currency exists, the Convertible Peso CUC (only allowed currency of non-nationals) and National Peso (CUP). The CUC is worth 25 times more than the National Peso. Goods that are rationed e.g. milk, are only allowed on purchase in CUC after a Cuban's Ration quota has been met. Meaning if they exceed their quota of milk, they then need to pay 25X times more for the privilege. If a tourist, who only has access to CUC buys milk, the ration guy can sell the produce in National Pesos, at a much lower cost and still make a pretty profit.