Stale Bread with Ham and Rum: Tourism in the Time of Cuba
February 14, 2016 / 1:00 pm
BY ALICE DRIVER
“Maaaaaammmey!” The song of the mamey seller was the soundtrack to my
first moments in Cuba. The burnt orange flesh of the mamey, which has a
consistency that is a cross between that of an avocado and a sweet
potato, is best eaten whole while walking down the streets of Havana.
My first morning in Cuba, I had stale bread and ham with locals on the
corner near my family’s house. The young woman who served me breakfast
had hot pink nails, and she apologized for the stale bread by offering
me a shot of rum. A waitress at the restaurant sat at a table nearby
smoking a cigarette and drinking rum.
While walking along the Malecón one night, I met Noel, 27, a
welterweight boxing champ. He was sitting there with his entire family.
I walked by and admired his hair, and then thought about telling him I
liked his hair, and then returned to do so. He introduced me to his
entire family, offered me rum, and then asked me to wait while he ran to
his house to get his boxing photos. He showed me a photo of him in the
snow in Russia, of him in Germany, of him at his training gym. His
little cousin Alberto bought me peanuts. The moon was full and as heavy
and close to the Earth as I had ever seen it.
This grandma, one eye brown and the other blue, sat on a bench in Old
Havana with her hibiscus crown. When she reached over to pick up a huge
cigar, I snapped a photo. Then she stretched out her hand. I searched
around in my bag and then dropped $1 Cuban convertible peso (CUC) into
her hand, the equivalent of $1.45 US. I had not seen any beggars in
Havana, and nobody had asked me for money (although women had asked me
for makeup and kids had asked me for gum). She looked at me sharply and
said, “I want Euros.” And then to make her point, she fished a $2 euro
coin out of her pocket.
The first snacks I found in the street were these chiviricos, fried
dough covered in sugar. In general, it was difficult to find street food
or snacks and most corner stores had either empty shelves or shelves
stacked with tomato sauce and bottled water. Often the woman at the cash
register asked me if I had any lipstick, mascara, or eyeliner that I
could give her. Once a cashier asked me for my shoes.
Walking down a crowded street in Havana, I looked through an open window
and was greeted by this almost-blonde getting her hair dyed at home. I
love the way we were able to interact in both domestic and public space
and the fact that she wanted me to take a picture but didn’t pose or
change her expression at all.
In a country where there is always a lack of something (water, bread,
butter) people enjoy excess where they can. This excess also includes an
intense fondness for sugar which they sometimes pour into their coffee
cups until it reaches the halfway mark. “Even a few years ago, it was
hard to get nail polish here,” said this woman as she showed me her nail
I sat in the back of vintage taxis with bouquets of flowers covered in
glitter, with cigars, with beer, with friends made and lost in the space
of a few minutes, with my heart in my hand, with a cigar in my hand,
with glitter on my face as I rested my cheek on flowers.
Noel, the boxer, invited me to his boxing gym, the Gimnasio de Boxeo
Rafael Trejo, where I watched him jump rope and spar with fellow boxers
like the one seen in this photo. “I can travel to Russia and to Germany
for boxing matches, but I don’t have a Lamborghini or nice shoes or a
big watch,” he said when talking about the pros and cons of being an
athlete in Cuba. Large billboards all around Havana read “Sports for
everyone, the revolution conquers.” Every child in Cuba can study a
sport at school, and I met many young boxers, fencers, and black belts
I ran into this duo, who I called Superman and the smoker, after they
hopped of a motorcycle with a sidecar, a mode of transportation quite
common in Cuba. “Can you send us the photo?” they asked. “Do you have
Facebook?” I wanted to know. “What is Facebook?” they asked.
Cienfuegos, Cuba. Raul Castro’s government has made the “social and
public” use of internet a priority, and has installed Wi-Fi hotspots in
parks and on high traffic corners in several Cuban cities. Young
entrepreneurs sit with their computers in the park and sell internet by
the minute to those who pass by. At night, the park in Cienfuegos is lit
up by the tiny points of glowing light created by mobile phones.
Cubans celebrate New Year’s with a pig roast, and they see them from
life to death. (They often raise them in the back patio of the house.) I
watched this pig walk down the street and then heard it scream as they
let its blood. Pigs have a lot of fight in them, and it was hard to
watch, but I felt better about eating a pig whose life I knew and whose
death I had witnessed than I did about eating commercially produced meat
in the USA.
“I would travel to the end of the earth with you,” he shouted from the
corner. I stopped and asked, “Why did you get lips tattooed on your
neck?” And he pointed to his neck and said, “Kiss me!” Cuban flirting is
a heady mix of romance novel and comedic antics, and I didn’t know what
do do except laugh and ask him for a photo. His name was Jean Claudet,
and he was standing on the corner with two friends, José Luis and Ronan.
They asked if I could print them a copy of the photo. When I asked if I
could send it to them via Facebook, Jean Claudet responded, “Facebook,
there’s no time for that. There’s many things to do in the street.”
“Cuba is for traveling, not for living,” he said. “We get a ration of
five eggs per month, one piece of bread per day, and one chicken leg
every 45 days.”
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