For Golriz. Who also bums matches off hobos.



and read:


Jane: “Ok, nobody get a massive cut or break an arm.”

Flora: “What did you do?”

I used the roll of gauze and the tensor bandage from the first aid kit to make a strainer for their little star-shaped pasta. What? They’re pretty sturdy children. Odds they have an injury requiring THAT much gauze are pretty slim.

And I’ve not been able to find either a colander or a cheese cloth in Cuba, so…

It’s both my favourite and most infuriating thing, about here, about any new place. All the things one takes for granted back home—gone. Potable water from the tap? Water fountains from which you can refill your water bottles? Grocery stores full of groceries? Gone, gone, gone—everything is new, everything is an adventure.

Cinder: “That is not fun. It’s fucking infuriating.”

Well, it’s both, right?

Cinder: “No. And, by the way, you told me to remind you, we’re running low on matches.”

Right. Matches. Must get matches.



Jane: “Ok, this is fucking ridiculous. Half the people in this country smoke, and everyone has gas cookers. Where the hell do they buy matches?”

Here is where they do NOT buy matches:

  • the supermarket,
  • the 24/7 convenience store
  • the inconvenience “never know when the fuck it’s open” store
  • the pizza place that’s never really open but sells pop out of one of its windows
  • the cigarette booth
  • the newspaper and cigarette booth
  • the rum, cigarette, pop and shampoo (!!!) kiosk
  • the bodega where I can’t shop for anything anyway
  • the hotel lobby…
  • oh, and–yes–the cigarette lighter fixing shop.

When I see the giant “Fosforo” sign over the balcony, I leap into the air and pirouette with joy. That morning, we husbanded our last two matches very carefully. First, I lit a candle. Then I used an incense stick to light the gas stove off the candle. Blew out candle. Relit it before turning off the stove. Etc. We still have one match left, but seriously—where does one buy matches here?

So. Expedition. We need to buy buns—and matches.

Buns—check. We’ve got the getting bread thing nailed.

Matches—not here. Not here.

Jane: “Where?”

Dude on the street: “Try around the corner, in front of the pizza place.”

Like on the sidewalk in front of the pizza place? Where there is… sidewalk? And a sewer?

Dude on the street: “Sometimes, there are matches.”

I want to weep.

But then.

Fosforo! Phosphorus! Also, the Spanish word for match! I have found them!


I jaywalk across the street with alacrity, Ender’s hand in mine, the other two following me quickly. (It’s not really jaywalking in Havana, it’s just crossing the street, but it still feels wrong, and terrifying, every single time.)

Jane: “Could I buy a box of matches here?”

Fosforo Man: “No.”

I look over his shoulder into the room, at the rows of lighters and canisters of lighter fluid.

Jane: “Can I buy a lighter here?”

Fosforo Man: “No, I only fix them.”

Jane: “For the love of god, can you tell me where I can buy matches?”

Fosforo Man: “Matches?”

Am I just saying matches really really badly?

Jane: “Matches. A box of matches.”

He explodes into an effusiveness of Cuban Spanish and I squint my eyes and ears and fingers and toes and try very hard to follow. Get lost immediately.

Cinder: “What did he say?”

Jane: “Honestly, I have no idea. I think he said, go back one block, turn right, then turn left, and you’ll see some old men sitting on the street, and they have matches, but that can’t possibly be right.”

Flora: “So… he sent you off to bum matches off hobos?”

Cinder: “Well… we might as well try that, right?”


We do.

And there they are.

A row of elderly men, sitting or crouching against the wall and steps of the building, each with a cloth spread out in front of him. On each cloth—a few match boxes, a couple of lighters, a handful of straight razor blades, a pile of cigars.

One dude also has plastic combs. Another, an assortment of screws.

The prices are in moneda nacional, and everything, for me, is essentially free: I don’t have change small enough to pay for what they’re selling. I take a box of matches and five cigars. Give a CUC.

He tries to give me seven more cigars.

Jane: “No, no, not so much, not today. Keep the change—I’ll come back for more cigars when I smoke these.”

Him: “Smoke quickly.”

As it turns out—I run out of matches first.

20-Matches no picture


Cuban matches suck.

Yes, this is a First World Whine. I’ve been a good sport. This, I am whining about. If you can’t design a goddamn match that works…

I go through a third of the box of matches before I finally manage to light the stove. They bend. Break. The sulphur falls off during the scraping process. The sulphur tips fall off during the taking the match out of the box process. When I finally manage to light one—it goes out before it reaches the stove.

I weep.

Cinder: “Let me try.”

He ruins six matches before deciding that it is the matches, not I, that are incompetent.

Deep breath.

OK, I’m clearly doing this wrong. These are the local matches. The people here manage to use them. What’s my problem?

The matches bend. The heads fall off. OK. So?

I grasp the match just underneath the head. Strike it—and—yes! Fire! Fingers burning!

I slide the fingers down the match stem quickly. Light the stove.


Jane: “I figured it out, I figured it out! Look! You hold the match right underneath the head, and strike it like that, and then you shimmy your fingers down the stem as quickly as you can…”

Cinder: “That’s idiotic.”

Well. I didn’t say it was optimal design. But I figured out how to make it work.

20-Matches cigar image 2


I never figure out the can opener. That’s not the Cubans’ fault—like the oven that I’m afraid of, the can opener is of Soviet design. Apparently, that means it has to be substantially different than the Western-designed can openers with which I’m familiar that, you know, actually open cans.

Flora: “It’s a special ‘preserve the food you’ve got’ can opener.”

Cinder: “Yeah, the food lasts forever because you can’t get at it.”

Jane: “Shut up. I’m trying to concentrate.”

I first try to use the can opener when my engineer father is in Havana. Now, this is the man who during the US trade embargo on Libya did to Libyan agricultural machinery what the Cubans do to 1950s American cars—and, well, pretty much everything else. He can fix anything, make anything go.

He can’t figure out how to use the can opener.

Jane: “Did you get it to work?”

Dad: “Here. I opened the can.”

Jane: “But did you get the can opener to work? Show me how.”

Dad: “No, I used this knife. Here. Let me show you how to open a can with a knife.”

Life skills, life skills.

20-Matches One of the shops


The rice cooker is of Chinese design. We have no problems.


The toilet paper is from Vietnam. “New flushable design!” the packaging proudly proclaims. I’m excited—when I lived in Korea, I had to deposit the toilet paper in a little waste basket beside the toilet, and it was the most disgusting…


Landlord: “…and please don’t put the toilet paper in the toilet.”

Jane: “Not even this toilet paper?”

Landlord: “No. The plumbing can’t handle it.”

Jane: “But by the time I use this toilet paper, it’s not so much paper as it is a disgusting liquid mess that I can’t wait to drop…”

Landlord: “Drop it into the waste basket.”

Sigh. I instruct the children.

Cinder: “I never thought that the thing I’d miss most about home would be the ability to flush toilet paper down the toilet.”

Flora: “Just think how happy you will be when you get home. Every time you wipe yourself, you’ll be like, ‘This. Is. So. Great.’”

Cinder: “This. Is. So. Disgusting.”

First World Whiny children.

This is good for them, right?


Jane: “I’m just going to go have a cigar, and then…”

Cinder: “You are not, Mom. We are running low on matches again.”

Jane: “But I know where to get them now.”

Cinder: “There is no guarantee they will be there tomorrow.”

Jane: “I’ll light the candle first and…”

Cinder: “No. I can’t flush toilet paper, you can’t have a cigar.”

Jane: “Until we have more matches?”

Cinder: “Fine. Hey, where are you going?”

Jane: “I’m going to go bum matches off the hobos.”

Come home with matches. And more cigars.

To a waste basket full of poopy toilet paper.

Ok. This. Is. Disgusting.

But it’s good for me.


20-Matches cigar image 1


LANDED here for the first time? Let me catch you up:

Series 1 of Postcards from Cuba is now fully live. Check out the annotated table of contents for a tour, or, if you prefer, hop over to the chronological table of contents.

And if you like what you read/hear/see, please consider expressing your delight by making a contribution via PayPal:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: “But how much should I give?”

Jane: “Go wild. There is no upper limit to my avarice. But realistically, $1 is more than I have now, $5 is beautifully generous, and the equivalent of buying me a cup of coffee.  While we’re on beverages, my favourite cheap wine costs $14.75, which is also about the cost of one audiobook on… OK, I’ll stop now. $5. The average patron gives $5 and reports she feel AWESOME afterwards.”

If you’d like to make a contribution but have PayPal issues, email me at nothingbythebook@ and we’ll work something out.

Or, ya know. Just hang out with us and enjoy.


“Jane” / Tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram NothingByTheBook

20-matches banner

7 thoughts on “POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: matches

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