POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: But we won’t get scurvy

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For every farmer and back-to-lander there ever was, especially the Sunnyside Community Garden folk. 

Listen (a seven minute commitment):

& read:

prologue

Hi, Mom.

We’re all well and things are good. We have eggs! Long story—I’ll tell you about it when I get back.

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I am not starving your grandchildren, but meat protein continues to be a bit of a challenge. We bought some inedible sausage the other day—I felt so bad about wasting it, but I had to throw it out. But the dumpster cats enjoyed it.

I found a butcher who’d sell to me—in most of the butcher shops near here, the meat is only available on the ration card, to Cubans—but it was pork hanging out in the full sun for god-knows how long, and it made me think about Islamic and Jewish prohibitions against eating pork… and you know what? There’s probably something in them. So we’re mostly eating chicken.

No first world whine—the chicken’s just fine.

Last Sunday, the supermarket was mobbed by a crowd before opening time, so I joined the line in case they were delivering something good—and it turned out to be chicken breasts—that kept us going for a full week. This week, there were chicken legs and thighs—imported from Brazil, and, judging by the Arabic writing on the packaging, destined for Algeria.

Still, between the eggs and the ice cream, we’re doing pretty good. J

M.

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I.

Cinder: “We’re not eating a lot of vegetables while we’re here, are we?”

Dammit. If he—who tries to convince me that ketchup and salsa are vegetables back home—is noticing this, we really must be vegetable deficient.

Jane: “I’ll go to the Agro when I go to pick up the matches. Anyone want to come with me?”

Cinder: “Nope.”

Flora: “Not really.”

Jane: “Really? No one? I’m pretty sure I get better prices when you guys are with me.”

Ender: “I’ll go with you. But only if you buy me ice cream after.”

Blackmailer.

Jane: “Deal.”

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II.

I pay $2 pesos (CUP, or moneda nacional) for a box of matches—which seems to be excessive, because a street cigar also costs $2 local pesos, and a cone of ice cream $3, so, $2 pesos? Really? The unshaven man wearing unmatched shoes is insistent, and I need matches, so I fork over another coin—but don’t buy cigars from him.

$2 CUP, as far as I figure it, is $0.08 CUC (but don’t take my word for it, my Cuban math sucks), which is a perfectly reasonable price to pay for a box of matches… it’s just that shouldn’t a box of matches—especially of matches that don’t work that well—cost significantly less than a cigar?

(I find out later that $2 pesos is the standard street price for matches. Who knew?)

Matches in one hand and Ender’s sticky hand in the other, I hike over to the Agro… which is empty. Closed. Fuck. It’s Monday. Of course.

Vendor: “Hey, woman who hates my tomatoes—you want to buy some fruit?”

It’s one of the vendors from whom I’ve bought beans, bananas and carrots—from whom I refused to buy tomatoes—and whose brother asked me if I wanted to buy lobster. Which he was lugging around in a backpack.

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I didn’t buy it.

Jane: “Yes… but I see you’re closed.”

Vendor: “That’s not a problem. Come in.”

I follow him through the gate—his father (genes, they be powerful things) blows me a kiss and makes a face at Ender—into a back room full of crates and agro workers, who are allegedly sorting… but mostly chilling and smoking.

Vendor: “We have everything, everything. What do you want? We have bananas, mangoes, guava, papaya…”

Jane: “Tomatoes?”

Vendor: “I remember you hate my tomatoes, but today we have beautiful tomatoes.”

He’s right. They’re gorgeous—by which I mean neither rotting nor green. The bananas, alas, are falling apart, and so are the mangoes. I’m regretful—I’ve been dying to try one of the giant Cuban mangoes, but it’s between seasons, so they’re all rotten.

He finds me a bunch of bananas that are still more yellow than brown—ripe, lusciously sweet, but not yet liquid. Another bunch that he says I must eat today. I don’t want to take it but it’s too late—it’s in my bag.

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Vendor: “What else?”

What else? I look around.

Jane: “Cucumbers. Not limp ones like last time.”

Jesus. I can’t believe I said that. Everyone in the room starts howling while I turn red, and I pretend I don’t understand what he says next.

Vendor: “Casava?”

Jane: “No.”

Vendor: “Still haven’t learned how to cook it?”

Yeah. Not a clue what to do with it. Cut it? Bake it? Shred it?

Jane: “Carrots?”

Vendor: “Um… no carrots. Oranges?”

Jane: “No, I don’t like the oranges.”

Vendor 2: “These are incredible, delicious, oranges.”

Jane: “I haven’t had good oranges in Cuba yet. They’re all sour.”

Vendor 2: “No, no, these are delicious, so sweet. Hold on, I’ll peel one for you.”

Ender starts dancing—he’s my orange-loving Orange Boy—and he’s missed oranges, and resented my refusal to buy them (after the first few purchases of inedible green balls of sour juice-less-ness). To my surprise, the orange is actually orange inside and juicy and delicious.

Vendor: 2: “Yeah?”

Jane: “Yeah.”

Vendor 3: “How about guava? Do you like guava?”

Jane: “I love guava, but this is too…”

I can’t remember the word for rotten—that would be rude anyway—and I’m afraid to say soft.

Vendor 4: “Here, this one is perfect. No charge.”

I hand over $5CUC for a pound or two of tomatoes, two cucumbers, three pounds of bananas, and a bag of oranges I can barely lift. “Oh, I see limes, give me a lime,” I add. They give me a lime. And change. I give it back. “For the service.” “No, no.” They shake their heads.

Put more limes in my bag.

Jane: “Enough, enough!”

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III.

Flora: “Did you get any meat?”

Jane: “Um. No.”

Flora: “What did you get?”

I empty the bags onto the kitchen counter.

Cinder: “Wow, are you worried we’re going to get scurvy?”

Jane: “Maybe a little.”

Cinder: “You shouldn’t be. What about all that orange pop we’re drinking?”

Right. Fortified with Vitamin C?

Maybe?

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*

This month’s Postcards from Cuba are brought to you by my creative and illogical approach to finance. You can help! Be my patron, won’t you? Support Postcards from Cuba and Nothing By The Book. Buy me a coffee? A $5 donation is delicious:

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& no, you don’t have to have a PayPal account to use the button. Thank you!

*

First time here? Visit the landing page for the Postcards from Cuba project.

You: “I’m here for that unschooling talk?”

Me. “Right. Go here & maybe roam through Undogmatic Unschoolers while you’re at it.”

See you next week,

“Jane”

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: if Nikita Khrushchev had to wash a bra in Cuba…

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For Janine. Who understands how important it is to care for one’s delicates.

Today’s post is brought to you by the wifi on the Red Arrow bus that traverses Highway 2 between Calgary and Edmonton and Sean Lindsay‘s ability to edit audio while moving at 120 km an hour.

Listen:

 

and, of course, read:

I.

Jorge now refers to the villa’s front salon as “my writing room,” and every time he says it, I feel at home… even though I haven’t written a word there.

II.

The kids want me to make jello.

Jane: “Ok, ok. But first I have to go to the store and buy yoghurt.”

You might be mystified. They understand. I’ve been making them jello in the plastic cups we’ve saved from the extortionate, imported-from-Spain single-serving yoghurt I bought them a couple of weeks ago. ($0.90CUC, so more than a Canadian dollar, per miniscule single serving). But yesterday, I used one of the cups as a candle holder. Not because there was a black out, by the way, but because I was running out of matches—I’ve already told you that story, right? Point: we only have two yoghurt containers, and there are three children, and so… I need to buy more yoghurt.

Cinder: “Can you buy more cream cheese while you’re there?”

Jane: “Sure.”

Except, I can’t. The tubs of cream cheese have been replaced by slabs of white cheese. Mozarellish? Maybe? “Queso blanco,” Yaskiel, the clerk behind the cheese-and-butter counter, says. I as him when there might be cream cheese again. He shrugs.

I buy some queso blanco, made locally, and the second last chunk of gouda, imported from Europe via Brazil.

The elderly woman behind me taps me on the shoulder. Would I mind taking the bigger chunk so she can have the little one? It’s a difference of $0.75CUC in price. A dollar and change to me. Significant to her.

“Of course.”

The strawberry yoghurt I bought here last time has been replaced by plain yoghurt, which will not be celebrated by the children, and no-fat peach, aspartame-sweetened yoghurt, which I will not let them eat. But—oh—chocolate pudding in absolutely perfect jello-making cups—much better than the yoghurt cups, which are, really, too thin and tall to house jello properly.

Bonus: the pudding is $0.50CUC a cup, making it almost half the price of the yoghurt.

Vanya, the clerk who’s been on check-out most often when I’ve been at the store, is manning the meat station.

“Hey, amor, you were asking about chicken—there are still chicken breasts,” he calls to me, and points, and sure enough, there they are, behind him, rapidly defrosting in the freezer bin. Delivered Sunday, yesterday, he says. They do their best to keep them cold, but the freezer bins have no tops, you see, so you’ve really got to buy them Sunday if you want them to be fully frozen. But it’s Monday morning. They’re still pretty solid.

I grab a pack. Chicken juice (don’t think about it) drips down my hands. Vanya gives me a damp rag to dry off. “They’re still pretty frozen,” he says. I decide to believe him.

(On the way home, I decide I should, in fact, run back for another pack, because there is no guarantee they will deliver them again next Sunday, or, ever again, is there?)

Vanya’s name, of course, is a legacy of Cuba’s relationship with Soviet Russia. There are quite a few Vanyas, Vladimirs, Yuris, Olgas, Valentinas, and Yevgenies around. Most of them are in their 50s—born in the first years after the revolution.

I haven’t met any Josephs, though… Nor a Nikita.

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III.

“No matter how much imperialist reaction, headed by the United States, tries to stop or check the great revolutionary process of liberation of mankind, it is powerless to do so. People fighting for their freedom and independence are strong enough to defend their gains with the backing of all the forces of peace and socialism. This was convincingly demonstrated by what took place in the Caribbean towards the end of last year.”

That’s Nikita Khrushchev addressing a mixed audience of Cubans and Russians on May 23, 1963, speaking about the Cuban missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war in October 1962, when Khrushchev headed the Soviet Union and JFK was the President of the United States of America.

“The Caribbean crisis was one of the sharpest clashes between the forces of socialism and imperialism, the forces of peace and war in the entire post-war period. When they prepared their invasion of Cuba, the American belligerents thought that the Soviet Union and other socialist countries would not be able to render effective aid to the Cuban Republic.

The imperialists reckoned on the geographical remoteness of Cuba from the socialist countries allowing them to utilise their overwhelming military superiority in this area and attack the Cuban people and wipe out their revolutionary gains. As everyone is aware the American imperialists are no greenhorns when it comes to suppressing the liberation struggle in Latin America and other areas of the world.”

“The imperialists’ plans to strangle the Cuban revolution came to grief thanks to the firm stand of the Cuban Government headed by Comrade Fidel Castro, the fighting solidarity of the Cubans, the military might of the Soviet Union and the powerful political and moral support of the socialist countries and all the peace-loving forces which joined the united front to defend the heroic Island of Freedom.”

Go on. Gag. I am…

…but if I quoted you the propaganda the Americans were spewing at the same time—even now— you’d gag too. Or you ought to, anyway.

(You can download the whole speech here, courtesy of the Luxembourg-based Centre Virtuel de la Connaissance sur l’Europe.)

IV.

Cinder: “Did you get yoghurt?

Jane: “No, chocolate pudding. But look: chicken breasts!”

The kids do a little dance of joy.

Ender: “Will you make jello now?”

Jane: “Right away. You have to eat the pudding, and I just have to finish washing my bras.”

Um. Yeah. So, between the tub, bathroom sink, kitchen sink, and two laundry tubs, I have five places where I could do laundry. Not one of them comes with a plug. I try to solve this issue the First World Way by, you know, trying to buy a plug.

This is not possible.

There is apparently a nation-wide plug shortage in Cuba.

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OK.

I create make-shift plugs out of plastic wrap and rocks, and they do ok, but they’re none of them a perfect fit, and the water keeps on draining, and I can’t give anything a proper soak.

So. I use our pots.

Cinder: “Rinse it really well. Because when we washed my socks and then you made pasta, it kind of tasted like detergent.”

Flora: “What are you going to do when Daddy comes to visit? Are you going to tell him what you use the pots for when you’re not using them for cooking?”

Jane: “Hush. Do you want jello or not?”

In deference to the fact that they are their father’s children—and that he would probably have a stroke or at the very least a mild anxiety attack if he knew I was feeding his children jello made in a pot in which, a few minutes earlier, I was washing my lingerie—I pour boiling water over the pot before repurposing it.

True story.

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V.

This is also a true story: November 18, 1956. Three years after the death of Stalin, and two years and forty-three days before Fidel Castro and co. unseated the US-backed and profoundly undemocratic government of Fulgencio Battista, Khrushchev is talking to Western ambassadors at the Polish Embassy in Moscow—I’m telling you the story at least in part because it happened at the Polish Embassy, of course—so he’s talking to Western ambassadors, and he says:

“About the capitalist states, it doesn’t depend on you whether or not we exist. If you don’t like us, don’t accept our invitations, and don’t invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!”*

Nikita died in 1971; the Soviet Union itself… well, the mortal wound was delivered on November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. The patient was declared legally dead on December 26, 1991.

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VI.

Cuba lives.

Cuba lives.

It is so… very, very much alive.

VII.

Ender: “Is the jello ready?”

Jane: “Let’s go check.”

We do. It’s ready. It’s orange. It tastes mostly like sugar and artificial colouring, and only a little bit like harsh detergent.

The children are ecstatic. After they eat, they carefully wash the pudding cups-cum-jello cups so that we can use them again.

I walk into “my writing room,” then past it, onto the verandah, meditating on the meaning of the word “freedom.” Also, “independent.” And… when he was dying… did Nikita have an inkling of what the future would hold?

Does Castro?

Down below me, the street—Cuba—lives, and I wish I had a crystal ball that would assure me… you know? I just don’t want to think…

But I know nothing, nothing. Except for this—Fidel will die, as Nikita did. So will Raoul.

Cuba—will live.

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*In the years to come, he couldn’t quite decide how he meant it… Check out the Wikipedia entry on the phrase “We will bury you” for subsequent interpretations of what Khrushchev meant. 

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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 becoming a patron of this project via PayPal:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: Why?

Jane: Because you’ve always wanted to be a patron of the arts, and you know that artists can’t pay for groceries with exposure.

You: How much?

Jane: Buy me a cup of coffee, a Cuba Libre, or a counterfeit Cuban cigar.

You: That’s all?

Jane: My avarice is happy to match your affluence. But I get $1 in royalties for each copy my other self sells of a traditionally published book. It is impossible to disappoint me.

If you would like to make a contribution, but have PayPal issues (I get it), please email me at nothingbythebook at gmail.com, and we’ll work something out.

Thank you!

“Jane”

NothingByTheBook.com / Tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram NothingByTheBook

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POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: egg hunt

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For Tamara, who keeps us in eggs, and Crystal, for “taking over.”

With gratitude, again,  to Janine Morigeau of Tarot By Janine. Janine is one of the longest practicing Tarot card readers in the Calgary area–she takes phone and Skype readings too, by the way–and amazing in every way. I am so grateful you are in my life.

Listen…

 

…or read…

I.

I have been trying to buy eggs for about a week. I know there must be eggs, because, first—all the roosters that start crowing at four in the morning? Surely they’re not just loved family pets, right? Second, the cafeterias and street stalls frequently sell egg sandwiches, and all the bakeries sell flans—and, most convincingly, on the second or third day that we were here, my mother scored us a flat of eggs.

Where are they?

Neither in the supermarket nor the agro, and no one’s walked down my street yelling “eggs.” (They have walked down the street yelling “Crackers,” “Peanuts,” “Buns,” “Brooms,” “Fruit” and, I think, “Puppies.”) I ask at the supermarket. “Not here,” they say. “Where?” I ask. She shrugs, he shrugs. They laugh. I try not to take it personally.

On Sunday, I see a man walking down my street with a flat. Yes!

Jane: “Excuse me! Where did you buy these?”

“At the mercadito, two streets over, the one on the corner,” he says. “Ask at the front.” I run to the mercadito—which is a bring-your-ration-card-and-pay-with –moneda-nacional-only kinda store—in time to see a bike, its back loaded up with eggs, drive away. “Wait!” I holler, but there is no way he can hear me over the Havana traffic.

“Are there ever eggs in this store?” I ask one of the people waiting in the line for god knows what.

“Maybe,” she says. “Sometimes.”

I go back to the street corner religiously every morning, but I see no egg guy, nor eggs. Pop into the mercadito. “Could you please tell me where I could buy eggs?” I ask. “Not here,” the dude behind the counter says. He’s young. And surly. Rude actually.

“But where?” I ask.

“Not here,” he says, and turns his back on me, starts moving sacks under the counter.

He’s my first encounter with a rude male Cuban—but neither my first nor last experience with a rude-angry-surly Cuban shop keeper. Customer service just ain’t a thing in a centrally planned economy, y’know?

II.

Cinder: “No eggs?”

Jane: “Plan B—if we don’t find eggs by Thursday, we’re going to go to one of those rooster houses and ask if they’ll sell us eggs.”

We could, you know, just not eat eggs. I’d like to make it abundantly clear: we are in no danger of starvation. There is plenty of food. Bread, rice, beans, chicken, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, pineapple, cheese, ham, pasta (although I cannot buy just flour), intermittently milk.

I want eggs, goddammit.

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III.

I don’t have a great many memories of Communist Poland—I was six when we left, and spent a chunk of that period living in Communist East Germany, and the Germans were always less deprived under socialism than the Slavs—but I do have a lot of vivid memories of living under an American trade embargo in Libya. They include driving for two, three hundred kilometres to get some chickens (or eggs) from a farmer—once, a cow. Going into store after store full of empty shelves… then going into one that had flats of jam, and then watching my mother buy all of them—she would trade them later for whatever someone else scored at another store that had things. Sardines, maybe.

I remember eating a hell of a lot of sardines.

Also—I don’t know if this is true, it seems ridiculous, I must ask my parents—caviar. It seems there was often caviar…

Whenever any of the other Polish workers would come back to Libya after a trip back to Poland (at that time, under martial law, its socialism in death throes, although no one knew it then), they would invariably smuggle in a shitload of vodka… and sausage.

The sausage would be shared out—the lions’ share always going to the kids. Sliced oh-so-thinly to make it last.

I remember… the thin slices of sausage? They tasted like heaven.

IV.

Jane: “Plan C: the next time I see someone with a flat of eggs, I’ll ask them to sell them to me.”

Flora: “For how much?”

My mother got me the first flat for $3CUC.

Jane: “$5CUC.”

Although, in another week, I’ll probably go up to $10, dammit.

V.

The outrageously beautiful woman who cleans Jorge’s—temporarily my—house on Saturdays also comes on Thursdays to clean the porch. She washes down all the furniture—makes me feel really guilty as she does this—what the hell do I do to the furniture in the space of a week that makes it so dirty?—but, it’s not me, it’s not me—it’s the dust, the moisture, the diesel fumes—and she also scrubs the 100 year old tile.

She has two children, about Flora and Ender’s age. She must know all about the egg delivery system.

Jane: “Could you please tell me where, how I can buy eggs?”

Sometimes, she says, they’re at the market at the corner. Do I know which one? The one two streets over, on the corner? Yes, I know. They’re not there today, they weren’t there yesterday, and I can’t shop there anyway. Are there other places?

Translation: “For fuck’s sake, where the hell is the egg black market?”

She shakes her head. I sigh.

It’s really not that big a deal. I’ll feed my kids semolina cereal imported from Poland, boiled in packaged-in-Cuba UHT milk, sweetened with extortionately priced Spanish jam. Or buns with creamed cheese. They had cream cheese at the supermarket yesterday and I stocked up.

I. Want. Eggs.

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VI.

No, I don’t think you really understand how badly I want eggs. I am, in this moment, a study of how and why the black market works… I’m not saying I’d sell my first born for a flat, but if you wanted to trade me eggs for a snip of Flora’s rare red hair…

Eggs. Eggs. Eggs.

I can’t think about anything else.

VII.

Jorge: “Jane? Jane? Are you there?”

Jorge is my landlord. He is about to become my god.

Jorge: “I have a gift for you and your children.”

It is a bowl full of eggs.

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Eighteen beautiful white eggs, speckled with chicken poop and feathers.

Straight from the ration store… via his fridge.

I would pay him… anything. A small fortune in hard currency.

Jorge: “It’s a gift, it’s a gift. Enjoy. Please, enjoy!”

That first egg I fry? It is the taste of heaven…

…and yes, it tastes, an awful lot like a thin slice of smuggled Polish sausage.

*

Now please go check out  Tarot By Janine. Mother’s Day is coming up, and Mom’s on a diet and allergic to flowers? Get her a gift certificate for a Tarot card reading.

*

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:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

You: Why?

Jane: Because you’ve always wanted to be a patron of the arts, and you know that artists can’t pay for groceries with exposure.

You: How much?

Jane: Buy me a cup of coffee, a Cuba Libre, or a counterfeit Cuban cigar.

You: That’s all?

Jane: My avarice is happy to match your affluence. But I get $1 in royalties for each copy my other self sells of a traditionally published book. It is impossible to disappoint me.

xoxo

“Jane”

NothingByTheBook.com / Tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram NothingByTheBook

12-Egg Hunt Banner