For Flora, who forces me to think. About everything.
It’s not quite 6 p.m. when I leave the supermarket and not quite pitch dark but dark enough that I walk faster along these streets I still don’t know very well. I don’t feel unsafe but I want to get home quickly, if you know what I mean—at least in part because I’ve left the kids on their own for what I said would be a 10 minute run to get water, and I’ve been gone more than an hour.
There’s been a neighbourhood-wide shortage of bottled water the last few days—no water in the supermarket, nor in the convenience store, nor in any of the half-a-dozen places that sell liquor.
Cinder: “It’s fine, Mom—we can drink the gross boiled water.”
Except, of course, when they call it the gross boiled water, I know they’re not drinking enough of it—I know I’m not—and, particularly on the hotter days, I worry. And I ply them with Fanta…
The first place I go to for water—where I’ve been able to get it most reliably—is supposed to be open until 10 p.m., but it’s closed. So closed it looks like it never existed, and I wander about the block looking for it, certain I’ve missed it. The second place still has no water. I decide to run to the supermarket before it closes—it actually stays open reliably until its posted closing time of 6 p.m., 2 p.m. on Sundays. I checked it for water in the morning—no luck—but maybe there’s been a delivery? And if not, I can get “juice” instead.
But—yes! I score water! Also, a container of chocolate pudding and some yoghurt imported from the Middle East. The prices, in CUCs, are extortionate: easily twice what you’d pay in Canada in Superstore or Safeway at the regular marked-up pre-sale prices.
So. My mission is a success.
But now I’m walking home in the dark.
I’m not scared.
OK, maybe a little.
During the four days my parents are here, I take my mom out for a night on the town one day, and my dad for a night on the town the next. They’re pretty mild nights, but they involve a great deal of walking in the dark and moving between bars and a little bit of getting lost.
There is no sense of danger, at all. Just a bit of adventure.
But then… I’m not alone, and I know my kids are home safe with a loving adult.
Part of my preparations for the trip involves drafting a letter, in English and Spanish, laminated on an index card, for each of them: “My name is… I’m visiting Havana with my Mom and siblings. I’m lost. I live at… Can you help me get there? My landlord’s name and contact information is… “
Cinder gets an extra one. “My name is… I think something’s happened to my Mom… I need to call my dad right away. His telephone number and email…”
Cinder: “When do I use this?”
Jane: “If I go out for an hour, and don’t come back for three.”
Cinder: “Three hours is the time?”
Cinder: “Sounds reasonable. I’d probably start to panic at three hours.”
I laugh. Add this:
Jane: “Don’t tell Flora, ok?”
He nods. I don’t have to say more. Flora, with her uber-vivid imagination, does not need to start spinning scenarios of what she would do and how if I didn’t come home.
My casa in Havana is a bit of a castle. I have to unlock three doors, and open two additional gates, before I’m finally in the living area proper—and there are two more locks on the door that leads into the back balcony. Bars on all the windows, as decorative as only the Spanish can make bars, but fully functional of course.
The ring of keys I carry with me would make an Abbey key master proud.
Landlord: “There are many, many keys, because this is a very safe place.”
The keys and locks make me feel safe and worried at the same time. What, exactly, are they protecting me from?
They have an interesting impact on the children.
Cinder: “Man, the people here sure don’t trust their neighbours. Look, there’s even a fence up on that roof.”
We look up. And around. Bars, gates, and chain link fences everywhere, yes.
Flora: “Why is that? Are there a lot of break-ins here? Are we safe?”
Every Saturday, a breath-takingly beautiful woman comes to change the sheets and to thoroughly clean and air out the house. The first time she comes, Jorge, my landlord, assures me she is very trustworthy, has cleaned for him for years, and he will be there the whole time she is cleaning.
Jane: “That’s fine. I’m not worried. I don’t have anything worth stealing.”
Landlord: “In Cuba, everything is worth stealing.”
I shrug. That’s not quite what I meant, but now is not the time to explain my currently detached (and, I’ll concede, dysfunctional and fucked up) relationship with material possessions. The only thing worth anything to me, really, is my laptop, and that, for its content—all of which is backed up elsewhere. And I’ve written nothing new here yet, nothing worth keeping, saving. So…
… worthless …
But I think it’s only possible to be detached from your possessions when you know, if you had to—you could replace them—if you really wanted something… you could go get it. Cubans have lived in a state of involuntary deprivations for so long, they want, want, want.
I’m generalizing. Don’t listen to me.
Flora: “I want to know. Are we safe? Are there a lot of break-ins here?”
Jane: “We are safe, and no, no there aren’t.”
Cuba, actually, has a very enviable crime rate—perhaps because the government does not release official crime statistics—or perhaps because there are virtually no guns around. But theft… theft is a way of life.
Flora: “You mean the people here steal a lot?”
No. Yes. Fuck. How do I explain this to a child, even this brilliant child? The relationship between poverty and crime—theft in particular—and the particularly perverse correlation among theft, poverty and systems in which everything belongs to everyone and thus nobody has anything?
Before I tell you what I tell her, I need to say this: Cuban poverty is not like poverty in the Congo or Eritrea—or, closer to Cuba, Haiti, the favelas of Brazil. Socialism has a definite upside.
In the form in which it was implemented across the Soviet Union and its spheres of influence, Cuba included, socialism also fosters a culture of stealing.
It goes like this: Viva la revolucion! We the people own everything! Ummm… wait. If we own everything, how come I don’t have anything? Oh. I see. The government owns everything. But these things that it owns are actually mine. I’m going to take some, because I need them.
And it’s not stealing. Because—we the people own everything.
It’s a victimless crime, right? Taking the toilet paper from the government-owned hotel—you’d buy some if you could, but there isn’t any in the store—diverting a load of cement from the government-owned building site to your house, because that’s the only way you can get it for a desperately needed repair—liberating a few blocks of cheese from the supermarket delivery truck to share among your friends and neigbours—or to sell at a profit through the black market—why not do it, victimless crimes, who suffers?
Nobody—except for the centrally planned economy—and so… everybody.
Flora: “I did not understand a word you just said. Except that I think you said people here steal everything and they suck.”
Jane: “No, no, they don’t! People are just people… and they do the things they need to do in survive. And poverty… even perceived poverty…”
I trail off. How the hell do I explain this to her? Can I explain it to you? To myself? Without making her feel unsafe—or making her think that Cubans are thieves?
Jane: “I think it goes like this. When some people have absolutely nothing, and some people have way too much—and the people who have absolutely nothing have no way of making things better for themselves—they have no way of legitimately earning more, saving more, getting more—it’s just not possible—they look at the people who have way too much with more and more anger and resentment, and one day, they just take their things. And when it’s one person taking one person’s things, that’s theft, that’s crime… but sometimes, a whole bunch of people—an entire underclass of a nation—reaches its breaking point and goes mad, and takes everything from the people who had things…”
Flora: “That’s how revolutions happen.”
Precisely, my brilliant child. Also, riots.
Post-revolutionary and pre-new-capitalism Cuba is in a slightly different place. Most people don’t have very much. But look—that guy over there? He has a great new shiny thing. Lucky bastard. His cousin in Miami sent it to him. I’d sure like one too. I wish I had a cousin in Miami to send me shit. It’s so unfair. I can never have one. No matter how much I work, no matter what I do, I can never have one. So unfair. Why should he have one? He didn’t do anything to deserve it. He didn’t work hard for it. He just got it.
Well, fuck him. I’m going to take it.
Jane: “Do you understand how someone could think like that?”
Flora frowns. Goes off to her room to draw, process.
Flora: “Do the people here think we didn’t work hard, don’t deserve the things we have?”
Ha. What do I do with that?
My street is lively, and it clearly has a have and have-not side. The houses on my side look down on the lower-placed houses across the asphalt. They’re better kept up, too—there’s more fresh paint here, more plants, less rubble. There’s not a lot of car traffic—a bus comes every once in a while, motorcycles, handfuls of private cars, two competing vegetable carts. I like to sit on the verandah and watch.
One night, I see this: the house directly opposite is having a party—people keep on coming in, door opening, light flashing. A man arrives on a motorcycle. Pulls up onto the sidewalk. Opens the gate to the verandah, wheels the motorcycle inside. The host opens the door for him. They embrace… wheel the motorcycle into the house.
I look at their well-lit, completely empty porch… and before I go to bed that night, take all of our shoes off the verandah and into the house.
Just in case.
I’m not being paranoid.
I don’t really think anyone will scale the very high fence to steal our very cheap shoes.
But. Well. I put them away anyway. This experience would sure start to suck if we had to navigate the streets of Havana barefoot—as some Cubans still do. Oh, there are shoes in the stores now, plenty of them. But I have some experience buying shoes in a centrally planned economy. I’m 99 per cent sure none of us would find sandals or flip flops that fit.
(Winter boots, though, there’d be plenty of–all in women’s size 13 and men’s size 6.5.)
Here’s why stealing from the government is not a victimless crime: my ten minute run to get water has kept me running around for an hour for an ordinary commodity, which didn’t get delivered to any of the places around here for days—why? Perhaps because too many cases got “liberated,” for personal use or resale, along the way?
To enter the supermarket, I need to leave my purse and my shopping bags in the outside bag check. A security guard examines me as I walk in, to ensure I’m not carrying in something within which I could carry something out. Most of the smaller items—toiletries, candies—are not on shelves but behind counters. Navigating it all—and this is a tiny supermarket—is exhausting.
After I pay and before I exit, another security guard compares the contents of my plastic shopping bag to my receipt.
Every time I go shopping at the supermarket, I feel like a potential criminal… surrounded by potential criminals… and I’m really happy that I have bars on my doors and windows at home…
…and I’m kind of demoralized and I think people suck.
And now, it’s late, the sun is setting, and I’m walking these streets I don’t know very well in the dark, and I’m walking faster, and I don’t take a fully deep breath until I reach home.
Jane: “I’m back!”
Cinder: “Good! I didn’t think you were dead, by the way!”
Flora: “Why would Mom be dead?”
Jane: “I got water and chocolate pudding and yoghurt.”
We’ve been here long enough now, and they’ve been inside enough stores, that they are suitably impressed.
After I ply them with chocolate pudding—and yoghurt—I head out to the verandah with a cup of tea (no cigar today) to enjoy the last few minutes of not-totally-dark. Watch the people on the street—who do not suck, who are not criminals, and who are doing their best to have a decent life. Wave to the vegetable cart guy doing his last run down the street, and smile at the next door neighbour’s visitors.
See two of the across-the-street neighbours wheel their motorcycles inside their houses for the night.
Kick our shoes inside the door.
Not paranoid. Prudent. Right?
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:
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 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.
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