Havana, Cuba -- After the bliss (and stress) of shopping at a Costco in the United States, I recently returned to Cuba, where we live, and faced the usual problems with food shortages. Grocery shopping takes up so much of my time that I decided recently to hire a driver who, along with our housekeeper, is tasked with finding food. Last week, they went looking for cream cheese at the one store in town that is known for sometimes having it. They arrived half an hour before the store opened, to make sure they were at the front of the line. After the security guards opened the doors, they headed straight to the meat and cheese counter, where there were only two containers of cream cheese left. They took one of the containers, a bucket imported from Germany that weighed 6 pounds and cost $25 (the average monthly government salary). The person behind them, most likely a buyer for a private restaurant or a bakery, took the last one. An employee at the store told them they had no idea when cream cheese would come in again.
In Cuba, grocery shopping requires creativity, patience, determination, and lots of time. There are no one-stop shops where you can find everything you are looking for. Instead, there are a multitude of different outlets that you must navigate to find everything you need. You get your fresh fruit, vegetables, and pork at the “agros” — farmers’ markets. You get many of your other basics — rice, beans, sugar, eggs, and chicken — from your neighborhood ration store and butcher. Black market vendors who go door-to-door fill in certain gaps, selling seafood and other hard-to-find items. The grocery store is really only for the well-off in Cuba, who can enjoy luxuries such as beef (usually imported), dairy items like milk, yogurt, and cheese, and a random assortment of imported, packaged food like pasta, potato chips, and jam.
Havana only has a handful of large grocery stores, and their selection is rather anemic on any given day. Recently, I took my daughter to Palco, the most tranquil of the grocery stores, since it’s tucked away on the outskirts of town, in a fancy neighborhood where many diplomats, high government officials, and the Castro family live. The market has a relaxed feel to it. The parking lot is almost always empty. The check-out ladies are usually chatting away with each other, and the butchers at the meat counter are in no hurry to give you the little meat they have in stock. The aisles are often sparsely stocked or just filled with one type of thing, like imitation Pringles.
On the day I went with my daughter, we strolled past the entrance into the liquor section. This is the one area of the supermarket that is well-stocked. We've never had a problem getting rum, wine, or other spirits. Browsing the frozen section, we encountered large bags of chicken, which is usually imported from the U.S. I’ve learned to avoid the bags that have chunks of bloody ice in them; that means that bag has defrosted and refrozen. A turkey was for sale for $30. There was a surprising amount of bagged frozen vegetables costing $8 each. I loaded up on several bags of frozen vegetables that we rarely see in Cuba, including asparagus and cauliflower.
“Why so many?” my daughter asked, as the cold bags of vegetables cascaded around her in the cart.
“When you see it, buy it,” I said, pushing on through the dairy section. Not even a single container of milk was there. But the dismal dairy shelves displayed a long row of little containers of yogurt imported from Europe. (In the picture above, on a different day when I shopped, it was the opposite situation: tons of milk but no yogurt.)
“Mommy, yogurt please,” my daughter said.
But we made yogurt at home, I told her.
But not in flavors like mango and apricot, or strawberry, she said. And then thinking fast, she added, “Mommy, when you see it, buy it!”
I sighed and acquiesced, loading our cart up with plastic cups of yogurt. How could I argue? I reminded myself to be grateful; after all, there were no aisles of granola bars, candy, or other junk food with which I had to contend.
We lined up to check out. This is the part that keeps me on my feet. I’ve learned that it’s wise to add up everything in my head and be prepared for the possibility that the clerk might overcharge me. Sometimes it is accidental. Sometimes it is on purpose, because the person behind the register only makes $25 per month and he or she survives on small windfalls. Sometimes the clerk rings up most of your items, and then he or she tells you to pay separately for a few items without ringing them up.
In any case, you never know what the real price of anything is, because what is labeled might not even be correct. It seems completely strange to me that a can of whipped cream should cost around $14. Or that a box of deluxe version of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese sells for $6. A liter of milk, sold in tetra-pak boxes, retails for around $3, which means that a gallon costs almost $12 — if it’s available. Milk is often one of those things that’s perdida — lost, gone, missing.
Over time in Cuba, I’ve learned how to rely less on the grocery store. I’ve found an alternative source for milk, buying it from European diplomats who have a supply chain from their home country. I make yogurt, pasta, and bread from scratch. I garden my own vegetables. My kids have a small stash of junk food brought back from our shopping binges in the United States.
I’ve also learned to stock up, so we can ride out the shortages. I have enough milk in our pantry to last us until May. In place of the usual dozen of eggs that I would buy at home, I buy a dozen dozen of eggs at a time. I lug home flour in huge, 12-pound sacks. So even though we’re living in a sort of paradise, it often feels like we’re stocking up for the Second Coming.