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1 L E T T E R F R O M H A V A N A THIRTY DAYS AS A CUBAN Pinching pesos and dropping pounds in Havana By Patrick Symmes I n the first two decades of my life I dont believe I ever went more was 219 pounds, the most Id ever weighed in my life. off nine pounds in the two months before my departure. Time and than nine hours without eating. In Cuba the average salary is $20 a again, as I prepared for this trip, hor- Later on I was subjected to longer month. Doctors might make $30; rified friends speculated on what boutsin China in the 1980s, trav- many people make only $10. I decid- food I was gorging on, what special eling with insurgents in remote ar- ed to award myself the salary of a items I was rushing to consume. eas of Colombia and Nepal, crossing Cuban journalist: $15 a month, the Their operating assumption was that South America by motorcycle, deep- wages of an official intellectual. Id being deprived of some cherished ly brokebut I always returned always wanted to be an intellectual, item for thirty days was an unbear- home, feasted, ate whatever, when- and $15 was a substantial kick above able test. They were worried about ever, and put back on what weight the proles building brick walls or cut- ice cream. In my experience, no one Id lostand more. Id undergone ting cane for $12, and almost twice who is hungry craves the usual trajectory of American the $8 paid to many retirees. With ice cream. life, gaining a pound a year, decade after decade. By the time I resolved to go to Cuba, and live for a month this money I would have to buy my basic ration of rice, beans, potatoes, cooking oil, eggs, sugar, coffee, and M y first half hour inside Cuba was spent at the metal detectors. on what a Cuban must live on, I anything else I needed. Then, as part of a new regimen, un- Patrick Symmes is the author of The Boys I knew it would be hard to give up known in my previous fifteen years from Dolores: Fidel Castros Schoolmates food, and so I began my Cuban diet coming here, I was given an intense from Revolution to Exile. while still in New York City, shaking but amateurish interrogation. This A monthly oil ration, photograph by Patrick Symmes; A shop on Calle Industria, photograph Lorenzo Castore/Agence VU/Aurora Photos; A standard ration board, photograph by Patrick Symmes LETTE R F ROM HAVANA 43 Symmes Final3 CX.indd 43 8/24/10 9:51 AM

2 had nothing to do with me: all for- uniform pocket a couple of aluminum What has changed is the ink: there eigners on the small turboprop from coins, which she gave to me: 40 centa- is less written in the book. There are the Bahamas were separated out and vos, or about 2 U.S. cents. Out on the fewer entries, for smaller amounts, questioned at length. The Cuban highway, a few miles from here, I might than even in 1995, during the starving government was nervous about soli- find a city bus. And in Havana I might time of the Special Period. In the tary foreign travelers because Human find, must find, a way to survive for a intervening years, the Cuban economy Rights Watch had recently been month. I had to shoulder my knapsack has recovered; the Cuban ration sys- through, on tourist visas, and a State and start walking, the aluminum coins tem has not. In 1999, a Cuban devel- Department contractor, also travel- clicking in my pocket. I strolled out of opment minister told me that the ing on a tourist visa, had been caught the terminal, across the parking lot, out monthly ration supplied enough food distributing USB drives and sat- the driveway, and turned down the to last just nineteen days, but pre- phones to opposition figures. Tourists only road, putting the outside world dicted that the amount would soon were dangerous. behind me with a steady slog. Every few climb. It has declined. Although the As in Israel, an agent in plain minutes a taxi would pull up, beeping, total amount of food available in clothes asked me detail-oriented or a private car would stop, offering to Cuba is greater, and caloric consump- questions of no importance (What take me for half the official price. I tion is up, that is no thanks to town are you going to? Where is walked on, slowly, past the old termi- the ration system. The growth has that?), designed to provoke me, re- nals, along scrubby fields. Billboards occurred in privatized markets and veal some inconsistency, or show trumpeted old messages: bush terror- cooperative gardens and through mas- nervousness. He didnt look in my ist. After forty minutes I passed over a sive imports, while state food wallet and ask why, if I was staying railroad crossing, came out to the high- production fell 13 percent last year in Cuba for a month, I had less than way, and got lucky. The bus for Havana and the ration shrank with it. It is twenty dollars. was right there. An hour later I was in commonly agreed that a monthly food The supervisors gaze settled on central Havana and on foot, ration now contains just twelve days the other passengers. Passed. searching for an old friend. of food. I was here to make my own Thirty days, I told the lady who stamped my tourist visa. The maximum. T he first people I spoke to in the citytotal strangers who lived calculation: how could anyone survive the month on twelve days of food? There is one ration book per family. T here was a sign hanging from the airport ceiling with a drawing of near my friend1brought up the ra- tion system. With no prompting from me, they pulled out their ra- Goods are distributed at a series of neighborhood bodegas (one for dairy and eggs; another for protein; an- a bus on it. But there was no bus. tion book and bitched. other for bread; the largest for dry Not now, a woman at the informa- The bookcalled the libretais goods and everything from coffee to tion desk explained. There would be the foundational document of Cuban cooking oil to cigarettes). Each store a busonetonight, around 8 p.m., life. Nothing important about the ra- has a clerk who writes in the amount to take the airport workers home. tion system has changed: although it issued to the family. My friends neigh- That was six hours from now. is now printed in a vertical format, borshusband, wife, and grandson Central Havana was ten miles away. the book looks identical to the one is- had received a standard ration of sta- Since taxis cost about $25more sued annually for decades. ples, which was, per person: than my total budget for the next 1 For their protection from the Cuban state, monthI was going to have to walk. certain persons in this article will go un- 4 pounds refined sugar The same woman pulled from her named. 1 pound crude sugar A daily bread ration, photograph Alfredo Falvo/Contrasto/Redux; An agro, photograph 46 HARPERS MAGAZINE / OCTOBER 2010 by Patrick Symmes; The meat annex of an agro, photograph by Patrick Symmes Symmes Final3 CX.indd 46 8/24/10 9:51 AM

3 1 pound grain refrigerator. I unloaded my pockets, rehearsal in progress. A Russian rock- 1 piece fish stashing away the food I had bought er, backed by more than thirty musi- 3 rolls in the Bahamian airport: some bagels, cians, was working through his set in a can of fruit punch, sandwiches, preparation for some later gig. They They laughed when I asked if andmy emergency stasha packet had been issued bottled water and tea, there was beef. of sesame sticks from the airplane. which I consumed in large amounts. Chicken, the wife said, but this With a fourteen-hour trip from Teas astringent tastemediated by produced howls of protest. When was New York behind me, I ate one of lots of sugarfinally made sense to there chicken? her husband asked. the sandwiches and went me. This was the drink of the novice Well, thats true, she said. It has to sleep. monk, the cold and hungry. It was an been a few months. The protein ration was delivered every fifteen days and was ground mystery meat, mixed O n my second day, I gnawed on a sesame bagel, absentmindedly con- appetite killer. There had been catering. Only one and a half cheese sandwiches remained, with a large amount of soy paste (if the suming the whole thing, as if there abandoned on a napkin near the string meat was pork, this was falsely called would always be another. According section; during a crescendo I stuffed picadillo; if it was chicken, it was called to a calorie-counting application on them into my pockets. I walked the pollo con suerte, or chicken and luck). my cell phone, the bagel had 440 hour back across Havana to my room, Usually there was enough for about four calories. Everything I ate for the next passing dozens of new stores, butcher hamburgers a month, but so far in Jan- month would be entered on that little shops, bars, cafeterias and cafs, pizza uary they had received only one fish keypad, recorded, summed up by day joints, and other prolific suppliers of eachusually a dried, oily mackerel. and week, divided into protein, carbo- hard-currency food. I lingered, looking And there were eggs. The most reli- hydrates, and fat, graphed in scrolling at the immense frozen turkey breasts able of all protein sources, these were bars. An active man of my size (six for sale in a shopwindow. called salvavidas, or lifesavers. There foot two, 210 pounds) needs about By the time I got to my room, the used to be an egg a day; then it became 2,800 calories a day to maintain his sandwiches had disintegrated in my an egg every other day; now it was an weight. I had no other food supplies pockets, a mass of crumbs, butter, and egg every third day. I would have ten yet, and I finished breakfast when the cheese product, but I ate them, slow- for the next month. housekeeper working for my landlord ly, dragging the experience out. Id The husband spent a full quarter of gave me two thimbles of coffee, larded always scorned the Cubans who his tiny salary on the electric bill. The with sugar (75 calories). cheered the regime for a sandwich, family survived only because, in his job Just as Cubans exploit loopholes to but by day two I was ready to de- as a state chauffeur, he could steal about survive, I worked my obvious foreign- nounce Obama for a cookie. five liters of gasoline every week. ness to my benefit, wandering that day On the morning of the third day I Eventually my friend appeared and in and out of fancy hotels few Cubans walked for more than two hours squired me off to a private home in could enter. This gave me access to through Havana in search of food, the Plaza neighborhood, where I had air-conditioning, toilet paper, and burning 600 calories, the equivalent of arranged to rent an apartment for music. I blew past security at the Ha- those cheese sandwiches. I had wrong- the monththe one expense left out bana Libre, the old Hilton, and rode ly assumed that I could simply buy the of my accounting here. It was spar- the elevator to the top floor, which of- food I needed for the month. But as an tan, in the Cuban style: two rooms, fered commanding views of Havana at American I was ineligible for the ra- cushionless chairs, a double burner dusk. The nightclub wasnt open yet, tion, through which rice costs a penny on a countertop, and a half-size but I barged in anyway, discovering a a pound. As a Cuban living on $15 a A ration book, photograph Alfredo Falvo/Contrasto/Redux; A $0.25 meal purchased at a subsidized canteen, photograph by Patrick Symmes LETTE R F ROM HAVANA 47 Symmes Final3 CX.indd 47 8/24/10 9:51 AM

4 month I could not afford to buy food failed. I was going to have to spend I bought three pounds of rice for a outside the system, in the expensive some money, or trade something, for little more than a dime, and some red dollar stores. Cubans called these small a tailors work. Breakfast: coffee, beans, spending a catastrophic $2 for stores, which sold everything from bat- two cups, with sugar. 75 what would, in the end, produce only teries and beef to cooking oil and dia- calories total. a handful of meals. pers, el shopping. After hours of frustra- tion, unable to buy any food at all, I rode the bus back to my apartment. I went food shopping on day four, a ludicrous experience. By chance I had Young hustlers followed me to the exit muttering, Shrimp, Shrimp, Shrimp. Outside, a man saw me com- I had no lunch. I tried reading, but ended up taking an apartment near ing and climbed into a tree, descend- I had brought only books about hard- the largest and best market in Ha- ing again with five limes, which he ship and suffering, like Les Misrables. vana, which was neither large nor offered me (it was not a lime tree but I started with an easier, more comic good. The market was an agro, mean- a drop zone for his black-market pro- take on loneliness and deprivation, ing a place for farm produce. These duce). I staggered home under the Sailing Alone Around the World by are sometimes referred to as farmers weight of the rice and vegetables, Joshua Slocum, and consumed 146 markets, but there was no farmer- looking, as my landlady later observed, pages on my first day. Slocum got meets-consumer bonhomie, only a like a divorced man starting across the Atlantic on little more than roaring, crowded, sweaty pen of stalls his new life. biscuits, coffee, and flying fish, and I took particular satisfaction when, mid- Pacific, he discovered that his potatoes selling the same narrow band of goods at prices set by the state: pineapples, eggplants, carrots, green peppers, to- T he accumulated calories inevi- tably led me to speculate on the oth- were ridden with moths and was forced matoes, onions, yucca, garlic, plan- er side of things: money. How would to chuck the valuable rations over- tains, and not much else. There was a I survive a couple of weeks from now, board. But then he would do some- separate room specializing in pork, if I was spending the equivalent of $2 thing unconscionable, like cook an with quivering heaps of dull pink at a pop? I continued to hoof it Irish stew or call on some reserve of meat turned over by bare-handed men everywhere, taking the hour-long smoked venison from Tierra del Fuego. and measured out by dull knives. walk just to wander through the tour- A passing boat even tossed him a bot- Meat was beyond my reach, though ist hotels of Vedado (without ever tle of Spanish wine once, the bastard. fat was listed at only 13 pesos (or 49 spotting another stray sandwich), or Reading at this rate, books were an- cents) a pound. stand with my face pressed to the iron other thing I would run out of. I waited in line to change my entire grille of some restaurant, watching, Finally, unable to lie still any longer, stock of moneyeighteen hard- with four or five Cubans, the band I raced out of the house and, following currency pesos convertiblesinto the play a mambo for foreigners. a tip, found a house a few blocks away regular Cuban pesos.2 The resulting Every day I was approached by Cu- with a cardboard sign on the gate pile of worn, dirty bills added up to bans who said, in one phrase or an- reading cafe. Behind the house there 400 pesos, worth about $16 at the other, Give me money. My own options was a barred window, and I put the Havana street rate. Then I fought would be grim in the weeks ahead. equivalent of 40 cents through the through the crowds to buy one egg- Should I stand on the street corner, bars. A woman passed out a roll filled plant (10 pesos), four tomatoes (15), demanding dollars from strangers? with processed lunch meat. For an- garlic (2), and a small bunch of carrots How hungry did you have to get before other 12 cents I got a small glass of (13). At a bakery counter a woman you became like the teenage girl I papaya juice. Although I tried to eat selling bread rolls affirmed they were overtook on a Vedado sidewalk that slowly, lunch vanished within mo- only for people with ration booksbut afternoon, who, holding a baby on her ments. At this ratehalf a dollar a then threw me five rolls and greedily hip, turned to me and said, Deseas una mealmy entire cash supply would be snatched 5 pesos out of my hand. The chica sucky sucky? eaten up, and I left her back yard vow- only love came from the tomato ven- If I was going to suck something, I ing to eat almost nothing for dinner. dor, who threw in an extra nightshade. knew what it would be. I found myself Worse news awaited me in the watching the Ladas as they rolled past, 2 morning when, upon dressing, I dis- Cuba has two currencies, the valuable trying to see how many had locking peso, officially called the CUC, and covered that the zipper on my pants known as the kook, fula, chavita, and gas caps. With some tubing and a jug, was broken. In another effort to look convertible; it was introduced to elimi- I could get five liters of gasoline and and feel Cuban, I had brought only nate the presence of foreign currency and sell it through a friend in Chinatown. two pairs of pants. Pants are one of to be valued roughly equivalent to the U.S. But all the cars in Cuba had locking the many non-food items distributed dollar, at least before the 20 percent ex- gas caps or were themselves locked change fee. Then there is the lowly peso by ration, and that meant, typically, (known as the peso). Cubans are paid in behind gates at night. Too many men, one pair a year. Most Cubans got the regular peso, and to get anything im- harder than I, were already working along with just a couple of items of portant they must trade twenty-four of that line. This was no clothing of each type. So the broken these for one CUC. A tiny box of stir-fried island for amateur thieves. zipper would have to be repaired there were no pants in January. A few feeble attempts to repair it myself noodles in Havanas Chinatown was priced at 75/2.5, in regular pesos and CUC, in either case representing about 15 percent of the average monthly income. I needed coffee, but all stores were barren of this staple. Even the hard- 48 HARPERS MAGAZINE / OCTOBER 2010 Symmes Final3 CX.indd 48 8/24/10 9:51 AM

5 currency shopping in the neighbor- Who? hood carried no coffee, and repeat- Mrs. , he said. ed tours of the dollar supermarkets Where was that? in Vedado and at various hotels As though guiding a blind man, had revealed no coffee all month. I he came out from behind the coun- had once seen a pound of Cubacafe, ter, took my arm, and led me out the dark, export-grade stuff, for sale onto the street. We went only ten at a movie theater in Old Havana. steps down the sidewalk. He turned But it was 64 pesos, and even while into the fi rst doorway and absent- jonesing I could not pay that much mindedly grabbed the ass of a pass- or walk that far. From the window ing woman. (Hey! she cried, furi- of my bathroom I could see that ous. Whos that?) We stopped at the ration store was open, and so I an apartment located directly be- wandered over. hind the ration store. He knocked. There were five satchels of coffee A woman with a baby answered. on the shelf. It was the light-brown domestic brand, Hola, which sells for Coffee, he said. I produced a 20-peso bill. She hand- Rotman magazine a little more than a peso for the first four-ounce bag, and 5 pesos a sack ed me one satchel of the Hola and 5 pesos back. tackles real ideas after that. A dozen people were Thats all? It was three times the with a verve and jostling for bread and rice, so I had price listed at the counter a few steps time to study the two chalkboards away, but I found later that Cubans style that I have listing which goods were available. The larger board listed basic ration also paid this markup. He nodded. His name was Jess. not encountered goods. Your first four pounds of rice We went back to the store. Bread? anywhere else. cost 25 centavos; the next pound was I asked. He consulted with his supervi- 90 centavos. No more than six pounds sor, who gave a No loud enough for Peter Day FPO of rice were allowed in a month, to the whole store to hear. B/W BBC Radio Presenter, prevent overselling for profit. The I asked again. He asked his boss ROTMAN In Business and GlobalMAG Business smaller chalkboard listed liberated again. No no this time. I handed over AD TK products, a briefer list of cigarettes the 5-peso note and got five rolls. 012 Try a risk-free issue: and other items that could be bought From then on, I could buy whatever rotman.utoronto.ca/must-read without limit. I wanted. With Jess on my side, no I called out El ltimo, and was now questions were asked. I never needed holding a place in line behind the a ration book for the common staples, Rotman School previous last customer. Pretty soon a and for the rest of the month I paid Big Ideas woman with a plastic bag arrived, the same price as Cubans cried El ltimo, and I lifted a finger. for the same shit food. Experts Series Now she was last. I was served by a smiling but agitated man. He was tall, black, with a scruffy O n the sixth day I walked to the suburbs, strolling out of my November 16, London UK 18h00-21h00: discussion, cocktails Adi Ignatius partial beard. He waved his hand when neighborhood, Plaza, through Veda- Editor in Chief, I asked for coffee. No words were neces- do and to the west, past the immense Harvard Business Review sary: a foreigner cannot buy on the Coln cemetery, home to the mauso- Roger Martin ration, and there was no coffee anyway. leums and soaring angels of Cubas Dean, Rotman School; I played for time, holding up my end of once-rich families, as well as the Director, Research in Motion, a conversation in which he was silent concrete sepulchers of her middle Skoll Foundation, Thomson Reuters but for gestures. No coffee anywhere? Ive class. A young man named Andy fell Topic: been all over the city looking for coffee. into step with me for a while, excited Customer-Driven Capitalism: Nobody has any. I really like coffee. You to hear about America (We all want The New Paradigm know what I mean? to go there) and inviting me to a Cubans drink a lot of coffee, he barbershop owned by his friend. 25.00 per person finally said. Our bond established, I Alone again, I passed the occasional To Register: wiggled my head back and forth and caf, studying each of these tiny rotman.utoronto.ca/events asked, Wasnt there somewhere to get stands. One offered bread with coffee? No, he said. hamburger for 10 pesos, the lowest Really? Maybe someone had some? price I had seen yet. But that was A little bit? still too much for today. He wiggled his head. The may- I joined the world of the long-range be gesture. pedestrian, working my way down a LETTER F ROM HAVANA 49 Symmes Final3 CX.indd 49 8/24/10 9:52 AM

6 dozen avenues and more than twenty bun, watched me. Although I took no tiny empanadas that they sold for 3 streets in the course of an hour and notes or pictures, she was shrewd. pesos apiece, or about eight for a dol- finding a small bridge over the Alm- Who are you? she asked. lar. This was how Cuba got along: the endares River that separates Havana I smiled and turned to leave. ration stores were staffed by neighbors, proper from Havana greater. Exiles Are you a journalist? she de- who stole and resold ingredients, wax nostalgic about the Almendares, manded. which were then reworked into fin- whose twisting route is overgrown Tourist, I said, over my shoulder, ished products and sold back to these with vines and immense trees, but I and racewalked away. same neighbors. Eight empanadas always found it depressing or even Are you accredited here? she would make a lunch, but a dollar was frightening: a humid, muddy border called after me. inconceivably beyond my budget. Bar- between the gritty city and the ex- I continued westward on foot for bara gave me two, each of which I pansive (and expensive) houses of the another half hour. I was coated in demolished in a bite. western suburbs. From a low ocean- sweat by the time I reached the house She listened blankly as I explained side bridge I could see what remained of Elizardo Snchez, one my attempt to live on the ration. Its of the sailor scene: a dozen sunken of MININTs targets. a great diet plan, she said. Another hulks, a few collapsing houseboats, and abandoned boat shacks. Only two boats were in motion: a police W hen I told Snchez I had walked here, as part of spending thir- dissident visiting the house, Richard Rosello, piped in. Hed been filling a notebook with the prices of goods on launch and a dismasted microyacht ty days living and eating as a Cuban, the parallel markets, also called the of twenty feet or so, apparently inca- he showed me his libreta. They call clandestine or black-bag markets. pable of reaching Florida. this the supply booklet, but its a ra- One problem is food, Richard said, I made a right turn into Miramar, tioning system, the longest-running but another is how do you pay your passing some of Cubas grandest man- one in the world. The Soviets didnt light bill, the gas, the rent? Electric- sions and many embassies. This was have rationing for as long as Cuba. ity has gone up four to seven times in the zone of the moneybags, foreign Even the Chinese didnt ration this cost compared with before. Elizardo firms, and people with lineage, a pros- long. Shortages began soon after the was paying nearly 150 pesos a month titute says in the book Havana Baby- revolution; a system for the con- for electricitya quarter of the typi- lon. Living in Miramar, even in a trolled distribution of basic goods cal salary. toilet, is a sign of distinction. was in place by 1962. How to get by, then? Cubans invent I was pursued by two women wav- After fi fty years of Progress, the something, Barbara said. One trick ing a gigantic can of tomato sauce country was effectively bankrupt. In was overselling your cheap, rationed and shouting Fifteen pesos! Its for 2009, peas and potatoes had been goods at market prices. Id finally scored our children! I went on but later removed from the ration, and cheap my allotment of ten eggs this way. realized I had made a mistake. At 15 workplace lunches had been shrunk Without a ration book I could not buy pesos for a restaurant-size container, down to snack-size portions. There the eggs legally. But at dusk the night the tomato sauce had been good val- was talk of removing things from the before, I had waited near my local egg ue. Stolen food was the cheapest food. ration, or getting rid of it entirely, shop and made eyes at an elderly wom- And nothing could be more normal Snchez told me, repeating the rumor an whod emerged with thirty eggsa here than wandering around with a that captivated all Cubans. But the months supply for three people. Shed huge can of something. talk had died on January 1, 2010, bought them for 1.5 pesos each and sold A few blocks later I stumbled on the when the new libretas were handed me ten of them for 2 pesos apiece. She Museum of the Interior Ministry. The out, like always. immediately spent the money on more, museum was staffed by women in Snchez was happily ignorant of the turning a profit of three eggs and khaki MININT uniforms, with green domestic arts. Four pounds of rice at change. We both walked home gin- shoulder boards and knee-length 25 centavos, he said, trying to recall gerly, afraid of smashing a months pro- skirts. The entrance fee was 2 CUC, his monthly allotment. I think. And, tein with a single misstep. they told me. I couldnt pay that, of uh, a fifth pound at 90 centavos, I Barbara now pointed out a terrible course. How much was it for a Cuban, think. Lets consult the women. They mistake in my plan. In recent years, I asked? Wrong question. You dont dominate on this matter. most sources outside Cuba reported bargain with MININT. He called to his common-law wife, that the ration includes five pounds of I said I would come back another Barbara. Aside from being a lawyer black beans. But it had been years time, but dawdled in the entrance who worked on prisoners cases, she since this was true. This month, the hall, which had its own exhibits: cooked and was helping her mother allotment was just eight ounces. racks of machine guns, photos of the and another woman run a bakery out Ten thousand calories had just big MININT headquarters near my of the kitchen. They had bought a bag evaporated from my month. apartment, and oversized quotes from of flour on the left, meaning it was To make up for this blow, Barbara Ral Castro and other officials prais- stolen flour bought from a connection. decided to treat me to a typical Cu- ing the patriots at MININT for pro- This cost 30 pesos. With this and ban lunch. This began with rice, at tecting the nation. some ground beef purchased under the four or five dry pounds per person each One of the women, hair in a tight counter at the butchers, they made month the mainstay of Cubas diet. 50 HARPERS MAGAZINE / OCTOBER 2010 Symmes Final2.indd 50 8/19/10 9:01 AM

7 Each citizen could eat about as much Elizardo came back in. This isnt cooked rice per day as fits in a con- Haiti, or Sudan, he said. People densed-milk can. It was low-quality arent falling over in the streets, dead Vietnamese rice and variously called of hunger. Why? Because the govern- creole, ugly, or microjet rice, the last a mocking reference to one of Fi- dels plans to boost agricultural produc- ment guarantees four or five pounds of sugar, which is high in calories, and bread every day, and enough rice. The pakistan tion with drip irrigators. A typical problem in Cuba isnt food, or clothes. lunch included half a can of cooked rice (the other half saved for dinner); it Its the total lack of civil liberty, and therefore of economic liberty, which Voices at the was a gooey mash, but it tasted good is why you have to have the libreta in forefront enough, sauced by my hunger. the first place. Next was a bowl of bean soup. It As in the rest of the world, the of a literary had only a handful of beans, but the problem of food is really one of access, renaissance. broth was rich, flavored with beef of money. And the problem bones. (Ten pesos a pound for bones, of money is one of politics. Memoir, Barbara noted. Many people cant afford it.) I hadnt tasted meat in six days. O n the seventh day I rested. Lying in bed with Victor Hugo, lost reportage, ction and poetry. Then she gave me half a small sweet in the test of mans goodness, I could potato. Much better nutritionally forget for an hour at a time that my than potato! Elizardo called from gums ached, that saliva from the magazine somewhere down the hall. was bathing my throat. of new writing There was also a fried egg, although, as Elizardo noted with another shout, Eat that egg today and you wont eat H avana was changing, as cities do. The historic zone had been lorraine adams one tomorrow. Or the day after. placed under the control of Eusebio jamil ahmad The egg was wonderful. With my Leal Spengler, the city historian. nadeem aslam shrunken stomach, the whole meal, Leal had been given special priority fatima bhutto including the two little empanadas, for building supplies, labor, trucks, hasina gul was perfectly adequate. I chewed on tools, fuel, pipes, cement, wood, even yasmeen hameed the bones, extracting small bits of faucets and toilets. But this was not mohsin hamid mohammed hanif meat. This was the best Id eaten in why the people loved him. Instead, intizar hussain days. Barbara carefully preserved the my friend explained, the privileged aamer hussein oil from the frying pan. access to supplies simply meant that uzma aslam Richard, with his little notebook of there was more to steal. khan waqas khwaja prices, pointed out the math of eating A friend of mine was renovating in hari kunzru this way. A monthly basket of ra- hopes of renting rooms to foreigners, sarfraz manzoor tioned food (which actually lasted just and indeed within a few minutes there daniyal mueenuddin ayesha nasir twelve days) cost 12 pesos a person, by was a screech of truck brakes and a basharat peer government calculation. For the next great horn blast. Her husband signaled jane perlez ten days, people had to buy the same to me urgently, and we threw open the kamila shamsie food for about 220 pesos on the vari- front door. A flatbed truck was wait- declan walsh ous free, parallel, and black markets. ing. In sixty seconds, three of us un- sher zaman taizi That still got you only to day twenty- loaded 540 pounds of Portland cement green cardamom two. A month would run about 450 bags. The husband passed some wad- pesosmore than the entire incomes ded bills to the trucker, who promptly Buy GRANTA 112: Pakistan of millions of Cubans, and that didnt roared off. They had made money off for $16.99 or get it for free account for clothes, transport, or cement destined for some construc- when you take out household goods. tion job. We spent half an hour mov- a subscription No one could afford cups and plates ing the bags to a dark corner in a back anymore. These were stolen from state room, covering them with a tarp be- call toll-free enterprises when possible and traded cause they were printed with blue ink, 18664386150 on the black market. Clothes had to marking them as state property. Green quote ref: harpers be bought used, at swap meets called printing was for school construction. troppings, a play on the hard-currency Only cement in red-printed bags could visit shoppings. Those who ran out of food be bought by citizens, in state stores, granta.com/harpers went rummaging in dumpsters, or at $6 a bag. for details became alcoholics to numb the pain, Unlike most Cuban functionaries, he said. Leal had actually made a difference in LETTER F ROM HAVANA 51 +$53(56*$'LQGG Symmes Final2.indd 51 8/19/10 9:01 AM

8 peoples lives. He rebuilt the old hotels; labor, not the kind of work that is awaited celebration. It was Friday, and my friends took 540 pounds of cement counted in the columns of official tonight was the weekly Eating of the for their new tourist bungalow. He re- Cuba, where more than 90 percent of Meat. Although the day had so far stored a museum; they looted tin sheet- people are state employees. Why been one of my worstless than ing for roofs. He sent trucks of lumber should I get a job? Nobody else took 1,000 calories by 9 p.m., with a huge into the neighborhood; they made half theirs seriously, and the oldest joke in amount of walkingI was deter- the wood vanish. Havana is still the best: They pretend mined to make up for it with a feast. I The State owned all. The people to pay us, we pretend to work.3 prepared rice, put a single sweet pota- appropriated all. A ration system So I had time on my hands. That to in the pressure cookerknown to in reverse. night I heard music and found a se- Cubans as The-One-Fidel-Gave-Us, Helping to steal the cement was ries of stages set up along 23rd because they were handed out in an my first great success. For half an Street, culminating in a good rock energy-saving schemeand poured a hour of labor, I was paid with a heap- band playing under a rising moon. I precious glass of whiskey (250 calo- ing plate of rice and red beans, sat on the pedestal of some heroic ries) on the rocks, all with a side of topped with a banana and a small obscuritythe statue of a mother yesterdays beans and rice. Of necessi- portion of picadillo. At thrusting her son toward battle. Af- ty the portions were small. least 800 calories. ter a while a small girl, seven or From the freezer I drew my protein, T he second week was easier, my two little shelves well stocked with eight, came and sat on the stone. Caramelo? she said. Sweet? I dont have any. one of four breaded chicken cutlets for the month. I fired the stove carelessly and burned the cutlet black, though at bags of rice and beans, some sweet None? the table it proved cold and soggy on the potatoes at 80 centavos a pound, and No. inside. It was not chicken. It was not my bottle of smuggled whiskey still Not one? even the formed chicken it claimed to half full. I had nine, and then eight, No. be. The principal ingredients were listed and then seven eggs, though the re- Then the usuals: where are you as wheat paste and soy. Close inspection frigerator was otherwise barren. from, where do you live, why are you revealed no chicken at all. I was eating I had given up luxuries like sand- here? And again: Some money? a breaded sponge with only 180 calories. wiches (or sandwich, singular: I had I dont have any. Ah, for a McNugget. bought only one, but the expense still But foreigners always have so In the end, I crossed the 2,000- haunted me). On day ten I found I much money. calorie barrier for the first time in had 100 pesos left. As with the eggs, I Yes, in my country I have money. ten days, just barely. Discounting for could imagine a careful, slow reduc- But here, I live like a Cuban. a huge amount of walking and a little tion over the next twenty days, but Give me a peso? dancing, this left me at my familiar my budget and diet could be equally I cant. Im playing a game, my benchmark of 1,700 calories. But my ruined by a slip that left a yolk on the dear. Im pretending to be broke. Im stomach was full when I went to bed. floor. It all came down to a question living like your parents for a while. I Or so I thought. After two hours of how long the rice would last: with havent eaten in nine hours. In the of sleep, I woke with insomnia, the just 5 pesos per day remaining, I could past eleven days Ive missed 12,000 companion to hunger. From 1 a.m. afford no major purchases for the rest calories off my normal diet. My teeth until dawn I lay in bed, five hours of of my stay. I learned to suppress my hurt so badly. swatting at mosquitoes, tossing, read- appetite, walking past the queues of Or, in Spanish, No. ing Victor Hugo and Alexandre Cubans buying tiny balls of fried dough for a peso apiece. My only in- dulgence was a bar of stiff peanut but- I 3 finally strode home to a long- Those Cubans who ignore the summons Dumas pre. Still, I cant compare my situation to real hunger. As Hugo notes, Be- ter, handmade by farmers, which sold to official labor can be charged with dan- hind living on a little lies the art of for 5 pesos in the agros. With re- gerousness, a vague offense punishable by living on nothing. I sank into thou- straint, this little slab of about six ta- up to four years in jail. Dangerousness is sands of pages of nineteenth-century blespoons of crudely ground, heavily pre-crime, Elizardo Snchez saidthe France, two authors describing revo- police nipping your bad attitude in the bud sweetened peanut could be made to before you have a chance to commit an ac- lution, forced marches, and real star- last two days. The poorest campesinos tual crime. There are regular campaigns to vation. When one has not eaten, could be seen nibbling on these pack- arrest young people who try to avoid work Hugo writes, it is very queer. . . . He ets of peanut butter, carefully rewrap- or the draft, and this year it was particu- chewed that inexpressible thing ping after each bite. larly relentless, a sign of nervousness. Its which is called the cud of bitterness. not easy to hide from the government, Another thing I had in common Snchez told me. Boys are required to A horrible thing, which includes with most Cubans was that I did ab- register themselves for military service at days without bread, nights without solutely no work during my thirty fifteen. They change their address some- sleep. So came the dawn, days. That is to say, I worked hard and times, but it doesnt work. Its very hard for my twelfth. often at my own projectsI hauled cement and shoveled gravel for food, and wrote a lotbut it was not state a young person to hide. Cuba is a dossier society. From first grade onward, the police stop children and ask for I.D. They can ra- dio in and get everything. S uddenly, fortune and happiness. The next night, as I sat in front of 52 HARPERS MAGAZINE / OCTOBER 2010 Symmes Final3 CX.indd 52 8/24/10 9:52 AM

9 my apartment watching the street, my neighbor came walking down the valuable: I gave her my broken pants. She was eighty-four years old, the With all the money alley holding a phone. A phone call. same age as my mother, and lived on shed saved at For me. a pension of 212 pesos a month, or a It was a friend of a friend, visiting little over $8. She scavenged in the Daedalus, Cuba with her boyfriend. They were verifiable aint-we-grand Americans, trash for itemsto the fury of my housekeeper, who considered the Sally could afford and I instantly smelled free food. trash her own resourceand worked her own tropical Theyd landed in Havana and, unfa- as a colero, or professional line-waiter, miliar with the city or Spanish, were for five families on this block. She paradise inviting me to dine with them. took their ration books to the bode- We went for a walk around Vedado ga, collected and delivered the and I carefully avoided pleading for monthly goods, and was paid a total food, playing the stoic. They bought of about 133 pesos for this. She was dinner at a tourist restaurant, and for sucking on an asthma inhaler that the first time I ate pork. cost 20 pesos, or about 75 cents, but The next afternoon we met again. only the first one came at that price: I took them to see a Santera initia- others had to be bought on the black tion, an hour of steamy drumming in market at several dollars apiece. a tiny apartment, complete with three In return for my pants, she men- separate acts of possession. Another tioned that the free bakery was invitation to dine at a fancy restau- stocked. This was the non-ration bak- rant followed. ery, where anyone could buy a loaf. The More pork! price is four times that of the ration Cubans marinate lechn, the in- bakeries, but there is much more bread. nocent little suckling pig, with garlic I retrieved a plastic bag, walked eight and bitter orange, and slow-cook it blocks (passing three empty ration bak- until you can eat it with a spoon. eries), and bought a loaf for 10 pesos. Along with the glistening fat and As I walked home, a woman passing protein, we were served a platter of the other way asked, They have rice and beans, exactly what I ate bread? She doubled her pace. twice a day in my own kitchen. The Then, as I passed a chess game un- platter would make four meals for der a shortleaf fig tree, a man looked me, I explained. up and asked the same. Excuse me, the boyfriend said, Yes, there is bread, I told him. helping himself. Im just going to eat He toppled the pieces, rolled up the your Thursday. board, and both players decamped for Like the hundreds of Cubans the bakery. whom I have fed over the years, I Breakfast had been a tiny, hard sang for my supper. The lore of plantain, bought from a man in an Afro-Cuban cults. The history of alley. With coffee and sugar, it was less buildings I had never seen before. than 200 calories. Lunch was an egg Strolls in the shoes of Capone, Lan- and two slivers of the new bread, for sky, Churchill, and Hemingway. another 380. Socialism jokes. The arts of the ra- There were three dollars in my tion. The secret of the daiquiri. Both wallet and seventeen days Daedalus of those nights I had some pork, rice to go. and beans, and a pair of cocktails. Despite the meat I was hardly bet- A catastrophic mistake. I had ter offjust 2,100 calories each day, compared with my usual 1,700. But the meals added to my psychological well-being. I had carried off a respite, been afoot all afternoon, my blood sugar bottoming out, and when I passed an alley with a small piece of cardboard reading pizza, I stopped Books a vacation, from the grinding and bought one. The basic pizzaa After 3O Years anxiety of seeing my dry six-inch disk of dough smeared with Still the Best Browse goods evaporate. ketchup a nd a t ablespo on of in Bargain Books T he next morning I found a woman riffling through my garbage. cheesecost 10 pesos. But I impul- sively supersized my order, adding chorizo. It was now a 15-peso snack. For a free catalog call She wanted glass bottles or anything In my apartment I set the little 1.800.395.2665 salebooks.com LETTER F ROM HAVANA 53 Symmes Final2.indd 53 8/19/10 9:01 AM

10 pizza down and stared in horror. 15 I had my worst day so far, eating resold or repurposed. Now I think pesos was an incredible, budget- just 1,200 calories. That was the in- the real figure is 50 percent. Crime is busting 60 cents. I could have bought take of an American POW in Japan the system. pounds of rice for that amount. during WWII. On the sidewalk in front of my ra- Staring at the puny thing, smaller I went back to my friends the cement tion store one day, I saw a teenager than a single slice in America, I began thieves, and after much waiting, the with a punk-rock haircut, idling in his trembling. I had to sit down. Then I woman cooked me a generous dinner, shiny Mitsubishi Lancer and playing burst into tears. For a good ten min- cackling with laughter over your ex- with what I mistook for an iPhone. utes I wept, cursing myself. Moron! periment. She had fried (in oil stolen Its not an iPhone, he corrected me. Fool! Idiot! from a school) some ground chicken Its an iTouch. I had spent a fifth of my remaining (bought from a friend who stole it), These sell for $200, or 5,300 pesos. money on impulse. Now I had just which she served with the ugly rice Some people have money, even here. The 64 pesos to survive the next seven- from the ration and a single tiny beet. only certainty is that they didnt make teen days. What would happen to me After the meal, she even made me some that money in any legitimate way. now? How would I eat when I ran out eggnog, but in a Cuban servingone I walked to the sweeping Riviera, of beans, which were already low? mouthful, in an espresso cup. There where the gaming floor was cleared by What if there was another mistake? were also a few spoonfuls of papaya (1 nationalization just a year after it What if I was robbed? How would I peso each, at a cheap market she recom- opened. (Meyer Lansky, the owner, get to the airport on the last day if I mended), cooked down in sugar syrup. famously said he had crapped out.) didnt have even a few pennies for Its impossible, she said of my at- In the gym I weighed myself: 200 bus fare? tempt to be officially Cuban. For sur- pounds. In 18 days Id lost ten pounds, Crying releases not just tension and vival, everyone had to have an extra, a rate that would result in hospitaliza- fear but endorphins. Around the time some income outside the system. Her tion in the United States. the pizza had cooled down, I had, too. husband rented a room to a Norwe- On the way home, a woman asked I ate it carefully, with a knife and fork, gian sex tourist. Her neighbor sold me where the P2 bus was found. I and a glass of ice water. This meal lunches to the workers whod recently mangled the answer. Oh, I thought lasted less than two minutes. It was lost their canteen meals. Her own you were a Cuban, she said. the low point of my month. mother wandered the streets with Lose weight, change nationalities. An hour later, there was a knock on pitchers of coffee and a cup, selling I laughed off her mistake and went the door. The child of one of my jolts of caffeine. Her friend around the on, but a minute later she was chas- neighbors was outside. Patri! she corner stole the cooking oil and resold ing me down. cried. Patri! it for 20 pesos a pint. Another neigh- Hey, invite me to lunch, she said. I went out. She handed me a shoe bor stole the ground chicken and re- Anyplace. I shook my head, no. box. It was heavy and covered in sold it for 15 pesos a pound. (Good Lunch, she called after me. Din- packing tape. Someone had stopped quality, a very good price, you should ner. As you like. byanother American visiting Cuba get some, and I did.) At home, I opened the fridge and dropped it off. In the kitchen I cut Her meal was the only one I ate and counted: five eggs it open and found a note from my wife that day, the calories undercut by an left. and young son, and three dozen homemade tea cookies. I ate ten cookies. Ambush to escape. astonishing walk not just across Ha- vana but completely around it, pass- ing in a giant loop down the carbun- L ike the woman looking for the P2, Id become direct. I walked two Tears to peace. Damnation to joy. cled streets, through big hotels, past miles out to Cerro, a bad neighbor- I rationed the rest of the cookies: five dim houses, among people sleeping hood. This took me right through an per day until they ran low, then two per without roofs, sitting on packing alley lined with rusting wrecks of day, and finally I disassembled the box crates, onward all the time, hours in trucks, past a crumbling sports stadi- with a knife and ate the rotation through noon, afternoon, um, through an overgrown park and crumbs out of the corners. evening, on wide avenues and in nar- a grove of trees, to the front door of O nce a day I indulged my vani- ty, standing shirtless in front of a row alleys, across Plaza, Vedado, Centro, Old Havana, into Cerro, out through Plaza again, into Vedado the Ministry of the Interior. This is the famous building with a giant Che Guevara on it. It was guarded by a mirror and staring at a man I had again, two, four, six, eight miles, past couple of red-bereted soldiers. The not seen in fifteen years. I had lost the bus station, the sports stadium, MININT building is constantly pho- four, then six, then eight pounds. But burning holes in my shoes, and then tographed because of its signature the stomach and mind adjust with to bed. Che sculpture, but you dont want to frightening ease. My first week had My feet hurt. But there wasnt the go inside. I ignored the guards and been pained and starving. The sec- slightest complaint from strolled out onto the vast broken as- ond was pained and hungry. Now, in my stomach. phalt of the Plaza de la Revolucin. my third week, I was eating less than ever but was at ease both physically and mentally. I used to say that 10 percent of ev- erything was stolen in Cuba, to be On the far side, walking carefully, I cut past the entrance of a low but massive building sitting at the top of 54 HARPERS MAGAZINE / OCTOBER 2010 Symmes Final3 CX.indd 54 8/24/10 9:52 AM

11 a sweeping driveway. This was the well-off group within the leadership, Council of State, the nucleus of the with big houses, foreign travel, every- revolutionary system, where Ral thing. The Cuban people know this Castro oversaw his top functionaries. group exists, but you will never see Special-forces troops with pistols and them, there is no way. batons guarded the entrance ramp; During an hour of talk, his wife, the government feels secure enough Ofelia, another human-rights activ- that only a couple of pistols stood ist and domestic servant, brought between me and Ral. me a glass of pineapple juice. Os- Wandering, sometimes in circles, I waldo began to wrap up and urged passed out through Cerro and other me to come back for a meal and a neighborhoods until I found the house mojito anytime. of Oswaldo Pay, one of Cubas most I stayed in my chair. All this talk of important dissidents. We talked about future meals had my mouth coursing Create Dangerously politics, culture, neoliberalism, and with saliva. Ofelia saw this, and soon The Immigrant Artist at Work human rights, but what caught my at- I heard frying in the kitchen. tention was his own personal economy. We ate tomato soup, tomatoes, rice, Edwidge Danticat My salary is 495 pesos a month, he and yellow lentils. She served some Edwidge Danticat is a great literary said. Thats about ten meals for four or protein, a gray mash that I took for artist. She is also a grand cultural critic five people. Wages dont cover a fifth of government picadillo because it tasted whose wisdom and compassion loom our food needs. A 10-peso sandwich, like soybeans and scraps of something large in this magnificent book. Cornel West, Princeton University 11-132 with a 1-peso drink, is half my daily that had once been an animal. But salary. With me going to my job and Ofelia dug the wrapper out of the gar- Though delicate in its prose and coming home, my three kids going to bage can. It was mechanically sepa- civil in its tone, [this book] hits like a ID08 school, we spend about 12 pesos a day rated turkey meat from Cargill in the freight train. Its a call to arms for all on transportthats 50 to 60 percent United States, part of the hundreds of immigrants, all artists, of our total income. He himself sur- millions of dollars worth of agricul- FPOall those who choose to bear witness, and all those who 4/C 10/10 vived thanks to a brother in Spain who tural products sold to Cuba every year choose to listen. sent money. The paradox is that the under an exemption to the embargo. It AD TK Dave Eggers, author of Zeitoun workers are the poorest people in Cuba. was almost inedible, even in my hungry PRINCETON UNIV HARPERS MAGAZINE Were all worse off than the guy who state, but Ofelia was beaming. Its Cloth $19.95 011 sells hot dogs in the gas station on the much better than the turkey we used corner (a hard currency enterprise). to get, she said. Most people had no CUC and went On the way out, Oswaldo tried to home hungry every night. I dont say hand me 10 pesos. Every Cuban everything in Cuba is bad, or terrible. would do this for you, he said. He told Thats because we have distribution me to spend it on food, but I declined, schemes to feed the poor, to give ben- pushing the bills away. I couldnt take DO NOT PRINT THIS INFORMATION efits. But thats another way of domina- cash from a source, though I didnt tion, keeping people eternally poor. scruple at the meal. He insisted. In the Free my hands, Ill start a business and end, to avoid walking home, I accept- feed myself. ed a 1-peso coin for the bus. I asked him where someone would Oswaldo walked me out through get the money for an iPod Touch, or his gritty neighborhood, full of star- any of the other gizmos, luxury goods, ing adolescent boys, to a bus stop. modern cars, sound systems, and sleek Wear long pants was his final clothes that were increasingly com- advice. O nly tou r i st s Mumbai Fables mon in Cuba. A salary . . . is equal to went around in shorts. Gyan Prakash poverty, he said. They all have to rob the system to survive. Thats the toler- ated corruption of survival. A tiny I d long ago finished my whiskey, and I was hard-pressed to enjoy Cuba A fascinating exploration of my favorite city, full of insider knowledge and sharp insights. middle class had emerged: Business- without a drink. Oswaldo Pay had put Salman Rushdie men, mostly ex-officials, people who the bug in my ear, declaring, Having run restaurants. All of them are re- a drink is one of the rights we all Gyan Prakash brilliantly combines the gime people. Most are ex-military, or have. It was time to make some liquor. historians savoir faire with the savvy seductions of the urban raconteur. from the Ministry of the Exterior, and The only food I possessed in super- Homi K. Bhabha, Harvard University so on. They have connections. They abundance was sugarI hadnt even are inside the system. They are un- bothered to pick up my allotment of Cloth $29.95 touchable. And there was a third, crude sugar, because in three weeks incredibly small but indescribably Id gone less than halfway through my LETTER F ROM HAVANA 55 Symmes Final3 CX.indd 55 8/24/10 9:52 AM

12 four and a half pounds of refined of Brazil, gave me a yard of filthy though I consider myself black. Im white sugar. The process of making plastic tubing. I spent two hours try- the lightest in my family, my mother rum is simple, at least in theory. Sug- ing to clean hardened grease out of is black, my sister is black, but I ar plus yeast equals alcohol. Distilla- this tube. Heat, soap, a rag, and a think black people smell bad. That tion equals stronger alcohol. I had disarranged coat hanger made no guy has a lot of money. Hes some never distilled before, but Id recently dent. I couldnt have my booze tast- kind of big man in the Cayman toured the Bushmills distillery in ing like an old Chevy. Islands, hes really rich. He offered Northern Ireland and, fortified by Finally I asked a gardener working me $150, but I told him no. Now he notes from Chasing the White Dog, by on a neighbors yard if he could con- says hes going to pay me $300 just Max Watman, I blundered my way seguir me a bit of tubing appropriate to have dinner. toward bliss. for distilling firewater. He thought this I dont think so, I observed. The first step was making a wash, request the most natural thing in the I know. I keep telling him to call or low-alcohol solution. I already had world and returned in half an hour, my cousin. She loves black guys. the sugar. I walked to the free bakery, having lopped off a yard of somebodys All our conversations began and where a disappointed crowd was wait- garden hose. ended with a proposition. Because, ing for the machines to turn out a new For the next two days I checked over a week, I had repeatedly turned batch of bread. At the back door I the pond scum in the cooker. It her down, she now said, I thought you flagged down a baker and asked if I attracted fruit flies and were a duck. A what? You know, could buy some yeast. No, she said. gave off a gentle hiss. maricn. Un gay. Homosexual. We dont have enough ourselves. In the now-familiar ritual, I hung out for a while, chatted her up, and soon she T he gods were smiling, and so were the prostitutes. For more than a She was a nurse, twenty-four, from Holgun. She worked twelve- hour shifts to earn vacation time, was shoving half a bag of yeastmade week I had been fending off the at- then every four or six months came in Englandthrough the fence. I tentions of a young lady who walked to Havana for a long break to dedi- tried to pay her, but she refused. past my apartment. She was a classic cate myself to this, she said. In a After reverse-engineering Wat- example of the Cuban economy in rare euphemism, she said she was a mans prose with a calculator, and action: hot pants, gold chains, blue dama de acompaamiento. converting to metric, I could only eye shadow, platform sandals, and Most of the girls have pimps, you hope I was in the ballpark. A kilo of inch-long acrylic fingernails painted know, but not me, so I have to look sugar would require slightly more the colors of the Cuban flag. after myself. In addition to a phone, than a gallon of water. In true Ha- Psst, she would say, calling my her cleavage concealed a small ser- vana style, the water proved the big- attention to these attributes. I often rated knife, which she snapped open gest obstacle: tap water in the city is sat outside my small apartment to re- and waved around. thick with magnesium. My landlord lieve the feeling of being trapped in- You know why we do this, she had a Korean water purifier, but it doors. She would look through the said, right? Its the only way to sur- was broken. It took thirty-six hours iron gate along the road and sum- vive. I have a daughter, I love her so to scrounge a single gallon of purified mon me. Psst. much, shes precious. I miss her. So I water. Then I scrubbed out my pres- I resisted. But she was, like the do this for her. Why dont you give sure cooker, tested and repaired its many Cuban prostitutes I have talk- me a hundred and Ill come upstairs rubber seals, sterilized it, and dumped ed with, a charming and intelligent right now? (Eventually she offered the water and sugar in. Watman survivor beneath the blunt jewwan- me the Cuban price of $50.) didnt mention how much yeast to nafuckeefuckee propositions. We I told her I didnt have any money. use; I went with half, on the theory spoke once, then again a few days I explained what I was doing. The that a screwup would still leave me later, and then our third conversa- ration. The salary. That I had al- enough for a second shot. tion lasted a long time. She kept try- ready lost ten pounds. I dont have a Mix, close, wait. In four hours the ing to get into my apartmentdid I peso, I told her. She asked for a pen, pressure cookerThe-One-Fidel- have a light for her cigarette? some wrote down her phone number, and Gave-Uswas almost bubbling over coffee? a beer or soft drink?and I handed it to me. Then she pulled, with a scummy brown foam that kept stringing her along, enjoying from one of the minuscule pockets of smelled deadly. her tales. her hot pants, a single peso coin, Distilling requires a hose. I tried a Her cleavage started ringing once, which she handed to me. large hardware store in a hard- and she pulled out a cell phone. A Thats so you can call currency shopping mall on the tendentious conversation followed, me, she said. Malecn, then a hardware shopping, and finally asked a gas-station atten- dant. He told me to look for a man in English. When she hung up she said, He wants to fuck me in the ass. Cogerme en el culo. Cubans, es- T hat was another terrible day for food, the worst yet. Between standing by a small card table on pecially prostitutes, are direct about dawn and midnight I ate rice, beans, 3rd Avenue. After much discussion sex. Also race. Black guys always and sugar that totaled just over a of alcohol, this grease-covered man, want to do it in the ass, she contin- thousand calories. I got up at three a black-market plumber straight out ued. I dont like black guys, even the next morning and finished the 56 HARPERS MAGAZINE / OCTOBER 2010 Symmes Final2.indd 56 8/19/10 9:01 AM

13 Rain Or Shine rice. Nothing left but a fistful of tasted some, with a sad face. I woke beans, two sweet potatoes, a few up at midnight with a headache, and tiny plantains, three eggs, and a this pattern continued for the last quarter of a cabbage. week of my residence. Instant stom- Pure fur felt hats made in Australia Nine days to go. achache; mild drunk; headache. I went to the ration shop, found The two or three hours in the mid- to protect you for decades... Make every day an Jess, and bought coffee, a pound of dle were well worth it. When I left rice, and some bread, all at Cuban Havana there wasnt a prices14 pesos total, or about 60 drop of lightning left. adventure cents. That was the end of the mon- ey. But with the scraps of food, and the generosity of various Cubans, T here wasnt much of me left ei- ther. In mid-February I walked one and a stomach shrunk to the size of a last time to the Riviera, weighing walnut, it would be enough. I knew I myself in the gym. I was down eleven was going to make it. and a half pounds since my arrival. I walked the next day to the house More than eleven pounds gone in of Elizardo Snchez, the human- thirty days. Id missed about 40,000 rights activist. An hour and ten min- calories. At this rate I would be as utes each way. Everything is fine lean as a Cuban by spring. And dead now, I told him, delirious with low by autumn. blood sugar. Even the prostitutes are giving me money. I finished out with a few tiny mealsthe last of the ugly rice, a last Banjo Paterson I was in his house for an hour. sweet potato, and the quarter of a cab- Heritage quality felt and roan leather He offered me a glass of bage. On the day before my departure sweatband, 4 " crown, 2 " brim. water. I broke into my emergency stash, eat- 6 - 8, Heritage Fawn or Charcoal A t last the great day of escape was here. Not my departure, which ing the sesame sticks from the airplane (60 calories), and opening the can of fruit punch Id smuggled in from the #1622 Banjo Paterson FPO 4/C ..................... $150 was still eight days away, but the al- Bahamas (180). The taste of this red AD TK cohol. The brown wash had stopped liquid was a shock: bitter with ascorbic DAVID MORGAN bubbling after four dayswhen the acid, and flooded with sugar, to imitate 013 alcohol content reaches about 13 the flavors of real juice. It was like percent it kills off the remaining drinking plastic. yeast. I sterilized the garden hose My total expenditures on food were and, using a bent hanger, fixed it to $15.08 for the month. By the end Id the vent on top of the pressure cook- read nine books, two of them about a er. I struck a match, and in ten min- thousand pages long, and written Packable Traveler utes I had alcohol vapor, and then a much of this article. Id been living on Pliofelt with cloth sweatband steady drip of condensation into the the wages of a Cuban intellectual, and, empty whiskey bottle sitting in a indeed, I always write better, or at least 4 " crown, 3" memory brim. bowl of ice. faster, when Im broke. 6 - 7 , Regency Fawn Ignorant, and a disgrace to my My final morning: no breakfast, #1626 Traveler ......................................................... $120 Virginia roots, I cooked the wash on top of no dinner. I used the pros- too hot and failed to throw away titutes coin to catch a bus out toward Add $8 handling per order. the initial stripping run of low the airport. I had to walk the last 45 Satisfaction guaranteed. winea harsh and even toxic alco- minutes to my terminal, almost faint- hol. But after four hours the heart ing on the way. There was a tragi- run had produced a liter of milky comic moment when I was pulled booze, and I had the naive sense to out of line at the metal detectors by Visit us online or request a catalog quit before the dregs could poison men in uniform because an immigra- it. I should have made a second dis- tion officer thought I had overstayed tillation, a spirit run, but couldnt my thirty-day visa. It took three peo- be bothered. At four in the after- ple, repeatedly counting it out on noon I fi nally sat down with a glass their fingers, to prove that I was still of warm white dog. on day thirty. Akubra Hats from Australia Thirty seconds after I started I ate a dinner and a breakfast in the drinking I had a stomachache. The Bahamas and gained four pounds. Northwest Jewelry Designs alcohol content was low, but so was Back in the States, I put on another Filson Clothing and Luggage my tolerance, and I was quickly gig- seven before the month was out. Put gling. The gardener came by and on nationality, change weight. ^ 800-324-4934 davidmorgan.com 11812 N Creek Pkwy N, Ste 103Bothell, WA 98011 LETTER F ROM HAVANA 57 Symmes Final3 CX.indd 57 8/24/10 9:52 AM

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