Stale Bread with Ham and Rum: Tourism in the Time of Cuba
“Cuba is for traveling, not for living,” said one man I encountered. “We get a ration of five eggs per month, one piece of bread per day, and one chicken leg every 45 days.”
All photos by the author.
"Maaaaaammmey!" The song of the mamey seller was the soundtrack to my first moments in Cuba. The burnt orange flesh of the mamey, which has a consistency that is a cross between that of an avocado and a sweet potato, is best eaten whole while walking down the streets of Havana.
My first morning in Cuba, I had stale bread and ham with locals on the corner near my family's house. The young woman who served me breakfast had hot pink nails, and she apologized for the stale bread by offering me a shot of rum. A waitress at the restaurant sat at a table nearby smoking a cigarette and drinking rum.
While walking along the Malecón one night, I met Noel, 27, a welterweight boxing champ. He was sitting there with his entire family. I walked by and admired his hair, and then thought about telling him I liked his hair, and then returned to do so. He introduced me to his entire family, offered me rum, and then asked me to wait while he ran to his house to get his boxing photos. He showed me a photo of him in the snow in Russia, of him in Germany, of him at his training gym. His little cousin Alberto bought me peanuts. The moon was full and as heavy and close to the Earth as I had ever seen it.
Taxi lit from within blasting the reggaeton song "Hasta que se seque el Malecón" that was playing on repeat in every home and car in Cuba.
The clothesline in front of Noel and his family's apartment. The light in Havana is like no other.
Butchers pose with their meat.
This grandma, one eye brown and the other blue, sat on a bench in Old Havana with her hibiscus crown. When she reached over to pick up a huge cigar, I snapped a photo. Then she stretched out her hand. I searched around in my bag and then dropped $1 Cuban convertible peso (CUC) into her hand, the equivalent of $1.45 US. I had not seen any beggars in Havana, and nobody had asked me for money (although women had asked me for makeup and kids had asked me for gum). She looked at me sharply and said, "I want Euros." And then to make her point, she fished a $2 euro coin out of her pocket.
The first snacks I found in the street were these chiviricos, fried dough covered in sugar. In general, it was difficult to find street food or snacks and most corner stores had either empty shelves or shelves stacked with tomato sauce and bottled water. Often the woman at the cash register asked me if I had any lipstick, mascara, or eyeliner that I could give her. Once a cashier asked me for my shoes.
Walking down a crowded street in Havana, I looked through an open window and was greeted by this almost-blonde getting her hair dyed at home. I love the way we were able to interact in both domestic and public space and the fact that she wanted me to take a picture but didn't pose or change her expression at all.
In a country where there is always a lack of something (water, bread, butter) people enjoy excess where they can. This excess also includes an intense fondness for sugar which they sometimes pour into their coffee cups until it reaches the halfway mark. "Even a few years ago, it was hard to get nail polish here," said this woman as she showed me her nail art.
I sat in the back of vintage taxis with bouquets of flowers covered in glitter, with cigars, with beer, with friends made and lost in the space of a few minutes, with my heart in my hand, with a cigar in my hand, with glitter on my face as I rested my cheek on flowers.
A snack seller hawking his wares.
Noel, the boxer, invited me to his boxing gym, the Gimnasio de Boxeo Rafael Trejo, where I watched him jump rope and spar with fellow boxers like the one seen in this photo. "I can travel to Russia and to Germany for boxing matches, but I don't have a Lamborghini or nice shoes or a big watch," he said when talking about the pros and cons of being an athlete in Cuba. Large billboards all around Havana read "Sports for everyone, the revolution conquers." Every child in Cuba can study a sport at school, and I met many young boxers, fencers, and black belts in karate.
I ran into this duo, who I called Superman and the smoker, after they hopped of a motorcycle with a sidecar, a mode of transportation quite common in Cuba. "Can you send us the photo?" they asked. "Do you have Facebook?" I wanted to know. "What is Facebook?" they asked.
Revolutionary youth bathed in electronic light at a corner in Cienfuegos, Cuba. Raul Castro's government has made the "social and public" use of internet a priority, and has installed Wi-Fi hotspots in parks and on high traffic corners in several Cuban cities. Young entrepreneurs sit with their computers in the park and sell internet by the minute to those who pass by. At night, the park in Cienfuegos is lit up by the tiny points of glowing light created by mobile phones.
Cubans celebrate New Year's with a pig roast, and they see them from life to death. (They often raise them in the back patio of the house.) I watched this pig walk down the street and then heard it scream as they let its blood. Pigs have a lot of fight in them, and it was hard to watch, but I felt better about eating a pig whose life I knew and whose death I had witnessed than I did about eating commercially produced meat in the USA.
Another family on the same street in the process of washing and shaving another pig for their New Year´s feast.
"I would travel to the end of the earth with you," he shouted from the corner. I stopped and asked, "Why did you get lips tattooed on your neck?" And he pointed to his neck and said, "Kiss me!" Cuban flirting is a heady mix of romance novel and comedic antics, and I didn't know what do do except laugh and ask him for a photo. His name was Jean Claudet, and he was standing on the corner with two friends, José Luis and Ronan. They asked if I could print them a copy of the photo. When I asked if I could send it to them via Facebook, Jean Claudet responded, "Facebook, there's no time for that. There's many things to do in the street."
Graffiti in Havana.
"Cuba is for traveling, not for living," he said. "We get a ration of five eggs per month, one piece of bread per day, and one chicken leg every 45 days."
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in February 2016.