At breakfast this morning in the hotel, the laden buffet stretches around the perimeter of the open, airy room: salad, fruits, vegetables, three kinds of sausage plus bacon, roast pork, prosciutto, chorizo and a whole tray of slices cold cuts and another of assorted cheese. Eggs sitting in metal warming trays – fried, scrambled, even poached – ignored as the guests waited in line for eggs made to order. There are two tall fountain structures with graduated tiers standing in the middle of the tile atrium, each bowl filled with desiccated leaves. An appropriate metaphor for the dried-up emptiness that was once the rush of Cuba’s abundance.
It reminds me of being in a minor earthquake in LA. After everyone was sure they weren’t going to die, they went back into the Beverly Hills party and acted like nothing happened. I watched the beautiful Los Angelenos drinking champagne and eating shrimp and had the same feeling that was overtaking me now. I want to stand up, rush over to the other guests and shake them. Don’t you know what it’s like here? Don’t you understand? Five eggs a month!
After breakfast, we wait for Armandito, uncharacteristically late by more than thirty minutes. It is an old-school lesson in patience for me and my American friend. We cannot call; even if we had his cell phone number, we have no phone to make the call from. So we sit and wait, remembering a time before the instant gratification of today’s technology. Eventually, the family turns up; they too had been waiting, thinking we would call when we were ready.
The first stop today is a large mercado – a supermarket the Cubans were allowed in only recently – that was built for foreigners living in Cuba. The rest of us wait while Tio Pancho goes off looking for a shopping cart. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, I decide to go looking for him, and I find him still empty-handed, as there are no carts except those filled with people’s groceries. We stalk a family with a full cart, wait patiently for them to unload their bags, then press forward and are rewarded by a round of applause when we appear back in the store with the mission finally accomplished.
My companion and I hope to buy the fixings for nachos to make for everyone’s lunch, but once we are inside, we realize this is impossible. There are no fresh vegetables, no tortilla chips, no salsa, and only one kind of cheese in the whole store. Instead, we go to the butcher counter, where my friend buys seven steaks, plus three more packages for each of her uncles and her cousin. The total for this meat purchase alone is three or four months’ salary for the Cubans. In addition, we pick up six one-pound packages of sugar, six bottles of cooking oil, and six thin packages of ground beef — each item is a huge bonus to their monthly rations (a person is entitled to about 8 ounces of cooking oil a month; later, I will sparingly use about a quarter-bottle frying the steaks for lunch).
At the checkout counter, cousin Ofelia gets into a conversation with the Cuban man behind us, who is buying just a few items. I ask what they are discussing and my friend translates that they’re talking about the price of meat. One of the packages of ground beef, which costs 2.8 Chavitos – about USD $3 – would cost him 25% of his salary. I motion to my girlfriend and she nods to me. I run back to the meat counter and pick up one more half-pound, tears coming to my eyes; I cannot change the world, but I can change this man’s circumstances for this one day. How much I have, in Cuba as well as back in my own country – how little he has here in his. As I return to the cart, my friend tells him that we are buying him the meat, and he thanks us graciously. But the cashier shakes her head. We cannot pay and give him the meat, unless it is outside. We finish our purchase and tell him we will wait for him. At the exit, a security guard carefully checks our bags against the receipt. By the time he is finished, the man is at my shoulder, and I am able to hand him the package and wish him Feliz Navidad. Ofelia walks me to the car, her arm in mine, speaking in Spanish as my companion translates: “May God always bless you for your kindness, your generosity.” I shake my head and tell Ofelia earnestly that I was so grateful to get the opportunity; now we are all crying a little.
There was no cold beer in the huge supermarket, so we stop at a small stand that sells only soda, beer, and ice, and I go with Tio Arcadio and Armandito to buy beer; it is a mark of everyone’s comfort (including my own) that I am allowed on my own. Armandito translates a bit at the counter for me, and I arrange and pay for a case of local Cuban beer, which is surprisingly full-flavored, like a Stella Artois or a Harp Lager. The beers cost a Chavito each, and I do the math in my head: about a tenth of what each of the men flanking me makes in a month.
Tio Arcadio hoists the beer onto his shoulder like a longshoreman, and we triumphantly return to the car. On the way back to Ofelia’s, Arcadio says he has spotted an avocado at a Cuban stand. Here we can’t buy the goods; this is one of the stores for the locals, and only takes their Cuban pesos. I accompany him, but I might as well not bother; there are exactly two avocados available, and though they are the large green ones I know as the Reed variety, they are spotty with bruised skins. I am reluctant, but Tio Arcadio buys both. Later, when I cut into them, I will discover the flesh is unblemished, and introduce a whole family of Cubans to the joys of guacamole – despite having the ingredients readily available here, the recipe is unknown to them.
Back at José Luis and Ofelia’s, I am going to make the steaks – pan-fried, as there is no working oven or grill. However, there is only one small pan and one small pot, too. Next time I come, I know what I am bringing, but for now, I set to work chopping onions and get two steaks into one of the pans, which is all that will fit. There was no butter in the store, and none here (the locals can get it only intermittently) but luckily, I had squirreled away two pats of good European butter from the hotel. I sauté the onions in a small amount of the cooking oil we bought, then at the last minute, drop a pat of butter in to brown and flavor the onions. The other small package I offer reverently to Ofelia, who gratefully promises to eat it with her bread the next morning.
We will eat in shifts; there is only enough room at the table for four people, and barely enough silverware or plates for all of us. I refuse to eat until everyone else has been served, and though I attempt to cook the steaks quickly, no one will eat them until they are all well-done. I watch, concerned, as they saw through the thin, tough meat with inadequate knives, but everyone exclaims over how delicious they are. Besides the steaks, topped with browned onions and sautéed shallot greens, we have thrown together sliced avocados and lettuce into a rudimentary salad, and everyone is enjoying their first taste of guacamole. Reluctantly, as one of the group finishes eating, I sit at the newly vacated seat, feeling as though I should be back in the kitchen making sure they all get enough in their bellies. But Ofelia will not hear of it, thanking me over and over for cooking and apologizing for her kitchen, which, though small, has now successfully turned out a meal as good as I could have cooked in my own.
After lunch, running very late, we all jump into the Chevy for one last stop on the way to the airport. We are visiting the family of a cousin I have already met in Miami; Armando has moved to the States, but has had to leave his wife, daughter and young grandchildren behind to do so, and the family has been separated for over a year. At the tiny, four-room house, we are greeting by four generations of Cubans: the grandfather is in his eighties, and Armando’s grandchildren are just ten and eight. His wife, rail-thin with curly, jet black hair, wears a T-shirt that stops me in my tracks. A hand-me-down from my friend on a previous trip, it declares, “I AM PROSPERITY.”
We give out almost a full duffel bag of gifts to the family, and the kids love the new clothes and shoes we have brought them, the Oreos, the Hershey’s Kisses. Everyone talks at once, and I grab up my iPhone, snapping posed pictures of the family, and candid shots of the men on the porch, the dogs, the peach-faced Lovebirds in a cage outside. I want Armando to see everyone and everything – he must thirst for his home.
Ofelia suddenly grabs my arm as I come back inside. I’ve been singing a lot since I got here, not just “Hotel California” with the bands, but also a Spanish song I learned, “Mi Forma de Sentir,” a beautiful ballad. I sang it for the family in Trinidad, then again with one of the bands in Havana. Now Ofelia shushes everybody – she wants to hear it again. The acoustics in the small room are excellent, as I begin to sing: “La distancia no es razon para dejar, la esperanza de algun dia volverte a besar, solo tù…” (distance is no reason to leave, the hope of kissing you again someday, only you…) Armando’s wife’s eyes meet mine, and she bursts into tears. My girlfriend comforts her, and I press on, determined that this song will be my blessing to her. She cries through the entire thing, and it’s all I can do not to join her.
When it’s over, I cautiously cross to her and she pulls me into a hug. We cry a little on each other’s shoulders; I cannot imagine the burden of her day-to-day life, raising her grandchildren, hoping to see her husband again but not knowing when or whether she will.
We kiss everyone goodbye and drive to the airport. At the entrance, Tio Arcadio and Tio Pancho both get out of the car. We are seven total, and a maximum of six people is allowed in a car here. They walk into the airport and meet us at the terminal, which is simply teeming with departing passengers, their entire families come to see them off, overstuffed luggage, and sexy cars from a bygone era.
We shoulder our small overnight bags and kiss everyone goodbye, then march determinedly into the throng. We will slip a guard USD $20 and skip the check-in line entirely, eat the very last two sandwiches available in the cafeteria, and sit in a crowded terminal waiting two extra hours for our plane to depart. I don’t care; I’m already planning my return to this magical island of contradictions.