Sunday, 14 December 2008

Fat Shops and Thin Rations

On my first day back I had a small attack of anxiety. It was in my local Sainsbury's. I was momentarily overwhelmed by it's size; the lights, the shelves bursting with produce; the blast of signage and the overwhelming colour. Above all I was aghast at the choice.

If you are in Trinidad and you want some fruit - which presupposes that you have some money - you let someone know, anyone will do, and before long fruit will arrive in tell-tale knobbly sacks at your garden gate. I you want soap you go to one of two shops: the local ration-book shop may have some of the yellow soap which burns your skin off ( I know, I tried some and could barely sit for two days afterwards), or if you are ready to spend half a months salary you can go to the peso shop and buy a bar of Lux. There is only Lux.

If you are Cuban you will have access to rice, eggs, beans, tobacco charcoal and sugar, when available, through your ration book or libreta. Distribution is notoriously unreliable and a womans work , for mostly a woman it is, requires balancing precarious food availability with government quotas, a feeble money supply and fluctuating energy availability. If you are a crazy traveller like me and you are not staying at one of the insanely luxurious hotels (which might as well be on the moon for all the relevance they bear to Cuban life), you might be able to buy such basic things if a) there is more than enough for the locals, or b) the shopkeeper likes the cut of your jib. Rossi queued for an hour at the bakers, only to be turned away with nothing. I stepped up with a saucy grin and lo - three loaves of bread....

The bodega shops are dark and Dickensian, with high cement counters fronting miserably populated shelves. Rice and sugar are shoveled out of sacks and measured to the metallic clunk of manually weighted scales. Dogs wander in and out of the open sides and men and women pass a leisurely time of day with each other as the shopkeeper studiusly applies the necessary tick in the appropriate box in the ration book. The shops are bleak and the customers happy. It is a great contrast with our fat confections of supermarkets bursting with produce and customers too busy to be happy.

The monthly quota of rations is not enough to feed you for 4 weeks, but it is heavily subsidised. Rationed provisions are about 20 times cheaper than can be found in what passes for the free market, which is fair enough, except that you are still without enough food to last a month without resorting to some 'exterior' means of making money. I met people who lived mainly on bread. That is - soley bread. No butter, no jam, no nothing. Just dry bread. They were good honest people afraid to move outside the 'party' line. I met people who would like to buy their child a toy... just one.

It is 50 years since that glorious revolution when equality was spread across a most unequal people. Cuba is in a position to trade it's crops of sugar and tobacco for food. The nearest neighbour is a mere 90 km across the Florida Straights. He is the richest nation in the world but he will not trade with you because he does not like the cut of your jib. Hungry? Here, choke on a plateful of ideology. It doesn't matter whose.

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