Aurora and I spent the better part of the afternoon shopping for things for the apartment we are fixing up in her building. It will be rented to tourists to bring some much-needed income to the family and, will be my home whenever I visit Havana. The renovation proceeds in fits and starts, depending on which materials are available when—and if the workers show up. Now we are waiting for the yesero (plasterer) to finish the ceilings so that we can clean and paint the apartment (if we can find paint). And he is waiting for the plaster. Then comes the search for furniture.
Today we went in search of mattresses for the beds, paint, night tables, curtains and, as Aurora reminded me repeatedly—lo que hay—whatever there is. “There is a dicho she said that cual tu mas necesita, no aparece(whatever you need most will not appear). And you have to be ready to pounce on whatever you find that could be useful because as soon as it is put up for sale, it will likely disappear.
Our first stop was Cuba’s first and only “mall”—Carlos III—a brightly illuminated, noisy, bustling circular maze of clothing stores (including Adidas and Giorgio), hardware stores, fabric stores, perfumerias, a small playground for kids, and stores that displayed a random assortment of household goods. In one store we found blackout curtains at a good price and bought six. At another store we found paint rollers and extender poles for painting the ceiling—but the only paint available was cobalt blue. At yet another store we found beds set up for sale, but no mattresses.
Aurora pointed out the elevated prices of everything—from blenders to TVs—that we had looked at when she was in New York. Cubans are allowed to bring two TVs, or some combination of air conditioners, TVs, and other appliances, back from the U.S. each year, and looking at the prices I understood why so many traveled back with large appliances. A 36” Panasonic flat screen TV that we saw on sale for just under $200 at Best Buy was almost $500.00 in Havana. A blender, not the best quality, was priced at $72.00. The curtains we bought were $20.00 each but they were a priority for the new apartment.
To better understand what all this means, its helpful to know that most Cubans earn the equivalent of $20 to $40 USD a month in salary. Most own their apartments and pay a fairly low amount of their salary for taxes and utilities (there are no mortgages in Cuba—real estate is in cash only –for more about this see my upcoming post about Real Estate, Cuban Style).
The biggest expense is food. A ration card for each person in a household guarantees a very minimal quantity at a very low price of basic food staples like rice, bread, sugar, some vegetables, a small amount of meat and milk (for babies, kids and pregnant women). La libreta, as this system is called, has been shrinking over the years and is not even a subsistence diet at this point. It absolutely has to be supplemented with food purchased in Cuban pesos or with CUCS (convertible pesos—a system of “tourist money” that is on its way out) at either the state run agropecuarios (farmer’s markets), from individual cuenta propistas (private sellers) or from the black market vendors. For most families, the struggle to provide any kind of variety of food (and Cubans LOVE good food) is what motivates them to hustle 2 or 3 jobs on the side to supplement their salaries—or to leave the public sector altogether in favor of driving taxis or working in hotels.
Almost everything that is sold in the stores that sell household goods is imported—from China, Vietnam, Spain, Italy, or Canada. There are many products from the U.S.—I’m not exactly sure how they find their way in, but we went to a hardware store that had all “Hunter” products—tools, assorted doorknobs and locks, electrical equipment. Aurora pointed out the Makita electric sander that I had carried down to help with the renovation. On Amazon the price was $52. Here it was $107. “You see,” she said, with indignation in her voice. “You see how it is.” And the fact that so much is imported creates a very random and undependable shopping experience. When a container arrives with paint there will be paint. Word spreads and you’d better go and buy it that same day—otherwise it will be gone. In one store we saw several shelves of stainless steel (well, really probably aluminum) dish drainers like the one Rori had asked me to bring down from IKEA. “You see, you see tia Elena how it is.” There had been none in all of Havana when she last looked. In one cosmetics store, the shelves were completely empty. Evidently that container had not yet arrived. We went to two other stores, and as we walked through the streets carrying our paint rollers and poles, several people stopped to ask where we had bought them. Aurora shared the information freely—and at one point she herself stopped someone to ask where they had bought the ice cream they were eating so that her young cousin, who we had met on the way, could eat something.
At one store we found stacks and stacks of ceiling fans but they would not go on sale till tomorrow, and they were expensive–$170. I tried to remember how much we had paid for the ones in our house that we bought at Home Depot. The last thing we looked for was toilet paper, which is very hard to find at the moment. Many Cubans use old copies of Granma, the Communist Party daily newspaper, but for a North American visitor they bring out the toilet paper—if they can find it that is. We finally found a supply in a photography store (where else would it be?) but Rori refused to buy it because the price was twice what it should be. I always travel with multiple tissue packets so I’ll be fine.
My friend Carlos is also renovating an apartment to rent to tourists. When I asked him about the mattresses and mentioned Carlos III mall he laughed. “You’ll never find them there, Elena. Tell Rori to look on Revolico.” This is a relatively new phenomenon—a cross between Craigslist and Ebay on the Cuban internet. Maybe we will find our mattresses there—or maybe they will appear in the photography store next week. You never know!
Another day of shopping, this time with the help of Raul, a large amiable man who is the father of one of Aurora’s best friends. Somehow he fits his large body into a very small 33 year old Polish car. Rori had a list of stores that we would visit—from Playa to Old Havana. Part of the time we were in each store was devoted to pointing out with frustration and indignation the elevated prices of everything. We were excited by displays of things we needed only to find out they were just that—displays. The products themselves were not a la venta. We did manage to find a set of relatively cheap pots and pans, some assorted hardware for the doors, and—the biggest surprise of all—an aluminum ladder at a very good price. NOW we could paint the ceiling—if we ever find paint. Raul tied the ladder onto the roof of the small car and we chugged and bounced our way home.