SHOPPING FOR FOOD

29 01 2011

Shopping for food here in Santiago de Cuba is a very different experience to what I am used to in England or, I imagine, anyone else in Western Europe or North America is used to. In those countries, within reasonable limits, most people are used to buying what they want when they want it. Here you have to get used to buying what you can find, when you can find it.

 There is no such thing as a supermarket where you can buy every food item that you may want, all under one roof. The nearest thing to a supermarket here is what the locals call a “chopi”, derived from the English word “shopping”. They are priced in CUC. They do not sell bread, fruit or vegetables, fresh meat or fish, eggs or fresh milk (this is not available in cities and towns, only powdered milk). They sell canned products such as tuna, sardines or luncheon meat; frozen foods such as imported frozen chips, chicken sausages from Brazil, or chicken legs; and packaged foods such as spaghetti, coffee or ketchup. However, not every shop will stock all of these products and those that do will not always have them. There is also a chain of shops with a similar range, priced in CUP and a bit cheaper, called Mercados Ideales. The chopis open on Sundays until midday and the Mercados Ideales close on Mondays or Thursdays.

 To buy bread you must go to a bakery. These are situated throughout the city. I go to the local one most mornings. About 80% of the time there will be bread available, but for the remaining 20% they will have sold the last batch and will be waiting for the next batch to be baked. This can involve a wait of 30 minutes or longer. The queueing system is unique to Cuba – you do not necessarily stand in line, but when you arrive you ask who is “el ultimo” (the last) and you then know that you will be served after them. Likewise with the next person to arrive. You can then go and sit under the shade across the road or somewhere nearby until the bread is available. There are also carretilleros (wheelbarrow men) who sell bread along the streets, which saves time, but you pay a little extra for the privilege (if you see one when you want one).

To buy fruit or vegetables, you must either go to a state-run market, a small state run shop known as a mercadito (little market), a state-run punto de venta (point of sale) or a private puestecito (little stall). The markets are the cheapest. You can also buy from carretilleros or from people selling small piles of fruit on street corners or outside of their houses. The state-run options all close on a Monday. To buy meat you need to go to a butcher’s and to buy fish you need to go to a fishmonger’s.

 For Cuban citizens, there are small shops called bodegas, where they can get the subsidised items on their ration books (libreta), such as rice, sugar, coffee, beans, pasta, and oil. There are also bakers for the bread rolls from the libreta and, similarly, fishmonger’s and butcher’s, where they can also buy eggs. However, not all of these items are always available.

 It is also possible to buy food on the black market – normally of better quality and at a better price than the non-libreta shops. In the last couple of weeks I have bought eggs, shrimps and fish from such sources.

The non-availability of certain items at certain times and the different opening and closing times mean that sometimes you cannot buy simple things that you may want. For example, one Sunday I wanted to buy pasta but could not, because the chopis were shut and the Mercados Ideales did not have any. The next day I wanted to buy some oranges, but could not, because the markets were shut.

 I would not want to give anybody the impression that people in Cuba are starving because of the non-availability of food. They are not. I have eaten very well since I have been here. However, you need to spend more time buying what you need and sometimes will not be able to get what you want. For people with full-time jobs, this all presents even more of a challenge.

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