We didn't know exactly what to expect when we arrived in Cuba. But, it wasn't getting off the plane from Mexico and being subjected to another security check before we'd even collected our bags. Which didn't any make sense. Turns out, not much does in Cuba. Of course I didn't know that yet. When we arrived, I was still hoping to have authentic Cuban cuisine and comparing a Cuban sandwich actually made in Cuba to the ones I used to eat when I lived in Miami. Plus, I'd gotten two Cuban cookbooks as a gift from a friend earlier in the month, whetting my appetite even more. But, I was in for a rude awakening.
Luckily, that awakening didn't have anything to do with our accommodations that I'd booked on Airbnb. Our host was there to greet us. As were out next door neighbors, part of the tight knit unofficial Cuban neighborhood watch program, who were party prepping for their grandson's first birthday that evening, which we were invited to before we even set foot in the apartment. (My husband ended up going to the party, doing rum shots, dancing with grandma and returned home with icing from the cake on the back of his shorts.) The apartment exceeded my expectations. Complete with a balcony; the perfect perch from which to watch the bustling neighborhood below. Without TV and wifi, this was our entertainment for 5 days.
We rented an apartment as opposed to staying in a hotel for two reasons: first, to get a feel for what it's like to live there and second, because we're cheap; so we try to save on food costs by eating at least one meal in. Plus, I love to go to grocery stores in foreign countries. It reveals a lot about the way people really live. But, I wasn't quite prepared for what I found.
When we walked to the neighborhood grocery store, there was a long line of people waiting outside. Apparently, they only let a limited number of people in at a time to prevent shoplifting. When our turn did come up, I was told I couldn't go in with my bag. So, I left it with my oldest son who waited outside the store while the rest of us scurried to collect the basics for breakfast. This is the thing...while the store is full of food, there aren't many food choices at all. There were three kinds of cereal and only, one brand of olive oil and boxed shelf milk instead of fresh. And there were no eggs, yogurt or butter. Thank god they had coffee. And a bakery right across the street from our apartment to get bread in the morning. Albeit one kind of bread, in the form of a roll or a baguette, lacking crustiness and flavor. Making me even more grateful that there was jam.
While we were walking the streets of Havana looking at the colonial architecture, classic cars and crumbled buildings (approximately 300 buildings collapse a year in Cuba), we saw people carrying eggs. But, where were they buying them? It was on the second day we spotted them stacked up inside an otherwise abandoned looking building. When we walked up to the open window adjacent to the sidewalk, we inquired how much they were with the clerk. But, they weren't selling them. They were eggs for the Cuban people with ration cards. Welcome to Socialism. Then he told us to come inside. Where he sold us the eggs and told us to conceal them while we walked back to the apartment. Welcome to the Capitalist Socialism that really runs Cuba since that the Russians stopped subsidizing the country for millions of dollars a day when the Soviet Union disbanded in the 90's. Where a lot of the population seeks opportunities to make money on the side to put some pork on the table occasionally with their ration rice and beans, eggs and bread. Not to mention, buying shoes which are very expensive, which is probably why I noticed the locals noticing my sneakers everywhere we walked.
I'd found that the Cuban cuisine I longed for doesn't exist in Cuba because most people don't have the ingredients to make it.
But, the mojitos are excellent.
But, the mojitos are excellent.
I was on the balcony eating breakfast, watching the buzz of the neighborhood. The old lady selling plastic bags in front of the bakery. The constant stream of people using the payphone next to the bakery. And the early morning deliveries being made to the food stalls sandwiched between a collapsed building and the bakery.
The pigs were getting delivered. In a dirty truck. And that's when things started to make sense. While we didn't get any exciting Cuban cuisine in Cuba, we did all get E. coli. I can't say for certain that we all contracted it from eating ham sandwiches, because I can't say with absolute certainty it was the ham. But, after witnessing our own bay of pigs, it did seem likely. (Bay also means the position of one unable to retreat and forced to face danger. Just let me have this, ok?) What I do know with certainty, because the lab confirmed it, is that we had 3 different strains of bacteria.
So, as we were on a plane back to Mexico praying for the seatbelt sign to go off so I could get to the toilet in time, I was singing that Havana song that's so popular right now in my head.