When summer starts to say goodbye, Havana is a chain of stalls selling schlocky goods, private cafes, more or less expensive private restaurants, shelves of books and religious objects, and worn or rough wood shelves where people hang fifty pirated DVDs.
You can choose from all this. If you have between 20 and 50 pesos, in Los Olivos, a cafe in the Havana neighborhood of El Sevillano, you can have breakfast a snack of cheese, a double burger or a sandwich Cuban style, with crusty bread.
A mile up the street, on Sevillano itself, The 55, another private cafe, offers malted milk supply 20 pesos and huge glasses of fruit smoothies to 10 pesos. Those earning 300 pesos a month who for breakfast have only coffee mixed with ground peas and a piece of bread with nothing on it, cannot afford these luxuries.
This segment of the population marches to their workplaces with empty bellies. By mid-morning, if they have anything, it’s a greasy flour fritter , the cheapest option, a peso apiece.
Lunch also depends on the pocket. Or what you can steal from your work. The most widely consumed snack is bread with croquette, 5 pesos or pizza at 12 pesos.
But many can only scan the menus of the private cafes, shaking their heads at the high prices, and walking on. Or have a medium glass of kool-aid for two pesos. The only recourse left is to search for a state cafeteria.
Dirty, scruffy places where employees sell a variety of breads with really bad cake. For 15 pesos you can eat ’fried rice’ colored with burnt brown sugar in place of Chinese soy sauce.
At 20 pesos you get a piece of chicken. If your change isn’t enough, the most common solution is to put away bread with chopped onion at two pesos. Or pasta with some unidentified additive at 1.50.
Right now, money is tight for many residents of Havana. People walk with their shopping bags or nylon bags and small change in their pockets.
Every day life is more expensive. And wages are frozen in time. For many families, it has become a Herculean task to prepare daily school meals for their children.
For some time, the State has failed to give snacks to students in primary schools. It’s a matter for parents. Then you will see the kids carrying two bags: one with books and other, smaller, with refreshments.
The children of poor families without resources snack on bread with oil and salt, homemade butter, or a fish croquette, the best. Sometimes they go without.
Children with parents who have hard currency or relatives abroad, are fortunate. They can take bread with ham or cheese. Canned soda or fruit juices. Through 6th grade, if they choose all-day, they are entitled to lunch at school.
Lunch is usually a mess. In school canteens they always toss out a lot of food. Urban farmers pay 40 pesos for a can of ’stew’ (waste).
When you walk through the narrow streets of any neighborhood, you will see a sea of stalls, shops, boutiques, cafes, private and state. People selling potato chips and popcorn. Peanuts roasted and salted or sugar-coated. A legion of slushie carts. Or timbiriches — tiny stalls — offering stuffed potatoes, pork sandwiches and homemade ice cream.
In Havana, the problem is not lack of places to eat. It’s that many leave home without a peso. With empty pockets.
September 9 2011