Shopping in Havana / Iván García

The Carlos III shopping center in the heart of Havana looks like a giant beehive. From the time it opens, after 9:30, A tide of people are hurrying about their business. The bespectacled white-haired old grandfather has the convertible peso cents to buy a packet of milk powder.

Beside him, a sweaty fat lady does not know which shirt to buy her son who is going to be 12 the next day. A gang of crooks drink beer in the cafe on the ground floor, while looking lasciviously at the abundant rear ends of some mulatas wearing shorts that show more than they cover.

Inside and outside the mall business is conducted. A private army of vendors will rent you a car same rent you a car for 5 convertible pesos (6 dollars), or offer you the widest variety of services. Clowns for kids parties. Manufacturers of beds and mattresses. Skilled masons. And first of all, cheap merchandise.

Sometimes, outside the shopping complex are people who will offer the same products sold inside but at lower prices. But beware: in the vicinity of the Carlos III shopping center scam artists and pickpockets also abound, are looking to see if they can relieve you of your wallet in a heartbeat.

If you are an observer, inside the “mall” — as capital residents call it, using the English word — you can classify the buyers. In the departments with Everything-For-A-Dollar the lines stretch forever. In the boutiques with designer clothing, the bored sellers yawn.

As in almost all Cuban “shopping” — another common English usage — a legion of spectators will watch and not buy. It breaks my heart to see children stick their noses against the window displays of toys, perhaps dreaming that one day their parents may buy one.

Outside, the heat is fearful. People loaded down with bags, hunting is an old almendrón (an American car operating as a shared taxi). Or getting on a crowded bus that goes near their house. The lucky ones are those who live nearby and can walk along the wide and linear covered walkways. They are dilapidated and dirty, but protected from the bestial sun.

The Cuban spends much of his time going to markets and shops. And having hard currency is another matter. Then comes the adventure of trying to buy what you need. Sometimes you have money, but what you want isn’t in the shops. Or vice versa.

Either way, shopping is part of the tradition of Havana. Of a whole lifetime. And people have always enjoyed it Whether or not they have money.

October 15, 2010