Dispatch, Cuba: Stretching pesos at the market

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Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers spent a week in Cuba on Insight Cuba’s people-to-people tour, visiting Havana and Trinidad and points in between. Her third dispatch follows. Click to read Gay’s first and second dispatches. 

One morning in Havana, our group of nine Americans was divided into three groups of three people each.

Each group was given 25 Cuban pesos (approximately $1 U.S.), the currency used only by the Cubans, not by tourists.

Tourists must use Cuban convertible pesos, called CUCs (pronounced “kooks”), with one CUC equal to $1 U.S. and obtainable only in approved currency exchange centers in hotels).

The average monthly wage of a Cuban is approximately 300 Cuban pesos, approximately $13 US.

We had 20 minutes to shop in a farmer’s market with the aim of stretching those Cuban pesos as far as we could.

The farmer’s market is a step up from the bodegas or warehouses where most Cubans shop for food staples like rice and beans, using ration books, which are given to each individual or family once a year to buy a certain amount of food each month. The government sets the prices.

A ration book is like a discount card, but because food quantities are limited at the bodegas, Cubans often have to resort to the farmer’s market, where prices are a bit higher, to supplement their pantries.

Off we went into a large, covered, noisy market, lined with rows of fruits, vegetables and some meat, mostly pork.

We were on a tight budget and the clock was ticking.

We bypassed the tomatoes, 10 pesos each; limes were reasonable, three for five pesos, but as my team member Graham observed, “Families can’t live on limes.”

The carrots were too small, the sliced watermelon required refrigeration, and one small slice of pork would have blown the entire budget from the get-go.

With time running out, we decided on a bunch of 16 “donkey” (small) bananas and one medium papaya. Total cost: 25 Cuban pesos.

The groups convened outside the market. Omar Fernandez Gonzalez, our bus driver, served as judge and perused the purchases.

Team One bought two large avocados for 10 pesos each and three limes for a total of five pesos.

Team Two opted for one onion, a small bag of peppers and a yucca root for 25 pesos.

Team Three, my team, was the winner. Our purchases, according to Omar, “will go far. They will serve a family of four in several ways.”

Claire, Graham and I high-fived each ot

her, boarded the bus and moved on to a neighborhood polyclinic for an up-close look at Cuba’s medical professionals at work.

Later, over lunch at La Moneda Cubana, a state-run, semi-air-conditioned restaurant, we all admitted to feeling guilty as we dined on white rice, shredded beef and steamed yucca (looks and tastes like bland potatoes), accompanied by a salad of sliced cucumbers and avocados and finished off with an espresso and the Cuban national desert of ice cream.

It was a meal most Cubans could not enjoy. Or afford.

Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly. 

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