Saturday is market day Jaimanitas, a little village about eight miles west of Havana and right beside Marina Hemmingway, where we’re spending Christmas. Chris and I shoulder our backpacks and set out before the day gets too hot—but we’re already too late. We’re drenched in sweat by the time we reach the market square, which is crowded with people and cars and horse-drawn farm wagons. There’s a long line-up at the main produce stall, but we decide to see what’s on offer at the smaller stalls before taking our place in the queue.
It’s pretty much the same from stall to stall—carrots, tomatoes, eggplant, suspicious-looking potatoes, shaped like a sweet potato but pink on the outside and white on the inside. Lots of fruit, bananas, pineapples, papaya which you must not call papaya because in Spanish it means something else altogether, something rather rude. Bomba, you must say. We buy a bomba, then take our place in line for some vegetables.
“Ultimo?” a woman asks me. It’s the system here, and it works pretty well. When you approach a line, you ask who is last in line, and then you are ultimo. But I have forgotten to do this so I have no idea if I am ultimo or not so I shrug. She looks at her friend and rolls her eyes. In time, the man behind the table takes pity on me and serves me. I gather up a big handful of tomatoes, some cucumbers, point to the huge pile of gorgeous carrots, red dirt still clinging to them. I signal to Chris to grab a couple of eggplants. We walk away from the market with all the produce we can eat in a week. For less than $10 Canadian. Unbelievable.
We wander through the little village, follow the sound of music to the park, then follow our noses to a bakery down one of the sidestreets. Bread is all they sell, and there’s lots of it. We buy half a dozen soft rolls. Down another sidestreet we come across a man selling meat from a wheelbarrow. He slices pieces off a fresh, bloody carcass covered with flies. I see us becoming increasingly vegetarian on this trip.
The truth is, I’m suffering from culture shock. The houses in the village are nothing more than a jumble of crumbling concrete and tumbled-down stone. At first it didn’t seem possible to me that people lived in them. Then I saw laundry hanging in one of the tiny dirt yards and strung across a rooftop. I watched a woman turn onto a dirt path into what looked to me like an abandoned warehouse complex, struggling with her heavy market purchases and a sack of rice from the co-op. A mangy dog ran out to greet her.
The dogs. I can’t get used to the dogs. They are everywhere, running free, wandering onto the road, jumping out of the way of cars at the very last minute. Some aren’t fast enough. We see many dogs with broken legs. Cats who can barely walk, so skinny and sick that surely they should be put out of their misery. If only I had a magic wand.
We head back to the market—we decide to get a pineapple after all—and there we meet friends from the marina. David says something funny, and the four of us laugh, and I notice that people are looking at us. Then I realize that we haven’t heard laughter all morning. The villagers are quiet as they stand in line, resigned, it feels like. I’m embarrassed at our backpacks, our arms laden with purchases, our happiness. We have put some pesos in the pockets of a few farmers, too few pesos for what we were given. Why didn’t we offer more?
I wonder if I will get used to the real Cuba, so different from the resorts in Varadero, my only experience of the country before this trip. I know we will have given away all our money before we head home, and any supplies we have left, and the laundry basked full of gifts we brought with us—clothing, coffee, soap. Possibly the laundry basked itself. But is it enough.
I don’t know how the people of Jaimanitas will celebrate Christmas. Until recently, Christmas was banned in Cuba and it remains a pretty low-key celebration. Ours will be quiet as well. We won’t be wandering far from the boat, which is tied in a sort of cat’s cradle of lines in the narrow canal here at the marina. Big northwest winds are predicted, and in those conditions a surge big enough to lift boats over the concrete wall rolls up the river and into the marina. So far the winds are just giving the palm trees a comb-over, not bending them in half as they will soon. We’ll be keeping our eyes on our lines and having a quiet dinner as we wait out the weather—seafood risotto and a glass of prosecco—and thinking of all of you at home.
Have a wonderful Christmas.