A Country of Contradictions

by Ashlee Craig (Australia)

A leap into the unknown Cuba


It was my first time in a black market. I scanned the street expecting threatening vendors, crowded stalls in darks corners and contraband hidden conspicuously behind sheets. Instead families gathered around tables of fruit, sodas and books, holding bags of goods in the open and laughed as they greeted each merchandiser like an old friend. I followed Roberto as he walked with purpose around the street corner and into a narrow alleyway, which was draped wall to wall with fresh clothing, shoes and other consumer goods. Brands such as Nike and Adidas laid amongst the stalls of stationary and vegetables. These items became even more apparent juxtaposed to portraits of Fidel Castro and the Cuban flag. Roberto caught my gaze. “A country of contradictions amiga,” he laughed. We continued through downtown Havana, along the cobblestone streets and into different baroque style buildings, reminiscent of the previous European influence. The outline of Spanish, French and Italian styles were overshadowed by the vibrant Cuban colours that had unfortunately faded with age. Each corner brought new stores and a barrage of new faces all eager to sell their illegal goods. “Viagra Viagra,” one man yelled, “seis horas arriba amiga!” I laughed and continued across the path in search for our desired product. “Remember what we need,” Roberto said as he searched ahead of me. I nodded. Roberto was the owner of my hostel in Havana. Or more accurately, I was one of the traveling guests in his own home as hostels are not present in socialist Cuba. In my eyes, he was the embodiment of his country. There would be nights at the dinner table that Roberto would engross his guests in socialist discussions, pro-government ideology and anti-American mantra, all the while ironically running his own private capitalist enterprise, the guest house, or “Casa Particular”. It was a side hustle, Roberto liked to say, if I was to ever point out the irony. Most Cubans do have side hustles however, whether it a Casa Particular, selling goods on the black market or driving guests in “collectivos” to different cities. According to the locals, it is necessary due to the government’s wage and ration system which was put in place after the revolution. We continued winding between stalls of milk, fresh water and magazines, below the beaming sun, until eventually an hour had passed and still we had no luck. “No sorry amigo, everyone is looking for it today. Good luck,” a vendor said to Roberto, and turned back to help another woman searching for bananas. “Amiga”, he turned to me, “Enjoy the city and I will continue.” He wiped sweat from his forehead and looked toward the expansive array of vendors he was yet to confront. “Buena suerte amigo,” I replied. I awoke in the next morning in Roberto’s Casa Particular with the several other travelers housed in my room. A faint smell of fried eggs wafted from the kitchen. He found the eggs.