Queuing in Cuba

-"I've got bread and cheese!", the manager of the store proudly proclaimed! -"Come back tomorrow!"

-"But the sign says you're open 15 more minutes?"

-"Yes, but I am closing now."

Although we had only been in Cuba for a few days, we quickly realized that finding food would prove to be quite challenging.

We spent the entire day scouring the area in search of food, walking tens of kilometers to what we believed were supermarkets. Unfortunately, most of these stores were almost empty, stocked only with beans, beer, and coffee. However, after traveling three kilometers to a larger store, we finally stumbled upon 2 kg packages of frozen chicken. One of the workers was loading these packages, and I requested a single pack. Much to my surprise, he gave me four packs, totaling 8 kg of chicken.

-"Uno pack!", I told him, not yet having learned any Spanish.

-"No mas!", he replied.

I tried to explain that I didn't need 8 kilograms of chicken but he just stared at me like I was talking nonsense. Later I would understand that when you are lucky enough to find chicken, you buy as much as you can.

We went to the register and waited in line. We waited, and we waited. Even though there were only a few people in front of us, it still took us about 30 minutes to get to the cashier. Only credit cards were accepted, and they took their time and checked my identification thoroughly before asking me to sign the receipt. Later, people started to fight over the remaining chicken.

Next to the cash register, there was a kiosk selling candy and, more importantly, butter. Upon seeing a group of people waiting in what seemed to be a line, I positioned myself at the back of the line and patiently waited. However, the people ahead of me were moving around without making much progress, and after half an hour, we gave up hope of getting the butter from there. "We'll buy it somewhere else," we concluded before leaving. Unfortunately, that decision turned out to be a mistake.

Searching for stores around the neighbourhood in Miramar, Havana.

They have beans.

Waiting in line with a box containing 4 packs of chicken, tomato sause and lentils.

It was later the same day while hunting for breakfast that we were turned away 15 minutes prior to closing at this other store. This one was only about a kilometer from our home, so we decided to try again the next morning before breakfast.

When we arrived early the next day, we saw a long line of people waiting outside the store. We positioned ourselves last in line and waited, but it seemed like no progress was being made. People were cutting in front of us, leaving the line and coming back, and walking in and out of the store. Even after 30 minutes, we were still at the back of the line without making any progress.

A young man who spoke English approached us and inquired about our origins and reason for being in Cuba. After a brief conversation, he enlightened us on the local custom of not waiting in a queue. Instead, one must ask who the last person is and keep track of their turn. We had failed to do so, which is why people had been cutting in front of us. Additionally, he informed us that a ration card was required to purchase goods from this store, which was only available to Cuban residents. When we eventually reached the counter, we were unable to purchase the bread we had been longing for. However, an elderly woman noticed our dilemma and kindly offered us two of her buns. Despite our offer of 100 Pesos she refused to accept any payment, even though the bread cost only 1 Peso with a ration card. Her generosity moved us. 

Free bun!

300 Euros in Cuban Pesos.

After a few days, we discovered a bakery where we could shop. Having learned how to queue properly, we asked for "La ultima persona" and waited patiently for our turn. We were fortunate to find a decent loaf of bread on our first visit, but subsequent trips taught us that we needed to purchase enough to fill our freezer as the bakery often ran out of stock. It was frustrating to have to wait in line for 30 minutes only to find that they had no bread left. Unfortunately, our small freezer was already full with 8 kilos of chicken, and the frequent power outages lasting several hours at a time made it difficult to preserve our food.

With beans, chicken, and bread taken care of, our next objective was to find some ham. However, the same situation played out at the meat store. We waited in line for a while and then purchased whatever ham was available, if any.

During our first week in Havana, we spent a significant amount of time searching for stores and queuing. It made me wonder how the Cubans manage to find time to work. As I soon discovered, it is not time that Cubans lack the most.

Chicken and beans on our terrace!