HAVANA TIMES — When I go out for work-related reasons or to meet with friends, it is next to impossible to avoid eating knick-knacks, junk food to keep the mouth busy, as they say. These can include peanuts, popcorn, toffee, cookies and chocolate bars…the different products that street vendors offer us from their metal carts, set up in the city’s busiest locations, such as the Coppelia icea-cream parlor or the San Francisco de Asis square in Old Havana.
What they sell us are the same products, both in terms of content and their wrapping. What surprises me the most is that all of these products taste like garbage. They are entirely devoid of quality. The pastries are the closest thing to something tasty. The toffee is insipid, the peanuts taste like roasted red beans and chocolate bars (which are often sticky) simply have no taste at all. The cookies are the same ones sold at stores, the cheapest kind, put in smaller packages of less than ten cookies and sold at 5 pesos. Even though these snacks aren’t expensive, if you eat a number of them while out and about you’ll basically have thrown away your money.
And don’t get me started about the ice-cream flavors at Coppelia, a legendary place for Cubans, today a pale shadow of what it was decades ago, offering only two flavors, both of which are artificial and inconsistent, melting quickly once served. Going there, where the service is lousy and the ice-cream expensive, is a pain, particularly when you see how certain individuals walk out of the establishment carrying large bags full of ice-cream buckets, walking past you like they owned the place.
One has the option of buying Nestle ice-cream without having to stand in line, though one can no longer be confident it will taste good, because there are more and more cases of falsification. I’ve met people who claim they were conned, sold a fake Nestle ice-cream: a cup filled with an ice-cream that doesn’t even come close to the original. It seems to be true.
A few days ago, I went to the shopping mall at La Puntilla, a block away from my home, and bought my son a Nestle chocolate ice-cream. My boy immediately noticed it didn’t taste like Nestle ice-cream. It tasted like water and it was full of ice crystals. I immediately took it back to the cafeteria to return it. They replaced it immediately. This is another example of the kind of scams taking place at stores and small businesses, which include everything from cheap cigarettes, through rum to soft drinks sold as brand products. This also happens with the food sold at Ditu locales, fast food kiosks where homemade rissoles are sold in lieu of the establishment’s products.
People speak of underground factories of every kind, which produce phony products that are ruining the reputation of genuine goods and helping stores steal from customers mercilessly. At produce and livestock markets, fruits are also treated with ripening chemicals and are devoid of quality. This constitutes a threat to human health as well.
There are no mechanisms in place to combat such abuse. Why don’t they make a point of going after all of these criminals to put an end to such scams? Watching a Cuban TV show such as Tras la huella, where police officers always solve the case and deliver justice, makes me laugh.
The truth of the matter is that, these days, true flavors are to be found only in our memories.