A Day of Shopping in Havana

Jorge Milanes Despaigne

A downtown Havana shopping area.

HAVANA TIMES  – Last Thursday, I went out to help a friend with her shopping. We went to Almacenes Ultra, one of Havana’s largest department stores. We thought we’d be able to find what we were looking for at Ultra, which has a wide variety of products in stock. Sold in Cuban Convertible Pesos, of course.

Surrounded by a swarm of people, we queued for the personal items storage under the scorching sun. As all Cubans know, these types of stores require customers to leave their bags, purses or daypacks outside, to prevent shoplifting.

The line-up was typically long. Still, it was moving more slowly than usual. I wondered what was taking so long, so I walked up to the counter to find out, to no avail. Minutes later, it was our turn to put away our belongings. My friend opened up her purse and took out everything she was going to need inside the store.

She took out her cell phone, her coin purse, her reading and regular eyeglasses, a bottle of water and an asthma inhalator. She would have needed an extra pair of hands to carry all those things comfortably. In something of a rush, she also rummaged in her purse for her ID, which she had to give to the clerk, to get a little tag with a number that identifies the pigeonhole where her stuff would be placed. “And to think we’ll have to stand in the same line when we come out. I don’t even want to picture it,” she said.

She was a bit anxious and not thinking straight. I offered all the help I could give her, thinking that the difficulties my friend was facing were the same many women face in Cuba on a daily basis. Had I not been there, even this simple activity would have proven quite difficult for her.

We were finally able to enter the store. We walked through a number of departments until we came across the blender-juicer my friend wanted to buy. We looked at the price, saw that there were only five people in line and stepped behind them, intent on buying the item.

When we got to the counter, we pointed to the blender. The clerk brought out the appliance and tested it in front of us. “Will you be taking this?” she asked. “Yes, please,” we replied, almost in unison.

She then began to fill out the invoice while my friend rummaged in vain through her belongings, looking for the ID she had had to leave with the clerk outside and now needed, to fill out the invoice and warranty form.