By Lorenzo Martin Martinez
HAVANA TIMES – I went to visit a friend today in the coastal town of Cojimar. We visit each other every now and then and try to fix the world as we drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. Between sips of a bitter brew that we Cubans call palmiche, and at the bodega store they tell us that the coffee is mixed but never explain what it is mixed with exactly, we talked about the last few weeks when we hadn’t seen each other, our immediate plans and about the latest people we know to have left… yep, everyone is leaving. The most repeated news nowadays is the last friend to have left and you still haven’t found out.
After lunch, she asked me to go with her to the market outside the nearby Villa Panamericana to look for shoes because the pair she has won’t survive another two blocks, and she’s already stitched and glued them up a thousand times. It was a quite a short walk and the sun wasn’t scorching.
With the idea of buying deodorant and one or two other things I might need – cheap things mind you, because prices are through the roof -, I reached the market and I hadn’t been there even 3 minutes before I witnessed an event that I had heard about but had never seen with my own two eyes. An event that is worthy of being on the most convoluted episode of The X-Files.
After checking out a couple of stalls selling shoes and looking at a few others in search of something she might need at home, we had just about decided which shoes to buy. The thing is, buying here isn’t a question of who has the best products or prices, prices are the same on every stall, as if they all reached a consensus, and the products they do sell are pretty much the same or very similar. Most of the goods are imported by the sellers themselves, from Panama, Haiti, and other neighboring markets, or by mules who make the trip to buy the merchandise and then sell them in bulk once they return to Cuba. By the way, the quality is subpar. You can also find Serrano coffee or a pack of Gouda cheese at this market, which are taken from MLC stores and resold here for the price of your kidney.
Thinking about how high prices are and how empty my pockets were, I heard a shout that seemed to come from the throat of someone who was announcing an aerial bombing:
“Aguaaaaaaa!!!!” The raucous voice shouted, spreading terror over 100 km/hr.
Lost in thought, I looked up at the sky, I squinted at the few clouds that were calmly dragging across the beautiful blue sky, and I didn’t understand where rain could possibly come from. I looked around and I swear I didn’t see a drop of water fall anywhere. It was only the frenzy that ensued that gave away the fact that something unusual happening.
Teresita, who noticed I wasn’t catching on, took me by the arm and told me:
“The police or inspectors, mijo, or both, come on let’s go, this has gone to pot,” she said, resigned to spending another day pretty much barefoot.
I was quite confused until I came out of my haze. The thought of inspectors never even crossed my mind when I heard the cries. A scene which doesn’t scare only a seasoned Creole Cuban unfolded before me.
Everything happened so fast, so synchronized that I doubt Michael Jackson could have been any more exact in the best of his dance choreographies. They all began an incredible dance, where even customers took part and helped the sellers.
Kiosk doors, mostly metal, came crashing down with a bang like thunder, the closest thing there was to a storm here. Chairs and benches disappeared, flung into stores. Hangers and display cases placed outside retail points were put away quicker than they were put out. Huge bags were flung over the fence and with their owners got into their respective carriers that were parked on a nearby street.
Captivated by this cover-up operation, I didn’t notice what the people around me were doing. When I finally returned to Earth, I saw that pretty much nobody was left in the market, like some kind of paranormal activity. Buyers and shopkeepers had vanished as if by magic. The area that had been buzzing just a few minutes before, was now an empty square. Looking again, I only saw three or four people who were calmly looking for the exit.
Near the exit door, an old revolutionary propaganda poster, which had fallen and was damaged by the ravages of time, it summed up well what had happened. They won’t pass, the old poster preached.
Once we were outside, we saw the reason for this commotion: a police patrol car, a truck belonging to the special brigade full of inspectors and different plainclothes police officers. Police officers who stripped anyone who came out of the market naked with their eyes, including the dog with scabies that came with us as we left, as if he had understood what was going on. Police officers that didn’t ask us for ID by some kind of miracle, because their bitterness and frustration at not having caught anyone they could annoy, drenched their shirts in sweat. They were an obvious, dense, and unhealthy presence.
Another day I wake up happy, have a thousand reasons to have a good day and reality makes sure to sour it for me. Another day that I have to pay the sad price for living in an unusual country and society, where it’s the sellers’ job to embezzle, the police and inspectors’ job to harass and citizens’ job to keep quiet unless they want to be arrested and charged with treason.
We ended up having a coffee on the corner and Tere kept me company until the bus came,
which would take me back to my Old Havana in ruins. A better name has never been given to an urban settlement.