HAVANA TIMES — It is not Ash Wednesday. Nor are we in the Wasteland, even though it feels like it. April is well behind us, far enough away at this point to consider it the most terrible month of the year…particularly when those ahead of us look even uglier.
It is on Wednesday when I can supposedly buy basic products using my ID card.
However, I haven’t been able to get my hands on a number of basic products for some time now. Washing soap (I’ve had better luck with detergent), bath soap, sanitary towels, shampoo, rice, coffee…I am not very demanding, I only consider a handful of things essential, and I prefer not to spend money on things I am not absolutely sure I’m going to need. I’m sure that, for many other people out there, the list of “missing” products is far longer than mine.
The thing is, to buy most of these basic products, one has to wait for the day of the week when you are “authorized” to purchase them. This is determined by the number on your ID card. In my case, as I managed to get my papers in order at the beginning of the year, I can do the groceries on Wednesday.
I head out at around nine in the morning. I refuse to stand in line in the early morning at the market two blocks away. After many hours of waiting under the hot sun and being mistreated by the custodians and employees, people sometimes get luck and find that, on the day they are “allowed” to buy things, the market has been stocked with milk, oil, spaghetti or macaroni. It’s been a while since I last saw chicken or meat for sale.
While waiting for the bus, a young woman carrying a heavy bag of groceries asks me how to get back home. She’s come from far, because, at the market closest to her, the managers make people buy more than a thousand Bolivars in products before granting them the “right” to buy a bag of milk.
We catch the same van. The fare is 15 Bolivars on week days and 17 on weekends. Despite this, most of these private means of transportation are in dreadful condition. A nauseating smell seeps into my nose once inside. It smells of Sulphur. The people complain to the driver for having taken the van out in such condition (some problem with the fuel, the oil and who knows what else).
When we get to the metro station, I jump out of the van, almost about to vomit. I head downtown to try and find soap or sanitary towels in a pharmacy.
I get lucky: the first pharmacy I go to is selling shampoo. I buy the last one, as the people in line behind me curse their bad luck. I pay the 67 bolivars for the shampoo, plus 150 for a package of wet towels I don’t need, because they force you to buy some of these products along with the shampoo. To be clear, this is not a State-run pharmacy.
I go to several other pharmacies and spend several more hours looking, but neither the soap nor sanitary towels turn up. I go into a market hoping to buy some rice, I haven’t been able to get my hands on it for over a month (it seems they stock up on it the days I am not “allowed” to buy). More of the same: no rice.
My sister-in-law gives me a phone call: “Run down to the market at Yaguara. They’re selling detergent, flour, bread and spaghetti.” Since one baguette costs 75 bolivars, so it is well worth one’s while to buy some flour (useful for making arepas as well). I run over to the blessed market. At the entrance, I find a small photography establishment where they’ve posted up one of my pictures and taken credit for it. I want to go in there and give them a piece of my mind, or, better, say something nasty to them in a low tone of voice, which is more my style. But my sister-in-law is telling me to hurry and join the line (which, luckily, isn’t being hit by the sun, something I can’t stand). The line of people moves forward uneventfully, but the bathing soap and sanitary towels are still nowhere to be found. I’ve forgotten about coffee for the time being.
I near the entrance to the market, named Dia a Dia (“Day by Day”) till recently. The government seized it from the owners. One of the pretexts for this was that they were concealing products from customers to create line ups and discontent. Today, it is a PDVAL market, where many unregulated products are far more expensive than at a privately-run store, but you can find some of the items that “go missing” from time to time…if you manage to survive standing in the hellish, sweat-drenched and often violent line of people. Now, after at least 3 Bicentenario markets have been shut down, the “suspicious” lines of people have doubled in breadth at the PDVAL stores.
I don’t even bother to ask if they have bathing soap. It’s best to hurry back home, because they shut off the water supply on Wednesday night and do not begin servicing again till Friday. One has to store up water and bathe before it’s too late, even though there’s no soap.
Don’t get too frightened, though. At a small store next to my building, I find soap at 50 Bolivars, twice as expensive as it should be at any pharmacy (but I’ve bought it for 70 and someone has paid as much as 100 for them, so I do not hesitate to buy several).
No, it is not Ash Wednesday.