By Vicente Morin Aguado
HAVANA TIMES — “I think cops track us down through smell, like dogs do. There’s no getting rid of the stench of curdled milk that sticks to your body, not even with the best soap.”
Isabel has just sold her one hundred pounds of cheese to the owner of a pizzeria in Havana. Two reddish bands – exactly as thick as the straps of her backpack – still show on her bare shoulders. She arrived in the early morning from a small town next to the Havana – Santa Clara highway.
Cuba is a long, narrow island, and travelers have only one option in terms of transportation. The highway patrol, operating at different control points, are always lying in wait at inter-provincial borders. Any vehicle can be stopped and inspected without prior notice, on suspicion of trafficking forbidden products (such as beef or cheese). The Yutong-brand, air-conditioned passenger buses operated by the Empresa de Omnibus Nacionales (“National Bus Company”), are stopped far less frequently: they have fixed itineraries and the overworked bus drivers can be contacted previously.
Maribel goes on with the story. From now on, we need not point out which of the two speaks. They are inseparable travel companions who make a 200-kilometer round trip together every week.
“Bus drivers agree to take you for 50 pesos if you don’t carry a big load. If they know you’re carrying something that isn’t legal, you have to give them an extra 100. They know the highway police and we almost always make it past the check points this way.” [21 pesos = 1 USD]
You carry as much as you do because you can’t take more with you?
“Yes, in part. Taking more than a 100 pounds is too much. Also, there isn’t that much cheese to collect every week. Dairy farmers are under watch. Inspectors come to count the number of cows that have given birth, they know more or less how much milk they produce – and they have to deliver most of that milk to the State company.”
We won’t mention your names or any place whatsoever, but it is important to know how much money you make doing this.
“We buy the cheese from the manufacturers at 12 to 15 pesos the pound. Add 150 for each of our trips to Havana, 50 for the trip back and an additional 50 for food (we’d end up in the hospital if we didn’t eat).”
To buy the 100 pounds of cheese, you’d need an average of 1,300 plus 150, plus 50, plus 50, for a total of 1,550 pesos. How much do sell the cheese to the pizzeria owner for?
“Right now, the price is around 30 pesos the pound, but people don’t always pay up front. Sometimes, they tell us they don’t have the money and we’re “hooked” till the next trip. After so much risk and effort, one doesn’t want to go and find another buyer. What if they catch you on the way?”
Why do you, two women, do this? Wouldn’t it be better for your husbands to carry all of that weight?
Julian stops sipping rum and interjects, his honor somewhat wounded.
“We’ve tried, but it doesn’t work. Things get inverted here: we stay behind to look after the house. See, the cops tend to bother women less. They travel with less hassle, people are kinder to them.”
At any rate, they can earn as much as 1,500 pesos a week. Seems like a good deal, but the risks are big. One cannot help wonder if there are no better options near the towns. Julian replies again:
“If you don’t own land or cattle here, then you’re working for them. You spend your whole salary, 50 pesos a day, just to buy food. What about the clothing your children need? I have two. They’re already in school. They tear their shoes apart in months walking down these dirt roads. Women want to dress well, and they deserve to, like any woman in Havana. An outfit costs as much as a trip, provided they don’t catch you along the way.”
Have they ever caught you?
The women smile, trying to overcome their embarrassment over talking about the unpleasant moments they’ve gone through, but finally agree to answer:
“Once, they caught us coming off a bus at the corner of the Cuatro Caminos market. The driver wasn’t one of the good ones, he dropped us off without looking behind, and a patrol car was parked right there. I ran to hide in a hallway.”
“I didn’t run. I’ve always told Isabelita that running is worse. Well, they took us to the station and fined us 1,500 pesos each. They confiscated the cheese. When that happens, you need to borrow money until you get back on your feet.”
So, the cheese market will never close?
“Never!” they reply in unison. “We believe it is our destiny. How would we make a living otherwise?”
This cheese doesn’t exactly taste good, does it?
Julian gestures towards the glass while holding the bottle. “This one tastes of rum and pork scratchlings. Other times, it smells like curdled milk.”
We all agree: it’s bitter-sweet, like life itself.