By Irina Echarry
HAVANA TIMES, August 10 — Carlos staggered from side to side maneuvering a dolly. He smiles as if the 40-pound gas tanks weigh nothing. Most people don’t know his name, but almost everyone in Havana’s outlying Alamar community know that he’s a gas delivery man for the 18-story apartment buildings there.
In the 1990s, gas supplied from street lines was substituted for individual tanks. Though people were accustomed to effortlessly receiving gas for their kitchen stoves, they had to begin going to buy these tanks at local distribution centers. However, the sale of gas was during working hours (later they extended the time a little), so the task fell upon women who didn’t work outside the home or those who worked close to their houses; otherwise these tanks were picked up by elderly members of the household. This gave rise to the gas deliverers. We approached Carlos for an interview.
How long have you been working in gas delivery?
I’ve been doing it for around ten years.
Why this job instead of some other one?
First because I get daily work… I’m paid a fixed amount of money daily. The 20 pesos (about 80 cents USD) you can earn each morning start to add up if you’re working day after day. It covers my fixed expenses. As long as I’m doing this, I have free time allows me to do other things. I’ve taken drawing courses, in art. I’ve also worked for the State for a while, but I’ve never quit making deliveries because it allows me to buy food and a few luxuries.
How’s the drawing coming along?
I like to draw. I do it for inspiration. When I’m alone I grab a pad and begin to draw. When I worked with the group Omni Zona Franca, I made a lot of masks for the “Poetry without End” festival. I haven’t thought about organizing a personal exhibit, but the Fayad Jamis Gallery has displayed some of my masks made out of papier-mâché, seeds and feathers…
What did you do before becoming a delivery man? How did you earn a living?
I was always looking for ways to make money: selling bread, sweets, whatever. I took to the street to jinetear (hustle tourists), which worked out well for a while. Now it’s difficult. It’s not that there are more or less foreigners; the problem is that the foreigners are less friendly. It’s as if someone talked to them and alerted them about the situation in Cuba. It’s also because there are people who cause trouble and cheat them. I never did that. What I did was I made friends with them, and from there I got out what I could of it – especially the friendship.
I also worked as assistant welder, making looms, using a device for cutting steel and iron rods. It was all automated, so I only had to adjust the equipment… and I also helped with the welding of the looms.
What exactly does delivery work consist of?
My work consists of home deliveries. Most of the families in the apartments in my building are my customers, as well as other people who’ve seen me working and have requested my service.
Do you live in one of those 18 floor buildings there, where each floor has eight apartments? If most of them are your customers then you must have a lot of them… So this job must be better than working for the State making 300 or 400 pesos a month?
Sure, I don’t have a boss and I get paid daily. If I get just 20 pesos in one morning for one delivery, added together for 30 days that comes to 600 pesos (about $24 USD, or more than the average fulltime Cuban wage). But the truth is that it’s rare for me to have just one customer per day; usually there are two or three. So if you add all those up, you’ll see that the advantage is significant, though there are also days when I don’t have any business…
Do your customers come to you or do you have to solicit them?
Well, you see, the idea just came to me one day. A neighbor loaned me a wheelbarrow and I began to help him out in exchange; I don’t charge him for delivering his gas, for example. Over time I made my service known to people. I went around telling them: “If you want, I can go get your gas for you. It’ll be 20 pesos. Is that Ok?” That’s how I began. After that I began building up my customer base. Others would come up to me when they saw me going by.
What about days when you don’t want to work?
I guarantee that I’m available to work in the mornings, after that I do what I want. I like the fact that the customers are pleased. If there’s some kind of hurry because they don’t have any gas to cook with, I try to buy their tank before getting other customers lined up. If there aren’t any tanks available, that’s not my fault. But if I can take care of it, I will, because I like to get along with people and leave a good impression.
What would you do if they ever got rid of the tanks?
Well, I’d look for another job… if I had to look for one. I can do anything…like selling fruit or whatever. In the anti-mosquitos campaign, I didn’t have a very complicated job. I could go back to that. Otherwise I could work as an assistant for someone with a self-employment license.
Would you work in a factory,?
I wouldn’t like it in a factory a whole lot, because of the hours. You have to be there for the full eight hours. But if it’s something interesting, I could do that… I can also make necklaces.
Are you an artisan?
Yeah, I like it. I make necklaces out of bamboo, wood, sea shells… I make them myself and I sell them at the beach. With some thread and seeds, I come up with the designs and sell them. The secret of selling is to leave your true personality at home so that you’re not shy and can talk with people.
I generally put on a necklace as an example of the work. I don’t put sales prices on anything. I wait for people to show an interest. But if that doesn’t happen I look for the interest in the person. Look, I’ll be frank with you; I take them by the hand, but in any case I can sell if someone is interested. Understand? It’s like that…
Give me an example of a day in your life.
I get up in the morning and listen to a kizomba CD, African music that I like a lot. That’s to begin the day relaxed. I buy the tanks of gas, pick up the bread and —if it’s necessary and I have the money I go to the corner bodega store.
You’re the one who runs the house?
Yeah, I’m the one who’s there most of the time; my mother works. In the afternoons I go to the beach, I like to go after three o’clock. There’s a lot of sun now, in summer. The beach relaxes me; it gets rid of the stress. I get there around four; there are less people then. I get back home in the evening completely relaxed. Sometimes I sit down in the nearest park, and then I go home and to sleep. That’s a regular day for me during the week. The weekends are another story. I devote them to my family. I’ll go see my grandmother, my cousins… things like that. Plus I go to concerts, art showings.
What type of live music do you like?
I don’t listen to just one type of music; I like to improvise. I can go to a rock concert; there are interesting groups around. But reggae is my favorite. I also listen to a good bit of jazz, but not reggaeton. The exhibitions I go to might be of painting, crafts or photography. I go to all I can. I like art, I live it and dream about becoming a great artist. It’s what I prefer to experience the most.
Someone told me that you are a Rastafarian.
I don’t consider myself a Rastafarian. I identify with some things but not others. There are features of it that I find attractive, like love for people, for nature, like climbing a mountain and breathing pure air. I like the contact with animals, to experience life.
Do you think about the future?
I used to think about it a lot, but it frightened me. It was as if I was spending my present thinking of the future. Now I live from day to day, and I do the things I like daily, always something good. I don’t want to nor am I interested in imagining what might happen. I take life as it comes. I try to be well in the present so that the future arrives well, so that it brings good things. That’s about the size of it.
What are the things you like most and least about Cuba?
First, what I like most is the people. It doesn’t matter what characteristics they have. I admire them as they are: the one who’s crazy and gets into going with me to the mountain, the one who is always stressed out from work or from the lack of food… I look at everyone and I admire them; I learn from them. Each one has their drama. Cuban’s are very authentic, active. They’re very different. I’ve talked with people from different countries and I’ve seen the contrast. I get along well with everybody. Cuban’s are very original, very expressive. They know that things take work, that things are not like what we want, but they adapt in certain way to carry on their lives and struggles to survive. That’s how I see it.
What I like least is the hypocrisy of the system.
But the system itself has produced the same people you admire
Yes, that’s true. We’re human beings, and sometimes we’re hypocritical. I also see that people sometimes don’t want to do certain things but that they are obligated to because they need to hang onto their position or get a better job. There’s a double standard. They maintain an image that doesn’t reflect what they feel.
In terms of the system, sometimes they prioritize what’s not Cuban. They give opportunities to other peoples who have nothing to do with us. Look what do you say about the prohibition on travel. I don’t want to leave permanently, but I would love to travel around and visit interesting places. I would like to go to Africa, to my roots… but I’m not able to because of some absurd policies… If I had to double the number of tanks to save money for a trip, I would do it.
You aren’t afraid that so much physical effort will injure you?
Fear? No. But I take precautions; I wear a lifting belt.
Do you work out regularly?
Yeah. I exercise in my house to stretch my muscles, especially when I’ve had a demanding day. I do pushups and squats.
But you have an advantage: elevators. In my building there aren’t any; so the delivery people have to haul the tanks up the stairway.
There are almost always older people and it makes me feel bad that they have to struggle with this weight. I’m lucky to be in good shape, but it’s a long haul from the distribution center to the high rise… And when the elevator breaks down… Imagine lugging one of these up 18 floors. I just leave the tanks on the first floor and each family has to pick up their own. But there are old women who live by themselves. For them I carry the tanks up the stairs to their apartments.
Have you ever had any scares on your job?
No, I’m very careful that I don’t lose my notebook. Sometimes I carry it on me when I go out on excursions. I’ve not had any problems with illnesses up to now, though something could always crop up in the future. Outside of that, one day an inspector came up to me saying that the cart that I used for hauling gas tanks had wheels taken from the garbage dumpsters. That wasn’t true; I told him that I wasn’t going to give him my ID card and that he had better think it over well before taking me in for interrogation. Since then, I’ve never had any more problems. The police see me. They know that this is my job and they’ve never bothered me, nor have they asked me if I have a license or not.
Do you plan to continue doing this for a longtime?
The truth is I don’t feel dependent on this job. I’m doing it now but when I decide to I’ll quit… It’s nothing permanent. When the time comes I’ll change. For the time being I like it because I can finish in a couple of hours and have the rest of the day all for myself. In addition to my delivery work, I went to university and worked for the anti-mosquito campaign – all three at the same time.
It was as if I had spent the whole day working, when in fact I was doing what I wanted, between one thing and another.
I can quit whenever I want; it’s just that right now I’m more comfortable. Cuban young people are divided into two groups: there are those who want to do things and there are others who are real discouraged. They’re frustrated, insecure, without the desire to do anything.
Do you feel secure?
I’m living my life. Ever since I was 30 I’ve felt that I’m doing what I want, relaxed. Now I want to have a more organized life, to have a kid. I don’t worry about the economic situation being difficult because when you have a child you do what you have to do to give it what it needs. You have to do it and you create the conditions for him or her to grow up healthy. The same thing that you do for yourself; you have to take care of yourself for the child – without drama and with love.
So do you feel that you have a tranquil life?
Yeah, relaxed. I have the life I want. Why would I look for anything else if this is what’s suited to me? Maybe things will be better tomorrow, but for now this is what I enjoy. I’m fine with what I have. I’m not a millionaire, but with the money I make I can do the things I want. I can go where I feel good.