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Havana with my Father: “Por la Izquierda”

Havana street artist
Havana street artist

As usual, my father disappeared while I was still sleeping. For a second, I wondered what a 65-year-old tourist would be doing alone in the middle of Havana at 8 in the morning. Then I figured he just wanted some alone time with his motherland and went back to sleep.

An hour later, he was back with eggs, bread, espresso and milk. Over the previous two days and several horrendous meals, we had learned to stay away from Havana's state-run restaurants. Unfortunately, there wasn't much else available at 8 a.m. Paladares, the private, family-run establishments that operated out of converted living rooms, weren't open this early.

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"So today," he said, "Breakfast would be home cooking."

The eggs and the bread – from one of the nearly empty state-run stores nearby. The espresso and milk – from the old lady next door who was withering away from malnutrition. She didn't have any sugar. Her rations, like most Cubans', were insufficient, and she was too old to make ends meet “by the left hand.” She had been aged out of the black market.

Technically, of course, there was no age limit for buying and selling outside the government system of supervision, taxation and corruption. The question was only si te puedes mover: “Can you move?” In Cuba, the colloqualism for “participating in the black market” is literally translated as “moving by the left hand,” or moviéndose por la izquierda.

You had to be able to move. In a country where public transportation, reliable cars, cell phones, and internet were all rarities, moviéndose por la izquierda meant lots of talking and walking. Those who couldn't do this had to manage on their rations, which normally covered less than half one's actual needs.

The old lady couldn't do it, and, apparently, didn't have any family or friends to help her out. As a result, she was slowly starving to death in the apartment next door.

But my father could. That's how we got the apartment for $80 a week. Some guy approached him as we walked down the street. Then we were all getting on a horse-drawn carriage. Sitting together, I could finally hear what they were talking about. The guy knew a guy who knew a guy who managed one of the state-run apartment buildings and might be able to rent us a place.

Twenty minutes and two stops later, the guy comes out of a building with a small brown man. There's an apartment available – two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, bath. Furnished. $100 per week. My father talks him down to $80. The apartment is ours. The driver gets paid, a few dollars get tucked into the first guy's palm and they drive off. We move in.

Yes, my father could move. And for the starving old lady's convenience, he'd moved the black market to her doorstep. She sold us cafe con leche every morning for the rest of the week. It was bitter, but it was good.

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Havana street artist
Havana street artist

As usual, my father disappeared while I was still sleeping. For a second, I wondered what a 65-year-old tourist would be doing alone in the middle of Havana at 8 in the morning. Then I figured he just wanted some alone time with his motherland and went back to sleep.

An hour later, he was back with eggs, bread, espresso and milk. Over the previous two days and several horrendous meals, we had learned to stay away from Havana's state-run restaurants. Unfortunately, there wasn't much else available at 8 a.m. Paladares, the private, family-run establishments that operated out of converted living rooms, weren't open this early.

Sponsored
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"So today," he said, "Breakfast would be home cooking."

The eggs and the bread – from one of the nearly empty state-run stores nearby. The espresso and milk – from the old lady next door who was withering away from malnutrition. She didn't have any sugar. Her rations, like most Cubans', were insufficient, and she was too old to make ends meet “by the left hand.” She had been aged out of the black market.

Technically, of course, there was no age limit for buying and selling outside the government system of supervision, taxation and corruption. The question was only si te puedes mover: “Can you move?” In Cuba, the colloqualism for “participating in the black market” is literally translated as “moving by the left hand,” or moviéndose por la izquierda.

You had to be able to move. In a country where public transportation, reliable cars, cell phones, and internet were all rarities, moviéndose por la izquierda meant lots of talking and walking. Those who couldn't do this had to manage on their rations, which normally covered less than half one's actual needs.

The old lady couldn't do it, and, apparently, didn't have any family or friends to help her out. As a result, she was slowly starving to death in the apartment next door.

But my father could. That's how we got the apartment for $80 a week. Some guy approached him as we walked down the street. Then we were all getting on a horse-drawn carriage. Sitting together, I could finally hear what they were talking about. The guy knew a guy who knew a guy who managed one of the state-run apartment buildings and might be able to rent us a place.

Twenty minutes and two stops later, the guy comes out of a building with a small brown man. There's an apartment available – two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, bath. Furnished. $100 per week. My father talks him down to $80. The apartment is ours. The driver gets paid, a few dollars get tucked into the first guy's palm and they drive off. We move in.

Yes, my father could move. And for the starving old lady's convenience, he'd moved the black market to her doorstep. She sold us cafe con leche every morning for the rest of the week. It was bitter, but it was good.

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