When it rains in Cuba it really rains. But the positive side of the rain was that it certainly took the edge off the heat and the clouds served as some degree of protection against the sun, the strength of which I was still getting used to. There was a cold front on it’s way over apparently, according to Ricardo who was jefe of the hotel, so I should expect more of the same weather over the coming days. I would also come to learn over the coming weeks that the passing of a cold front is used by Cubans to explain any fluctuation in the weather and that it was a meterological event that prompted much discussion and interest, between friends, acquaintances and, amazingly frequently, amongst strangers. Despite the change in the weather Marisol and I were determined not to change our plans to walk out into Santiago so we pulled on our cardigans, grabbed umbrellas, and headed out into town.
First stop was Santiago’s own Tienda Agropecuario (pictured above). These shops exist throughout Cuba to support people who want to grow food, both for themselves and as a business. They sell seeds, plants, tools and organic fertilizers as well as offering advice and ideas to growers of all shapes and sizes. They do this on site at the shop but also through their network of consultants who travel through each municipality visiting projects and offering support and ideas. The aim is that advice is available in some form within every community that is involved or aspires to be involved in urban and sub-urban agriculture. Quite an undertaking but the feeling seem to be that the level of provision that had been aspired to was now in place, and self funding – originally these tiendas were supported by the government but in recent years many of them had become self supporting through the income they earn as a result of sales in the shop.
After that we visited two parcelas, that were broadly similar to allotments in the UK. The main difference is that they are on their own and not part of larger, organised sites like we are more familiar with. They tend to be on vacant lots of land in residential areas and are where local people grow food to eat themselves, and to sell directly to neighbours if there is any excess. The two sites we visited were beautifully tended and sat opposite each other across a small road in a residential neighbourhood. It was lovely to see food being grown right in the heart of a community, as would prove a common site during my travels around the island.
Close to the parcelas was the first organopónico that I visited in Cuba. Although these are the most well-known form of Cuban urban cultivation in the rest of the world using raised beds filled with worm compost. They are not the most common in reality and are only used in situations where the existing soil is not fertile enough to be cultivated directly. If the soil is cultivated directly the site is know as a huerta and this is what we visited at the school just across the road from the organopónico. Unlike the other sites we had visited, Marisol had no previous contact with the school huerta, however as soon as the head teacher saw us looking in over the gate he came down to greet us and invited us onto the site. He explained that his school was a special school and that the huerta was cultivated by a group of his students who found the activity extremely therapeutic. He was also keen to show us inside his school that was busy, but peaceful and friendly. He showed us the work that the children were creating, in spite of the lack of resources that were available to them. He was also particularly proud to show us the school kitchen and dinning room where freshly picked food, grown on site, was prepared each day and that the children sat down together to eat. This was something that he clearly felt was a very important part of the school routine and he was amazed to learn that many schools in the UK no longer had a kitchen. And many of those that did no longer produced a freshly prepared meal each day, instead resorting to heating up pre-prepared food or serving cold lunches to those children who did not bring in their own.
Finally, on our way back to INIFAT, we looked at a couple of different Punta de Ventas – the public facing arm of Cuban urban and sub-urban agriculture where the fruits of each day’s harvest are sold. For sites located in residential areas these tend to be part of the site where the food has been grown but more distant food producers may bring their food to a central punta to be sold in an area closer to where the food will be cooked and eaten. In fact, the whole Cuban urban agriculture system is constructed on the basis that nothing is grown further than 10km from where it will be sold / eaten as this is deemed the maximum distance you can travel easily in a day in a horse drawn vehicle. This is a major consideration in Cuba, a country that has serious shortages of fuel causing significant challenges for all types of transportation on the island.
The first punta we came across was a gentleman bringing a trolley out onto the street selling the freshest of fresh bananas. They looked delicious! As soon as he appeared people came out of their houses to see what he was selling and to buy his gorgeous produce for 10NP a bunch. It was fascinating to see once again, in this supermarket free world that has a recent history of real hunger and hardship regarding food, the way that Cuban people relate to food. Seeming to be on the look out for something fresh, tasty and good value at all times. And how they just buy what they need buy day by day, avoiding waste at all cost. The range of food on offer may seem limited by Western standards but everything that is for sale is deliciously fresh and seasonal - this is a country where necessity means that people have become accustomed to buying and eating what is available when it is available. A discipline that has disappeared almost entirely in many Western, consumerist societies. In Cuba there is no mega weekly shop piled into the back of a car like many of us have become used to but as a result food waste is virtually non-existent and people, on the whole, eat a simple, functional, healthy diet that seems to work. This is, of course, on top of the state food ration that still exists in Cuba but we’ll come back to that later.
And then, as if to prove my point, as I sat writing I could hear someone else out in the street passing by with something delicious for sale. Pushing along a trolley and shouting “Fresca fruta! Piña!” and someone else calling out “Cebolla! Cebolla fresca!”, and reflecting the Cuban way of doing things I was half tempted to head outside and see what price everything was going for today.