After three flights of stairs I arrived at a nondescript door to an apartment. I had been given the address by a friend of my neighbour. I knocked gingerly. The door opened a crack: “Sí?”, asked a pair of eyes semi obscured by shadow.
“Eeee, Jorge?”, I asked.
“Who wants to know?”
“Elio sent me. He says you might have some… um…” I dropped my voice to a whisper, “cheese”.
Jorge looked behind me, then opened the door enough for me to come inside. He lead me into the kitchen and opened the fridge. Reaching so far into the back that the side of his face pressed up against the frame, he removed a parcel covered in an old copy of Granma, the national newspaper. There was just over half a wheel of cheese left.
“How much you need?” he asked.
“Um, like half a wheel, I guess.” I replied, sheepishly.
With surgeons precision he cut the wheel exactly in half, returning the remainder to the fridge. I gave him the cash and he wrapped up the cheese in another page from Granma, which, ironically, contained an article about the level of productivity in the dairy industry.
Jorge lit a cigarette and sat down, pushing the packet toward me as he did. I grabbed a cigarette and joined him. We talked about baseball briefly until we had finished our smokes, and then I made a move to leave. “I should have some more in a couple of days.” He said.
I put the cheese into a bag I had brought with me, shook Jorge’s hand and made my way out the door, which promptly closed behind me.
And there it was. I felt I had just completed a deal with the Pablo Escobar of black market cheese. “Only in Cuba,” I thought.
Cheese is a difficult commodity. Dairy is a highly regulated industry, but many farmers make illicit cheese that finds its way into the cities. Normally, there is no real issue. Cheese is easy to find and buy at a reasonable price. But occasionally, there is a move to turn off the taps on the cheese flow into the cities.
It starts with a trip to your regular cheese contact, who tells you he doesn’t have any available at the moment. You ask your friends and neighbours and get the same response. You hear an anecdotal story about a bust on the road from the country: someone’s cousin who got caught with a load of wheels in the trunk of a Lada. Everyone says the same thing: “El queso está perdido” – “the Cheese is lost”.
Then you hear a rumour. Some guy knows a girl who knows a guy’s neighbour who lives on the other side of town who has some cheese. So you jump on a bicitaxi and trek your way over. And suddenly you are in someone’s apartment who you have never met, weighing out portions of cheese and handing over ridiculous amounts of pesos.
You start questioning your dependence on cheese, and whether it is a gateway to worse addictions. But then you get home, cut a thick slice onto a fresh bolita of bread and top it off with a slice of guava conserve.
There is no way you’re not going back to Jorge’s in a couple of days.