From riches to rags: Cayman Islands to Havana

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My latest trip on the data collection trail finds me in the Caribbean. First up were the Cayman Islands, a tiny place some 250 miles south of Cuba and about the same distance west of Jamaica. The Caymans are comprised of three islands but the largest, Grand Cayman, is where most activity takes place. Although the islands are a British Overseas Territory, Grand Cayman has a very American feel to it, with the ubiquitous strip malls and sports bars seen all over the United States. Known for its offshore banking and as a tax haven, the Cayman Islands is the world’s fifth largest banking centre, according to the Economist. It is also a tourist getaway for those with a little more money than most. Despite its size the island has plenty to occupy and satisfy the expat, with everything available that you can get in America, from gluten free bagels and organic aubergines to gourmet tofu and expensive French cheeses. All this and more on a small island of just over 50,000 people.

A typically depressing sight at a Cuban supermarket

A typically depressing sight at a Cuban supermarket

Cuba, some 555 times larger than Grand Cayman and with 225 times more people is the polar opposite. This is my third visit to the capital, Havana, collecting price data and the whole experience is just as disheartening as I found it the first two times. Of the 200+ locations I’ve collected data Havana is by far the most frustrating and, quite frankly, depressing in terms of quality and availability of goods, two essential factors for expats. Often when I revisit a location a few years later the shopping environment has improved, with maybe a new mall or a gourmet food shop with imported goods, but Havana is the same as it was five years ago, perhaps even worse.

I’ve never been a particularly material person but visiting the ‘supermarkets’ here makes me realise how much choice I have when shopping in my local Sainsbury’s back home in London. Even the half empty shelves of the small shops in the Comoros Islands have a more appealing selection of goods. A recent blog post of mine was titled ‘Crest, Colgate or Aquafresh?’ about how I couldn’t find any of these toothpaste brands in a particular supermarket in Indonesia. Well, guess what…I couldn’t find any of these brands in the whole of Havana, not even Signal, Sensodyne, Darlie or many of the other global brands. In fact, only one of the supermarkets I’ve visited here had any toothpaste at all – a brand called Durbans, which hasn’t quite made it to the shores of the UK yet!

Palco - the 'best' supermarket in the Cuba!!

Palco – the ‘best’ supermarket in the Cuba!!

And the toothpaste wasn’t even on the shelves, it was locked away in a cabinet near the entrance to the shop where a bored staff member manned a variety of goods which for some reason are deemed to be required to be kept locked away in a glass cabinet. These cabinets exist in all of the Cuban supermarkets and usually contain items such as lollipops, moisturiser, chocolate bars, screws, olive oil and ground coffee. Not instant coffee, though, as that takes pride of place in the ‘regular’ part of the shop – the aisle shelves. Wandering up and down the aisles of supermarkets is something I spend a lot of my time doing but doing it in Cuba fills me with despair. Half of the shelves are empty and those which are not usually only have one brand of a product, and this one brand is usually one I’ve not heard of before and is of poor quality. The locals seem to snap up the goods with zeal, however, as though there might not be any left if they come back tomorrow. This, of course, is true. When I last came to Havana I remember there being dozens of brands of cornflakes (no Kellogg’s though) and yet on this visit I found no cereal at all!

A still from Grease?

A still from Grease?

The supermarkets in Havana are all attached to their own ‘Centro Comercial’ where there will be a section for furniture, a section for electrical goods, a section for clothes and various other…er…sections. These sections are generally a mish-mash of random products plonked in a room with prices sellotaped to them They remind me of jumble sales I used to go to as a child.

As you can probably tell, I’m not the biggest fan of the Cuban shopping environment and I’m sure expats here get a real sense of glee when they return to their home countries to remind themselves of what they’re missing. I assume the locals here have seen foreign supermarkets on the television and I wonder just what they’d think if they ever stepped foot inside one.

The ugliest building in the world? - Havana's Russian embassy

The ugliest building in the world? – Havana’s Russian embassy

Cuba is one of only five officially communist countries left in the world but, North Korea aside, is the only one which has not opened up to capitalism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia (whose embassy building in Havana, incidentally, has to be the ugliest building in the world!) began building large malls with all sorts of western products available and the likes of Vietnam and China, which call themselves communist have, plenty of choice of goods. There is still a rationing system in place in Cuba which is supposed to mean that every Cuban can afford the staple foods such as rice, bread and eggs. This system can be seen in use at the ‘agromercados’ which are the best places for expats to get fruits and vegetables. ‘Best’ in this sense, however, is very poor indeed!

So I don’t leave on a downer about Cuba, I will say that it has some plus points. The old town of Havana is very nice and the 1950’s American cars which chug along spluttering like a sick dog are a cool sight to see – and they are everywhere. Quite how they are still running, though, I’ll never know!

It seems like a lifetime ago now but for those of you who were wondering what the answer to my previous poser is, well the two double-landlocked countries are Liechtenstein and Uzbekistan. I’m moving on to Haiti next, where I hope the roads have improved since my last visit a couple of years ago.

About wanderingmark

World traveller, researcher, photographer, collector of interesting facts and cost of living data research for ECA International (
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3 Responses to From riches to rags: Cayman Islands to Havana

  1. Daniel Zaretsky says:

    Interesting, what you write about Cuba reminds me of my trip to the Soviet Union in 1990. Nothing in the shops, terrible service, etc.

    • Hi there, yes I’d imagine it’s probably very similar judging by the video footage i’ve seen from the Soviet era in Russia. What makes it all the more strange is that even the poorest countries in Africa that i’ve been to have far better choice than in Cuba!

  2. Pingback: Cuba to scrap dual currencies | MoneyMoves

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