Searching for Toilet Paper in Cuba

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La Havana city, Cuba
© GETTY IMAGES PLUS/ E+/ FLIPPO BACCI

Confessions of a gluten-free traveler.

Having no Spanish beyond por favor and gracias, I carefully made flashcards before my trip to Cuba to cover situations I knew I would encounter — “No wheat. No barley. No rye.” “Where is the bathroom?” “How much does it cost?” and so forth. Thank you, Google Translate. I used the cards frequently, fumbling with my pronunciation based on decades-old Spanish lessons with a lot of poorly remembered French tossed into the mix. Usually it worked okay. I stumbled and mumbled; my Cuban hosts scratched their heads, smiled and nodded.

The day of reckoning came on my next-to-last day: I was rapidly running out of toilet paper. Not wanting to disturb my very kind Airbnb hosts, I set off down the avenue to buy a roll, understanding that it might cost me dearly. In the first minimart, I carefully walked each aisle, noting there were no paper products at all.

Seeing no other market, I put on my thinking cap: Ah, yes, the card that said, “Where is a market to buy …?” Realizing that the French “papier” might not work and not wanting to use sign language for “bum-wipe,” I came up with a brilliant alternative. I ducked into a nice restaurant and asked for the bathroom. Escorted there, I carefully took one sheet of toilet tissue, a precious commodity not present in every public toilet. Walking to the front counter, I whipped out my flashcard: “Where is a market to buy…?” ¿Donde hay un mercado para comprar …? And here I waved my sheet of toilet paper in the waitress’ face. Light bulb! She took me by the arm and led me to the street. Pointing and counting, she sent me two blocks to a small market. Good prices on rum but no paper products.

Now getting a little worried, I spotted the tall green central building a few blocks away. Formerly a grand casino or hotel, the bottom floor is now a warren of tiny shops and hallways. Walking up to the doorman (he was an official of some kind), I pulled out my card: ¿Donde hay…blah blah and whipped out my single sheet of tissue. He smiled and sent me two doors left to the emporeum. I gratefully walked the aisles but no paper products. Up to the cashier, pull out card, stutter and stammer, wave the paper. She smiles and nods: Here. But no today.

I was beginning to get desperate. All I could think of was a scene in Moscow on the Hudson when Robin Williams had a meltdown and collapsed in the grocery aisle.

Wondering what to do, I decided to return home. My Airbnb host stopped by later and absolutely guffawed at my story when I waved my piece of toilet paper at him.

“No problem,” he said. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a key, walked to the bathroom, unlocked a closet and handed over two rolls of Saigon toilet paper.

I may not have kissed the ground when I landed at the Orlando airport but I’ve darn sure treated my Charmin with a great deal more respect.

Laurel Greene, former special projects editor for Gluten Free & More, lives in Florida.