By Sarah Rainsford BBC News, Havana
Years after the collapse of the USSR, Cuba remains a bastion of communism, central planning… and shortages of basic goods. Anyone returning from a trip abroad therefore takes as many of these as they can carry – even if they are flying from Moscow.
The bright orange bottle of cleaning fluid was probably the oddest item stuffed into my suitcase this time, wedged in beside the tennis shoes for one friend and pile of baby clothes for another. It’s a ritual I’ve grown used to: every time you leave communist-run Cuba with its centrally-planned economy and sparsely-stocked stores, you go shopping.
But as I packed my bags last week to head back to Havana, I did a double-take. I was in Moscow, heading home from a work trip, and as usual carrying as many presents and supplies as I could. And yet it wasn’t so long ago that I’d stock up in the same way for trips to Russia.
I was a student there in the early 1990s as the country emerged – very painfully – from seven decades of communism. The shops then were stomach-achingly bare.
My friends and I would head out each day with empty bags to scour the shelves of gloomy, musty stores. We got used to buying whatever there was, not what we wanted – pickled tomatoes, perhaps, or canned fish on a good day.
But the new Moscow I visited last week is chock-full of shopping malls, its streets lined with global brands and coffee chains. My closest friend there, Natasha, now makes most of her purchases with a few taps on her iPad.
When I told Natasha about my mad shopping dash for Cuba, we remembered her own first trip abroad, to Britain, a year before the Soviet Union disintegrated.
My mother had taken her out one day for the weekly food shop. “I remember there were all these different cheeses and 10 types of everything.” Natasha laughed, recalling her first encounter with a Western supermarket. At first I was excited – then I started crying my eyes out.
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