The vendors offered the usual schlock: stringed-shell necklaces; assembly-line abstract paintings; those elongated African figurines you see back home in thrift shops and garage sales.
A couple, though, were displaying something different: papier-mâché reproductions of Cuba licence plates. These replicas were nice, but reminded me that I wanted an example of the real thing.
I mentioned this interest to the Cuban fellow I was with, even as I wondered to myself how difficult it might be to find a plate for sale in a country where the state owns even your donkey. Not difficult at all, it turned out.
Within minutes a vendor was gesturing for me to sit beside him in his stall. From a cardboard box under the table he drew out a plastic bag, which he held low and opened enough for me to see a yellow “particular” (private vehicle) plate within.
How much? I wondered. He took a pen and wrote “14” on his palm. At the time 14 convertible pesos was the equivalent of maybe $17 Canadian. Too much. I borrowed his pen and wrote “6” on my palm. He shook his head and I smiled, stood and walked off.
Of course he knew I would be back. Again seated side by side, we wrote various numbers on our hands until we finally agreed on 9. Or maybe it was 11. I paid and strolled away with my find, still in its concealing plastic wrap. It breezed home in my suitcase.
Later, I saw I could get a Cuba licence plate on eBay from someone in Florida for $6.