Chicago Tribune
Jan. 23, 2003

Jaba a big figure in Cuba; plastic bag is king on the road

  Chicago Tribune


  (KRT) - In Cuba the plastic bag is king.

  Not the white kitchen-size bags or the triple-ply, super-strength bags that are sold in droves in the United States. But your average, razor-thin plastic
  shopping bag found at U.S. supermarket checkout counters, used once and tossed out or less often, recycled.

  In Cuba, where there is a shortage of everything and nothing is thrown away, the plastic bag has become as important to daily life as the monthly food
  ration card. Called a "jaba," it is used to carry everything from rice to clothing to books to musical instruments to fishing tackle to just about anything else.

  Cubans sell tomato sauce, vinegar and even ice cream in jabas. Shampoo, milk and yogurt are sold in specially sealed jabas. Bigger, stronger jabas are
  used to lug potatoes and oranges. Fancy jabas, the ones with lettering on them, are used to carry gifts on special occasions.

  Women here plop a jaba on their head and, when combined with the tropical heat, it acts as a makeshift hair-dresser. Kids turn them into kites.

  A couple of jabas tied together make a clothesline. They also are used to seal pipes and plug leaks in a country where rubber gaskets and caulking are
  impossible to find.

  The jaba has special significance during the holiday season, when the lucky few are given a plastic bag filled with cooking oil, chicken, soap and other
  hard-to-find items by their employer as a bonus.

  Cubans say the jaba first appeared in the 1970s, when a paper shortage made the once ubiquitous paper bag vanish. Initially, Cubans made bags out of
  clothing material, but the plastic bag soon took over and solidified its dominance during the island's prolonged economic crisis.

  The jaba has no real competition. Backpacks and fanny-packs are expensive and rare. Briefcases are almost non-existent. Tupperware, zip-lock bags,
  baggies, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and waxed paper are all about as common in Cuba as the Abominable Snowman.

  But there are other factors helping the jaba thrive on this Caribbean island. Cuba is a place with few packaged goods. Economic necessity dictates that
  everything is used and reused, especially containers.

  A grapefruit peel will be turned into a delicious dessert that is stored in a glass jar that years ago contained olives. Plastic bottles are recycled over and
  over again to carry milk and cooking oil from the corner bodega.

  But it is the jaba that has become uniquely indispensable.

  "Do you have a jaba?" is perhaps Cuba's most common expression, followed only by, "Where did you get that jaba?"

  Few Cubans leave home without a jaba or two tucked into their purse, trousers, or glove compartment. You never know when it will come in handy. A
  street vendor suddenly appears selling bananas at a bargain price. You're out of luck if you don't have a jaba in which to stow them.

  Dining in a restaurant and can't finish the meal? Forget about the waiter having a doggie bag. The prepared Cuban pulls out his or her jaba and packs
  away the leftovers.

  Most stores don't give out jabas, and neither does the local bakery or the outdoor fruit and vegetable market. There is often an old man, a retiree, selling
  them for a couple of pennies apiece. But that kind of change adds up in a country where the average salary is about $10 a month.

  So Cubans carefully guard their jabas. After each use, they wash them by hand, hang them out to dry, fold and store them. Most Cubans have a dozen or
  more jabas. Each one can last for months.

  In 1999, Beverly Mojena, a Cuban artist, paid homage to the jaba - and to a life defined by shortages - by constructing two pairs of shoes out of
  multi-colored plastic bags. Carlos Ruiz de la Tejera, a famous Cuban comic, delivers an entire monologue about the jaba's many uses in Cuban society.

  There also is a common joke about the jaba that goes something like this: "How many parts are there to the human body?"

  "Four," the Cuban answers. "The head, the trunk, the extremities - and the jaba."


  © 2003, Chicago Tribune.