Wednesday 15 February 2012

Money, money, money.... final thoughts from Cuba

The Buena Vista Social Club were playing in Havana! Well, so a cool-looking Cuban guy and his girlfriend told us. Admittedly, it sounded a little too good to be true – but our scam radar was slightly dulled by several strong rum and cokes, and, as most of you know, my FOMO - Fear of Missing Out – overrides everything, so we decided to take a punt and trust them.

We’d got chatting when the guy stopped Dan for a light, and then asked if we were in town for “The Festival”.  “Festival?” we asked. “Oh, follow us,” they said. “We’ll show you.” After trailing them for a while, we got suspicious and said we’d meet them later. They swung us into a bar and said they’d write directions in exchange for a drink. “This is how it works in Cuba,” the guy said, as the girl wrote down a venue which we knew was closed that night. We made our excuses, and left.

Scams are a part of travelling in many countries, but in Cuba many tourists complain about feeling more ripped off than in most places. In Havana, scammers cleverly play on tourists’ love of Cuban music (the Buena Vista Social Club line was tried on a couple of times); their generosity, and their desire to interact with locals. An English couple we met were asked on Christmas Day to buy milk powder for a woman’s baby. Who would say no? The bill came to an extortionate £30. Another friend got a $100 bar tab after having a few drinks with locals – who then wouldn’t pay a cent of what they’d ordered. 

Perhaps the need to scam tourists is more understandable in Cuba than elsewhere. Most Cubans struggle to make ends meet. Foreigners are comparatively loaded. It’s not a comfortable position to be in - I always felt very conspicuous carrying my £400 SLR camera – which would pay the monthly salaries of 24 Cubans. Of course, this comes with the territory. Part of Cuba’s allure is its politics. Tourists come to experience the time-warp that Communism has created.  But it’s a time-warp born out of genuine poverty.

Still, initially I found it harder in Cuba than anywhere else I’ve travelled to have genuine conversations with people. At times, everything felt like a transaction of some sort. One night, when the club we wanted to go to was full, a guy stopped to point us in the direction of another one. “Good to see you made it,” he said when he passed us inside. Nice guy, I thought. Later, he asked me to dance, and taught me a few more salsa steps. Then he asked if I’d buy him a beer. We did – but it made me feel like I was paying for the interaction. Was he genuinely keen to chat with us, or just angling for a drink from the tourists all along?

As time went on though, those experiences became the minority.  I learnt that most Cubans love to chat, joke and laugh. In Baracoa, an elderly woman tugged at my sleeve as I took a photo of the street. I thought she was begging. In fact, she merely wanted to compliment me on my curly hair. Hers was dyed bright red. We had a great conversation in basic Spanish admiring each other’s hairstyles (who knew the "describing people" section of my course book would come in so useful?!) 

Many Cubans did all they could to share their culture. I can’t count the number of people on various dance floors who tried to teach us salsa steps. The Senoritas in the casas we stayed in invested even more time trying to improve our terrible Spanish. Milagros, who we stayed with in Trinidad, looked after us like a mother. Sure, we were paying her, but the bill came with a massive discount. A young tour guide I interviewed said he’d burn me some photos of old Baracoa. “How much for a CD?” I asked. “No no no,” he said. “It’s nothing. Not every Cuban asks for money. Write that.”

In truth, if you travel in Cuba, you get it all: the scams, the frustrating rip-offs, and overwhelming generosity.  On our last day, I went to spend our last 100 pesos in moneda nacional (Cuba has 2 currencies, MN and CUCS, or convertible pesos, which are now more widely accepted.) I stopped at a little shop to buy 2 beers to replace those we’d drunk from the fridge in our casa particular.  I should have paid about 50 pesos. The woman pocketed the 100 MN note and walked off.  “No cambio?” I called after her. No change, she shook her head. It would have been cheaper to buy them in a restaurant. “I’m ready to get out of this country,” I said to Dan.

That was until we got to the airport. Ordering our last (thank god) ham and cheese sandwich, a few beers and some biscuits, the bill came to more than I had left in CUCS. I went to put the biscuits back.  The lady at that till shook her head, took some money out of her tip jar, and topped up my cash. As the Cubans say: “Que pais” – what a country! 

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