Hustled, hoodwinked or helped? A Cuban adventure…

Havana – Day 1

A bride has her photo taken in the garden in front of the Hotel Nacional in Havana

Dede and I were staying at the Hotel Nacional, which is about three kilometres from Habana Vieja, which is where anyone with any sense spends all their time when they’re in the city. On the first morning, we walked into the old town along the famous Malecon sea-front.

The Malecon sea-front road


Unsurprisingly, such obvious new-arrivals as us were accosted by hustlers of one type or another about every two hundred metres of the journey. We had communicated with about twenty of them by the time we reached the old town. With my good Spanish and loud voice, I managed to fob them off with a series of fairly polite variations on ‘Gracias señor, no queremos nada.’

Well, I THOUGHT I was being polite. Dede reckoned by the time we reached Calle Prado, the road that runs like a spine north to south in the old town, I was becoming quite rabid in my brush-offs.

We walked down Calle Prado to Parque Central, and then found ourselves in a kind of shopping arcade. A couple with a small baby walked by. Dede smiled at the mother, she smiled back and suddenly we were in conversation with these very pleasant people.

Their names were Roberto and Yanni and they said it was their fifth wedding anniversary. Their baby Annad was nearly three months old. Roberto had been given the day off from his job as a primary school history teacher and they were spending the day in the city. We congratulated them and told them it had been our wedding anniversary the previous day. Lots of handshakes, back-slapping etc.

Roberto suggested that we might like to see a bar round the corner where part of the Buena Vista Social Club movie had been filmed.


We followed them and soon found ourselves sitting at a table at the back of a dingy bar, which I have to say I didn’t recognize from the Buena Vista movie. It didn’t have a stage, a piano, or any indication that music was ever played there. Never mind, it was great – all the other people in the place, mainly a line of guys sitting at the bar, seemed to be Cuban. It was good to be away from the tourists for a while.

Se hace aqui un mojito increible,” said Roberto, they make an incredible mojito here. Mojito is the famous Cuban rum-based cocktail. A waiter appeared. Shortly after that, so did four mojitos.

Be careful with mojitos. You know the chant? One mojito, two mojitos, three mojitos – floor!

Roberto then recommended an excellent paladar that was nearby, one of the best in Havana. Paladares are basically restaurants in people’s homes. We had intended to find one at some point, and here was one presented to us on una plata.

In a fit of generosity, aided and abetted by jetlag, Dede invited them to have lunch with us there.

Yanni then asked us if we were planning to buy any cigars. I realized that she was suddenly speaking rather good English. Hm… cigars, I hadn’t really thought about this and said I wasn’t sure.

She then made her big pitch. There was a co-operativa just round the corner, she said, actually on the way to the paladar

What’s a co-operativa?

Yanni explained that on one day a month, people who work at the tobacco factories (there are four main ones in Havana) are allowed to take a number of cigars home and sell them.

And guess what? Today is the day.

Yanni went on to explain that if we bought our cigars from the co-operativa round the corner, they – Yanni and Roberto – would benefit, because they would receive some coupons from the cigar-sellers, which they could use to buy food.

As I looked at her, the letters S-C-A-M formed above her head. The hallucinatory effect of jetlag, I guess. But what the hell, it was day one, and it was developing into an unusual adventure.

We made our way out of the bar and I paid 16 CUCs for the mojitos. CUCs (you soon find yourself calling them ‘cooks’) are pesos convertibles, the special only-for-tourists Cuban currency. They’re worth about the same as a US dollar.

I must say I was a bit surprised to have to shell out sixteen dollars for four small glasses of rum. I looked at the line of locals at the bar, who seemed to be mainlining rum-based drinks. You can bet your bottom peso they weren’t paying that kind of money for their drinks, I thought. They were probably paying the same in local pesos, which are worth twenty-five times less than the tourist version.

We headed to the co-operativa. I realised on the way that I didn’t actually have that many CUCs with me, but I did have thirty English pounds. If the worst came to the worst, I thought, we could use some of that to pay for the cigars.

Roberto knocked on the door of a house, the door creaked open and an old lady let us in. We walked into a very dark room, with a TV blasting out some kind of game show. The old lady sat down on a sofa, and continued to watch the show. I could see people lurking in other rooms.

Eventually, a muscular young man appeared with a series of cedar wood boxes. He opened the biggest one to reveal about 100 cigars. He said we could have them half-price. I have never bought a cigar in my life and no idea how much they’re worth, so I was gob-smacked when he told me that ‘half price’ was two hundred American dollars.

I’m sorry??

I told him I only had thirty pounds.

There were now about five people in the room and they clearly thought I had more money secreted about my body somewhere. The next wooden box they brought was smaller, also half price (good to know) and would have set me back about a hundred and sixty dollars.

I repeated several times that I only had thirty pounds. The old lady who had let us in, clearly the brains of the organization, did some mental arithmetic and said something to the muscular young man, who went into another room and came back with a really small cardboard box, which contained 25 Montecristos.

Cuarenta libras,’ said the old lady. Forty pounds.

I waved the thirty pounds I had, and – the only bargaining tool I had at my disposal – said it was too expensive and we weren’t interested. I walked purposefully towards the door.

Miraculously, the price was reduced to thirty pounds, money changed hands and the illegal deal was done. Yanni had words with the old lady about food coupons and we left the premises and headed for the paladar.

I was a bit annoyed by the cigar experience and less well disposed towards Yanni and Roberto. But it wasn’t their fault that I didn’t know the price of cigars. And anyway, we had invited them to lunch, so we couldn’t really wish them a good day and head off in a different direction.

We walked through more streets and knocked on another door, and were ushered up some stairs. We sat in an unusual living room with an incredibly high ceiling.

Dede waiting for lunch at the paladar


Eventually, we were taken up to the roof where tables were laid out for food. It was a really nice place to have lunch.

Shortly afterwards, we were joined by two women tourists, one English, the other German, who had also been recommended to go there by someone they had met in the street. His name was Pedro. He also took them to the Buena Vista bar, and they also had mojitos. They paid 15 CUCs for three, so clearly my sixteen CUCs for four was a bargain.

The meal was great, and then the bill arrived. Ninety-five CUCs. Hm… Roberto had said it would be sixteen each but … hey ho…

During our conversation, Roberto had told me that his monthly salary as a primary school teacher was the equivalent of 12 CUCs. Twelve dollars a month. In other words, with the mojitos, the cigars (£30 = about 40 CUCs) and the meal, I had just spent the equivalent of a year’s salary for him.

And before we left, there was more. Yanni had a new baby, things were clearly hard for them and she talked about the cost of diapers. Another 20 CUCs changed hands.

And we said goodbye to them. In the course of two hours acquaintance, I had managed to shell out the equivalent of 175 US dollars, a lot more than I had estimated we would spend per day on our Cuban adventure. What did we get for it? A nice meal, a mojito and a lesson about life in Cuba.

Some would say that Roberto and Yanni were no different from the twenty-odd hustlers that we ignored on our way into the city. I would reply that we didn’t need to do all those things, we chose to. And we learned a lot.

So – were we hustled, hood-winked or helped? What do you think?


15 thoughts on “Hustled, hoodwinked or helped? A Cuban adventure…

  1. Ken,

    Many years ago in Cuba I lost the shirt off my back (quite literally) to a charming brass player from a local band. He seemed to want it more than I needed it. And he did play fine trumpet that night, in my freshly-laundered black shirt.

    When I went to Cuba, we took half a suitcase of over-the-counter medicines, sanitary towels and other useful items which were (at that time) in short supply. They were easy to get rid of, and – I think – more useful than money. Though times may have changed…

    I bought some cigars for friends. They came from inside a ceiling panel in an apartment. They were mighty cheap compared to the market price. They were, undoubtedly, black market ones. But I was given a free breakfast whilst I examined the wares…

    By the way, as I write this comment, your Google Ads above invite me to meet ‘Sexy Caribbean Women’ – an offer I find very appropriate to the location of your blog post, and most enticing, as an educational prospect, of course….


    1. The black shirt – what a great gesture! I left my old trainers in the rubbish bin at the hotel, and saw a maid walking down the corridor holding them at arm’s length – maybe she was taking them to the incinerator.

      ‘Sexy Caribbean Women’ in my Google Ads, eh? How come I can’t see the ads they’re placing on my blog??

  2. Ι don’t know what to say. Sometimes what one sees as deception the other sees as enjoyment. If you had a good time and enjoyed the meal and the company of these people then I think you weren’t hood-winked. What you could have avoided was the cigars I guess…Did you feel threatened at any point?

    1. Now THAT is a good question … there was a moment in the dark house, when the atmosphere got a bit icy because of my refusal to up the price I was prepared to pay. But that’s just me. Cuba is – despite a serious mugging story we heard – a really safe place to visit.

      1. On the plane back from Cuba I met a man with his arm in plaster. He had been visiting Cuba annually from the UK for something like 30 years but on this occasion he had ventured too far into unlit backstreets and been mugged. Policemen and informers hang about many intersections, especially in touristy areas and, officially, there is no crime. However, you always need to be on your guard and take a taxi to anywhere away from the well-lit streets in Old Havana and the Central area.
        Did those cigars turn out to be genuine or were they carefully-wrapped banana leaves with a layer of tobacco on top??

  3. That’s the same question I’ ve been asking myself since I visited Cuba 10 years ago. Though our details were slightly different, it’s nice to hear it hasn’t changed much.

    (A detail my dad found out as a member of the Cuban Solidarity Campaign was that the thing was to take pens and give them away to kids on the street.)

    1. Well, we actually took about 20kg of books to give to teachers. Bur you’re right, if we ever go back, it will be pens for children.

      1. I was in Morocco quite recently and was constantly on my guard against this kind of thing. One day a bloke came up to me on the train and was telling me about his friend in Fes who was a taxi driver and would take me to my hotel for free from the train station. I found this rather strange and thought it would be better if I politely declined. In a way it’s a shame in some ways as he might have actually just been trying to do me a favour but somehow I thought that was rather unlikely.

        I’ve had my fair share of similar incidents to you (though not quite as expensive) so it didn’t surprise me too much really. Having said that, I should say that I’ve been on the receiving end of some very gracious acts of kindness when in much poorer countries than those in Europe.

        For example, I’ll never forget spending 7 hours on a bus in Zambia without having eaten all day, only to be offered some bananas by a kind old lady sitting at the back of the bus. It might not sound like a lot but in a country of such acute poverty, it was quite a humbling experience for me.

        On a side note, I hope I don’t sound too political but I strongly believe that handing out pens to children only encourages begging and doesn’t really help at all. I think giving books to teachers is a much better idea. Tourism Concern, an organisation that know much more than me about this (and also do really valuable work by the way) seem to agree with me on this point.

      2. Peter,

        thank you for those memories.

        re pens: I think this is a difficult one. In some societies, and definitely in Cuba, children will beg. For some it is a matter of life and death, for others a bit of harmless opportunism. I think giving a pen to the opportunists, and then ignoring any further requests, isn’t such a bad thing.

  4. I’d say you were hoodwinked! The fact that you knew what was going on doesn’t change a thing. You played your role of a rich western tourist and they played theirs. Do you mean that you were helped beacuse you learned a valuable lesson? Did you really find out sth you didn’t know before? Or, I suppose, you wanted to experience it.
    That situation at the house (when you were buying cigars) was even dangerous. What does your wife say to that? Did she feel threatened? She looks so calm in that picture, but, from your description of the event, I could never be that calm.

    1. Sonja,

      thanks for that. The photo of Dede is actually in the house where we had lunch. She wasn’t frightened in the other house – she’s not easily scared. 😛

  5. Still love your posts, Ken! Immensely entertaining, as always. I suspect you were “h’d, h’d and h’d” in equal measure.

    “Roberto suggested that we might like to see a bar round the corner where part of the Buena Vista Social Club movie had been filmed.”

    Hmm . . . Reminded me of Stratford. Is there a bar, inn or bench where Bill *didn’t* sit?

    Best wishes and keep it up 😉


    1. So true….

      and the mysterious Pedro who took the two women to the same bar. I wonder if Yanni and he have a meeting at the end of the day to compare results!

  6. Via twitter and China, I’ve finally arrived at yr Cuba post! Lots of ‘helpful’ information for when I go. Glad to hear that on the whole you and Dede enjoyed the trip!

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