Havana – Day 1
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.
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 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.
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?