The flight from Cancun to Havana took 1 hour but experiencing Cuba in 2006 is like flying into another world. It feels like you are entering a museum amidst a visual explosion of once in a lifetime travel sights and experiences. Where else, for example, can you catch a taxi ride in a 1948 Dodge as you can in downtown Havana? Ah Cuba; the rhythm, the rum, the salsa dancing, the music and the beautiful Cubana chicas, the rum (¿did I already mention that?), the havana cigars, the colonial buildings and the fiestas by night. There is a good chance that you will have the travel experience of a lifetime in Cuba but the initiation can be quite challenging. This is because the Cubans are famous for working their angles with tourists and I believe they are the undisputed masters at hitting you up to ensure you and your money part company at the earliest convenience. I thought that I was adequately forewarned but my first night in Cuba saw me fall victim to the oldest scam in the book. My story follows.
In coming to Cuba I wanted to immerse myself fully in the culture, the language and the salsa scene; to take this opportunity to live solely amongst the Cuban people and experience their way of life. I checked into a family room in Havana and was off to a good start then went out as prearranged to have a drink with a few travelers from the plane when I was waylaid by a shonky operator with another offer. Although apprehensive I changed my plan and in doing so experienced my Cuban baptism of fire. I was taken to a sketchy bar and was plonked down with the shonk, the shonks' friend and an incredibly hot Cubana facemelter. She was dangerously beautiful but unfortunately part of the whole sorry scam. Within moments 4 cuba libres appeared (here we go I was thinking: I know who will be paying for these drinks) but I figured it wouldn't be so bad, said no more drinks to the barman and asked for the bill. He came over and hit me up for the equivalent of $40 US.
When I disputed the amount of the bill all hell broke loose in the bar. My new ¨friends¨ and their chairs magically disappeared as quickly as they appeared and I was surrounded by 4 Cubans who shouted at me to pay up. The barman put his dukes up right in my face and said he wanted to fight me but I kept smiling, saying I was Australian and sticking to my guns. You may wonder about the relevance of referring to my nationality in this situation readers but I can work an angle with the best of them and thought I would give the lucky country pitch a bit of a run. Anyways, later the barman came back with a $30 bill when he kindly dropped the $10 cover charge for his dive. ¨No¨. Then it was $24 after he dropped the mythical tax and I was left with a bill for 4 overpriced drinks and disappearing friends. OK, I said to the barman that I would pay but boy was I going to make that $24 last, I just sat there alone like a shag on a rock with no drinks and no friends for so long that in the end even the barman got tired of hassling me.
Then the real Cuba emerged when three cubanos pulled up seats at my table and shared a bottle of rum with me. They included a beautiful, gentle old man who smiled at me all night and would shake my hand and press his cheek against mine as he gave me a hug. These people really gave me a chance to test out my Spanish, after all these immersion classes it paid off. I sorted the bill from earlier and so the stage was set for my wonderful visit to Cuba. Later on I bought more rum to share and at least had the small moral victory of outlasting the barman in the scam. We stayed in the bar for several hours after he had left before my bar friends and I were ready for home time. There are 7 days in the week in Cuba which means an opportunity for seven fiestas at night. I was in the country for 10 days so you can do the math on the fiesta quotient. It may seem strange to you all but I quickly learnt to exaggerate my reactions with the Cuban people in light of my initial experience going out in Havana. They seemed to appreciate my b-grade acting skills and were always quick to reassure me. I remember asking a member of the ¨policia nacional de revolucionara¨ in a nightclub how he was and even for him ¨tranquilo¨ was the response.