Havana Cuba: Fun and a bit of fleecing
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Jose and Yani Take us for Dinner in Havanna"I know just the place," he said, sliding his arm through hers and guiding our straggling group down a tatty side street away from the elegant old buildings. Laundry dangled from the balconies and kids were playing football with bare feet. He led us through a doorway into a huge courtyard and up a wide stone staircase. At the top was a homely restaurant we would never have discovered for ourselves. As he greeted the waiters like old friends they swung into action, shoving tables together and getting someone's confused approval to rustle up a round of cocktails. Food began to arrive as Jose worked his magic on the ladies, flattering each of us in turn as he wooed his way around the table. Yani had cunningly placed herself between two men and was seductively squeezing their thighs, cooing that Europeans are much more macho than the puny Cubans. Plates of chicken, meat and fish arrived, with communal bowls of rice and beans, and those Mojitos just kept coming. A band was playing across the square and Jose grabbed one of the girls for some hip-grinding salsa. Yani's hand was sliding up Martin's thigh as she wrote down her number, telling him it was her ambition to have 10 children. Martin was clearly rising to the occasion, and told her we'd be back Havana in a fortnight. "I'll see what I can do," he promised. By this time our official banker was wondering why a bill divided evenly was coming up so short. Clarity broke through her cocktail fuzz as she realised our Cuban couple hadn't put in a Peso. We all dug deeper, with our initial irritation tempered by admiration for the sassy scammers who had eaten well, amassed a doggy bag big enough to last a week and no doubt scored a healthy commission from the restaurant for bringing in so much business. During the next fortnight numerous Cubans treated us as walking wallets, but never with quite such sexy chutzpah, because nowhere else in Cuba has the style of Havana. There's a refined European chic about the place, with wide boulevards and narrow cobbled streets leading into picturesque courtyards.
Old Havanna and the Dual Cuban CurrencyOld Havana has been declared a World Heritage Site, so a massive programme is under way to restore its exquisite yet ramshackled buildings. Enthusiasm is outstriping all sense of decorum. One pink and pastel painted square looks like it belongs in a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, but after years in which ornate buildings were destroyed to make way for ulititarian Russian-style monstrosities, you can forgive this gaudy over-compensation. Many gorgeous buildings are being turned into high-priced hotels or tourist restaurants in a state-sanctioned policy of fleecing the foreigners. When I asked our guide why the sreets are so deserted at night, he told us the locals can't afford to join the fun. Cuba operates a highly devisive dual currency system, with the locals earning a Peso worth far less than the Cuban Convertible Pesos used by tourists. This has created numerous social schisms in this Communist country, with shortages of some basic goods and anything vaguely luxurious only available for the harder currency -- and the only way to get that is to prise it from the tourists. By charm and guile, by outright demands, by incessant begging, or by slipping a hand into your pocket while their friend distracts you. I photographed two jolly musicians in Cienfuegos, and the instant my camera clicked the smiles switched off and the musical gourd was shoved forward as a begging bowl. An octogenarian waddling along with a fat cigar in her mouth approached every tourist with her hand out, looking more threatening than photogenic. In one city centre I was grabbed by a man and embraced in a lusty dance as his accomplice played the violin. At the end I stuck my hand out, demanding that he paid for the priviledge of dancing with me. That time we all walked away laughing. Every government-run restaurant has roving musicians who try to flog you their CD as soon as they end their deafening but mercifully small repertoire of songs. Cubans like to joke this is such a talented island that they're all musicians -- except for the really bad ones who can only find jobs in the state-run tourists traps. The toilets were the worst part. When you've gotta go, you've gotta go, but only if you have a handful of coins or the audacity to ignore the gatekeeper. We did that sometimes even when we had small change, playing a game to see who could defy the collection plates most brazenly.
Escape the Tourist Spots but Hold Onto Your BelongingsIt didn't take long to figure out we'd enjoy a more authentic experience by avoiding the venues that tourists are herded into. I tucked into delicious bakery snacks that cost a pittance. A ham sandwich toasted on a street stall sparked off a jovial conversation about my appalling Spanish. From start to finish I covered 2,600km on my adventure tour with Exodus Travels, exploring elegant towns, worn-out villages, tropical forests and beaches. Its prettiest town is Trinidad, an absolute gem where you can't put your camera down for a minute. I'd show you the photos, except some heartless Habanero relieved me of my camera. Cuba is a place oozing wth character rather than charm. Murals and street posters hail the revolutionary hero Che Guevara, and following Guevara's footsteps is still highly popular four decades after his death. Yet after hearing stories about the rebels' often disastrous attempts at revolution, I cynially wonder if he would still be remembered with quite such reverence if he hadn't been so good looking. After all, you never spot anyone wearning a t-shirt bearing the face of his comrade Fidel Castro. Guevara spent months holed up in the Sierra Maestra mountains, and we scrambled up rocky jungle pathways to reach his hideaway. I'm puffing and dripping when I finally reach rebel HQ, and give a sheepish grin when I see that the rebels had strolled up there armed with a massive fridge and a bunch of furniture. Cuba's Communist status makes it an anomaly in this capitalistic world. Its heathcare and education are reputedly brilliant, yet the egalatarian society is a myth, with most people nowhere near as equal as some others. Freedom of speech is frowned upon, and Cubans are practically prohibited from leaving. It's an island of contrasts and contradictions, and perhaps poised for political change with frail Castro stepping down and the Americans making friendly overtures. Go and assess it for yourself -- and say hello to Jose for me. But keep your hands on your wallet when you meet him.
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Lesley Stones is a former Brit who is now proudly South African. She started her career by reviewing rock bands for a national UK music paper, then worked for various newspapers before spending four fun-filled years in Cairo, where she ended up editing a technology magazine. Lesley was the Information Technology Editor for a daily business newspaper for 12 years before quitting to go freelance, specialising in travel & leisure writing and being opinionated about life in general. Her absolute passions are travel, theatre, the cinema, wining and dining.Photos courtesy of Exodus.co.uk and Lesley Stones