A Traveler in Cuba or should that be Cooo-ba - one sure way to get fleeced
‘You like ‘Cooo-ba?' asked the girl for the sixteenth time.
‘Yes', I replied, what else could I tell this lovely local lass who was spending her day showing me all the sites of her hometown, Havana ?
I couldn't exactly tell her the truth, ‘No I hate it and I'm starving.'
Never had I been so hungry in my life. It was only day three into my trip but I could hear the bottom of my stomach echo with emptiness. Finding a decent vegetarian meal in Cuba was proving a nightmare. There are some state run vegetarian eateries that have been set up to encourage healthy eating and discourage the Cuban tradition of frying everything in pork fat (which was starting to effect the nation's hearts) but as I found out, no body eats there.
Stumbling across the restaurant however was like finding gold with a metal detector, I was so chuffed that I ordered the lot – including some huge, potato-shaped soya fritters. But one single mouthful was all it took for stomach pangs to set in. There was a choice of three vegetable rice dishes; all rock hard. Undercooked and tasteless, I had to leave the raw grains and attempt the ‘soya'.
I was so surprised that soya existed in Cuba but found out that in fact it didn't. These were two potato-shaped giant brown sponges that were drenched in oil. Raw papaya juice was the final straw or so I thought. When the waitress returned, I was greeted with a £20 bill….so much for the guidebook which assured that state run places were state-priced, I was expecting to pay about £2.
So now, the following morning as I made the trek to see Fidel Castro speaking at Labour day, I was feeling so faint that when the girl asked me for the time, I forgot the guidebook warnings of ‘prepare to be fleeced' and let her lead me astray. One minute we were marching with thousands of other locals and the next, she was leading me down a side street and taking me to her brother's house. I thought her constant ‘You like ‘Cooo-ba?', was all the English she knew, but in fact it was all part of her ‘fleecing strategy'.
I was expected to purchase three boxes of hand rolled cigars from her brother. I've never smoked in my life but the fact I was stuck in a strange house with the door closed in, I decided it was the right thing to do. So I tried parting with the few Cuban peso convertibles I had on me, only to be laughed at.
Her and her brother tried to explain that my currency was wrong, I needed Cuban national pesos not convertibles. There was no mention of this in the guidebook so understandably I was confused. I asked if they could change the money themselves but they said it would be better for me to give them sterling.
Some may have thought me incredibly naïve but remember, I was famished and the intense heat was drying out my throat. Before I knew what was happening, I was in a Coco Taxi heading back to the house I was staying in. The girl leapt up the stairs as I opened the front door.
The first thing she asked for was my perfume, as I don't carry perfume, she helped her self to my deodorant, lipgloss and moisturiser. I remember reading in the guidebook that it said to leave toiletries as tips for cleaners as they are so rare, so I thought it perfectly normal to let her have them.
I wanted to collapse on the bed but she could see I was thirsty and insisted we went out for mojitos. I expected one, and not for her and her friend to guzzle down several each and not put a penny towards it. The bill for the drinks totally cleared me out and the cigars in my hands seemed very unappealing.
I don't know why I expected any of them to return from the toilet, they'd drunk a few, it was normal to need a wee.
But as the afternoon sun beat down and the tables around me emptied, I realised it was time to walk the two-hour trek back to the house. I was in the middle of nowhere with not a penny let alone a map. I'd been totally fleeced just like I'd been warned; At least the guidebook got one thing right.