D’oh!!!! Had Again
I hate to admit to being the dumb tourist, but my only excuse this time is that there were three of us…
We made an excursion to the University of Havana – boy, you can see the money dripping off the buildings here. Grand colonnaded monuments to the importance of education in Cuba, it leaves little Sydney Uni in the shade.
Students dotted around the faculties, reading books or playing what looked like a version of scrabble or dominoes.
W was hot, so he sat on the broad steps of the main entrance enjoying the cooling breeze in the shade. When S and I had finished our open-mouthed admiration of the buildings, we returned to find him chatting with a couple; a young Afro-cuban man, Juan, and a woman in white, Sandra.
The spoke to us of the university; degrees take 5 years to complete. All students are subsidised, but for that they have to work in factories around the place. The woman claimed to study pharmacy, and didn’t want to have here photo taken, due to religious sensitivities. The young man was ok with it, even when I threatened him with Facebook – I doubt he even knows what that is.
They told us Fidel studied law, and not far from the uni is the house he lived in. Today the best students win the right to live there. Downstairs there is a bar with barrels in the walls which contained the guns that Fidel smuggled from Mexico to start his revolution, and where we can buy el Negron – the most typical local drink; Cola with a touch of honey. Of course they invited us to have a look at this important piece of local history….
And like a bunch of Candide’s, we went along.with them, Juan telling stories about the local area, and Sandra confessing that she was from near Varadero, and as a provincial, the Habana elites looked down their noses at her. We were shown the factories where the students work making rum, cigars, and banos – I think bathrooms..
We arrive at Fidel’s house, built a bit like a castle, with a pleasant local bar downstairs.
Negron’s all round, and all so special because this is a student hang-out. There are the barrels in the walls, photo….. There are the stairs up to the tower for the students.. Here is a painting symbolically showing only white alcohol for the rich, and now black and white drinks after the revolution.
We chat amiably, and then Sandra asks if we buy souvenirs. If so, she can go to the student shop with her student card and put some things on her tab, that way she can take advantage of her subsidies to get us some small local things. Kerching – bargain, that might be interesting?
Of course, we will reimburse her – and boy, do we.
She dashes off, and Juan, continues to explain local life, Cubanos travelling overseas (not much allowed), life pre- and post- revolution, and how difficult his life is. His sneakers are $70 CUC. When Sandra comes back she’s carrying a plastic bag for each of us, a couple of local coffee packs, a CD of local Cubano musica, and a box of 10 cigars – Romeo Julietta; Just the ones my father used to smoke!! Oh how synchronistic!!
Naturally we want to pay her for her purchases, and there is much confusion about how much…. Because she understands English, but doesn’t speak it much. Finally, I manage to ascertain that it’s 50 CUC, about US$50. But no, I have misunderstood.. It’s EACH….
Three tourist’s separately think “Wow, that’s a LOT”. Three tourists, compliantly hand over 150 CUC, Three tourists have reservations, no tourist says anything…..
And to add insult to injury, Juan leans in as we are leaving and asks if we can give them some money for lunch as well, because it’s difficult to feed oneself as a student. His limpid, earnest brown eyes like a Labrador’s, his slight lisp somehow disarming. We each donate 5 CUC, and then pay through the nose for the drinks…..
It’s not till we have parted company, that all three of us come to our senses, as if the last two hours were spent in a hypnotic trance, induced by a desire to help ordinary Cubanos to build a better life. Only then do we realise we have been well and truly had.
Our entrepreneurial friend at Casa 1932 is horrified the next day. It’s a terrible “estafa” (scam) and he complains about how hard he works to earn a living, and these guys make more money in one hour than he makes in a month. He is very outraged, and wants us to know that this is not Cuban – the locals would never bother to approach us and engage; they are too busy going about their own business. Luis also invites us back for dinner on him when we come back to Havana — we may well take him up on that.
But we may have had the last laugh. After some encouragement from locals who are outraged, We decide to report our estafa to the local police. Well, that was worth the 150 CUC entry price we paid the day before.
The main police station in Habana Vieja is in an old stone fortress – quite apt one would think. At the main counter we are met by a man in a yellow t-shirt, who beckons us to an office in the building. We traipse past a room with a barred-off section where there is a selection of disappointed detainees. Into a room where our yellow-t-shirted friend translates our story to one of the female police. An earnest young uniformed cop greets us in English and we tell him the story. No horrified expressions here, just a kind of silent stony face that more or less says “I’ve seen all this and worse”. Mind you there were some raised eyebrows when we told them how much we were scammed. Fortunately we have photos of “Fidel’s student house” (they laugh like drains), the young “Juan” and the photo S took of “Sandra” before she was told she no photographs for religious reasons.
We are invited into yet another room, where yellow-shirt is holding a young man. Spread out in front of him on the floor is a collection of money, papers, wallets, credit cards, phones. Likely the haul from whatever nefarious activities he’s been undertaking. The uniform cop makes him open yet another wallet, show him the US$ inside and then hold them up so he can be photographed.
We try not to stare.
After some searching, they find a cable so they can offload my photos, and lacking an iPhone cable, another cop comes in with a smart-phone and takes a photo of the photo. All are happy now and the young cop escorts us back out, with what seems like a genuine gratitude for reporting it.
So, we may not have got our money back, but we are quietly happy that our civic duty may save some other tourist from themselves.