Here’s a great article that will help you understand how the two currency system in Cuba works … or doesn’t.
They hang out in the tourist areas of Havana and Trinidad. They are not the average Cuban. They’re characters that dress in costumes and ham it up for the camera. They’re fun to photograph and they know it. They also expect to be paid, but it’s worth it. They’re the posers.
This lady and her co-hort will let you sit between them and have your picture taken. They are quite demanding about being paid and will cover their faces until you give them a CUC. I teased this lady about not paying until she gave me this look.
This gentleman was hanging out in front of a bar on busy Obispo Street. He was not very personable (relatively speaking ). I grabbed a quick shot on someone else’s CUC.
Now, this guy would have posed all day. He jumped up on a wagon and hammed it up for our entire group while his friends cheered him on.
There are a few of these cigar smoking ladies in Old Havana. They hang out in Plaza de la Catederal, Plaza de Armas, and Plaza Vieja.
I remembered this gentleman from 2013. He hangs out in front of a popular tourist stop on San Rafael Street.
One of our most popular posers, especially with the women in our group, this Cuban loved the attention.
Yes, I got scammed. I knew I was getting scammed, but I… err… WE couldn’t see how it was going to play out.
I should mention that the “we” included my roomate for the trip, Matt Cowan.
We met a very personable young Cuban early one morning. He spoke enough broken english to explain that he had a young child at home and needed milk for the baby. We’ve all heard that story before, but this one came with a twist. I handed the Cuban a three CUC bill (it was the smallest I had). To my amazement, he handed it back to me. I insisted that he take the money and he again refused it. (this, ladies and gentlemen, is called the “hook”).
The Cuban explained that money was of no use to him because he had no ration coupon to accompany the purchase. But, if I really wanted to help, I could purchase the milk myself and give it to him. As a tourist, I could make one purchase in the government store and it would be considered a souvenier. (I’m sure the baby would be eternally greatful).
I checked with Matt and we agreed to follow the Cuban to the store. We walked several blocks with many left and right turns. Matt and I never felt threatened and we joked the whole way wondering how the scam (or not) was going to play out. We did see some interestng neighborhoods. When we finally arrived at the “store” ( it was really only a small, in-house stand) the cuban and the owner had a short animated conversation, padlocks were unlocked and the “store” was opened. My Cuban friend told me in a whisper that I had to ask for the milk. Okay … “one ration of powdered milk please” I said.
I quickly learned that one ration of powdered milk consists of seven one liter bags of powder that all fit into one standard Walmart sized plastic shopping bag. I asked the store owner how much, he got his official calculator out, punched in some numbers and came up with the grand total of 43.25 CUC. Ok, I’m slow, but this is where the light bulb went on … finally. I turned to Matt to tell him the amount and there’s my Cuban friend running out of sight, with the milk of course.
Now I have to deal with the owner. I insist there is now way I’m paying 43.25 CUC. (I really don’t know what ground I have to stand on but ….) After a few monments the official calculator came back out, more numbers get punched in, and the new total is 23.50 CUC. He “blinked” and I then knew we were going to be ok. I said to Matt ” I’m going to throw him a twenty and we’re leaving”. In my best John Wayne, I flipped the money on the counter and we never looked back.
Matt and I laughed all the way back to the hotel. Of course the story I told at breakfast that morning was that I was merely teaching Matt, first hand, how the baby milk scam worked. Everyone laughed and it only cost me twenty CUC. Which, by the way, was cheaper than my laundry bill at the fancy schmancy hotel in Trinidad. But that’s another story.
I stopped to communicate with a woman in a doorway. I say communicate because I don’t speak Spanish. When she learned that I was an American she insisted that I come inside and meet her family. I met a brother, sister in law, cousin and various children. I also met this woman’s daughter and her child. This girl couldn’t have been more than 17 or 18 years old. They all wanted to pose for photos in this dark and dank apartment. The mother then insisted that I take a photo of the ceiling. The ceiling was half gone. I thought this was curious until she showed me where the young mother (her daughter) had to sleep … right under the hole in the ceiling. The bed was canopied with plastic to keep the rain off.
Now, I think I’m pretty tough and not a lot bothers me, but this brought tears to my eyes. I said some quick good byes, slipped the mother a few CUC and headed back to the street. All I could think about was how hard it rained the night before and how lucky I was to be living in one of the premier hotels in Havana.
In the U. S. it’s called recycling. In Cuba it’s survival. Every morning this gentleman walked to the Malecon with his sacks of plastic that he pulled from trash cans and dumpsters. He washed all his cups, forks, and spoons in a puddle so that he could turn them in for a few pesos. Everyone has to earn something extra because the government doesn’t provide enough wages or rations for basic survival.
He was full of life though and never begged for money. He told us he used to be a boxer and always wanted to pose in his fighter stance. I got him to show me what he was smoking. It was no Cohiba. It was a working man’s cigar, a Moya.