Cuban or Tourist ? That’s the name of the game. The way it’s played is to leave your luxury hotel in Trinidad, Cuba after sunset and head to the nearby park to enjoy a fine Cuban cigar. The next step is important: Find a bench that’s not crowded with a good view of the foot traffic. Sit down in your best “mind your own business” body language and light up.
Sooner, rather than later, one friendly Cuban will spot you for a tourist and want to start a conversation. If you’re like me and don’t speak Spanish (shame, shame, shame) conversations develop slowly. Especially when trying to describe the cold and snowy conditions back home. Everything from shivering to shoveling to driving in the snow makes for very animated communication (and lots of laughs).
Your new Cuban friend will inevitably try to teach you some Spanish. Like “caliente” to describe the weather or “frio” to describe the two beers that you just bought. (it’s impolite to drink in front of a friend).
Oh, yes … the game. When you get tired of animated communication, you start pointing at passers-by and asking your friend “Cubano o Tourista” ? He will identify each one and soon start pointing and asking you, “Cubano o Tourista” ? He will also tell you when you guess wrong, which happens a lot more with you guessing than with him guessing. If you want to have some real fun, argue with him when he tells you “no un cubano, un turista”. You can tell him that you recognize Cuban shoes (zapatos) when you see them, or use any other single Spanish word that you think you can apply.
You will both have lots of laughs until the “poh-leez-man” shows up.
When the police get out of their car at the nearest intersection and decide to watch the crowds, the game is over. Your new friend will whisper “poh-leez-man” several times as he gets up off your bench and moves to one of his own. Suddenly your cigar and your beer will not seem so enjoyable. You can wait a few minutes, walk to another bench on the other side of the park, but the moment is lost. The game is over.
One goal I had on this, my second trip to Trinidad, Cuba, was to find people I met the previous year. This was quite easy to accomplish by bringing 4×6 prints with me and showing them to the locals in the general area. Cubans would gather around, all wanting to see the images. They would laugh and if they knew the person in the image they would tell me where to find him or her. Several times I would give the images to the Cubans gathered around and not long after the person I was looking for would find ME. It was a very rewarding experience to see the smiles on the faces of my new “old” friends.
I did have trouble finding Luis, however. Four of us made a mission of it one evening. Hanging out in the Plaza Mayor and being patient paid off. I spotted Luis Taxi delivering four cases of beer to a restaurant. I helped him push his wheelbarrow up a cobblestone street and unload the delivery. I stayed with him and we both walked back downhill to where the others had now gathered.
I should tell you that Luis writes poetry and for Americans he will read a poem about the state in which you live.
Our purpose that evening was to have Luis read his poem about Virginia for a friend that was with us the previous year. We photographed the poem, photographed Luis, and even made a video of the reading. He was truly happy to hear our story.
On our way to Cienfuegos we stopped to eat at a yacht club. ( Who knew there was a yacht club ?) I wasn’t really hungry so While my companions were having lunch I wandered out on the dock where a barge was tied up. There were two men woking to fabricate new handrails for the dock, a welder and his helper.
I’m no stranger to this type of work and quickly identified with them. I took a few photos and couldn’t help noticing that the welder was cutting steel flat bar with no eye protection. This will not only ruin one’s eyesight, but can be serious if a hot spark finds it’s way into one’s eye.
When they took a short break, I called the welder over to me and gave him my dark glasses. ( the shades I wear are actually bona fide safety glasses ). I gestured that he could keep them and his face lit up. He put them on and went back to work cleaning up the steel pieces that he had just cut.
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.
They live in the moment, full of life, full of energy, laughing, playing, and of course hamming it up for the camera. Children are beautiful, no matter what language they speak. These Cuban children don’t seem to know, or care, how poor their country is.