Why did I not meet the lovely, friendly Cubans everyone talks about?
What’s up with people visiting countries and always, inevitably and predictably falling in love with its people? Each time I plan to visit a new place, I spend hours on the web reading about it. Travel blogs, online magazines, guides, travel diaries and what not. I don’t think I have ever come across a negative comment about the people of a specific country. Hardly anybody ever said publicly that the people in said country are unwelcoming, or that those of another are rude, pushy or lazy.
Privately though, it is a different story. And recently I have started coming across more and more blog posts that give a honest and personal version of things. That’s when I hear people say that really, they hated the people in a country and actually fled because they could not take the locals anymore. A friend of mine who spent years living and working in Peru finds Peruvians hardly amicable. Another who travelled across South America thought that people in Bolivia are rude and cold. What’s interesting is that I have a completely different opinion on both Peruvians and Bolivians. In my experience, they are both reserved people, yet so welcoming and caring. I have had some great encounters in both countries and hold great memories of the people there. Then again, I appreciate reserved people as I enjoy silence and time alone.
This goes to show that really, the way we perceive a people and a country is all a matter of individual perspective. It depends on how we feel while we are travelling, and sometimes even on who we are travelling with. And, quite importantly so, it depends on our ability to communicate, both verbally and non verbally.
If what I say is true, I must not have been in a very good mood when I travelled to Cuba then (and none of my friends who have been there before and after me were in a good mood either!) because seriously, I did not like Cubans all that much. Mind you, I love the country and I could visit it again any time. I had a great time there, despite everything, and I even think that the second time around I would have a real blast and perhaps, knowing what to expect, I would not have such a hard time communicating with the locals. Because really, in the end it was all due to miscommunication and cultural differences.
But… was it?
I like to think of myself as a fairly open minded individual. I have travelled widely, and I have lived in various countries that are not my own. I have learned to communicate effectively with people from all over the world. However, try as I might, it was impossible for me to meet those loving, friendly, smiling, fun, relaxed and fantastic Cubans everyone talked about, to the point that I even wondered if we were talking about the same country, about the same people at all.
The Cubans I have met felt more like sharks I should steer away from, swimming against the current not to fall for their scams. They made such a strong impression on me that I actually started my blog in the very ambitious attempt to warn the world about what travelling to Cuba really implies. I suppose I had to digest what had happened though, as now, despite my various misadventures and the numerous scams, I end up recommending Cuba as a country to visit to just about anybody – with a number of scam warnings attached to my recommendations.
Read more about Cuba on my post on the things to do in Cuba.
What I found frustrating in Cuba was that I could hardly mix with the locals. I speak Spanish fluently (and in any case, not speaking the local language has never stopped me from communicating!) and I find that getting to know someone from the place I visit, sharing my travel tales, and even parts of my life, culture and country, as well as learning more about the country where I am travelling through the eyes of someone who was born there is always an enriching experience. I have always met amazing people during my travels who, for as brief the encounter, have always wanted to help me, to know about me, and to just talk for the sake of it.
Having an authentic experience: scams in Cuba
Hardly any of this happened to me when I travelled in Cuba. Any genuine conversation I would try to have would end up in an offer of sex (in exchange of money or a drink), in demands that I buy something or that I give away my clothes (including those I was wearing), or in a trickier scam attempt. Not so much of a cultural exchange – or perhaps it was a cultural exchange, just not the kind I was hoping for. Even if I tried to find an explanation for what was occurring, I could hardly justify it. Cuba is a poor country, I told myself. But then, I have been to places that are considerably poorer and none of this had happened and even those who had nothing were kind and helpful and not so hardened by life.
What about those people who’d approach me and start introducing themselves by saying: “I’m not like other Cubans”? In fact, they were not like other Cubans – way more sleek in their scams! They would present themselves as the most helpful people in the city, so good in their act that they seemed genuine. They would master a few words of Italian. They’d prompt me to watch out for scams and people working for commissions (called jineteros) and then offer to take me to a good restaurant or bar (hardly the one I may be looking for) to then sit and have a drink (which I’d offer, to thank them for their tips), leave without a word of thank you and get a commission from the owner in the end. Ah, the irony!
What about those who were celebrating their birthday everyday? I can’t even remember how many people I have met in Cuba who, after some small talk, told me “today it is my birthday” – and then expected to be offered a drink in a bar of their choice (scam warning: this is just a strategy to bring tourists to a bar or restaurant and get a commission from the profits).
All in all, the feeling I had was that people saw me as an ATM with legs that they could try to get cash from, or as a sexual object, or a passport, or all of that. There was no explaining that I was on a tight budget and had saved for years to be able to afford that trip, or that I was not interested in sex as I was in a relationship (I wasn’t, but you get the point). Nobody cared. All that people seemed to think about me is that I was a foreigner, therefore better off, and as such it would be fair to try to take advantage of me.
Some other episodes that occurred to me during the few weeks I spent in Cuba made my opinion of the locals become less than positive. I spent my first ten days in Cuba fighting not to get scammed. The first thing that the owner of the first casa particular where I stayed in Havana warned me against was the existence of the jineteros. He made it a point that I learned to defend myself against them.
When he offered to take me to the ceremony of El Cañonazo in Havana, I gladly accepted – he was so well educated that I figured it would be a great experience. Then, a few hours before going, he said he could not make it and suggested his (less than talkative) cousin could take me instead, for “protection”. I said that would be nice of him, and he told me straight out to just pay him the entrance fee, the taxi, and a meal and drink afterwards. I was shocked. Had he not just warned me against this practice of having to buy drinks to men in exchange of company and protection?
By the end of my trip, I was well trained in recognising scams. On my first night in Viñales, I signed up for a salsa lesson. As the dancing school was undergoing renovation works, I had to take the class at the teacher’s neighbour’s apartment. The lady was nice, polite, her flat small but spotlessly clean. As we finished the lesson, I asked the teacher if he could suggest a restaurant for the night as I didn’t have time to look for one on my guide. The lady jumped at the occasion and said I could eat at her place. In disbelief for the invitation (was a Cuban really going to offer me dinner, at her house?), I started asking questions.
It soon became clear that I wasn’t going to be invited in the western sense: I’d have to pay for the food, I’d be served at the table and sit by myself. Just as in a restaurant, only this time sitting uncomfortably and slightly abashed in some0ne’s home. I told her I’d eat there the day after and suggested that the family, as well as the salsa teacher, should eat with me. I suppose I took them by surprise. But I think they were not surprised when the day after I did not show up as there was no way I would accept an invitation to then have to pay for everyone’s meal – my means were not such for me to be able to afford it, and even though I could appreciate the cultural differences, it would simply be odd to have to offer dinner to some complete strangers when I had been “invited” to their home.
However, the episode that well classifies as the worst and that still makes me angry if I ever think about it happened to me on my very last day in Cuba, in Viñales. The guide who took me on a tour of the valley seemed to suffer from mood swings. One minute he was kind and helpful, the next he’d leave me alone to bike and hardly said a word. All in all, he was rude. I had kept to myself, and he must have not liked it because at some point, when we stopped to have a break, he started talking to my Mexican friend in Spanish (as if I was not there to hear and I could not understand) and said that if he did not plan to have sex with me, he would. I felt like an object, and disgusted.
All in all, I suppose I did get a very authentic Cuban experience – as authentic as it can get for tourists. Because really, there is hardly anything as authentic as a Cuban scam in Cuba.
Don’t get me wrong. It was not all so bad and I actually met a few people who were nice. Although most owners of casas particulares were almost intrusive when wanting to find out about my future plans on the island (so that they could push the services of one of their friends on me, whether I liked it or not), others were very kind and talkative yet never pushy – one was so keen to practice his English that he took “advantage” of me on that; another was so motherly that she’d check on whichever guide that took me around and if he didn’t pass her test she would not allow me to go out; one more spent hours in Trinidad looking for the yogurt I asked her for, not knowing it was hard to find in Cuba. Some guides were protective of me to the point that they offered to go give a lesson to the driver who had scammed me the night before. A young man in Baracoa carried my backpack across town when he saw me bent over the weight.
In general, my impression is that Cubans have suffered from the isolation that the embargo era has caused. They have all they need – food, education, healthcare. But nothing more than that. However it is in human nature to want more – and to find ways to get it, even if this means swindling unaware tourists.
Travelling in Cuba was tiring. I knew that any time I’d set my foot out the door, I’d be surrounded by people making demands, either openly or in a more sneaky way. I knew I could not go for a walk by myself, because nobody would respect my need for alone-time. I never felt respected as a tourist, as a person, let alone as a woman. I remember spending whole mornings saying “no” to taxi drivers who, one after the other, would ask me if I needed a taxi, although they heard me turn down their collegues’ offer just one second before. Did they never realise it was annoying?
I became almost aggressive any time I was approached by locals, because a polite “no thank you” would not end a conversation but turn into an endless rant which would inevitably lead to a quest for money, clothes (even those I was wearing) and whatever else I may have on me. I remember walking in the street without ever making any eye contact, or smiling, or answering to those who said hello, because I knew that there was no way they’d be interested in me as a person but they only saw me as a tourist to exploit to their benefit.
That was not how I wanted to travel. It made my trip less enjoyable, because there hardly was a memorable encounter with a local that was genuine and kind to me, just for the sake of it. I felt I could not let myself go and enjoy a conversation because if I lowered my guards there would be a scam waiting for me; and if I told straight out that I was not looking for company, or that I had nothing to offer, people would get offended. I tried a few times to be more approachable and I fell for scams – it happens to the most experienced travellers, really, but this did not make me feel any better. In the end I really felt I could not trust anybody, that nobody wanted to help me, ever – they only wanted to help themselves and make money out of me – and this is not an uncommon feeling among people who travel there.
I like to think the way I felt when I travelled to Cuba has a lot to do with my personality. I consider myself to be a “social introvert” – I like socializing, but I need a lot of alone time. I like observing, but from a distance. I don’t always want to be surrounded by people and I don’t necessarily want to talk all the time. In my experience, Cubans are the opposite of that: they very open, they like meeting people; they like to talk and they don’t have as much a need for privacy as I may have. Cuban homes are a mirror of Cuban culture and personalities: they are always open and people go in and out, often unannounced. I need people to ring my bell and ask permission before I can open up.
I now can’t help but wonder if, going to Cuba again, I would be able to finally connect more with the locals and have a more enriching experience, that cultural exchange that I felt was missing my first time there. I wonder if, knowing what to expect, I would be able to figure out the people I had to steer away from and those I could trust. I surely am ready to try.
Have you been to Cuba? What was your experience with the locals?