We must’ve stuck out like a sun-deprived thumb, my boyfriend and I as we walked through the streets of Havana at eight am, unnaturally alert. The atmosphere was surprisingly friendly, as women sat in doorways and greeted us good morning as they puffed on their cigars. One couple, approximately
thirty, even exclaimed “happy holidays” as they strolled past before engaging us in lively conversation about our stay. We discovered that the lady was a primary school teacher and the man worked in a cigar factory.
They asked us where we were going, and quite obviously, we didn’t have a clue. “Well, there is a very famous bar around the corner, used in a very famous film. You want to see?” Not wanting to cause offence and feeling particularly liberal to the notion of arriving in an exciting foreign city, which was deemed as particularly safe, we followed them in. ‘”Take a picture!” they said. I took a picture, even though the bar was gloomy and unremarkable, but I had heard of such filming locations in Havana. Then we all sat down to order a drink. “In the mornings in Havana we drink a special drink, mojito but with no rum! It’s an aphrodisiac!” said the lady. So we did. How soda water and lime could ever be arousing I’m not sure, but I lapped up the facts anyhow.
It seemed like a picture perfect travel moment, an insight into the real Cuba. The couple even offered us a cigar, a souvenir Che Guevara coin and a list of restaurant recommendations. We chatted and then the bill arrived. Assuming we would have to pay in exchange for their kindness we took a look at the hand-written docket. It was thirty pesos (about £24). For four lime and sodas, drinks we knew should only come to approximately thriteen pesos (£8), and for a dingy, tattered old bar this was an extortionate price. We only had fifteen pesos.
“We only have fifteen!” I said, expecting a contribution from the Cubans. Their faces immediately dropped, silence fell in the room. They then turned to look at the three barmen, who had been observing all this time, whose faces also changed to an uncomfortable shade of mean. Never before had realisation hit so hard, and so fast; sheer painful embarrassment at our tourist naivety. We had been had. My embarrassment suddenly turned to fear, the bar was dark and secluded. We didn’t know where we were, we couldn’t pay the bill and they were certainly all in on it. “You must stay here, he must go back to the hotel,” the barmen said pointing to my boyfriend. Believing I would be looked in this gloomy mojito dungeon never to be seen again whilst my boyfriend was lead away, beaten and mugged, I insisted I go with him.
Thankfully, we persuaded the bar owners to let the man and woman escort us both back to our hotel for the payment. The walk back was the longest ten minutes you could imagine, as the Cuban couple marched ahead with hostile expressions, fixated on claiming their dirty money. They weren’t murderers and they probably weren’t even a schoolteacher and factory worker, just poor and clever. Looking back they might as well have had ‘we are con-artists’ written on their foreheads, it was that obvious. Well, in hindsight.
Later that day we went for another walk into town. ‘Happy holidays,’ a couple said as we walked on by. They looked almost identical to the last pair. This time, we didn’t stop for a chat.