Often times we are jaded as tourists. We are defensive. We are used to being attacked by aggressive touts, and are always worried about being suckers – getting robbed, being the victim of a scam. In Havana, Cuba, we noticed immediately how “nice” people were. It confused us. Were these nice people genuinely nice, or were they trying to sell us something, or were they trying to scam us? At first, we could not figure it out. What were the locals in Havana really like
Our first afternoon traveling in Cuba we wanted to head into the old part of Havana, Habana Vieja, close to the central train station. We hoped in a Coco Taxi with a specific destination, Puerto de Sague, but the driver, in Spanish, was trying to suggest another restaurant, El Guajirito.
When we arrived at Puerto, the driver tried to come into the restaurant with us, I think so that after we had our drink he could escort us to El Guajirito. We politely declined the request. We could tell he would get a kickback for suggesting the restaurant but really did not want to follow a driver to a tourist trap on our first day.
At Puerto, a Cuban couple was at the bar, they offered a suggestion for another place, that was better and cheaper than Puerto. Surprise surprise, it was El Guajirto. We started to notice a trend. But, other than that, the other trend was that people were, often, just trying to be nice, or recommend a restaurant.
By our second night, we started to realize that, perhaps, people were genuinely friendly – they wanted to practice their English, welcome us to their country, learn from us, teach us about their culture. We started to warm to the locals in Havana.
Less than thirty-six hours into our visit we ventured from our homestay, walking along the Malecon, watching the waves crash against the sea wall. We hooked a right on Avenida Galliano, to make our way towards a pedestrian street that ends in Plaza Central. The Malecon in this area was unique – government sponsored signs demonstrating the rehabilitation of the area.
When we turned onto Galliano, we immediately thought of scenes from the Brad Pitt movie, Spy Games. There is a part of the movie that occurs in Beirut in the 1980s and shows a beautiful seaside city destroyed by war, with rubble and war torn buildings. The sides of Galliano in Havana were similarly littered with rocks and debris, the road was torn up. The architecture of the buildings was breathtaking, but everything need a rehab, a fresh paint job, and so much more.
As we made our way down Galliano, a jovial fellow, Ernesto, greeted us in the street to explain the situation. He ran a bar and restaurant – a tiny little place. He wanted to tell us that the government was working on a project to rehabilitate the street. The rubble that we saw was part of the rehabilitation work. Their goal was to turn the road into a broad avenue for pedestrians only – filled with shops and restaurants. They have a long way to go, but it was good to learn the history of the street and why it looked the way it did.
We chatted with Ernesto in Spanish, and another employee, J.C., in English, for a few minutes. Learning about the bar and the street. We bode Ernesto and J.C. farewell and continued our walk through the neighborhood. As we walked back to our home stay, later that night, we figured we would stop by for a drink. Its travel karma. They were friendly, without being pushy, and trying to start a new venture. We could at least stop in for a drink.
At this point we had been fairly disappointed in the several mojitos we had in town. They tasted bland, no sweetness, and the rum was flavorless. We switched to Cuba Libres as a result. When we sat down J.C. informed us they make good mojitos, with a secret ingredient. He promised us. We made the investment. He did not steer us wrong. It was, honestly, the best mojito we had in Havana.
And, as we enjoyed our cocktail, J.C. and Ernesto sat down and joined us. The four of us talked in both English and Spanish, trading stories about our cultures, the future of Cuba, the relationship between Cuba and the US. It was amazing. In the two years since they opened the bar, J.C. met one American and remembered seeing one other outside the bar, a cowboy, with hat and boots, but he was not from Texas – he could not remember where he was from.
By the end of the hour with Ernesto and J.C. we felt like old friends, and loved that we were getting to know the locals in Havana. We promised that when we returned to Havana we would contact J.C. He offered to introduce us to his friends, show us where he lived, invite us to play dominoes with him and his friends, and get us a good deal on some cigars. I felt, honestly, that he was not trying to scam us, or sell us anything. He was just trying to be a good person, interested in Americans and learning about our culture.
Broken Windows Theory
We realized that Havana was unique. The abandoned buildings, the derelict nature of the streets, reminded me of the broken windows theory. Where there is one broken window, there are bound to be more. Vandalism follows, and eventually, the neighborhood turns to crime because no one is invested enough to take care of the place. Crime is inevitable. In Havana, we stressed about our safety, mostly because of the current state of the buildings and the streets. We felt we were in a dangerous environment.
But, the broken windows in Havana symbolize a government and a situation that is largely out of the control of the population as a whole. We should not feel endangered. We should welcome the outpouring of friendliness, and learn as much as we can about the people that live here and their desire to learn more from the outside world.
As we walked away from J.C. and Ernesto, Eric said “I feel truly touched.” This was the type of interaction we hope for where ever we travel to, and one that is so hard to find in so many countries. In Havana, we found it just walking down the street. When people asked us where we were from and we told them “Los Estados Unidos”, their face lit up. They became excited, animated. They wanted to talk.
We were starting to let down our guard more. It was a wonderful feeling. It was a unique feeling, and one that was warranted by a trip through, easily, one of the most unique countries we have ever been to.
And, Then the Other Shoe Dropped on Callejon de Hamel
We became too trusting. We let our guard down. Some wonderful experiences made us think everyone in Cuba was wonderful, and no one was looking to scam us. Then, we made our way to Callejon de Hamel for a Sunday afternoon of Rumba.
We were a block away from the brightly colored mural alleyway, famous for its Afro-Caribbean artist roots. On Sundays, several bands play rumba music, dancers shake their hip,s and both locals and tourists look on, all while sweating under the strong Caribbean sun.
As we neared, we were asked what time it was. A woman, Lucy, and a guy named Carlos, were heading our way and walked with us to the alley. My finely tuned travel antennae should have recognized the problem right away, but instead I fell under Havana’s spell.
They took us to Callejon de Hamel, showed us the various art galleries, and helped us get some videos of the musicians and dancers. All seemed well and then they suggested we go for a drink. After two rounds, we figured we would be paying for the drinks, not an unreasonable amount, as we chatted with them about life in Cuba for about an hour. Lucy invited us to her house the following week and offered to cook for us.
Then, the hard sell came. Lucy started begging for money for milk for her granddaughter. The pleas continued as we finished our drink, and I just felt used. I don’t like people assuming that I will buy them drinks without asking. They would have sat there all day ordering drinks and suggesting we all order food as well, if we did not say no. On our way out, they offered to walk back with us to the hotel, or to hang out some place else, but we claimed we had a meeting with friends. Lucy made one more plea and when I declined, she huffed away. The temporary friendship ended.
Back Where We Started With The Locals in Havana
We became jaded tourists once again, skeptical of the locals in Havana. What we thought was a unique and friendly experience, was nothing more than a scam to try to get money from unsuspecting tourists. In the end, the $15 we paid for their drinks did not amount to much. They did not take us a for a ride, but it soured us on the experience of Cajellon de Hamel. We only saw a few minutes of music and we left with a bad taste in our mouth.
Perhaps other tourists would have been more sympathetic to Lucy’s plea, but we were used to people begging for money every day all over the world – I can’t give to everyone we meet, and the sneaky way of asking for the money bothered me more than anything. I understand the need in the developing world, particularly as we are on our second RTW trip, and that we symbolize “millionaires,” with money to travel. But, when a desire to ask for money is cloaked in an attempt at friendship, I lose patience.
When we returned to Havana the following weekend, we had time to return for more Sunday afternoon music, but just felt uncomfortable. And, this experience put us back on edge, a feeling I had hoped I would not experience while in Havana.
The Good Part of Callejon de Hamel:
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.