The Cuban Hustle
16 - 22 June 2017
"You see, I am trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across — not to just depict life — or criticize it — but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me, you actually experience the thing. You can't do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful."
A hustle isn't always bad. Some people hustle to make an honest living (the "hustle" of the taxi driver or the street vendor, for example). But others hustle to scam people out of their money.
The hustles and scams in Havana are nowhere near as incessant as Cairo, but I've also grown a little more callous to the efforts since my days in Egypt. And Havan has the benefit of some colorful street performers (for lack of a better way to put it) who add positive color to the scene.
There isn't anything particularly new or different in the Cuban scams. The one noteworthy — no pun intended — scam involves Cuba's use of two currencies. I spotted a woman walking the streets of Havana, hitting people up for change. I noticed her 20 note was folded ever-so slightly incorrectly, just enough to reveal she was trying to swap a worthless 20 Cuban Pesos (valued at less than $1USD) into 20 Cuban Convertibles (worth more than $20USD). Good luck with that. I'm sure some good-hearted (and ignorant) soul out there took the bait.
It's worth noting other people pass around the Cuban Peso for what it is: Almost worthless paper. One guy — with some sort of relationship to a previous Cuban Olympic team — autographed a Cuban Peso and gave it to me as a souvenir.
So there's the currency scam.
There's also the usual rash of people walking the streets making "offers." In Amsterdam, the constant refrain goes something like "Cocaine? Ecstasy? Weed? Girls?"
In Havana, that's turned into, "Cigars? Weed? Taxi? Chickas? Wi-Fi?" No thanks. I don't want a virus — on my devices or in my body. And — come on now — why even entertain such offers? Cigars are plentiful. Go into a genuine humidor and get a genuine Cuban cigar.
As for the chickas, yeah, they were a bit of a wrinkle on an old game. On three different occasions, a pair of young ladies approached me. The first pair was the most aggressive. They followed me for blocks. I stopped in a park to take a swig of water and one of the girls wanted me to share. Hmmm... Gross. They were nice and rather inconspicuous in their conduct, aside from the persistence. And that persistence dissipated when police officers came into view. Huh. Imagine that.
The other pairs wondered if I was interested in getting a mojito. Sure. But not with you. Sorry.
And there was also the guy who told me about the restaurant he works at, right across the street. Free food and drink. That was right before he tried to introduce me to a girl. I documented that episode here.
As for musicians, you've gotta give them their due. The musicians I saw and heard in various restaurants and bars were all terrific. High-energy performers. In Cuba, it's considered rude behavior to not tip them. They earn it, they create the atmosphere, the positive vibe, in what is otherwise a life with minimal upside. I wound up buying CDs from four of the groups I saw. A couple of them even autographed the CDs. That's good PR. Good on them. I can support that.
One More Scam, for the Road
I took a classic taxi to the airport. The guy knew I was flying back to the States, but he didn't ask which airline and I didn't even think about alternate terminals. He dropped my off at the first terminal. My flight was nowhere to be found. I asked the information desk, they confirmed I needed to go to Terminal 3. It's not walking distance; I'll need a taxi. As it happens, two girls from Australia were in the same boat. We split the fare: A ludicrous $20/USD to get from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3. Thank goodness I had some spare emergency convertibles to make the transaction.
This one seems to be a virtually organized, sanctioned scam.