Escaping the tourist trap

It didn’t take long for me to get bored on the streets of old Havana. It was all a bit too commercial for me – flocks of tourists everywhere and over-hyped prices. Instead of the locals I had initially pictured dancing on the streets of Havana, I saw middle aged white tourist couples Lindy-hopping. The bars were filled with American blokes smoking cigars trying to hit on the bartenders and the Salsa clubs were filled with white women tourists and their Cuban boyfriends.

The only proper locals I saw were sitting in parks, where the WIFI was available.  At about 11:30 PM I decided to call it a day and made my way back home. However, as I walked past a small park opposite Floridita hotel, there was a bunch of guys who drew my attention. They seemed to be quite a cool bunch so I just started a conversation with them. I offered to buy a bottle of Rum and some Coke and had some Cigars to share as well. 

This seemed to be a great opportunity to get some more insight in the local perspective beyond the tourist façade. The guys were a bit skeptical of my intentions and not everyone accepted cigars or the rum. “It is a big risk, they said, for us to be seen with you. If you want to stick around us you want need to learn to act like us, and not stand out.” I was told by one of them.  

“Why?” I asked. “Look behind you” he replied. Before even I managed to turn around to look behind, I heard this scream “Auxilio” “Auxilio” (which means Help in Spanish) As I turned around, I saw a man being chased by the police while screaming he had not done anything. Before he could say any more, as he slowed down, the police rammed him into a statue in the park and cuffed him. In the meantime, I saw one guy of the group standing up and going towards the police shouting: “no violence don’t hit him.” The rest tried to hold him back and tell him not to get involved but he wouldn’t listen. 

This guy was different, he was their leader as I later found. They called him Anaconda and he was my way in the gang. “See what happens if we talk to white tourists? We get arrested for no reason” he told me. “But you’re fine, you’re already half Cuban by the looks of it, but remember this, if the police stops us, don’t let them take us away! Follow us till prison brother, and shout that we’re your brothers, because if they take us we don’t know what’s going to happen to us.” “Of course, I will” I solemnly stated.

Next to us, there were two old Spanish brothers, in their 60’s who overheard our conversation and chipped in as well. ‘We came back to Havana to relieve some memories from our youth and I can tell that Havana is the same shithole I left behind 20 years ago. ‘ one of them stated with a bit of sadness in his tone.

‘I completely agree!’ nodded Anaconda.

After a a bit of banter, I asked Anaconda if he could show me around Havana a bit. I explained that I wanted to see how the locals have a good time and that in exchange I would cover all costs and give him a little bit of money as well.

Anaconda looked at me and smiled: “Haha, you’re just like me! Of course, brother, you found the right man” Right then, let’s move on from here and go where the real Cubans have a good time.” 

On our way to wherever he was taking me we walked through another park. We stopped by a bench three guys probably twice our sizes were sitting.  “Guys, I want you to have a good look at this guys’ face! Anaconda said on an authoritative tone to the three guys.  

“This is guy is Gato! He is my brother! And every time you see him you have to take care of him! Make sure he stays out of trouble. Look at his face! Remember it!”  All of these three guys were now in my face looking at it. Felt a bit weird but at the same time pretty cool. I shook their hands and we moved on.  

We got in a common shared cab which was a bit like hitchhiking. Common shared ‘cabs’ are not really cabs, bur rather locals driving around in exchange for a few pesos. If you are a foreigner, they will ask you for a lot more but this guy got us a ride for 2 local pesos each. The lowest I could get one by myself was 1 convertible peso (1 dollar – 25 local ones – 14x more expensive).  

La Rampa Nightlife

We got off along the Malecon (the seaside) and walk for a bit. “We’re going to this awesome place – La Rampa” Anaconda told me. “I will show you how real Cubans have a good time.” La Rampa was basically a street where a lot of people just came to hang out. The most famous place was a fountain opposite a gas station. There were quite a few musicians that would play their instruments all night long. When we got there, it was as if a big group of people were expecting us. 

La Rampa,Havana
La Rampa Petrol Station

Anaconda introduced me to everyone and I started handing out cigars and passing the bottle of rum to get myself acquainted with everyone. Everyone had their own story and was really interested to know where I was from, why I spoke Spanish and to practice their English. None of the people I met had actually heard about Romania or met a Romanian before so they dubbed me as the only Romanian in Havana. Out of all the people I met there 2 stood out: Black Mamba who asked me if he could have the cigar box and Shamalongo, a young, very talented musician whom I had a very interesting talk on life. Shamalongo’s story as a musician and young father touched me so I told him I’d really want one of his CD’s. He told me he didn’t have any on him and that it would take him time to make one. I offered him 5 dollars then and I told him I would get him another 5 whenever he can get me a CD, be it that night, the following one or the following year.  

“When are you leaving Havana?” he asked me a bit worried 

“In about 2 days’ time but don’t worry about it, whenever you can get it you get it, it’s not a problem.” 

Shamalongo looked a bit distressed at my “request” but then as he spotted 2 police officers he told me “Wait a second please.” and then he rushed over to them. He came back with one of his CDs and handed it to me. 

“There you go brother” he said it on a relieved tone.  

“You didn’t have to do that you know…Gato could have waited” Anaconda intervened.  

“Do what?” I asked a bit confused as I handed Shamalongo the 10 dollars.  

“I had given those police offers one of my CDs a while ago as a token of appreciation for them but I just told them I really needed it now for you, I’ll get another copy for them another time, that’s not a problem. Tomorrow I am treating my kid to something special with the money you gave me, thank you.” 

The second memorable character I met was Black Mamba. Never got his real name but he told me had worked in New York. He had a very deep and hoarse voice that almost made everything he said sound a bit scary and threatening. He reminded me of a character I knew when I was a kid, that always gave me the creeps (Petrica the Hoarse Voice). 

Anyway, after a few chats with the guys Anaconda asked me if I wanted to go with him and see if we could pick up any girls. I said sure so we just went along the road towards a the centre of Vedado (a less touristy quarter compared to Old Havana)  So we went for a stroll and encountered two girls that were sitting by a club. Anaconda was really straight up about everything so he asked one of the girls :

‘My friend here is visiting and he likes you. So my question is to you, how much is the taxi back to your place? ‘She looked a bit surprised, measured me top down and the replied:  

‘Why doesn’t your friend talk? Is he a cop?’  

At that point I started laughing and told her I am not, but that I don’t really know what to say since I am new in the neighbourhood.  

“60 dollars will do, including the room we will rent” she told us. “I am not charging him anything extra apart from the taxi and the room rent” she continued. 

Anaconda looked at me and said: “That’s a very good price brother, you in?” to which I replied “Sure, just need to get some cash out first.”

We told the girls to wait and then made our way to the cash machine. I had actually lied, I didn’t need to take money out but I just needed some more time to think through what I was about to do. I felt pretty uncomfortable as it felt like paying for sex. Anaconda reassured me it was not what I thought since I was not actually paying her for the act but just for the renting a room and a taxi, which was a very common thing to do in Havana. Still, the thought of hopping in a taxi with a random girl in a country and place I was not familiar with was still daunting.

After I got some cash out, we went back to the girls and discussed about the plan. The plan was that we went ahead and met 2 corners down the road, and then get a taxi. I would go with one of the girls, and Anaconda with the other one. The reasons we had to go separately was so that the police did not suspect anything. (as it was usual for them to randomly stop people on the street and ask them what they are up to).  

The Right Place with the Wrong People

I and Anaconda started walking just after about meters two police officers stop us. Surprisingly, they’re not asking me any questions but rather Anaconda. There seems to be some problem with his ID and they need to double check it. I can see the two girls walking past us giving us a worried look. Whilst the two police officers are still checking Anaconda’s ID, he comes to me and whispers 

“Gato, go behind that tree, take 5 dollars out, conceal them in your fist and then come back and hand it to me, I need to bribe one of these guys to let me go, otherwise they’ll take me away.’ 

While I’m heading towards the tree and looking for money in my pockets, Black Mamba, who had realised what was happening shows up. 

‘Gato, don’t get involved in this, it’s too dangerous for you, they might take you away too. Give me the five dollars and stay here, don’t intervene’ 

I gave him the fiver and watched him discreetly pass it to Anaconda. Then I saw Anaconda trying to bribe the police officer, who wouldn’t take it. As it seems they were getting into an argument I couldn’t just stay behind the tree and went over as well.  

Black Mamba took me to the side and started talking in English to me.  He gave me probably one of the best street mini-speeches I have ever heard:

‘Let’s talk English, so they don’t understand us. It’s going to be fine, the problem is sorted, no need for the money but listen to me: you are a good guy Gato, but you are making a huge mistake. You are in the right place with the wrong people’ 

‘How so?’ I asked, puzzled   

“You’re a smart guy too, you get it. Listen to me… I am Black Mamba, I only strike once, and when I do, it’s deadly!” He said it to me on a terse tone as he mimicked a cobra attack with his hand. 

“Why do you think they call him Anaconda? Because he will strangle you out of everything, out of your last penny” he continued mimicking the choke of an anaconda with his arms. 

I didn’t really know what to say so I just stared at him while I was processing the info.  

‘ As soon as the police leaves, ask Anaconda for your fiver back. Get your fiver back, Gato!’ Black Mamba told me once more as he walked away. 

I went back to Anaconda which seemed to have solved his issue with the police. There was no need for him to bribe them so he just returned me my fiver.  

‘Now, let’s finish the deal with the girls’ he told me grinning. At that point, I was not really in the mood for taking any more chances so I just told him I changed my mind and that I’d rather do something else with the 60 dollars I would’ve given that girl for sex.  

To my surprise, Anaconda was quite cool about it and his only reply was ‘Fair Enough, let’s just go back to La Rampa and have some Rum then.’  

Once we got back to la Rampa, whilst sitting down and sipping some rum Anaconda turned to me and asked me: ‘Gato, I really want to impress one girl here. Can you give me 50 dollars to buy some chocolate and alcohol? 

I had promised Anaconda I would pay him in exchange for him showing me around so I said sure, I took out a note and gave it to him.

It was about 2 AM and I was still reflecting on my talk with the Cuban grandma (read here) and thinking about Black Mamba’s words..’The Right Place with the Wrong People’ – it did not only seem to describe my situation but rather the situation of the whole country.

Shamalongo kept playing his guitar and one of his favourite songs (Mala Suerte – translated as Bad Luck) while the others savoured their rum and Chocolate Anaconda had just brought back from the shop.

“Si no fuera por mi mala suerte, yo no tendria suerte en esta vida loco”
[If it wasn’t for my bad luck, I would have no luck at all in this crazy life]
– Shamalongo