You should know this: Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Jiniteros

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Please note, this is what happened to me and can happen to anyone. So, if you don’t want be in an unpleasant situation, it’s a good idea to be aware….

I don’t think I have ever seen or dealt with so many husslers as in Cuba. Please forgive me for saying this but this is what happened and it’s just a personal perspective I am putting out here. I can’t even count how many male prostitutes hit on me and how trapped I felt when I would start talking or dancing with them.

I took a two-day road trip to Trinidad and Cienfuegos during my last weekend in Cuba. Everything went well in Trinidad. I strolled around old stone streets, went dancing, met a few nice and normal Cuban musicians and ate a bunch of ice cream and pizza from local kiosks.

At the bus stop on the way to Cienfuegos I met two guys from London and we spoke for a couple hours on the bus. They were heading to a different town and we decided to get a beer in a few days. When the bus arrived to Cienfuegos there were a lot of people at the bus stop offering Casas Particulares. I got the cheapest one.

After I got settled and talked to the host family, I decided to take a walk to get to know the city. Since the waterfront is always the most popular place to hangout I headed straight there. It was a Sunday night and the sun was going down beautifully reflecting in the water. Lots of young people were drinking ron and beer, dancing reggateon and talking.

When I turned on a less populated street I noticed that a tall black guy with dreadlocks was walking on the other side of a road at the same speed. He looked like a Tarzan.

– Are you mad at someone? – He asked crossing the street and coming my direction.

– No, why? – I asked. It was an unusual starting line.

– Well, the girls in Cienfuegos don’t walk with such a serious face here. Everyone is relaxed, smiling, laughing. Where are you from?

We started talking and he asked if I wanted to see a little castle at the end of the waterfront. He looked almost exactly like my friend Nick from college and that made me trust him.

– Welcome to my house! – He said. – If this were my house I would through a huge dance party. Do you like to dance?

– I love dancing!- there he had me- Is there a good place to go here? – I am sure he could see the sparkles of excitement in my eyes as I was talking about salsa dancing.

– Of course! You are in Cuba. A beautiful, smart and amazing girl like you has to go dancing tonight. There is a band playing next door. It’s only a dollar to get in do you want to go?

– I’d love to go but I am sorry I am not paying for you. Don’t you have anything better to do then strolling around with me on a Sunday night?

By second week of my stay in Cuba I was so seek and tired of guys who asked me to go dancing with them to a club but the minute we would get there would suddenly have no money and ask if I could pay. I was testing Opel (I think that’s what his name was) in any possible way to see if he was one of “those”.

– No no no. Of course not! Don’t think I am one of those guys who want you to pay for me.

*When the guys say “Don’t think I am one of those, it’s a red flag that they are exactly one of those, and they know exactly who they are*

– If so I would be going around with an old lady. I only earn $15 a month but if I have to spend it all today with a beautiful girl like you and eat rice for the rest of the month I would do it!

– So why aren’t you are dating someone right now? Aren’t there a lot of Cuban girls who would go out with you?

I was interrogating him, trying to get deeper into talking and getting to know him but somehow he would turn the answers around to tell me how wonderful I was and how happy he was to be around me and that it didn’t matter if I were from the Moon or Venus, rich or poor… He was also telling me how he wasn’t like other men in La Havana who try to seduce tourists for money or visa. How he would love it if I could stay longer and go to the beach with him tomorrow … and blab la blab la…

As we were walking, we run into group of Christians that were giving out little brochures about Jesus.

– Do you believe in God? I asked.

– No, why would I believe in God if he is so unfair? He can’t change anything anyway.

I didn’t say a word. He paid the club cover and we entered the discotheque. He was saying hello to a lot of people but didn’t introduce me a single time to any of them. Most of them would give him a quick handshake and an eye blink. Everyone was looking strangely at me. I had a negative feeling but was so trapped into his sweet talking that felt hopeless.

After the first disco he asked if I would want to go to another place. I didn’t feel like it and said I wanted to go home.

– If you want to go home then you don’t like me at all? – he inquired.

– How can I like you I just met you? I haven’t even talked to you that much. – I said surprisingly.

– Why do you think you have to know and talk to a person to like them? Anything is possible.

Well, I didn’t think so. I can’t just go around and kiss all the pretty guys on the planet. Most of them are full of garbage and crap. He was pushing so hard that just to get rid of him I said “Fine”. I went back to my Casa Particular to change my sweaty from dancing dress. My host family was watching their telenovela and I told them that a Cuban guy is waiting for me outside to go dancing.

– Bring him in so we can see him, just in case – they said.

I thought it was wonderful that they cared and I went outside to call Opel in. He looked at me unexpectedly and didn’t seem delighted to go inside the house. After I changed, we took a real horse carriage back to the disco.

We danced reaggaeton till 2 am. He tried to kiss me I can’t even count how many times. When I said I am tired and ready to go, he asked if we could sit for a bit on a bench by the water. He found the darkest place under a palm, took my hand, and started talking a bunch of rubbish flattery into my ear as a drunken older man walked by looking at us.

– Hey man! Long time no see! I just knew it was you by the hair. – he said. What are you doing here? – then he looked at me. – Are you a tourist? – Then he looked expressing regret at Opel. – Oh! Are you working?

He looked Cuban but from his accent I couldn’t tell if he was too intoxicated to talk or from somewhere else.

– Where are you from? – I asked

– I am citizen of the world! I speak four languages and I have known this guy for 15 years. I come to Cuba four times a year.

– Oh nice! – I said. So where do you live? – I asked.

– In Montreal.

– So vous parlez francais? I asked.

– Oui – he replied as if I were insulting him.

– So can I trust this guy? Who is he? – I inquired in French.

– Do you really want to know who this guy is? he asked laughing in French.

Understanding what’s coming, Opel started laughing nervously, trying to hold my hands.

– Why are you guys speaking French? I can’t understand anything. Can we speak Spanish please?

The Canadian was too drunk to care and I was very alert and eager to know about Opel that none of us was paying attention to what he was saying; we had our little French talk.

– Well, if you want to know who he is, we call him Tarzan here. He is a local “jinetero.” I have been coming to Cuba for the past 15 years and that’s what he has been doing. How much do you pay him?

– I am not paying him anything! – I felt insulted, dirty and disrespected.

I felt like a little stupid girl who was taken advantage of. Even thought I didn’t pay for anything I felt like the whole town thought that I was one of those tourists who came to get a local jinetero. Everyone in Cienfuegos knew what he was up to and could totally tell what was going on. I felt aversion and disgust. How stupid it was to get trapped into the whole thing.

Opel got up and started yelling at the Canadian guy.

– What are you talking about? That was in the past. It’s not the same anymore. And you…. How many years have you been coming here to pay to 15 y.o. girls?

Then he turned to me, took my hand and said in a softer voice:

– Look, we had so much fun dancing, I paid for everything, and now you want to go with this guy? Lets take a taxi and go home.

– I am not going with this guy anywhere but I am not taking a taxi home with you either.

– Someone right there is looking right now and saying it’s not right what you are doing. – He pointed on to the sky referring to God he didn’t believe in.

All I wanted to do at that moment was to go home. I wasn’t sure whom to trust anymore. Good thing I felt safe on the street as there were many people passing by.

– You have two options. – proposed the Canadian. – You are either taking a taxi or a car with the family I came with. I will make sure to get you home.

I took a car with him and his family which was anothe stupid idea and when I got home all I was thinking about was “why did I talk to that guy?” What was the purpose of all that evening? Thanks God nothing happened but I definitely learned not to go with strangers like that anymore. It was the first time I spent the evening with a prostitute and left without paying…

The next day somehow Opel found me in the city while I was visiting the town.

– I just wanted to apologize for what happened last night. – He said. My friend has been coming to Cuba for a long time but it’s all in the past. Can we sit down and talk?

– Do me a favor, leave me alone. – I could not believe he had the guts to talk to me again.

I was so frustrated with his persistence and lies that it was all I could say. I turned around and went the opposite direction. Hopefully, I am never going to run into him again. But if you are in Cienfuegos, watch out for Tarzans running around after you.

Cunan Money and Prices

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CUBAN MONEY:

I can’t use my US Debit Card here so I had to bring a big stuck of $20. To exchange dollars there are two options. Love options!!!! One is CUC and the other is National Currency or pesos.

0.8 CUC ≈ $1 (it’s about 1:1 but you get charged additional 10% as the imbargo penalty)

25 Pesos Cubanos ≈ 1 CUC

So after changing 60 CUC I got a huge pack of Pesos. It’s so confusing that I had also to get another wallet.

You can exchange money at the airport or at the bus terminal. The bus terminal gives you a better rate.

You have to get some money to get from the airport to the city, so exchange a little bit. The asking price from the airport to Vedado is about 30 CUC. However, you can negotiate and get it for cheaper. I paid 17 CUC on the way from Vedado to the airport when I was leaving Cuba. I got good at bargaining.

SHOPPING:

When you go to a store or a restaurant you have to ask whether they charge in CUC or pesos. After a few days I could tell based on the place. As a rule of thumb, poor looking places, old Chevy taxis, buses and all you buy on the street would charge in pesos. Better, tourist looking places, and yellow-plate taxis charge in CUC.

There is a little place on 23rd and C in Vedado where next to each other there are two bakeries. One charges in CUC and another in pesos. To save money I have been going to the one in pesos where a loaf costs ¢12. Sometime there is bread and delicious yellow pastries, sometimes there is bread, and sometimes there is nothing left.

By the University of Havana, walking through tiny streets there are a bunch of little kiosks where we had been getting ¢12 ice cream and ¢20 sandwiches after classes. Going farther from the popular places there are also a bunch of places that charge in pesos where for two beers and two pizzas Dania and I paid $4. In front of Capitolio all the places are in national pesos as well.

You can eat cheaply but you have to know where and be quick as those places run out of food quick.

CUBAN PRICES:

The first day when I arrived to Cuba we had a very nice lunch with a non-alcoholic drink and a desert at RIVIERA and paid about 7 CUC for both. The worst thing is that even if a place charges in pesos they can charge foreigners in CUCs.

For a festival of Trumbao I went to get concert tickets that were 25 pesos for nationals. Dania asked first but when I went to get the tickets, a salesman asked me 10 CUCs which is about $11. I turned around and walked away. It really sucks! “I can bring 20 Cubans along and pay as much as I would pay by myself.” Dania had to go back and get the tickets.

Why we travel and how we travel – Cuba

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The first day of classes at Havana University I met a French guy Fabian walking down the stairs from the University. I said I spoke French (not sure if I should have since I don’t really speak it that much anymore). We started talking, ended up getting a sandwich for ¢75, strolling along random streets, and buying bananas on the market.

It was funny to know that he also had a blog and carried a little notebook along. His blog was “Where Is Fabian” and mine is “Where is Marina.” I guess I wasn’t that original when I thought of the name. Be creative when you get one.

He also took two years off because didn’t want to get into a routine, was traveling by himself, and thought that traveling solo forces you to do things you don’t normally do in la vie cotidienne.

When in the afternoon we met up with his Canadian friend Stephanie and went to get cheap pizza and ice cream, we realized we totally did our homework and read “lonely planet.” All of us carried passport and money in a money belt very well hidden underneath a T-Shirt, we all were totally cheap butts and enjoyed the pizza for ¢50 much more than dinners for $6. All of us carried notebooks, wrote things down, and packed out stuff into inflatable space bags.

Getting Trapped

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Today after classes I was invited by the French guy Fabian and Canadian girl Stephanie to join them at this Cuban guy’s house to make food and then to go dancing. “How did you meet him?” I asked. “Walking on the street.” They said. Well, I truly believe that Cubans are really nice people but that “met him on the street and he became my best friend” doesn’t really give me too much confidence.

The guy’s house was in Havana Vieja. When I arrived and knocked on the door, a tall Cuban with golden teeth opened a tiny barely painted brown door. “Felipe?” I asked. Oh yes yes! Come in. He dragged me into the room with three more men and locked that little brown door behind my back. “Oh Dios! I thought. I am trapped.”

He took me inside, asked if I wanted a cup of coffee, and finally said that my friend was sleeping upstairs because he had a terrible tooth ache. “Thanks goodness.” I thought. A few minutes later Fabian came downstairs and Stephanie walked in with chocolate pastries for Cubans.

Felipe was trying to convince us to go get food in a supermarket and eat at home and then go dancing. He was explaining that that was the cheapest way to eat and that we can all eat “the best homemade Cuban food” together with his family.

We decided we just wanted to go to a bar to have a drink and then go dancing. Felipe ordered a mojito for everyone… then another one. When I wanted to give money to the band that was playing he took my money and said he will give it to them so they can play more. Then he was trying to convince us again to get food and go back to his house to cook…. Then he tried to convince Fabian to move-in with him and me to take salsa classes from him. When the bill came we of course covered two of his mojitos.

Since all of us but Felipe spoke French we decided we are not going dancing with him. Fabian pretended he had a terrible toothache and needed to go home. As good friends we accompanied him to the corner and then to get a ¢20 pizza and ¢10 ice cream. We finished by going to Casa de La Musica to dance to Manolito Simonet y Su Trabuco vivo. AZUCAR!

It makes my heart ache when I see how desperate some Cubans are but at the same time it is frustrating how badly they are trying to take an advantage of tourists. It becomes a norm that foreigners have money and pay for everything. It’s annoying how many of them get really interested when I say that I live in the Stated and very turned off when I say I am from Ukraine. However, if you are from “afuera” you gotta have a big pocket.

I am not generalizing and saying that all are that way. I was very lucky with Dania who you can totally tell was helping me out from the bottom of her heart. However, most of those guys hunting for you on the streets are not that into helping you as a person as to get your money in any possible way or “sacar” like it’s said here.

La Havana

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There are two biggest challenges that really make me get out of my comfort zone: buying and riding. It involves taking to locals. On my second day of living in Havana, I took a public transportation and bought a loaf of bread in a National Cuban Bakery! ATACA!!!!

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION 

It’s the most challenging system in Central and Latin America. There are rarely schedules or exact routes. YOU JUST HAVE TO ASK. In Cuba, the buses are overloaded with crowds and you have to ask where they go. The best way is to take one of those old Chevrolets for 10 pesos.

I just love it! When I climb one of those I feel like back in the days when we had old cars. I am not sure how the old Chevys are still functioning. Sometimes they would miss the full from part of the “navigation” system, windows, glasses, or the door would only open from the outside.

The regular buses look like trolleybuses from USSR. It’s only 40 cents (pesos) and is thrown into a little box upon entering into the bus. I almost gave the fare to the bus driver and he almost put it in his pocket.

BUYING FOOD 

Right by our house we have two bakeries. One charges in CUCs and another in National Pesos. I went to the one that charges in National Pesos to get a loaf of bread. It cost me less than ¢20 but it was a challenge to get the attention of the sales person. The markets are the most delicious and cheapest places to shop.

Here I have tried the sweetest and most exotic fruits ever! How sweet that all of them have tons of sugar!

LANGUAGE 

I gotta say that Cuban accent is hard to understand. They don’t day “S” and exhale where there is supposed to be “S.” The first two days after listening to Cubans talking my throat was hurting as I tried to speak alike.

Words to watch for:

fruta de bomba – papaya *(Don’t say papaya in Habana. )

guagua or omnibus – bus (Cojer la wawa and not Agarrar un bus)

majina – old Chevy taxi that charges in national currency 10-30 pesos.

pesos – could be national currency or CUC. (you have to know or ask).

perro – hot dog

Single Female Traveler in Cuba

The attention is good but over-attention is annoying  When I was accompanied by Dania, the lady I stayed with for three weeks in Cuba, everyone thought I was her daughter.  I wasn’t getting abnormal attention from men. As soon as I would walk sola, here they would come.

I wanted to buy tickets to a Music Fest. As soon as I walked to the ticket office, an “obviously interested” guy with a little girl started telling me a bunch of “piropas.” (You can only imagine what they were). Since I had neither a phone number nor an e-mail I can check in Cuba, he ripped off a piece of his organizer and gave me his number “to get a drink one day.” I am sure I would be paying for both of those.

In one day…. I walked to the Universidad de La Habana to get the info about Spanish classes. On the way, a random guy “Had a quick question,” another one asked if I “need a Cuban boyfriend,” a few thought I was “Beautiful,” another walked with me for a few blocks talking about Cuba (which was very nice), and the last one just before I turned into my street asked what I was doing in Cuba and finished with “muy linda.” 

Strolling by the waterfront a guy took my hand and with a thick accent and passionate eyes said: “Good afternoon.” Then, walking on a street I accidentally made an eye contact with a guy who was walking with a lady. The lady didn’t stop him. He whistled at me and said a few things.
BEING A GIRL:

Being a girl complicates a lot of things while traveling. Not too many local girls are interested in making foreign friends and you can only imagine what the local guys are interested in. I proudly tell all the people I meet that I am from Ukraine but I can only picture how many guys would be “very very interested” if I said I lived in the States. With all these experiences I really have to filter everything. It, however, also builds a thick wall in making friends. In reality, I would LOVE to get a drink with that guy and chat but the way he approached me, makes me think twice.

BEING FOREIGN

I always try to “fit in” when in a foreign country. I don’t wear white P1020052tennis shoes or khaki African safari outfits, don’t carry large backpacks or walk in the city with a map or camera. But how do you do it when miles away people can tell “extrangera.”

At a percussion festival Cubans paid $9 less than foreigners. Dania ended up buying tickets as the tickets guy wanted to charge me more. The first time I went with Dania I got in with no problem.

When I had to go by myself I was a bit concerned because Dania always says I “look like a foreigner four blocks away.” She even found me glasses to “look more Cuban.” We had fun dressing up but when I got to the front door the guy who checked tickets made me buy a ticket for foreigners. I decided to go home as I didn’t even know who was playing.

Sometimes I feel I get tired of always being out of place and in a foreign country. It has been 6 years and sometimes I feel like I am ready to go back home…

SPEAKING ENGLISH TO FOREIGNERS:

Why do P1010385all people assume that all foreigners speak English? Every time I walk on a street, everyone tries to yell at me in English. When the rest of the world was learning English, Cubans were studying Russian. So how about Russian por favor?

Cuba – First Impression

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There is much more to say about Cuba than old cars, cigars, salsa, Che, Fidel, Raul and socialism.

It’s not all that scary, oppressed, and poor as some media, blogs, and tourists make it sound. It is very save and I could actually walk on the streets in the middle of the night. I don’t have to lock three doors and hide the keys in my bra like I did it in Costa Rica.

It all reminded me of Ukraine: apartments, old architecture, theatres, Lada cars, white chock walls, collection of empty perfume bottles, gas stoves, and water on schedule. Instead of “Coca-Cola,” “Samsung,” “AT&T” you can see “Socialism Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” “Live Fidel,” and “Revolution.” Kids wear uniforms with little red scarves just like my parents did in Soviet Union. People wash bags from milk and reuse them. There are never light bulbs in building. And everyone is either very passionate about the Revolution or hates it quietly.

THOUGHTS ABOUT CUBA:

Safety. What did a Soviet Union Russian have that the other Russian didn’t? All had the same furniture, shoes, and dishes. It might not be the same case in Cuba but it feels like P1010414the absence of unhealthy capitalistic competition promotes a safer environment. Economic crisis hit the capitalist countries with unemployment, more human competition, more poverty and as a result more crime. Since socialist countries are cooking their own world nothing has changed here. It’s not to say that there are no thefts here but it’s to say that they are present less than in other countries as of today

Water. In capitalistic countries we are very concerned about environment and try to save water. In Cuba, if you over consume water, you are screwed because the next time you have it is at 6pm. And, who knows if you will.

Plastic. In the USA the stores pays you ¢5 when you bring your bags, in Cuba you pay to get one. The newspapers are used as garbage bags and dirty water to flash toilets. So who is helping the environment?