I was fascinated by the culture and history of Cuba, so I was really looking forward to stepping into its time warp to photograph the vintage cars and motorbikes, drink mojitos in Hemingway’s old haunts and travel around the island enjoying the enchanting rhythm of salsa on every corner.
But when I arrived, Havana Airport looked like any other airport terminal from the inside: polished floors, different levels, toilets, ATMs and deafening announcements.
For my Cuban adventure, I’d taken US$1,000 out of an ATM in Panama; but when I arrived in at the airport, I found there was a surcharge of 10 per cent to sell US dollars, so it was going to cost me a $100 fee to exchange the cash.
I walked around the shops reprimanding myself for not having learned in advance about the surcharge, until I finally decided to avoid it by withdrawing local money out of the airport ATM using my Australian debit card.
However, this meant that for the next two weeks, I would have to keep US$1,000 of cash in my bag until I left the island. No big deal I thought, Cuba isn’t known for its muggings.
I lined up at the taxi rank hoping for a cool vintage car but ended up with a large normal-looking white car. I was so tired I don’t remember much about the drive except for a massive flood-lit mural of Castro on the side of a high rise next a large public square.
Eventually, we arrived in the centre of Havana and the cab pulled up in a poorly-lit back street outside my hostel, an old building made from beige-coloured stone. I paid the driver and after checking in, went straight to the bunk in my dorm, where I lay down and fell into a deep sleep.
Early the next morning, I was woken by the jarring sound of someone ringing a bell on the street outside, while shouting about the wares he was selling. Even though I speak some Spanish, I had no idea what his wares were. It was only later that I discovered he was selling bread. Why wake up everyone just to let them know his bread was baked?
But as I was excited to explore Havana, I jumped out of bed and got dressed. I always try to dress like a local when travelling in unfamiliar countries, so pulled on a Barcelona football shirt and some old jeans. I wanted to mingle with the locals and practise my Spanish.
After breakfast, I wandered through the backstreets, past the National Capitol building and into La Habana Vieja the colonial part of town, where I watched tourists in their branded polo shirts and dress shorts with expensive cameras around their necks coming and going from the five-star hotels.
Further down the street, a well-dressed middle-aged woman with olive-coloured skin and light brown hair was heading in my direction. Her gold earrings and expensive shoes told me she wasn’t a local. She seemed a little lost, and as I passed her, she stopped and asked me in Spanish, ‘Excuse me sir, could you tell me where I might find the Hotel Inglaterra please?’
I replied in my best Spanish, ‘Sure, I just passed it. It’s back that way about 200 meters on the left.’
Noticing my foreign accent, she replied still in Spanish, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry to bother you. I didn’t know you were a foreigner, or I wouldn’t …’
‘No problem,’ I said, ‘where are you from?’
‘From Santiago de Cuba on the other side of the island. And you?’
‘From Australia. I’m heading back past that hotel, so can walk with you if you like,’ I said taking this chance to practise my Spanish with a local.
‘Are you sure it’s not too much bother?’ she asked.
‘Not at all,’ I said, ‘so, what’s your name?’
‘I’m Eva,’ she replied.
‘What brings you to Havana?’ I asked.
‘I’m here to visit my mother in hospital.’
We began walking towards the Hotel Inglaterra and chatted all the way. When we arrived, she searched around the seated area at the front of the café.
‘Who are you looking for?’ I asked.
‘I’m meeting an old friend here, but she hasn’t arrived yet.’
She hesitated and then asked, ‘Maybe you’d like to join me for a coffee until she gets here?’
I was told to be wary when talking to locals in Cuba because many of them try to befriend westerners just to get a free drink or food out of them. Also, many young female students prostitute themselves once a year to help pay their way through college. But at her age, it was unlikely that Eva was in that business, so she was probably after a free coffee, and I figured I could afford to buy her one, so took up her offer.
We chatted away in Spanish for about half an hour before she said, ‘If my friend is not here by now, she’s not coming, either that or I’ve missed her.’
‘Why don’t you call her?’ I asked.
‘Although I have a mobile,’ she laughed, ‘most people in Cuba can’t afford one.’
When I took out my wallet to pay for our drinks, she surprised me by saying, ‘No, I can pay for my own.’
When she opened her purse, I could see plenty of cash inside. This reassured me that she wasn’t a poor local about to rob me.
As we stood up to leave, she asked, ‘So, what do you have planned for the rest of the day?’
‘I was thinking of taking one of those open top tourist buses around the city,’ I said pointing to the one across the street.
‘I’ve never even thought about going on one of those before. It might be fun. You mind if I join you?’ she asked.
‘Sure, it’d be nice to have some company,’ I said.
I had already decided she wasn’t about to rob me, and she clearly wasn’t using me to practice her English, as she couldn’t speak a word of it, so why did she want to hang out with me?
On the back row of the upper deck, we basked in the sunshine and chatted away, as the bus headed along the Malecón, a broad esplanade and seawall that follows the coast out of the city.
When the bus was passing through Marianao, one of Havana’s more affluent beach suburbs, Eva asked me, ‘So, where are you staying?’
‘At a Hostel near Chinatown,’ I replied.
Her jaw dropped, ‘How much are they charging you?
‘Only 15 pesos a night,’ I said.
‘I can’t believe you are paying that much to stay in one of the roughest parts of town!’
‘What other choices do I have for that price?’ I asked.
‘For that kind of money, you could have your own room in a casa particular in a safe area like this one.’
I had read about the concept of a casa particular in my guidebook. These houses have a small white sign hanging by their front door with a blue symbol that looks like an upside-down anchor. By paying a fixed annual tax, they can charge tourists to stay in their spare room and even cook them dinner.
‘Let’s get off at the next stop and I’ll show you,’ Eva suggested.
The streets were lined with jacaranda trees in full blossom, and whenever we came across the blue and white sign, we knocked on the door to see if they had a vacancy. The first four were taken, but the fifth house had a free room upstairs, so we went up to check it out.
‘It’s perfect,’ said Eva, ‘it even has its own entry and a small patio on the garage roof.’
She was right about the price. They were charging the same as I was paying to sleep in a dorm, so I decided to move in. I paid the landlady for five nights in advance, and she gave me a receipt and a set of keys.
‘I’d better get my bags from the hostel and bring them over,’ I told Eva.
‘Look, I have to go and meet my mother soon,’ she replied, ‘but I can help you move if we leave now.’
‘Okay, let’s get back on the tourist bus,’ I said.
‘No, a cab is faster. If you let me do the talking, we won’t have to pay the tourist rate.’
Cuba has dual rates for taxis, cinemas and all other tourist-related products and services, which means that foreigners pay about the same rate as they would back home; whereas, the locals pay about 1/25th of the price.
We walked up to the main street and couldn’t get a taxi so ended up hailing a colectivo. These are old American cars that go along more or less fixed routes in and out of the city picking up and dropping off passengers along the way. Eva flagged down a large yellow Chevrolet, and we squeezed into the back alongside an elderly couple. Apart from an obligatory hola for politeness, I kept quiet for the rest of the journey.
About 15 minutes later, the driver dropped us off downtown, and we only had to pay a dollar. It was a short walk to my hostel, and when we arrived, Eva had to wait outside on the street, while I got my bags because locals are not allowed into tourist establishments.
By the time we arrived back at the casa particular, the sky to the west had filled with purple, red, orange and yellow layers. I unpacked my bags in my room, while Eva called her mother out on the patio.
As an experienced traveller, I always hide my credit cards and cash in different places around my room, so if it is broken into, the thieves won’t get everything. I was really good at this, using not just obvious places like under the mattress but all kinds of nooks and crannies around the room.
When I was done, Eva had just got off the phone and said, ‘I have to go and visit my mother soon, but before I go, let’s have a quick drink to celebrate.’
‘But I don’t have any beer,’ I answered.
‘Don’t worry. I’m sure the landlady has some in her fridge. I’ll go down and ask,’ she said.
Moments later she came back up smiling with two bottles of beer and a bottle opener. I could see both bottles still had their tops on them – I knew to always check for things like this when drinking with strangers.
Eva opened the first bottle, but it sprayed onto the patio floor, so she quickly sidestepped to hold it over the sink, where she opened the other one. She brought them over to the table where I was waiting and handed me one. We clinked our bottles together.
‘Salud,’ we both said in unison, as we clinked our bottles together.
This is Spanish for ‘good health’ but from that moment on, my health was anything but good. After a couple of sips, I began to feel very tired and a bit dizzy.
The next thing I remember was waking up in the morning fully dressed on top of my bed. My first thought was, if I’d had a big night out, why do I still have my jeans on? Every cell of my body was aching, as if I had been poisoned. I then noticed my door was ajar, so I sat up and looked around.
I saw my passport and one of my credit cards on the desk, but something was not right, as I know I wouldn’t have left them there. How much had I drunk last night? I got up and couldn’t find where I had put my laptop, iPad or iPhone. I then looked for the cash and cards that I had so expertly hidden, but they were all missing including the 1,000 US dollars in cash.
I went downstairs and told my landlady that it seemed I had been robbed during the night.
‘Did you see Eva leave last night?’ I asked.
‘Yes, she came down soon after I gave her those two beers. When I asked her where you were, she said you were suffering from jet-lag and were crashed out.’
‘Was she carrying anything?’ I asked.
‘Yes, she had a small grey computer bag slung over her shoulder.’
‘That was my bag,’ I said, realising she had made off with everything.
‘I think we should call the police,’ the landlady said.
Within half an hour, two officers arrived in a small beat-up police car. After my landlady explained to them what had happened, I asked one of them, ‘Do you think Eva drugged me?’
‘For sure,’ he said, ‘she would have used a date-rape drug like Rohypnol. It’s a hypnotic sedative, which would explain why she found all your hidden cards and cash. You would have simply handed them all over to her when she asked you to.’
‘I can’t believe I’ve been roofied!’ I said in English.
‘All your side effects are consistent with a date-rape drug,’ he continued, ‘but instead of her raping and robbing you, looks like she just robbed you and left!’
They checked my room for clues and then asked me to come to the station with them to make a formal statement.
The reception area of the station was a hot and sweaty concrete building with no air conditioning. I spent my time swatting mosquitos while waiting for my turn to be interviewed. Eventually, I was shown into a room that had strong sunlight shining in from a window, which was too high up the wall for me to see out.
It was like a scene from an old detective movie: a sparse room with an old 1920s typewriter on a desk and two creaky old chairs. An officer came in and explained that nobody spoke English, so I would have to make my statement in Spanish. I carefully retold him the facts, while he used two fingers to type them up in such a painfully slow manner.
After we finished, he asked, ‘Do you have any questions for me?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘are you likely to catch her?’
‘We’ll catch her for sure,’ he explained, ‘but it’s not as easy as you think. She’s no doubt part of a criminal gang, so would have given your bag to her minder and received only a fraction of the spoils. Your possessions are probably on the black market by now.’
‘And what will happen to her when you finally catch her?’
‘In Cuba, robbing a tourist is a serious crime, so she’ll be locked up for at least 20 years; and believe me, Cuban jails are not pleasant places.’
‘I’ll keep a look out for her,’ I said, hopeful of spotting her at some point during the rest of my stay.
‘Don’t waste your time,’ he said, ‘she won’t resurface in Havana until she knows you’ve left the country. Why do you think she didn’t steal your passport?’
‘You have cancelled all of your credit cards, haven’t you?’ he asked.
‘Yes, except the one she left me.’
‘Good. And you do have travel insurance, don’t you?’
‘Sure,’ I replied.
‘Okay, you’ll need a copy of this report then,’ he said pulling the sheet of paper and its carbon copy out of the typewriter.
‘I did everything I could not to get robbed. Is there anything I missed?’ I asked.
‘Just one trick,’ he said, ‘when a stranger offers you a drink, you should always ask for the same drink as them, which you did, but then you need to create a distraction and switch the drinks.’
I was grinning as I couldn’t help remembering that scene from the movie, A Princess Bride, when Vizzini switches the goblets of wine to trick Wesley but still ends up drinking the poisoned one.
I was lucky that she had left me with at least one of my credit cards because it meant I could get money out of the bank. At the time, I guessed she had done this so I would leave the country without any problems like the inspector had said.
But several days later, I discovered the real reason: it was because she knew I wouldn’t cancel it. Somehow, she had managed to replicate the card because it had been used in various ATMs around the city to withdraw large amounts of cash from my account until it maxed out!
When I got home, the bank quickly refunded the money taken from my accounts; however, it took nearly a year for the insurance company to carry out all their investigations and finally pay me for my stolen items.
My policy had a $100 limit for stolen cash, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to claim back the US$1,000 I lost, so carrying that around was an expensive mistake.
Oh well, you live and learn – at least I hadn’t been raped and I still have both my kidneys!