Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Havana hustle

All Havana tourists get hustled. It's small stuff, really, but it's relentless. Havana is full of jinateros ("jockeys", literally), who will swindle you with a smile out of a few cucs.

Meandering over the streets of the spread-out Vedado in the waning afternoon, we walked past a group of young, dark-skinned Cuban men playing dominos on a suburban corner. "Hey, Shark!" a soft-spoken one in green called out to Kayo, who was wearing a shark T-shirt. "Hey, Skippy!" another one called to me, pointing to my hat. "You look Australian!"

"I am," I said.

"Heh-hey, kangooroo!" He made the bouncy-bouncy hops towards me with paws curled, baring a soldered bar of gold spanning his top incisors. He looked like Jaws from Roger Moore-era James Bond.

They separated and bamboozled us with polite, friendly and enthusiastic conversation about our home countries. Cubans, starved of quality information, are genuinely eager for news from the outside world. All they get is filtered through the official national media channels which only tells them what the government allows them to know. There is a broad disdain for Cuban newspapers.

"Where are you going now?" said Goldenbite. I told him we are just wandering, having a look at the sea and the Malecón, and that maybe we'll find something to eat. "Heh-hey, I know the best place to eat. Good food, nice views. The price, es muy económico. Is a private restaurant. That building there. Fifteen floors up. Beautiful views!" Maybe, I told him. After the Malecón. I gently extracted myself, but became ensnared with the shark-fishing Green Softie, who was in the middle of telling Kayo about the same restaurant.

"Hey," said Goldenbite to Softie. "You're taking my...." Goldenbite stopped himself, realising he was speaking in English. He rephrased in Spanish, but it was clear what he was saying: you're stealing my mark.

They let us be to scout the Malecón but didn't lose sight of us, and when our thoughts did eventually turn to food the Green Softie was there, besting Goldenbite to guide us to the building with the private restaurant on the fifteenth floor. It was an apartment building, which struck us as odd. We wondered if this was a sign warranting suspicion. Should we enter the lift with this guy? And then we had. He yammered about Canada, about hockey and about dukes. "The dukes, you know? The dukes?"

"The dukes?"

", the dukes. The hockey team, yes? The mighty dukes?"

On the fifteenth floor, it was all apartments. He led us down the dim and windowless hall, opened a door to one of the flats, and lo! There really was a restaurant inside, with brightly festooned walls, a bar and tables and waiters dressed for dinner, diners and music and a balcony with, indeed, fine views of the sea. Before we were seated by the waiter, Softie said to us, "my friends, have a mojito. Sit down and have a mojito. Is okay you buy me a mojito?" So there it was. This harmless jinatero works tourists for mojitos, and perhaps also a small commission from the private restaurant which no tourist would ever know — and prices are in tourist cucs, not Cuban pesos — is there. The prices were not muy económico, but in fact rather caro: over CUC$60 for two of us. Sydney prices. Down on the street you could find a meal for CUC$10, we later discovered.

This is how La Habana is. Everywhere the people are friendly, but everyone is on the make. Constantly, "Hey, my fren, where are you from? Where are you going? I know the best place!"

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