While I waited in the departure hall of the Jose Marti International airport in Havana, Cuba, I saw a group of irate elderly tourists jostling with airport staff over a suitcase quantity of confiscated rum. “They promised we could take it onboard,” they screamed, as their gentle pink complexions turned aggressive red. They had clearly fallen prey to the tricks of an enterprising and dishonest local vendor who had convinced them that airplane liquid regulations on Cuban airlines did not apply to Cuba’s national beverage. I tut-tutted at them and wrapped myself in the conceit that I would never fall for something like that because I was younger and more worldly. And then I remembered what had happened a few days earlier, and I checked my youthful privilege.
In April, I went to Cuba with my partner for a week. Cuba was awesome, lively, and we both were very keen to connect with the local culture in some authentic (and pretentious) manner, thus we were the perfect bait.
On our second night in Havana we were sitting in a public square planning our next move when the guy next to us said hello. Guillermo was with his mother, Eva, and he was outgoing and easy to talk to as we spoke about culture, art and Cuba’s relationship with the U.S. As an English teacher he could have comfortably communicated in English, but he boosted our egos by happily conversing with us in our subpar Spanish, pausing every so often to ask — “Should I say it in English or Spanish? I think Spanish is ok for you.” It really wasn’t, and it was harder to understand some of his more technical points about trade embargos, but, hey, if you say so Guillermo, español it is.
Then, he provided the piece of information that truly sucked us in.
“Do you know what day it is today?” he asked. He told us it was Che Guevara’s birthday and that there would be a celebration, with fireworks in the sky, at midnight.
This came as a complete shock to us. We were offline for most of our time in Cuba and had no idea it was his birthday. Even though, when I was at university, I despised the students who wore Che Guevara t-shirts, any leftie who travels to Cuba can’t help but feel some adoration towards him. I felt extremely lucky and more than a little deserving, given how much of an authentic tourist I strived to be, that our trip coincided with the great man’s birthday.
Guillermo was a deep thinker, and our conversation ranged from the party scene in Havana to the fundamental reasons Cuba was struggling economically. However, I was still on holiday and after listening for 25 minutes about the exploitation of Cuba, I had become a little bored and wanted to bring in the fireworks with an alcoholic beverage. I did feel a bit nervous bringing this up with the erudite Guillermo and worried he might find me shallow.
But, I needn’t have worried as Guillermo, while he bore down deep into our geopolitical discussion, also knew the importance of providing drinking options to a dude on holiday and took us to a local bar just down the street. On the way there, we passed some young, trendy Havanans who pressed a flier into our hands for a dance party. They had done a great job with the flier design and it looked like an awesome event. Fortunately, Guillermo was there to protect us from those who would lead us astray. He said that their party was really fake, that it was filled with drunk people and devoid of meaning, and he led us away from that dubious source of fun.
He took us to a tiny, hole-in-the-wall bar with a lot of spirit. It was exactly the type of place that Che would drink in — (Probably, I don’t know if he liked bars.) Guillermo ordered us a ‘special’ drink that tasted a lot like the mojitos we had been drinking all over town.
He asked us about our travel plans, and we told him we were spending time in Havana and the town of Viñales. He then went on an epic lecture on the parts of Cuba we had to see, jotting down his suggestions on several napkins. He got very passionate why the Plaza de las Armas was a cultural treasure and must-see. I missed some of what he said as I had already started proudly imagining how I would tell friends back home about my so-authentic experience meeting the amazing Guillermo.
As midnight got closer, I wanted to get a bit more clarity on where we were going to see the fireworks. Guillermo was distracted writing his Lonely Planet Cuba chapter so, to get the ball rolling, I went up and paid for our drinks — two rounds — and got presented with a bill for 75 Convertible Cuban pesos.
It seemed like a lot. After doing a quick conversion into USD — 1 Convertible Cuban peso is 1 USD, so $75 – I realized that they were scamming us.
It had never even crossed my mind that there was something fishy going on. With the barstaff I negotiated my scam price down to $55, still exorbitant, but they didn’t threaten any violence and they deserved an inflated price for their successful deception of me for over an hour.
I returned to our table to let my partner know what was going on, but Guillermo overheard us and figured out his cover was blown. The mood changed quickly. Figuring out you’re being scammed is one of the rudest things you can do to a scammer, and Guillermo ushered us out of the bar and started haranguing us over the cash for some cigars he had forced upon us earlier. Deep, thoughtful Guillermo was gone, and it had become all about money. I paid for the probably-fake cigars and Guillermo tried one last time to secure some additional cash by pointing to his mother’s/business partner’s breasts saying he needed milk “para los niños”. No context was given as to who these children were — siblings, unrelated street urchins — nor as to why Maria’s bosomy chest was unable to produce milk itself.
I tried to muster up a Spanish insult but nothing fluent came out and Guillermo turned and left. We started walking back to our guesthouse and went a few silent blocks when I noticed it was 11:59, I stopped and looked towards the sky hoping to take in the spectacle of the fireworks.
Nothing. Of course, another lie. Even after realizing we were scammed, we still held out hope that Guillermo had some honor and hadn’t lied about Che’s birthday, but I suppose nothing is sacred anymore is it?
During our debrief the next day, we tried to wrap our heads around how we had fallen for that scam. Weren’t we smarter than that? No, clearly not. We had so desperately hoped for a special experience with a local that we let ourselves get sucked along by the promise that it just happened to be Che’s birthday during the one week we were in Havana.
For the record, I bear no ill will towards Guillermo and wish him the best in his future scamming endeavors, especially on June 6 — Che’s actual birthday — as on this day he’s not lying about absolutely everything.