“How long have you been in Cuba?” the young man asked.
“Oh, about, uh, five hours,” I replied, wondering if I should be telling him this, exposing my vulnerability as a complete Cuba newbie.
“WOW, only five hours!” he exclaimed, “then you should come for a drink with me!”
His name was Liuvin and he’d stopped me on the street as I was on my way back to my hostel for the night. He had dark skin and braided hair pulled up on the top of his head, a bright white smile and friendly eyes. His English was at best, elementary. And yes, I went for a drink with him.
At the café he ordered, my Spanish being not so great, and I ended up with a Heineken. Ok, so I’d said local beer would be better and I could see from the menu that it was cheaper, but to be fair they might have been out of it as it seemed that everyone else who was drinking beer also had Heineken. He had a Tukola (the local brand of cola). We chatted in broken Spanish and broken English, listened to the great band that was playing, danced a little bit, and he even got them to dedicate a song to me! How sweet.
He was friendly and fun, but conversation was hard work and I’d had a very early morning that day. I was tired. When I said it was time to go, he said ok, it’s CUC$3.10. There was no offer to pay, just an expectation that I would. I did, because that’s really not very much money and I’d had a good time.
He then wanted me to go for a walk, and after again declaring my fatigue I agreed to a short one. On the way he stopped at a little store and ordered two more beers, to which I said that I didn’t want one. He insisted, I protested, he insisted some more, but I said I really didn’t want it.
He gave one back, ordered another drink in a carton, and told me it was CUC$1.35. I paid, even though I was confused and not entirely sure what I was paying for since I wasn’t having a beer. He then handed me the beer.
Hadn’t I said, quite insistently, that I didn’t want it?
Please, please, he says, I want you to have a beer.
At this point it would not have been a big deal for me to just drink the beer, but I couldn’t just give in. I had to stand my ground. He hadn’t asked me if I wanted it in the first place, and I was not about to have this strange man deciding for me, forcing beer on me when I’d clearly said I didn’t want it, no matter how nice he’d been up until now.
He finally returned the other drink he’d ordered and pocketed the money, taking the beer for himself.
Against my own personal rules I let him walk be back to my hostel, more because I couldn’t get rid of him than anything else. And besides, aside from the beer incident, he’d been a perfect gentleman.
He wanted to make plans with me for the following evening, and my commitment-phobe brain started panicking. What if something came up? What if I met some people or became occupied with something and didn’t want to leave where I was? What if I just changed my mind?
He came up with an idea to go to Fábrica de Arte Cubano, see some art and music, and then go dancing, and we would get a car to go there. A taxi? I asked. No, no, a car. His car? No, another car. I was getting confused. Why did we need a car? Did I want to get into a car with this guy? And most importantly, who exactly was going to pay for this car? Surely not him. But he was insistent, and I had neither the language skills nor the energy to clarify or to make him understand my reluctance. I agreed to go.
The following night arrived, and I didn’t want to go. I’d been somewhat educated on such encounters by people I’d met that day. They had applauded me for my interaction with Liuvin the previous evening, because they said they usually didn’t trust the men who approached them in the street and would normally just brush them off with a quick ‘No, gracias’. However, I’d also been warned that any Cubans I met would be looking to spend my money, or to have me give them money.
Thus I was worried about what had happened: his expectation that I would pay for everything without even a discussion or an offer to pay his share. Add to that his insistence the previous night that I drink the beer, which had indicated a sort of dominance that might be normal in Cuban culture but didn’t sit at all well with me. Not to mention going to an unknown destination in a car with a man I didn’t really know.
Combine all of this with the fact that I had failed to get any actual cash that day after the ATM ate my card, and it was a no go. I couldn’t have paid for both of us even if I’d wanted to. Thus I left my hostel around 7:30 for dinner, and stayed out until well past the time he would have arrived to pick me up. It was the first time in my life I’d ever actually stood someone up.
When I arrived back at the hostel that night, one of the workers told me that my friend had arrived to get me while I was out, and I said yes, I know, but that’s ok. He gave me a knowing smile.
The next morning as I was having breakfast I got a phone call. Liuvin was on the phone, and while he couldn’t get across in English what he was trying to say, of course I knew why he was calling. He put his friend on, who spoke some English, and the conversation went something like this:
Him: Yesterday night, 8:00, Liuvin at hostel, you no there.
Me: Yes, that’s right.
Him: TELL ME WHY. (quite forcefully!)
Me: Whoa. I didn’t want to, and I don’t have money to pay for everything for him. You can tell him that.
Him: Oh. Ok.
And that was the last I heard from Liuvin.
So did I do the right thing? I felt guilty about it for a long time. I mean, maybe he really was just a nice guy who thought he’d made a new friend. And I really want to give people the benefit of the doubt. Why did I have to be so suspicious of his motives? But then I met others who had gone out with locals and been charged ridiculous amounts for just a few drinks. Most people I told about it agreed that I made the right decision by not going.
I’ll never know for sure, but I can’t help thinking it was probably a set-up, that I definitely would have been the one to pay for the car, that I would have been expected to pay for everything. That the small amounts I paid on that first night were to put me at ease, to make me trust him, and that the second night would have been a giant slam to my wallet. Is that incredibly cynical of me to think that?
The thing is, Liuvin was nice that first night. And despite being tired, I did have a good time. It was actually a great introduction to Cuba, got me excited about seeing the rest of the country, and left me with a smile on my face.
But it was also the start of my complete mistrust of any Cuban man who ever came to talk to me.
I’m just getting started. Soon to follow is Part 2 of my Harassment in Cuba series, with several worse stories than this! Do you have any similar stories? Leave them in the comments!