”Hey, hey!” I heard the man’s voice say from behind me, quite close this time. I realized that he was close enough that I could no longer pretend I didn’t hear him.
I turned, and he caught up with me, asking my name and where I’m from, wanting to talk. And as he did, I realized.
This was the same man I’d seen waving at me in the park, at least half a kilometre away.
I’d ignored him at the time, having only stopped in the waterfront park for the sunset and really not wanting to get into conversation with a yet another strange man who wanted sex or money. I didn’t give him another thought as I left the park, hurrying up the road towards the bus station so I could buy a ticket.
So when I heard the voice behind me as I was walking, I just ignored it, pretending I couldn’t hear him. But when I realized that this was the same man, who must have followed me from the park, I had to wonder.
Was it coincidence? Was he going that way anyway and saw me and decided to talk to me? I have my doubts about this, based mainly on the fact that when I told him I was in a hurry and didn’t want to talk, he turned and went back the way he’d come. So yeah, he’d followed me. Creepy.
In Camaguey a man named Jollo started talking to me, asking me about myself and telling me in a very hard-to-understand accent about all kinds of places I should go. This in itself was fine, but when I saw him AGAIN a couple of hours later he came up from behind me, said a lot of things again very quickly and when I didn’t really offer much in response (mostly because I was trying to interpret what he’d said) he turned and went back the way he came. So had he been following me? It seemed like it, because why else would he come up to me and then go back in the same direction?
Another time I was stopped in the street by a man when I’d simply stopped to look at a street sign. It was getting late and I was on my way back to my casa, and had paused for a moment to squint at the sign to see if it was the right street. My hesitation caused a nearby man to rush up to me.
Him: “Can I help you? What do you need?”
Great, right? Helpful locals are what we want when we travel. But it went on and on.
Me: “Nothing, I’m fine, thanks,”
Him: “Do you want a casa? You need a place to sleep?”
Me: “No, I’m ok thank you,” still trying to be polite while squinting at the sign.
Him: “You want a restaurant? I know good restaurant.”
Me: “Nope, I’m really ok. I just stopped to look at the sign,” pointing to the sign in question.
Him: “You want to go dancing? You like salsa? I know good place for salsa.”
Me: “No, thank you, I don’t want anything,” having by now determined that yes, this was the right street.
Him: “But I think you like salsa. Maybe later you go dancing?”
Me: “No, I’m tired. I only stopped to look at the sign. “
Him: “Ok, you want to go dancing, I know a place. Later. My name is Marco. You find me here.”
Me: “Ok, but probably not.”
Him: “But what do you need? What can I help you with?”
Me: “No REALLY. I ACTUALLY don’t need anything. I just couldn’t see the sign.”
Him: “You want something? I can help! How can I help you?”
Me: “No, REALLY. Just the sign. And now I’ve seen it, so I’m going this way.”
And that’s how it is. It all seems really friendly and helpful, but it’s friendly and helpful on steroids, because by ‘helping’ me, they’ll get a commission – from a casa, a restaurant, a salsa club, or maybe they’ll be my ‘friend’ and I’ll buy them drinks, and the drinks will be overpriced and they’ll get a kickback as well. I’m a walking ATM, if they can just convince me that I need something. And they’re everywhere in the main squares and streets. Everywhere.
In Baracoa I didn’t feel like the harassment was quite so bad, but a friend I met thought it was worse than anywhere else. Maybe I’d just started to get used to it?
One day I walked all the way down the beach to Parque Natural Majayara, where I visited Cueva de Aguas, a cave with a beautiful pool inside. To get there I had to wait for the property owner to escort me there, and he did, showing me coffee and cacao, passion fruit and lime trees along the way. We got to the cave and it was small but the water was so crystal clear it didn’t even look like water, and we spent 15 minutes or so swimming and exploring, climbing over rocks into smaller chambers with the help of his flashlight.
Just before I was ready to leave I climbed out and got my camera, taking a few photos of the pool itself, and he insisted on us taking a photo together. I then handed the camera to him before scrambling back down to the water to get a couple of pictures of me in it. As I clambered out again, he said to wait, that wanted to take a picture of me, and promptly aimed the camera straight at my boobs, right up close.
The thing is, I really don’t need a picture of my own boobs. I was immediately uncomfortable, as it seemed like he just wanted an excuse to look. I backed away quickly, telling him no thanks. He hesitated for a moment but then insisted on taking a picture despite me saying I didn’t need it. ‘Bikini, very nice, no problem, bikini…,’ gesturing towards me. Ick.
I had been very relaxed, having a good time, but with this new development the realization suddenly hit me that I was in this cave alone, in a bikini, with this strange man. Whoa. I put the camera away without even looking at the picture he took and quickly put my shorts and t-shirt back on. By now I just wanted to be away from him even though I didn’t think he’d actually do anything.
But why did this have to happen? We’d both been enjoying ourselves. His wife was waiting for us back at their house. Why did he have to ruin this experience for me by suddenly turning creepy?
Immediately after this I stopped at Playa Blanca, which had been touted as a very beautiful little beach. It was, I guess, with lovely soft sand, but the shoreline was mostly covered in jagged rocks with only one small opening to go into the ocean. There were several Cuban men hanging around, including two in the water, as well as a couple of other foreign girls. As much as I might have liked to swim, after my uncomfortable experience with the man in the cave I simply didn’t feel like getting undressed so the men could all ogle me. And then go in the tiny bit of water available with the two men there? No thanks.
Another night in Baracoa I was walking to a restaurant on the waterfront for dinner, and happened to be walking on the edge of the road due to the uneven sidewalk. A car pulled up behind me in the dark, honking like a banshee, and thinking I must be in the way of it parking, I stepped up onto the sidewalk.
The car (actually a taxi) pulled up and kept pace next to me, the driver talking to me through the open window. I continued walking, throwing him a ‘no gracias’ and trying to ignore him. He finally pulled away, but as he did a man who’d been walking with a couple of girls across the street called out to me, asking if the driver had been bothering me.
Well, yes, he had, so the man ran up to the taxi, stopped it, and knocked on the window. The driver got out. All I could think was ‘Oh my god there’s going to be a fight and it’s all because of me’ – never mind that I had done absolutely nothing to cause it.
I could hear the man who’d come to my defense yelling at the driver, and I heard the word ‘sola’, (alone) and mujere (woman). I hurried on to the restaurant, not actually wanting to be involved.
When the man turned up in the restaurant a few moments later I asked him what he had said to the taxi driver, but he’d just given him shit for bothering me. I replied that I was used to it, but thanks for looking out for me. They pointed out that the honking was pretty over the top. And they were right, but it was amazing to me just how complacent I was getting about all of it! Just another day in Cuba. At least there was no fight.
So have I convinced you to go to Cuba yet? I know this, combined with Harassment in Cuba, Part One and Harassment in Cuba, Part Two, might have turned you off. I didn’t mean for this series to be a complete downer; Cuba isn’t all bad, as you’ll see in some of my future posts about it. I actually met some really wonderful people there too!
But how do you avoid the harassment in Cuba? Well, first of all, be male. Yup, a lot of what happened was because I’m female. I have repeatedly heard from men who traveled solo in Cuba and loved it. Unfortunately not all of us actually want to change genders, so there’s not much you can do about this!
I also met women who traveled in couples and had very few of these types of experiences, and in fact would sometimes look at me like I was crazy when I told them about it. So ladies, as much as I like to promote solo travel, if you want to avoid all this, take a man with you. You’ll be seen as ‘taken’ and for the most part, left alone.
Unfortunately, two women traveling together will probably still encounter a fair amount of harassment in Cuba, but at least you have someone to laugh about it with, and to calm you down when it all gets to be too much.
So don’t let the harassment stop you from going! Just grab a guy, or mentally prepare yourself for it, and you’ll be ok. It’s physically harmless, you just need a thick skin, and a strong bullshit detector. Protect yourself, and protect your wallet, (both literally and figuratively) and you can still have a good time in Cuba!
That concludes my ‘Harassment in Cuba’ series, although there may be some bonus material coming in my upcoming post about dancing!