The thing is, Cuba was full of stories like this for me. Sometimes it was the ‘normal’ harmless but extremely annoying sexual harassment – walking down the street and having men blatantly stare at me, looking me up and down, making comments such as ‘Muy bonita’ (very pretty), or ‘Oh beautiful lady’ or ‘I love you’ or ‘Quienes novio?’ (Do you want a boyfriend?).
It was a murmured invitation from a doorway I was passing, from a group of men playing dominoes, or from a car going by on the street. It was men making kisses at me, or even taking a picture of me without asking.
Other times it was more serious. In Camaguey I went into a café, and a man at a nearby table casually said hi to me. I vaguely responded, immediately looking away. A few minutes later a female friend walked in and joined me at my table. We started talking, and before too long the man came up to our table and said ‘I want to talk to you.’
My friend had obviously dealt with lots of harassment already, and responded with a “Well, we don’t want to talk to you.”
His reply? “No, not you. Just her.”, indicating me.
I hadn’t even been looking at him, and at this point I looked up as my friend spoke for me, with a firm “Well SHE doesn’t want to talk to you.”
And again, he said “I’m not talking to you, only HER.”
Who did this guy think he was? Did he really think I was going to ditch my friend (who he’d just been very rude to) just so I could go talk to him?
Now it was my turn. “No, I really don’t want to talk to you.”
Him: “Why not?”
Me: “Well I’m trying to talk to my friend right now.”
Him: “But I want to talk to you.”
Me: “Well, like I just said, I’m busy talking to my friend.” How clear do I have to make it?
Him: “Well, ok then, maybe later.”
Me: “No, probably not”
Him: “What? How can you say probably not? You don’t know about later. Probably yes.”
This persistence, his arrogance, this sense that he was entitled to talk to me, was what got to me. I couldn’t simply say no, he would not accept that perhaps I really just didn’t want to talk to him, especially after he’d been so rude to my friend. Didn’t he know that to get to a girl you have to at least be nice to her friends?
On another occasion I was sitting in a plaza in Santiago de Cuba, having just connected to the internet to use my last half hour on my wifi card. A man sat down on the next bench over and started talking to me. I ignored him, staring intently at my phone, pretending I hadn’t heard him. He persisted, and finally after a few minutes I decided I’d better acknowledge him so I looked up in innocent surprise, “Oh, sorry, were you talking to me?”
He started asking my name and where I was from, so I politely told him that I was busy, that I had just connected to the internet and was trying to send an email to a friend. I looked back down at my phone. He kept talking.
I again said that this was not a good time to talk.
Him: “What, you come all the way to Cuba and you don’t want to talk to Cuban people?”
Me: “Whoa. What? I didn’t say that. I said your timing was bad.”
Him: “Ok, then, when you’re done.”
Me: “Right. Well I might be a while here,” of course, by now thinking that I didn’t like this guy much and probably didn’t want to talk to him anyway.
Ok. So I wrote my email to my friend, checked on a few other things, and generally used up my half hour of internet like I’d planned to. He left after about 20 minutes. I guess he didn’t want to talk to me that badly, but why the attitude?
If I could have used the internet in the privacy of my casa, I would have, but the only place I could connect was in the square, and it would have been nice if I could have done it without that kind of harassment. Again, it was the arrogance and sense of entitlement that bothered me more than anything. Why should I drop whatever I’m doing just because he wants to talk to me?
But the man in the square had a point, and I think that’s another reason why it bothered me so much. I was frustrated. I did want to speak to actual Cubans. But that first experience with Louvin had made me suspicious, other travelers told me stories of being scammed, and I’d read enough to know about the many hustlers who were around. So any time a man approached me, I’d shrug him off with a quick but firm ‘No, gracias’, without ever giving him a chance for a chat.
Another issue that bothered me was that any time someone came up to me in a park or on the street to speak to me, it was always a man, and it was always in English. The men who can only speak Spanish didn’t really try to talk to me, and the only women I spoke to were casa owners, waitresses, or worked in tour agencies – the women who had to talk to me. This made it all feel very suspicious, like all of these men were just hustlers, trying to find a way to scam me. Where were the women?
Whenever I did end up speaking to someone I couldn’t help immediately wondering what his game was, and I eventually just gave up trying. I would have liked to get to know Cubans more, but how could I have a real conversation without having to try to see through all the crap?
Then consider the relentless catcalling, whistles, kissy noises, and comments I’d get just walking down the street, and it didn’t exactly make me think positive thoughts about these men. In an environment like that it’s natural for a woman to assume that they’re only after one thing.
To top off that day with the man in the square, I later walked down a pedestrian-only street where people were selling crafts and touristy souvenirs. I paused at the end to take a picture of the scene, and immediately after, a woman sitting at a stall to my left kind of waved at me, frowning. I waved back, starting to walk away.
But the next thing I knew, she was gesturing for me to come closer. I went, reluctantly, fearing what she would say but hoping she actually wanted to have a conversation. Not so.
“One photo, one CUC,” she said, trying to look serious and firm.
I got angry. “Uh, NO.”
“ONE CUC, ONE PHOTO!” she said, still looking angry but also starting to laugh.
“No. You weren’t even in the picture!” and I started walking away.
She burst out laughing, calling out to me “ONE CUC!”
Was it a joke? How serious was she? Was she just seeing if I was stupid enough to pay up? Might as well try, right?
I walked away feeling very annoyed and somewhat humiliated. And about a minute later, I heard a man’s voice.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey,” from over to my left. I looked, realizing too late that I probably shouldn’t.
He made three big loud kisses into the air, aimed in my direction.
I saw red. I looked away, absolutely fuming. That was it. I’d been grumpy to start with, had been struggling with crappy food for days, had spent the entire morning trying to get information on how to get to a couple of places out of town without any success, had encountered the man in the square, had been catcalled and whistled at and harassed more times than I could count, and now this.
I instantly wanted nothing more, at that moment, than to figure out how to change my flight back to Mexico and just leave this awful country.
I seriously considered blowing all my money on an all-inclusive resort on a beautiful beach for the rest of the time I would be in Cuba, so I wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of crap anymore.
I calmed down eventually, of course, and that night found some decent pasta for my dinner and even passed a place (closed at the time, but I went back) where I could buy custard apples, one of my favourite fruits.
This all made me feel better, but didn’t change the fact that I can’t remember when I’ve ever, in any other country I’ve visited, had a moment when I wanted to leave so badly.