The morning began uneventfully with a hearty Cuban breakfast and some much-needed coffee. Our first official day in Havana, Cuba.
Still somewhat flustered by all the cat-calls – “Hola Guapa!” “!Mi Vida!!” “You are so beautiful!” – and the jetlag from our 13-hour flight, my sister and I set out from our comfy casa particular in Vedado to slowly wander the city’s streets. Two out-of-their-depth explorers out to discover the secrets of Havana, Cuba. What trouble can befall them? Well.
All of a sudden, we found ourselves in some strangers living room, looking at stacks of black market cigars.
In this short series on Cuba, called #AloCubano, the Cuban way, I’d like to share my thoughts about authenticity, tourism, and my off-the-beaten-path experiences as I travelled through this ‘pearl of the Caribbean’ with my sister.
“Hola chicas”, a young woman about my age says as she approaches us. My sister and I are walking around close to the Barrio Chino in Havana. “Is this your first time in Cuba?” “Yes”, I proudly tell her. “It’s our first day in Havana.”
Okay. Stop the tape. *screech* Never, say this, people. You instantly become a welcome target for street mongers and taxi drivers looking to make some extra CUCs. Just pretend that you’re a connoisseur of Cuban Street-Marketing tactics – after reading this blog post, you will be.
Cuban Street-Marketing tactics #1 – is this your first time in Havana?
“We are looking forward to getting to know your country”, I say in Spanish. “Your Spanish is excellent,” she tells me – making me feel proud like a peacock, the way she intended for me to feel. She’s got her hooks in me now.
Cuban Street-Marketing tactics #2 – make a compliment
“If you’re looking for Cuban culture, are you also looking to buy cigars?” “Yes”, I cautiously tell her. “I’m looking to buy some cigars for my father-in-law”. And that hook just sinks further into my skin. Getting ready to sweeten her sales pitch, she says, “Ah. You’re in luck! Today is día de los cooperativos. All workers are allowed to sell cigars and coffee from the factory, with a 40% discount.”
Cuban Street-Marketing tactics #3: Offer a bargain – the fabled day of the cooperatives
There. She’s got me. Played by her Cuban vibrancy, well-acted helpfulness, seeming innocence and her shrewd complementary words: “Oh, your Spanish is really good.”… RIGHT…
Looking back now, I still can’t believe how she played me so expertly. It’s a bite to my street cred – if I ever had any to start with. It’s certainly a blow to my status as a Latin Americanist, that’s for sure. How I’ll ever live this down when I get home… I don’t know. I can already hear the snickering from my two besties.
My sister and I have heard about Cuban entrepreneurialism. The words “Don’t buy anything off the streets”, stated as a warning from our casa lady, have already been forgotten. All I can think about is wanting to give my father-in-law the best gift – some Cohibas. So of course, I decide to follow her, tempted by the offered bargain, even knowing it’s not real.
Let’s just say it’s my innate sense of adventure. No really – let’s keep it at adventure, shall we? Please? It’ll make me feel better.
That’s how I found myself standing in the middle of some stranger’s living room in old town Havana.
The table is filled with official-looking cigar boxes. In the room, a kid is playing with a football, while his father is arranging some of the cases on the table. “Are you going to be a factory worker, like your papa?“, I ask the cute looking boy. The whole room smiles knowingly, laughing at my naïveté. “No”, says the boy, because, like all young Latin American boys, he wants to be a football player when he grows up.
His father, I assume, interrupts us: “All the boxes are open so you can check the quality.” He continues my education in cigar quality testing by telling me:
“Look, you can tell that they are the real deal by gently squeezing the cigar between your fingers. When the cigar wrapper doesn’t crumble, and the indent bounces back, you know you have a good quality cigar.”
I’ve read something similar online, but as I’m not a Cuban cigar expert, I don’t know how to assess the validity of the information. I barely know how to smoke ‘em without turning green.
He points at the brand wrap, “this also shows that these cigars are real. Fake cigars don’t have these wrappers. We also put the official seals on the closed case, so you don’t have any trouble with customs.” To further illustrate, he shows me how the seals should be positioned: One in the top right corner – stating Cohiba, and one in the bottom left corner stating ‘selo de garantia nacional de precidencia’ – including 3 other languages.”
MARKETING & SALES – the Havana streets’ version.
“No”, my sister says to me, “don’t buy anything. You know it’s a scam.” Yeah. I knew. I knew it was a scam, but I want these people to be the real deal.
The small living room. The boy. The woman. It all serves to paint me a picture that they need the money. Híjole. Son of a … The painted picture just proves Cuban Marketing and Sales strategies are expert and effective.
Back in the room, my insides contract, but I feel pressured to do something. “How much?”, I hear myself asking. “Well. For the box of 25 Cohibas you’re looking at, normally that’d be 150 CUC, but I’m willing to make you a deal, 120 CUC.”
I look at my sister. I’m about ready to say: “No, thank you” and walk outta there. Go, go, go. Nope, too late. They see me hesitating. The woman, still in the room says to me: “You speak Spanish chica, use that to your advantage, NEGOTIATE with him.”
She expertly plays my sense of pride.
I stand taller and say in Spanish: “I can do 60 CUC.” Damn, look at me negotiating like a Pro… Of course, he can’t part with the case of Cohiba Siglo IV for 60CUC. Like I know what that means?
After some further hustling – ‘cause I feel like a Hustla baby! – we settle at 80 CUC.
As I walk out down the small stairs into the bright sunlight of the streets around the Barrio Chino, I wonder what just happened… *blink* How the joder – f*ck – did I just get swindled to buy a case of 25 fake Cohiba cigars from a random guy in his living room?
Yeah. To be honest, I still don’t know how that happened. I plead temporary insanity – sure, that’s what it was *uhum*.
A few days later, after feeling very stupid for a while, this becomes my cautionary, but funny, tale as my sister and I have some cocktails on the rooftop of the Saratoga hotel. After meeting some other tourists along our route from Havana to Viñales and Trinidad, similar experiences are shared, and we laugh. What else can you do? ¡¿Y, a mí, qué me resbala?! – What do I care?! I don’t think the cigars will taste any worse for it. They’ve gained some street cred, and maybe I did too. You can’t discount the adventure factor of this tale.
And I have decided to enjoy them – my black market pirate cigars. *ARRR*
All hail Cuban Black-Market-ing Tactics. You can’t claim that they don’t work. You begrudgingly gotta admire their money-making schemes.
Anyone want a cigar? I got about 23 of the damn things left.
Adventure always awaits!