He’s probably three and a half decades in; the hard years creased into his face such that, in certain light, your discerning eye pushes such numeric guesses well beyond. The droopy eyes, the slightly-open mouth at rest, a faint smile curled into the edges of his cheeks—all of these things come into your vision with the starter, “Are you from England?”
No matter the answer, any answer is the one he desires. An answer that has no relation to the question is just as well; you grant him such. You’ve decided to let all hesitancy, all skepticism, all defensive mechanism to evaporate into the warm evening air, or at least as much as you can muster.
“I’m just returning home to feed my wife and children,” he offers, lifting a small plastic bag of perhaps several items to chest level. “I love to speak English,” he continues, hurtling as many hooks as possible into the environment, teeming with fish. “Let me show you around.”
Normally you’d have a barrier up against such things, because locals—especially in a place like this— know quite easily who the visitors are. And when you are treading through an ocean of poverty mixed with cunning entrepreneurialism, tours without charge have one. “But tonight is different,” you remind yourself.
You pass the place where this famous person stayed, where that celebrity is staying, where this historical figure did that historical thing. You nod along, eager and interested, the hook willfully bitten.
“What do you think of cigars?” he questions, unwrapping two from a cloth and a bag, as you stroll along. He pushes it towards you. Tonight is your night of yes, you are going to go along with things and see where the line pulls you. You take it and continue along. Without a price tag affixed, you can feel the hook tug.
“Are you going to buy cigars in Havana?”
“Maybe for some friends, we will see.”
The smoke hangs alongside you and he, discussing what a fine bar this is, how lucky you are. “Drinks are only $5 here, you can’t find that anywhere.” You are having trouble playing along, he is too comfortable reeling the line. He seems so genuine but the signs suggest much more is astir than a chance encounter with a friendly local.
He is preparing his cigar, no cigar cutter needed, just a fingernail and a load of experienced skill. “Here, we don’t have the things you do, we just have this,” he says, pointing at his head. He hands the cigar to you, nods his head with a smile, and is starting on the next.
“They are only $2 down there,” you say, pointing. “$5 is not a good price, tourist price,” you add.
“Not the real thing,” he interjects with an heir of confidence, as he leans back taking another slow drag; a mild effort to save himself from the exposure to which you opened him. You figure he is getting a kickback for any business he brings the bar and while you are fine seeing where things lead, some caution must remain lest you find yourself in Havana stealing work from the dishwasher for the next couple years while paying off your experiment.
“Press on this cigar, you see how it comes back to shape so nicely? This is the sign of a good cigar.”
His voice is soft-edged as he continues. He is your friend, always there to look out for you—or at least he has been for the last half hour or so. The feeling he transmits is one built up from years of friendship, or well-honed experience. “Let’s take a photograph,” he says, “so I can remember this moment with my good friend. Would you be able to send it to me?” He asks the bartender for a pen and is soon scribbling his address down on a small slip of paper.
What kind of con-artist gives you his address? Is he just a friendly guy? He wants a photograph? Maybe that’s a novelty here. This whole time you were thinking he was up to something, maybe you were being unfair; years of skepticism perhaps.
The bill is settled and you offer to handle it. He offered the “free” tour and the “free” cigar, so this is what you would typically do to show your appreciation. Was that really all’s he wanted? You realize the drinks were priced at $3, not $5; he knew better than to hit you with the $5 markup. Or perhaps he isn’t getting a kickback and he was just mistaken?
“I will take you to a special place, follow me.”
You are weaving past tourists doing tourist things. You have your special handler, the inside man, navigating down this street, around that corner and down this alley. A pregnant woman stands a short ways ahead. As you approach, he passes some Spanish to her. She turns and heads into the doorway. He nods at you with a smile and waves his hand.
It’s a benign staircase, up one flight of stairs and into an apartment room. A toddler is playing with a cat. “Please, sit,” he motions with a large grin on his face, proud to show the grand finale. Cigars of all sorts are laid out on a table: boxes of cigars, rolls of cigars, canisters of cigars.
He pulls one out. “Feel the quality.” He passes you the cigar, pressing it. You watch it spring back to life. A long range strategy you realize. “Which do you want to buy?” The pregnant woman is watching with glee.
“I don’t want to buy any,” you say.
“What do you mean? These are good cigars.”
“They may be great cigars, but I am not here to buy any.”
“You said you would buy for your friends,” he recollects, with a slightly contrived twist on the remark.
“I do not have much money,” you respond, “unless you are only selling one cigar.”
This is your way out, minimize the price for your adventure. He doesn’t realize that you started the adventure with a limited amount of cash and it is nearly finished. If you want to prove your point, you can merely take out the couple bills and prove that you aren’t making it up. All his efforts to create a bond is a great trick to elicit guilt at this stage.
“Look, we have the official stamps,” he notes, pointing to an array of stamps they can use to fool the inspectors at the airport.
There are a couple things at play that you know while you sit in this dimly lit room as the cat wraps itself around your leg and a toddler musters a word or two of Spanish towards you while smiling with wide eyes. First, the state companies in Communist Cuba produce cigars and distribute them through official channels. For a private individual to have a business selling cigars (or selling most anything) is illegal as it is contrary to Communist notions.
“She has a special friend at the factories, these are authentic.” Many claim cigars sold this way are well perfected counterfeits.
Nothing is going to work. “I do not want to buy right now. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
“You are letting me down, I brought you here and she has a child to feed and now you say no?”
“How much is a single cigar,” you negotiate. “What if I buy one of those,” you say, pointing.
“She does not sell that way,” he says.
“Well then what is the cheapest thing she offers?”
Whatever the cheapest lot was, you tell him you don’t have money for that and you are very sorry it is not going to work out.
He perks up, the moment when he is going to make the mood more lighthearted. “I have an idea,” he notes, as if this is the first time this has ever happened, “you have my address so you can buy them now and then come to my address with the money to pick them up.”
“I don’t want to buy anything right now. Don’t you understand? I never asked to come here? I never said I wanted to buy cigars. You are the one wasting her time, not me.” The cat doesn’t care if you buy cigars, she is just happy you are giving her attention as you stroke her coat.
The emotional progression has slowly converted and now there is a mix of anger and despair, or at least he is feigning such in a very authentic manner. You are the reason this toddler will not eat; you are the reason why this pregnant woman will not be able to nourish her baby. If smiles don’t get you to buy, and guilt doesn’t get you to buy, it is time to see if anguish or anger will get you to buy. She is shaking her head slowly.
You are now outside of the apartment. It is interesting how quickly your gleeful friend in Cuba has become so petulant and dejected. The whole city seems so quiet, your footsteps scraping along the street being the solitary sound.
You get to a street corner and he stops.
“Okay, well at least you can help me feed my family, they are hungry,” he says. “Let’s go to the store and you can buy us food.”
“I don’t have much money,” you remind him, pulling out the bills left for your experiment. “And I need to buy water,” you say.
“We will get you water and then we can go shop for food for my family,” he states half pleading and half demanding.
He walks with you as you head to a small stand at an intersection with paper signs plastered on the exterior and a variety of random drinks inside. You step up to the window and order a bottle of water.
You turn back and start heading resolutely in a direction, you aren’t sure which. This is not the time to act lost. “No, the market is this way,” you tells you. You turn and face him. His eyes are coloured in desperation with a tinge of anger.
“I thought you were my friend,” you tell him, “but I see you only care about my money. This makes me very sad. Enjoy the money.” You cut the fishing line, leaving the small change leftover affixed to the hook—a memorable and educational adventure.
You step into your room realizing you have arrived in a sea of desperation, this place called Havana. And it was this night that you, if only for a night, joined many others in the vicinity and switched off the light without a meal to settle the hunger pangs knocking about.
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