Bit On The Side

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Take me to the April sun in Cuba – or should it be Queue-Bar?

Coming from the hustle and bustle of London where everything happens so quickly it was certainly a culture shock to have to try and fit into the very chilled way of Cuban life. Not to say that somewhere like Havana or Trinidad wasn’t as busy, or as full of people, as London but that you must have patience as nothing happens quickly. And that’s ok! It just means that time wise you may need to factor in queuing for a long time before you receive what you need and if you have somewhere to be it might not even be worth joining the line. Most examples of this happened in the service industry – bars and restaurants – where they would often only ever have one person serving, regardless of the time of day or how busy the establishment was. Waiting for Coco Loco’s at the beach bar in Cayo Jutias didn’t bother us as we were having a great beach day, the bartender was lovely and he would free-pour as much rum as you wanted into your coconut! At Floradita bar in Trinidad (a copy of the one in Havana where Hemingway used to drink daiquiris – go to this one, it’s way cheaper!) they ran out of ice and therefore were not able to serve anyone anything whilst the one bartender waited for his mate to come back with a box of ice…or so he said. People were asking for beers in the meantime and he said he’d run out which was a little confusing as we could both see them in the fridge behind him and boxes of them stacked in the corner. But hey! When you’re at a bar famous for its daiquiris would you really want to drink anything else? Complaining about queuing for drinks in a bar makes me sound like such a spoilt bitch and I’m really not complaining, I was happy to wait for the coconuts and cocktails.

It’s just funny the difference between a capitalist society that we come from and the retail & service industries in a socialist country. One time we stopped at a service station to use the toilets and buy water (as tourists we can only drink bottled water in Cuba) and again, whilst there were 2 counters with cash registers the lady at one of them refused to serve the huge queue (not just our tour group) as she “don’t sell water here”.  Please note this was after her having just served some people from our group who were buying water.

But if I’m being honest the only time that a queue did truly frustrate me was when we were in Santa Clara, on our way back to Havana, and we thought we should probably finally buy some Wi-Fi as it had been Jimmy’s birthday and we had no way of contacting his family. I don’t completely understand how the whole thing works but in order to get online in Cuba you need to purchase a Wi-Fi card from the national carrier and then log in when you are in one of the town’s Wi-Fi areas (usually a central square locals call “Wi-Fi park” or some hotels). To purchase the card, you have to find one of ETECSA blue buildings and go inside to purchase. Here’s where it gets tricky, you then queue to get into the building to make the purchase and the queue is usually a general mass of people milling around outside the door. I know in Vinales Nick, from our tour group, didn’t recognise that this was some sort of queue so just waltzed past everyone and went inside to buy his card, genuinely innocent. In Santa Clara, we couldn’t do this if we tried as the door was locked with a security guard deciding who went in and when. People would push to the front and speak to him and sometimes he would open the door for them, we did speak to him but obviously, our Spanish was not good enough to convince him to let us in. The people in the building were not just buying Wi-Fi cards, I think they come there to pay bills, use computers and take out phone contracts. When our friends bought their Wi-Fi card they said they were in a queue behind an old man who was being shown how to work a mobile phone! As we had to get back to the coach to continue our way we had to leave the queue and give up on trying to buy a Wi-Fi card. We ended up buying it off some random guys in the square who sold it to us at a slightly higher price but thankfully no queues were involved with that purchase.

And a note on scams, I think that any country where tourism is one of their main industries there will always be people who realise that they can make a ‘quick buck’ off us foreigners. On more than one occasion we were told that there was a problem with payment. A couple of times this was when we were paying before something (entrance to an underground cave and into a national park) and another couple of times it was when the bill for our whole party came at the end of drinking or eating. That’s something to note actually, pretty much everywhere won’t take payment at the time of ordering but rather will present a bill at the end. Which of course with a big group isn’t always ideal. When we went to the bar where the canchanchara cocktail was invented in Trinidad some of us ordered one of the signature drinks to try – about 11 of the group of 18. We ordered, were served, enjoyed our drinks and then a waiter came to us with a bill and everyone paid by placing cash on his tray. He had a float on the tray so the people who didn’t have the exact money were given their change there and then. He took the tray of money away before returning to advise our tour guide that only 5 drinks had been paid for and we still owed for the rest. At this point we were quite a few days into the tour and you get to know people pretty quickly in these sorts of group situations and I personally find it hard to believe that someone was just not coughing up for their share. But also, this wasn’t just someone, it would have to have been 6 people not paying. We were sitting in a group and had seen one another place money on the waiter’s tray before he walked away with it. We don’t know if he put some cash into his pocket so that when he got to the register the money on the tray was incorrect or if it was a bit more organised where his colleagues were in on the scam as well. Regardless, we didn’t know enough Spanish to argue the point – we possibly could’ve asked him to point out who had and hadn’t paid or to show us the money for the 5 drinks so that we could count it – but at the end of the day our group could afford to travel to Cuba so we can afford to cough up a little more for some already cheap drinks.

It doesn’t feel great to be taken advantage of but perhaps I am wrong and I was on a tour with some sneaky stingy people! The one that does stink (and yes that’s a pun) is paying for toilets. Well not always, sometimes toilet attendants will give you paper and soap and constantly clean the toilets so that the experience of using them is not too bad. Other times they will tell you to use the male toilet where the lock won’t work, there is no toilet seat (actually that was fairly common), no paper (luckily, I had some in my pocket) and it wasn’t clean. And then they ask you for money for the pleasure! Overall though it really wasn’t a big deal to give a few extra coins when we were asked – whilst I never felt uncomfortably interacting with the locals we were always aware that we are much better off than them and can afford to be ripped off every once in a while.

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