Photo Credit: Roberto Machado Noa/Shutterstock
I consider myself to be an extremely savvy traveler. I’ve never been the victim of pickpocketing, and I’ve never endured an Airbnb bait-and-switch. I know how to ask for tap water so I’m not charged an arm and a leg when the waiter brings a fancy bottle with my burger. I’m also not above yelling at cab drivers who go off-route to hike up their fare.
I've traversed so many cities and read so many “Do’s and Don’ts” articles, that I've always felt prepared for whatever typical tourist trap lay ahead. I've felt so immune to naive tricks, that I could give off a “don’t mess with me”-vibe wherever I went.
Cuba was my 30th country for my 30th birthday. What could go wrong?
While on a Caribbean cruise, my friends and I skipped the overpriced ship excursions in favor of wandering through the streets of Havana. We wanted to save some cash, but also see the city for what it was — no tour guides trying to upsell Cuban cigars, just true Cuban culture, a place filled with warmth.
The warmth was figurative and literal. Cuba is hot. It’s 90-degrees Fahrenheit or higher during the day and muggy as hell. The skies unpredictably open up for a few minutes, too short to spoil the day but long enough to get you drenched while sipping tropical drinks on the street.
After a day of walking in soaking wet clothing, it was time to eat some authentic Cuban cuisine. To avoid greasy chicken fingers from the Hard Rock Cafe, we seasoned travelers knew to ask the locals for suggestions on the best places to go.
I spotted a guy in a Yankees cap, standing with a woman who was wearing a silky jacket (despite the heat). “Hablo inglés?” I asked.
“Hey, yes, we speak English!” the man replied. “Where are you from?”
We struck up a conversation with the pair, who seemed super friendly, happy, and excited to talk to us. “My cousin is living in New York!” “We love your accent!” “Isn’t Cuba great?” they chatted.
“Hey, have you seen Callejon de Hamel?” the man asked. “It’s a big, free art installation. We will take you there.”
I love meeting locals and having them show me their favorite parts of the city, so, of course, we went along with them to an unknown part of town. My safety meter was semi-active, but I had heard of Callejon de Hamel, so I wasn’t overly worried. The pair delivered on their promise and led us through a maze of mosaics, painted tires, bathtubs filled with plants, and other unique sculptures. It was definitely worth the time spent getting there and chatting more along the way.
“Do you know somewhere to get some dinner?” I asked at the end of our mini-tour.
“Yes, for sure! We will show you the best place, come,” the woman replied.
We followed the pair once more but this time, it felt different. They brought us to darker, quieter streets. Wi-Fi and cell phone data don’t work in Cuba, so all I could rely on was my paper map, but the streets didn’t have names either.
“How much farther?” I asked, starting to get nervous.
“Just around this corner!”
Havana isn’t a huge city, but despite this, we walked around the middle of nowhere for almost an hour. We were hot, tired — no, exhausted — thirsty, and starving. I was about to make a scene when the man announced we had finally arrived.
The restaurant was a typical paladar, which is a type of self-owned restaurant (as opposed to the state-run restaurants owned by the Cuban government). I noticed the prices on the menu were steep for Cuba — $16 for a plate of sauteed chicken and rice, $9 for cocktails. Paladars can charge their own prices, but I couldn’t imagine most Cubans could afford to eat here regularly when the average salary could be as low as $17 a month.
But we were desperate, and we were here. Our new “friends” had a soda with us and bid us farewell. That’s when I noticed the plainly decorated tables were filled with people who looked exactly like us — bedraggled, profusely sweating, seated with Cubans who chatted briefly, then left, never touching the food they ordered.
When a bill for $120 came, I nearly collapsed. “We got scammed,” my friend Lindsey said, pulling her share of Cuban pesos out of her bag.
“I don’t understand!” I was completely shocked at my naivete. “Why didn’t you say something?”
She shrugged. “I thought you knew what you were doing!”
I clearly didn’t, but I do now. I learned that, apparently, some locals can act as scouts for restaurants, guiding travelers to their locations, getting a cut of the bill as a finder’s fee. They purposely walk tourists around in circles so they are so tired and hungry that, by the end, the tourists don’t even care if what they order is pure garbage. They’ll eat and pay for it anyway.
While this normally would enrage most travelers, I decided to breathe and take a step back. I was disappointed that I had been duped, but realistically, my friends and I were in the privileged position: we had money in abundance. So much money that we could afford to go on vacation knowing this temporary pause in our lives would have little effect on the rent we paid, the food we bought, and other expenses. Not everyone is as lucky to be in that kind of situation.
I had to count myself lucky as well that in my fifteen years as a traveler, the most money I had lost to a scam was $40. More than what a doctor makes in Cuba; more than what the scouts would make in the next few months. The way to beat anger is to consider perspective. Without that, we're just another poor example of the privileged American traveler.
I remember two teenage girls working as waitresses while their father cooked in the kitchen. The food wasn’t anything special, but if it meant my friends and I were providing them with some extra cash to feel just a little more comfortable, that was worth paying four times what a local would normally pay for the same meal. Despite the trickery, I knew we were still paying into the local economy, a small price to pay for a free market lifestyle, and the privilege to visit a place closed off to so many.
This typical tourist scam had evaded all my years of research and experience. I let my hubris get in the way, and had been taken by the kindness of these strangers (though, to their credit, these two were extremely nice, and we had some genuine conversations). Maybe next time, I’ll be wiser. Maybe next time, I’ll still be hungry and tired and too cranky to fight. Whatever the case, it was a teachable moment I’ll never forget, and that has to count for something.
This post is part of a month-long April CircleAround series, tied to April Fools' Day. We've all made memorable mistakes and embarrassing gaffes that still make us cringe. But what did we learn from those moments of foolishness? We asked writers — and readers — to share stories and advice on what we gained from some of our cringiest memories, and how those became teachable moments. To see all the posts in the series — including relevant news stories — visit here. And if you'd like to contribute to the series, send us your thoughts to info@circlearound.