On Flashback Fridays I reflect back on some of my past travels and travel mishaps before I started this blog (follow at #FlashbackFri): There we were, somewhere in the outskirts of Havana, stuck in a gangster’s dingy flat with nothing but a pile of Cuban cigars for company. If it all went pear-shaped nobody would hear our screams, nobody would notice we were missing for weeks, and let’s face it, would anyone really care anyway? To say I was a tad nervous is an understatement. Even Chris, who normally only gets anxious in the presence of newborn babies, was looking slightly uncomfortable – for a reason I only later understood…

This was the second time we had ended up in a gangster’s apartment, and to be honest it was becoming a habit we needed to drop sharpish. How do we always end up in these situations when all we wanted to do was to buy a few souvenirs?….

cuban cars

There are apparently only three types of people in Havana – Beautiful women, policemen, and mechanics – to fix all the old, but awesomely cool, cars!

…“Where are you from?” we were asked by a friendly young Cuban during a stroll through Havana. ”England”, we replied, at which stage he got very excited and told us that he has a good friend in England who lives is a town called Bedford, near the river. ”No way! What a coincidence, we are from Bedford and live near the river”, we said. We chatted for a while and found out that he was an English student. He asked us what we were planning to see that day and we mentioned a few famous sights. He then asked if he can join us and be our tour guide, free of charge of course, so he can practice his English. Taken in by the Bedford coincidence we dropped our guard and agreed to hang out with him. A few mojitos later, he asked us if we liked Cuban cigars and if we wanted to go to a proper local market? Not one to miss out on a shopping opportunity at local markets I agreed.

Man with Cuban cigars

On our way out of town, we bumped into possibly the coolest looking dude ever.

So off we wandered through some backstreets to the outskirts of Havana to a much poorer district, where he led us into a flat. That doesn’t look like a market, I thought to myself, but then maybe some people just run informal markets in communist Cuba to make a bit of money on the side. Inside was a young woman wearing hardly any clothes, who puffed up the cushions on a mattress on the floor, which was turned into a sofa for us. We sat down and all of the sudden this big guy (and I mean Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, big!), entered the room, shouted at the woman to leave, and sat down opposite us.

At that stage we started to feel a bit uncomfortable. Where are all these colourful, charming handicraft sellers we were used to seeing on the streets? He asked us if we wanted to buy some Cuban cigars, but sensing things seemed a bit dodgy we said we were just looking around and didn’t really want to buy anything. He looked a bit puzzled and grabbed hold of our ‘tour guide’ who in a panic said that he thought we wanted to buy some cigars. We explained that we were more looking for souvenirs like handicrafts, but inquired the price for the Cuban cigars as we increasingly felt this situation could soon turn ugly. The big-man said $50 for a big box. We said that we only have $20 on us and asked him what we can get for that? He pointed to a mini packet with five cigars that usually comes as a free gift if you buy a big box. He looked more than a bit angry and at this point we started to feel very nervous, locked in his house as we were. Chris was holding on to our backpack very tightly and we looked at each other and decided that we would take the small Cuban cigars and consider the $20 a small price for our safe release.

When in Rome (or Havana)...

When in Rome (or Havana)…

As soon as we were outside, minus our ‘tour-guide’, we quickly made our way through the back streets towards the more touristy part of town. After that shock we went to the nearest bar and ordered some food and a few mojitos to celebrate our escape. We reflected and couldn’t quite work out how we fell for the scam. We kept thinking what a huge coincidence it was that this guy knew somebody in Bedford and was able to describe the sights and how beautiful the river was.  I mean Bedford is not exactly a well-known town, even in England. And then it struck us that a few days before we had been asked by some other locals whereabouts in England we were from. When we told them they just smiled and told us to enjoy Cuba, so we didn’t really think much of it. But we hindsight (obviously!) they must have all worked together and shared the intel they received about us. So when the ‘English student’  asked us what country we were from and we said England he knew full well that we lived in Bedford and had already had a few days to research our hometown online so he could lower our guard.

The band that so perfectly set the scene (see below...)

The band that so perfectly set the scene (see below…)

Anyway, it was our first holiday together outside of mini-breaks in Europe, so we put it down as just one of those experiences and decided to enjoy the rest of the night. So we kicked back, sipping on yet more mojitos and listening to a Cuban band when all of the sudden Chris started to look very serious (twice in one day, very unlike him). He told me that he was glad our backpack hadn’t been stolen as there was something important inside it. I had no idea what he was talking about and thought maybe being English he just couldn’t handle mojitos very well, but then he took out a small box containing a ring and popped the question. Of course I said yes, not least as he had timed the question to coincide with my favourite Cuban song, Guantanamera. And after all, if we can survive being locked in a menacing gangster’s flat together, we can probably survive anything.

So young. Sigh....

So young. Sigh….

So that was the time I almost didn’t get engaged, but did! Have you ever been as stupid as us and been scammed on holiday?


About Tammyonthemove

Tammy & Chris are a couple hailing from Germany and England, meaning between them they are efficient and polite, but unable to talk about football. Find out why they stopped pushing pens around the British civil service to travel the world on their blog.

32 Thoughts on “Flashback Friday: The time I nearly didn’t get engaged

  1. What a thrilling story! Glad to see it all turned out well in the end.

  2. Yikes, what a story! The gangster’s apartment sounds terrifying. I too would have probably paid whatever it took to get out of there pronto.
    Audrey | That Backpacker recently posted…Sometimes I Miss Korea…My Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on June 7, 2013 at 9:42 am said:

      It really was Audrey! That apartment was something out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. I nearly pooped myself to be honest. 🙂

  3. This story is both scary and funny, with a happy twist at the end 🙂 PS. I love Cuba!

    • Tammyonthemove on June 8, 2013 at 6:15 am said:

      Thanks Kristy! I love Cuba too and would love go back one day ( but maybe not to the gangster’s flat 🙂 )!

  4. That’s quite the engagement story! I don’t blame you guys for falling for the scam. I’m kind of amazed that they actually researched your hometown in advance to win your trust – that’s crazy!

    • Tammyonthemove on June 8, 2013 at 6:21 am said:

      Yes, it was quite a clever scam Jessica. With hindsight it is so obvious, but at the time we just didn’t suspect a thing.

  5. Great story. Havana is famous for its “Where are you from?”-people 🙂
    However, I am so in love with Havana. I got butterflies in the stomach every time I see a photo from Havana 🙂

  6. What a scary experience, I’m glad it turned out OK and that your day had such romantic end. It is incredible how they plan and work together to get your guard down, I usually provide as little as possible information but yeah you would not think it would harm you to mention where you are from.

    • Tammyonthemove on June 10, 2013 at 1:12 am said:

      Thank you Freya! This experience made us much a little more travel savvy. The problem now is that I am sometimes too suspicious, which could also ruin a lovely cultural experience sometimes you could have with locals otherwise.

  7. Uh, yes…have been scammed a few times and lived to tell the tale. Such a sweet and romantic story though!
    Andrea recently posted…10 Summer Must Do’s In ViennaMy Profile

  8. Awesome use of photos to tell a story. And yes, that is most definitely one of the coolest guys EVER!

  9. That sounds like it was an eventful day!

    We were recently in Havana and did notice funny scams too. We told a guy following us a fake name of a Casa Particular we weren’t staying at, and down the road another guy approached us and said “Oh – you’re staying with Raoul! I’m his friend….”. Considering we weren’t staying at Raoul’s Casa and didn’t even know him it was amazing the operation they had going and to what lengths they were working to get ‘business’ out of us!

    • Tammyonthemove on June 14, 2013 at 3:31 am said:

      It certainly was Emily! Oh that’s interesting to hear that 8 years later they are still doing the same scams.

  10. Aww, what a slightly terrifying yet completely touching story. I don’t think my guy would be nearly as calm in that situation- especially if he had an engagement ring on him!

    • Tammyonthemove on June 14, 2013 at 3:33 am said:

      Thanks Megan! We could only tell each others nervousness once we were out of the flat. That’s why we had to down a mojito instantly! 🙂

  11. Wow, what a story! It certainly will be one to tell the grandchildren! 🙂 I’m glad you were able to make it out safely.

  12. Well, it worked out to your advantage, because I don’t think anyone can really top an engagement story that involves a shakedown by a Cuban gangster.
    Jess recently posted…Eskimo Ice CreamMy Profile

  13. Jeepers! Now that’s a story.

    No gangsters to speak of yet, but yep, we’ve been scammed in Cambodia and no doubt overcharged many times here in Vietnam.
    eemusings recently posted…What kind of traveller are you?My Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on June 15, 2013 at 11:53 pm said:

      Thanks! We got scammed three times in one day in Saigon. Make sure you write the price you agree with a moto driver down on some paper. They will all try and scam you otherwise.

  14. First time commenter – love your blog! Ah, I was so nervous during this story! I hate getting scammed.

    One time, my partner and I were making an airport change in St Lucia to fly to Martinique and we were going to take the bus. To go from the south to the capital, it costs about EC$11 (US$3.50) and we were trying to economize. Taxi drivers started getting in our faces and saying “No, no there are no buses today, I’ll take you” etc. It was Sunday, where in the Caribbean most things aren’t running but I was certain that I had taken a bus on Sunday in St Lucia before.

    We started getting nervous and overwhelmed after spending hours on the plane and we didn’t think to ask a tour guide. Fearing missing our flight, we negotiated paying about EC$120 (US$40) and the driver took us to the other airport. When we arrived we asked a woman at the tourist desk and she said the buses are definitely running so we were a little bit annoyed but figured we had travelled in style in any case.

    It kind of left us annoyed for a couple days after our arrival in Martinique! But we got over it as one must whilst travelling…

    Thanks for your story!

    Yours in Travel,

    Alyssa recently posted…ChimericaMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on June 15, 2013 at 11:56 pm said:

      Thanks for stopping by Alyssa! Yeah, taxi drivers or moto drivers are one of the worst when it comes to scamming. Really frustrating! But you always learn your lesson I guess! 🙂

  15. Whoa – what a scary story. I was getting a bit nervous for you guys as I read, but I’m glad that it ended on a good note. I guess that all engagement stories are unforgettable, but yours takes the cake!
    Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans recently posted…Omelets & Canons at Forte de CopacabanaMy Profile

  16. Wow! What a story, that must have been pretty dodgy situation. I would have probably bought anything to get out of that flat, good job you had some money on you!
    The only time we got scammed so far it was when we took a night bus in Thailand from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. For the first time we used a private company instead of the public buses and we got robbed. They went through all the backpacks in the luggage storage. There were no Thai people on the bus, only foreign and they all had their backpacks opened. We learnt our lesson! 🙂
    Franca recently posted…Taiwan’s Tranquil and Stony Beach HeavenMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on June 20, 2013 at 3:00 am said:

      How annoying Franca! Such a common thing, and worries me whenever I travel on buses anywhere in the world. Though last week we suffered a nearly as bad experience in Cambodia, as they had decided to transport a huge ice-box full of squid in the luggage compartment which leaked all over everyone’s luggage. Now our backpacks, not to mention the rest of our apartment, smells like we live on Planet Fish.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

Post Navigation