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?….
…“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.
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.
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.
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 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?