Obviously the title’s a bit of a giveaway here, so I’ll cut to the chase: my first 24 hours in the Cuban capital involved being a victim of robbery on the Malecón, breaking down in tears several times in public (there goes any semblance of street cred) and subsequently spending six hours across two of the city’s police stations with a big language barrier to overcome.
To say this was no picnic would be a massive understatement; despite reading up on the topic of poverty and crime in Havana, I was hardly prepared to have my bag strap cut from me with a knife, and in broad daylight. Whilst this isn’t the topic I wanted to talk about first when blogging about Cuba, it’s one that I just had to start with, because it altered everything.
Only half an hour earlier, a guide told my sister and me that a walk along the Malecón would be a great alternative to taking a taxi like a typical tourist. By the time we were a few hundred metres down the street, we soon realised that the catcalls and suggestive comments from local men were going to be a necessary evil of the trip (prime examples: “Hey, you want to marry me?”, “Sexy lady, I love your body”, “Where did you buy your eyes?”, all sounding like bad lyrics from a boy band’s back catalogue). I put my trusty prescription glasses in my bag and swapped them for my rose-tinted prescription sunglasses, trying not to make eye contact with flirty locals and aiming to put myself straight in holiday mode. However, as a precaution against theft (don’t laugh), I hid my tiny digital camera under a scarf in my hand, just in case anyone wanted to eye up my belongings instead.
I have no idea how long my robber was following us down the Malecón because I didn’t even know he was there. The first thing I knew, I felt a tug backwards and a release of the strap on my small cross-body bag; I turned around to see a tall man holding it in his hand and looking me straight in the eye for a split second, before sprinting off towards a building site. As he jumped a construction fence with considerable ease, all I could do was shout, try desperately to run after him and peer over the top of the fence as I watched him run off with an accomplice in tow. It was over in seconds, my money, my purse and my much-needed glasses gone, along with some spare medication, copious research notes on places to visit in Havana, and a horrible looking roll that I’d made up from the breakfast buffet and stuffed in my bag for lunch.
One of the first things I exclaimed repeatedly afterwards, pathetically through choked back tears, was “I can’t see!” because rose-tinted lenses designed for sun aren’t much use in practical situations, either indoors, in poor light or at night. Once proud of having 20-20 vision, these days I use my glasses for everything, especially with a rapidly deteriorating prescription, and I’m unluckily both short-sighted and slightly astigmatic. For that, read: screwed at most distances. I can honestly say that I was sadder about losing my vision in a strange city than I was about losing money and cards. The utter terror and vulnerability after being robbed was compounded by not being able to focus on anyone who wasn’t close enough to be in my immediate line of vision. Most of my tears were hidden by those rose-tinted sunglasses, which were suddenly my only hope of seeing straight. Funnily enough, the world didn’t seem too rosy at that point. Luckily I wasn’t alone and my sister looked after me, taking me to the opticians marked in our Time Out guide as well as stepping into the role of banker for the rest of the holiday, but without her I’d have been lost.
What scared me even more on reflection was that I’d had absolutely no idea there had been anyone behind me at the time, let alone an armed man creeping up. The realisation that I’d been totally unaware of what was to come left me dreading a repeat attack – whatever people might say about lightning not striking twice, I was convinced that someone else would be just as likely to pounce in the coming days.
Whilst I don’t normally spend an entire holiday expecting to be a victim of crime, the incident undoubtedly left me incredibly paranoid and sceptical about any person in the street who came a little too close for comfort. This became a problem, as Cubans are naturally very friendly and will quite happily strike up a conversation with you or approach you as you walk past, even if they’re not trying to sell anything. This will seem very alien to Brits, who only chat to strangers if they have a sales motive, if the weather’s bad or if there’s a national emergency; however, it’s part of Cuban culture. I wish that I could have let my guard down more during this time and really embraced chatting to people, but I was resolute in my decision to put up those mental walls and, quite frankly, still very much in shock.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’d say to the man who robbed me. In the following days, I began to understand the reality of poverty in Cuba and the painfully evident difference between what tourists and locals are presented with. The segregation is horrible and embarrassing, exacerbated by having a separate and much prized currency for visitors. I don’t know how locals get by on their meagre wages in Cuban Pesos, and I can’t imagine what a struggle it is to make ends meet, yet deep down I still can’t excuse the person who did this. I’d tell him how utterly crushed and belittled I felt, and how long I was in a state of shock. My itinerary shrunk in reaction to what had happened and my confidence disappeared, leading to 90% of my journeys being by taxi rather than on foot, and many of my museum visits being conducted on autopilot. The decisions I made became largely influenced by safety and security, and each stranger who approached me turned my stomach into knots. I’d like the robber to know how this felt, and how much I hated myself for being suspicious of everyone’s motives thereafter.
So much for being an adventurous traveller – the actions of one man changed my entire perception of the holiday, no matter how much I tried to relax, and I knew there was something missing as I plastered on a brave face and tried to force myself to make the best of my remaining time in Havana. Of course, the rest of the trip did involve some great experiences, but they were numbed by my pessimism and a nagging feeling of dread in my gut that I tried in vain to shake off.
I know that my robber was probably very desperate and he knew it was worth the risk to take my much more valuable CUC currency, but I didn’t see his fellow Havana residents turning to crime to support themselves. I saw them working hard, and spending down-time along the Malecón fishing and chatting with friends; I saw them enjoying a beer together and listening to music; I saw them lighting up cigars with relish on street corners and taking their kids for an ice-cream in the park. I don’t see where committing daylight robbery, armed with a knife, should fit into this picture. Maybe that’s a naive view, but it’s what I’ve come to believe after my week in the country.
In my next post I’ll deal with the Cuban police system, which deserves its own special mention for the six hours of bureaucracy and boredom I encountered, but also the stories of fellow robbery victims I met and learned from.