Wednesday, April 26, 2017

the great cuba robbery

I got robbed. And as a side effect, I unveiled an even bigger theft.
These crimes happened in a quite touristy place in Cuba, but to protect everybody involved, please understand that I'm neither specifying the place nor giving you the real names.
Still this story will let your blood run cold!

For some crimes it's really complicated to file charges.
The very moment I stepped into the room, I felt there was something not right.

In Cuba, when you do not want to stay at a hotel, and believe me, you do not want to stay at a hotel, because they are all run by the government, and while not every aspect of socialism is bad, when it comes to service and hospitality and comfort, it actually is. If you need something or have a request, never forget that employees at these places earn next to nothing and don't give a damn.
So what the savvy traveller does, is book her- or himself into a "Casa Particular", a guesthouse run privately yet legally by some Cubans who can spare a room or two. Wonderful idea, great project, good to get in touch with Cubans and Cuban life.

Usually you get a medium sized room with a heavy dark wooden bed, a mostly not matching night stand, some kind of closet with a funky mix of wooden, plastic, and wire hangers. The room is either lightened by an old, dusty chandelier or a simple lamp from the 70s. Often the hosts try to make it look homey by adding decoration like plastic flowers or stuffed animals of the tacky fairground style.
Although this sounds rather humble, you realize that in Cuba it's the next best thing to a room at the castle of Versailles as soon as you see how your hosts live in most cases: definitely less comfortable.

So after having spent a couple of nights in heavy dark wooden beds next to plastic flowers, you will understand my surprise when this host led me into a big, light room. I looked around with my mouth open: on a large, flat bedframe was a slightly smaller king size mattress that left enough space around it to use the frame as a bed stand. At the ceiling - instead of grandma's chandelier - were rows of embedded LED spots. Where the hell did these people get all this stuff? The guy had a proud smile on his face when he saw my surprise and opened the matching closet - and as he opened the doors, lights went on and illuminated the closet's inside - like in a fridge; or like in a closet at a very classy hotel room. I turned to the guy: "This is amazing! This is so elegant! It's like a hotel room! A really posh hotel room!" The guy was shining with pride. He was standing between a side board and the bathroom door. "You'll enjoy the best shower in all Cuba", he promised pointing at the bathroom door. As I passed the side board, I noticed two water glasses, covered with paper lids that had the word "sanitized" printed on it. What's going on here? Did these people actually order printed paper lids for their guests' waterglasses? Most Cubans own a couple of plastic cups - and these people sanitized glasses? Isn't that a tad bit over the top for a Casa Particular?! The shower, by the way, turned out to be one of these big, square rain shower thingies.

Two days later, I get out of my king size bed, step into the glass cabin, turn on the water that drizzles in sad drops from some of the holes in the square shower thingy because unfortunately Cuban water pressure doesn't rise with the gadget. As I wet my hair and squeeze the shampoo bottle, there comes a tired 'pfff' and a small dab of shampoo. I'm irritated - the bottle was brandnew when I got to Cuba, and I've washed my hair maybe seven times since then. It should be still almost full.  I squeeze and squeeze - nope, almost empty. How is this possible? And I'm sure I didn't spill the content in my luggage, that I would have noticed.
Irritated I am drying myself and grab my body lotion. Hm, the container seems so light. And the lotion, too, was purchased for the trip and should be almost full. What is going on here? I'm fixating on what might have happened to the stuff - and suddenly it hits me bolt: someone emptied my toiletries!  Someone robbed me! I'm aghast.

This is a an average store in the Cuban city of Santa Clara.
The problem of losing things in Cuba is not their cost or value - it's that you can hardly replace them on the spot.


What are you supposed to do when someone steals your shampoo? It's ridiculous. And annoying. And neither fair to me nor to the hosts.
I have to tell them.

"Hola, Norman, ¿como estas, Luisa?" There they are, the slightly arrogant Norman who serves the breakfast treats as if he's working on the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship, and his tiny wife Luisa who doesn't get a certain agony and weariness out of her expression. "I have a question: who is doing my room?" "Me", answers agonized Luisa, "why?  Is something wrong?" She does. This is not what I've expected to hear. This is going in a wrong direction. If there is one person in this town who did not siphon off my shampoo, than it's this pathetic tiny person. "Ummm, it's only you? You alone?" Nodding. "Umm, some of my shampoo is missing. Someone must have decanted it." "It was not me!" She becomes agitated.  "It was not my wife!" Norman has her back. Ok, what kind of dumbass do you guys think I am? Not one second did I suspect the landlady at this fancy place losing her reputation over shampoo. But someone took it, and I don't believe them that nobody got into my room. But they insist frantically that it's only her having access to the room and they ask me over and over again if I'm sure, and I keep repeating to be sure and they keep repeating that they didn't do it - which I'm sure of, anyway. At one moment Norman goes to another room and comes back with a box full of small shampoo bottles, the size you buy for weekend trips or find in hotel bathrooms. "Look how much shampoo we have, we don't need yours! ", does he bark in my face. "But I never thought it was you guys", I repeat - meanwhile a little exhausted by this terribly embarassing situation. "You know what, forget it, it's not that important", I try to escape this shampoo hell; meanwhile Luisa has tears in her eyes and looks more miserable than ever. I go to my room to get ready when I hear someone knocking. As I open the door, there is Norman standing with his arms full of shampoo bottles of all kind of brands. "Look what guests left with us: all this shampoo! We don't need yours. Take one, take anyone you like" and he's pressing shampoo bottles upon me. Ok, this is getting out of hands. I really have to control myself not to crack up laughing. This is absurd. Stop showing me shampoo! I don't wanna hear about shampoo anymore. "My wife is sick, she had to take pills for her bloodpressure!" Ok, that's enough. I have a shampoo trauma and will never wash my hair again.
I need to get out of here.

While I'm walking down the old colonial street paved with cute old cubble stones, I remember that the way to hell is said to be paved with good intentions. It was by good intention that I wanted to inform these two that someone is stealing at their house; and it got me to shampoo hell! Beats me why they insisted it wasn't them and obviously didn't even consider for a second the help hanging around the house. I bet she has access to the room, too, but I didn't want to add fuel to the shampoo....um, flames.

Wandering around I spot the English couple I've met some days ago in Cienfuegos sitting in front of a small diner having coffee and sandwiches. Now that I'm sort of a public enemy, it's nice to see familiar faces, so I ask if I can join them. When travelling, it's not unusual to meet the same people at every place you go over and over again. Most of the time travellers go to the same spots. Therefore in Peru they call the route from Lima down to Titicaca "ruta gringa" - very suitable. So anyway, since I'm in distress and they are nice I tell them about the shampoo robbery and they are sympathetic and find I was absolutely right to tell the hosts about it. "Where is it you stay?", asks the English lady and I tell her Norman's and Luisa's names. "This is where we stay, too! Got there yesterday evening. We have the upstairs room", she cheers - only to immediately turning a bit edgy. "Oups, we have all our stuff there. I left everything open..." "I wouldn't worry", I sooth her. "After today's fuss, you're stuff will never be safer. You don't think that now that all eyes are on this situation someone will take something from your room, do you? What's much worse is that his wife has a heart condition. If she dies from this, I will have killed her over shampoo!" We both giggle, and that lightens the mood a bit.

To make up for the calamity I caused, I now start to say nice things about our mutual hosts; how professionel he prepares and serves the breakfast, how nice everything looks. "Yap, he actually is a professional. He used to work at the Iberostar hotel. Didn't you notice: the spoons and the other dishes have the Iberostar logo on it." No, I haven't noticed. All I noticed was that everything is really very new and modern. The English's room is not like that, though. As I describe mine mentioning all the details, they are impressed and seem to be a little bit jealous. "Yes, it's really fantastic", I emphasize and describe the spots and the lights in the closet and the square (thus low pressure) shower and the lids on sanitized glasses. "Like a hotel room", I end my admiring/bragging. "Maybe it is a hotel room", says the English. We look at each other. My eyes are going wide and my jaw drops. "Oh my god, you don't think he...", I stare at her in desbelief. Slowly remembering every bit, it dawns on me - the printed lids, this morning the box full of miniature shampoo bottles you find at hotels, all the especially for Cuba unusually state of the art stuff. "You mean he got all that stuff from his former employer? Oh my god, and I told him 'This is like a hotel room'..." "But you were wrong: It is not like a hotel room, it is a hotel room. You are staying at an Iberostar room outside Iberostar!" she's laughing. "How....?" I cannot even finish the sentence, this is hysterical! "Well", the English leans back and sketches the scenario coolly "they probably took a cart and a donkey and went there after dark. There's an Iberostar just down the block. They didn't even have to go far". I feel like such a naiv fool that I didn't suspect anything, even not when I saw the überprofessionel paper lids promising me the glasses would be sanitized. Wow, this is unbelievable!

And then I remember that in Cuba this might not be such a big deal because Cuba is like a museum of the "really existing socialism". Almost thirty years ago everybody in the former Eastern bloc lived like that, and here the signs are still there: the queues in front of every bank, phone company, the almost empty stores. The oblivious (best case) to rude (worst case) employees of the state-owned enterprises who see no sense, let alone challenge in being service oriented or friendly to customers. And of course the refined art to obtain things that are officially non existent or not available. The term is not stealing, it's called "organizing".

One of the pillars "really existing socialism" is build on: forming queues, waiting in line;
no matter what and no matter what for.

Someone is washing her sins away with my shampoo - "organized" from my room.

This story shouldn't by any means hold you back from travelling to Cuba!

Read my inspiring description and extended information on interesting places in Cuba - that I've travelled bye:myself.

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