Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Great Cuba Robbery

I got robbed.

And eventually, I unveiled an even bigger theft.

These crimes happened in a quite and at the same time quite touristy place in Cuba.

Establishing my private witness protection program, I will neither specify the place nor giving you real names.

Still, this story will let your blood run cold!


For some crimes, it's really complicated to file charges.

The Crime Scene


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 nightstand, 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 sideboard and the bathroom door. "You'll enjoy the best shower in all Cuba", he promised pointing at the bathroom door. As I passed the sideboard, 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' water glasses? 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.

The Robbery


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 brand new 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 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.

The Interrogation


"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.
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 embarrassing 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 blood pressure!" Ok, that's enough. I have a shampoo trauma and will never wash my hair again.
I need to get out of here.

The Special Unit


While I'm walking down the old colonial street paved with cute old cobblestones, 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 del gringo" - 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. "Oops, we have all our stuff there. I left everything open..." "I wouldn't worry", I soothe 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 professional 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.

A Bad Penny Always Turns Up


"Maybe it is a hotel room", says the English lady.
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 disbelief. 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 naive 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!


This is just an illustration. In no way am I insinuating that this gentleman is moving hotel furniture with his cart.

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 nonexistent or not available. The term is not stealing, it's called "organizing".


One of the pillars "really existing socialism" is built 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 this fascinating country.


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28 comments:

  1. Wow! What a fantastic read this write. Loved the way you explain the bathroom situation and someone stealing the shampoo :D

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  2. Wow, is it that bad there that they cannot get soap? I usually brush this type of thing off but they could have at least left you some to use yourself!

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    1. I was told to bring bars of soap and pens as gifts to my hosts. Regarding the hosts, I felt stupid and didn't give it to them since at all the rooms I rented, there was soap and everything I needed. Mind you, these are people that are in touch with tourists day by day so they are significantly better of then others. Most people have very little money and even if they have the money to buy things, the things are not necessarily available. Economically, it's a difficult situation.

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  3. The story does have many types of sad written all over it, but I guess this is not the forum to comment on the political situation. I probably won't be rushing to Cuba any time soon but not because I'm worried about my shampoo...

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    1. I totally agree - it reflects on a scarcity that for 'us' is unimaginable. Cuba has certainly good sides, but definitely also very difficult ones.

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    2. I should have also mentioned it was a great read and I could feel your unease as the situation got worse by the minute.

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  5. What a bizarre situation, to have someone decant your shampoo and lotions. Who knows if it's the owners or someone else having access to the room, either way, it would make me uncomfortable given the lack of security for the rest of my belongings. As for all the items "borrowed" from the hotel, where he used to work, sounds a bit strange but perhaps that hotel closed or got rid of old stock for a redesign or whatever, it might not necessarily be theft.

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    1. Actually, the furniture was brand new - and like I remembered later, this sort of 'organizing' was totally common in the former Eastern block in Europe; often it was the only way for people to get things.

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  6. Lol, loved this story. It's not going to put me off visiting Cuba but I shall definitely be keeping an eye on my shampoo!!

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    1. Yes, I guess shampoo is not something you feel belongs into a safe, right?! But this only shows that our reality is pretty much different from every day life in Cuba.

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  7. very cool story! it's something you can tell over and over again and never be boring! Love it! Keep travelling and keep safe your shampoos!

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  8. Wow! Quite a story. It makes sense though that they stole from Iberostar. You have given me so much to think about before a trip to Cuba. And, I would not have guessed that a guesthouse would be a best choice. After reading your post, I do wonder if it is the best choice.

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    1. It still is the best choice - this can happen to you everywhere, and actually I think it's even more probable that it happens at a hotel than at a private casa particular. Very, very few casas have employees and the owners are keen on granting really excellent service. We got money stolen from our room at a hotel in LA, so....but there, nobody would steal shampoo. It just tells you something about both worlds.

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  9. Wow, your privilege as a foreigner visiting Cuba really shines through in this article. Remember feelings about service are TOTALLY a cultural thing -- while "stealing" your shampoo goes over the line, with your comments about the "arrogance" of the hotel owner and his partner, I don't blame them for wanting to mess with you. Is that seriously how you think about your hosts when you're traveling abroad?

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    1. This is how I think about people who are arrogant. Actually, these were the only host at a casa particular that were not pleasant, otherwise everything went well. I guess it's like Karl Marx said: It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

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  10. Thanks for sharing your story and it reflects a different angle of travelling in Cuba. I had a great experience in Cuba though, so I guess you may have better luck next time! @ knycx.journeying

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    1. Besides this, everything went well. This incident only shows how difficult things still are for most people there.

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  11. The shampoo incident got a bit out of hand there, good thing that you just kept your cool and did not pursue it further. Regardless, the ‘organizing’ activity is interesting to know. A different side of Cuba that I don’t normally read about.

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  12. Some interesting insights into Cuba. I'm really dying to visit before it changes forever. Staying in a guest house seems like a great idea. I'd heard that shampoo and other cosmetics are valuable to the locals in Cuba.

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  13. I read this post with great interest. So strange that in a nice spot like this that they would steal your toiletries. Or maybe, that they would start with your toiletries. So strange to think that they decorated your room from stolen things from other hotels! Thanks for sharing this interesting tale.

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  14. I wonder what they'd make of my shampoo bar! It was a great article, full of suspense, and a great way to convey your story. It's hard to reconcile that feeling of distrust against the backdrop of the particular circumstances in Cuba. At least it was only shampoo and not your camera!

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  15. That's kinda weird. Who would go for shampoo? I guess the person who took it really needed it. I think if it happened to me - it would just make me laugh

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  16. Cuba is an enigmatic and fascinating country. I have always associated Cuba with those Cigars and Classic cars; But you have presented a fresh and different perspective of Cuba, a different side which is necessary to know.

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  17. I couldn't imagine living in a place like Cuba where you can't just buy what you need when you need it. I'm sure people get a little desperate there, right? Well, I am glad that the only thing you had stolen was toiletries. What if it had been a laptop?!

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  18. Wow...that is a crazy story. In fact, it is a bit hilarious too. A robbery within robbery kinds. Am sure that as you look back at the same, you too, would be laughing at it.

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  19. Oh no, that's really not a pleasant experience. But not something that would deter one to visit Cuba. Other things maybe but not the fear of having your shampoo stolen, lol.

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  20. What a story! I loved reading this - and felt like I was in the middle of a whodunnit novel! I am smiling at the story but at the same time, that must have been so frustrating when trying to find out who's stealing your goods! What a bizare situation to end up in! But a great story to share about travel to Cuba.

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