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Pickpockets and other Rogues

By Lurker

Since I'm learning that some people are VERY touchy- let me start with a prolog- If I note that there are a few petty crimes in Cuba, it's not because I think that Cuba is a desolate, immoral wasteland- quite the contrary. Most people are exceptionally honest and extraordinarily honorable. Therefore I am not trying to sully the name of Cuba, or impugn the Cuban character, or frighten people away from traveling to Cuba, or any of the imaginative motives that people are able to invent.

Nonetheless- I have been ripped off a few times- always my fault for not being careful enough. For me, stories of petty deception are interesting. Maybe this is evidence of a latent criminal nature.

The most elaborate rip-off happened in Guantanamo. Some years ago there was actually a peso or two to be gained by changing dollars on the street, so that's what I did- maybe just as much for the experience as for the extra peso. Anyway, I was outside the cadeca, approached as usual, and offered the same rate as they were giving inside- lets say, 22 pesos. When I noted that I could get 22 anywhere, I was offerred 23, and finally 24.

I only wanted to change $10. The guy told me that we could only do business across the street- so we walked across. I kept my ten dollar note firmly in my right hand, and held out my left hand. The guy started counting out twenty peso notes- 20, 40, 60- and the really clever thing was that he didn't stop at 240, he kept counting until he had placed 260 pesos in my left hand. I then gave him the ten dollar bill, and told him that he had given me too much, and was about to return twenty pesos. At that precise moment a colleague of his came over with two bicycles, the money changer called out 'police', quickly gave me back my note folded up, took back the 260 pesos and rode away in a panic. When I unfolded my note- of course it was no longer a ten dollar bill, but a folded up one dollar bill. So I lost nine dollars, which ate up all the profits of all my other money changing trasactions. I'm not really pissed off about it- I feel sort of like I paid nine dollars for someone to show me a magic trick. Paying out the extra 20 pesos was a an admirable psychological touch.

The other robberies all occurred on the trucks which I've probably ridden a few hundred times. Wotan says that I shouldn't be so cheap, and that I should always travel by taxi, but first of all, I am cheap, and even at $5 per taxi ride I've saved over a thousand dollars by cramming myself in along with the hundreds of people and the burlap sacks of onions and everything else. And secondly, I like riding the trucks, even though these trucks are hotbeds of delinquency. I even know how to get a seat almost every time- by walking to the place where each truck originates. Most every day in Cuba starts out for me with a nice walk, along which I greet the various batido sellers I've come to sample over the years, and then a nice although crowded truck ride to Siboney, Mar Verde, or at least some other part of Santiago.

I never carry much money with me- $10 is more than enough to go to the beach, read a book, visit friends, invite friends to lunch, drink a few beers. Every night I go back to my family in Santiago.
As a novice truck rider, I had a few dollars stolen out of my shirt pocket- well, putting money in a shirt pocket is really pathetic since the truck bounces around and your personal space diminishes to nothing- people are literaly pressed against you on all sides, so a quick, deft finger movement and your money is gone. Then I started to put my money rolled up in my sock. That worked for a long time, but one day I got off the truck and my day's budget was gone! I don't know how they did it- maybe someone saw me put the money into my sock before the truck arrived. I had to borrow a peso from one of the sandwich sellers at the beach to take the truck back- well, since I know them all, and my credit is good, I didn't have any problem- they even staked me to cheese and tomato sandwiches, all the batidos I wanted, and even two beers. All in all, another good day.

But eventually I switched over to a money belt, even though I don't like them. And eventually, the truck pickpockets managed to steal my money belt! Again, my negligence is to blame. When I went for a swim, naturally I had to take off the money belt (I know lots of Cubans who are trustworthy enough to guard my bags, because I am a creature of habit, and I do the same things over and over again). When I decided to go back to Santiago, I didn't put the belt back on like an intelligent person would have done- I just zipped it up into a shoulder bag- lack of thinking, pure and simple.

This was on a Friday evening, when the criminal elements coming back from Siboney are near their apogee. Everybody is drunk, and a minor scuffle is not uncommon. Different coteries were passing a bottle around, and then somebody pulled out some raunchy pornography that they must have gotten from a tourist- the magazine was in German, although the pictures didn't need any explanatory text. These guys were drooling over the photos, but worse, they started to put the magazine in the faces of all the ten or twelve year old schoolgirls that were going back to Sevilla, the little town between Santiago and Siboney. Some of these girls would turn their faces away because didn't want to see the images, but the drunken perpetrators were saying things like, "Nena, you have one of these and I'm going to show you what to do with it". Some good people I know were smiling phony smiles because they didn't want to get involved. There was one girl who really was ashamed who was forced to look at the magazine. I've never liked crudity and I was angry, so I said- shame on you! - I don't care what you do at home but to force little girls to look at pornography is a shame and a crime! But I was the only one to speak up, so the drinking and ponography sharing continued, with a lot of people looking at me with a look that seemed to say, to me anyway, 'who is this asshole tourist riding this truck and telling us not to look at a dirty magazine' Of course I don't know what they were really thinking, but that's the impression I got.

About a minute later a fight started in the back of the truck. My theory is that the pornography induced these people to do more antisocial activity, although I know that others think that pornography has no such effect. Anyway, in a second, someone shouted out- cuchilla! He's got a knife! There was no room for anyone in the truck to move, but somehow my side of the truck got even more crowded as a little space was made for the people fighting. Someone started banging on the top of the truck, which then pulled over. All the schoolgirls then ran out the sides of the truck to escape danger. The guy with the knife was thrown off the truck, although not handed over to the police. The girls got back on, and I rode on in to Santiago. When I got off, I noticed that my shoulder bag had been unzipped and the money belt was gone.

The worst of it was that this was the only time I ever took my passport to the beach- and it was gone! In the morning I had gone to extend a visa, and I had gone directly from Vista Allegre to Siboney- my first mistake. The second was to not put the money belt on, and the third was to not pay attention during the knife fight when the crime was committed. (Wotan would say that the first mistake was to ride the truck instead of a taxi). I lost three dollars and a passport, and it was a big pain to get a replacement passport- not quite a thousand dollar pain, so I think I'm still ahead.

My sister in law says that the entire knife fight was staged to create the necessary diversion, but I'm not quite so cynical. I think the knife fight was real, but it then presented a fortuitous opportunity.
At the police station where I had to report the incident in order to get a replacement passport, I suggested that they put a few cops on these trucks at least over the weekends, and everybody thought it was a good idea, but obviously, nothing was going to happen. One of the guys with a stripe or two more than the others told me there weren't enough police. I guess all cops think alike- according to them, there's never enough police, although according to most people, police are standing around all over the place when they could be more effectively preventing crime.

Anyway- like I said at the beginning- I'm not slamming Cuba- but if anyone wants to add their tale of petty thievery or imaginative roguery- I'd like to read it! I can't speak for others, and maybe more people want to read about the arrogant Americans, or the righteous Canadians- to each, their own!

















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