Cuba - Jineteros and the land of opportunity
Jineteros, otherwise known as hustlers, poachers or street jockeys, specialise in swindling tourists. They're so good at what they do, that people have written books about how to manage encounters with them.
In Havana - they are everywhere. The thing that struck me most when meeting them, was their desperate need to make money - in any which way they could. They weren't aggressive about it at all but they were relentless and so quick and tactical it was scary. They really did have it down to an art form.
Jineteros operate either alone or in pairs posing as couples. Completely harmless and lovely, they start a conversation with you and before you know it you're in a bar being ordered a round of drinks that you will be expected to pay for, or shown a room that is available for rent. This system of poaching people is remarkably quick and no matter how prepared you are, you will always be caught off guard at some point.
There are many creative, imaginative ways of luring in the tourist and making money from unsuspecting holiday makers who are just looking for a good time.
A Classic Jinetero Moment
"We're musicians and we're playing in 15 minutes - you should come and see us! [No gracias]. We'll get you in for free...[No gracias]. It's the last day of the Havana Salsa Festival. It's just down the road..." before you can even say no thanks one more time, you're skilfully manoeuvred into a bar like pawns on a chess board; the waitress is asking you what cocktail you want and the musician is asking you to buy milk for his pregnant wife, who is now sporting her swollen belly. GOOD GOD!
"It's one off free entry salsa night at the Buena Vista Social Club!" Say you have no money - maybe another time. No money means no business - they'll leave you like a shot and go to the next people.
A new meaning to the word opportunity
Cubans have an ability to seize any opportunity that comes their way. No opportunity with them is ever wasted, and I'm not just referring to the Jineteros here. What I stumbled on was a nation of entrepreneurs - really really smart, educated people - some of whom chose to be jineteros, some of them business people running casas, restaurants and taxi services. Under the new government Cubans have had restrictions on running private businesses lifted and were taking full advantage, while they could, of the money coming in through tourism.
The tension, politics and hunger for more, more, more seemed to make the earth shake. It was palpable.
I have never ever come across a more determined group of people in my life, and after leaving Havana I was about to learn a lot more about how 'seizing opportunity' was what set the Cuban people apart.
Next stop: Soroa, Cuba - Escape to the Countryside