The Beggar of Trinidad

The Beggar of Trinidad

A Story by Beavo

A travel story about an adventure in Cuba

The Beggar of Trinidad

 Before leaving home on any of my regular backpacking holidays abroad, I always find myself wondering what will have transpired by the time I am safely back home, what new adventures will have unfolded while I’m away, and what new story will I have to recount to anyone who cares to listen in the bars of my home town. There is nothing more enjoyable than imparting a good travellers tale to a willing audience after a couple of beers, and if I exaggerate some aspect of a story just a little, then it is only in order to entertain, and to provoke a pleasing reaction which will in turn entertain myself. Previous holidays have seen me fleeing from the local mafia as a young, naïve lad travelling alone for the first time in Singapore, or learning Spanish while playing pool with a striper dressed as a cat, in a bar in Peru, and being attacked by what I thought at the time to be a bear, in Yosemite National Park. All good tales which I have told on many a happy evening in good company. 

My trip to Cuba in February 2007 was no different to any other of my fun filled adventures. As I excitedly anticipated my pending journey, little did I know that the seeds of this story were sown before I had even boarded the plane in my adopted home town of Aberdeen, Scotland. Whilst doing some last minute reading up on travel in Cuba I had discovered that the Cuban Convertible Peso cannot be bought out-with the country and so in the days leading up to my hastily arranged holiday I had tried to obtain travellers cheques which were not associated with a bank belonging to the ‘Grasping Capitalistas’ of the USA. This had proved surprisingly difficult in the great city of Aberdeen, oil capital of Europe though it may be. My last hope of finding a solution to the currency problem disappeared with further disappointment at the airport buro de change. I was forced to make a last minute dash to an ATM, withdrew the cash limit on my visa card and boarded the plane with four hundred pounds in crisp new twenty pound notes, Sterling. I was looking forward now to a nice relaxing break in the sun, away from the stresses and strains of working in the oil industry. I planned to spend my time exploring the crumbling colonial architecture of old Havana, photographing the vintage American cars I had heard so much about, travelling around the country and hopefully meeting a few locals along the way.
 On my arrival in Havana, I had a long, sweaty, infuriating wait standing in line to pass through Cuban customs. The arrivals hall was packed with travellers trying push their way through the few available customs booths to have their passports checked and visitor visas issued. This process seemed to take a ridiculous amount of time with not much in the way of technology on display to help it along. It had been a long stuffy flight and by this time all I wanted was a nice friendly hotel with a big double bed and air conditioning, maybe a nice cool Mojito to help me nod off to sleep. When I finally made it passed passport control, I faced my next challenge, the enormous crush formed around the Buro de change office, where I could just see a small glass hatch occupied by a lone teller slowly counting out fist fulls of notes. I eventually fought my way through the crush to the hatch and came face to face with a rather unfriendly looking Cuban lady, large and intimidating with horned rimmed glasses and a huge bee hive hairstyle. She had a steely look in her eye which clearly said she wasn’t going to take any lip from me. Handing over a wad of Scottish twenty pound notes I confidently pronounced in my very limited Spanish, ‘Cambio por favor!’ The Cuban beauty behind the glass looked at me and at my money with equal distain and shaking her head, she pushed back my very foreign currency, ‘Non!’ she said curtly. Indignantly I pushed it back at her, pointing to the line on her little notice board which gave the current exchange rate for, among few others, Great British Pounds. I declared in my broad Scots accent, ‘it’s the same!’ A blank expression returned. Again I tried,‘ Sterling de Escossia!’ I announced, to no avail. After much pointing and declaration by both parties, I was eventually defeated by the killer line, ‘Ser, in theese contree, right now, eets no good!’ 
For a brief moment in my tired and weary state, my heart sank and I walked away from the hatch wondering what the hell to do, was I stuck here for ten days with no money? Did the woman not know it was a Scot who founded the bloody bank of England in the first place! I said to myself. This thought seemed to cheer me and focus my thoughts. I pulled out my trusty visa card, made my way to an ATM, and made a cash withdrawal of Cuban Pesos, ‘sorted!’ It was going to be a slightly more expensive holiday than I had planed, but at least I had cash. I pulled my rucksack up on my back and joined yet another unruly queue to leave the airport. 
For the first week of my ten day holiday in Cuba, I soaked up all I could of the place. I always like to feel I have gotten under the skin of a country just a little bit more than the average package deal tourist. One excellent way to achieve this in Cuba I discovered was to stay in ‘Casas Particulares’ which are basically family run B and B’s. The hosts in this type of accommodation were in my experience, extremely friendly, delighted to talk to visitors from exotic places like Aberdeen, Scotland, to exchange news and views, and to tell tales of life and hardships in their own country. Firstly during a stay in the city of Cienfuego and again when I moved on to the colonial town of Trinidad, I felt like I was more than just a paying guest to my hosts, I genuinely felt like a family friend by the end of my stay. In Trinidad in particular, I bonded instantly with my host Gervacio Benitez who was obviously keen to practice his English with me and I enjoyed taking phrases from my lonely planet Spanish phrase book in order to get my message over to him. From Gervacio, I learned all I could about life in Cuba for the average family and experienced first hand, some of the difficulties when the power blacked out early one evening. My hosts were well prepared however and candles were soon produced to light up a fantastic evening meal. Never in my life had I eaten fresh lobster, but there I was enjoying it for the first time in a humble Cuban home during a blackout.  The lobster was accompanied by ‘Moros Y Cristianos,’ a traditional Cuban dish translated as ‘Moors and Christians’ which consisted of white rice flecked with black beans, and tasted delicious! Gervacio produced two large bottles of Buccanero beer and Mohitoes made with fresh lime from his garden and we proceeded to drink into the night, discussing everything Cuban from Castro to baseball. Next day I woke early and made my way into town, I needed some cash to pay for the previous two nights food and accommodation, my bus fair back to Havana and some for food and buccanero in the last few days of my holiday. Pulling out my wallet as I approached the bank, I had a sudden flashback to a drunken night on the tiles back in Havana where I had drank my way through several mojitos, and had run out of money for my taxi home. To my shock my Visa card was now gone, left no doubt in the cash machine where I had made my drunken late night withdrawal.
Okay, no panic I thought, I had been in this position before, I knew the drill, better get on to my bank back home and cancel the card as soon as possible, but in the mean time I had a second chance as I always travel with a back up credit card. I walked up to the counter of the local branch of Banco de Cuba and handed over my card in order to obtain a cash advance. As I waited for the cashier to swipe my card, I was thinking about how sipping an ice cold Buccanero in the sun would be a pretty nice way to spend the rest of the day. This little day dream was rudely blown away when the cashier, an officious looking man with beady little eyes, handed back my card with a shake of his head and a statement in Spanish which clearly meant, ‘not on my shift!’  
Okay, so now I was in trouble, now the panic set in, what the hell was up with my second credit card? I had no idea what the cashier guy was saying to me, and no idea what I was going to do next. I walked out of the bank and into the town square, where I sat down in the sun and let the seriousness of my situation sink in. I counted out the contents of my wallet and realised that after paying Gervacio for my room and food, I had roughly twenty four Pesos to my name and at this point in time I had no means of paying for my remaining three days in Cuba.  What the hell was I going to do? I had been in some tricky situations while travelling, but nothing in my previous experience was going to help get me out of this one! A mood of doom and despair swept over me and I sat with my head in my hands. I started to think that maybe I would have to hitchhike back to Havana Airport and get the first available flight home, thus ending my holiday in disaster. This was not an option I relished, I had come to Cuba to relax and enjoy, not to be stressed out and to go home early. After some time I lifted my head to find I was being watched by a local man standing just in front of me in torn jeans, flip flops and a faded Che Guevara T-shirt, he had the look of a hungry man. Cocking his head to the side, he spoke in good English, ‘Hey man where you from?’ ‘Scotland’ I replied monosyllabically, I was in no mood to socialise. ‘Aaah’ he said, “I been there” 
‘sure you have’ I thought.
 ‘Yeah, I serve in Cuban navy, 20 years, I been Edinburgh! Glasgow!’ he proclaimed. ‘Oh!’ I said, I was surprised. ‘Yeah, I been a lot of places’ he said, staring off into the distance. ‘Life in Cuba is hard some times,’ he continued, ‘Maybe you got some spare pesos for me?‘ He beamed at me with a broad smile on his tanned and leathery face. I gave the guy a rueful smile in return, little did he know at that point in time he was probably a richer man than me. However, I’m a great believer in, what goes around, comes around, and so I took ten Pesos from my pocket and handed it over. Great! So now I had fourteen Pesos, enough for a very weak Mojito if I was lucky.  The beggar seemed pleased enough with my donation and smiled broadly again, ‘Gracious Amigo,’ he said, ‘Have a nice day,’ and he shuffled off.
 I was about to head back to my accommodation and pack my bags for home, when a thought flashed into my mind, inspired no doubt by the clever way I had just been relieved of my precious cash by the beggars disarming smile. I remembered I still had my four hundred pounds in Scottish notes, which I now had to make work for me. The town was full of British tourists who could no doubt be just as disarmed by a friendly smile as I was. I decided I was going to track them down
and do my damnedest. If i could persuade them to swap any spare English bank notes they might have, for the equivalent in my Scottish notes, then I could take those to the bank and exchange them for Cuban Pesos, thus saving the day. I turned around again and set off to look for my first tourist.  
In the town square I spotted a man and woman in their late fifties sat on a bench and something about them, possibly their friendly appearance and milk bottle white complexions, hinted to me they just might be Scottish. I approached them casually and stopped at the far end of their bench, pretending to rummage for something in my bag and straining my ear to catch a word or two of their conversation. Sure enough, my hunch was right, they were undoubtedly Scottish, I couldn’t believe my luck.  My mother has always told me I would never be stuck with,‘a Good Scots tongue in my head’ so I beamed them a friendly smile and struck up a conversation. ‘Hello there, are you Scottish yourselves? Where are you from?’ Malcolm and Heather turned out to be retired teachers from Lochearnhead, a small village in Perthshire, Scotland and a nicer couple I could not have hoped to find to start off my begging campaign.  I explained to them my predicament and in my most desperate, pleading voice, asked if they might possibly see their way to helping me out. ‘Oh aye,‘ they said, ‘We could surely do that.’ They were able to spare me twenty pounds in English notes and had no problem in exchanging them for good old Bank of Scotland tenners. I thanked them profusely, and promised to stop in Lochearnhead next time I was passing to let them know how I had faired on the rest of my holiday. I was absolutely delighted with this success and as we parted company I knew I would remember their generosity for a long long time. After several more nervous approaches to unsuspecting tourists around town, with mixed levels of success, I managed to beg enough money to get me back to Havana and to pay for a nights accommodation there at least. I wasn’t out of the woods yet but it was a good start. This brought a smile back to my face and I headed off, back to the bank to cash in my wealth. 
Back at the Casa, I told Gervacio of my misfortune and how I had resolved to remedy the situation, he laughed raucously and produced two bottles of beer, ‘This one is on the house my friend,’ he said. We sat down for a delicious sea food supper and talked and laughed into the wee small hours. 
Next morning I rose early and after breakfast I said my goodbyes to the Benitez family. I wanted to make a small gesture of thanks to Gervacio for all his help during my stay and for his fantastic hospitality. I handed him my Scotland rugby jersey as the only gift I could think of which he might appreciate. As we shook hands I could swear he had a tear in his eye, God bless him. The whole family waved me good bye at the front door and as I walk into town to catch a bus to Havana, I somehow knew that everything would turn out okay. 
Back in Havana I checked into a very cheap Casa, I may have had some money now but I wasn’t about to waste it on a fancy bed for the night. On the bus from Trinidad I had planned my next begging tactic and decided that I should find a big expensive hotel with lots of rich tourists to target. I checked through my guide book and chose Hotel National De Cuba as a place where people might visit and spend time as a place of interest and I  set off to find it. As I walked into the atmospheric lobby of this grand hotel I felt more than a little nervous, this was no Holiday Inn Express, this was a place of luxury, a place for the wealthy, not a scruffy backpacker with hardly a peso to his name. I worried that I might get myself thrown out or worse if I was found to be asking the clientele for money, but  ‘In for a peso, in for a pound,’ I thought to myself. I approached my first British looking tourist, a fat gentleman in a panama hat who was reclined in an oversized armchair and smoking a large cigar. 
Within the space of twenty minutes I had managed to exchange ninety pounds of my Scottish notes for English ones, way more than I had hoped for. I had soon realised that I had a knack for spotting fellow Brits and with my winning smile and tale of woe I was able to persuade them to part with their cash quite easily.  I became quite cocky in fact, thinking to myself, ‘Why stop when I have enough, why not exchange a few extra notes and blow it all on a last big night out in Havana?’ I had met in with three lovely girls from Israel back in Trinidad and had loosely arranged to meet them in a club in town that very night, what better way to round off my holiday? 
That evening I showered, shaved and dressed for a night on the town, I hoped the three girls, Dal, Daneet, and Rochem would show up. They had been good company in Trinidad and would be ideal company for my last night in Cuba. Before I headed into town, I counted out enough money to pay my airport departure tax, and my taxi fare to the airport for the following evening. I stuffed this into the bottom of my rucksack and the rest I put into my wallet. ‘I’ll never spend all this tonight,’ I thought to myself as I headed out the door.
In the famous La Casa de la Musica nightclub, in down town Havana, I ordered a beer and found a quiet seat in a corner near the door, but I wasn’t alone for long as three familiar faces appeared in the bar. The girls smiled and waved enthusiastically when they spotted me and came over to join me. We were soon exchanging our news since the last time we had met, and we all laughed loudly at my particular story. I relaxed, enjoyed the company and the rum flowed freely.  
I’m not entirely sure of all the events of that night in Havana, but I know I danced like nobody was watching in the packed nightclub and sang along with enthusiasm to songs I had never even heard before.  I left the club early in the morning with a girl on each arm, and as we parted company we all swore we would meet up again some time, but I knew we never would, we were just ships that pass, for a night on the town. 
On my last day in Cuba, I woke with an almighty hang over and since I had a long haul flight to catch, I regretted having had just one too many glasses of rum. After a late breakfast I felt better however and once my bags were packed I decided I had just enough time to do some souvenir shopping down town, before I headed to the airport. I opened my wallet to pay for breakfast and to my shock, I found I had just enough money to cover it. I could not believe it but somehow during the course of the previous nights revelry I had managed to spend nearly all the money I had begged the day before, which was no mean feat. ‘Oh well,’ I said to myself, ‘No cigars or Che Guavara T-shirt for me, and what price a happy memory to round off my trip,’ but as I strolled along the Malecon, Havana’s crumbling sea wall, heading towards town, I looked up and saw again the Hotel National on the skyline. It’s luxurious splendour called out to me and I smiled to myself as I turned and headed for the Lobby once more. 
That evening, as I waited to board the plane for home dressed in my new souvenir T shirt, I thought about the beggar guy back in Trinidad, and in my head I said a little thank you to him for inspiring me to go out and save my holiday, and for providing me with my very latest holiday story to tell them all back home.

© 2020 Beavo

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Added on February 16, 2019
Last Updated on July 22, 2020
Tags: Travel, adventure, Cuba, holiday, travel writing, adventure travel, backpacking, travellers tale tale



Edinburgh, United Kingdom

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