CUC $10 Minimum


From The Walrus:

At the end of the meal, I’d given the waiter CUC $80 and received CUC $10 in change, and as I stood there with the ten-peso note in my hand Antonio grabbed and pocketed it. I shot him a confused look, and he responded with a half shrug that seemed calibrated somewhere between What’s it matter? and You know the score. I hadn’t intended to give him the money, but he decided he deserved it. Hours later, on the rooftop patio of the Casa Granda, drinking a mojito that cost nearly half the amount I was obsessing about, I wondered what that shrug really meant.

We were under no illusions, my wife and I. We understood that Antonio was, in local parlance, a jinetero — a tout or fixer, though in Cuba the word often suggests a darker meaning: hustler or scam artist. We’d participated in a drawn-out haggling courtship with him across a couple of days, a dance familiar to us from other trips to countries with bustling grey markets. There had been repeated encounters on a busy street in front of a tiny, decrepit photo studio that may or may not have been his usual place of work. He’d presented us with a gift of a photo and some cheap cigars, and we’d discussed the possibility of a city tour as if it were a friendly outing and not a paid transaction. We’d checked with the tour desk of the Meliá hotel, the only full-service resort in town, and knew that an organized tour in an air-conditioned bus would run us more than $100. We preferred the idea of giving our hard-currency CUCs and maybe a gift or two to an enterprising jinetero instead of to a government-controlled joint venture.

It was the right choice, and we had no regrets. It had been a fun day, revelatory in ways an official tour never could have been, and we’d been generous with Antonio and his family, paying out his fee in bits and pieces, in overpayments and unasked-for change. I’d overpaid for drinks at the Afro-Cuban cultural centre, handed him too much money by a factor of at least five to pick up a six-pack of beer to share back at his house. We’d stopped back at our hotel at the end of the tour and filled a bag for him and his family with markers, notebooks, two toothbrushes, some new towels, and a used pair of Adidas shorts. We’d paid him and the driver CUC $20 each for their work as guides — the equivalent of a month’s wages in a typical government job — and had bought him and his other friend lobster dinners (another month’s wages, although the place never would’ve served Cuban diners on their own, even if they’d had the CUCs).

So, yes: we all knew roughly what the score was. But to Antonio’s mind, I’d come up with a figure at least CUC $10 too low, and he’d taken it upon himself to round it up. At first, standing in the street outside the restaurant as he and his friend departed in a flurry of hugs and warm handshakes, I’d felt something verging on a sense of violation. Had I been robbed? Had I been — that most dreaded of veteran traveller fears — played somehow? Was I a sucker?

“On Tipping in Cuba”, Chris Turner, The Walrus