When I got on the plane direction Cuba in August 2015, I knew this trip was going to be a tough one. I had been warned that men would constantly flirt with me in the next few weeks – something I am really uncomfortable with.
I was ready for it; not that I would ever accept this behaviour, but at least I was ready to keep cool about it, recognise it was local culture, and let it happen without fighting too much.
I am one to think genders are equal, and I hate receiving a different treatment because of being a girl. But I’ve always thought that, as long as men will treat me differently, it should be right for me to exploit any little advantages being a female gives me. As a mere compensation for the inconvenience.
What I did not expect, is how much Cuba would give me the opportunity to take advantage of men’s macho attitude, and how easy it would be.
Upon arrival in Havana, my major preoccupation was to find my own wheels. I really wanted freedom to visit the island as please. The problem was that it was high touristic season, and there were hundreds of foreign visitors hoping the same.
Most had pre-booked their rental cars months in advance. And even with that precious voucher, they had no guarantee to actually be provided, as there was a real shortage of cars.
But I’m pretty stubborn, and an experienced traveller. My intuition was telling me I should be able to find a vehicle. I ran from hotel to hotel, agency to agency, and asked around, making advantage of my very good command of the Spanish language.
Most agencies couldn’t help, but I soon realised that showing disappointment and begging for help did turn on empathy from the car rental employees – which were all male. They simply couldn’t let a girl be sad.
After half a day of frantic research, I finally met someone who was pretty sure a car was available at a rental agency in the Museo de la Revolución. Quite bemused at the idea to rent a car in the Museum of Revolution, I left my non-Spanish speaking friend queue at another agency (just in case) and ran there.
And indeed there was a small Peyo (that’s how they called that Peugeot) waiting for a tourist to pick it up. I initiated discussions.
It took some time to negotiate the rental agreements. Local culture wanted me to sit down, have a friendly chat, wait for some admin, very slowly introduce my terms, negotiate them in the middle of random friendly chat; and being flirted out by macho men.
The man in charge of the negotiations was called Carmelo. Tall, tanned, in his twenties, probably unaware I was certainly 5-10 years older than him.
I hated his flirtatious attitude, but I needed the car. And a better price. I had to play the game.
Oh no I was not flirting back, I’m not such a good comedian. But I did let things happen without fighting them, without closing doors, being mischievousness as I can be, and letting him interpret this as flirtatious if he wanted.
I was very proud when the deal was closed; I had the car, the price was acceptable to me (still very expensive, but lower than what other travellers had told me they paid), and Carmelo agreed to let me “test drive” the car – an excuse to go pick up my poor friend who was still standing in a never-ending queue elsewhere in town.
I knew there was a potential catch; my guide book mentioned something about rental cars having to go for a technical check every 10.000 km; a check that costs 50 dollars and is very time-consuming. And our car’s meter indicated over 67.000 KM.
But I was feeling brave because of my successes over the Cuban male sex so far, and decided to try that one too. Playing “girl” again, I told Carmelo I was concerned about getting a fine; what if I would exceed 70.000 km?
But Carmelo was a macho: he didn’t expect a girl would drive so many kilometers. And he was keen to reassure me, poor worried thing of the weak sex that I am. So he claimed there wouldn’t be a problem, and his colleagues confirmed.
They were misjudging. I am a traveller, and I was planning a proper roadtrip in Cuba. I was sure I’d exceed the 70.000 km threshold. But I let them insist I shouldn’t worry about the technical check, and they did repeat it, very clearly.
It was my first day in Cuba, and I was already using my charm to manipulate Cuban men. Something I would never do elsewhere in the world; but there in Cuba, this was a mere compensation for the annoyance their macho attitude to me was causing.
When we came back to Havana, after a +3000 kilometer roadtrip in Cuba, Carmelo was very pleased to see me again. But he was also surprised to see how much we’d actually been driving.
The meter had gone above 70.000 km, the technical check should have been performed. I was eligible for a fine.
So I “played girl” again. Was little and cute. Reminded them of their promises.
I heard Carmelo’s older boss tell him: “You see, Carmelo: you fall in love, and you make mistakes”.
When we left the agency, Carmelo followed us. He still had not understood the rules of the games, and was still hoping to score. He wanted to invite me for a drink.
But I was done “playing girl”. I politely but firmly declined. Carmelo was not Carmelo anymore, but truly Calimero.