On a road trip in Cuba, my friend, Chinese born, and I, of Italian and French-Canadian descent, learned that we were born of the same mother. We were both offspring jinetera, and our birth took place on a long, sweltering night to which Pilón, a distant dwelling of ne’er-do-wells, and her prostitutes played host.
If not for that night, the voyage was unremarkable. When we graduated, we decided to reward our four-and-change years of lackadaisical study and half-hearted home-writing with a trip abroad. The ritualistic university celebration of a single meal featuring all of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut would no longer suffice.
We decided to head south. It was something of a mandatory bucket list item for our country’s youth to travel to Cuba in search of sugarcane and stogies. And so we went, as had many before us and as would many after.
But, in service of our quest as entitled millenials to feel like unique snowflakes, we opted not to head the northern shores of parties and playboys. We went to neither Varadero nor Havana.
No, rather, we headed south, to Marea del Portillo, where the uncharted and quiet shores were oft the secluded setting of hotel-bound honeymoons and romantic rendezvous.
(n.b., The fact that we were two straight, single men notwithstanding.)
We were to be explorers, ambassadors, Columbus-ian adventurers. Heroes, we’d be called. Visionaries. Fine silks and spices, we would trade, and we may never return but for spending the fortunes we find in this our new kingdom, we as its kings.
And when we landed, and we lay foot on now-our unspoiled soil, we would have triumphed in our congress, our new empire established in a land willingly and hungrily longing for our reign, nubile in wait for our taking of its virginity and its virtue and its spoils.
That was the plan, anyway. But first, shitty buffets.
While we thought we were to some extent veering from the beaten path, not even in the distant and uncharted (read: not Google Mapped) south could we avoid the trappings of a Cuban vacation. The food was foul. The service was suspect. The sea was salty, the sand stinging hot, and the wildlife wily.
The week passed slowly. There was little worth recalling. That is, until the sixth night.
As part of our all-inclusive vacation package, a number of “tours” were offered. These pre-arranged events generally included travel to a particular location, a meal and walking tour at that location, and a trip back from that location.
The last of the tours we’d arranged seemed harmless at first. We were to go on a road trip of sorts a few hours from the resort to a small city for a party in the city’s center square. There’d be music, drinking, and dancing.
We’d heard from our mutual friend prior to leaving for Cuba that this was the single best event at the resort; it was, as he said, the Cuban equivalent of a “club night.” We knew little more than that before we were off on a bus to the city, towards the looming darkness.
The bus ride was boisterous. Our fellow travelers cheered and reveled in the carefree nature of an all-inclusive trip; booze flowed freely from cups to mouths and bottles to cups as my companion and I sat next to each other, surveying those that would act as our bait later that evening.
The most outstanding cast members had to be the extremely outgoing French-Canadian family hailing from just near Ottawa. The nuclear-plus-one family, with two sisters and a brother born to the mother and father, had come together for a week’s respite.
In stark contrast to the francophones was an oddly Chinese-looking couple and their son from Kazakhstan. The seven-foot-tall, Army-bound son would bear the nickname “Yao Ming” for the duration.
Further stretching the race pool of the cast were two estranged black girls. The locals evidently viewed them as a fine, exotic African dish to be consumed with extreme preference. They bore the nicknames “Alicia” and “Keys.”
Lastly, of course, there was Lau and I: the odd yellow and white man combo. We were appointed the nickname of “Harold and Kumar” when together, and I was referred to as “Tony Soprano” when alone.
(n.b., my olive skin could hardly be construed as Kumar-ian, and my aboot-laden English hardly mobster-ian.)
That effectively sums up the important cast. There were a few other secondary characters, such as a family with a father who looked exactly like a latino Michael Bay (ergo, “Miguel Bay”) with a quartet of attractive girls, but none played a big role in the affair that followed.
By the time we’d arrived at our destination, the hot Cuban sun had set.
Alicia, Keys, Yao Ming, Miguel Bay and his entourage, and the Francophones joined us in our departure (albeit they with more merry than we) from the bus, and likewise joined us in our immediate feelings of discomfort.
We were released from parental supervision to find ourselves dropped in the middle of a foreign, dark, and foreboding city square. While the resort’s coastal beachfront property felt safe by virtue of its defensible proximity to water and to the buffet, the city we now stood in was remote and bizarre and surprisingly lacking in wireless connectivity. Siri, as usual, was of no use to us.
Making matters worse was the fact that, shortly after we’d had but a moment to take in our newfound surroundings, the bus driver spun up the engines and began driving away, his airborne words of “we’ll be back in four hours” blown back in our direction by what I can only assume was the sound barrier breaking as he sped off.
We were left in the dark but far from alone.
We beheld our surroundings, which revealed that we had been left in the middle of a huge town gathering. A cavalcade of locals crept about the city square. Yao Ming, having somehow gathered intel prior, informed the group that the gathering was a weekly custom of the local townsfolk.
We moved unconsciously, as if puppets of some unseen puppeteer, towards the sole lit area before us. A lonesome set of tall, tapered, dark metal lamps illuminated the interlocking brick circle that lay in the center of the town square. The pedestal of sorts was slightly elevated and surrounded by waist-high concrete blocks.
The dark townscape that engulfed us seemed designed specifically to force us toward the light. Rickety houses made of broken clay tiles and shoddy woodwork, lacquered with peeling paint and laced with poorly-potted plants, dotted the outskirts. In the scantly-illuminated windows leered darkened faces and in the quiet air hung darker whispers.
Both the looks and the words suggested we were if not unwelcome then certainly undesired.
As though on cue with our arrival at its center, the square began to fill with music. It was not inspiring to us, though the same can’t be said for our cohorts, whose fear gave way to joy as they began dancing and flirting amongst themselves.
To the booming sounds of Lou Bega, the travelers danced an interpretive mambo, and we seperatists made our lonesome way to the cement seats which encircled the dance floor just in time to watch as the local masses began congregating around the circle.
Within twenty minutes, the area was fully surrounded by locals. Hundreds upon hundreds of bodies stood, sat, and stared at the fresh chum dancing away ignorantly in the square’s circle. And as nearly-outside observers, we couldn’t help but notice the tableau before us.
“It’s as though we were on display,” Lau recounted to me as I read him aloud the previous passage which I wrote on the beach the following day.
I questioned him. “But did you like it?”
He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts and thinking of that to which our immortalized video attests, before speaking.
“The town square was an exhibit,” he said quietly. “We were animals in their zoo.”
An hour had past before our sheer discomfort led us to break off from the group. A single, seemingly-harmless local boy had begun feeding drinks to the troupe we’d travelled with. A beer cost only the equivalent a $1, and as such, they flowed freely and fearlessly. Mambos and sambas had already begun to decline into mumbles and stumbles.
Seeking to put ourselves into a more favourable position, Lau and I left the center square. The thick crowd’s concentration left much of the town’s adjacent markets and housing empty, and once we were free from the square, we felt far less ensnared.We began to head in the direction which the bus had left.
Some 500 feet from the square, we came upon a small bar. The music was quieter, and the atmosphere far more docile. We weren’t open with each other about our mutual nervousness, as young men rarely are, but we also both subconsciously felt a shared sense of relief when we came to the bar.
That levity didn’t last long.
As we approached, we experienced a scene equivalent to that in classic westerns, where the saloon doors swing open with a silence-shattering creak before the saloon is again thrust immediately back into bone-shivering silence as the jukebox ceases. All of the bar’s ten patrons stopped and stared at us, eyes tracing both our slowing crawl towards the bar and the speeding fall of sweat from our brows.
“Uno cerveza, por favor,” I mustered, putting seven seasons of The Shield to good use.
After what seemed like hours, the bartender reluctantly handed us each a beer and he received five convertible pesos in return. His eyes lit up for a moment at the realization that I’d given him twenty-six times more than the drink had cost, but he tried fiercely to not let his happiness be known. He didn’t want us to feel welcome.
We were far from courageous men, but we decided to try to blend in. After all, we really had no choice: the bus was still hours away. We found the one empty table and sat, starting to sip our lukewarm, nameless beers, but our peace didn’t last long.
A large man came over to us, staring and then leaning on the table. The table bent under his weight. He stared first at Lau and then at me before speaking in an equally-weighty grunt.
“Ustedes tomaron mi silla.”
I searched through the episodes that I could remember but could find no suitable translation—not from King of The Hill nor Training Day nor even Stand And Deliver. Goddamn you, television! What good were you now? I would’ve learned more español watching Olmos in Battlestar Galactica, for Christ’s sake!
We didn’t know what to do, but we were sure he wasn’t happy. He hadn’t moved, and the table hadn’t levelled.
In times of crisis, we do terrible things. We revert to our basest forms. We forgo whatever social filters we have accumulated, whatever locks-and-keys we place upon our deepest, darkest tendencies.
And in that time of crisis, I did what any Canadian would do to escape the wrath of a captor.
I stood slowly, pushing my chest out as far as I could. I lifted my bottle straight to my lips and chugged the remainder, letting out a grunt as I finished the bottle before letting the bottle’s neck fall into my hands right-side round, all without unlocking my eyes from his.
My grip tightened around the bottle’s neck, and I traced the edge of the table with it—it now a weapon held by the tensing arm of a tense man.
My brow’s sweat again beaded. His eyes narrowed and mine narrowed further still. My mouth drew dry. His followed. We stood, at odds. He grimaced. I snarled. He looked down to the bottle. I smirked.
And then, I acted.
“Bartender”, I said calmly. “Diez cervazas, por favor!”
I don’t know when the mariachi music started, but the next thing we knew, we had been welcomed to the party with open arms. Laughs erupted from the table as he slammed his Buick-sized arms on my shoulders and pulled me around to his table. The bartender brought the drinks over with a laugh and the word “amigo” was thrown around almost as much as were the lime slices that topped all of our drinks.
And then, he spoke. “So, you’re from out of town?”
Sam spoke fluent English, and in the hour that followed, we three, Lau, he and I, spoke about a great deal. We told him of what we felt. We rationalized our thoughts about where we’d ended up that night, and he listened and responded.
We explained our view of the town’s weekly ritual, that we the tourists were simply there as some exotic showcase of the world outside the locals’ own—a strange and perverted circus act for their amusement. To think that each week the same tribal ceremony occurs. Every Saturday night, tourists were thrust into the center of this town, put on display for the locals to see.
At the same time, though, there was a strange feeling of resentment from the locals. It felt like we were in their territory, and it was only after we left that they took their rightful place atop the city’s central throne. The Saturday celebration was to be a special night for local Cubans, a night of celebration and song, and it seemed that the natives to Pilón resented the fact that their celebration was constantly interrupted by touristas.
We were, of course, interrupted from time to time. At one point, a man wandering around the square with a troupe that looked like merchants spotted us in all our conspicuousness. He roamed over and came up to us, pulling us aside to offer us all manner of wares that he was selling.
Of particular note was the fact that “chicas” was on his inventory. Upon hearing that, he saw our ears visibly perk up.
“You like girls?”, he asked with no traces of a grin or any indicators that he was joking.
The two of us looked at each other for a moment and dumb smiles formed on our faces. Was this a deleted scene from Bad Boys? Miguel Bay was here, after all.
“I can get you chicas. 40 pesos. We go to shop together,” he continued.
We paused for a moment, thinking through the decision, before ultimately saying “maybe later”. The thought lingered in the air as we stood in silence for a few moments before Sam approached.
We questioned Sam about the man who’d come and gone. Did he really have women for sale? Who was that man and the troupe to which he returned?
“We’re jinetero,” he told me. “Jintys.”
He explained it, or rather I interpreted it, as the confluence of a panhandler and a grifter, the Cuban master of figurative “Three Card Monte.”
He and his crew would bank on the kindness and ignorance of foreigners for their income, and they enjoyed a comfortable life because of it. The resort and the town had a partnership; they were symbiotic. The townsfolk worked at the resort and the resort worked for the town. The Pilón trip was specifically manufactured by the locals to fuel the local economy well beyond the resort grounds.
Our beers and our change fed men, mothers and makers, tots and teachers, dogs and doctors alike. And it was in this illumination that we felt compelled to act.
“Let us help you.”
And so we became jineteros. Sam taught us what we needed to know; we needed to sell the beers for two CUC$ instead of one, pocket the difference, and return both the bottles and the bonus to the Jinty.
We had an advantage the locals didn’t; the tourists knew us, trusted us. This was a valuable weapon that we could use to win sales, and so, swept up in the notion that we could become hometown heroes, we went to work.
In just a few hours, we sold and salvaged enough bottles of beer to qualify as a foreign Molson plant.We’d even, though I’m ashamed to admit, gotten Miguel Bay a little explosion of his own at the hands of a well-paid, older chica.
Our strategy was remarkably simple. We reintegrated ourselves back into the group, and as we danced, we offered to be the shepherds for beer. No one wanted to leave the circle or stop dancing, so we’d little problem convincing people to be the hostesses. In fact, in addition to giving us the extra coins for each beer, some even tipped us further.
Working in concert with us, the local Jintys played the role of distractors. One of the Francophone girls was all-but-impregnated by Carlos, a sly Cuban dancer who put on a salsa clinic as he dragged the poor girl along with him while he performed his picture-perfect dance. We easily crept around picking up bottles while the tourists clapped along blissfully.
Alicia and Keys enjoyed the brunt of the locals affection, as the Cuban young men flocked to them and serenaded them with foreign words, song, and dance. They welcomed our visits and offers of drinks for we gave them asylum from their suitors, if only momentarily.
Even Yao Ming got a little attention, as his awkward and never-ending frame tilted and swayed with the rhythm of the cute Cuban girls who fancied his footwork. He couldn’t be bothered to leave his ladies alone, and thus our stewardship was welcomed with pesos aplenty as our deliveries further enchanted his enchantresses.
In the end, no one spent their time batting away the annoying advances of the circling jinetero who would have otherwise had pockets and hands visibly full of coins and empty bottles.
We returned the night’s score proudly to praise and pats on the back.
Needless to say, the combination of drink and dance in conjunction with the heat saw that we were all absolutely exhausted by the time the bus returned some four hours after we had arrived. We’d worked hard.
The resort was quiet that night; only the violent snores of tired and coin-free foreigners could be heard ringing through the mountainside, down the coast, and out to sea.
On the seventh day, we rested. The journey was over, and we all made our own ways to our own homes.
But while the balance of our fellow travelers — Miguel Bay, Alicia, Keys, Yao Ming, and the Francophones — may not have lived on to tell of the tales, by virtue of likely having forgotten that is, I recall them with great vividness, for that was the day that Lau and I were made kings, proud jinetera of Pilón, by Sam.
And while we received no monetary compensation, willingly, we did walk away with gains. Everything we’d learned with regards to sales in our lives, we learned that night.
People prefer to buy when indirectly sold to. People prefer to buy when they have a set budget and limited time to spend it. People prefer to buy a solution to a specific problem. And most importantly, people prefer to buy from those they know, those they like, those they trust.
We’d turned more profit that night than the Jintys had any single week prior for the entire life of the resort. And best of all, we learned honestly. We gave the people what they wanted and kept none of the proceeds. It wasn’t a victimless crime: it was a welcomed charity. We turned jineterismo if not honest then at least transparent.
We were jinetero primo, we were, to them,“goodfellas”, old boys. We were, in Sam’s eyes now, more than amigos: we were Cubanos, born of a common mater, Jinetero.
These are lessons we went on to apply amply in the life that followed.
Lau went on to become the VP of sales for the pharmaceutical company he started working at right out of school.
He speaks to his market with respect. He knows his audience because he’s one of them, a scientist. He knows their situation, and he provides them with a solution. It’s not sales; it’s salvation.
I foster friendships and fence fiction. So what say you, gringo? Fancy a story from an old friend?