How not to order Ice-Cream in a foreign country (and why you should still try).

This post is a continuation of my Cuba saga. Lots of fun things happened to me while in Cuba, and this is one of them. Let's share in the good memories. Note: This is a completely true story.

With friends at my side, I waltzed (or salsa-ed) down the middle of a busy town square in Ciego de Avila, Cuba. My native language is English, and I couldn't understand the Spanish music blasting out of some speakers half a block away; offering the natives a chance to dance some stress away after visiting the local markets and working their government jobs.

Town square in Ciego de Avila, Cuba
We walked through the area shown in the above image which I found at
The air was humid, and about room temperature even though it was the middle of January. A perfect night for some wandering around pointlessly, which was pretty much how we approached finding a restaurant to eat that night.

I was in a group of nine colleagues, eight of whom had absolutely no idea how to understand Spanish spoken by the average fluent speaker. We had just struck out trying to get dinner at a fancy joint that did not open until later that night, so some members of the group decided we should go grab some ice-cream before dinner to pass the time.

Of course, I thought they were a bunch of crazy hooligans wanting to eat dessert before dinner, but I was practicing 'going with the flow' on this trip so I kept my mouth shut.

Some of the more loudly spoken members of the group (who knows exactly who they are if they're reading this) had a fantastic place in mind. As we neared this ice-cream shop, I sort of remembered a couple days earlier when we walked past that place and our Cuban guide told us it wasn't suited for tourists. I was at least 80% sure that we shouldn't be there, but my friends were very confident and I was just 'going with the flow' as I said earlier.

As we stood in a line in front of the shop, waiting to be seated, we noticed that the ground floor of the building was pretty packed with families, and we thought there would be no way they could seat all nine of us at once. We decided to split group into one party of four and the other five. Of course, that means one group had to go without the person who had any reasonable Spanish skills.

Because I'm a magnet for awkward situations, I went with the group of five who had no Spanish skills. Our host started walking us around the side of the building instead of into the restaurant, which we thought was kind of strange. Then we notice her turn into the alleyway behind the building, which seemed exceedingly sketchy. Turns out, the alleyway was a staircase leading to a second floor of the building and there were lots of tables and staff members running around.

At the top of the staircase was a menu with a ton of Spanish words, including what I thought said 'Caramel Sundae." I was pretty excited about eating a caramel sundae, so my mood was lightened as I walked toward a table close to the kitchen. The tables and chairs seemed to be made of solid marble, which made me assume this was a quite classy joint and they could not possibly have no idea how to deal with tourists.

When a Cuban lady walked over and said, "blah blah biblioteca, blah blah helado, blah blah tengo muchos gatos" I knew we were way out of our element. She hardly slowed down even though our outrageous looks of shock would have stopped the most talkative politician dead in the middle of a sentence.

By the time she stopped, I was dreading the part where she actually took our order. We tried to say "caramel sundae" in a Spanish accent, but apparently she had no idea what we were talking about. It should have been painfully obvious that we were not native Spanish speakers, but she launched into a spheal to give us a ton of options with our ice-cream that we had no idea if we wanted or not. Eventually, she reached over to another person's table and grabbed their ice cream from them. Seeing that it was indeed ice-cream, we all said "sí" at different times which we thought made it clear that we just wanted the basic package of ice-cream that she showed us.

We said 'sí' a couple more times and she was on her way.

A few minutes later, she came out with two giant glass goblet thingies per person. One had large scoops of ice-cream, and the other had some bizarre whipped topping. Apparently the 'sí' strategy gave us more than we were expecting, so we were pretty proud of ourselves.

The ice-cream tasted fine; comparable to a lower class ice-cream shop here in the states. The dessert actually exceeded my expectations at the time because Cuba does not have a super strong dairy industry, and I was confident that the prices at this place were tailored to the low wages of the average Cuban family. Needless to say, we were happy about whatever it was we were putting in our mouths.

That is, until it came time to pay. You see, Cubans have two currencies. They have the CUP, or Cuban Peso, and the CUC, the Cuban Convertible Peso.

Tourists have CUC, because it is the currency that they get from converting their country's money at any Cuban exchange. Cuban citizens have CUP, because that's what their government distributes to them.

So we sat there with CUCs in our pocket, which are comparable in value to US dollars, and the lady came over telling us we owed treinta, which means thirty. When I asked, "Cuantos CUC?", she said in a slightly louder voice "Treinta!"

3 Cuban Peso bill.
Our server wanted Cuban Pesos, like the bill above. Image taken with my HTC One X
3 Cuban Pesos Convertibles Bill
We only had the Convertible kind, like the bill above which may have been in my pocket at the time.
For the amount and quality of ice-cream we got, we figured $30 was a little steep so we knew that she just wasn't prepared to convert CUP into CUC for us. Just as I suspected earlier, this restaurant normally only accommodated locals and only billed in CUP.

At the time, we were sure that CUP help far less value per unit than CUC but we were panicked into forgetting the exact conversion which we desperately needed.

The leader of the group, who was actually one of our trip sponsors, whipped out a twenty CUC bill and handed it to the lady saying, "Para ti." He figured that a similar trip to an Ice-Cream shop in the US would cost a group of five about $20.

It wasn't until later that we found out 20 CUC is worth 500 CUP. Our bill was a very cheap 30 CUP. This means the lady who served us got a 470 CUP tip, which comes out to be around a 1566% tip.

That's right, we accidentally left a 1566% tip on some ice-cream that we had no idea we ordered.