From the mosquito-proof confines of my tent I saw the millennium dawn on a unique and resilient people who have nothing - yet everything - to give.

Here is a snippet from my book entitled "The Handsomest Man in Cuba", about my 3 month self-supported bike trip  in 2000.

The Handsomest Man in Cuba

People to see and places I enjoyed included below ...

La Casa de Lolita  Santiago de Cuba, January 2000

Lolita’s house is a tiny, crumbling time capsule wedged in crevice of colonial Cuba. Each morning I wake and open the two little shutters in the front doors to let in the mournful cries of  "tomatoes…cebollas…ajo" (tomatoes…onions… garlic) and the clack-clacking of barrows trundling through the narrow cobbled laneway. Lolita goes to work every morning at 7.30am sharp, to a cleaning job in a hospital that pays her $5 a month. With this pitiful salary she buys food, cleaning products, or an item of clothing - one of the above. On the table she’s left me a small plate of scrambled eggs, two bread rolls toasted with a scrape of cooking oil, and a jug of freshly squeezed orange juice. I am aware she’s given me her daily ration of one bread roll plus that of her estranged husband. On the faded walls are photos of her wedding day, in which her ex is blocked out by happier photos of herself, pregnant before her miscarriage. He’d left her whilst working in another part of the country, and she attributes the loss of her baby to her heartbreak. Such things are accepted with a sigh in Cuba, the paradox being the intense closeness of family, married with the accepted waywardness of the Cuban male. There is even a name for this type of hombre: "pick-a-flor", or "he who picks women like flowers".

The ration book - one bread roll per person per day.

Ready to go looking for drinking water, Holguin Cool retro sign outside this port town in Granma province

In the tiny nook of a kitchen, I light her rusty petroleum camping stove to heat water for a wash, and wait for the oily black smoke to disappear. Outside, water comes trickling from a pipe every five days. It is collected in three large drums, the reserve for the coming dry week. I stand in the waterless concrete shower, ladling cupfuls of hot water over my head, and let the spillage fall back into a bucket so as not to waste a drop. I am careful not to use her small bar of soap though she freely offers it, for it must last her a month. By government decree, toilet paper is found only in the dollar shops, so there is a neat stack of newspaper squares sitting in the dry basin.  "Leer el culo" (read your ass) chuckles Lolita, of the favorite Cuban joke.

I met Lolita by pure chance: during a 12-hour train from Havana to the far east, I sat opposite a man who ran a licensed guesthouse in Santiago de Cuba, my destination. When I mentioned my meager daily budget he offered to introduce me to his ex-wife, who lived alone in the same cobbled street. "She earns very little, your money will help her buy a new bed", he said.

Lolita has left for work, so I poke my head through the curtains to her bedroom. I am humbled to see a narrow, squeaky stretcher on a sunken floor where the once-elegant colonial tiles have cracked and lifted to reveal the gaping hole below. In my room the dressing table is adorned with empty shampoo and lotion containers left behind by passing guests. "Decorations", says Lolita simply, when I ask her why she bothers to keep them. On the wall is a collage of perfume and cigarette advertisements, carefully cut out and pasted onto a square of cardboard. These products are nowhere to be found in the austere, often empty shops where lines of Cubans press their noses against the windows with $US1 bills clutched in their palms, waiting patiently to be let into Dollarland.

At 5pm Lolita returns, flustered from standing in the hot sun during a televised rally for Elian, the Cuban toddler who fled to Miami with his mother on a rubber raft. She tells me she and her co-workers were instructed to partake in the rally or lose a month’s pay. And in a land where a simple t-shirt can cost a month’s salary, only the front row of rallyers were lucky enough to receive the ubiquitous ‘Salvemos Elian’ t-shirts.

At the casa particular of Mirella & Ivan, Trinidad
Wonderful people. Please stay at their house. Address is at end of story.

At 7pm I am eating the most delicious vegetarian food I’ve tasted for a long time. The fare itself is simple - pumpkin puree, rice, beans, braised cabbage, fried green banana, and maybe a little milk curd for dessert. But the flavors are wonderful, full of love and the thyme growing in the tin can hanging on the fence.

A small black and white television fills the house with drama and hope between 9.30 and 10.30pm, when all of Cuba stops, dries its hands on a tea towel and sits down to view la novela. There are always three or four novellas running on the one channel between pro-government speeches, two Chilean, and two Mexican, and the Cubans breathlessly follow all.

salvemos a elian
Salvemos a Elian - "We will rescue Elian"

Lolita makes many apologies for the impoverished state of her house, but somehow, this tiny, cracked and faded little space is filled with love and light. Most of all, the house is filled with Lolita, a rotund, warm and smiling woman who soldiers on in the face of adversity and practices her near-fluent German every night, a skill learnt years ago when Fidel sent his people to Russia, Bulgaria and Germany to assist Cuba’s communist brothers. As she practices she dreams of work in Cuba’s exploding tourist industry, work which some day might give her the freedom to buy food and one of those large bottles of shampoo - in the same month...

Living Like a Cuban. Cuba is changing. Once, travelers could freely stay in the homes of ordinary Cubans. Now, only houses with licenses - casa particulares - can legally accommodate visitors. With licenses costing owners up to $US100 a month, the price of a room now ranges from $US10-40 a night. Many owners must also pay $US100 a month to serve meals which cost $US2-8. These costs can add up for the solo female traveler, though it is the safest bet if you want security and Western-style comforts. Naturally, the government wants all tourists to stick to the hotels, resorts and licensed casas, but without a doubt the most authentic way to experience the unique warmth and sincerity of the Cuban people is to be open to their friendship and spontaneous offers of hospitality. Though economically poor, these proud and principled people will often refuse an offer of money (the most useful gift besides Panadol) saying, ‘pero amistad es mejor!’ (but friendship is better!). Simply gift-wrap the money and press it into their hands, look directly into their eyes and say, ‘un regalo` (a gift). What’s Love Got To Do With It? Cuba is fairly hassle-free for female travelers, but like any Latin country, the machista rating is high, and you will be approached or hissed at in appreciation by Cuban men wherever you go. Some are looking to separate you from your money, some seeking marriage and therefore a ticket to the outside world, many are simply curious to know more about you and maybe steal a kiss. Sadly, the burning desire by many Cubans to better their lot has led to the rise of the opportunist or jinetero(a), literally, horseman(woman), or (s)he who rides on the back of another. Although many foreigners have found happiness with a Cuban mate, be aware at all times of what you are doing, keep your eye on your wallet, and do not confuse love with the desire to rescue someone. Many Cubans will readily go with a foreigner, but despite their yearnings for a better life, their beloved home country, and their family, almost always comes first.

People & places I enjoyed in Cuba.

Some special people and places I stayed with or visited in Cuba. I  have tried to include above only the handful of people and places that really made an impression on me, given my limited budget. They may not be for you. Note that 'entre' means 'between.

TRINIDAD.I did not like Trinidad. Only one thing made it worthwhile and this is it:




VIÑALES (Pinar de Rio province)

These two women are members of an organization called Women Welcome Women Worldwide. Pop by and say hola. Anna works in an upscale clothes store and has a giant Afghan hound. Nieves is a town planner.