May 22, 2024
The Gutsiest Tourist in Cuba

In which the author ditches her comfy life in Australia to explore Cuba on her beloved folding bike. The following passage is adapted from Chiang’s award-winning memoir, The Handsomest Man in Cuba.

On a corner stands a tourist hotel, not yet open. The main street [in the coastal town of Niquero] is bustling with horses, bicycles and foot traffic. In the center is an expansive square of cracked bitumen that looks like it has been waiting an eternity for a fountain or a basketball hoop or a parking lot to materialize. At the far side are three 15-centavo pizza carts and a couple of juice-in-a-bag vendors vying for the passing peso.

I toss a mental coin and go for the cart with the necklace-laden senora, and I get lucky. The far eclipses that last “best Cuban pizza” I ate in Santiago. The crust is crisp and light like a good focaccia, with a density that suggests flour of some substance. The sauce tastes of real tomatoes, patiently reduced on a stove with homegrown herbs. The cheese is just right, not too thick or greasy.

I eat another. Then another. I decide to try the competition, but I am disappointed. Now completely queasy with pizza, I wash it down with a bag of juice, not really considering where the water might have come from, and then seek refuge from the heat in an air-conditioned dollar store.

I am standing at the back of the store, contemplating the two choices of vanilla cookie on display, namely square or round, when a plump, well-dressed woman to my right turns and smiles at me.

“Eres Italiana?” she asks. Are you Italian?

She chats with the ease of someone who is comfortable with foreigners. Her name is Julia, and she speaks of her wealthy Swiss-Italian esposo who jets across the Atlantic to make merengue with his Cuban wife and their eight-year-old daughter every two or three months. She invites me back to her house, where she and her mother, brother and daughter live in comparative affluence thanks to her esposo: Goldstar television set in the living room, brand-new frost-free fridge in the kitchen, Escada jacket in her wardrobe and duty-free perfumes, shampoos, soaps and creams that she displays on her dressing table.

We talk about their lives, the same theme of waiting, waiting…waiting for her husband to come, waiting for things to change. This, from a household blessed with more good fortune than the neighbors on either side of the fence. It is clear that a Goldstar television set is no substitute for unfettered capitalistic opportunity, freedom to cast a vote, and a choice of shampoo.

The family shows me a yellowing issues of a magazine commemorating Fidel’s historic first landing in their town, when he is supposed to have stepped onto the beach and uttered the words “I have come to liberate Cuba.”

A gusty wind has reared up and is rattling the frail windows. Julian and her brother entreat me to stay the night, insisting that the wind will make it difficult and dangerous for me to ride to Cabo Cruz. Something inside me decides to believe this pair of noncyclists, so I let them take me on a walk to look for ingredients for dinner.

First, we visit a government farm selling lettuce out of the ground for 1 peso per head. Then we make our way through decrepit back streets to a secret fish supplier in a very poor neighborhood. Everyone in town seems to know that Julia is married to rich foreigner, so everyone purchase begins with a haggle. We emerge from that neighborhood with an enormous pargo (snapper) for the equivalent of $3.50, “a bit high,” sighs Julia. She refuses to let me pay for the fish.

I sit on the porch in a chair and watch a friend of Julia’s sort stones out of a dish of rice, just like panning for gold nuggets, but throwing the gold away and keeping the silt. Inside, the aroma of friend fish with onion fills the little house. Julia piles my plate high.

That night Julia brings out a pile of photos of herself and Euro-hubby Christian living life in the fast lane in Italy, Paris and the Swiss Alps. There she is, outside hotels, in the pool and draped over a shiny red car. She looks happy and content. Julia is in bed by 10 p.m. I climb into my side of the bed and lie in the place where his esposo will rest his worldly head not long from now. I drift off, resting my eyes on the dark shock of her hair and breathing in the odd fragrance of French perfume on my pillow.

Of Hope and Marriage

The next morning the family surrounds me as I start loading up the bike. They seem even more intensely interested in me than the night before. One by one they do their best to convince me that Julia’s marriage to her extranjero (foreigner) is wonderful, that Julia’s brother would make a fine husband, and do I not think he is guapo?

I glance at this timid, studious boy who does not reek of picaflor [womanizing]. He is indeed handsome. They look at me hopefully. He looks at me hopefully. I continue to pack.

Julia gives me a photo of herself in Italy, leaning on top of a sports car, beaming and sun-swept, every bit the calendar girl. She gives me the photo and asks if I will find her a boyfriend in Australia. I stop packing.

I ask rather naively about her Swiss-Italian sugar hubby. Oh, no, she shakes her head emphatically. “I am free, completely free.” She assures me that he has a wife in Switzerland, but shhhhhh, the Swiss wife does not know about his Cuban chica and chicleta. They are esconidas, or hidden, which is the same way Cubans describe a large, illicit lobster.

I feel sad. Sad for the wife in Switzerland who bakes her man sugar cookies and rack of lamb,unaware of her sister in the other hemisphere cooking him rice and beans and fried pargo.

I give Julia $5 and leave them all waving at the front doorstep, waiting for Mr. Eurodaddy to walk up those steps in two weeks’ time.

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