Tag Archives: Cuba

The perils of traveling for a hypochondriac


Thanking my stars we have TP here in Canada, unlike in Cuba

My kids think I’m a total hypochondriac. They could be right, but hey, I AM a nurse, so unfortunately, I know just enough to be able to detect statistically improbable diseases in me (or them) given three symptoms.

I’m not always delusional. I told one son he had H1N1 last year or so after hearing his symptoms over the phone and yes, he did have it (blood work said so, so there!) I diagnosed scarlet fever in my son, Shigella in my ex, and MS in me, so I should have some street cred.

Alas. No.

So perhaps traveling to Cuba wasn’t the BEST idea, but you’ve got to give me credit for not going to, say, Borneo or Mali.

I knew the likelihood of a tenderfoot like myself getting ill was pretty high. But I pretended it wasn’t. I was with my well-travelled kids, after all, and didn’t want to seem like any more of a wuss than my MS body would do already. I wanted to be cool, groovy. And I only brought one tiny bottle of hand sanitizer, which we all shared. Truth be told, I assumed my immunizations and copious amounts of rum would kill pretty well anything that approached me. I think they did, until I got home and stopped drinking.

So I got sick.. Yep. The “Grippers” as Regis Philbin used to call them. Fevers. Exhaustion. Headache. Been flat on my back for the last week – am typing now only because I am SO BORED I can barely breathe.  But I’ll have to lie down again soon, despite the gasoline-strength coffee I’m inhaling in a desperate attempt to stay vertical (and yes, I know it doesn’t help but I’ve been without coffee for a whole four days now and I am barely sentient).

Can’t let it lie, though. As a certified hypochondriac, I had to look up alternative diseases I COULD have from my time spent in the country. Turns out there’s a fairly high probability I have Dengue fever. Doesn’t that sound deliciously awful? And the first bout of Dengue seems to be fairly benign – later ones are bad and I know Dengue is a scourge of many countries and they have my sympathies –  and there’s always the risk of spraying blood suddenly from my gums, but so far I merely have the toasty feeling and a really good disease name.


When I looked up the disease, the public health page warned me strongly to keep the screens closed. Obviously they weren’t staying where I was – not a screen (or glass) to be seen – just funky wooden slats. Not many bugs showed up, strangely – only one hapless beetle on our last day (who I helped on to his next reincarnation), but I did wake up the last day with a ring of bites around my neck and on my elbow.

So I’ve diagnosed myself. I merely need to develop the rash.

Of course, it can’t be the flu, or the fact that everyone was sick on the airplane with some viral thing.

Not for a pro hypochondriac like me!


Ola! from Cuba

IMG_0098Ah, Cuba.

I’ve been consumed with curiosity about this island ever since I had to sit under my desk in school to protect myself from nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I grew up around Boston. If I’d known how many missiles were housed immediately around my school I would have spent the time colouring instead.  We’d have been blasted in the first sortie.

As I grew older, and learned about the Cuban health care system, their healthy literacy rate and their amazingly stable economy given the embargo by the US (and the way the US told everyone that if they were nice to Cuba they couldn’t play with them). I was curious to see how the Communist nation so close to us had fared, was slightly romantic about the revolution, with its dashing figures of Che and Fidel and whoever that other guy is whose name I can never remember. It was and is the stuff of legend.

For a place slightly smaller than Pennsylvania (sneers the CIA fact book), it’s chock a bloc with history, romance, music, art, people, and, apparently, cigars.

We spent a five-day visit in Havana – old Havana – a thoroughly interesting borough that alternates in appearance with a bombed-out war zone and a decaying but still elegant deep south Spanish plantation. Totally fascinating, noisy and silent by turns, filled with people of such diverse colours and shapes you can trace the native, black and Spanish lineages through the shape of their noses.

Everyone, even the smallest child, automatically responds to the sight of we tourists with a murmuring of “cigars? you want cigars?”.

The men – handsome without exception. The women – gorgeous until about age 35, when the gruelling day-to-day life catches up with them. They must wash laundry every day – everyone is so clean and clothes hang everywhere to dry.

The streets – spotlessly clean in some places, despite feral dogs and cats everywhere. Covered with garbage where the feral people are. No windows in most buildings, but Dolce and Gabana and expensive spas have them. Banks with nothing inside, only an ATM on the outside. Shiny old 54 Fords, polished to the max, run as taxis, followed by husks of the same car with no muffler, run by locals. Shiny new Kias here and there, tripping over bicycle taxis pulling painfully through the cobblestone streets.IMG_0520

The hustlers say, as they smile broadly and try to get us to buy contraband cigars, “Cuba is very safe. 11 million people and half of them are police”. They lead us on, through darker and meaner streets, until common sense prevails and we say “No, Gracias”. Their faces crumble with such acute disappointment you almost want to take it back, say, of course you believe him that today is the only day that Fidel allows the people who make cigars to sell them privately at half price, only today…

I still feel the air, warm and almost like a human breath, the grit and diesel from the out of control refinery and the many many cars. I can shut my eyes and hear the noises, the endless honking of horns to say hello or get out-of-the-way or whatever, interspersed with sharp whistles and shouts and the roar of unmuffled diesel engines. In between you can hear bands playing salsa music.

The tourist industry in Cuba seems designed to make you pass your time there in a pleasant heat and rum fuelled haze, happily buying versions of art that are nowhere near as wonderful as the real artists produce in their tiny studios off of darkened streets. They sell rum and mohitos and Hemingway, send tourists around well-trodden paths, call to you with such desperation you feel positively terrible for saying no. Elderly women come up and circle you slowly, putting their hands to their mouths, begging for money. But when you tell them no, as with all of those trying to extract money from you (and why not? We have so much, they have so little), they look at you once, with eyes that show their heart is breaking, and shuffle off to the next person.

It is intoxicating, rude, charming, warm, friendly, hostile, old, ancient, proud, humble, utterly unexplainable. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the feeling.

I’ll never go back, for so many reasons. But everyone should go, at least once. Immerse yourself in Cuba. Don’t just go to a resort – see the place itself, meet the real people.

Vive la Cuba Libre!