Impressions of Cuba (page 3)
Impressions of Cuba
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Mansion, Old Havana

Restoration, Old Havana

     The contradictions pile up, leading — if one is not cautious — to a collage of fantastic conclusions about Cuban reality. In this socialist country, for example, average Cubans may not enter the Hotel Nacional, especially dark-skinned Cuban women, who are suspected of being prostitutes. Polite doormen turn them away. With insistence, we were able to get permission to invite our Cuban friends to our rooms for 30 minutes.
     Perhaps the greatest contradictions involving Cuba persist in the United States. The worst violators of the boycott, for example, are the Cuban-Americans who, although aggressively defending the boycott, ship hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to their own family members. They oppose a weakening or cessation of the blockade because, they say, goods and money entering Cuba will sustain Castro’s regime. They have convinced themselves that their money doesn’t count, even though they help to re-divide Cubans into have and have-not classes.
     What is really scary is that professionals like doctors, nurses, and teachers are leaving their ranks to take jobs in the tourism sector, promoting a lop-sided economy, ready to pander to tourists, but less equipped to serve its own people. So while education is now universal and free, and medical care is guaranteed to all, if the trend continues, there will be fewer and fewer teachers, doctors, and nurses.

Back to day one
After our visit to the psychiatric hospital, we drove to a restaurant called “Las Ruinas,” constructed around the ruins of a seventeenth century, slave-operated sugar mill. The architecture and accouterments were sumptuous in their elegance and design. High cantilevered ceilings protected decks from rain but did not interfere with views of exuberantly flowering trees, where cane had once grown. Thick, verdant ferns sprouted from the ancient mill walls that rose here and there in the restaurant, like ancient stalagmites. There was a banquet on the second floor, so we ate on the first level. We enjoyed drinking mojitos (Hemingway’s favorite cocktail, made with white rum, lime juice, and a generous sprig of mint that makes the glass look like a small aquarium) before eating Cuban sandwiches on bread so hard it scratched the roofs of our mouths. After lunch, the Cubans from the banquet invited us to dance to salsa music on the veranda.
     We next visited the Latin American School of Medicine, which prepares doctors to serve in the poorest countries of Africa and Latin America. To our surprise, after his introductory speech, the director trotted out twenty-one students from economically depressed areas of the United States. Each was there on a full scholarship, learning Spanish while studying medicine. Because the students were “fully hosted,” they were not violating U.S. law. Without personal resources, however, they were confined to Cuba during semester breaks, when other students went home to visit their families. These students promise, upon the completion of their studies, to practice in poor, under-served areas in the United States. In a private conversation with me, two students voiced insecurity about the U.S. state boards they ultimately face because the school’s medical library has limited holdings, putting them at a disadvantage.

(From left to right)
Joe Thomas, President Cuban Health Network; Nuria Oquendo, Cuban guide to Havana Historic District; Greg Absten, Captain; Jay Higgenbotham, historian/writer
The following morning, after our tour of old Havana (an inviting enclave of restored churches, museums, hotels, and inns), and after drinking mojitos on the garden terrace of Hemingway’s old haunt, the Hotel Ambos Mundos (where his room is kept as a shrine), five of us hired a driver and headed down the Autopista Nacional toward Trinidad, deemed a World Heritage Site in 1988 by UNESCO. The highway was in excellent repair. There were none of the hallmark indicators of dire poverty in the small villages we traversed — no squalid shacks, putrid odors, trenches with foul water, beggars, litter. Likewise, there were few amenities and nothing to indicate comfort and choice. The flat land on this part of the island was planted primarily in citrus and sugar cane.

Trinidad is located near the southern coast of Cuba, in the central part of the island.

Six hours later, which included an omelet-lunch at the large El Rancho restaurant, the only restaurant we encountered during our trip, we entered the colonial treasure of Trinidad. I negotiated our housing because, apart from our driver, I was the only one who spoke Spanish. Our driver had said there would be no problem. He knew a lady who could put us all up. The lady he knew, however, had a license to lease only one double room, but she had neighbors who also leased rooms. (A room in these private houses usually costs about $20.00 plus $3.00 for breakfast.) Fortunately, the houses were on the same street and close to one another, and after having seen three rooms in three different houses, we decided who would stay where and accepted all three. My husband and I shared a small room with a double bed, a bedside table with an energy-efficient compact florescent bulb (prevalent throughout Cuba), a small table that held our bottle of rum and bananas, and a small, clean bathroom with shower. A tree, heavy with oranges, brushed the narrow balcony that ran the length of our room and led to the dining room.

Plaza, Trinidad
     In Trinidad’s historical section, there are more horses and mules than cars, and they fare better than pedestrians, who could easily turn an ankle on the cobbled streets. Late eighteenth and early nineteenth century houses with red tile roofs surround the plaza mayor, a picturesque square, embellished with statues of lean racing dogs and glazed ceramic urns, utterly European. In the center is a statue of a Grecian lady with flowing toga. We had dinner at the nearby Rincón Restaurant that serves up a good mojito and excellent grilled chicken. A trio of handsome young men played music from the forties and sold compact discs of their music.
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