Medical Matters in Cuba


Compiling the OTC medical supplies we took to Cuba


In the comments section to my 1/31/2012 Cuba post, Emily’s asked whether we were involved in the actual delivery of the medical supplies we took over and what free medical care means in Cuba.  I can answer the former but not the latter question. 

Those of us on the tour carried over-the-counter medical supplies of a wide variety, since pretty much everything you could buy at a Walgreen’s or CVS are needed.  We were encouraged to spend about $50.00 each, as I recall.  We had both a “drop” in Santiago and in Havana.  In Santiago we met with two nuns at our hotel who collected half our donations, and in Havana we visited a St. Vincent de Paul nursing home for women, where we gave the nuns the rest of our goods and toured the home.  It was extremely clean, peaceful, and pleasant, despite the age of the buildings.  It was run, of course, by the Catholic Church, and not the government, so it wasn’t typical.  We were told the nuns had something like a central clearing house for the medical supplies.  Ours would be distributed where they were most needed across the country, not just at that particular nursing home. 

Our visit to the St. Vincent DePaul nursing home in Havana

We spent a good hour at the nursing home, which was about 45 minutes too long for me.  I speak as someone who spent seven years of her life visiting her mother almost daily in a nursing home, so my interest in nursing homes is pretty much depleted.  There were two beds to a room, neatly made and in perfect order, some with teddy bears or private refrigerators brought from home.

Pleasant, clean, orderly rooms

The residents were calm and old (surprise), though some were younger with Down’s Syndrome.  We looked into every possible nook and cranny– the kitchen, the dentist office, the infirmary—taking endless time because our Cuban guide was obviously proud of the facility, as well as wanting us to honor the nuns and residents with our attention.

I, on the other hand, was chomping at the bits to get going to the next thing on the schedule: a walking tour of Old Havana.  I thought of that Faulkner line about how if a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate.  “The ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies…’”  Well, to me, getting to walk around historic old Havana was worth any number of old ladies. I could tell our long visit to the nursing home would cut short the walking tour, which it did.  I am a Bad Person.  (I also realize if I make it that far I’ll be one of those old ladies….) Continue reading “Medical Matters in Cuba”

A Visit to Hemingway’s House in Cuba


Finca Vigia–Hemingway’s House in Cuba

Back in the olden days when I was in college, I did not have, as George Saunders said of himself at the Key West Literary Seminar, a boner for Ernest Hemingway (it’s a guy thing).  I preferred Faulkner and the girls: Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Katherine Mansfield.  But In Our Time did make a lasting impression on me.  While I have forgotten so much over the years, I have never forgotten “Indian Camp,” and I hope I never do.  The boy Nick has just experienced birth in the agonizing delivery of a baby at a primitive island Indian camp by his doctor father, and death in the form of the suicide of the woman’s husband who could not bear her screams of pain.  At the end of the story, as they row back home, Nick asks his father some questions. 

“‘Do ladies always have such a hard time having babies?’ Nick asked.

‘No, that was very, very exceptional.’

‘Why did he kill himself, Daddy?’

‘I don’t know, Nick.  He couldn’t stand things, I guess.’

‘Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?’

‘Not very many, Nick.’

‘Do many women?’

‘Hardly ever.’

‘Don’t they ever?’

‘Oh yes.  They do sometimes.’



‘Where did Uncle George go?’

‘He’ll turn up all right.’

‘Is dying hard, Daddy?’

‘No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick.  It all depends.’

They were seated in the boat, Nick in the stern, his father rowing. The sun was coming up over the hills.  A bass jumped, making a circle in the water.  Nick trailed his hand in the water.  It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning.

In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.” 

I remember the perfection of that ending as if it were yesterday—though it was when I was in college or perhaps grad school.  And I remember the first two sentences: “At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up.  The two Indians stood waiting.”  I learned from that you don’t have to start at the beginning.  Start when things are already underway.

I also loved “Big Two-Hearted River” – with its emotional pain tamped down under the surface, unstated but permeating Nick’s solitary fishing trip after he has returned from the shattering experience of war.  I was amazed at what was being expressed by NOT being stated.  Towards the end of the story, the emotion almost breaks through as Nick contemplates going into the swamp.  To me this is Hemingway at his best: Continue reading “A Visit to Hemingway’s House in Cuba”

An Unexpected Trip to Cuba


Cruising in Cuba

Dear Blog readers (if you’re reading my posts, I consider you a close, personal friend):

I have been MIA for almost a month.  I apologize for my silence, but I have a good excuse.  I’ve been in Cuba. 

No one was more surprised than I.

As those of you know who follow my blog, my intention is to post about writing and books.  But sometimes I wander far afield, as far as Cuba, in this case.  I’m so saturated with Cuba at the moment that I must tell you about it.   

It happened like this.  In January I came down to Key West to attend the Key West Literary Seminar and teach a workshop.  There was a tour going to Cuba on a humanitarian mission, which basically means you carry OTC medical supplies to a charity which distributes them to the Cuban people.  Someone who had signed up for the tour had to cancel at the last minute, did not have trip insurance, and was willing to sell her place to me for a greatly reduced price.  I finished teaching the workshop at 12:30, got on the bus to Miami at 1:30, and flew to Santiago de Cuba early the next morning.  A week before, Cuba had been the farthest thing from my mind. 

I’m pretty sure if you ask 100 Cubans what they think of Castro and their country, you would get a lot of different answers. 

Friendly and poor in Santiago

I’m even more sure if you asked the various members of our tour group for their perceptions of Cuba, you would get widely varying opinions.  I came away feeling how superficial my knowledge of Cuban history is, how little I know of Cuba/U.S. relations over the decades, and how difficult it is to get a deep sense of the culture and people beyond a bus window.   I was often surprised, sometimes confused, occasionally troubled, and always curious and energized by the experience.  Here are a few of my impressions.  Continue reading “An Unexpected Trip to Cuba”