By Claire Williams, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012
This week, I learned that when you’re living in a foreign country, it’s best to expect that nothing will turn out as planned. You might find yourself breaking up with someone you saw in the rest of your life. You might meet someone on the beach who is a gorgeous Cuban professional wrestler and wants to take your group out salsa dancing. You also might realize that water and electricity can stop working for hours at a time right when you come back from an hour-long walk, leading to a very exhausted trek up thirteen flights of pitch-black stairs. Life can be strange and disappointing, but through the law of large numbers, the aggregate is more wonderful than you could have imagined. With that being said, here are the ten things I learned that best sum up my week:
1. One of the biggest disappointments I faced this week was an order that came down from the Minister of Health. Somehow, he was informed about our program at the Institute of Tropical Medicine (IPK) and denied us permission to officially use any government health facilities. Northwestern University was the only program of its kind at IPK, studying public health from within the system, and it’s really upsetting that we won’t get to have that opportunity. However, Adrian, our program director, is a logistical genius and within a couple hours of the news, he was already setting up an alternative class. We’ll still be able to have all of the guest lectures we would have had at IPK, but they will have to be done informally – at Casa de las Americas or at Casa Lilly, where we live. It’s a shame to be denied access to the facilities, especially since one of the fundamental contradictions of Cuban healthcare is the amazing outcomes they achieve with substandard resources, but I’m glad that this event won’t change the basic outline of our program – I’m sure the experience will still be amazing.
2. Another surprising piece of news is that cholera was discovered in Santiago de Cuba, on the eastern edge of the island. When I last checked, two people had died and fifty-three were confirmed to have been infected. Adrian says that the last time a cholera outbreak occurred, the government did not publicize it – so the fact that the disease is in the news must mean that the situation is serious and out of control. We were supposed to travel to Santiago later this month to go to carnival, but we don’t want to get trapped in a quarantine – especially since it’s unclear if the carnival will even occur. Luckily, Adrian again saved the day and promises to use the funds to explore other interesting cities in Cuba with us if we’re unable to go to Santiago. While it would be interesting to see carnival, all of my experiences in Cuba have been valuable to me and I have no doubt that alternative plans will do the same.
3. When someone first is initiated into santería, an Afro-Cuban religion that is extremely popular in Cuba and has vast effects on culture, relationships, and music, they have to wear white for a full year. They may also have other restrictions, such as being banned from touching money, eating certain foods, or engaging in some sexual behaviors. Seeing people in all white is fairly common here in Cuba.
4. Fully 9% of all employment in Cuba is in the tourism sector. Since working for foreign-based companies or in service jobs like bartending or taxi-driving often pays in C.U.C. (the tourist currency), a resort worker could easily make $25 a day, while the normal Cuban salary (paid in pesos) is equivalent to only $20 a month.
5. The Cuban people are highly inventive and ingenious. Once, when crossing a road, we had to wait for a taxi to pass. This isn’t entirely unusual, except that the taxi was being run in a tractor, with people hanging out the sides and observing the more traditional cars passing by. It was one of the funniest, most surreal, and most emblematic moments that I’ve had while here – if there’s one Cuban value that would sum up what I’ve learned, I would say it’s the ability to make do with what you have. In another amusing moment, we saw a man delivering an enormous sheet cake – by balancing it on one hand while he biked along a highway.
6. Cuba has exported thousands of doctors to work around the world – more than USAID, Doctors without Borders, and WHO combined, and yet the health parameters here didn’t drop, just like they didn’t drop during the Special Period even though the economy almost completely collapsed and the hospitals became useless. This is one of the fundamental contradictions of Cuban health care, which we will explore further in our classes and which I am very interested in.
7. Offerings to the gods are often thrown from the wall of the Malecón into the sea. People also fish, kiss, and buy treats like popcorn, peanuts, or candy from street vendors. It’s an amazing place to go to get to meet people, especially those our own age.
8. One of the best ways to spend an evening in Cuba is to go to the movies. While I have not yet gotten a chance to go, the friends of ours who went reported that you pay in moneda nacional (it’s less than a dollar per person) and movies vary from blockbuster American films (The Adventures of Tintin is currently playing) to art-house cinema from Latin America. I’d love to experience a Spanish movie here and see how much I understand – I’ve been doing fairly well at our weekly movie nights in Casa Lilly, where we watch famous Cuban works.
9. I’ve had an amazing time getting to know some members of our own group. I think we have a fantastic mix of people and interests, from pre-meds to film majors to journalism students. Everyone brings a unique point of view and set of interests – and the questions we ask make everyone’s experience richer. I’ve particularly enjoyed getting to know my roommate, Kaitlyn, a Cuban-American who is this year’s editor of the Daily Northwestern. Despite our varied histories and goals, we’ve become great friends who push each other to enjoy Cuba more fully, something I very much value.
10. There’s still so much ahead of me! I get nervous sometimes that I’m now a whole three weeks (!!!) into my Cuban experience, with only five left to go. I want to make sure I take advantage of every opportunity and don’t get complacent or stick with what I’ve already learned. We’ve just started our salsa lessons (I dance horrendously, but with much enthusiasm) and I’m going to begin taking art classes next week. Our cab driver today made us promise that we would go see the cannon at a fort in Old Havana – apparently there is a ceremony about it he thinks is important to understand Havana. These plans, and others, I’m sure will help me have the best experience I can – and a wonderful five more weeks I will never forget!