The Newborn, The Survivor, & The Runner-Up

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It’s hot. I’m tired. I’m working mucho and earning poco. I miss my familia. And I still haven’t had a vacation since Haiti. I worry. For Cuba. For Guatemala. For Haiti. For the turtles caught in the oil spill.(see note 1)

I, for one, (and maybe you too), could use some levity right about now. So here you go, three little stories – all recent, all true – brought to you by your friends here in Havana.

1. It’s a girl!

It took her a little longer than the usual 40 weeks to join our world but my niece Isabella finally made it here on May 27th, right around cocktail hour. Thatta girl! She weighed in at 7 lbs, 6 oz and is long like a string bean and as pink and soft as a baby should be.

It’s fitting that her first breath was taken at the Hospital Maternidad Obrera in the heart of Marianao where numerous cousins, aunts, uncles and more distant relatives of hers were also born. I got the shooting-up-of-eyebrows response from more than one Cuban when I mentioned the hospital attending my sister-in-law. I had heard stories and Marianao does have a certain rep (not entirely unjustified). I knew a couple of the other hospitals in the barrio (El Militar and Juan Manuel Marquez, a pediatric hospital which I never, ever want to see the inside of again. Not due to the conditions, but rather the trauma and sadness that haunt those halls) and they definitely have their shortcomings. Isabella, however, was my first birth, and I wasn’t acquainted with this maternity hospital.

The parents-to-be actually chose Maternidad Obrera, which was a surprise to me, until I learned it’s one of the few Havana hospitals where the father is allowed to be in the delivery room.

I was encouraged.

The expectant couple was also taking birthing classes at the hospital administered by a real pro – one of those buxom, loving nurses with a brood of her own and decades of experience helping mothers-to-be enjoy safe, fearless births.

“You have to be able to anticipate and interpret your baby’s needs,” she told her class. “He won’t pop from your womb saying ‘hey ma! give me a buck for a pacifier!'”

Each class ended with breathing and yoga exercises. Nurse Betty encouraged fathers to attend. And they did: with jeans slung low enough to flash their knock-off Hilfiger briefs and bloodshot eyes hidden behind absurdly large, white plastic sun glasses, Marianao’s machos came to learn birthing techniques alongside their jevas.

I was encouraged.

When we got word the caesarian was underway, we charged towards Maternidad Obrera. Architecturally it’s fascinating, with curves like those the women inside had lost long ago and stone benches built into the walls of the waiting room. It had received a recent face lift, including a new paint job (baby blue – machismo, as a rule, still rules…) and was, I have to say, spiffy. There was a pair of moms to each small, clean room sharing an en suite bath. Each baby had a crib pushed up against the wall at the foot of her mom’s bed, alongside a couple of chairs for feeding and visitor time.

It was still muy Cubano of course: stray dogs wandered into the lobby at will and visitors – even expectant moms – smoked strong black tobacco cigarettes inside the hospital. The bathrooms often had no water, but you guessed that already, right? Men with cameras slung around their necks peddled portrait services room to room ($1 for standard snaps; $2 for Photoshopped shots, including one that pasted your baby into the arms of Jesus) and the baby blue halls echoed with the click, click, click of female visitors arriving in their come-fuck-me-shoes.

My favorite folkloric moment though, was when a leathery guy came into the room displaying scores of azabache on a hangar. $1 a piece for these small, safety pin charms that get fastened to the back of newborns’ shirts to ward off the evil eye. The hospital itself also offers on-site ear piercing which is either charming and handy or disturbing and invasive, depending on your perspective. Isabella’s parents went for it, though for me she was just as beautiful as could be before those gold studs got punched into her little lobes.

2. Two – always better than one

Not too long ago we hosted a small, lively dinner party. There was me, my husband, our friend Camilo the taxi driver, Yusleidy the actress, and Miriam the veterinarian and cancer survivor. Our conversation ranged far and wide over the terrain of contemporary Cuba. Camilo and the hubby tussled over the music scene (my guy: “it’s vapid.” Camilo: “you’re too nostalgic.”); Mirima lamented the disappearance of black market yogurt; and we all agreed the national volleyball team has a hard season facing them.

In a quiet moment, Yusleidy launched into a tirade about the state of Cuban television. She knows of what she speaks: with that universally winning trifecta of youth, beauty, and talent, “Yusy” is an actress who’s known success on Cuban stage and screen. But her three current projects have been shelved for lack of funds and the one that did get the
green light got away. She let loose her frustration over my Chicken Marsala.

“He gave the part to Fulana de Tal. She can’t act! The only thing she has going for her are those huge tits!”

“Two! Two tits!” interjects Miriam, she of the recent mastectomy. “Tremendous advantage!”

The table erupts into howls of laughter that continue as Miriam regales us with another breast-related tale.

One night during her second round of chemo, Miriam went out with friends to a trendy bar. It was precisely for these types of occasions that she donned the red wig that trailed halfway down her back (children’s birthday parties were another – ‘don’t want the bald lady scaring the wee ones,’ she tells us). Leaving the trendy bar to hop to another, a strapping fellow leaning against a lamp post apprised my friend.

“Come with me baby and I’ll give you a big surprise.”

Miriam imagined getting him alone and stripping off her wig and whipping out her falsie.

“My man, the surprise I’d give you would be bigger, much bigger!”

3. And the winner is…

I have a friend I call 007. He’s one of those cool, super mellow fellows that gains entry into the best parties, rarely gets ruffled, and never misses a beat. He may or may not actually be a spy.

So it was totally par for the course that he would attend the Miss Africa Beauty Contest held last week in Havana. Most of the contestants were students from the Latin American Medical School (see note 2) hailing from countries such as Namibia, Nigeria, Guinea Conakry and other hard-to-locate countries. The contest was hosted at the Meliá Cohiba, one of Havana’s few five star hotels.

“Swanky,” I say to 007.

“Terrific spread. Plus all the red, white or rosé you could drink,” he responds.

I was intrigued.

“What were you doing there? Aside from drinking your fill?”

“My friend was a contestant.”

Why was I not surprised?

“Did she win?”

“Second place.”

This also was not a surprise. 007 knows a lot of beautiful women. Second place netted his friend a BlackBerry. The winner took home a laptop and third place, an iPod Shuffle. Not bad for being beautiful.

“There was a question and answer session too,” 007 tells me.

“What did they ask?”

“Idiotic stuff about Africa like who is hosting the World Cup and what was the only western hemisphere country to send troops to Africa in the 70s.”

But just in case these African beauties didn’t know South Africa is soccer central these days or that Cuba helped liberate Angola, they were given a little help: when 007 went to 2nd place’s home afterwards to celebrate, he spied her pageant materials on the kitchen table, including the list of questions and answers she’d face after parading about in a swimsuit.

In case you had any doubt, Havana is full of beautiful females these days.

1. Is it me or is it feeling more and more like end of days here on our one and only planet? Oh, those Mayans have me worried with their December 2012 hocus pocus.

2. The Latin American Medical School (ELAM) was founded in Havana in 1998 to provide six year medical school scholarships to poor kids from around the world. To date, nearly 10,000 doctors have graduated from this school completely debt-free. They are expected to practice in remote and underserved communities once they finish. If you’re interested, I’ve written extensively on this socially responsible medical school for my day job.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, health system, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad

16 responses to “The Newborn, The Survivor, & The Runner-Up

  1. Ole

    Another great missive, Conner! You certainly have acclimated yourself to a Cuban sensibility like no other Yuma I have met. My wife was born in the Marianao Maternity hospital- she took great delight in pointing out her room every time we passed by( and we passed by a Lot!) By coincidence her name is Yusleydys, like your friend. She also worked for Eliac doing commercials, movies and a novela before emigrating here. She is a Trifecta, her ownself!
    This oil spill is a Tremendo Descarajo! I was worried about Cuba drilling in the Gulf, but I should have worried more about the stupid Brits. This BP is an Extremely poor environmental player. They ignored many warnings from their own workers about the Alaskan pipeline that ruptured. They received 90% of All oil Company OSHA fines at their Texas facility which exploded, killing 15. They over rode standard safety practices in their zeal to cut costs on the Deepwater Horizon. They were responsible for putting in place the regulations on docking which contributed to the Exxon Valdez Disaster- All in All a very Bad Corporation. Sorry for the rant- Great post, and thanks for letting me feel Cuba for a short while. Ciao, pescao

    • Hi there. Thanks for reading and commenting. What a coincidence that your wife was born at Maternidad Obrera. Don’t know when she last passed by, but it’s looking great these days! And the kiosks selling cajitas and pizzas and batidos in the vicinity are some of the best in town.

      Yes, BP. Here we call them HPs (hijos de putas). But private industry self-regulating is THE oxymoron of the modern age, wouldn’t you say?

      • Ole

        hey Conner- yes the corporations can be counted upon to serve their own interests, and the good of the people be Damned. Especially this BP group of incompetents. This whole tragedy was because BP did not want to spend 5 extra days(at $500,000/day) cementing the caseing to the drill sleeve properly! For $2.5 Million they have given us this Catastrophe! And did you see BP just paid $11 Billion in dividends for this last Quarter? Such unmitigated Greed!
        And your post card arrived around the 6th of June. I will mail you a reply soon to complete the loop, as you say.
        And the kiosks are the Best at the Hospital Maternidad, you are Right! And some shade to sit down. I also like the kiosks, recently upgraded, across from the College just before the Rotunda on the way to the Airport. We used to joke about stopping for a “pan con moskas” there, but it was still delicious.

      • Ole! You bring up a very good point (and not just about BP): the 24 food kiosks across from CUJAE (coo-hi) en route to the airport. this is an interesting place and one we visit often (just there a few days ago as a matter of fact). These kiosks used to line the road, then “they” (I once had a boyfriend who wanted to print up tshirts that said: “I am They” – pure brilliance, for which this particular BF was not known) took them down. The students protested and those mismos they had to reinstate them. So they did in this little alley.

        Folks: when you need late night munchies or the last meal before you fly out, pull in here for some fabulous fruit shakes (mango, mamey and guava last week), pizzas made to order and full meals (cajitas) featuring pork (what else?!) but also lamb, roast chicken and the like, or sandwiches of all types. All for under $1.

        Moskas for our non spanish speaking friends are flies. So Ole is talking about bread with flies. and there are flies here + stray dogs sniffing for the stray scrap that has fallen from your sandwich.

  2. Ole

    ps- my Yuli is all revved up about the Mayan calendar, as well. I was laughing about it, but maybe not as hard right now.

  3. Congrats on your niece! Beautiful pic!

    • Thanks chica and a big shout out for correcting my spelling: it is indeed azabache. Funny: the person I called to verify the term is one helluva saucy havana lady. 100% habanera through and through and when I explained the word I was looking for she said: Conner! But those went out a long time ago. Which goes to show you how a person living in a place can miss things seen by newcomers. Sometimes I fall in between those gaps: not quite local and not a newcomer either.

      Mil gracias for reading!

      • Iralia

        Well, to be honest, I’ve never seen the pins, but I love the word “azabache” when it describes something black. About the gaps, I think that’s what makes reading you so interesting, so it deffinitely is something with advantages and disadvantages…

        No hay de qué: ¡leerte es un placer!

  4. I always tell expats going through difficult spells that the trick is to find happiness in the little things (I actually think this advice works well for people living in their own countries, as well). I think having 3 things to be excited/happy about is more than most people get at a time. I hope you stay encouraged and spread the joy…

    • great advice! I employ it often. My sister-in-law gave me some simialr advice years ago when I was in a particularly rough patch here: “Conner, in Cuba either you laugh or cry. better to laugh.” How right she is! Let the joy be spread!

  5. Dan

    Hi Conner- thanks for talking about the hospitals and the birth care Cubans get. I was in several hospitals years ago, when they were incredibly decrepit-( broken glass, no lighting, medical staff smoking in the halls), and all of them have been WAY improved in recent years. All of the people that I visited in those run-down hospitals got good care (medical care, that is- the families brought bedding and food) and came out healthier than they went in. Also thanks for mentioning ELAM- this is a great opportunity for students world-wide including the U.S. Keep us posted!

    • Hi Dan. thanks for joining the conversation. I don’t know when you were here or to what time period you refer, but in the last 8 years, things have improved in many hospitals here in Havana. There are still some broken windows and docs smoking in the hallways, but no system is perfect! I don’t usually comment at all about the health system here since my other hat is a health journalist for and I use this blog to write about something different for a change.

      And yes! ELAM is one of the 21st centuries greatest initiatives. I think some people are actually nominating it for the Peace Prize. Ive seen how it transforms lives for the doctors and their patients.

  6. Ole

    XXXXXX (this part deleted for its personal nature!!)

    Anyway, post on the Way, even though you got mine previously, Si o No? But let us continue to see. 51 years of BS, from both sides, Each ignorant of the other, Na?

  7. Antonio

    Great blog. I am a frequent reader, though this is probably my first post.
    I have Cuban friends who were born and raised in Marianao and worked at the militar hospital, which is visible from their mother’s house. She still lives there and is now retired. I have been to Marianao on a couple of trips to Cuba.
    I am curious, what is the Cuban version of fuck-me-heels. I think I have a pretty good idea, but some pics and a blog post would be great in future

    • !bienvenido antonio! thanks for contributing to the conversation….

      Seeing as Im a “form follows function” kind of gal and I have no troubles and need no help getting my guy into bed, ‘come-fuck-me’ shoes are only marginally interesting to me. So photos and a post are probably not in the cards (foot fetish anyone?!) but I can tell you they are 4 inches or higher, usually have some kind of lucite involved and not all recommended for walking – especially in habana vieja.

      still, please keep reading!

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