Tag Archives: cuban doctors

Tales of Pacotilla

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

Buckle up babies. We’re going for a ride deep into the Cuban psyche – that dark place in the collective conscious where centuries of financial boom-bust and political reindeer games have festered age-old habits, neuroses, and desires. What you’ll read here, I’m fairly certain, you’ll read nowhere else (see note 1).

For those of you just hitting on Here is Havana, the types of vignettes herein have been gathered over several years working as a journalist based in Havana. In this post, I dissect pacotilla – a practice and reality recate cubano that technically means ‘second rate, cheap, or shoddy’ but which in Cuban translates as buying as much shit as possible at every given opportunity.
It matters not whether you’re a doctor or nurse, ballerina or agronomist: if you’re a traveling Cuban, neighbors, family, friends, and co-workers expect treats when you return from your foreign adventures. A new pair of stockings (fishnets preferred; see note 2); a feather-festooned headband; or a trashy one title magazine like Us or Hola! – it doesn’t really matter what is proffered but rather that something, anything makes the long journey to these shores.

It’s a danzón of mutual expectations. The traveler feels morally obligated to shop for those in need back home, while the island-bound (silently, discreetly) hold their passport-wielding compañeros to their tacit obligation to bring back shiny pretty (sometimes useful) things. Plus, Cubans LOVE to shop.

I’ve seen this all in action, up close and personally. I’ve watched my husband dart frantically around Duty Free shops looking for the cheap chocolates his co-workers adore. Every Cuban itinerary includes last minute trips to sprawling outdoor markets in search of bras/underwear/soccer jerseys, with me more often than not, as guide. I’ve waded through enough shoes, sneakers, and sandals to shod a small Guatemalan village. These shopping forays are exhausting. Especially the shoe store shuffle. Have you ever tried to buy a pair of shoes for someone else, miles and oceans away, with only a vague description of what they want and the outline of their foot on and old piece of newspaper for sizing? (see note 3). Soul sucking.

So I wasn’t surprised when Olguita and Lizette – two docents I struck up conversation with recently at one of Havana’s most historic sites – launched into their own tale of pacotilla.

Lizette had recently been to Mexico City for some sort of tourism training. Given that this was her first trip out of Cuba and she hails from Guanabacoa, that working class ‘hood across the bay, expectations were high for the goodies she’d bring back. Particularly on the part of Olguita (see note 4) her jovial and dark as night colleague.

“I shopped like crazy. Socks for my husband and his father, the tiara for Yenly’s quinceñera, bras for Xenia who is such a tetona they don’t have her size here, and on and on!” Lizette tells me.

“Don’t look at me m’jita!” Olguita says with a girlish grin. “I only asked you for one thing. I asked only for my hair,” she says with a dramatic toss of her faux fall that looks surprisingly like real hair at first blush but is oh-so-synthetic upon closer inspection.

“But where I had to go to get it! An area mala, mala, mala. I feared for my safety!” (see note 5).

There have been a bunch of articles recently about Cuban doctors working abroad. Many focus on the why and most are off the mark. Having specialized in Cuban health and medical internationalism for half a dozen years, I can tell you most have got the facts wrong or distort them, and the analysis – when it exists – makes it obvious that most reporters have never seen Cuban medical teams in action. Which is ironic. Would you buy a guidebook written by someone who had never been to the destination in question? Then why do readers believe reporters who have never witnessed these medical missions?

Here’s my take:

Cuban doctors want to help. First and foremost they want to help the people in the country where they’re posted, but they want to help themselves and their families as well. With the extra money they earn (usually $50-150 a month, plus their regular Cuban salary), they buy fishnet stockings, socks, and watches. Sometimes they buy in bulk for resale back home. Those who would begrudge them this – and believe me, they’re out there – are at best out of touch and at worst, cruel.

But Cuban shopping mania can get complicated. Especially on relief missions involving large numbers of personnel in far away lands.

When I was covering Cuba’s medical team in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake there, I offered to take letters back to the families of the ‘disaster docs.’ I was given several letters to shuttle back to the island, along with life-sized dolls, remote control cars, sneakers, lipsticks, and enough nail polish to start a salon. To be honest, I left Islamabad with more gifts than baggage. That team nearly 2000-strong was in place for 6 months and the shopping those health professionals did in that time necessitated a weight limit policy upon their return – the plane just couldn’t handle all that pacotilla.

In Haiti where I was posted for a month recently, I saw every stage of the process, from shopping to shipping. Every day, vendors set up on the edge of our camp peddling belts, boots, watches, cell phones, clothes, and sandals. Once a week (always at night), ‘the señora’ would come with a well-fingered catalog of electronics and appliances which the Cubans pored over like a treasure map, placing orders for everything from meat grinders to MP3 players, washing machines to Wiis. Those health professionals cycling out of Haiti after completing their 2-year tour are allowed to import into Cuba (free shipping, no taxes) three big boxes about the size of your typical US oven. This is one of the major perks of doctors posted abroad and while the size allowance differs depending on the country (see note 6), folks volunteering abroad go into it knowing they’ll have the opportunity to buy that washing machine or TV they’ve always wanted once they complete two years in-country.

Which is precisely how I found myself in toe-curling agony one middle of the night. Sleep was elusive enough in post-quake Port-au-Prince, what with the images of the daily tragedies crowding out all soporific tendencies; the 100 degree heat didn’t help any. When it came, sleep was narcotic, a dark, blank territory free of burning garbage and humanity’s rot, those sights and smells that get branded on your senses during such disasters. There were no sweet but sick children in this dreamless sleep, no little orphaned girls with no place to live caring for thirsty, hungry younger siblings.

It was about 1 am this particular Sunday. I had just dropped off to sleep, despite the gunshots, in spite of the heat.


A big belly laugh more appropriate to a bar than a terrible disaster rousted me from my slumber.

Wrack-a-ta! Wrack-a-ta!! Wrack-a-ta!!!

Wrack-a-ta! Wrack-a-ta!! WRACK.

More loud voices. Heartier laughter.

These doctors were going home. It was 1 am in central Port-au-Prince, but they were already supping on yuca con mojo and strolling along the Malecón.

WRACK! Wrack-a-ta! WRACK!!

They were wrapping their huge, oven-sized boxes in packing tape right outside my tent. I had seen them packing earlier in the day. A brand new washing machine was loaded with sneakers, sheet and towel sets; ovens were stuffed full of bedazzled tank tops (“Sexy”) and camouflage camisoles, flip flops, jeans, and bras. After the short sea voyage between these two besieged nations, the appliances would take up residence in rural homes from Guantánamo to Guanahacabibes. The packing tape condom was necessary: a few boxes had recently suffered water damage – naturally no one was taking any chances.

Wrack-a-ta! Wrack-a-ta!! WRACK.

The racket was awful and interminable. I squeezed my eyes shut. I waited with curled toes, willing it to stop. I could tolerate the laughter, but not the nerve-grating, sleep-robbing tape wrap.

WRACK! Wrack-a-ta! WRACK!!

I was on my elbows now, the cot’s metal springs pushing through the lousy foam cushion. Surely they’ve woken the whole camp. Surely they’re robbing us all of sleep. But no one said a word. Least of all me – I knew how hard they’d worked for this day, the time away from their family, the ache for Cuba, coping with the illness of Haiti, and to top it off, the quake. Besides, keeping mum is the Cuban way. They suck it up. They withstand.


And then, a voice from the wilderness of tents around me…

“Would you quit it with the damned tape already?!”

Thank you vecina mía! Thank you and bless you!! Bless you for piping up to shut them up. Surely they’ll listen to you, to one of their own, to someone who has to rouse herself in a few hours to face all the post-quake disease and destruction Haiti can dish out.

“Oh! You want us to be quiet? And what happens when it’s YOUR turn to ship home?”

A heavy silence followed.

“All right! But hurry up!!”

Wrack-a-ta! Wrack-a-ta!! WRACK.


My favorite doctor pacotilla story comes from Venezuela. As you may know, Cuba, Venezuela and other regional partners have been pursuing all sorts of cooperation since Chavéz was elected. This includes large numbers of Cuban medical personnel (to the tune of 30,000+ at one point) working in Venezuela. These folks, too, have the option of shipping home their purchases for free.

My optometrist friend had the best approach. She bought a top of the line, full-sized fridge, packed it top to bottom tight with Polar beer, boxed it, wrapped it, and shipped it home. When it arrived on her Vedado doorstep, she unpacked it, plugged it in, waited for the beer to chill, and threw ‘la casa por la ventana’– a huge party.

Gotta love those Cubans!

And I do…when they’re not in their pacotilla.


1. And when I say Cubans are asi or asado – like this or like that – I mean generally, most of them, much of the time. Not each and every one of them, hot day in and sweltering day out.

If I seem a little defensive lately, dear readers, it’s because my detractors are on the attack. My little non-monetized, not-for-the-hyperbole-dependent-masses blog and my slow selling app are garnering scrutiny and a bit of cyber sabotage. Coño.

2. Have you ever taken a gander at the gams of Havana’s immigration officers? Their intricate fishnets would make Frederick’s of Hollywood proud.

3. On the whole, Cubans are brand whores and their logo fury has made the shoe chase easier. Nowadays, all anyone wants are Converse and Crocs.

4. I love how they so liberally use the diminutive in Cuba – even for 200 pound mamacitas!

5. I have seen this from Guatemala City to NYC and from Pakistan to Port-au-Prince: Cubans making sure they visit the cheapest markets, which are invariably in the shadiest part of town. Their knack for ferreting out these places is legendary. When I was in Haiti, a Haitian friend asked me to help financially with his sister’s burial. When I asked around about local funeral costs, a Haitian doctor with the Cuban medical team there told me: ‘well, the coffin alone will run at least $500 but the Cubans know where to get them cheaper…’ Even coffins they know where to get cheaper!! That’s talent.

6. I speak here only of doctors leaving Haiti after completing their 2-year stints; there has been a bit of chisme floating around that the policy might be changed (or already has – you know how reliable Cuban gossip can be!) in some countries but I have no idea what the current situation is elsewhere.


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

DIY Project – Where We’re At

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

August, 2012

It has been a while, friends, and quiet on this particular collaborative front. I’ve been crazy busy with all sorts of projects and plans and hadn’t been to my post office box in too long, when I popped in last week. Holy cojones! was there alotta loot in that cajita of mine. Here’s a recap and thanks to these nice folks for taking part; your postcards are in the mail soon!

Letter sent by K Clark

Sent from: New Orleans, 05 Mar 2012

Received: 27 March 2012

Highlight: It’s from NOLA, that’s highlight enough for me!

Letter from R Martynuik

Sent from: Alberta, 28 April 2012

Received: 15 May 2012

Highlight: This was a long, funny letter from someone who caught the Cuba bug, bad not too long ago. I was delighted to receive something from Alberta since Ive been cooking up an article based there for about a decade now…This letter has put gas in my tank to get on it. Thanks chica!

Labor Day Update

So Ive been kind of remiss in my upkeep of the DIY project. Sorry about that folks. But Im back in the saddle and I have to admit, things are arriving (both here and there) with an alacrity hertofore unknown. Case in point:

card sent from reader John
Sent from:Abbotsford, Victoria, Australia on May 20 (that’s how far behind I am!!)
Arrived Havana: June 14, 2010
Highlight: At 15,000+ kilometers, this is the longest travelled contribution to the project.

Shortly after John’s card arrived (and for those of you shaking your head about my slacker approach to the DIY project, please note in comments below that I DID comply with promised card from Havana to Oz, which arrived within 20 or so days. not bad for half way ’round the world!), I got one from DRUM ROLL PLEASE…..


Funny thing is, it was sent from said station (so says the stamp) on June 30, 2010, but arrived in Havana on July 1, 2010. Two days to hop the Straits? Me thinks there was a lot of blue smoke billowing about that Bonnaroo post office!! Thanks C & N for the card. love it!

NOTE TO READERS: Next year is 10 years of Bonnaroo. Ive never been able to attend. I WANT IN. I have a ride. I have the gear. I have the gumption and you KNOW I have the dancing shoes. I am looking for a sponsor to help get me and the hubby (rock festival virgin! help pop his cherry!) to TN. Ill blog about it. Ill write articles about it. You’ll be the famous patron! You’ll create the memory of a lifetime. Whaddya say?! Contact me here if you’re interested!



Went to old 6464 yesterday. What a haul! A new issue of Good
and three postcards.

Seems things are going along smoothly:

1. From Heathrow

2. From Connecticut

3. From Moscow

All postcards took 2 weeks to arrive.

thanks for participating folks!


It’s been a long while since I’ve been to the old PO Box – since before Haiti, which in psychological time is like dog years. It’s not as if I haven’t been thinking about it. On the contrary. My dear friend A out in LA told me she sent me a package – full of well-crafted novels and thought-provoking magazines no doubt – which is my porn (and as rare here in Havana).

So it was with baited breath (and sweat-slicked back: summer has suddenly descended on Havana and things are heating up. Coming out of the shower sweating is a bitch – something I’ll kvetch about in a subsequent post) that I rolled up to Box 6464 at Havana’s main post office. I should point out here that my movements were being recorded. Not by any sinister state apparatchik, but by journalists Ken Hegan and Robin Esrock.

Seems I may be leaping on to the boob tube sometime in the future and we spent a day together filming us doing Cuban things – resolving, shopping, smoking – to see if I’m what? Photogenic? Informed? Funny? It was a gas, no matter. Anyway, these two cool cats are here for FIT, the over-the-top dog and pony show of a tourism fair in Cuba – more on this in a later post as I’ve much to say on the issue.

Back at the post office, they were as excited as me, I think, to see what treasures the box held. Lo and behold, major treats awaited! One was a letter from a reader participating in this DIY postal project whereby we’re testing the Obama and Castro administrations’ pledge to improve postal services between the two countries. This little card is significant for several reasons: first, it’s from someone I don’t know, so that’s a first. Second, it’s from South Florida. We’re talking 90 miles away people; this innocuous envelope took over 3 weeks to get here. It was sent on March 8 (International Women’s Day incidentally, when I was dancing salsa with my doctor friends in our Port-au-Prince tent camp) and arrived on April 1. This means it traveled, on average, 3.75 miles a day. Joke’s on me, I guess about improved postal relations.

Thanks O Anderson of Ft Lauderdale for participating in our little experiment. A postcard from Havana is on its way!

The other surprise was the arrival of my issue of Good Magazine. If you don’t know this publication, get with it NOW. This is the Slow issue, dedicated to slowing down, slow cities, slow food and all that jazz. It was slow in getting here too, but I’m not complaining. Better late than never. And as I started pouring through its fascinating pages (this is after Ken, Robin and I had freckle bonded and gorged ourselves on Coppelia. That is to say, long after the camera was switched off) and what do I see on page 12, in the Dialogue section? A postcard I sent to the editors on September 29 last year imploring them to keep publishing the print version.

I feel like a butterfly somewhere just flapped its wings and the wider world is going to start (re)exploring the art and joy of letter writing. Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m retro or pre-curve. Can I be both?


UPDATE FOUR! (post Haiti)
Finally! One of my postcards sent up north arrived (and with comically large pope stamp which contrasted nicely with the B&W image of the rebel army in the Sierra Maestra).
Sent from: Habana Cuba on February 14 or so, 2010
Arrived in Queens, NY: March 23, 2010

Well folks, I’m hours away from taking off for Haiti but I wanted to let you know I had a nice little (record-breaking!) surprise in my PO box today. In the interest of brevity (haiti prep continues apace!):

Card with lovely family photo from A Lee
Sent from: Albany, NY on December 10, 2009
Arrived Havana: February 19, 2010 (slowest to date!)
Highlight:Stamped with a never before seen message in bright red ink: “Missent to Bermuda.” This is one well traveled card!

A Lee – you’ll have to wait for me to return from Haiti for your missive from here. So far, none of the people below have received theirs as far as I know


Hi folks! New development on the DIY project front…

Postcard from LP colleague Zora O’neill
Sent from: Bali, Indonesia on January 20, 2010
Arrived Havana: February 13, 2010 (note: this is the date stamped on the postcard as being received at my post office, not the day I went around to collect it)
Highlight: The stamps are beautiful, four color floral affairs and the 1657 temple on the postcard is a wonder. Also, this is the first item I’ve received from someone I’ve never met.
Upshot: Nora, fellow LP writer/blogger and New Yorker is a fast rising star – thanks for taking out the time from Forkin Fantastic to participate in our little project! Also, her postal travel time is neck and neck with the goodies from LA – and came WAY farther.


I’ve got mail!

Well, a big hola to all my readers (and writers) from across the Straits. I’ve at last been able to visit the old P.O. Box and what a haul! Our little DIY US-Cuba postal collaboration is bearing its first fruit. Interestingly, only items from the two coasts have arrived (once again, proving that middle America is a wasteland. Kidding!). Interestingly de nuevo, only items from people I already know happened to get here. Random, but at least it was speedy.

So here are the preliminary results:

Package from my dear friend AD
Sent from: Los Angeles on December 14, 2009
Arrived Havana: December 28, 2009
Highlight: A package! What more do you need to know? OK, it contained a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace that I can’t wait to read (can I BE him? please?) and a super cool envirosax reusable shopping bag unit with 10% of the sale going to the surfrider foundation (www.surfrider.org). I had to pay 1.5 pesos (that’s about 6 cents USD) to get the package from the nice lady behind the glass. Like all packages entering Cuba, this one was opened by customs, inspected and resealed with the aforementioned official form inside detailing what is/was in the package and the state in which it was found. Interestingly, for the first time, there was a problem with the form. Namely, it wasn’t mine! Instead, the form corresponded to Zeida Paez Garcia in Matanzas. Her package contained bags and jars, books, magazines, catalogs, and postcards. I like the contents of my package much better, sorry Zeida.
Upshot: Nothing cheers up like a package from a friend! AND it seems LA PO wins for speedy delivery – just two weeks (or maybe that it was a package had something to do with it)

Long, fun letter from my creative friend AL
Sent from: NY, NY on December 16, 2009
Arrived Havana: January 12, 2010
Highlight: So many! This letter was written in stages during AL’s performance piece enacted during 24 hours riding the F train – I especially enjoyed reading about her pulling into Coney Island at 3:37 am and awaiting the next train, wondering if it will be on time, observing all the other New Yorkers wondering the same thing. (It pulled in promptly at 3:41. Rudy Giuliani – he did get the trains running on time). Bonus: the original Keith Herring Free South Africa postcard, circa 1985. Thanks A!
Upshot: Anything arriving in under a month is pretty good in my opinion.

Postcard from my old friend C
Sent from: Westchester, New York on December 23, 2009
Arrived Havana: January 28, 2010
Highlight: Hubby out in a blizzard at the Jet’s game – some folks never give up hope!
Upshot: Took a month, but hey, it’s the holidays.

So far so good. To post offices and their employees on both sides of the straits, I say: keep up the good work! (If anyone is reading this in Miami or elsewhere in southern Florida, I invite you to participate in our little project: it would be fun to see how long it takes for a card or letter to travel that interminable 90 miles) And to my correpsondents: your postcard is on its way!


So have you heard Obama and Company espousing ‘change’ towards Cuba? Newsflash! It’s a whole bunch of hooey, (despite pundits’ claims to the contrary). OK, maybe not a whole bunch, but mostly. For instance, absolutely nothing floated so far by the United States is bringing my dear friends Karna and Joseph any closer to my doorstep or my husband any closer to my Mom’s (see note 1). Nor has anything changed that would help bring life-saving medicines to Cuban kids with cancer or allow me to access my bank account. My knickers do tend to get in a twist, therefore, when I read about the supposed strides being made. From where I’m sitting, it’s the same old story, save for a new protagonist of color instead of the rich, old white dudes who have been ruling the free world for what seems like forever (see note 2).

But I can tell you from years of firsthand experience that things have improved markedly in one area: mail service. Sounds terribly unsexy and 19th Century, I know, but if you’ve ever had a smile sneak across your lips or a flutter erupt in your gut when a letter from a friend or lover graces your mailbox, you know receiving mail can be one of life’s small but great pleasures. Letter writing is also one of our few remaining acts of pure reciprocity – usually you have to write a letter to get a letter.

And living where I do, without YouTube or podcasts, Skype and webcam capabilities (see note 3), it’s a downright thrill to receive something “from the other side.” Imagine my delight peering into my post office box (a gilded iron affair with the Cuban coat of arms on the door) recently to behold a little pink envelope sent by my youngest niece from summer camp. No matter that she was already assembling her Halloween costume by the time it reached Box 6464 at Havana’s main post office. Or the record-breaking postcard sent by my good friend Claudia from the heights of Denver that took a full three months to reach me.

But arrive it did, which brings me to the pollo of the arroz con pollo of this post: I contracted my post office box in 2002. In those early years, I received magazines, recipes, letters, photos – even boxes packed with paperback books and CDs friends had culled from their collections. A sheet of paper tucked inside each of those incoming packages informed me that the box had been opened and inspected by Cuban postal authorities. It was all very official, with the standardized, column-filled form itemizing the contents and their condition upon arrival, plus whether any prohibited items had been removed. None ever had and nothing was ever stolen or damaged.

Then, after 3 or 4 similar packages and a couple of years of postal elation or deflation depending on what, if anything, my P.O. box contained, my mail lifeline was choked off. I’d get the occasional postcard from China or South Africa from globetrotting friends and family, but nothing from my compadres up north. Letters were getting lost somewhere in transit. Postcards sent from California, Colorado, New York, and New Hampshire never graced Box 6464. Mom resorted to sending newspaper clippings about the Knicks’ new coach and New Yorker cartoons just to see if they’d get here. Few did. I was dismayed – these handwritten, stamped gestures are like Red Bull for the expat soul (without the nasty taste) and I wanted to know what was up with my dose.

I went to talk to the postmistress. I explained the sudden death of my correspondence.

“But if you’re sending money through the mail…” she commented with a raised eyebrow and ‘what do you expect?’ shrug.

This is the type of foreigner-as-village-idiot comment Cubans sometimes make that gets my Irish up. My first inclination is to look the woman straight in the eye and ask: “¿¡tengo cara de boba?! (do I look like an idiot?!) But since this will likely be my postmistress for life, I must be careful not piss her off.

“No, no. Nothing like that. Just postcards and letters and such.”

I inquire as to whether there have been any staffing or procedural changes at the post office that may account for the lapse.


After months of missives gone missing, people stopped writing. Oh, I’d get a postcard from Kenya or Cambodia now and then, but these were few and far between. More often than not, I’d walk the long marble hallway to the bank of boxes, lean in and see nothing but a dark, empty slot. And so it went until one day, in some obscure way, the information reached me that George W had decreed postal services to Cuba would cease, indefinitely. I imagine there’s some P.O. purgatory somewhere up north piled high with pink envelopes addressed to Cuba by beloved campers and secret banana bread recipes that never found their new home.

Fast forward to 2009. My magazine subscriptions started arriving again and Mom’s clipping about the ongoing Kilauea eruption (see note 4) came at last. Then I got a letter from an old friend.

Finally!! I was experiencing direct, positive results from regime change in the USA.

So I’d like to get some evidence as to how well the US-Cuba mail service accords are working, make it scientific, if you will. Drop me a line and we’ll see how long it takes for a simple letter or postcard to cross the 86 miles of water separating us (see note 5). Some will surely never arrive, but those that do will receive a response from yours truly here in Havana. I’ll be sure to keep readers posted on the results.

Send all letter love (and please! nothing inflammatory or flammable, edible or fragile, dangerous or dissenting) to:

Conner Gorry
Apdo 6464
Habana 6
Habana CUBA


1. Something that typically gets lost in all the venom and rhetoric is that the US routinely denies tourist visas to Cubans unless they’re over 70, an artist, or musician. My husband and several of my friends – although they traveled to the US on occasion prior to 2002 – can now only dream of visiting because of this unstated, exclusionary policy.

2. In no way do I mean to minimize Obama’s achievement. His election was triumphant and exultant and not wholly expected in that underdog, tear-jerking Hoosiers kind of way. But when it comes to Cuba, he’s singing the same tune – perhaps with more rhythm and style – but in the end, it’s the same regime change, capitalism-is-better-just-admit-it-and-surrender song and dance we’ve been subjected to for 50 years.

3. People (Cubans and foreigners alike) who can afford to use the WiFi at hotels (cost: $7/hr, 2-hr minimum) or access the Internet through a private provider (cost: $36 for 30 hours/month minimum) do have wider access than me to some of these services.

4. Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island has been erupting since 1983 – the longest recorded eruption in history. If you have never been to the Big Island, go there, now. And take my guide with you!

5. But wait! Please join in even if you live in Canada or Argentina, France or Hong Kong. After all, the blogosphere has no borders, why should our experiment?


Filed under Americans in cuba, Uncategorized

Jesus is Just Alright by Me

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false] 

“Thanks to God, you’re better,” my Haitian friend Madsen tells me when I catch him up on my now-cured explosive diarrhea.

God is very much on the tip of the tongues of most of my Haitian friends and the folks I meet here. Jesus is ubiquitous and more popular (but only slightly) than the NY Lotto numbers – a serious vice in Haiti [see note 1]. Alongside the daily numbers – on buses, in barber shops, taped to tents, tagged on partially fallen walls – the Word of God is found everywhere.

Descending the steep hillside upon which is perched a large, makeshift orphanage where the Cuban team is providing free health services, I see a garage door that proclaims: “God loves us. He saved us.” That’s some heavy food for thought and doesn’t help lift the anvil that’s been pressing on my heart ever since I huffed up that hill to where 347 orphans are ill, thirsty, hungry, and too alone.

I wasn’t expecting this unwavering faith. None of my (scant to be sure) pre-trip research prepared me for the Jesus craze that grips Haiti. Casual conversations peppered with holy references and the massive Sunday migrations through the dust-choked streets by young and old alike, Bibles tucked close, catch me unawares. Heathen though I am, I’m grateful this beleaguered people has something to hold on to. I remember something like envy overtaking me as I walked downtown on 9/12, passing full to overflowing churches. From Tribeca to Cite Soleil, when disaster strikes, believers find succor in their faith.

“You’re just cheap. You should give your salary to the church,” a Haitian medical student teases a Cuban surgeon in the emergency room. My ears prick up at this playful, but certain culture clash unfolding. Turns out the medical student gives 75% of her salary to her church and she is trying to convince the surgeon to follow suit. Her beauty and killer smile don’t win him over to the light and when he asks why she would do that, she explains the church is where she finds love and happiness and so is entitled.

More dense food for thought.

One terrible morning, after not sleeping due to stress, heat, the unfortunate musical tastes of my campmates, Cubans packing up two years of purchases in enormous boxes they hermetically seal with miles and miles of tape [see note 2], and an animated, pre-dawn phone negotiation between a Cuban doctor and her husband back in Guantánamo, I’m assaulted by this godliness. Seems someone in the massive tent city up the block thought it a good idea to blast religious pop on a powerful sound system starting at 6am.

In my mind, food, potable water, and safe shelter would be more appropriate for the thousands now getting an earful of Merci Jesus. But what do I know? I thought Jeff Buckley penned ‘Hallelujah’ [see note 3]. Later that day, I see a sign and point it out to my doctor buddies: ‘God is the chef of this house?!’ Everyone has a good laugh at my bad French: clearly God is the boss of this house, not the chef. But while He might be the boss of those houses still standing, I personally don’t see God at work in Haiti [see note 3].

To Madsen, whose younger sister just died of anemia, I tell it like I see it.

“No, friend. It wasn’t God. It was the Cuban doctors and the almighty power of antibiotics.”

Madsen nods. You know, we have a saying here in the countryside: ‘after God, the Cuban doctors.’

Haiti: it just won’t let my mind rest.


1. I’ve never felt the NY vibe so strongly outside of the city like here in Haiti. They play NY-rules dominoes (whatever that is – I learned dominoes in Havana and honed my skills in the Cuban camp in Port-au-Prince), you can buy Carvel log cakes (I shit you not) and the Yankees logo is everywhere.

2. Cubans completing two years of international service are entitled to ship – duty-free – three large boxes the size of a Westchester dishwasher, back home. In these boxes go 15 pairs of sneakers, a dozen bedazzled tank tops, 10 men’s dress shirts, sheets, towel sets, diapers, and as many pairs of jeans that will fit inside the new oven that after a month or so at sea will be installed in a Las Tunas kitchen. Each week, a saleswoman comes to the camp – her catalog circulates between the doctors like an issue of Penthouse in Cell Block C – and takes orders for everything from washing machines to PlayStations. I’m glad these folks have the opportunity to both do good in Haiti and for themselves and their family. And I understand the need to wrap the boxes in tape (an unfortunate accident to one of the boxes chugging its way to Cuba a little while ago means people are taking no chances), but must they do it at 1am? In front of my tent? Around midnight, one of my neighbors finally yells: ‘will you quit it with that freakin’ tape already?’ I send a mental heartfelt thank you her way. ‘Yeah?’ comes the response. ‘And what happens when it’s your turn?’ There’s a brief, golden silence. ‘Good point,’ she shouts, ‘but hurry it up!’ Damn.

3. I must admit I’m embarrassed by my musical ignorance here, but this is compensated by the fact that Leonard Cohen interpreted by a Haitian chanteuse is serenading several thousand displaced families.

4. Except perhaps in the sunsets. Port-au-Prince is blessed by such jaw-dropping dusks, taking a photo instead of experiencing it seems blasphemous.


Filed under Here is Haiti

Capital Catharsis

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

It´s the Itchy & Scratchy Show over here in Haiti. Everyone is itching. Moments ago I was talking to a nurse outside my tent when she bent down to rub her jeans around her shin; earlier, a doctor scratched at his neck while we discussed a prognosis. Tell tale signs. All day long I catch Haitian women slapping their braided heads, trying to alleviate the ubiquitous itch without an actual scratch. I too, am itching. This is par for my traveling course: scabies in San Francisco, an unidentifiable jungle funk that lasted 100 times longer than the five day trek to El Mirador, and a nasty something or other contracted in a chozo on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras. What can I say? The bichos like me.

Scabies is epidemic in most post-quake scenarios and I’m half convinced I’ve got them (again). It sucks, applying the toxic lotion from head to toe and washing all your clothes and bedding – especially when there’s no running water. But I can’t resist hugging all those beautiful, wide eyed kids who are facing scabies and starvation and nowhere to shit. They need hugs, deserve them.

To be honest, the scene here is depressing and some days even all those smiling, jigging kids can’t help me shake it. The stench of shit, piss, and garbage (I hate to beat that drum again, but it surrounds us) is constant. Unavoidable, this olfactory assault, and the visuals aren’t much better: by day, little boys and muscle-bound men lather up buck naked in the street while US soldiers look on through dark shades, desultory machine guns slung by their side; by night, young girls sleep in doorways hunched beneath pink blankets.

It´s fair to say that every last person in Port-au-Prince today is sleep deprived. There is so much to keep us awake at night – the impending rains, the homeless families, the mothers with AIDS, TB, anemia, and scabies – but it is the terrible, horrific tales of rape that terrorize my waking moments. What protection can a single mother in an overcrowded, pestilent refugee camp provide her teenage daughter from the men who enter in the predawn to beat and rape innocent human beings? None, it seems. As I said – depressing.

The Haitian people are an extraordinarily religious bunch and I´m not talking voudou (although there´s that too and I´ve been promised a visit – you´ll be sure to read about it here if/when it happens). These are hard core Christians and ´Jesus saves´ is plastered on every ticky tacky tap tap in the city. ´Our savior shall return´ and ´placing my faith in God’ are also popular slogans painted on everything from barber shops to gas tanks. The other day I saw a wooden plaque that in my rusty French I took to mean ‘Jesus is the chef of this house.’ A Haitian friend pointed out that my high school French was indeed lacking; what the sign actually said was ‘Jesus is the boss of this house.’ Sundays are church days when everything grinds to a halt (much to the dismay of the Cuban doctors: this is their only day off and given their druthers, they would spend sun up to sun down shopping). There are so many things that don’t square in Haiti, the (professed) faithfulness to god and the prevalence of domestic/gender-based violence being just one.

The rubble, of course, remains. There are some motions being made to clear it – in buildings prioritized by the US high command or their private subcontractors (one never can tell) and by men salvaging rebar. De facto as these efforts may be, it’s more than is happening on any formal level. It’s part of the permanent landscape it seems, these piles of pulverized rocks and crumbled facades. We – Haitians, Cubans, internationalistas – just step around and over and through it every day, on every street. This capacity to ignore and move on and around puts me in mind of two anecdotes, one old, one new, from two worlds away.

The first is my mom’s archetypical tale of when my father, (long ago, for they’ve been happily divorced now for over 25 years), broke a glass in the dining room. Rather than go for a broom, he draped a piece of newspaper over the mess. My mom discovered this act of maturity by stepping on the newspaper and slashing open her foot. Divorce? You betcha.

The second is a contemporary story told to me by an Argentine doctor friend of mine trained at Havana’s Latin American Medical School. As happens in Cuba, motors break and systems fail, meaning we sometimes have to go without running water. There’s usually water to be found somewhere, and although it has to be hand carried (up several flights of stairs usually) it is available. One fine day, the motor that brings the water up to the dorm’s tanks and into the pipes burnt out. No water, for how long no one knew. Instead of hauling up the liquid gold to bucket flush the toilet, the students (male ones I hope and assume) began laying one square of newspaper after another over the pile of shit they’d deposited in the dry bowl. Eventually, obviously, the stack drew dangerously close to the rim. This is where I stopped my friend in his telling, but I have to wonder, why do men have such a penchant for covering the ugliness of life with newspapers?

[For the positive things happening in Haiti, visit my posts at http://mediccglobal.wordpress.com]

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Visions of Port-au-Prince

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

That spontaneous little tent camp that abutted ours? They razed it the other day to make way for the new Ministry of Public Health. So they say. Regardless of what’s constructed in the bulldozed plot, I don´t know what the families who were surviving there will do, or where they´ll go. For now, they´re squeezed into a narrow strip of no-man´s-land where chickens wade in standing water picking at garbage and bulldozers mound detritus closer and closer to their makeshift kitchen.

It has been raining all night. “How did you sleep?” I ask my neighbor, a doctor from Guantánamo who has been serving in Haiti a year already and treats her patients in capable Creole. “OK, but I wake up tired.” This is common: sleep is elusive, especially when it’s raining. With each drop you think of a different person – the malnourished four month-old; the young girl caring for her three smaller siblings; and the 12-year old boy who is now the head of his household, made fast a man by the earthquake. No matter how much good the world is doing Haiti, regardless of the size and sincerity of the tender outpouring, no one can control today and tomorrow and the next day’s most pressing problem: the rain. Perhaps more than any other place on earth, in Haiti March 2010, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Outside the gate of the Cuban camp, that wind is laced with an acrid smoke from all the burning garbage. Mixed with the dust, it makes a toxic cocktail. There are people living in cars of course and tents pitched in the middle of rubble-edged streets. Even folks whose homes are intact prefer to sleep in tents in the driveway or family courtyard. The earthquake is too fresh in their minds, the 6.1 aftershock fresher still. Signs on the outside of partially crushed homes read: ´Help us! We need water and food´ in three (or more) languages.

You´ve seen the destruction already, repeatedly, on one of your 150 channels. But living among it, with the dust and dirt filling your eyes and nose and mouth is something else entirely. Flies swarm over garbage, shit, and people. Four-story buildings are flattened like millefeuille pastries with chunks of concrete-encrusted rebar dangling from skewed balconies like Christmas lights or strings of rock candy. Thinking about what lies beneath isn’t advised. People are starving literally to death, yet there are mounds of food for sale everywhere: fried chicken, grilled hotdogs and corn on the cob, fresh fruits, vegetables, bread, and rice.

Inside the camps, conditions are not fit for cattle, truly. But the children. Smiling and laughing and dancing in spite of it all. They’re adorable and wide eyed and play alongside garbage heaps shouting ‘ blan! blan!’ (whitey! whitey!) with affection when I walk by. I joke with them, flashing the peace and thumbs up sign and dancing to music only I (and maybe they) can hear. It’s my only way to communicate beyond my high school French. More often than not, they’re barefoot and bare bottomed. It’s heartbreaking. I make them smile, just for now, but Patch Adams I am not.

Back within the walls of our encampment, vendors set up shop, peddling boots, golden-colored watches and fine shirts encased in plastic. They´ve got the Cubans´ number. The sneakers are name brand and spotless, though many are used – or to be precise, no longer of use to their owners who are dead. Some lovely pharmacists who arrived with me just over a week ago are already approaching their 30 kilo baggage allowance, having shopped within our walls to the limit permitted under their contract as part of the Cuban emergency medical team. Meanwhile, Wilfred, a Haitian who worked at the Military Hospital before the quake, runs a commissary where we buy sort of cold Cokes and Colt 45. Prestige, the Haitian beer, is in high demand and runs out fast. One friend, who has been in Haiti for more than two years, takes a long pull on his beer and tells me: “best to stay anaesthetized.” If only.

And I thought Cuba was surreal.


Filed under Here is Haiti, Uncategorized