Turquino Peak

There’s a Cuba story rattling around in my head that I’m struggling with to find a starting point. It’s based on a day trip to Turquino National Park, site of the Turquino Peak – at 6,500 feet, the highest peak on the island on the southern coast near Santiago.

This morning it was a typical travelogue: Flora and Fauna, breathtaking beauty, and the geography and biology from changing tree zones to salt weather dry landscapes. The terrain, the adventure, the snippets of insight like the onion field, and other tourists who didn’t arrange a guide turned away indignant.

But this is Cuba, and while some things are visible, like the mountain, they are also partially hidden unless you look:

How do I speak of the layers of human geography that have worked their way into the culture, language, and history? How do I represent Cuban life, in it’s desperation and opportunity, like the symbiotic relationship the Catholic church has with Santeria?

What about endangered species of wildlife like the Fernandina’s Flicker, a woodpecker with about 600 remaining nesting pairs, and plants affected by micro farming in arid soil that washes away in a hurricane along with coastal roads that the most affected rely on like a lifeline?

How do I mention colonial masters, the Spanish, French, British and Americans changing control like hands of cards, or the Soviet Union that centralized the economy and ownership before bailing in ’91, unleashing economic chaos?

What do you do with Fidel and Raul, national heroes and international pariahs?

Good contemporary Cuban writers live off the island, as freedoms were restricted and jail possible, but now political prisoner exchanges are more common and people are being let out, with twenty thousand visas being awarded each year. How do we find the artists and artwork in between the tacky souvenirs?

The small whitewashed homes along the road to Turquino – whose inhabitants can now somehow purchase – are interspersed with the Indian-style wooden huts with banana-palm roofs. The occasional river bed is a dry, rocky scar on the scrub-lands. Pigs and goats roam free, eating the crabs crushed by the occasional car locals call ‘coffee grinders’ for their reverse engineering.

Here, by the Caribbean sea, the coconuts grow yellow.


Moped Diaries

March 19 2015

Moped to Chiverico (Chee-ver-eeko). Along the winding Route 20 West from the resort, the tarmac reflects the afternoon sun’s heat. On one side, dry farmland reaches out to the sea. On the other, tiny homes, some of weathered mahaogany boards and Indian-style thatched palm roofs seperate the view from the Sierras to the North. The wind at our back helps my first time on a moped – ever. The instruction consisted of how to turn it on and off, and where the gas goes; they gave me a litre to start and told me I had to fill it up in town, 20 minutes away. Three minutes into the trip I notice my speedometer doesn’t work.

Along the road I pass locals on horses, horse and carts, bicycles, and on foot. Cars are sparse. Cubans wait every kilometer or so at the side of the road for “local taxis’, large diesel trucks or old pickups, and stand in them peering out their slit windows or sit on tailgates and sides unrestricted by safety. Occasionaly a truck stops ahead unloading its human cargo and spewing diesel, or worse, a mixture of gas and diesel that smells like kerosene and chokes my throat. I am learning to use my mirrors as the trucks have loud agrressive horns. Lynda hangs on tightly.

The sea closes in on the winding road now, around bends that reveal the stunning coastline: rocky inlets, small bays, and green seas. The Sierras loom closer, occasionally touching the road, their heavy rocks dotting the gravel road side.

I spot the gas station in Chiverico, not easy to see from the road. We turn in. The street is jagged stone with dips and holes and we come to a bumpy stop. I need the attendant to put down the kickstand. Four litres and a few pesos and, struggling to turn around, we’re back over the rocky path towards the centre of town.

Chiverico’s main street is a hundred yards from the sea. On the North side the small bright-white stucco buildings reveal a bank, a cinema, and an office of the communist party, with several restaurants like Mariposa (butterfly) – found in all towns. On the South side there is a public square and a bar, cafe, and food-stands that accept the CUC peso – the tourist dollar. Cuba is a country of two currencies. The CUC (locals call it ‘Kook’) is connected to the American dollar value and used by tourists. The national currency is what Cubans use. Their peso is worth a fraction of the CUC peso – something like 15 to 1.

Local taxis in Chiverico are horse-drawn carts with benches. They costs one national peso. There doesn´t appear to be regular stops and they fill the street, weaving in and out of pedestrians and trucks alike. Tourists aren’t regular in Cheverico. It’s not high season and we are stared at – local entertainment. It takes minutes to go through the main street and out of town so we turn back, take a left turn, and enter the back streets. The tiny houses sit on dirt roads, or worse, the rocky, bumpy streets when there are streets. We drive slowly, weaving side to side and balance uneasily. A youth is getting a haircut in a barber chair in the open air out front of a house. Children in school uniforms are everywhere. Locals sweep dropped leaves from their dirt yards. A larger street is busy with truck taxis and we pass the school letting out. Around a corner we discover concrete apartment blocks. These Russian-era fortresses are in all the larger towns and cities. Most have some kind of decorative form, wasted though in their obstruction of the landscape – they stick out coldly. We spend minutes here and circle back to the main road. That is Cheverico.

Back on the highway East, we laugh at the pigs, goats, chickens, and the dogs that cross in front – amusing and trecherous. The pigs look wild but locals call them ‘shiny’ pigs. There are two kinds of pigs in Cuba: shiny pigs, and Canadian pigs, the pink ones that are imported for tourists. There are Canadian and Cuban chickens too. Local animals are free range and without hormones. The animals are let out to roam the countryside in the morning and gathered by the farmers at night. I can’t figure out how you would know your shiny pig from your neighbour’s.

Picking up speed the wind presses against me. Air conditioning. I don’t tell Lynda but I get the bike up to full throttle on the straight-aways. I have a Monkeys song in my head. It seems appropriate – from one of those fun 60’s movies. The film I think has them riding mopeds…I don’t know the words – just the hook… “I’m a believer.”

Cuba Libre!

Let’s get this straight. This is a resort, not the anonymous urban hustle and bustle of Havana I fell in love with in 2013, with its diesel smell and uneven streets. Resorts in Cuba are a mixture of consideration and indifference – even farce. Everyone is playing a game. Inside the elevator the sign reads 10 personas. I like to think the resort is filled with personas caught somewhere between unrestricted freedom and social constraint.

There are the ones from the plane already in flip flops, their tans and ruddy noses carefully cultivated from prior visits south, who run strait for the lounge bar with their luggage still cold from 35,000 feet. You see them late at night in small groups of miss-shapen waists and open shirts. By day two they know the bartenders by name. They sport ‘bubba’ mugs of mohitos by the pool during the day. They live life large. So do their men…but in Speedos.

Many though crave privacy and speak in hushed tones. Couples whos routine lives need a routine stop in discount luxury. All-inclusives remove the complicated decision making of what to have for lunch or dinner. For a week their ‘adventure’ consists of a bus tour and a bottle of rum they won’t open back home. You see them strolling slowly around the resort in socks and sandals. They have limits.

Inevitably you’ll find the middle-aged adventure tourist who either came on a last minute “why not’ whim from their lives as teachers or marketing professionals, or they are obviously slumming. They pratice yoga. They wear Merrils and high-tech accessories, never speedos, and take side trips to markets in local towns, not being seen for entire days at a time until they pop up on the bus back to the airport. They pack lightly and smile confidently, knowing something we will never know.

For my part I deconstruct the group personas looking for individuation, re-branding them through careful observation. Broad-shoulders slinks away from her partner in her long clingy black dress. They can’t be married, their lives are so complicated back home. Lynda nudges me in complaint because they alone danced naturally, intimately – for a few seconds – to the lounge guitarist, before she floated to the bathroom. They were out of their Merrils now, looking as comfortable in casual dinner wear as they did around the pool earlier, flowing in sarongs.

El Senorita was more of a dilemma. She seemed at first to be the single woman looking for a group to connect with. Sixty anyway, she was joined on a bench after dark by a somewhat younger Cuban. For a moment we were distracted by an undertone whistle. It was familiar from other trips as a signal from young male hustlers looking to sell you anything after dark – a non-verbal shout to attract attention. Senorita got up and went to the bar. In seconds a young buck emerged from shaddows behind us, and, walking past the Cuban on the bench gave him a high five. To us it indicated they were in collusion and the Cuban on the bench had scored an adventure for the night with the older Senorita. It explained the small groups of fashionable Cuban men here and there on the grounds of the resort after dark. Look, whether it is romance or a cigar you are after, someone somewhere is looking to shill you out of your pesos. Good on El Senorita!

I probably look a sight worse to my fellow deconstructionist vacationers. For one I am neurotic enough to be hard to nail down. I have long straw-like hair for my age, and I wear the most obscure event and festival t-shirts like Rock and Rumble. I am forever changing clothes, like camouflage, because I brought too much, and I avoid the sun like Dracula. And, I prefer not to engage – giving only sideways remarks to Lynda as though she’s taking dictation on my scientific study. Well why not. I don’t party with my bubba mug and Speedos (anymore) and my own persona changes depending on my mood and anxiety level. In the end though, I appreciate the characters in my drama. They are after all just like us – trying to get through another winter back home; real people in all their glory, and perfect just the way they are. I feel safe here. Wait till the American’s return to Cuba.

Footnote: 6:00 am. Thursday March 19. Staff are watching a soap in the lobby bar. I can only pick out a word or two in the 1920’s period piece, “puta,” and “vamos.” The night bartender, housekeeping, front desk, and grounds staff hang out before the tourists awake, taking advantage of the soft couches and free coffees. Two of the characters on TV lock in a kiss that lasts for minutes as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” plays languidly. Staff are glued to the small screen, chattering and laughing in Spanish; a dreamy moment of hapiness. Spanning the entire wall behind the bar and crossing the large open lobby to the ceiling two stories tall is a mural of the cathedral in Santiago with the Sierra Madres in the background, and wispy clouds reaching up to blue sky. In the mural the small, colonial style houses adorn the street scape with Terra-cotta tiled roofs in imitation. It is still dark outside. I like this place.

My Visit to St. Mary’s Hospital ER- March 3rd

“The friends that cared didn’t understand either. They tried to help. They suggested the gym and gluten free diets. They had forgotten how much Shiny Girl loved to run and thought she needed motivation. Shiny Girl wanted to scream “DONT YOU THINK I WOULD IF I COULD!!” Instead she smiled and thanked them for their advice. Shiny Girl went to doctors. They said she was depressed. When Shiny Girl said, “I think it is something else”, they scoffed at her. Why won’t you take the medication we are giving you? In Shiny Girl’s weakest moments, they refused to listen to her. They refused to look into other possibilities. With Shiny Girl’s last bursts of strength, she insisted. They finally did the tests half heartedly. With scorn, they scheduled the tests she had insisted upon. With each negative test, they challenged her. “When will you accept that this is all in your head?” they silently stared through her. When she asked for a test, they asked her what disease she was inventing now. They wondered if she was a drug addict or looking for a lifetime of welfare. They would not say it out loud, but their eyes screamed the accusations. As did their sighs when Shiny Girl begged for a few more tests. They did – They did them grudgingly, then shoved them to the side of their desk with the rest of the paperwork. NOW will you leave me alone, Shiny Girl? Shiny Girl felt as discarded and ignored as the medical files that bore her name. Shiny Girl became Complainer. “ – excerpt from another blog…

I took the route 25. Getting to the bus terminal was a repeat of going to work half an hour before. One foot in front of the other. I was exhausted. I had sat in my office chair and sent the e-mail saying I had to leave, then put my coat back on and walked out. I smiled at anyone I met. Better not to reveal the excrutiating nausea I was feeling, or the penetrating weakness. No time to explain. Just keep going; groggy.

The snow had started. I didn’t realize it at first. I didn’t realize much of anything focusing on my steps. At one point I thought I might need an ambulance to meet the bus. It was so hard to move. But somehow I was able to get up at the stop for the hospital, and shuffle off into the fast falling snow. In through the revolving door, I pressed the touch screen and scratched my name on the registration form. Number 24.

I had come to St. Mary’s because they had a good patient charter of values. I’d heard some things about the treatment being more patient centred – maybe even more compassionate. It fit my mental construct: priests walking the halls with rosaries. I know, a bit archaic, but since Grand River it made sense to chose the alternative. I even thought the day before that if I needed someone to talk to about my condition, there would be someone around a corner in a robe waiting to hear my confession. “I’m an atheist,” I would tell them, “but I think I should start talking about my end of days, do you have a while?” Maybe I could be a little religious if they wanted me to be, you know, if it helps.

I had foresight. I had weighed up going to the ER for a couple of days. I was off work the day before and had taken the time to write down my primary symptoms: Fatigue, dizziness, trembling, headaches, and added a couple more just to be safe: nausea and sweating. In hind-site I missed one: I had cramp in the large muscles in my legs; first the left, then the right, then back to the left again. It wasn’t that noticeable and sort of a distraction I thought was related to my diabetes. You get knee-buckling weakness when you have a low blood sugar. I had felt it before. And besides, I had written my note already, placed it in my wallet for safe keeping; just in case. It had my medication dosages, my history of bipolar and diabetes, and the other occurrences of the symptoms over the past couple of months: three times including Grand River.

I got out the note with my health card and registration form and sat down across from Triage. I could barely keep my eyes open; half shut more or less. I caught bits of conversation between the triage nurse and a patient – he was joking and laughing. I wanted them to finish so I could hear what number was next. 25. Good – it wouldn’t be long.

The day before I had thought about bringing a pillow. I knew how uncomfortable the seats would be and I knew I would be tired. I put my head back against a window, and my mouth stayed open. My head rolled forward until I could bring it back up again. I started to slide off my seat and struggled to stay upright. My eyes were nearly closed. I saw very little anymore and fought to keep them open. I wasn’t alert at all. I couldn’t focus my attention and my head just kept flopping back and forward, mouth open. I was so tired.

Shadows came and went in front of me in the bright waiting room. I mouthed the words help. I didn’t know what to do. One green blurry shadow went into a door in front of me and called my number in a woman’s voice. I motioned for her to come over, and I mumbled something about not being able to move. I could only say a word or two with effort, and my breathing was shallow. It was the start of the nurses voices; commanding and abrupt, like the one on the phone at Grand River two weeks before. It wasn’t a priest’s compassionate tone.

The shadow with the woman’s voice brought a wheelchair over and asked that I get in. She tried to support my arm but I slumped to the floor on my bum, my head still flopping around, mouth still agape. She said if I was able to hold on to my chair I should be able to pull myself onto the wheelchair. I wasn’t holding on to my chair actually, I had just discarded my arm and hand there – left them behind when I buckled – forgotten. More shadows. Two more I think. One in purple maybe. They were telling me to bend my knees. I didn’t understand. I was thinking slowly about their words but they kept talking. “Bend your knees, come on; ” abrupt, dismissive. I told them I didn’t understand.

I wanted to say “Please be nice,” but I was too afraid. I wanted to hear the words, “It’s O.K. We’re going to help you,” but they never came. Nor did the angels on clouds. “Get his belt,” one said. “He’s deadweight,” another stated. They gave up pulling on my arms and I felt my belt tighten, and then my pants did a wedgie as the shadows heaved me onto the wheelchair. “I’m not going to bother triage,” one said, coldly, “just wheel him in.”

At a point I actually felt embarrassed. It’s funny how you think of things in the moment. I was glad the waiting room wasn’t busy. What would the other people think? Drunk maybe? I thought that I was dressed casually but professionally, couldn’t anyone see I was not one of ‘those people’? I decided quickly I didn’t care. And that was probably for the better. I was not quite in the wheelchair, and, as the automatic door opened in front of us, my arm that draped over the side banged loudly against it. The shadow jostled me to come at an angle in order to fit.

“Put him in recess.” I thought I heard them say. Or it might have been “re-suss,” which is short for resuscitate. Apparently that’s the ER cardiac arrest unit with specialized equipment. I’m not sure though as I didn’t look around to notice. It was just bigger, and there were more of the shadows. They were trying to get me to stand up so they could put me on a gurney. I wasn’t able to move well and wobbled when they got me upright. I think I told them my arm was stuck between the wheelchair and the gurney frame. I don’t remember lifting my legs up at all but I was on the bed finally, with nurses moving around me. I could only make out one of them; red sleeves with blond straight hair. She seemed like she was in charge. No facial features that I can remember. My mind was going so slowly.

I was asked to help get my shirt off. They had stripped my jacket and sweater, my arms flailing everywhere. I pawed at my shoulder, grasping at the material, and sent my glasses flying somewhere as I pulled at my shirt. I think they helped. It was a confusing hurly burly of arms and commands all at once. I was crying. Not sure if it started in the wheelchair or on the gurney but it came anyway. I kept saying “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

They slapped stickers on me. They poked and prodded. I could only hear one at the side, seemed to be sitting at a desk, in what seemed to be a scoffing tone, “He wrote a list.” She read the notes I had written faster than I could respond to questions. “He took a bus.” someone said. Sounded sarcastic to me. I could barely get a word out. I can only assume they found my vitals were stable as there was a kind of release of pressure at once after only a minute or two and one by one the shadows left. It all seemed to take less time than it did to get me out of the wheelchair. My eyes were still mostly closed, the lights were bright, and red sleeves was still doing something. I heard her say something like,” did you crash in the waiting room so you could get in here quicker?” I knew what she meant. It’s hard to remember the exact words but that doesn’t matter. “I would never do that,” I responded through tear-soaked eyes. My hair was a mess I think. At some point she put my glasses back on my face. I can’t be sure she believed me.

‘Where do we put him?” a voice said as they rolled me out of recess. “I don’t know,” and then something muffled. I was finally in a treatment area with a blue curtain. At least it wasn’t a hallway. Red sleeves came in and out, put an IV line in two different places “just in case.” I couldn’t really see anyway but felt the pinches. My blood sugar was normal too. The order to things is hard to remember now, but I met my priest.

Dr. Lyn was a little wisp of a thing according to Lynda. She asked if they should call Lynda and I wanted her to come. Dr. Lyn stayed in front of me to either side at all times; bonus points. I couldn’t make out her face, just that she had dark longish hair I think. They had turned the lights off and I was putty in the bed. She leaned on the side rails and spoke to me in a soft voice but clear. She told me they didn’t know what to look for but they would take some blood work anyway. It came back negative. I should have asked for what, but forgot. I was beyond tired. I was lulled by her mercifulness.

Dr. Lyn asked Lynda to speak outside the curtain. I strained to hear and made out something about my mental health history. I heard the words psychiatrist and referrals. They new about my history at Grand River and the crisis clinic in October. I didn’t know until later she had asked if I had been committed, or if I could harm myself. They usually ask me that directly. It’s always no. No! I mean, what were they thinking? Why would someone struggle against exhaustion, in a blizzard, get on a bus, get to a hospital, be treated like dead weight, get a wedgie and banged into a door, feel humiliated and ashamed, and then want to kill themselves? It wasn’t until I got home that I read the small piece of photo-copied paper Dr. Lyn had pressed into Lynda’s hand. It was only an address and phone number. 480 King Street West. I knew the address: Grand River’s mental health crisis clinic.

Someone has to say something right? Someone has to advocate for patients rights – do you think? I was too exhausted and afraid to simply ask to be treated nice, and if not for Dr. Lyn I may have been too afraid to let anyone know about my experience – even if she’s thrown me back in a loop where I don’t want to go; backwards, not forwards. In some ways she is a contradiction, offering compassion but no hope. For the first while after, I debated not saying anything to anyone. I would carry on as if it didn’t happen.

There are dozens and dozens of possible conditions that accompany ringing in the ears, extreme fatigue – which I have had for three days now – dizziness, muscle cramping, trembling, sweats, and nausea. I do know that this is getting in the way of living my life. I also try to be proactive, which isn’t much help in the health care environment where waiting is the norm. I have to wait four more days until I see my primary care physician. My endocrinologist wait is undetermined. I will have to wait to see other specialists now – in this case I would like a neurologist, not a psychiatrist – and I will have to exhaust tests. I can imagine in my mind that babies left in baskets on church steps get taken care of by God – at least right away anyway. There has to be hope.