Winter in Cuba – Cuba

My fifth annual Cuba trip began on a magical, mystical – well, at least – archetypal note, with Venus, Jupiter and Mars all lined up pointing east, and Popocatapetl (the ancient active volcano near Mexico City) belching out a black cloud as we pulled in to Mexico City from San Miguel, and a large fiery one as we flew out the next day. It was cold too, so intense that flying in to Cancun I saw, for the first time in my life, not one American tourist! Another real first for me: as I joined a group of Mexicans in a bus towards town, I myself was the only ‘gringo’ around! I stayed the night as if I were really in Mexico.

No problem getting a seat on the next flight out to Havana, so I was on my way. It was the same story weather-wise when I reached Jose Marti airport. Cubans hunkered into their warmest available jackets and parkas, half of them sniffling and hacking with colds. It took me a couple of days to catch up, then I caught one too.

Shuffling about the streets in my goose-down jacket was another first this far south. It did an empathy number on me though – the Cubans seemed so much more miserable than me.

My resistance probably became low when I couldn’t locate my girlfriend. Besides my regular medical research, I’d come to see her. Cuba itself, with it’s outmoded communist, repressive ways and secret police didn’t hold the attraction for me it had in prior years: European tourists were all around. Most of the hot musicians have now been relegated to the touristy bars and clubs of Old Havana.

Yaisy lived in the far opposite corner of the country, in Santiago de Cuba. According to her friend and neighbor, Irasema, she was visiting Holguin, up-country, and should return by the end of the weekend. When she hadn’t, and when I heard she’d be gone all week I got sick. Guess I’ve had a few colds over the years but this was a zonker. I stayed in bed until Thursday. I finally got through to my sweet gal, who’d been tending to her Mother in the countryside, another victim of the crazy cold wave. Of course, the temperature never went below 40, but here that was really something.

Though recovering, my energy level was hovering around zero plus 2 or so. When my girl finally got back and we spoke by phone I had to tell her I was unable to travel to those far reaches but that I would send her passage money to come to Havana for our reunion. This was tantamount to telling an American girl in Los Angeles that her lover from Europe had arrived but that she’d have to travel to New York in order to see him! Compounded by the fact that Cubans aren’t allowed to just travel about at will. They’re supposed to have special permission – documents to leave their hometowns and a good reason for doing it.

Occasionally it’s hard to accept the ‘apartheid’ here (Cubans pay in pesos,
20×1, tourists in dollars, and it’s considered a crime for Cubans and
foreigners to socialize except under certain conditions) working both ways,
certainly, and fulfilling Castro’s needs, but this time I at least saved

She did it, hopping a plane in spite of her “…terror of the things”,
she explained to me later when we were alone. And when leaving to go back home a week later she decided to return by train or ‘gua-gua’ (Cuban, for bus), “no matter how long it might take…”

Havana is starting to shape up. The trickle-down effect from the tourist dollars is actually working as predicted by Fidel (roll over Ronald Reagan). Paint began appearing this year and is making most of the difference. There’s nothing more morose than beautiful architecture crumbling and going all rain-streaked and grey colored. I’d guess in a couple more years it’ll be looking a lot more like it did in the old capitalist glory days.

The place really depresses me now though. Most side streets are still filthy and unpainted. The people, for lack of much of anything to do, stand about yelling at each other. No apparent emotion is involved, just a flexing of vocal muscles, from about dawn till late at night; siestas do NOT come easy here. Noise isn’t a concept, or a word I’ve ever heard uttered here…

Every year there seems to bring another 180 degree shift. The tourist dollar has also trickled down to the markets now, every store is crammed with goods. A very few years back it was even difficult to find toilet paper.

They’re a hot and proud folk, but surrounded by sad, grey, fungus-streaked architecture isn’t very funny. This scenario isn’t helped by Castro’s banning of all incandescent bulbs (possession is a crime!) in favor of the purile coldness, and cheapness, of fluorescent ones.

On the brighter side, the alternative medicine clinics I regularly visit are becoming more popular. The people’s natural suspicions of the government acupuncture and herbal clinics seems to be abating and for the first time the staff hadn’t the usual couple of hours to spend in gossiping and socializing with me. Instead we discussed some of the new protocols which have been developed. There’s nothing shabby about contemporary Cuban medical science: I even met a scientist from San Francisco there to attend a series of seminars for some of the world’s most renowned geneticists!! Of course Russia had it’s space programs too, in the midst of repression and hunger, but…

My main thrust, though, was toward the ‘alternative’, and I studied some of the more recent developments in herbal research, including a new product invented by the Cuban herbal-genius, Eleuterio Paez. This patented formula allegedly relieves all of the symptoms of arthritis, rheumatoid OR osteo-arthritis!

Amidst the ups and downs of watching repressed freedoms (cops regularly stopping and searching citizens at will) side-by-side with the new ‘abundance’. Beef has now become legal to have in one’s possession and occasionally can be found in the supermarkets. Before it was reserved for only tourists in government hotels. I don’t notice much change in the attitudes of the people; they still commiserate over government policies while carefully avoiding any comment or reference to ‘Big Brother’ Fidel. I’d say the nostalgia and fun of “Buena Vista Social Club” survives here, though only slightly brightening an otherwise thick and grey horizon.

And nothing particularly mystical or profound went down after the initial voyage, but, as usual, I was thankful to get back safely to the “capitalist” luxury of Mexico and take a few long, very hot showers…

About the Author
Kirk Stephan, Master of Oriental Medicine, has been practicing for 35 years and has established many clinics and exchanges around Latin America.
His web site is: