Not a happy birthday

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Mar 01, 2007

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Flag of Cuba  ,
Sunday, February 11, 2007

Julie's birthday happens during the worst 24 hours of the trip (I hope!). It starts off Friday evening with Lucy getting sudden pains in what she calls her "knuckle" -- just above her pubic bone. She's a bit vague on whether it's internal or on her skin -- asking for anti-itch cream, saying it's aching inside, etc.

We figure it's one of three things: urinary tract infection, the onset of a stomach bug, or simply gas. It's been hot and she's dehydrated, which could increase the chance of any of these. Whatever it is, our stress levels edge up as she goes through little crying sessions. Jonathan gets fussy over dinner time, while Lucy barely eats anything.

In the next few hours Lucy produces more poo than I thought was possible -- and then she craps some more. It's really very impressive. We think it's over, then suddenly she jumps up, "Poo!" and out comes another load. We start laughing, we can't help it.

We've celebrated the best-case scenario for Lucy's symptoms and are getting the kids ready for bed when Julie realizes she recognizes the early signs of mastitis. She pops the first double dose of Zithromax we've brought along, and not a second to lose. Over the next few hours, she goes through fever, chills, vomiting. It's alarming how fast it sets up.

Finally at 3 a.m., she's sleeping. This leaves me with an hour to rest before the roosters wake up (a late start for them), at which point I discover that all the fluids we've loaded into Lucy to flush our her system are now wetting the bed around me.

The whole thing would seem a bit surreal to anyone entering the room. Mosquito nets draped over the beds like the vestiges of some ancient funeral rites, half the sheets crumpled on the floor, either damp with sweat or pee, the roosters calling jubilantly outside in the dark, me lying on my back, eyes wide open, Lucy flopping about in her sleep beside me.


We have a lovely final breakfast and early morning walk through Vinales. Sort of the calm before the storm that awaits at the bus depot where Havanatur has overbooked the minibus to Havana.

Some guy in plain clothes takes our luggage out of the van and attempts to shuffle us off to a cab, and it goes downhill from there. The cab has no seatbelts, so I ask for a refund -- the Vinales bus to Havana is idling right there and there's room for us. But the senor, who it turns out is with Havanatur despite his lack of uniform, refuses to refund the tickets.

About this time I switch into English because I can't swear in Spanish. In addition to the whole safety issue, I'm of course worried about Julie, who although she's functional, looks a bit pale. I call a police officer over to try to get my money back, but of course no one can figure out what my problem is -- the guy is, after all, putting the family in a cab to Havana, which costs a lot more than two on the bus.

With options fading, we give up and get in the cab with the guy's family for a silent, awkward 20-minute ride around the world's largest potholes (stove holes would be more accurate) to the autopista, where he, his wife and their 8-month-old (just making it more of a fiasco -- "Senor, my baby is in the car as well, yes?") get out and he says "Now you will see why I arranged this for you."

And since we don't get into any accident sending us through the windshield to certain and appalling death, it is in hindsight a great way to see more of the return trip to Havana. Our driver, Flores,  speaks fair English and is amused and good-humoured about the little exchange in Vinales -- and before he even starts, he says he has children and will drive very cautiously. We talk about the beauty of the Sierra del Rosario, rolling along on our left, and about transportation in this country. At one point, he buys a big bag of oranges from a guy selling them from the roadside, and we all slurp away in silence for a time, watching Cuba passing.

Flores drives the highways between Vinales and Havana, between Varadero and Trinidad -- between all the main tourist places -- many times a week. Cabs, as a functioning mode of transportation, are incorporated into the government's overall plan. When a cab takes a foreigner between cities, the tourist is considered to have paid for a round trip. This means the cab, on the return leg, becomes just another government vehicle, required to load up with Cubans. This applies to anything with a blue licence plate as well -- trucks, vans, etc.   At the edge of each city, transport officials check the dossier for all vehicles, and other officials make sure the queues of Cubans are loaded on vehicles in the correct order. Flores hands over his travel manifesto outside Havana.

We enter the city from the west, so see for the first time the grand and spaced out mansions of Miramar, with its embassies and sweeping boulevards. Castro apparently lives around here somewhere, although no one is clear on where he's staying at any precise time. Of course news of his pending death has been filling American papers for months. Just before we left on our trip, a story out of Madrid quoted a doctor denying the stomach cancer reported in the U.S.

Before we left on our trip, part of me, morosely, hoped Castro would die while we were down here. It's not a political desire on my part (after a month here I'm still divided on what would be the best future for Cuba), just a curiosity, a selfish wish that I can be somewhere as history happens. But Cuba wears its past and present everywhere. There's really no need for a mass rally to feel you are a witness to -- even that you are involved in -- the injustice that has been this country's reality since Columbus beheld its green mountains melting into being above the horizon. The past and present are here now, in the Russian embassy's bleak fortress which dominates the view down Fifth Avenue. Our cab plunges under the river and reappears along the Malecon, whose buildings wear away constantly to reveal the odd seashells embedded in the concrete and limestone, below their once smooth surfaces.
Julie must be so tired. She's had Lucy on her lap most of the cab ride. All we want to do when we get to Eumelia's is crash in our room and recuperate. Pulling into the ugly block of central Havana where we spent the first days of our trip is a small, joyful homecoming. It is so lovely to see Eumelia's face at the door.

But the bad parts of the day aren't over yet. Somehow in the series of calls Odalis made for our accommodations, she didn't phoned Eumelia, who has someone already in the room. We have no place for the night, or to put our feet up right now.

After many calls, Eumelia tracks down a room at Elsa and Julio's -- the doctor who looked after Lucy our first night in Cuba. Unfortunately it is only available after 4 p.m., so although we can leave our stuff at Eumelia's for now, we have five hours to kill somewhere.

We lunch back at the Hotel Sevilla  -- another sort of a homecoming. The kids and my improving Spanish are really leading to nice exchanges wherever we go now. Fat little Jonathan in particular elicits visits from half the staff in the foyer. Our server recognizes us from weeks ago and puts extra garnishes on our plates and gurgles at the baby, generally making us feel welcome.

An hour later, refreshed, we decide to walk the mile to the Hotel Nacional along the Malecon -- or rather on the inland side of it, out of the sun. Especially near the Centro Habana end, we could use hardhats; pieces of building facade, even a few bricks, dot the fractured sidewalk. Once strikingly beautiful buildings -- balconies like ornate sepulchres -- continue to be occupied although I can imagine the vast holes in the floors, stairways ascending to nothing. The set designer for "Blade Runner" must have stayed in Havana on a rainy night.

A few buildings are under renovation, a laborious process here using almost no machinery. The closer we get to the Vedado end of this section, the more things improve. Work parties are giving Maceo's waterfront park a facelift. Kids use the Peligro! (danger) signs as bases for their ball game.

It's funny how in the middle of a stressful day, these pockets of calm and joy can take hold. Julie looks back on this weeks later as being one of the nicest walks of the trip. The day is warm, the people we encounter avid. The day lulls us into a better mood. Even the traffic along the Malecon seems to relax. Arriving at the Hotel Nacional, we get the highpoint of the day -- a great birthday present for Julie. They've managed to finangle us a week in my parents' hotel in Varadero, and to get us a deal so it's only alarmingly expensive, not overwhelmingly so. To make it interesting, the payment needs to be in cash. A woman will be by with the tickets in an hour (AKA sometime today), so I spend a portion of the time figuring out how to get a cash advance on my Visa and transferring money from our bank account to cover this. Lucy sleeps through the whole next 90 minutes, a nice small blessing allowing Julie to have some semblance of rest in the cool hotel lobby, tucked away in a leafy corner away from the bustle.

But unfortunately, the day isn't over. Our room at Julio and Elsa's is nice but small -- we knew this was so, but there were very few options. After a nice dinner, Jonathan begins fussing and getting a fever. Unfortunately we've left all our medication at Eumelia's and there's no one there. With Jonathan fussing, Lucy begins to wail. We push the two single beds together to form a sort of life raft, and push off into the night, the sounds of the kids' cries echoing off the high walls.
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