Leaving Cuba, Altitude sickness

Alfredo Fernandez

HAVANA TIMES — I was suspecting that behind the Jose Marti Airport Customs area was a hall with lots of chairs and shops selling almost every variety of rum on the island, in addition to national crafts.

I should explain that although I thought it would be like that, it was something I had to see for myself to believe it. It had been inaccessible to me until late at night on March 11, when I boarded the TAME airline flight that took me nonstop to the city of Quito, Ecuador.

Just after the plane took off, a question came to my mind: When would I see this unusual island again? Then everything went black in the window beside my seat for three and a half hours, at least until the plane flew over the over the abundance of neon lights that illuminate any capital other than Havana.

I landed at the brand new Mariscal Sucre Airport, located an hour and a half from the city by highway and demanding the highest skill of the bus driver.

Six hours went by before I started experiencing altitude sickness, which is nothing more than “altitutude sickness” (Quito is 2,800 meters above sea level). My head hurt, I needed air, blood came out when I blew my nose, and climbing the stairs made me feel like I had run the marathon.

Nonetheless, I was still excited about exploring the city.

The hills of Santiago de Cuba, which I once considered immense, now seem imperceptible. For Quito residents the steep hills are no problem. The people here seem like they’re made of iron.

Walking through the town, I was stunned by the hustle and bustle of the many trades, small businesses, constant traffic, and the countless pedestrians in Quito’s historic district. I was also impressed by the Indians, the original inhabitants of this land, who to top it off are the poorest, always mired in subsistence.

I read a sign stating: “Manolita Saenz Birthplace and Museum” – “The liberator of the Liberator”.

I went in and spoke with historian and museum director, cheerfully telling her that in Cuba I had recently read Denzil Romero’s novel “La esposa del Dr.Thorne,” but she automatically told me off saying that story did nothing to describe the personality of Manuela Saenz. She then started telling me so many things about the Ecuadorian patriot that I almost forgot my altitude sickness while standing there listening to her for almost an hour and a half.

I returned to the downtown Quito hotel where I’m staying, and I talked to the manager, who’s a Cuban who has lived in Ecuador for 18 years. Then, between the fatigue and cold, I went to sleep at 9:30 pm.

I don’t know what my circle of karma does when something important happens in my life. Usually I can’t document it, which is probably why the charger of my camera got left behind in Havana. So my first impressions of Quito weren’t photographed.

The next day I headed out to visit Cotopaxi. At a height of 5,892 meters, it’s the highest active volcano in the world. On the way, the guide I had hired suggested that he take a picture of me (he took it with his cellphone). As he explained, “That’s because in a little while the clouds won’t let you see the volcano during the day.”

Since the car only goes up to 4,200 meters, the guide suggested that I go up on foot to the look-out shelter, at 4,862 meters. I thought the climb would be easier, but it wasn’t. My headache, the cold, and such never experienced fatigue almost made me give up.

I don’t think I would have made it if it hadn’t been for Oliver, the Cuban hotel manager. The previous day he told me that his 80-year-old mother had climbed the mountain! And — what was even worse for a sexist Latin American like me — groups full of European girls stoically passed by me en route to the look-out shelter.

Because of all this, I felt no choice but to keep climbing. It took me only an hour to make it. After going up about 60 meters higher I crossed the snowline, which was the first time I had ever seen that substance. Later — like a gift of nature — once I was in the shelter it began to snow.

This was the first time I had seen it snow, of course, and I confess that I never thought I’d see it Ecuador, the country closest to the sun. But those are things of geography and of my good luck with Cotopaxi.
To contact Alfredo Fernandez: [email protected]

Alfredo Fernandez

Alfredo Fernandez: I didn't really leave Cuba, it's impossible to leave somewhere that you've never been. After gravitating for 37 years on that strange island, I managed to touch firm ground, but only to confirm that I hadn't reached anywhere. Perhaps I will never belong anywhere. Now I'm living in Ecuador, but please, don't believe me when I say where I am, better to find me in "the Cuba of my dreams.

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3 thoughts on “Leaving Cuba, Altitude sickness

  • Keep us posted, Alfredo! A lifetime ago (early and mid-1970’s) my wife lived in Ecuador: first in Salinas, (then a sleepy sea-side town, now, judging from the high-rises along its malecon, competing to become Miami Beach South!), and later in Quito. She loved it, and hopes to return some day. There are many articles recently about Ecuador being a good retirement destination for (North) Americans, who can better survive on modest incomes than back here in the States. Good luck in your new life!

  • Alfedo, great story. Best of luck to you and enjoy your adventure.

  • Alfredo, it is nice to learn of your excellent adventure! Good luck on your new path and keep writing.

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