Graham Sowa

HAVANA TIMES — I’m at the Dr. Salvador Allende Hospital in Cerro, a neighborhood in south-central Havana. Because the hospital is named after a somewhat recent historical figure and socialist martyr my expectation was to find a building of Soviet construction: an uninspired structure from the later half of last century.

Instead I find myself at a hospital campus that should be the set of any period movie set in 19th century Europe.

There are dozens of structures, most of them serving as wards. In a typical ward a central hallway divides the two sides of the building. Each side is a series of rooms with three to four beds, night stands, and chairs. Giant patios surround each building, and it is common that patients pass their time outside, taking intravenous drips with them.

Some of the buildings have been recently renovated. Others are shells of their former selves, in disuse, and look to be the source of raw materials to keep the other buildings in functioning condition. There is plenty of green space, with gardens and walkways around all the buildings. My favorite quite moments are in the early morning hours looking up at the silhouettes of the royal palms against a night sky made starless by the city lights.

The hospital grew to its grandeur in the early 20th century, before its namesake was even born. Looking around at the old buildings and the massiveness of what the hospital was in its heyday it is no wonder that it used to be the principal hospital of La Habana.

In those days, when the links of first generation Spanish immigrants were stronger with their European homeland than they are today, the hospital was called the Covadonga. The Covadonga is the name of a city and famous battle, fought over a thousand years ago, in Spain between the Asturians (Christian) and the Moors (Muslim).

The battle was won by the Asturians, who claimed the right to establish the Kingdom of Asturia. Thus the principal administration building at the hospital still bears the name “Asturias”. Almost every other hospital ward building has been given newer, more revolutionary names.

It was in between the building “Asturias” and the hospital ward “Jesus Menendez” that I learned what it was like to be in a class group with only Cubans. It was my second day of class and after leaving “Asturias” where we receive lecture at eight in the morning.

After class I walked to the hospital ward “Jesus Menendez” to start rounds. I looked for my classmates before seeing our professor who then asked me where the others were. I said I didn’t know and she assigned me a room to attend to.

About twenty minutes later my classmates, all together, walked the ward. I saw from a distance as their confidence in me was all but destroyed. The professor started asking them where they were. They said that class had just gotten out. A lie, yes, but considering how people treat time here it is not that big of a lie to say something “just happened” even if it passed more than 30 minutes ago.

So the professor then points to me, and asked how I arrived at the ward half an hour ago if class just got out. I was met with at least six sets of scornful eyes. I blew their cover story.

Later that day, with administrative ears out of hearing distance one of the Cuban group members told me, kindly, but with no uncertainty, that we were all to meet below the “Asturias” building after class to walk together to the ward. There was to be no flying solo.

So the next day we all met after class, at the designated spot. Several were visibly relieved to see me, and I offered apologies for what had happened yesterday. From there we all walked to a cafeteria on campus to get a bread with cheese and sugary drink. When we arrived to the wards, a bit late, the professor didn’t even notice the time. Because we had all arrived together she assumed that all was right with the world.

 


Graham

Graham Sowa: I've been living in Cuba for three years now. I would like to blame my obvious hair loss seen in this updated photo on the rigors of life here and medical school, but it is probably just genetic. I've made some of the strongest friendships during my time in Cuba from other writers on this website. The strength of those friendships has almost restored my faith that the online world can lead to offline and real life change. On that same note I've adjusted to using internet one or two hours a month. In the meantime I have rediscovered things like flipping through the pages of books, writing stuff down by hand, and having to admit that I don't know something instead of rapidly looking up the answer on Google while the teacher isn't looking.

3 thoughts on “No Flying Solo in Cuba

  • I do enjoy reading stories like this in HT. The only downside is having to read the propagandist crap you insist on interjecting. I could ignore it, as one ignores ads in your country, but we both know that bullshit seeps through, which is why you do it. So that’s why I do what I do.

    You write that Graham’s vignette “is a real world example of one of the major differences in society between Cuba and the US.” Absolutely correct, but you fail to understand, or note, what the difference represents – competition vs cooperation.

    You see ” every man for himself-style competition” as an ideal as opposed to cooperative behaviour.

    You see ‘getting ahead’ – being “accepted into a better residency program” – as a prime motivation factor – representing getting ahead of your fellow citizens.

    You see “every minute” of our lives needing to be spent servicing getting ahead, as opposed to living cooperatively.

    Cubans obviously march to a different drummer. They are NOT capitalist Americans.

    Why are you compelled to foist the values of your country onto Cuba? It is what imperialists have always done. You must feel threatened by Cuban values, otherwise you would not insist on offering your ‘perspective’ at every opportunity.

    See you down the line.

  • Thanks Graham for your very enjoyable vignette that incorporates Cuban history with personal experience – one of the reasons I adore reading HT!

  • This is a real world example of one of the major differences in society between Cuba and the US. In US medical schools, it is ëvery man for himself-style¨ competition. No group of students would collude to shave off valuable time otherwise meant for instruction. Why? Because this instruction time comes at a very high price and every minute of it is valued. Moreoever, each student is aware earlyuvk3 on that the better they do in medical school, the more likely they will be accepted into a better residency program. The lack of competition, even in Cuban medical schools, surely must have an impact on Cuban society. In this case, it simply means a stolen half hour but elsewhere?

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