Cuba: I brought back cof­fee, cigars and Cas­tro’s Curse

When in Ha­vana, maybe you bet­ter not do what the lo­cals, and Hem­ing­way, did

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - Paul Benedetti lives in Hamil­ton. PAUL BENEDETTI

They say that Ernest Hem­ing­way once drank 12 dou­ble mar­gar­i­tas in one sit­ting at El Floridita, his favourite bar in down­town Ha­vana.

My own Cuba ad­ven­ture in­volved only two mar­gar­i­tas and I still landed flat on my back in bed for three days.

But like all stories of travel and ad­ven­ture, it’s best to start at the be­gin­ning.

I had wanted to go to Ha­vana for years, “be­fore it changed”, which is code for “be­fore the Amer­i­cans ruin it.”

So, we booked it. Three days in Ha­vana, four in Va­radero. A dream trip.

Ha­vana is a noisy, beau­ti­ful wreck of a city, filled with vin­tage candy-coloured cars, gleam­ing white mar­ble build­ings, di­lap­i­dated ten­e­ments and ev­ery­thing puls­ing to the non-stop back­beat of car horns and conga drums. We loved it. We ar­rived Mon­day and by Tues­day evening, I was feel­ing bad. I had a travel stom­ach bug, Mon­tezuma’s Re­venge, or in this case, Cas­tro’s Curse. I knew I’d prob­a­bly get sick. I have a sen­si­tive stom­ach. In fact, if my stom­ach were a song, it would be a bal­lad by Dan Hill.

Wisely, I had asked my doc­tor for meds be­fore we left. She gave me two pre­scrip­tions, one for res­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tion and one for my stom­ach.

I took the pills and ate Imod­ium tablets like they were Smar­ties. I sur­vived the three-hour bus ride to Va­radero. I won’t go into de­tail, but let’s just say it’s best if you don’t have to use a road­side bath­room in Cuba. Along with mod­ern cars, one of the things La Revolu­cion ap­par­ently for­got, was toi­let pa­per.

The re­sort was beau­ti­ful. My pre­scrip­tion said “to avoid al­co­hol” and “ex­po­sure to the sun.” That’s like go­ing to Las Ve­gas and be­ing told to “Avoid slot ma­chines and ex­po­sure to Wayne New­ton.”

In hind­sight I re­al­ize that drink­ing beer, eat­ing ce­viche (raw fish cooked in lime juice), and get­ting a sun­burn, were prob­a­bly not the best ideas.

We got home Mon­day, and I went straight to bed. On Tues­day, I felt worse. I spent the day ei­ther in bed or in the bath­room. By Wed­nes­day morn­ing, I was re­ally, re­ally bad.

My wife left for work and I idled away the morn­ing writhing around in agony. I fi­nally texted her, “Please call. Need help.” When she got home, I could hardly talk. “Can you stand up?” she said. “I’m not sure,” I moaned. “Well,” she said, firmly. “Ei­ther you try or I’m phon­ing 911.”

She half-car­ried me to the car and we drove to the Ur­gent Care Cen­tre. She brought me in, dou­bled over and moan­ing, snap­pily dressed, I might add, in a sweat­soaked T-shirt and my py­jama bot­toms. “Take a num­ber” said the se­cu­rity per­son. “My hus­band is re­ally sick,” said my wife. “You still have to take a num­ber.” We did and I curled up in a chair, groan­ing.

A nice older cou­ple was sit­ting across the room. The woman said, “He looks re­ally sick.”

Noth­ing was hap­pen­ing, so I thought it might speed things up if I threw up all over the wait­ing room. “Gee, he re­ally is sick,” said the woman. “Yes,” said my wife. “He got some­thing in Cuba.”

This prompted the man (and I am not mak­ing this up) to say, “I al­most died at an all-in­clu­sive. Choked on a big chunk of steak.” This made me throw up again. Within min­utes I was on a bed and a calm, friendly nurse was try­ing to take blood. “I’m sorry,” she said, prick­ing me again, “I can’t get any­thing. You’re too de­hy­drated.”

A young, ef­fi­cient doc­tor came in, checked my gut, or­dered a bag of IV flu­ids and pain meds. I felt bet­ter al­most im­me­di­ately. A few hours and an­other bag of fluid later, I could talk again. The doc­tor wrote out a script for an­tibi­otics and the nice nurse wished us luck.

When we got home, my wife handed me the pill bot­tle. I looked at the big white pills inside. And it hit me. Sure, I had taken meds in Cuba — the wrong meds — the ones for a res­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tion.

So, although my stom­ach was in knots and my bum was on fire all week, I was the last guy in Cuba who was go­ing to catch a cold.

I spent the next three days in bed, drank about 50 litres of wa­ter and lost seven pounds.

Go to Ha­vana, it’s a beau­ti­ful, crazy, bat­tered jewel of a city, a wreck and a won­der. And the peo­ple are lovely.

But here’s my ad­vice: skip the salsa on the ta­ble and stick to the salsa on the dance floor.

You’ll thank me.

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