Cuba: I brought back coffee, cigars and Castro’s Curse
When in Havana, maybe you better not do what the locals, and Hemingway, did
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.