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dimanche 1 juillet 2018

WELCOME TO HAVANA: GOOD PLACE TO REST YOUR HEART AND BODY AMONG FRIENDS

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24 hours in Havana
The 42 minutes flight to Havana was delayed one and half hours. The plane arrived late from Puerto Rico. There was a change in crew and a very pleasant young girl, black and an older white woman, full of experience but understanding and not at all arrogant were in charge of us.
While waiting in line to board, I saw two guys standing next to me, one looked well fed and another lean and meek. I glanced at his telephone inadvertently and found that he was texting in Hebrew. I said to him: Shalom, Ani Yehudi. And thus we began talking. He is a businessman who is going to Havana for two days, as he is the sole importer of Havana cigars to Israel. He was from Haifa but now maintains a residence in Tel Aviv. He is of Turkish origin and the Honorary Consul for Brasil in Haifa.
They were staying in Kempinski Manzano Hotel and I saw that some official who also looked Israeli met them inside the Immigration. Who knows we might meet again?
I told him I like my life in Cuba, he did not ask for explanation and I told him that my life is full of mitzvahs done well; he seemed satisfied what is that I am doing.
Immigration official was a rather overweight negrita, who was very pleasant. Welcome to Cuba she said, when I said I am ready for my bottle of champagne for being in the island so often. She gave me a toothy smile and said Have a good time and I smiled back and said: how can I not have when you are given me such a good welcome.
Waited for the luggage for one hour. It is incredible, I am here for three days and I had two pieces of luggage apart from my backpack and shoulder bag. My luggage was each in excess of the allowed 50 lbs. but the agent had overlooked the few pounds over the limit.
The first bag came and it had no marking on the tag, as luggage are put through x ray and then they are marked AX for Alimentos or Food or SP  Equipo meaning they detected some metallic or electric equipment. AX are screened by what looked two lower level customs officers who were doing only cursory examination to make sure that nothing bad entered the country in the form of fresh food or contaminated or contagious food. Apart from the lines, which are very common and rude customs officials that are even more common, nothing to be bothered about. But when you have SP on your tag, you are directed to another level , more morose than the previous one and more disdain for the passenger especially if they are Cuban-American. I had a security box Caja de Seguridad, which he wanted to see, and wanted to know in the typical Cuban surrealistic fashion: Is it a hard security box? Una Caja de Seguridad fuerte? I told him that it was a cheap security box to put my passport etc. in when I am in the house and it for my personal use. He looked at it and then stamped my customs form as well as the tag that he had checked it, but the burly buxom mulatica at the exit was even haughty, oh senor you have to go back, she shouted but when I showed I have the necessary stamp on my tag she waved me through. One and half hours after arriving after a 42 minute from Miami, I was outside.
So it is not the flight time that matters, whoever comes, especially a repeat visitor like me who brings every thing to Cuba, knowing which are the things that are hard to come by.
Once you are outside the Customs area, the humanity is there, swarming around, some holding placards, one of them for the Congreso Sexologia that is taking place now in Havana.
I changed some money and of course the clerk tried to cheat me of one dollar, I innocently pointed out (faking that innocence) , Senorita it says here 112.50 and you gave me only 111.50. She without a smile put another tourist dollar in my palm that I later gave to my chauffeur waiting for me.
In Miami, the Cuban steal in thousands and millions and here the Cubans steal in one two five twenty dollar amounts. But the desire to sobrevivir  Survive  is present and the immigrant Cubans cant shake off, however accustomed to the American life they become, they become good at manipulating the American legalities and make a killing in the economic market.
The time was 9 and a little bit when I left the airport where Yodel my driver was waiting and we had a pleasant chat on the way to Vedado to my house. He helped me with my two bags and I pressed on him the dollar the lady at the Cash Exchange was trying to rob me of.
I noticed a strange kind of tranquility. Havana is never the same, sometimes it is ebullient, and sometimes it is melancholic but always interesting.
My neighbours were waiting for me, and after the preliminary greetings they brought dinner for me from their home and apologized not waiting for me to have dinner together.
We chatted for a while, caught up on the news of our friends during my absence. They went to their house and I went off to the parquet to check my Wi-Fi. Every one had told me that the services had been down because of the rain and storms. I tried to call  USA numbers but unfortunately the person I was calling did not wish to answer the phone with an unknown number, but they could have easily seen that the country code was 53 Cuba and thus put one and one together to know that it was I who was calling them.
Having gone to bed at 1 am , I slept without a break until 8 30 and walk along the Malecon was as magical as before, only during summer even at this early hour it is hot and getting hotter.
The eerie calm of the city was beginning to bother me. Does it mean something is happening at the higher levels of the government? Changes in the way things are being handled?
Like in most countries, pilfering at the state run establishments is a fact here, very important and life saving. But the difference here is that the majority of the places are state-run, and people have ample opportunities to pilfer, from flour from bakeries to cement at the construction sites. In the farmers markets, which are abundant with local and produce of the times, the scales to measure are ancient, with an approximation of weight and of course the weight is always in favour of the vendor.
While walking along the Malecon, I noted with sadness that the beautification project near the avenue of the presidents has been put on hold, half constructed canals now holding muddy rain water in front of the sports arena which had seen much better days from its construction at least 30-40 years ago.
Once again I tried to connect to the Wi-Fi at the Hotel Presidente with no success.
In Cuba, you can have a telephone with an account, usually in the name of a Cuban who has to present his ID card to get a line, up to three if he likes. I used my neighbour’s ID to get a line under his name, so if you reverse search my telephone number. In Havana you also have a separate account to access Internet. Foreigners and tourists can get temporary Internet cards, on which there is a brisk black market trade, a rather profitable one for those engaged in. The Internet cards which are sold in specific places, has a face value of 1,2 5 dollars for corresponding one, two , five hours of Internet access. But they are sparsely placed and are not open outside of the specific hours. So for most tourists or foreigners, it is better to get a card in the Black Market, pay just double, but a lovely income for the trader. Since the shops are few and far between, there is a brisk trade in goods through black market and through a website which matches sellers and buyers, anything from old cars to apartments.
Please do not fall for the propaganda especially from Miami saying that salaries are low in Miami. Yes they are low but salaries and income are not the same here and also the quality of life has nothing to do with your salary. No one can live and no one lives on what they make at work.
There is an unwritten code of contact and sharing of goods and edible products, which actually has an incredible social effect. Cuba is a humane society because of that, no one goes hungry, no one is homeless and people have a barter system which has unwritten rules.
Let me give you an example. One year ago, my neighbor after a strenuous weekend, felt twitches of pain in his chest. A neighbor immediately drove him to the Cardiovascular Hospital which is not far from here, there the Cardiologist in charge of Cardiac Care Unit, immediately attended to him and had a catheterization done after stabilizing him and found out that it might have been angina and perhaps, what the patient told me, a beginning of a heart attack. Since then he has been well looked after with frequent consultation and he is back to work without any further chest pain.
I met the cardiologist, a pleasant man in his fifties, who had served as an International volunteer in the Cuban Medical Brigade in Angola .His 24 year old daughter is the consular officer in the Cuban Embassy in New Delhi. So we immediately connected with each other.
On this visit, I wanted to invite him and his wife for dinner. So the neighbor whom he has saved, and his wife suggested: a menus of lamb, seasonal vegetables: habichuela string beans, acelga bokchoy, plantains to make plantains a la tentacion sometimes called patacones, carrots, cabbage. To which I would add my contribution from Miami: Spanish olives, savouries as pre dinner little bites, the wines chosen by me at the Wine store near my sisters home: a Sauvignon Blanc from NZ, a special Merlot for an Endocrinology Colleague and a another bottle of Malbec from Argentina for the Professor of Endocrinology who also had served as a volunteer in Angola and they two had met there but don’t know they both would be here for dinner. Amaretto for after dinner, and of course Cuba makes excellent Ice-cream and my sister in Miami insist that I take them sweet biscuits. So it would be a nice dinner by any standards but the ten people present would represent the spectrum of Cuba: Four of us doctors, all of us specialists, all with International experience, all others with university education (a lawyer and an administrator, an engineer included)
When it comes to affection and friendship I doubt there is another country in the world that can beat CUBA.. All other affections pale and at least appear themselves in their context. We do not realize how manipulative are our affections in the western world: it is almost like western networking, what can you do for me? In Cuba, the affections and friendship are akin to the Inuit Networking: What can I do for you ?
Inuits say: Compassion and Gifts are for animals and slaves, sharing is far more human.
In Cuba, we share everything. The Dinner tonight would be no exception.
Starting around June, there are always afternoon downpours, and the days are hot and humid.
The neighbour who brews a mean cup of Cuban coffee prepares the breakfast. (paradoxically they like the Coffee that I bring from Miami, as they want to taste something different than the Cuban coffee!), two eggs are on the offer.
My household is an amalgam of all the cultures I represent: Israeli flags, Malaysian curries, Indian condiments, Middle Eastern Music, artwork, books and the comfort of a very nice home. Not to mention, a bottle of Rum for those who wish to indulge in that excellent product of Cuba.
My sister, who is very quantitative like many of her generation in the West, asks me: why do want to just spend your days in Havana when you can have all the comforts in the home in Miami. People are always surprised that when I have a few days off, I rather be in Havana rather than Miami, mainly because of the purity of love, affection and friendship I feel and also the sensation that my sharing my soul and my thoughts and what is available, I am making the lives of my friends a little better.
So in my first 24 hours, which began with an intense feeling for a new friendship in Dallas, slowly converted itself into a calm feeling of living with a purpose. I love this country and its people .
I took my blood pressure the evening after my arrival in Havana, here it is. You can judge for yourself.



 (Hope you don't get one of these things on your luggage tag when you enter Cuba.. off to Customs inspections you go)


 (Always visitors are at home, on the way home from their work. She is an Endocrinologist and doing her PhD and we discuss the social aspects of her scientific investigations)
(I have at home, sage, left there by my Omaha Indian sister. I decided to burn it to purify the house and also purify my hearts of negative thoughts arriving from a new friend. Take her soul away I begged the spirits as the smoke arose from the Sage, take her away and the smoke could be seen leaving the house.. Felt very comforted after that ..)




 (My neighbourhood, Vedado, La Habana)
 (While the Govt of Cuba is pro-palestinian in its policy, an average Cuban knows and favours Israel far more than Palestinians. They appreciate the innovative nature of Israel in Medicine, Education and Information Technology, things Cubans prize)

 (In Cuba there are family doctor's office in every block. Here i am sitting on the verandah of one near the parque where I go to access WiFi.)
 (as the Flight from Miami was delayed, the neighbours had saved some food for me)
 (It is always nice to come home after wandering around the world)
 (my simple breakfast of two eggs, indian pappadam with further hot sauce, cuban coffee and fresh guava juice)
 (home made bread, ciabatta)
 (I am demonstrating the Indian savoury, Pappadam. Cubans in general do not like very spicy things)

 (Cuban professionals are full of stories, not gossip. He is the Head of Vascular Lab and she is a cardiologist. I admire Cubans who serve as volunteers in other developing countries for years at a time: he went to Angola)

 (I live one block from the Malecon, the seawall and the morning walks along is a delight indeed)
 (I have a wonderful relationship with my Landlady who calls me her little brother and before I arrive in the country, she makes sure that the fridges in the flat are full of things that i like and are sometimes difficult to get)
 (Cuba is the land of religious syncretism. This is Ellegua who resides in the corner of my house. He helps to open doors and new paths)
 (the return flight to Miami was delayed by two hours!)



It is reminiscent of what Emma Lazarus (a Jewish American) wrote, which is now inscribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-lost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" 

I tell my Cuban friends, the freedom you enjoy the Americans or Europeans or South Americans or Asians  cannot savour and unfortunately the freedom to make money which they have, you do not have. It would be good if you had a chance to make a little bit more money, legally and not by stealing from the government sources.
My hope is that such a compromise can be achieved, let us wait.. And wait.

A VERY INTERESTING FEW DAYS IN HAVANA.. I TOLD THE IMMIGRATION AGENT: I REALLY DON'T WANT TO LEAVE