Cuban Covid Blues
Cuban Covid Blues
Can this really be the end?
To be stuck inside of Cuba
With the COVID blues again
It is 7 o’clock Sunday morning, and that means Dr. Sanchez will be here any minute to take me away. Actually he’ll just be taking me next-door, but still. I am a little anxious since the last time we tried this I came out Covid positive, much to my astonishment. Since then I have been in luxury isolation: Daily doctor checks. Meals ordered by phone and delivered to my door. Hotel staff bringing me flowers… But wait, I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
These days if you don’t at least think about Covid before traveling, you are either not paying attention or just being boneheaded. It goes without saying that you are vaxxed to the max and that you follow mask protocol at your destination. And of course make sure you have a travel insurance policy that covers Covid-related expenses should you contract the virus, pack an extra week of essential medication, and carefully consider work and family related consequences if you should have an unanticipated extension to your trip. In other words, weigh the cost/benefit of travelling in uncertain times.
If the benefits win out, then you literally pay your money and take your chances.
Since most destinations are at least as rigorous as we are in Canada (let alone the US) in their vaccination and masking requirements, chances are if you didn’t bring it with you, you’re unlikely to get it. But there are exceptions.
In my case, my wife and I chose to dodge a part of Ontario’s brutal January weather by heading south, not to Florida but to nearby Cuba, a country we have visited several times and enjoy immensely. This time we stayed at the beautiful Rio de Oro resort on the Playa Esmeralda outside of Holguin, and for two weeks we luxuriated in the beauty of the setting, the marvelous weather, and the kindness of the staff. Having complied with all of the above Covid advisories, I had little trepidation when we checked in at the clinic on the hotel grounds for our pre-departure Covid test as required by Canada. The process was quick and painless, the expense minimal, and we were back on the beach before lunch.
The call came at 7 o’clock while I was half asleep. Still groggy, I picked up the phone to an amiable voice saying, “Mr. Sawyer? Your results are back and you are positive.”
I can’t recall exactly how I responded, but I imagine it was something along the lines of, “Huh?”
Once I understood what the doctor on the other end of the line was telling me, I began the usual questioning: Are you sure? How could that be? Can I have a retest? To all of which Dr. Sanchez replied calmly, “I will be at your room in 20 minutes.”
This gave me just enough time to try to explain the situation to my wife (who kept asking, not unreasonably, “What about me?”) and look blankly out the window trying to figure out the implications of this unexpected twist in our plans. We were scheduled to leave the next day for Toronto. Would I stay and Jan leave? Where would I be isolated? How much fun would it be stuck in a room, no matter how nice, for five days on my own? What if my next test came back positive as well? What if I really got sick?
Dr. Sanchez showed up promptly at the front door in a reassuringly white lab coat, two masks and a plastic face shield. (At least it wasn’t the full-on hazmat suit I had feared.) He showed me on his cell phone the results from the lab, which read unmistakably POSITIVE.
Since we had been at the resort for two weeks I started to ask how I could’ve gotten it. Was any other staff positive? No. Had any of the other three or 400 guess tested positive? No. Had he had anyone in the last month tested positive?
Well then why me?
And then I realized that it didn’t really matter: I had Covid, and I wasn’t going anywhere for a while.
Someone once said you don’t trust a country until you trust its doctors. Fortunately I have nothing but respect for the entire Cuban medical system. From meeting an extraordinary team of Cuban doctors and nurses setting up a medical school in northern Ghana to having a hip issue properly diagnosed at the Garcia clinic in Havana, I have nothing but respect for the Cuban medical system. So no problem expecting (and receiving) excellent medical care. But what about a flight back once I tested negative? Who pays for the hotel room while I’m here? Will I be stuck away in some back room and be forgotten, quarantined and shunned as if I had Ebola?
I was given an hour to pack everything into my bag and be moved to an isolation unit on the grounds. My wife and I discussed the situation and decided there was really no reason for her to stay, since (as it turned out) she had tested negative. So we gave each other a kiss (on the cheek) and the man waiting at the door whisked me away in a cart. I was pleasantly surprised when we rolled to a stop in front of a lovely bungalow beside the hotel clinic. The porter opened the door into a spacious room with a veranda that opened onto flowers and palm trees. The man pulled my bag inside and left, the door closing with an emphatic click.
That was four days ago, so let’s review what has happened since then. First of all, I have been visited by a doctor at least once a day, checking to make sure my symptoms didn’t worsen, at which point I would be immediately taken to the hospital. Fortunately that has not been necessary, and instead I have had nonstop caring and support from all quarters.
On the first day, our Sunwing, our agent phoned to assure me that they would cover all expenses, including a return flight as soon as I tested negative. Then, after my wife left on Friday, our former housekeeper, Mariluiz, showed up with two beautiful hibiscus flowers, a big grin and a stern insistence that I stay healthy. When I called for my first dinner, I asked, for among other things, a bottle of Irish whiskey. Jamila was more than happy to provide me with grilled mahi-mahi along with sautéed vegetables, rice and delicious blue cheese, but no whiskey.
“Come on, “I wheedled. “It’s good for me. I think I read that somewhere.”
“No, she said firmly,” You may have some red wine but no whiskey. You are going to be there for five days and I’m going to make sure that you are healthy at the end. Now,” she asked sweetly, “is there anything else I can do?”
That night a waitress we had met called from her home to see how I was doing. When we hung up she said, “Big kisses!”
That has kept up pretty much every day. On the second day, Mariluiz showed up at the door with three beautiful red roses. She insisted I put them in water and watched from the doorway until she was satisfied. They are still on my table lightning up my room. My room service delivery man, who is so gracious, told me in broken English how much the staff hoped I would feel better soon. Apparently the news of my enforced leisure had swept through the entire resort.
I have been loving the papaya here, and yesterday morning, along with my breakfast of crepes and bacon, I was presented with an absolutely elegant creation of papaya and bananas assembled just for me. Each time I call room service they insist on knowing how I’m feeling and expressing confidence I will be set loose soon, and they laugh good-naturedly when I try to place my order in halting Spanish. Tonight Jamila said she hoped I would come and see her before I left. “I want to be able to hug you for real,” she said. Workers have dropped off two books left by other guests to make sure I don’t get bored.
I am in isolation, to be sure — there is even a guard stationed outside on the sidewalk to make sure no unsuspecting tourist blunders into the contamination zone — but if it’s a cage it is a gilded one indeed. I’m fervently hoping my test results prove negative this time, but if they don’t I know I’m in the best of hands in a community that cares about me and my well-being. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Certainly not all Covid travel experiences are this benign. But I subscribe to the idea that travel is an essential part of our personal growth and to our understanding of the world we live in. I remain willing to take reasonable risks to enjoy this essential part of my life. As has so often been the case, whether travelling in Europe, Africa, Asia or Latin America, this experience has convinced me once again that while we may do things differently, shockingly so at times, behind that is a common humanity and generosity of spirit that has the potential to connect us and unify into the one family that we really are.
I am expecting my second test results anytime. Stay tuned.
Don Sawyer passed his second test with flying colours. He recently returned to his wife and home — and piles of snow a meter high — in St Catharines, Ontario