University of Minnesota

“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Cuban Journal

July 18, 1949  Holguin

Camaguey is as interesting and enticing as Holguin is interesting and repulsive. A young commerce teacher at the Methodist School, Pinson, drove me through Camaguey’s narrow, noisome streets. Tragedy and excitement are everywhere. The streets resemble an abandoned warehouse district in the States. Churches and dust are ubiquitous. Animals run rampant. Countless lottery hucksters ply their pernicious trade at every corner.

In Cuba, private hospitals are called Clinica, the large government hospitals, hospitals. Dr. Sabates, a bright young internist, took me around the clinica and the general hospital and the maternity hospital. General Hospital had been a cavalry barracks in the War of Independence, which we call the Spanish-American War. Infirm lottery vendors crowded the entrance to the courtyard. Even the blood in the blood bank looked dingy and contaminated, the bottles each containing less than 300 ml. In the men’s medicine ward I saw an old Negro with open, tertiary luetic leg ulcers incongruously receiving a modern infusion of Baxter’s Amigen, the protein supplement. Families remain with patients at all times and the clinic provides facilities for them to cook meals, sleep, and wash.

In the infectious ward I saw chronic relapsing malaria, a fresh case of falciparum malaria, and acute typhoid fever. The cancer ward was clean and well endowed. On the children’s ward was a three-year-old with classical ascites and abdominal varicosities attributed to parasites and portal cirrhosis, with no suspicion apparently of hepatoma or congenital syphilis. Epidemic dysentery fills the ward with sallow, listless infants lying in the laps of mothers just as wan and listless.

The operating rooms, with very low entryways, had all the right equipment but a lack-luster primitiveness. In contrast, the public Maternity was sparkling and modern and a pleasure to visit. Its chief, having just finished a difficult transverse presentation, took great pleasure in showing me every detail of his clinic, all the while apologizing for his difficulty speaking my language.

Leaving Camaguey, the bus ride southward down the long central highway of Cuba was swift and not unpleasant. The road, narrow by U.S. standards, is in good repair. Sawgrass some three or four feet high lines the highway, where the shoulder is frequented by little boys in huge sombreros, or wiry farmers on small horses, and divers travelers who flee the roadway only at the last moment as the bus bears down on them with horns ablast — Wah-wah! Beautiful hills stretch away to the sunset. The pampas between is studded with lone palms and palms in clumps and umbrella trees, all giving the false impression of a man-made, well-groomed tropical park.

Holguin is more overgrown village than city, despite a population of 50,000. No streets are paved and torrents rush through after each thundershower, decontaminating the town. I saw a boy dumping several days refuse from his bohio into the street torrent. But after one day without rain, people walk with handkerchiefs over their noses from the blowing dust. I’m told that Methodist evangelist E. Stanley Jones once commented, “They’ll have poor streets in Cuba as long as they have handkerchiefs to cover their noses.” But the locals say contrariwise: “Our dust has vitamins.”

One main plaza and four satellite squares are the business and recreational centers for the city. The main square is active at all hours with street vendors of sickening sweets, pastries, meats, and shaved-ice fruit drinks, with shoe-shine boys, and always the pernicious lottery vendors. Banks, stores and men’s social lodges surround the square. The evening promenade around the plaza is the high point of the day, with a community Mariachi band playing on Thursday and Saturday nights in a brief but flowery and stirring concert. During the music, boys circulate in one direction, girls in the other, and from time to time they pair off and walk away in the same direction, usually under the watchful eyes of their families on the benches. The town’s fashionable elite cluster to one side of the square, the commoners to another, and the other sides, near-deserted, become the territory of strolling harlots and their ignominious pimps and followers. The band plays native melodies liltingly and with a powerful pulsing rhythm. Then it signals the end of the promenade and evening by playing the national anthem with a final brilliant flourish.

Last night I took the promenade a half-dozen rounds with Nelly Trocmé, the French girl working at a Quaker Youth Project nearby in Gibara. I learned that she comes from an intellectual and devout French Protestant family but is, herself, quite emancipated. She’s also apparently politically liberal, plays piano and guitar and sings folksongs, and has many vivid interests. I found her attractive, even exciting, if perhaps a shade domineering.

But it was not love at first sight. We had no inkling then that we would be companions of 30 years and the parents together of three children.

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