Good things -- and bad -- about Cuba

Was thinking about doing this in a top-10 list -- but here it is, just as lists. Tomorrow I leave!

Good things about Cuba

Friendly Cuban people. Sure, there are some hustlers – but they are not aggressive.

Very little begging, children aren't begging or selling things (unlike other poor countries), instead children are in school.

Relatively safe – low crime rate, lots of police. Walk freely anywhere.

Beautiful scenery – ocean views. Waves crashing on the Malecon (walkway / ocean breaker – walk for miles along the edge of the ocean).

Amazing contrasts – impressive colonial mansions that are crumbling into ruins, or have been randomly divided up into multiple units, with chickens in the yard …

Some real architecture – art deco, art nouveau and colonial – although mostly crumbling (lots of the old city has been restored – very beautiful!! But just go around the corner, and …..

Good --- and bad

Lots of cute dogs -- lots of sad homeless dogs – scrawny, bald or balding, limping, etc..

Lost of cute cats (especially after dark – they're nocturnal) – lots of sad homeless cats, herds of kittens in dumpsters …

LOTS of buildings that were once impressive and elegant -- and that now are on the brink of collapsing. It's pretty astounding and hard to grasp.

Me thinking: "This building MUST be abandoned, condemned and empty.

WHOOPS, no, lots of people, several generations seem to be living in it, going up and down a skeleton spiral staircase with no railing. Since it's hot, everyone leaves their doors open ….."

Lots of open-air book sales. --- But it's mostly all the same –it's the best of Fidel and Che… .

The Cuba equivalent of Mao's little red book... (but today I went to the Institute Superiore del Arte -- and they have an excellent bookstore -- And the prices are in the Peso that the Cuban people use -- so the book I thought was $10 was actually $0.50 -- for a new book!!)

Well fed!!!

My usual breakfast – eggs, fresh fruit, fruit smoothie (with milk), toast (in the basket). Coffee with milk. Today a new fruit, "mamey" – looks like an avocado with that buttery texture, but intensely sweet, like a papaya concentrate.

RIGHT NOW -- Coffee and email in the elegant Hotel Parque CEntral NH (see the "NH"??)

more .... concerts and some rain ....

TONIGHT – the last concert of the Festival!!

Yesterday, a short choral work by my friend Magaly was performed (not part of the Festival) in the Cultural Center of Catalunya – we went there to hear it, and then a bit late to the Festival Concert in the Teatro Amadeo Roldan. There were some very intense rains, and our taxi moved like a boat through some flooded streets! All part of normal life.

Photos on Flickr
of the 7-voice choir who performed Magaly's piece.

More more more concerts

The concerts have a way of combining 2 (or even three) complete programs onto one. Last night there was an amazing Argentinean Pianist, one of the special invited guests. She played a huge program, it was exhausting – completely athletic performance. A Sonata by Ginastera that was actually violent in its force, the pounding chords in torrents.

Also a suite by Ginastera and three pieces by other composers.

THEN (no intermission) a very long contemporary piece by Cuba composer Juan PiƱera – a beautiful trio for clarinet, violin and piano. And then another piece, also Cuban, for string orchestra.

UNEAC – the Union of writers, artist and composers, sponsored a party afterwards at their beautiful colonial mansion. There was food, drinks, the choir from Santiago de Cuba sang again, and then a very famous Septet, Septet de Habana – of the Buena Vista Social Club vintage and style. Lots of people got up and danced!

OK, it has stopped raining, so I am going to go out now to a museum – then two more concerts!!

"dog with bread"

OK, they're poor here. Really poor. So I was alarmed to see this sign at a sidewalk stand: Perro con Pan! Whew!! Not to worry!! It was a Hot Dog!! There are an awful lot of homeless dogs – and who knows what is in those hot-dogs ….

There is a restaurant called "El Conojito" – not "the rabbit" but "the little bunny-rabbit" – it's a very upscale restaurant.

more concerts, updates

yesterday more concerts -- a Danish accordian player, a guitar-viola duo, a choir.
I'm not doing very well at keeping up with writing about it all.
Today a lecture/presentation on M Ponce, and by the accordianist.
Heavy rain this morning, but now perfect and clear.

Did I mention I'm staying here?

Magaly wanted me to stay with her, but this is such a good location and all very nice.

my friend Magaly goes to the Doctor

My friend Magaly is Cuban, but she has been living with her daughters in Spain. She's just arrived back in Havana, and we are happy to reconnect, and we meet at her house before we go to the next concert of the Festival. After some conversation, Magaly says, " I'm going to go and see the Doctor before we go to the concert. "

It's 3 pm and the concert is at 5. "What time is your appointment?" I say casting her a quizzical look.

"I should probably call, but let's just go, we'll take the dog."

So we stroll by the decaying colonial houses (mixed with a few modern apartment blocks), neighbors standing and chatting on the sidewalk, children playing.

At an open portico of a more modern (as opposed to colonial, although dilapidated like all the others) building, we turn in. Two women sit at either side of a cluttered narrow desk. Magaly greets them both with kisses to the cheek. And since she has just come from Spain she has presents for them both. The one in the white jacket is a nurse, she gets a roll of cookies. The other, in a beige sleeveless top, is the Doctor. Magaly has brought three brightly colored knit tops for her. There are protestations, then thanks, hugs and kisses. Then conversation – the doctor's plans to visit her sister in Miami, updates on family members all around.

Finally Magaly gets to her own heath – her irritated tongue, her red eyes. She is diabetic, is it a problem with her blood sugar? The Doctor takes her blood pressure, and looks at her tongue and eyes (this is all over the desk, the nurse takes some notes on an official notepad. ) The Doctor writes a prescription, and some instructions for Magaly on the back of some old handbills. Tells Magaly that tomorrow she must go to the hospital for a blood test. Goodbyes, with more hugs and kisses. By this time, someone else is waiting, just outside the door, Magaly knows this person too. Then we walk a block (still with the dog) to an unmarked building that is the phararmcy. Rough hewn wooden drawers contain bottles, and boxes of pills. The prescriptions cost pennies.

Like everything in this country, it is not efficient. Every neighborhood has a doctor who is your doctor, and who knows you – and knows you well! That you can drop in on – no need for an appointment, no need to pay.

Sure – what happened there was small – one part of the process, since my friend needs to go somewhere else for her blood test, the next day. But imagine having a doctor who is not pressed for time, not anxiously edging to the door or obviously trying to think about 3 or 4 things at once. To have this kind of connection with a doctor is part of what gives the Cuban health care system its success – success as measured in its high rates of longevity, and its low rates of infant and maternal mortality (according to statistics provided by the CIA

Me with the flamenco dancers

The second night (a different group) was just as good as the first, four dancers (the guy is not in the picture).

What I did Sat. Night

OK, there was the concert at 5 pm in the Basilica of St. Francis of Asisi. Choral music, and chamber including string orchestra. Really excellent, and I met some musicians. Then I wandered for a while in the old city, and then I went for dinner in a restaurant that has a flamenco show EVERY NIGHT! It was really amazing -- 2 dancers, five musicians. And the food was good, too (paella vegetariana -- although I think cabbage is not a traditional paella ingrediant).

Hey, tonight no other plans, I'll go back there!!

street theatre in the Old City (Ciudad Vieja) Oct.31-- dancers on stilts, drummers and flutes -- quite enchanting

It doesn't get any better .... SUnday AM Nov. 1

OK, so it doesn't get any better than this. I'm sitting in the patio garden behind the Hotel Nacional (very elegante). I find a chair next to an electric outlet so I can plug in my laptop. I have a view of the ocean. Caged parakeets are chirping. It's sunny, warm but with a breeze. Then a 4 piece band comes and sets up right next to me! Flute, guitar, bass (a completely portable instrument here), and bongos, also singing.

OK, that didn't last long -- the band moved on, and four guys ("the ugly Americans") came and sat nearby with their CIGARS!

second day here (Oct.31)

Yesterday went to TWO concerts of the Festival. Confusing to find out information (different start times and programs were advertised) but both concerts were good.

The second concert was violin and piano, advertised as music by Pablo Sarasate (as part of a contemporary music festival??) AND other composers, but turned out to be ONLY Sarasate, 11 pieces -- uh, a few too many by that fellow.

I have just discovered where to do wireless internet (at the Hotel Nacional).
Tonight another concert!! It's a beautiful day, cloudy, warm and of course humid.

on the way to Havana

On the city bus on the way to the Miami airport!!

At the airport -- why we have to check in 3 hours early (and fashion violations ..)
OK -- now we are boarding!!!

Why is this Holiday / New Year's message on time?

Well, of course because it is actually last year's letter a little late. Really! I was still thinking about writing a letter about 2006 at the time of the 2007 Summer solstice! And I had been thinking about putting this New Year's message up on Ye Olde Cancer Blog, where I had my year-end message about 2005 (here) . But I decided to start with a clean slate /blogger template -- although I don't mean to keep this up as a blog, it's just a New Year's update.

HEALTH -- all good news

Recent good news: Learned that I do NOT have the breast cancer gene

A very simple blood test (costing $3100, but paid for by my insurance) revealed this good news. You can learn more about the breast cancer gene here.

An article in the New York Times in September discussed the issue of testing for the breast cancer gene in detail, and I raised it again with my doctors.

Previously they had said, since I had no family history of breast cancer, I didn’t have the gene. But reading that article made me want to know for sure. And, genetically speaking, I don’t have a lot of family members – I have no cousins or aunts who are blood relatives. My father was an only child, and so was my mother’s father (men can carry the gene but are much less likely than women to get the disease). So it seemed possible that the gene could be lurking. If I had the gene, it would mean I faced a 40-55% cancer of a reoccurrence of my cancer. Without the gene, my odds for a reoccurrence are around 10% -- still not great (ain’t no-one sellin’ me any life insurance …) but much better than having the gene Women who do have the gene face the decision of having prophylactic surgery: removal of the breast(s) and / or ovaries, or just to have more intensive monitoring. So I don't have to face that decision. Yay!!

I finished my three years on tamoxifen, and started on Arimidex, both used in the treatment of estrogen receptor positive breast cancer – it's good that I have this hormonal treatment option.

I continue to be checked by my cancer specialists quarterly, and to be in great health.

On the sad side: One member of my cancer support group, Roberta, passed away (in October), and a memorial service was organized by another member of our group and held just a few days before X-mas. She was an incredibly vivacious woman and it is quite sad to face that the disease can conquer someone who had been so electrifyingly full of energy.