- Soon a Goan gentleman arrived and introduced himself. “I am the resident manager on duty. Can I help you?” Seeing him, I was completely bowled over by the scar on his right cheek, which looked remotely familiar and Marie had to take over the negotiations.
- He came alone and, judging by his readiness in accepting our last-minute invitation and now looking at the expression of recognition on his face, I soon realised that he, too, was eager to get it off his chest as much as I wanted to find the missing link.
While I was reading the news item a couple of years back that USA and Cuba had resumed diplomatic relations after a break of over half a century, I was reminded of a strange experience I had when Marie and I visited the beautiful Caribbean Island a few years ago.
Before I relate it, let me run through the recent turbulent history of Cuba, at the end of which my surgical speciality played an important part.
I recall the time when the charismatic Fidel Castro with his compatriot, Che Guevera, defeated the corrupt government of Batista after a prolonged guerrilla war. On assuming power, Castro walked straight into the Soviet camp, one of the two superpowers then. Nikita Krushchev, President of USSR, offered him nuclear missiles and confronted the youthful president of USA, John Kennedy, with what became known as “The Missile Crisis” soon after Kennedy took office.
He proved more than a match for the Russian leader and put a moratorium against the delivery of the missiles and the world waited with bated breath wondering if we were on the threshold of a nuclear war and who would blink first. Surprisingly, Krushchev did and the crisis was defused.
Since then Cuba and America remained sworn enemies with US imposing various embargoes to cripple the tiny island, just 90 miles from its shore in Miami across the Straits of Florida.
Then, suddenly, a surgical emergency changed the course of history. Not for the first time because it did so when British prime minister Anthony Eden attacked Suez Canal and lost because soon after, he was struck down with gall stones. Fidel Castro developed intestinal obstruction caused by cancer of his colon. Ravages of the disease, repeated major surgery and very likely administration of chemotherapy drugs took their toll and he abdicated in favour of his brother Raul Castro.
Barack Obama, with his vision and desire to leave a good legacy behind, took advantage of the changed political landscape and restored diplomatic relations with his tiny neighbour. In fact, he visited Cuba to seal the reconciliation.
We had three reasons to visit the picturesque Caribbean Island when we did. The first one was our wanderlust and desire to see the world.
Secondly, I wanted to visit the home of the famous writer Ernest Hemingway, whose classic novel, For whom the bell tolls, based on the Spanish Civil War, I had read when I was a medical student. I had also seen the film by the same name at the Metro Cinema in Mumbai, known as Bombay at the time. It was a cinema which showed English language movies only and catering to the needs of the majority of its patrons, who were British, was the only air-conditioned movie-house in the city.
When I came to Kenya, evidently Hemingway accompanied me because I found that not only had he lived in our continent but had also written a novel called The Snows of Kilimanjaro. In Nairobi, I saw the film based on this book starring my favourite actors, belonging to my vintage, Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. I read a lot about Ernest Hemingway and was enamoured by his charming image, his gregarious nature, his colourful life, his love for wine and women, whisky and rum and, at the end, his tragic suicide.
Finally, during my Council membership of the College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa, I visited various countries in the region including Zimbabwe, where I met Cuban surgeons sent by Castro to help his friend Robert Mugabe and ease his over-stretched health services. They inspired me to visit their country, so when an opportunity arose to visit Cuba, Marie and I jumped at it.
Our point of entry was its capital Havana, with Spanish architecture in the old city, a remnant of its colonial past and modern Caribbean culture in the new section. Though somewhat dilapidated, we found its broad tree lined boulevards, its castles and cathedrals, its forts and museums very impressive. No visit to Havana is complete without visiting a cigar factory, to see which we travelled a few miles out of Havana.
There we saw Cuban labourers, both men and women, rolling tobacco leaves into their main export product, going under the famous brands of Monte-Cristoe and Romeo-et-Juliet and packing them into cedar-wood cases. To satisfy my writer’s cravings, we visited Hemingway’s haunts.
We went to Cojimar to see his memorabilia and sipped Cuban rum in the bar in central Havana, which Hemingway frequented with his mates. After a fascinating sight-seeing of Havana for a week we were ready to relax by the sea, for which Cuba, like Kenya, is famous and were persuaded by our travel agent to stay at the Varadero Beach, known as the ten-mile golden strip.
Since we were booked at the Blue Lagoon Hotel at the last minute, when we arrived at the reception desk, the receptionist said. “I can’t find a booking under your name but can offer you a garden facing room, which has just become available.”