Dispatch, Cuba: Chatting with the elders

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Gay Cuba dispatch

Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers is spending a week in Cuba on Insight Cuba’s people-to-people tour, visiting Havana and Trinidad and points in between. Her first dispatch follows. 

The sweet ladies seated on the faded couch in the Santiago Ramon y Cajal (Rehabilitation Center for Senior Citizens) in Vieja Habana (Old Havana) smiled shyly when we entered, a group of nine Americans armed with curiosity, interest, enthusiasm, empathy and plastic bags full of shampoo and bars of soap.

One of the three ladies spied my earrings — small wooden painted guitars I had bought on a previous trip to Cuba in 1998.

Her eyes lit up, she grabbed my hand and squeezed it. I squeezed back. Then she pumped her arms and told me, through a translator, that she was 86 years old and very strong.
Her friend next to her piped up and said was she was 100 years old.

Some of the ladies at the Rehabilitation Center for Senior Citizens in Old Havana.

“Bueno, bueno,” I said, embarrassed that my knowledge of Spanish is pretty much limited to greetings and salutations.

She asked me how old I was. Marlin, our local guide and translator, told her.

I interpreted her reaction as surprised and positive, as in, “You go, girl.” “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Our group then walked through the cramped center, greeting, smiling and getting smiles in return.

Two men were playing dominos, three women were crocheting, works of crude paintings and drawings drawn by the seniors hung on the walls and everyone looked content.

“This is a day center for seniors. They come here every day. It’s a place for them to socialize and not be lonely,” the director told us. “It is free.”

Doctors evaluate them regularly, there is a physical therapy room, they receive snacks and meals throughout the day, and at the end of the day they leave with a take-home dinner.

All medical services are free in Cuba, and seniors especially are loved and beloved.

“No one is ever denied medical treatment,” Marlin said.

A poster in Havana.

After depositing our donations, which were gratefully received, we left.

When I said goodbye to the ladies on the couch, they gave me the Cuban version of a thumbs-up.

This was just a small snippet in one very full day in Havana, which also included visits to three artists’ studios, a musical performance by La Otra Mitad (The Other Half) student group at a center for kids and seniors, a walking tour of the Old City, a peek into a ceramic museum and a car museum.

Temperatures hovered around 94 degrees, and air conditioning was nonexistent. But the daiquiris during dinner at La Floridita, a hangout made famous by Hemingway during his years in Cuba, capped a perfect day.

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