THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
It’s Sunday morning. I cheerily call ‘Hola!’ as I cycle towards a small group of Cubans waiting at a bus stop. It’s exactly the same spot our bike batteries had run out just two days before on Friday.
Not more than a few seconds later, I am face down on the tarmac with those same Cubans ensuring I am OK.
It hurts. It hurts a lot and I’m wondering if I can stand up and carry on cycling.
Shit! My back. No, no, no.
Unbelievably it seems ok.
Snotty nosed and weeping, it seems though that something is very wrong with my left arm. It doesn’t move properly but as I try to do so, I hear a crunch. It’s at that moment I realise it’s not good.
All around me: the excited chatter of Spanish, the smoothing of my hair and wiping away of my tears by kind Cuban señoras, Simon desperately trying to convince himself it’s not too bad, questions of where, what and who, the hard grittiness of the road.
Confusion, fussing and kindness. One young Cuban señor calls an ambulance. I’m ushered into it which transports me the very short distance into the detested, ugly sanatorium building I loathe which luckily houses a basic medical centre. The staff initially all seem more concerned about the minor graze on my knee.
My shoulder hurts like fuck though and tears flow readily.
A sharp intake of breath as they check out my shoulder, deciding this is beyond their remit, they call for an ‘ambulance’ to collect and take me to coastal Trinidad where the facilities are better.
Twenty kilometres in a van carrying us, a doctor and our bikes takes a long time down steep hairpin bends. Every jolt makes me feel sick with pain. Staff have been warned of our arrival and make that breath-sucking noise again when they see the sorry state I am in.
Another short ambulance ride and I am speedily transported from the Trinidad medical centre to the X-ray department a few streets away.
The evidence is there and clear for all to see. My collarbone is snapped cleanly in two and displaced, close to the arm socket.
I guess I won’t be getting back on the bike today then after all? Maybe tomorrow?
Back into the ambulance and a return to the medical centre, where they fashion me a makeshift sling, I’m told I need to be assessed at the main regional hospital in Sancti Spiritus, some two hours away. Once again into the ambulance but without the bikes this time. They have had to be left in Trinidad for collection by the rental agency. That’s the deposit down the pan then.
As we arrive at the hospital emergency department, I am pushed by wheelchair through grimy, dark corridors to a back room where a half clothed man lies on a trolley, with a drip attached to his arm. To say that things are basic here is an understatement. I’m horrified by the lack of facilities and medication available, but they are at least able to administer me an injection to help with the mounting pain. I worry for everyone else who is waiting.
More breath-sucking as an unusually large Cuban man introduces himself as the specialist. He decrees I can either have the surgery there or they can fix me up temporarily and I can have the surgery back home in France.
Surgery? Really? Seriously? Is it that bad? I know the pain is excruciating but truly…?
I cannot believe it and weep yet more. I want to go home.
Simon and I are shown to our hospital room for the night, before I am trussed like a turkey into a plaster cast.
This is a general hospital and I would suggest that somewhere within its bare walls, there is a psychiatric department. One particularly vocal patient is endlessly shouting and singing at the top of his voice.
Lovely nurse Janaïs cooks chicken soup for us both as it’s getting late and offers us some boiled water to drink. There is no water in the hospital for washing or flushing from 20h00 to 05h00. No simple, basic facilities every night apparently. Can you imagine being deprived of this basic necessity in our fortunate lives? I think of the wars and injustices so many people are enduring and count my blessings.
Janaïs brings us a bucket of water to wash ourselves and flush the toilet.
Still the man is shouting and singing somewhere not far away.
We need to get back to France. There is no wifi available so we text the children to help. Texts ping back and forth. After a while, Tom manages to book flights back to Paris late on Monday evening, the following day. Mobile phones are a godsend.
A storm brews. Thunder and lightning flashes and crashes all around. It lasts all night, during which I cannot sleep as the pain escalates. It is particularly bad in my elbow, with the pressure caused by the plaster cast, I think.
Off and on, as the storm ebbs and flows, the shouting man starts his yelling once more, only ceasing when the thunder booms overhead.
More injections, but although it takes the edge off, the pain is raw, nauseous and intense.
Monday morning finally arrives and the storm still rages. Water is torrenting off roofs and cascading down the building. Thunder is shaking the hospital. Still the man is yelling.
”Just fuck off and be happy quietly,” I moan.
Eventually discharged, we set off in a taxi for the arduous 400km, four hour journey to Havana to catch an early flight home. I didn’t think it possible but my pain level is escalating still more. I now have only the paracetamol and ibuprofen I brought with me in case my back twinged. It barely touches it.
Exactly half way along the route, the taxi noiselessly glides onto the hard shoulder. No matter what, the engine refuses to restart.
The midday sun is intense and I am in absolute agony. My nerves are jangling and once again the tears come. I start pacing alongside the Autopista. Things are being taken out of the boot to access the mechanics of the car. I am horrified to see two enormous additional cans of fuel precariously perched inside without proper lids. It is at this moment my phone pings me a message to say I am almost out of credit. One hundred euros puffed into thin air with just a few lifeline texts.
At this point I have no patience or tolerance left. Every breath is agony, the stress is extreme and I am exhausted. More tears, more kind strangers.
Simon is growing increasingly concerned.
It takes a good hour and a half to diagnose the problem but eventually the fuel pump cable break is fixed and we are once more on our way.
Yes, with more tears we get to Havana and catch the plane that evening, arriving in Paris the following afternoon, Tuesday. Tom has also managed to buy new rail tickets to get us from Paris to home and also topped up my phone. So although the journey is hideously painful and long, it is considerably better than had he not been able to help us from 5000 miles away.
Finally we arrive at home at 23h30 on Tuesday.
Early on Wednesday morning we set off to our local hospital. I nearly lose it when the triage nurse churlishly asks why I am even there if I have already been treated in Cuba. She rolls her eyes as I tap my body cast and reluctantly allows me to wait in line.
As I see a consultation nurse at last, she does the now familiar breath-sucking and her eyes nearly pop out on stalks when she sees the cast.
”And how long did you say you have been in this?“ she asks. “We need to get rid of it immediately. We stopped doing this years ago.” It was all Cuba could offer and thank goodness for it.
After nearly three days in a plaster cast, the relief as it is cut from me is overwhelming. The nurse tosses it ceremoniously into the bin. At least there is one, not like in the Cuban hospital.
I am shaking involuntarily, cannot straighten my arm, and still in agony as I am re-X-rayed but the nurse gives me some powerful drugs which help speedily and enormously.
The diagnosis is a broken clavicle as we knew, but with snapped ligaments from the clavicle to the scapula, and also possible damage to my elbow. Surgery is booked for Monday once the tool arrives from another hospital that is required to help reconnect my ligaments.
Despite everything, the positives in all this are many: my back appears 100% fine; it’s my left shoulder and I’m right handed; it’s fixable; I was wearing a helmet; there was an extremely ugly building very close that housed a very basic medical centre; all the medical staff were incredible; and not least, there were half a dozen kind Cubans who witnessed it and were on hand immediately to assist and call the ambulance.
All high drama and not the adventure we were hoping for but the short holiday we did have was absolutely brilliant. So much laughter and joy. The Cubans and Cuba are wonderful.
My heartfelt and humble thanks go out to them all.