An Irishman's Diary

Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 00:00

Surrounded by vast mountain ranges and wreathed in lush tropical vegetation on the coast of Honey Bay, the town of Baracoa in the far eastern Cuban province of Guantánamo always fills me with a great sense of anticipation long before I get there.

One of the reasons for this is the grand entrance provided by La Farola, the highway from Guantánamo city that wends its way through, around and above the Sierra Purial mountain range, which provides spectacular views.

La Farola was completed the 1960s, before which Baracoa was reached mostly by sea. This remoteness has preserved its unique characteristics, its extraordinary flora and fauna and descendants of Taino Indians who, despite what we were told in school, were not wiped out by the all-conquering Conquistadores. Deep in the mountains, many found safety and survival.

On this visit I decide to save the scenic route for my departure and to arrive by air. Gustavo Rizo airport must have one of the most hair-raising landings in the world. As your small plane approaches you seem so close to the sea you fear you are about to hit the water - you bump on the tarmac before you even see it. (If you were to burst into applause on landing, you'd probably be forgiven by any sophisticates on board.)

Before being allowed to enter the arrivals building, we are required to wash our hands and to wipe our shoe soles in a liquid solution.

After this washing ritual is repeated in one of the town's music venues, I discover it's a precaution against a threat of cholera in the wake of Hurricane Sandy (the worst hurricane in living memory, according to everyone I talked with in the affected provinces of Santiago, Holguín and Guantánamo).

Despite the early evacuation of tens of thousands of people (and their pets), Sandy resulted in 11 deaths, took the roofs off thousands of houses, and shattered infrastructure, which resulted in a massive mobilisation to repair the damage and saw the introduction of these chlorine drills.

Despite these efforts, within two days I begin to feel unwell and return early from a night out. In the morning hotel staff insist on calling a nurse, who walks me to the International Clinic. From here an ambulance takes me to Octavío de la Concepcion hospital.

A test taken on arrival is later declared positive by a doctor. They think I have cholera. My clothes are taken to be disinfected. I'm given antibiotics and next thing I'm in a wheelchair-commode on my way into quarantine in the intensive care ward. Doctors and nurses there wear scrubs and approach me only when wearing surgical masks and gloves.

Cholera had not been seen in Cuba for a century, until an outbreak earlier this year left three dead. Worldwide, the disease kills in excess of 100,000 annually. In more than 90 per cent of cases it is the mild variety which is difficult to distinguish from other diarrhoeal diseases. However a particularly virulent strain followed the 2010 earthquake in Haiti which could kill within hours and left more than 6,000 dead.

At first, the idea of having cholera is shocking, but Google gives me perspective, saying it most often means a three- to five-day hospital stay. And because I feel unwell, I am happy enough to be here.

I also have a ringside view of the Cuban medical system. Doctors and nurses are professional and friendly beyond the call of duty as they go about their daily routines on their 12-hour shifts. Nurses from the International Clinic visit daily and even bring me things I need from my hotel.

My days begin at 5am with a shower while my room is disinfected, and bedclothes and pyjamas changed. Later, blood pressure and temperature are checked and blood samples taken. Apart from such routines nurses also frequently call in just for conversation.

Two days after my arrival I have more tests and am told later by a doctor that they were negative for cholera. While my condition is downgraded to tropical gastroenteritis, I'm kept for observation for three more days.

After my release I meet a local friend and mention my cholera scare. "So it's you," she laughs, "a rumour spread all over town in the past few days that a foreigner was in hospital with cholera. You're famous."

Well, if you're famous for having cholera, it's surely time to get out of town. But I'm happy to remain in the bosom of Baracoa just a little bit longer before heading off into those mountains.

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