Street Seens: Cuba-A Millennium Memoir
There is a moment in the flight between JFK and Cuba when the passenger looks out and sees the Island country and the State of Florida simultaneously. When that happened to me early in the first year of the new Millennium, I thought of the advice the boy Arthur was given by Merlin in Camelot. “If you soar high enough, borders disappear.” A little more than a week later, I had seen the truth of that advice from on board the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital, which took off from New York looking mostly like an iconic DC-10, but was soon transformed into a world class teaching hospital of ophthalmology.
Along with the writer Eamon Lynch, on assignment from The New York Daily News, and photographer Lyn Hughes, who after decades of shooting what she describes as everyone and everything “from Top Chefs to Top Dogs,” we set off on a glorious adventure she called “transformative.” I was reminded of it last week by the news of Fidel Castro’s death. But the memories, like the experience have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with healing. That is the universal currency of ORBIS the humanitarian champion in the fight against preventable blindness.
Having recruited many journalists to travel with Orbis, to observe its unique missions to countries where preventable blindness is endemic, I had never personally observed one. And so, in the era of the Elian Gonzalez drama and when only a humanitarian objective would allow our government to grant visas in cooperation with a mutually respected neutral consulate, I knew when presented the opportunity that my initial reaction of “I can’t go the very week we are moving to a new asc international office,” was overruled by the profound conviction “I can’t NOT go.”
And so, Eamon, Lyn and I joined the Orbis staff and volunteer doctors and nurses in Cuba’s Matanzas Province for a glorious and appropriately high-soaring adventure.
The many journalists the asc team had encouraged to travel with Orbis to observe its unique missions to countries where preventable blindness is endemic, were unanimous in the sense of wonder at what they saw and filmed and photographed in those missions. But I, personally, had never seen how eminent ophthalmologists volunteer their time and skill to partner with the Orbis staff and local medical communities to create a unique learning and healing experience. I had never seen how a DC-10 touches down and is seamlessly turned into a world class teaching hospital; how from hundreds of candidates for treatment, a number are chosen on the basis of the ability to provide healing to the patient and invaluable learning for their new colleagues.
The challenge to the journalist is to discern the subjects who will emerge as the story: six-year old, whose alternating esotropia would have to be addressed and reversed before the window of opportunity closes. So it was with the feisty Katherine/Katerina that Eamon’s story followed (photo above). She was chosen because her condition was generally not treated in Cuba at that time, and so it presented the ideal teaching opportunity in which the Orbis volunteer physicians could share insight with their Cuban counterparts.
As the ORBIS nurse assured her that the pre-op IV was simply a way of feeding her, Katerina responded by directing the translator to report that she was not hungry. Puzzled by Eamon’s Irish name, she brightened when told that it was the Irish equivalent of Eduardo. When the two met again at the end of her successful procedure, they met eyes and she said through the translator, “I will call you Eduardo.” To which he spoke from deep joy, “And I will call you Kate.” You see, when you soar high enough borders do disappear.
Surrounded by miracles, Lyn was observing and chronicling how the first-class section of the reconfigured DC-10 became the operating theater. There, each procedure from laser to full scale retinal surgery, was observed by members of the Cuban medical community gathered there and also transmitted to an adjunct hanger space to accommodate the large numbers of medical personnel eager to grow, to dialogue, and to learn.
What we saw along the way has burned itself into the newly awakened eyes of my heart and mind. There was the arrival night reception when our Cuban hosts offered performances of dancers mirroring the amazing variety of latter day Cubans. In a judgment colored by something akin to fatigue from jet lag, travel, arrival, change from traveling clothes to jeans, and reconfiguring the plane to hospital, I concluded that, in Matanzas, the length of a set of dancing is measured as the span of “a life well lived.” Among protests of “but please, we have more Rum to offer you,” the well-traveled worker bees crept off to their beds to prepare for the healing heart of the visit.
When a “free Sunday” arrived, it brought a Jeep-borne one day field trip to Havana. A roadside stretch of beach illustrated the astounding gifts of automobile preservation and restoration that seem to reveal that the Leonardos of those arts live in Cuba. We crowded in quick visits to some of Hemingway’s favorite haunts, a bookstore to search for a biography of Jose Marti and finally a too-late return trip on a road that boasted no road lights but scores of families on bicycles bearing platforms that seemed to support all their earthly possessions.
Home restaurants, marking the early entry into individual enterprise, offered a way to learn the many definitions of Cuban tastes. The hotel where we were assigned, was host to many Canadian and Italian tourists who followed the paths to what Cubans of the past likely considered a sort of Hamptons get-away.
Walking further and further out into the sea that lay beyond the white sand beaches made it somewhat easier to believe that a young mother might have believed she could simply continue walking and so take her son to the other beach that lay to the west. At the start, she too might have had the look of intense maternal joy Lyn remembers seeing as another mother walked from a miraculous airplane, holding a child in her arms whose sight had just been restored.
For both of their sakes we can hope that Merlin was right and we can continue searching, each in his or her own way for new ways to “soar high enough.”
Opening photos and map from Bigstock by Shutterstock. Newspaper images from The New York Daily News. Article by Eamon Lynch, photos within article by Lyn Hughes.
Eamon Lynch is a contributing writer for Newsweek and previously editor of Golf Magazine.
Lyn Hughes, photographer to Top Chefs and Top Dogs (Animal Medical Center), is a NYC photographer for over 25 years. Lyn captures the essence of the moment from Ethiopia’s Awash River Valley to Red Carpet Night at the Tony’s. You can view her work at www.lynhughesphotography.com