Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Don't be just a tourist

"Please be careful." My dad said before we hung up on Skype. It was in reference to my up coming Cuba trip. "Of course!" I replied, "What could I get up to? I'll be staying at a resort." 
He just gave me a knowing look and repeated, "Be careful."

About 20 minutes later, in between texting with Tara about bikini's, cameras, sunscreen, departure times, if I should bring the crib board, I threw in "Wanna be a legal mule for medical supplies?"

As it happened, a mere 5 minutes after talking to my dad I found something on the internet called Not Just Tourists. A non-profit organization that has three ways to support other countries around the world when you're traveling. Their website seemed legit and it linked me to a Not Just Tourist-Toronto branch, and within a few moments I was calling to see if I could volunteer on such short notice, my flight left in just a few days. They assured me they would try to get a suitcase together that I could pick up when I stopped in Toronto the day before my Cuba departure.


Or so I thought... until I told my partner. In a very happy-go-lucky tone I said something like, "I decided to volunteer to take medical supplies to Cuba. Yeah, I'm just going to pick up a suitcase when I land in Toronto and then drop it off somewhere in Cuba..." 
"You're what?"
"The website has pictures."

To which Dan was the voice of reason and brought up some really good points that hadn't even crossed my mind. The main ones were:

1. Cuba doesn't mess around, especially when it comes to drugs (further research after this talk found that association with drugs in Cuba is a crime punishable by death) Who is packing this suitcase?

2. I had no idea where I was going to pick up the mystery case (something I really didn't see as a problem, I knew it would be downtown and I knew I'd know before I landed in Toronto)

3. I had no idea where I was going to drop off the suitcase. To which my retort was "... the city I'm dropping it off in is called Moron." (You can't search for streets in Google maps of Cuba and there is no street view.)

4. I didn't know anyone personally who had done this before. 

I'll address #4 first, this made me see a whole other way of thinking that gave me even more conviction to follow through. Other people probably thought this way, my friends probably felt this way, and now having done it I want to encourage everyone I know to give it a try.

The address of the pick up was figured out quickly and I was explicitly told to unpack and repack the suitcase so I'd know all the contents. When I got to Tara's that evening we looked at the goods. Everything checked out, there were bandages, vitamins, syringes, pretty much a closet full of supplies.
Not knowing exactly where I would be going to drop the supplies off didn't phase me. I had four addresses of drop off clinics in a town nearby the resort Tara and I would be staying at. 

Fast forward to the Cuban customs. I was nervous, all the warnings people had given me rang in my mind, I had my paperwork handy just in case. But no one asked, no one cared, I had zero problems and easily grabbed my bag and left the airport. 
Fast forward to Moron trip, we grabbed a cab and headed to the hospital.

Hospital in Moron, Cuba
Walking with receptionist
Waiting with cockroaches in the hall
my eyes are closed but the logo is there
Now... as much as I'd like to I'm not going to sugarcoat this. We got there and looking at the outside of the hospital I thought I was making a huge mistake. The place looked great from the outside and I thought I was about to offend someone with my "gift" (I was told explicitly NOT to call it a donation and practiced saying 'Regalo' in my head over and over.) So we got inside and immediately knew we were doing the right thing. This looked more like a converted middle school than a hospital. We were taken down many corridors and eventually were asked to wait in a hall for the director. It was then I realized I wish I hadn't spoken Spanish. Wishing that I had just played dumb and handed over the suitcase and walked away. After waiting for a while, getting hot and bothered, and squeamish for watching so many people pass by a giant cockroach flailing its legs while laying on it's back as if it were a normal thing, we were finally let into the room. The director explained (in Spanish) that he was not allowed to take the gift. It had to be given to a different organization who would distribute it fairly.
My spoiled Canadian self expected him to boot up his computer, connect to the internet and give me the address, directions, and phone number for this other location. But when internet is $6/hour that was not happening. He called his reception, who then called back with a phone number. Then he called that number and surprise... no one answered. No one had another number, or address, or directions.
I was getting annoyed by this point, I wanted to do a good thing and there seemed to be some hoops to jump through. There was a lot of back and forth until I finally got into my thick skull that this man could lose his job for accepting these supplies, which moments ago the receptionist seemed so excited about. So we up and left. With the bag. There were three other clinics on my list that I had gotten from the organization.

I'm going to jump ahead through the minutia, we found the other clinic, we dropped off the supplies, and were not too worse for wear.Apparently there was a doctor coming in later that day for a clinic that only happened at certain times, the lady in pink was the receptionist. If it wasn't for the logo on the door and some randomly placed chairs slightly representing a waiting room, I would have thought it was someone's house.

It's something I would do again but give myself more time.

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