Volunteers sort and package drugs into old suitcases.
Published: March 2009
Related Topics: Social Justice
Picture a middle-aged couple headed for their first Caribbean vacation. Red-haired and fair-skinned, they plan one day on a beach east of Havana and the rest of the week in the old and once glamorous city. They are not just tourists. Each carries a battered second suitcase full of prescription drugs, the currency of a practical and inspired Christian justice.
The Canadians arrive at Havana Airport at midnight and have an extended chat with several armed and slightly irritable customs officials about the contents of two of their suitcases. They have in hand a letter from the Canadian government explaining that they are representatives of "Not Just Tourists," a non-profit organization recognized by the Cuban government. They are authorized to deliver the suitcases containing drugs to a psychiatrist, Dr. Ernesto Marzoa, in the foyer of their downtown hotel, formerly a family home and business, at 4:00 pm the next day. He will use the psychiatric drugs to treat his patients in one of the hospitals in Havana.
Several times a week, 40 volunteers, including five from St. Thomas' Church, meet in the basement of Dr. Ken and Mrs. Denise Taylor's St. Catharines home to sort drugs and package them in old suitcases. This operation is one of the largest drug dispensaries in the Niagara Region.
Our tourists, meanwhile, have hidden the suitcases in their closet and worry about hotel staff stealing the very valuable and, in the wrong hands, dangerous drugs currently in their care. They resist the urge to hang around the hallway the next morning to make sure the cleaning staff doesn't make off with the suitcases. Old Havana beckons.
Our tourists are having their first experience of being perceived as rich by the people of a poor country. They see buildings in a state of apparent collapse, propped up by construction scaffolding. They tour the marina where Ernest Hemingway met the fishermen who inspired "The Old Man and the Sea" and his Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm) with the tower from which he watched for German U-boats during World War II. They explore the many bars Hemingway patronized, hear the different styles of upbeat bands, enjoy the sweet desserts, and try to grasp what life is like for the people of this poor country.
Denise and Ken Taylor were likewise taking in the Caribbean sun on a bicycle trip in Cuba, 14 years ago. Their compassion and curiosity took them behind the façade of the typical packaged tours of gated beaches and hotels. The real-life suffering they discovered called them, as Christians, to respond in a practical, generous way. It occurred to them that they had the contacts within the medical community of Niagara that could provide what the poor of Cuba needed and they had the support of volunteers, among their friends, who could help process the packing of the suitcases, the donation of used suitcases, the paperwork and the recruiting of tourists willing to become "not just tourists."
When our tourists return to their room to shower and meet Dr. Marzoa at 4:30, they have been sobered by the poverty all around them. The woman had seen a dead rat by the curb on a street just behind the government buildings. Since they were headed to lunch and she didn't want to spoil her husband's appetite, she didn't mention it to him, but she wasn't able to eat the Chinese food they ordered a few minutes later. When her husband and the waiter expressed concern, she made up an excuse and the waiter took away her plate. As he walked through the door to the kitchen she could see him begin to devour her food. The tourists spent the afternoon in the outdoor café of the Hotel Iglesia, mulling over the sadness under the sunny smiles of the Cubans. At 4:30 Dr. Marzoa didn't appear. At 5:00 he phoned their room to apologize and reschedule for the next day....
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