Travel Traumas

Not every trip is one you long to paste in your memory scrapbook. Bad things happen,, even on a journey you thought was carefully planned. The following travel traumas were written by women who did not end up in paradise. But they did return home with valuable travel knowledge to share with our readers. 

Mary MacDonald, who contributed a story on Cuba a few issues ago, returned to that island this Spring with her son.

Jackie Mifundshi
thought that she booked a glorious cruise vacation with her husband but ended up on a ship to nowhere.

Find out how both these disasters could have been prevented.

Cuban Crisis
by Mary MacDonald 1998

The one crucial element that differentiated this year's trip to Cuba from last year's was our choosing the buffet meal plan at our hotel. Last year, we avoided the buffet, and that made all the difference.

Toward the end of our first week, I developed the most agonizing stomach cramps I have ever experienced. Fortunately, this lasted only one night. The cramps were supplemented with you know what. I certainly had a case of food poisoning. The following Monday my son began complaining of stomach pain. By Tuesday evening, the cramping was worse, so I called the hotel doctor who came to our room. She examined him and to my despair stated that he had a probable infection and should be taken by ambulance to Matanzas, a provincial capital located 35 miles west of Varadero. I tried to remain calm and prepared for an overnight stay at the hospital.

The first indication of things to come were the dogs running amok who greeted us upon our arrival at the hospital entrance. We were taken upstairs to the tourist ward, a segregated unit of the facility. My son and I were the sole foreigners registered. The surgeon on duty examined my son and ordered an ultrasound and x-ray.

We went through these paces, and then the English-speaking nurse, Betty, attempted to connect an IV to my son's arm. After a considerable ordeal involving several nurses, they managed to connect it in his wrist. The tube was so taut that my son couldn't move his arm a fraction of an inch. We settled in at about midnight and tried to get some sleep. My son awoke at about 3 am with the IV tube disconnected, his sheets covered with  blood. I got up and tried to find the nurse. When I went out into the darkened corridor, there was no one in sight. I called out for the nurse, but she was asleep in another room.

I awoke to learn that plans were made to transfer my son to the pediatric hospital across town. I saw nurses smoking in the hallway where we were and thought that the conditions at the pediatric hospital would improve.

I was also getting very concerned because insurance policies are strict about making contact with them to obtain approval for the green light to proceed with these types of plans. I was attempting to make phone calls from the hospital to do just that, but I couldn't get through. It's difficult to get phone calls through at even the best of times from Cuba, and in the meantime the office manager was getting very insistent about how I would pay. They then contacted the Canadian Counsel in Varadero who said she would meet me at the pediatric hospital.

Finally at noon, we were transferred to the pediatric hospital and were once again greeted by dogs running wild. The atmosphere inside the hospital was bedlam and my son was becoming increasingly distressed. Two English-speaking specialists examined him and concluded that he might have acute appendicitis, which required immediate exploratory surgery with the laparoscope. I was stricken with horror but tried to stay calm because my son was so distressed. The conditions in that building were more suitable for a minimum security prison than a pediatric hospital. My mind was racing because I didn't feel competent to challenge the doctors, and I knew what the consequences might be if  my son did in fact have appendicitis, and I didn't allow them to follow through with their procedure.

I went into the small OR with the assembled group of physicians, who proceeded with their task without surgical gloves, hospital gowns, etc. They told me that if he had AA they would take out his appendix right then and that in turn would require a one-week recuperation period in the hospital. This was Wednesday and our flight home was Saturday; I still hadn't contacted the insurance company about any of this. My guardian angel appeared during that harrowing surgery--the Canadian Counsel, who, it turned out, was very experienced in assisting Canadians who get into these tight spots while in Cuba. After the procedure, they transferred my son and I upstairs to a dingy room, and we settled in for the rest of the day and night. The Counsel took charge of everything concerning our flight and the insurance company (thank heaven she had a cell phone).

The upstairs ward was so grimly depressing that it is difficult to describe it. It was an experience that my son and I will never forget -- not only for our own discomfort, but also for our first-hand witnessing of the hospital conditions (and a pediatric one at that) in a developing country. Our room was invaded by fruit flies; the food was inedible, and the bathroom was unsanitary. I asked for a bandage for my son’s arm when they took out the IV and was informed that none was available.

I don't want to dwell too much on the conditions at the pediatric hospital in Matanzas. There are some 280 hospitals in Cuba, and we were in only two of those. Some are perhaps even worse than what we saw. Unfortunately,  the pitiful existing health care system is directly affected by the U.S. embargo.

The last dimension of this ordeal was the insurance policy. I had bought a full coverage medical plan from Thomas Cook insurance. However, the complication was that Cook  is a U.S. based company that cannot engage in direct transactions with Cuba because of the embargo.

The Canadian Counsel gets involved in these situations frequently because unsuspecting Canadians who buy this insurance are in for a big shock if they end up in a Cuban hospital. What happened with our case was the hospital required payment before we left the country. The Counsel had to contact our relatives to get the funds wired to the Canadian Embassy in Havana. The Counsel then went to the ambulance company and the two hospitals to pay our bills in cash before we left the island. My relatives are being reimbursed just this week by the insurance company, which is not permitted to engage in direct transactions with the Cubans. I know this sounds surreal. I'm wondering how many Canadians who travel to Cuba are aware of these pitfalls. And yes, we are very fortunate that our country has a well-established diplomatic presence in Cuba because I don't know what we would have done otherwise.

I suppose there are several lessons to be learned from our drama. First, avoid buffets if possible. Also, purchase travel insurance that provides up-front coverage rather than reimbursement when you return home, and keep their number handy at all times. It's also a good idea to have the fax and phone number of your country's reps when in a foreign land.

Our episode of food illness should not detract anyone from travelling to Cuba. As unpleasant as it was, the same thing can happen in any developing country. Indeed, I had a bout of food poisoning in Jamaica back in the 80s. I do definitely recommend a comprehensive medical travel plan for travelers; the insurance for my son and I had in Cuba cost about 240CDN.

shipcartoon.jpg (14674 bytes)Ship to Nowhere
by Jackie Mifundshi 1998

 y husband and I were married in October 1995 and planned a cruise to Mexico for our honeymoon. We booked passage with Carnival Cruises and flew to Los Angeles from Oregon City, Oregon to begin our trip.

Shortly after boarding the ship (we were led on right away, surpassing the long line of passengers), we discovered that our cabin was only accessible through the room's entrance door. The bathroom was definitely not accessible to a wheelchair. My husband is a C 6-7 Quadriplegic and is confined to a wheelchair permanently. We went to the purser's window to request an accessible room, thinking there must be a mistake and were told that our room was accessible. They said my husband's wheelchair must be larger than the average wheelchair and offered to loan us one of their chairs. We laughed at that, having seen their hospital style wheelchairs upon coming onto the ship, but, to prove our point we said sure, they should bring their chair to our room to see if it fit into the bathroom. They did this and found, to their surprise, that their wheelchair was even wider than my husband's and it definitely did not fit into the bathroom. Quickly their story changed, and they said that an accessible room did not mean that the bathroom was accessible, but just that you could enter the room in a wheelchair. They said they were fully booked and could not give us another room and that was that. They refunded our money, including the airfare, and gave us a free cab ride back to the airport. We flew back home, disappointed that we had spent all day traveling and anticipating the trip to no avail.

Since our experience, we have learned that these cruise ships do not have to comply with the ADA standards since they are registered out of the United /States (our ship was registered in the Virgin Islands). We have also learned through talking to several disabled friends that Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines actually are accessible. We haven't taken another cruise since, but if we do, it will definitely not be on Carnival Cruises.

Editor's Note: There is no reason to be disappointed in a ship's access. Know before you go. See our Travel Books section to learn more about Wheels and Waves, a fine guidebook describing the access features of numerous cruise ships around the world.


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