Of Cuban Cigars, Rum & Coffee

The Account Manager, Overseas Scholarship program and myself were  nominated by the Advisor (HRD), Higher Education Commission, Pakistan (HEC) to lead a team of 45 pre Medical scholars to Cuba, Havana under the ‘1000 Cuba Scholarship for Medical sciences’ program between 17 – 28th Feb. 2007. Although, personally I never intended to visit Cuba probably due to the negative hype created by western media but somehow I succumbed to my bosses wishes and after the visit I had no regrets whatsoever.

I accompanied a group of 8 scholars from Islamabad to Karachi on the night of 17th Feb. 2007 while my Account Manager led a team of 37 scholars from Lahore to Karachi on the same evening. The next morning i.e. 18th Feb. 2007 we all were scheduled to leave for Havana via Dubai and Moscow from Karachi.

The flight to Dubai was four hours late but that reduced the transit time of twenty hours to sixteen hours at Moscow airport. Not that I enjoyed sitting locked in a plane for four hours practically doing nothing but my cell phone bill surely soared. Since we reached Moscow much later than the expected arrival, nobody came to receive us the airport initially but later after a few hours an official from the Pakistan Embassy reached the airport and gave us a warm welcome. He later contacted the Operations Manager of PIA who was kind enough to arrange dinner and breakfast for the entire team for which we were highly indebted to PIA and the Pakistan Embassy in Moscow.

Had they not been there, we would have probably ended up going haywire in negative 9 Degree Celsius and under inhospitable surroundings since even at the airport hardly anybody could speak or understand English and since the days of the Russian war in Afghanistan and we playing the rookies for the Americans; we were not expecting to be greeted kindly by the Russians anyways. The repercussions of this love – hate relationship was that even with a 16 hour transit and as per international IATA rules we were denied hotel accommodation and trust me sleeping on the airport floor during that long night was not funny at all. Well, sometimes life’s like that.

 (A panoramic view of the Santiago Haza school, Matanzas, Cuba)

The next flight was a long and arduous journey of thirteen hours to Havana, Cuba but we were much relieved to receive a warm welcome at the Havana airport by a team of about 6 people from the school who streamlined all the customs and immigration issues. Later, we were put in a bus, provided Halal snacks and taken to the school which was about two hour’s drive from the airport and in Matanzas city.

At the school, we were given a very warm welcome by the management, staff and the previous batch of Pakistani scholars. It was a pleasure to learn that our scholars from the previous batch who had just been there since one week were well taken care of and had adjusted pretty fast in the local environment and were learning Spanish quite rapidly.

The school i.e. ‘Maximo Santiago Haza’ is located practically in the middle of nowhere; more like a jungle with hundreds of trees of local Oranges called ‘Narangahas’ and is in a beautiful and serene setting. Our culture and religion is respected with utmost care and the management and the support staff was found to be very cordial and accommodating. Separate hostels for boys and girls have been arranged in the same premises. Doctors and nurses are available 24 hours a day to take care of any basic medical and dental emergencies. There is a free barber shop for boys and beauty parlor for girls. A free ironing and washing facility is available with a small post office. There are no tuck shops to buy anything at the campus since whatever you basically need is provided free of cost.

An e-mail facility is in place although only local Internet browsing is currently available while the school staff is trying to arrange international browsing facility. Initially, Spanish is being taught for about 6 months while we were informed that the entire staff of Spanish teachers will change once the Medical staff will take over and the Medical related studies would commence.


(The jubilant students of the first two batches)

The management, teachers and support staff are extremely co-operative and they all are somehow involved in teaching Spanish to our scholars whether in the class room environment or outside the class rooms and they are seen engaged with small groups of scholars communicating with them in broken Spanish.

Morning breakfast, lunch and dinner is served in a large cafeteria which is combined for management, teachers, staff and scholars and all are required to fall in lines and eat together which is a very healthy way of disciplining people. Just because of the Pakistani and young scholars involved, alcohol and smoking has been banned on campus.

The most appreciative of their gesture is that special efforts have been made to import Halal food through Vermont, Virginia, USA (in spite of American embargoes) to make Pakistani and especially Muslim scholars to feel at home in a communist dominant country and especially two prayer rooms for males and females separately have been established for our young men and women to fulfill their religious obligations. This is a huge gesture on the part of the Cuban government and I as a Pakistani official was overwhelmed to experience this gesture and I categorically thanked them in my address to the entire management and staff at the time of arrival during my speech and during an official meeting at the time of our departure.

I personally feel that the Cuban government and the management of the school have gone an extra mile to accommodate our scholars and have given us such a cordial environment that there is no doubt in my mind that after 5 – 6 years they will not just produce good doctors but wonderful and disciplined battalion of young Pakistani people.


(Cuban President Fidel Castro with his brother Raul Castro)

An ending note —– if anybody is interested in reading Biotechnology or aspires to become a Medical doctor then Cuba is the place of choice since the Cubans have excelled tremendously in these two fields. As for the Cuban cigars, rum & coffee, the cigars are great, I would rather not comment on the rum while the coffee is more like Turkish coffee which for some is sour while others like myself cherished every sip.

Viva la Cuba

Shaikh Muhammed Ali

Project Director (HRD)


Note: This article was written on 22nd March 2007 and was first published in AIM Leadership magazine in the April-June 2007 edition.

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