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  COUNSELING
 
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  TRAVEL  
     
 
   
 
  Cuba: Ultimate in health care
  By Ginu Zacharia Oommen  
  A MAJOR political turn in Cuban history was the US victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Americans granted conditional independence to Cuba in 1902 after four years of occupation.

The Platt Amendment, forced on the Cubans, was the price the island-nation had to pay to get the withdrawal of US troops. This amendment, grafted into the Cuban constitution of 1902, guaranteed the right of the US to intervene in Cuban affairs to protect US interests on the island.

Till 1959, Cuba had an unstable political system, mostly puppet regimes remote-controlled from Washington. Before the revolution of 1959, Cuba was something of a "billionaires playground" for rich US businessmen.

During this period, Cuba suffered from widespread unemployment and general deprivation amongst a majority of the population. The racist discrimination was rampant with widespread corruption, poverty and illiteracy. In 1959, the revolutionary guards led by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro defeated the military regime of Fulgencio Batista, a weak and unpopular administrator and also a marionette of US.

Cuba is celebrating 50 years of its revolution this year with unprecedented success in health, education and social security. It faced one of its major challenges in the early 1990s after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Most of Cuba's trade was with countries belonging to the socialist bloc. By the mid-1990s the economy of Cuba was in a shambles which is termed as "special period".

However, by 2000, the economy of the island-nation surged back and last year Cuba's gross domestic product (GDP) went up by 12.5 per cent.

Even during the crisis period in the 1990s, the Cuban government's commitment to health, education and social security remained unchanged. Despite the American embargo, Cuban leadership took specific measures to ensure that its population did not go hungry. Even during the worst years of the crisis, the health status of the population remained a top government priority. In fact, the Cuban Parliament actually increased the health sector budget at the expense of the spending on military and state administration.

Since 1959, education has remained free from the primary school level to the PhD level. Education is seen as an imperative device to accomplish social equality.

Prior to the revolution, racial discrimination was entrenched in Cuban society. The Communist government banned slavery soon after assuming power. In addition, the massive land reforms and housing scheme for the poor uplifted the marginalised black population to a great extent. Likewise, health and education became easier to access. Elimination of racial prejudice was the prime concern of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Communist Party launched an ideological campaign against racism in the 1960s.

In Cuba, during the colonial days, there was almost no education available in the rural areas where the peasants and slaves lived, although the urban Spanish population had access to education for its children. The immediate objectives of the revolutionary government were, therefore, to improve the educational system.

The Cuban government declared 1961 as the Year of Education, and a remarkably effective campaign of adult education was launched. Almost 300,000 children and adults were sent out into the countryside to teach under the slogan, "If you know, teach; if you don't know, learn."

By 1979, the literacy rate in Cuba was higher than 90%, comparable to the rates in the United States and other developed countries.

Cuba's health care system has been universally acknowledged as among the finest in the world. Health care for all Cubans is free unlike other countries. Because of the high premium Cuba places on health, it currently has 5.91 doctors per 1000 people. In fact, this is the highest ratio in the world. The average life expectancy in Cuba today is 78 years. In addition, Cuba has well-developed and sophisticated medical services such as cardiovascular surgery, treatment for chronic renal failure, and transplant services and so on. All these services are free of charge for the people unlike other countries, including the developed nations.

The community clinic (polyclinic) model of primary health care is the backbone of the Cuban health system. Every village has a medical post with doctors and nurses working round the clock. I had the opportunity to visit a medical post in the suburbs of Bayamo city. The doctor knows by heart the medical record of all the patients in the locality.

Maternal-child health, from the start, has been a priority. Consequently, infant mortality rate in Cuba is 5.9 deaths per 1,000 live births. It is to be noted that the infant mortality rates of a majority of the Latin American countries are 10 times higher than that in Cuba.

The community doctor-and-nurse teams, responsible for the health of families in a given neighbourhood, concentrated their attention on health promotion, prevention of disease, environmental cleanup, priority attention to children and the elderly, parental care, and early detection of infection and chronic disease.

By the 1990s, Cuban children were being vaccinated against 13 childhood diseases -- more than any other country in the world, including the United States. A host of diseases were eradicated altogether and infectious diseases were at a minimum. A significant socio-political corollary was that a majority of Cubans trusted the health care system to work for them.

Cuba's vast expertise in health sector is not just confined to Cuba. Today, nearly 40,000 Cuban doctors and nurses are working in 81 developing countries. The Cuban government established the Comprehensive Health Programme (CHP) to provide free medical support to Latin American and Caribbean countries. Later, the programme was extended to assist the toiling masses of Afro-Asian countries.

Over 1,500,000 people from the Caribbean region have either improved or recovered their eyesight through Operation Milagro (Operation Miracle) formulated by the Cuban health ministry in 2000. Since 1965, more than 4 million patients from the Caribbean region have been treated by the Cuban doctors. During the period 2007-2009, 46,725 operations have been carried out by the Cuban medical team in the Caribbean region.

Day care centres are another aspect of Cuban life and the day care is free to families in which the mother worked. Day care became more than a place providing playtime for children. It provides continuous medical treatment, preventive health care, complete dental care, and proper nutrition for all children.

Last year, Cuba was hit by three Hurricanes and surprisingly no causality was reported because of its well-established disaster management system. Moreover, Cuba always extend its disaster management expertise all over the world whenever natural disasters such occur. Cuban relief team's contribution during tsunami and earthquake in Pakistan in 2008 was significant.

The record of Cuban education is impressive. It has proportional female representation at all levels, including higher education. Moreover, there is absolute equality of basic educational opportunity, even in impoverished areas, both rural and urban. In a recent regional study of Latin America and the Caribbean, Cuba ranked first in math and science achievement, at all grade levels, among both males and females.

In many ways, Cuba's schools are on a par with schools in OECD countries, despite the fact that Cuba's economy is a developing one. The average educational level of Cubans by 2002 was ninth grade. Education in Cuba has become a top priority for the government since 1959. Reforming and reorientation of the educational system in Cuba was one of the main revolutionary goals when Castro captured power. In Cuba education is entirely public, centrally planned, and free unlike the global trend. Cuba spends nearly 11 per cent of its GDP in the educational sector and this is very high compared to many developing nations. The universalization of higher education is an important step in spreading general and comprehensive culture among the population.

The government today is directly responsible for all educational institutions it created free of charge for all. The US trade embargo has created difficulties in getting supplies to the Cubans, such as paper, pencils, crayons, finger paint, and other basic supplies. Education is compulsory from age 6 to 16. After that, students up to age 16 are required to continue their education at the secondary level or to join the Youth Movement, which combines study with vocational training and service.

Unlike many countries, Cuba has developed mechanisms to foster community participation in management of schools and has paid great attention to the quality of teachers. Higher education in Cuba does not mean university education alone. Higher education includes various alternative vocational streams like polytechnic institutes, pedagogical institutes and the like.

To conclude, Cuba is a small island-nation but its educational, medical and other social sectors are comparable to those of highly developed countries.
----
The writer is the President of the All India Students Federation. He was in Cuba recently.


 
   
   
 
  Treasures of Egypt
  By Elizebath Philip  
  IT was an option weighing equally on both sides -- whether to visit Egypt as well on a trip to the Holy Land. Some opted out. But my friends and I opted to visit both places.

We thought we should not miss the opportunity to visit the Old Testament land also -- the place where infant Moses was saved and adopted by Pharaoh's daughter, where he led the Israelites through the deserts to finally reach the Promised Land.

It was a two-and-a-half hour journey from Delhi to Amman. From there, Cairo was just one and a half hours by air. At the airport, we saw a group of around 75 Sri Lankan girls in the 14-25 age group waiting for their agents to pick them up.

We learnt that they were all being taken to the Middle East as housemaids with promises of good salaries. They did not know where they were being taken. Neither did they have the address or phone number of the agent back home nor of the new one at Amman.

Some of them didn't even know their own passport numbers. Hailing from very poor families, the idea of a new job and better salary was alluring. We recalled how recently some poor Indian girls were sold to agents on the pretext of jobs. Poor illiterate girls are exploited everywhere, irrespective of the country they hail from.

We reached Cairo by 4 pm. After a quick cup of coffeee at the hotel, we left for St Mary's Church, which is built on a cave where Joseph and Mary are believed to have lived in hiding with infant Jesus.

They were fleeing from King Herod who wanted to kill the baby. They spent three years in the are, protecting the baby from the eagle eyes Herod's informers.

The church was built in the 15th century. An object of reverence there is the "Floating Bible". It is said that on March 12, 1976, the worshippers saw a Bible floating near the steps of the church on the Nile. Although it was wet and heavy, the pages were intact. They deemed it a miracle and have preserved the Bible. Even now, it is not completely dry.

That night, we had dinner on the banks of the Nile, one of the longest rivers in the world. The next day was our visit to the Pyramids, the Great Sphinx and the famous Egyptian Museum.

We started off for Giza, a town on the west bank of the river, about 20 km from Cairo. Soon, we were at the Great Pyramids, mainly three in number, each dedicated to different kings of Egypt, others being too small or destroyed.

It was a historic moment for me. I had never imagined that one day I would be standing at the Pyramids and the Sphinx, something I had learnt about when I was in Class III. Our guide told us that on the other side lay the great Sahara Desert, the canvas for Paulo Coelho's award-winning novel 'The Alchemist'. I almost hoped to find some treasure myself.

Oh, how I longed to get inside the mummies! Of course, there would be no lift to reach the top. Our guide told us that mummies were kept in the museum and we could visit them later.

The Great Sphinx, where it sits now, was once a quarry. It is believed that King Khafre’s workers shaped the stone into a lion and gave it their king's face, over 4,500 years ago. Incidentally, one of the three pyramids is of King Khafre.

It is believed to be the largest stone sculpture ever made by man. I was happy to revisit all these sites a few months later when I saw the film, 'Singh is King'. Interestingly, we saw replicas of the three pyramids in Beijing as well.

The Egyptian Museum is huge with 107 halls. Some of the tourists were scared to visit the mummies that were kept there. It is amazing that the bodies remain intact.

We then visited a perfume factory. Egyptians claim that their perfume essence is original, the one from which all other perfumes are made. They have healing properties. For example, frankincense is anti-bacterial, myrrh is useful against skin allergy, alabaster is a pain-reliever and eucalyptus is good for sinus-related problems. The perfume Mary Magdalene supposedly bought for Jesus is also available for about $30!

We had a cruise on the Nile that night. It was thrilling. It's the same Nile where infant Moses was found floating in a papyrus basket. We had earlier in the day visited an art shop where we saw how papyrus is used to make handicrafts.

Egyptian cotton is one of the finest in the world and we shopped at a government-owned centre for some cotton stuff. We found the products good in quality and competitively priced.

The next day we visited the Old Coptic Cairo, which is the oldest part of the city. It is believed to have had a settlement, dating back to the 6th century BC. Later, the Romans built a fortress there -- the Babylon. We visited some of the ancient churches in the area, including the Church of St. Sergius, the Church of St. Barbara and the Greek Church of Saint George.

The Hanging Church, built in the 3rd or 4th century and rebuilt in the 10th century, is the most famous Coptic Church in Cairo and is dedicated to Virgin Mary.

The Virgin Mary Church situated on the East bank of the Nile was the place from where the holy family started their trip to Upper Egypt by boat. Outside the church are three ancient domes, located at the east above the three altars.

Joseph and Mary stayed with little Jesus in different parts of Egypt for three years, before they returned to Israel and settled in Nazareth. Hence, there are many churches dedicated to Mother Mary.

Cairo means 'small city'. Four Islamic kings built four different capitals. The fifth king joined all the four and thus built Cairo. There are two main mosques there, one of which is modelled after the Hagia Sophia at Istanbul. One is in Azhar, which also houses the Islamic University and another in Al-Hussain. Hussain was the grandson of the Prophet. He was killed in Iraq and his head was brought to Egypt.

We did some shopping in the El-Khalili market, one of the most interesting ones in the Middle East. It is famous for its unusual, oriental souvenirs and handmade crafts. It's a very large market, but you can buy anything if you know the art of bargaining. The locals shouted "Hindi, India and Shah Rukh Khan" when we passed by. For youngsters, India meant Shah Rukh Khan.

We returned by air to Amman. Later, I wished we had opted for the bus, as it would have taken us on a 13-hour drive through the route the Israelites took from Egypt to Israel. It took them 40 years!

There is a saying that if you have not seen Egypt, you have not seen the world. How fortunate that I saw Egypt and saw the world!

 
   
   
 
  Katerniaghat - nature at its best
  By Meetu Tewari  
 
THE Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary is about 90 km from Bahraich. We reached there by car from Lucknow and it was almost dark by the time we reached our destination.

As we neared the sanctuary, the forests on either side of the road became denser and signboards set up by forest officials warned us of wild animals in the area. That same night, the Range Officer of the Forest Services came to see us and I agreed to go on a night safari with him and some guards.

As we drove in his jeep, he explained that as the area was designated only as a sanctuary, tribals and villagers were allowed to live inside it. In the case of a national park, all inhabitants of that area are relocated.

The forest department here was having a hard time trying to maintain peace between the animals and the people. Due to stricter vigilance, the number of animals had increased and so had tragic encounters. However, this was not faring well with the villagers. In fact, the people had imposed a social boycott on the officers.

No villager sold them anything and messages painted on the walls of their homes and shops proclaimed as much.

A safari at night is a unique experience. Making our way through the narrow lanes of the jungles, the trees seemed to reach out and touch our jeep. There was eerie silence and the landscape seemed surreal.

With powerful searchlights, we scanned the area for animals and spotted a few deer, rabbits and a family of hogs. Tigers are aplenty in the region, but spotting them is a matter of luck. The sanctuary boasts of leopards as well, along with elephants and rhinos that cross over from Nepal.

Morning offered us a chance to go for a boat ride on the Girwa River. The only motorboat there is a gift from WWF. (Government-sanctioned funds are eaten up by corrupt forest services' officials; a fact secretly known to everyone.)

This river is unique for its mixture of minerals and the water is so clear that you can see the riverbed. The endangered Garhials, Gangetic dolphins and a variety of other fish are found here. Our guide informed us that a Garhial is not an alligator, but a separate species altogether.

We located them on the sand banks, bathing in the sun. Occasionally a dolphin would come to the surface. This lake is covered on all sides by dense forest, with bright green cane plants lining its banks. We also got to see the fresh tracks of a tiger and rhino.

After the lake trip, it was time to enter the meadows on an elephant. As the animal lumbered on, guided by a mahout, we saw a pack of jackals scurrying around an old, abandoned station. We had heard of black vipers and specifically wanted to see them. As we progressed on, we spotted them. Dozens of snakes were lying by a pool of water, hardly noticeable, as they lay dead still. It was the mahout who pointed them out.

Suddenly, our elephant decided to disobey us. She began to move away from the route the mahout wanted her to take, even trying to sit down at one point of time. After a lot of cajoling, the huge animal ventured forward. It did not take us long to understand what had upset her.

A tigress was hunting nearby and because we scared away her prey, a group of deer, she began to chase us. I could see flashes of yellow and black and see bushes rustle where she was hiding. Her roar was frightening, but thankfully she gave up the chase as we neared the road.

Katerniaghat is strategically located between the Dudhwa National Park and the Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary. Its proximity to the Nepal border allows for free movement of animals. However, the porous border also permits easy escape for poachers and smugglers.

When you enter the forests near the Nepal border, there is a stretch of no-man's land, and then just stepping across a ditch, you find yourself in quaint villages of Nepal. Villages that have no name, but are recognised by numbers allotted to them. Although the SSB is posted in the region and is vigilant, stealing across the border is possible.

Illegal logging and poaching are rampant in the region. I was told that a tiger can be skinned and its bones picked within 30 minutes. With the forest department understaffed, poachers have their way out. The forest department has too many persons assigned to desk jobs and very few field personnel. Those who are employed are underpaid and overworked.

The region offers a wonderful opportunity for relaxation. It is not a place for those insensitive to nature. Anyone coming here should be prepared to live with just a few hours of electricity a day, no chips, cold drinks or other manufactured items. Be prepared to undertake a lot of trekking.

It is a place for those who can relax around a campfire at night and suddenly find themselves facing a leopard casually making his way across the compound of the guesthouse. You will find langurs sitting on the balcony of your room and hear the roar of a tiger from very close by.

A number of tribes live in the area, such as the Tharus. They are always happy to introduce you to their culture, food and generally enlighten you about their way of living. It is truly a place where the wild and civilization co-exist. There are no boundaries and you have to pick your way carefully.

Stories abound about how people suddenly find a tiger on lanes that run through the forests. People laugh as they tell how a tiger can suddenly feel like taking a nap, and you are forced to quickly climb a tree and stay there as long as it is asleep!

It is a beautiful place, which deserves to be preserved and guarded. For those who love pristine forests, the lush green of the trees, the plethora of fauna and can take care of it, this it is the place to visit; a place where even the quintessential mobile phones fall silent.
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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