Monday, August 6, 2012

Day Three: Coffins, Caricatures and Car Alarms

The second day in Cuba left no doubt that sleeping in would not be an option for the rest of the trip.  (More details on why the U.S. government controlled our schedule so tightly to come...)  While the late nights were out of the ordinary for me, I am a pro at evaluating early mornings in locations near and far from home.  This sunrise stood out as pretty extraordinary.

The colors of Havana stand out in every photo I took and every memory I treasure - it's not colorful in a well-kept, deliberate way like the colors of Tuscany.  This is a more riotous, haphazard and lively version of color.  It lands where it lands and if you're lucky it will hold its color through the fifty or so years until a new paint job arrives.

After a breakfast of guava, guava, and more guava (can't get enough of that heavenly fruit, in spite of the seeds!), we piled into our Chinese Chariot (more details on the bus coming soon, too) and headed to one of the places in Havana I was most excited to see: Callejon de Hamel.  This street is First Friday every hour and day of the week, with art expressing the beliefs of the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria (again, more to come...keep reading!) and, it appeared, a passionate love of color.  The homes along the street are all in on the celebrations, and art pours out of their front doors and courtyards.  They're used to company, since this is a hot spot.  The only way it would be any better is if we'd visited on a Sunday to hear the weekly rumba music echoing through the narrow walls and cobblestone walkways.


I knew about this street thanks to Trading with the Enemy, still the best book on Cuba I've ever found.  The author knew Salvador Gonzalez before his art was a major tourist attraction - imagine my joy at getting to meet him myself!  (I'm sure he was thrilled to meet me, too...can't you tell from that excited joyful look on his face?)


Our journey jumped from colorful celebration of life to marbled expressions of death, but I didn't mind because cemeteries are my favorite part of any old city.  Colon Cemetery was no exception: no place in Havana so perfectly transcended every complicated part of Cuba's history.  This space held those whose wealth outdated the Revolution, as well as those who had no right to recognition under the existing government structure.  It held stories of happiness and hope as well as - not surprisingly - tales of great tragedy.  Erik's knowledge of this complicated place made it come alive (in a non-haunting way, gratefully) and I took pages of notes in hopes that I'd be able to bring home the essence of this amazing place to share with you.  I've never met a tour guide who knew more than Wikipedia but in this instance it was definitely true.  Wikipedia will tell you that Colon Cemetery was "founded" (what a weird word for a cemetery) in was designed by Cristobal Colon, whose statue was featured in the Museo de la Revolución, but was named for Christopher Columbus.  Why? you may very legitimately ask.  The goal was to have an enormous monument built to hold good ol' Chris' remains.  Indeed, there's a huge area in the middle of the cemetery dedicated to the monument...but it's just a paved spot, with nothing built there.  Politics got complicated, wars started, and Chris ended up in a box being shipped back across the ocean because Havana dared to seek independence from Spain.  (Lots more interesting information about Columbus' remains here, if you're interested.  You have to love the irony: someone named Castro is doing all the analysis on the bones.)

So there are the basics: designed by one Chris, named for another.  Cristobal Colon was the lucky one as far as burials go - he actually got to be buried in this beautiful place, and was the first body to take up residence in the cemetery he designed.  That's either romantic or gruesome, I guess.

It would take at least a year in the cemetery to fully understand the stories of each of the many gravesites, but even then you'd never catch up: there are between 40-45 burials a day in this cemetery, and one day there were 70.  This leads to the need for a 7-minute mass for each of the deceased...if you want a longer moment of memory, join the crowds for the one-hour mass each Sunday at the cemetery chapel.

My favorite grave

The second of two funerals we witnessed in the one hour we spent at the cemetery

If you're rich, the cemetery is a great place to keep the family together forever.  Cemeteries are the one spot in Cuba where private property rights were not overthrown by the Revolution (at least according to our guide), and it's up to each family to keep their mausoleums and memorials in good working order.  How they come up with the money to do that is a mystery to me, and some are certainly in need of more than a coat of paint.  (The old graves with locks on the doors were of particular concern to me.  THIS is why I never read zombie books.)

It's more problematic for those who did not have rich ancestors.  For Cubans without a designated burial plot there is good and bad news.  The good news: your funeral and burial are free.  The bad news: you're buried in a joint grave without a big marker to herald your lifetime of greatness.  The worse news: you only get to rest there for three years.  After three years, the cemetery workers dig up the remains, give your family an urn and put what's left into a storage wall.  That seems like the most disruptive, troublesome practice I've ever heard but I guess it works for those 40-45 people buried here every day.

Among the highlights on the cemetery tour: this beautiful monument to firefighters who were killed in 1890 when a building they entered exploded with gunpoweder.  (Click here to see a more-than-amazing article about it from 1900.)

As is often the case in times of tragedy, the Cuban community came together and donated money to help build the memorial.  Their funds helped create these beautiful teardrops that line the edges of the monument.

Another favorite spot in the cemetery is the area surrounding the grave of Amelia Goyri, "La Milagrosa."  Legend claims that after dying with her newborn in childbirth at the age of 23, she and the baby were buried separately but when exhumed, her body held the body of the baby in her arms.  The grave always has fresh flowers on it and has become a symbol of miracles to all who come here.  Those whose wishes have come true send back plaques of gratitude, which take up a significant amount of valuable space in a cemetery.  I loved seeing the many languages in which the notes of gratitude were written...but I stayed far away from making any wishes myself.

While I was avoiding that wish-filled spot in the cemetery, I made another friend.  While I never caught his name, his observations on Cuban life were well-reasoned and I greatly enjoyed talking to him.  I got to see him later in the day, as well, since he worked near one of the other sites we visited.  I'll admit it was pretty thrilling to hear someone actually calling my name in the streets of Havana, instead of just the typical shout of "where you from?"

If you're as inexplicably obsessed with cemeteries as I am, you'll love this photo album.

Then it was onto a teacher's paradise: the museum dedicated to Cuba's notable literacy campaign.  Now here is a concept that everyone can rally around without appearing unpatriotic or unAmerican - the emphasis on literacy in Cuba really is commendable. 

My interest in the topic was enhanced exponentially by the amazing director of the museum.  Louisa is one of those people who you know is a teacher even before anyone tells you.  Her enthusiasm is contagious and I was 100% certain that our group was not leaving until she was sure we could all read and write.

The entire literacy campaign was fascinating to me, as was the video about the volunteers who traveled throughout Cuba to teach others to read.  Here's a quick trailer of the film.  To avoid making this the longest blog post in the history of the world, and to avoid opening a conversation about what the Bay of Pigs might have done to some kids' blackboard, I'll move all other photos of this museum to this photo album.

After a morning crammed with learning, it was time to do what all tourists do: wander the streets of Old Havana.  It was here that I had my second-favorite meal of the trip: paella.  In addition to being on of the most enjoyable words to say in any language, it was GOOD.

And it was accompanied by the first of many Cuban colas.  I devoured them not because they're particularly good - I'm pretty sure I actually could feel my teeth cringe every time I took a sip - but because they provided caffeine I desperately needed after starting every day with approximately four hours of sleep. La vida loca!

La Habana Vieja is a multi-ringed circus all designed to provide the tourist with pathetically non-Cuban traditions.  Old women with cigars waiting to kiss men for some coins, caricature artists following you around frantically scribbling not-at-all-flattering sketches of you in hopes you'll feel obligated to pay them for the insults, musicians who strike up a song each time a new group walks by their donation box, and stray dogs running from one side of the street to the next serving as the unofficial welcome committee.

It is the one place on earth where within a few steps I have seen boats, cars, horse-drawn carriages, and small boys carrying a bucket of water by each holding one end of the stick on which the bucket hung.  It was a riotous assault on the senses that, I would later learn, altered completely as soon as the sun went down.  I returned frequently to the quieter Old Havana in the evening hours, where you could enjoy the feeling of cobblestones beneath your feet without someone asking you to buy yet another poorly-made Che beret.

Those streets are also home to the Cathedral. (In full, her title is "Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana."  It's a lot to live up to, and she does a good job of it.)  We never got to go inside because we showed up just as a wedding was beginning, but I always like cathedrals better from the outside anyway.  A famous quote says that the building is "music set in stone."  I don't disagree, but I like my buildings to play more salsa and less pipe organ.

The evening's dinner really deserves a blog post all it's own.  It was the best chicken I have ever had in my life - certainly better, as Eric claimed, than KFC.  When I got home I realized that this was one of the restaurants featured on Anthony Bourdain's visit to Cuba...and it's no wonder why.  I could have eaten that chicken every day for the rest of my life.  Especially if it were served in that open-air island setting with live Cuban music playing nearby.  It's good for the mind and the appetite...though it was interrupted by the one sound I never, ever expected to hear in Cuba: a car alarm.



1 comment:

  1. I am reading these and wondering.... who is this talented, amazing, adventerous, spirited young lady? I want to meet her!!!

    So proud to be your Aunt!!!


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