Cuba: Day 3

Cuba
View from the double decker bus

There is so much to do in La Habana. There are old buildings to gawk at, street art to discover, museums-that-are-also-working-pharmacies to wander through. This post is only covering the morning of Day 3 because DUDE. The Colon Cemetery. So much.

Ahem.

Along the Malecon

So, the morning of our 3rd day, we took the time-honored traditional tourist excursion: the hop-on, hop-off bus. This red double decker bus makes a loop around some of the farther out sites and then returns back to Central Parque.

The one thing I wish we had known ahead of time:

on the bus

The bus follows the same route away from Habana Viejo as it does returning. We would have stayed on top of the bus the whole way out to Miramar (section of the city) and then got off at our destinations on the way back. By the time we were ready to go home, we were hungry and hot and the bus was packed.

That said, we did have a chance to hit up some great places. I would absolutely recommend taking this bus for a chance to see more of the real Habana.

Plaza de la Revolucion

Tobias seemed really excited about this spot. Plaza de la Revolucion was where Fidel held his first big political rally after the coup. It was where the Pope came and blessed the Cubans in 2015. Aaaaand, it’s a big ol’ parking lot.

Across from the Plaza de la Revolucion

There are some cool things: for instance, there is a large monument of Jose Marti (political activist/writer who was against Spanish/US expansion in Cuba). This was actually built by the Batista regime (which was bolstered by the US), and finished just before the Castro coup (definitely NOT supported by the US). Behind that, there is a tower with an elevator where you can go to the highest point in Habana (it’s not that tall), and there is a small museum.

We would have done that, but to get to the monument from where the buses drop off, you have to frogger across FOUR LANES of traffic. It’s huge buses, classic cars moseying and small compact cars zooming by. It looked terrifying. There were no street lights, no sidewalks, no crosswalks, no pedestrian bridges. Straight: Walk Into Traffic, Gringa.

Che Guevara

So we didn’t go. We figured that it was a way the Cuban government kept down lines for the elevator (which also sounded super sketch). But if one doesn’t brave the traffic, there are still large portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on the buildings.

Camilo Cienfuegas

Che and Camilo had the bromance of the century during the preparations for the coup. Camilo disappeared in a plane accident not long after the coup, and Che was executed later in Bolivia. They are pictured together in many parts of the city.

The exploration of the parking lot complete, we hopped on the next bus.

Colon Cemetery

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The entrance of Cemetario Cristobal de Colon   Photo by Tobias Beidermühle

 

This made my day. If I can say to go to one absolute, crazy-weird thing, go to the Colon Cemetery. While this site feels very much like a work-in-progress (it is still an active cemetery for an almost 500 year old city), they did apply to have it designated a World UNESCO site. Like the famous La Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, Colon feels like its own City of the Dead. While the ornate mausoleums are not as tightly packed as La Recoleta, Colon is bigger in terms of square mileage.

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Just part of the expanse of the cemetery. Photo by Tobias Beidermühle

La Recoleta, of course, was a bastion of wealth and prestige. But in Cuba, the cemetery is a little more egalitarian.

The only way I could make sense of this place was to purchase a map. We had no idea what to visit, had no guidance regarding what to see. Liz and Kyle went off to explore the Baseball Corner (true thing: there is a section for baseball players only). While Andy, Tobias, and I guessed at what to do next. Thankfully, Tobias gave us direction by suggesting the Galleria de Tobias because he shared its name.

Galleria de Tobias

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This is actually the church in the center of the cemetery, and NOT the galleria, but it is the same yellow with white trim.  Photo by Tobias Beidermühle

The Galleria is near the wall separating the outside world and the consecrated grounds. It is long and yellow, and reminded me of what a bathhouse would look like at a ritzy hotel in South America (it was still made of cement). There was a thin, older black man who waved us in, a dog sleeping under his chair, completely unconcerned with us or anything. The man introduced himself as Carlo, the caretaker of the Galleria. He spoke only Spanish, but he was kind enough to go slow, so that between the three of us, we understood his meaning.

He asked if we wanted a tour, so we said yes. Carlo led us through the open gate, where there were small cement boxes slightly longer than a shoe box, but about as wide, with names and dates written on the ends. The boxes were piled high, apparently at random. Carlo shuffled over to a metal locker, the kind I had in high school, removed a flash light, then beckoned us down the stairs.

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Stacks inside the galleria. Photo by Tobias Beidermühle

The temperature cooled as we walked down the stairs, and of course, got darker. The main portion of the Galleria is underground, while sky lights roughly three feet across let in light and let air circulate. The day was getting hot, so going underground felt nice.

Large niches on either side were walled off by plywood doors and numbered. Carlo removed one of the doors, so we could see that each niche had space for five of the shoeboxes. The middle of the floor was a massive stack of the boxes, and that was when we all seemed to realize that each box was a person.

Curioso

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The niches are on the right, the stacks in the middle of the galleria are on the left. Photo by Tobias Beidermühle

The most recent date I saw was in the 1990s, but some were much older, always sometime in this century. Carlo led us down the hallway created between the stack of boxes and the niches. Occasionally, Carlo would point out a specific box, lift the lid, and show us something unusual about the bones. The back of one skull was broken in such a way we could see the inside of the face, effectively looking through the eyes of skull.

In another case, Carlo showed us a skull where trepanning had been used to relieve the pressure of the brain swelling. The skull had also been cut by a machine, leaving a smooth edge where the two pieces fit together. Each time, Carlo asked Tobias to take a photograph of it, and each time, Tobias got more and more uneasy.

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Carlo organizing the bones. Photo by Tobias Beidermühle

Carlo said he’d worked there for 26 years, that it was his job to organize the bones, and help families find their loved ones. Some of the boxes had offerings left beside them, a small bit of tobacco and water, a plastic flower on another.

As he led us out, he showed us a person so tall that the bones were too long for the box. He took out a leg bone and held it to his shin to demonstrate. Andy, knowing a thing or two about a bone, showed him it was not a shin bone, it was in fact, the femur. Carlo shifted the bone to his thigh and seemed impressed.

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Bones. Photo by Tobias Beidermühle

Now that we knew what we were looking at, we peered into the boxes whose lids were not entirely shut. Some had a bit of tissue left on it.

“Curioso!” Carlo chuckled at us.

Andy asked where I thought all the pelvises were, since a pelvis was too wide to fit in a box. That stopped me cold. Each box held a different number of bones. Some were full, some only had a skull and a few long bones like an arm or a leg. Some had a pile of vertebrae. So WHERE DID THE BONES GO?

Above Ground

Colon CemeteryTobias got a picture with Carlo, and the dog continued to sleep under the chair. We were back in the hot sun, a little more shocked than when we entered.

Looking at the cemetery with new perspectives, we found more weird things.

Colon Cemetery
Gaaaaah.

Next to one of the large cement burial vaults was a tiny, handmade coffin, the size one might make for a squirrel.

Some of the vaults were empty, open to the air with weeds growing inside. I found one that had shorts and a tank top drying on a stick.

Along a less trod-upon path, we discovered what looked to be discarded disintegrating casket liners with possible leftover people-bits. We identified hair and clothing in the mess, but none of us wanted to explore any deeper.

Paella makes everything better

Late for our meet up with Liz and Kyle, we hopped the bus, and rode it back to Central Parque. It was time for paella, cuba libres, and a discussion to digest What. Just. Happened.

 

I’m leaving you here today, at lunch time, trying to figure out the weirdness of the Colon Cemetery. I still haven’t figured it out.  And huge thank you to Tobias for sending the incredible pictures of inside the galleria. I couldn’t even shrink them down on the page because they were SO AMAZING.

Cuba: Day Two

HabanaWe woke up in La Habana. It felt surreal, dreamlike; the way Latin American authors write about magical realism, that which is true, but cannot be. Breakfast was Cuban coffee (distilled and black and delicious even to a heavy tea-drinker like me), a bowl of fresh fruit (bananas and papayas and pineapple, and something else I never quite figured out), and eggs with a slice of cheese, a slice of ham and a slice of tomato.

La Habana
Boxing near San Jose Market

We chatted with the other travelers at the table, and Adele, a British lady was nice enough to give me a stash of PG Tips tea bags. I had not brought any with me (I typically do), as my experience in South America the previous year had taught me to just suck it up and drink coffee. But tea…I could wax poetic about some tea. She gave me one bag for every morning I would be in Cuba.

La Habana
Street art

Liz and Kate stopped by to let us know they were running late on their end. We agreed to a time and place to meet up for lunch. It was novel now, without the use of cell phones, to go back to the days when you had to just agree to a meeting point, believing the other party would honor it and show on time. It was pleasant, really. Somehow less stressful than constantly checking text messages and re-evaluating set plans.

San Jose Market

La Habana
Across the street from the San Jose Market

Heading down to the water to spend our morning at the San Jose Market, we spotted a boxer training. They were under a massive tree, and she shadow boxed in a circle as the man who leaned against the wrought iron railing shouted at her in Spanish. We passed a crumbling but beautiful church, seemingly out of place, across the street from the San Jose Market–a huge concrete building the size of two Super Wal-Marts squished together. This is not a place that does much business in glass windows, so the large archways along the side had a few bars for structural integrity, and open airways to let the breeze glide through.

La Habana
Church across the street from the San Jose Market

Walking in, we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of paintings. Good paintings. There were rows upon rows of canvases hung by binder clips, each aisle guarded by a shopkeeper, ready to chat you up with as much English as they had. (Typically not much). The work was clearly better than any tourist trap I’ve seen in America. These artists had studied the classics, and created their own Cuban rift on the styles of Monet, Dali, Renoir, and even Mary Cassatt.

La Habana
Beer with lunch on a hot day is a special heaven

I’m sure our mouths were hanging open, and we spent our hours just wandering through, not buying anything, just looking, until it was time to meet up at the restaurant. It was hot enough by then that meeting up at Carlos’ restaurant, a cold beer seemed like a great idea. Vacation is vacation, right?

The Ferry

La Habana
multi-colored steps

The afternoon ahead of us, we took the ferry across the harbor to Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, or Castle Morro. But first! You must use the ferry, walk up multi-colored stairs, wind around to the big giant Jesus. If we hadn’t been with Art Majors, I never would have realized that this particular statue had the wrong sized head on him. Sure enough, when I looked at the head, it did seem a bit small.

La Habana
Big Jesus

Across the street was Che Guevara’s house. The tell-tale sign was the neon red signature “Che” splashed across the building. For 6 CUCs, we could explore the empty house and grounds. We opted not to, despite the fact that we heard a goat nearby.

La Cabana

La Habana
Soviet weaponry

It wasn’t too hot, so we walked along the road towards Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, or La Cabana. Outside the full-on moated castle, Soviet missiles, old Spanish cannons, and other assorted weaponry were on display. This castle was originally built after a British overland invasion of the OTHER castle, Castle Morro, in 1762. Then they were like, oh crap, we need another castle.

La Habana
La Cabana

So La Cabana was born! Fun fact: La Cabana has been used as a torture prison under the Castros. Che ran the place for the first five months after the revolution, using the space as a location for political prisoners, the tribunals, and ultimately, the executions afterwards.

But every evening at 9 pm, they shoot off a cannon. We were told it is the only thing in Cuba that is done on time.

La Habana
Cannons!

We left La Cabana, and during our walk to Castle Morro, we encountered a four man painting crew. They had scaffolding, and the task was to paint the lampposts that lined the roadway a shiny black color. The scaffolding was needed for the height of the posts, but it was cumbersome and took time to set up and take down. Walking next to the already painted lampposts, we thought it was interesting that despite the crumbling of Old Havana, these lampposts were given priority. And then we came upon a lamppost that had fallen over. It was freshly painted, with a small piece of cardboard keeping it off the grass, so as not to get grass stuck against the fresh paint. I guess when the government says Paint the Lampposts, you better paint ALL the lampposts.

Castle Morro

La Habana
Castle Morro

The guardian of the port was huge! We played on the fortifications, stopped for a refreshing drink nearby, and then walked around the castle that guards La Habana bay. I even found a little lizard.

La Habana
Andy at the lighthouse

The shadows were starting to lengthen, so we walked back to the big giant Jesus statue with the tiny head, and headed back to the ferry. Crossing back over was even better because we got a good view of the water and the city this time.

La Habana
Tiny Habana lizard!

Dinner was at a very small, single-table place called “The Machine.” The shingle hung above the door was in the shape of a Singer sewing machine. They had one table, and while we had some miscommunications, I ended up with a meal that I loved. When we had thrown a Cuban party a year ago, I had learned how to make tostones, so I was happy to have some in Cuba.

La Habana
Tostones rellenos

Tostones are plantains that are sliced, mashed into either a cup shape or flat, then fried with a little salt. My tostones rellenos were cup-shaped plantains filled with melted cheese and ham. It was served with a sweet red sauce.

Evening with Papa

La Habana
Me and Papa Hemingway

We split off from the group and checked out some local music. First on the list was La Floridita, a tourist trap and one of Hemingway’s favorite bars. They’ve even erected a bronze drinking buddy to keep you company while you have a daiquiri. Supposedly, this was also where it was invented. I samba-ed with the bouncer on the way out.

La Habana
Atmosphere everywhere

La Floridita was so crowded, we moved to a smaller, open air bar that had been recommended. The music was great, the mojitos were cold, the atmosphere was exactly as I had hoped to find in La Habana.