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.

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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.

Cuba: Day One

Oh, Cuba. Even preparing for Cuba, I was at a loss. What to pack? I’d read many personal accounts and had friends who’d been there, but Cuba seemed to change daily. What was one person’s experience, was not at all how another experienced the trip.

There were some things I wish I had known beforehand, such as the rapidly changing circumstances.

Travel

We took the first flight out of Jacksonville, FL to Miami, and then what appeared to be the earliest flight from Miami to Havana. We bought our visas at the gate, amidst a crowd of people from many different countries. Still, this step, which some airlines seemed happy to shepherd its customers through over the phone, had been a particularly sore point for me.

I’d made several rounds of phone calls, been bounced back and forth from an unresponsive “travel agency” (cheapair.com), to unresponsive airline representatives (American Airlines), before getting a hold on someone who knew anything about Cuba. Our friends who had bought tickets on Delta and JetBlue respectively still had troubles, but not as many as I seemed to have. They had bought their visas over the phone in advance, while we were obligated to wait until the day of to buy from a kiosk next to the gate. Despite the added anxiety, the process was very easy.

The plane was new and crowded. We landed in Havana without incident, and going through customs was easy and fast. The longest part of our wait was waiting for our checked baggage to appear on the carousel. Walking out of the international terminal, our first task was to figure out how to exchange money.

Money

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Tired couple on the balcony of our AirBnb.

Money is a weird thing in Cuba. American dollars are decidedly NOT welcome, and are traded at a taxed fee, regardless of its global strength. Euros are preferred for trading, and we had brought a few of those along. Euro to the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is a one-to-one exchange, period. CUCs are for tourist use, not for Cuban citizens. A Cuban citizen uses CUPs, or non-convertible pesos, which has a completely different scale, and is a much less expensive economy.

CUC prices are expensive, like dinners being 9 CUCs per entree or more. But if you were a person in the know, and went to other places using CUPs, prices are much, much less. Like cents on the peso. But, if you don’t speak fluent (Cuban) Spanish, they are hesitant to take a CUP from a foreigner.

Wandering in the terminal, looking for a money exchange, we found a very helpful lady who hailed us a taxi. She negotiated with the driver to take Euros, giving us an opportunity to exchange our money in town, as the airport exchange was crowded. As we later learned, it didn’t matter where you went, the lines to exchange money were long.

IMG_4758The drive in was about 30 minutes, from airport to the old town (Viejo Habana). Diesel fumes are ubiquitous, as is the socialist propaganda. Billboards did not disappoint.

When we got to the narrow streets of Old Town, the police wouldn’t allow our taxi driver to continue.  We were in the muddy streets of Havana, pulling our suitcase, trying to find a way around the blockading police. In a crowd, we managed to sneak past a pair of policia and get to our AirBnb, Casa Amistad.
The day was just beginning, not quite ten a.m., and our host, Ronaldo, was feeling ill, unable to help that day. Instead, Heyli greeted us. She offered to walk us down to a money changer, but she had a few things to take care of first. Andy and I spent time peering over the third-floor balcony watching what was happening below–a film shoot.

They were just setting up, but those boxes and cords are unmistakeable. Word was that it was an Enrique Iglesias video. Pretty teen girls walked around with perfect hair and pristine white costumes, so a music video sounded about right. Still, we headed out with Heyli to change our money instead of sticking around.

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“Granma” is in the building

We tried a few different exchanges, one had decided to no longer change dollars, and another had a long line (but it was next to a churro cart!), so Heyli took us out of Old Town to another money exchange. She gave us good directions on how to go about our day, leaving us reluctantly, as if we were small children of dubious responsibility. We stood in line for about forty-five minutes, which seemed to be about what everyone did.

The Revolution

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Best Mint Lemonade

After the money adventure, we took a pedi-cab to an excellent restaurant (best mint-lemonade), Cha Cha Cha, across from the Museo de la Revolucion. We peered over at “Granma,” a yacht enclosed in glass, which Fidel, Raul, Che, and about 80 other guys rode from Mexico to the southern tip of Cuba for the 1959 Revolution.

 

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Always look up. The cupola from the Presidential Palace/ Museum of the Revolution

We investigated after our meal, heading into the museum, the former Presidential Palace. When entering the grandiose building, the bust of Lenin greets you. It is easy to miss the bullet holes next to his head where the revolutionaries stormed the building. The upstairs was in good repair, beautiful murals stretched across ceilings, and the ornate wrought iron lamps were in place. Certain rooms were set up as they had been when Batista was in power. The staircase where he fled the revolutionaries was glassed off so museum-goers could gawk at it.

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Lenin plus bullet holes

The museum itself traced the 1959 coup almost hour-by-hour, where and how each leader (Fidel, Raul, Che) led his troops. The revolutionaries were small in number, but they took over Havana because much of the military surrendered. The exhibits showed this, including photographs of the bodies of those who did NOT surrender. Fidel’s bloody clothes from that night are on display.

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Larger caliber holes in the courtyard of the Presidential Palace.

Connected to the Museum of the Revolution nee the Presidential Palace, is the outdoor section, featuring the glass-enclosed yacht. Other displays were tractors hand-altered to be tanks made by supporters outside of Havana for the Revolutionaries.

The Museum made clear the involvement of the U.S. government, both in propping up Batista’s regime and in the interference afterwards. The clearest point, however, was that the martyrdom of Che Guevara at the hands of CIA operatives will never be forgiven.

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The Cuban government appeared to not be big fans of the GOP.

Nap Nemesis

After the museum, we tried to head back to the Casa for a nap, but were once again thwarted by Enrique Iglesias. The policia wouldn’t let us in on our block due to filming. So off we went to explore more of Havana.

We visited the Plaza of San Francisco de Asis, and then found an outdoor bar for a lemonade and a cuba libre. The air was warm and sticky, not unlike Savannah in May. The table next to us were Canadians, staying at a resort outside of Havana that is off-limits to Americans (this is due to American restrictions).

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Ceiling Mural in the Presidential Palace

 

After spending a few hours out and about, we returned to run the policia gauntlet and this time MADE it. We headed upstairs to our floor, checked in properly, made our acquaintance with Ronaldo, and finally got a chance for a nap. The room was spacious with two beds, a private bathroom, a table to write at, and air conditioning. I laid down, grateful for the rest. Of course, when the screaming started, I had to investigate.

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Enrique is the one standing in the doorway wearing the black ballcap.

The view from the balcony was the best vantage point. A short but very fit man wearing a thin, white t-shirt and black baseball cap emerged from a dark bus parked in front of our Casa. A horde of teenaged girls screamed at him as he took pictures with each young girl thrust by his side. He held babies, waved, posed for pictures, and eventually disappeared into the green cement house that had been commandeered as hair/make-up that day. It had to be Enrique, my Nap Nemesis.

Evening

We left awhile later, napless, to meet up with Liz, Kyle, Kate, and Tobias in the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. On the way, we passed my Nap Nemesis performing on top of the red bus (it had also been parked on our street all day). An enthusiastic audience jumped and stretched their hands up to him. Enrique.

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The crew.

We met up with our people, exploring until we found some dinner. After the first of many toasts, we ate ropa vieja (literally “old clothes,” the dish is essentially pulled pork, a staple of Cuban cuisine), and headed to bed early in the humid evening.

Live music leaked out of every restaurant, the drumbeat insistent, but we shrugged it off for another day.

Cuba! An Introduction

I wish I could tell you all about Cuba. But I don’t know enough.

I wish I could tell you all about the history of Cuba, but I am unqualified.

I wish I could tell you all about Cuba today, but there are too many things I didn’t even see.

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Plaza de San Francisco de Asis

Cuba seems to change on a daily basis, a world shifting and changing to suit its own needs. I say that only as a tourist. I don’t know what it is like to be Cuban, or to live on an island nation governed by a unique set of principles. There seems to be a purposeful divide between the local daily life and the tourist tableau on display. Perhaps this is not all that different from the way other countries allow tourists to see their world, but it is the most apparent divide I have seen.

Even so, the Havana I saw in a measly five days was full of magic, where around every corner I thought, “I did not expect to see that.”

Restaurants that were open and thriving three days ago, recommended by our Cuban hosts, were closed for renovation, or gone completely when we tried to visit them.

Three dogs ran by on the street, all wearing t-shirts, two wearing hats, and one with a nametag.

The only salsa dancing I did was a doorman to a bar, egged on by a drunk American tourist IMG_4763(that I did not know).

I’ll go into depth about our trip, my usual, day by day, but I have to tell you that visiting La Habana was surreal. More so for me than other Latin American countries. There is something unique to Habana, maybe the communism hosting capitalist tourists, maybe a crumbling city that is nearing its 500th birthday, or perhaps being in a country where knowledge is open and free to any citizen who shows interest. The art on every street corner surpassed anything I’d seen in American tourist galleries. The bands in almost every bar starting at 4 o’clock in the afternoon were better than most thrown-together bar bands in tourist districts I’ve been in. And that was just them playing covers.

But to all of these there is a caveat, a wondering what the real Cuba is like, because we saw the Instagram profile of the country: beautiful cars, intriguing sunsets, and even the crumbling and disarray of the old town fell apart in an elegant manner.

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The view from our AirBnB balcony

 

Despite my suspicions, make no mistake, there is magic in Cuba. It isn’t big magic, the hit you over the head kind, but rather the shrugging, of-course-it-is type of magic that citizens accept and visitors marvel over.

I can’t wait to show you guys the pictures.