Saturday, April 30, 2016

Cuba Dispatch # 2: A Busy Day in Havana

by Pa Rock
An American Abroad

Sunday, 24 April 2016:

It is a beautiful day in Havana, cloudless blue skies and a pleasant breeze.

After a nice breakfast buffet and the Hotel Capri, our group boarded a bus for the Cementario de Cristobal Colon – 138 acres of family tombs and grave sites ranging from simple markers to million dollar structures (by today’s prices).    Over two million people are interred in that cemetery in one way or another – some in elaborate tombs and others just in simple boxes. 

We saw the tomb of Jose Marti’s parents, a few former Presidents of Cuba, and many dignitaries in the fields of politics, art, and entertainment.    Following the revolution in the late 1950's, most private property was seized by the state, but one exception was the old family tombs  whose ownership was retained by the families buried there. 

There was a funeral occurring in the cemetery chapel while we were there.  We were told that about four funerals a day occur at the cemetery – and that there is almost no cost at all for a funeral – just ten pesos a year for upkeep of the grave.  The government of Cuba pays the expenses of the burials.

I did participate in a tradition regarding a woman named Amelia who died many years ago in childbirth.  Her husband would visit the grave of Amelia and their baby each day, knock on the tomb three times with a brass ring, and then exit the site walking backward.  Now tourists and people needing special considerations and dispensations visit the site and perform the same ritual.  After knocking three times with the brass ring, they step up to the monument, touch the sculpture of Amelia and the baby, and make a wish and then exit backward.  My wish was for long and healthy lives for my grandchildren.  Amelia’s grave is the only one in the entire cemetery that is constantly covered with fresh flowers.

Our second stop was at an art museum where a knowledgeable guide gave us a most interesting talk on Cuban art as we toured two floors containing over a thousand paintings.  Some of the more contemporary pop art featured images of people who helped to structure the twentieth century, folks like Ho Chi Minh, V.I. Lenin, and George Harrison (of the Beatles).  The most common visage in the museum was that of Cuba’s iconic revolutionary, Che Guevara – in fact, Guevara’s image is so prevalent in modern Cuba that  is almost impossible to go anywhere without seeing a grinning El Che staring back at you.

A while ago I walked from my hotel to the famous Malecon – or sea wall.  There, on the street between the memorial to the U.S.S. Maine and the Malecon, someone had painted a small portrait of Che.  He seems to embody the true spirit of the revolution – even more so than Fidel and Raul Castro.

Our lunch was at a nice Italian restaurant in a cultural center near the art museum.  I wound up sitting next to Peter Kornbluh, a political author (Back Channel to Cuba with William LeGrande) and writer for The Nation magazine, our trip sponsor.  Peter said that he has made eighty-some trips to Cuba since the early 1990’s – usually flying in by way of Nassau.  He answered lots of questions about Cuba during lunch.  At the point when the conversation was lagging, I leaned over and asked him where Fidel lived.  That seemed to have caught him off-guard.  He repeated the question, and then answered, “That’s a state secret.”   Kornbluh has interviewed Fidel Castro, so I suspect that he knows exactly where El Jefe lives, but that was not something he was going to share with just any old tourist.

After a lunch of salad, pizza, and pasta, we retired to a small bar in the back of the cultural center where we were given a presentation on the history of Cuban music – and featured some wonderful instrumental and vocal jazz.  The twenty-two-year-old keyboardist in the group by the name of Miguel had just returned from playing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans.  All three instrumentalists, the keyboardist, drummer, and bass player, were amazing.

In fact, most of what I have encountered so far in Cuba is fairly amazing.  The people are very open and welcoming, and they seem comfortable conducting their daily lives among the growing influx of tourists.  One thing we learned over lunch is that there is now officially a beer shortage in Cuba thanks to all of the thirsty Americanos.

The first United States cruise ship will arrive next Monday. 

The times are changing fast in Cuba!

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