Cuban Excursion- parte-tre
Cuban Excursion- parte- tre
Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018
We were up early at 6:30 A.M. Mary had retrieved coffee and a pastry from the deck five coffee bar. We prepped for the day, stopped by the slop chute for omelets and then gathered in the Deck Five Sirena Lounge at 9 A.M. for our bus tour of greater Habana.
Sunday must be a day of rest for Cuban officials. We were virtually waved through customs and the scanner ritual by some kids who were busy chatting with each other. Outside of the terminal, we found our Transtur Bus # 3 and were introduced to our Guide “Yammay.” She is mid-thirties, University educated, with two kids and possessed of flawless English. She explained to us that after University women had to complete three years of “social service,” after college. The work would be in their field, but they had to serve where the government needed them in Cuba. Men had to serve at least a year in the military and then another year of social service. This was in return for four years or more of free education, room and board and a small stipend. They also were provided with transportation to see their families a few times a year.
Our first stop on the tour was Revolutionary Square. It is the home of Habana University with an enrollment population of 60,000 students. A large sculpture representation of Che Guevara is a poster for the Cuban Army. An imposing statue of Jose’ Marti, the “father of Cuban Independence,” dominates the center of the square. Yammay explained to us that most Doctors and Engineers in Cuba earn from 45-60 CUCs per month. The tour guides earn significantly more because of the tips they receive from tourists. Go figure out that dichotomy. She also mentioned the name of the new president of Cuba, Miguel Diaz Canel. It was a name I had not yet heard. Retired premier Raoul Castro is apparently still the head of the Cuban Communist Party. He and the military , from Fidel’s days, still have the country in their ideological grip.
Next on our line of March was the Christopher Columbus Cemetery. The sprawling 139-acre complex houses an impressive array of marble statuary from the pre-revolution days. Family names like Rivera, Jimenez, Valdez, Alvarez and Del Calvo adorned the Carrera marble sepulchers. They must have been from the ranks of the wealthy in early Cuba. One towering marble column, adorned with an angel on top holding the body of a fallen firefighter, caught our attention. It was erected by the merchant whose business had exploded in Habana, killing 38 firefighters. This monument was part of his atonement and a way to keep out of the slammer. Cynics point to the angelic figure pointing towards the heavens with the dead firefighter in her arms. They say the angel is quietly saying that the men had better seek justice in heaven because they weren’t going to get any here on earth. Nearby is a small plot for Hemmingway’s bartender. Bar Tenders from Habana gather here every July in tribute. The party is considerable and day long. That must be something to see.
A good sized, domed chapel dominates the center of the cemetery. Every Sunday, they hold a mass for the recently departed, which is about thirty burials per day. The place already has some two million Cubans interred. Burial is free unless you choose cremation. For that, there is a small fee of 15 CUCs. Most of the marble sarcophagi cover a deep grave area that will hold up to seven coffins, one on top of each other. The usual practice is to bury the deceased without embalming them. After two years, relatives collect all of the bones and put them into an ossuary box that sits astride the top of the grave site. This is a similar practice to the large grave sites in New Orleans.
Lastly, we visited the small shrine of Amdia Goyri. Legend has it that she was interred with a small child. Fifty years later, when the grave was opened the child’s body had not suffered any decay. Superstition or not, locals come to the grave daily to place flowers and walk around the plot three times, praying for good health, luck or whatever else was in need. Many Cubans visit their deceased relatives on a regular basis. The place is also a gathering point for tourists. There were at least seven other tour buses besides our that were visiting this Sunday.
Next, we crossed over Almandarez Blvd and into the “Playa” district of Habana. Here, in an area called Miramar (look to the sea) sat many large Haciendas apparently inhabited by the wealthy industrialists and foreign ambassadors in the pre-revolution period. Now, many of the Government elite live here. Cynics call the area “cream of the crop” section. I was beginning to enjoy the subtlety of Cuban humor with respect to their cultural anomalies. As we traveled along Fifth Avenue, the mansions were impressive, signposts from another era.
The coastal road, along the Malecon section is seven miles long. It is lined with new residential buildings and some from another era. Mobster Meyer Lansky had built his Casino hotel “Riviera” here. The Mob Hotel “Nacional” also sits here. The images of the mob meeting, from the movie Godfather, come to mind. The boys were blowing off the chances of a successful coup by the rebels. All of their many millions of dollars in hotel investments went south with the revolution. We also noticed that all of the structures along this route had water tanks on their roofs. The Cuban water supply can sometimes be spotty. The tanks collect rain water for use. Cynics also say the tanks conceal antennae to pick up internet and television signals from outside Cuba.
As we cruised the local roads, we would continually see the whole parade of “old cars.” The locals called them “Frankenstein monsters” because whatever they looked like from the outside, they were comprised of parts from dozens of other vehicles because of the lack of parts available. Officials were sprucing up this whole sea side route in preparation in 2019 of the 500 th anniversary of the founding of Habana.
A lengthy tunnel carried us under Habana Bay, to the other side. Here we were making a stop at the fabled Moro Castle. Officially entitled Castilo Tre Reyes de Moro (Three Kings of Moro) the massive brown-stone fortification is similar in construction to several other Spanish coastal fortifications in San Juan, Cartagena and St. Augustine. We walked around the exterior. Inside the castle, the place is a fee-based museum. Our stop was at the official store inside. It sells Cuban rum of all types and cigars of all types. The place was jammed with tourists. Along the exterior of the fort, rows of local vendors hawked tee shirts, carvings and all manner of other bric a brac that you find in the Caribbean. Like Niagara Falls, I think most of it is probably made in Indonesia. Several of the “old cars” were parked here for use a taxis.
From the Castle, we passed by a small monument that the guide didn’t mention, perhaps out of courtesy for her guests. She didn’t have to tell me. It was the remains of a large wing section of an American U-2 plane. American aviator Rudolph Andersen jr. from Greenville, South Carolina had been shot down by two Russian sams on October-27-1962. Andersen knew his chances of surviving the mission were highly unlikely, but he knew that his nation needed photographic proof of Russian offensive missile placement in Cuba and flew the dangerous mission. He piloted several missions before being killed in one pass. Bless that man for his courage and dedication.
The bus stopped at the very tall “Christ the Redeemer” statue that sits on a scenic headland near the Moro Castle. The official explanation for it is that the wife of Fulgencio Batista had it erected in gratitude for Batista’s survival after an assassination attempt. The statue was completed six days before the government fell to Castro’s forces. It is the second largest of its kind, second only to the massive similar edifice in Rio De Janero. A nearby military installation looked well-ordered and neat in appearance. A curious sculpture on its lawn represented two hands, the Cuban people supporting each other during any trouble or catastrophe.
Even riding along in an air-conditioned bus didn’t save us from the 87-degree heat and high humidity. It was time to return to the mother ship. Our guide dropped us off at the ship’s terminal by 12:30 P.M. We wandered through a custom’s check, the airport scanner and finally the ship’s ID check, to the air-conditioned bubble of the Sirena. We chilled out in our cabin for a bit, before lunching in the deck nine café. Fish and fruit made for a light meal. We knew if we didn’t get a handle on the caloric onslaught that we would soon look like e an ad for Iowa pork. I wrote up my notes and read for a time, until we dropped off into the “Ozzie Nelson special,” an afternoon nap. Life is good.
Six P.M found us in the deck ten Horizon’s lounge for the Captains cocktail party. Held across the entire ship, drinks were free. They were accompanied by decent hors oeuvres. We chatted with other passengers, comparing what each of us had seen that day. We watched the Sirena leave Habana harbor at 7 P.M. She would sail 495 miles around the western tip of , to the south-central City of Cien Fuegos. The ritual, of standing topside as a great ship leaves a foreign harbor, is one of our favorites.
Donna Jablonski, from Spring Run, joined us for dinner in the deck five main dining room. Iced shrimp, lobster bisque and a whole main lobster made for a wonderful meal. A chocolate volcano confection for desert was sinful. A decent Chilean cabernet washed down the repast. Who wouldn’t want to live like this? We were tired from the day. After dinner, we repaired to our cabin to read (“Princes of Ireland”) and drift off into slumber. It had been a wonderful visit to Habana Cuba.
Joseph Xavier Martin