An index of the Cuba series appears at the first post.
July 30, 2015
Today started ambiguously, as I had neither a cell phone nor a set time to meet Lorenzo. His appearance around 9:30 A.M., dressed in a motorcycle helmet, filled me with foreboding. Yes, we were riding a motorcycle back to the family home, but yes, he brought me a helmet, as well. Unfortunately, the chin strap was broken. We puttered the half-mile or so to the house, and happily I didn’t lose my balance. His nephew took a photo of us, and I stepped off the bike on the right side, getting a first-degree burn on my leg from the exhaust pipe.
Lorenzo let me know our plan for the day, which spanned three major sites: Plaza de la Revolucion, the Necropolis de Cristobal Colon, and the University of Havana. I interrupted with a bit of bad news. I had been tapping my toothbrush on the bathroom sink when the caulking holding the sink to the wall broke loose. The sink was now held in place only by plumbing and sewage lines. Lorenzo’s brother-in-law planned a maintenance visit to the apartment.
Lorenzo’s family and I piled into Thingamachinga, and we started our drive to Plaza de la Revolucion. Along the way, he pointed to a high-rise apartment building. He had watched the building come together over the first twenty years of his life, due to construction delays. It now blends into its weathered neighborhood. When we reached the Plaza, I thought at first we had found a massive blacktop parking lot. In fact, only a small section at the end was devoted to parking. At the far end, a large area had been marked as inaccessible because a large stage was being erected for an upcoming visit by the pope. That end also featured a large building with a silhouette of Che Guevara, while the near end was dominated by a building with a matching silhouette of Camilo Cienfuego, a revolutionary from the Havana area who died under mysterious circumstances in 1959. The tower on the hilltop above the Plaza, however, is the main attraction. A massive granite statue of poet Jose Marti stands at its base, and the tower itself rises 358 feet in a five-pointed star cross-section. We climbed to the hill crest, and I shot photos of Old Havana from there. We basked in the air conditioning inside the tower, but we were sad to hear that the elevator allowing tourists access to the upper parts of the tower had been out of commission for a couple of years.
We paid a 3 CUC (roughly $3 USD) per adult for access to the Marti museum. A guide provided an English-language tour. On the way, we encountered a French family looking through the exhibits. Jose Marti is venerated throughout Cuba (starting with the airport, named for him). From a very early age, he wrote poems and polemics about Cuba, and he was exiled for a considerable period in the United States and Mexico, during which he helped organize the Cuban Revolutionary Party. He returned to take part in the Cuban War of Independence against Spain, but he was killed at the Battle of Dos Rios in 1895. We sweated our way down the hill to Thingamachinga.
Lorenzo drove us to our next stop, the Necropolis de Cristobal Colon (a cemetery named for Christopher Columbus). We strolled through the prominent arch of its entrance and were chafed to see that the government had erected a toll booth of sorts inside to collect 5 CUC per tourist. Lorenzo started to lose his cool, and he curtly informed them that he would not be paying them for the privilege of seeing his ancestor’s grave. We continued into the cemetery. We photographed several notable tombs, including the grave of Jose Miguel Gomez (president of Cuba). Lorenzo ensured that we saw the 75-foot tower of the firefighter’s memorial, and he showed us the tomb of eight medical students who were executed for defacing the tomb of a Spanish journalist. We also visited the “Miracle Worker” tomb, where a woman and her dead infant were buried together. In a routine examination a year later, the infant had apparently moved from her feet to be cradled in the mother’s arms. Cubans visit this tomb when they need special help (we saw a queue of three people awaiting their chance to pray).
We took refuge from the heat in a nearby ice cream shop. Its air conditioner had been working when Lorenzo arrived the week before, but it was out of order this time. We had a light lunch there, nonetheless. I was puzzled to see yet another Nestle ice cream freezer. Somehow this company has managed to market its products at a sizable number of shops in Havana, and it’s the same assortment every time. Contrast that with the relatively difficult-to-find Coca Cola or the nonexistent McDonald’s or Starbucks!
Our next stop was the statue of Don Quixote (Man of la Mancha) near the University of Havana. I happily helped Lorenzo pick out a fantasy novel about Cuban Vampires at the nearby tent. We walked a block to an architectural wonder that he remembered fondly from his college years. Coppelia is an ice cream parlor on a scale that one must see to believe. On our July afternoon, four lines, each half a block long, had formed for its entrances. Lorenzo remembered crowds waiting for four hours during the food shortages of the early 1990s. I should note that the lines for prices in CUPs (local pesos) were quite long, while the lines for CUCs (much more valuable tourist dollars) were nonexistent. Our group approached for a photograph, but a security guard intervened, saying that our attempt to snap a photo would look suspiciously like our attempting to jump the line. Lorenzo and he got into quite a heated argument (he later reported that the fellow was trying to shake him down for a bribe), and so I snapped just one shot of the inner building before we headed away from the facility to the Havana Hilton (Hilton was the operator, not the owner, of the original hotel), now named the “Habana Libre”. A large mural in blues and white once again adorns the front; for a time, it had been deemed inappropriate and was placed in storage.
The big moment had arrived when reached the gargantuan stairs leading to the University of Havana campus. Stretched across the lower end was a single chain, notifying the public that the campus was unavailable since classes were not in session. Seeing that chain caused something to snap in my friend Lorenzo. He advised us to stay put near a guard shack while he tried a “Cuban solution.” Soon I saw him frantically waving me over the other end of the chain. He had bribed a guard for 5 CUC to allow me onto the campus. There was a problem, though; the other guard wasn’t in on the deal, and she was suspicious. I moved to a section of the stairs behind a short wall and duck-walked upwards. Once I reached the top, I kept moving, but this time with the stride of a professor who belongs on a college campus. I took some snapshots of the lovely quads and buildings, but I was unsure where I was to go next. I had begun my way back to the monumental stairs when I saw Lorenzo hiding by a shrubbery on his hands and knees. I learned that he had hurdled a fence around the corner from the stairs, with arrangements to meet his family with me on the other side. He straightened himself, and together we visited the campus. One of my favorite moments arrived when he showed me a tank parked on the quadrangle where he had played when his mother brought him along to her workplace. Lorenzo had wanted to show me the famous frescoes of the Avla Magna auditorium, and he thought we might have a shot of convincing a guard to let us in because the building is notoriously warm inside, but we found only barred doors and no guards. We soon exited the campus. The look on the guard’s face as we walked out was worthwhile.
Lorenzo was not finished showing me the University, but his son asked the interesting question “what is bribery?” I talked about laws that are obviously unjust, such as those that promote violence against people with the “wrong” color of skin. He agree that those laws should be resisted. I then said, “some laws are not unjust, but they are inconvenient.” Happily, he let the matter rest there.
Our next stop was the faculty of chemistry, outside the security perimeter of the main campus. Lorenzo asked to see his friend Quinto, who lived within the walls of the building, and the security guard sought him out. Quinto was delighted to see his friend from twenty years ago. He showed us the organic chemistry laboratory and others. Almost every room in chemistry is undergoing restoration, with ceilings torn out and wires or building supplies lying everywhere. The University intends to use this facility for classes in September, but Quinto thought the odds were no better than 50:50 that this would happen.
After an exhausting but exhilarating day, we drove Thingamachinga back to the family home. The boys delightedly shouted, “NITRO” every time Lorenzo down-shifted in the heavy traffic. When I returned to the apartment, Lorenzo’s brother-in-law had fixed the shower head and re-caulked the sink. I felt humbled again by their generosity.