2017
04.09

Halicarnassus Shrine

SYNOPSIS:  VEDADO.  ABOUT CELI LOST, COLON CEMETERY, CALLE 17 AND A WOMAN FROM COSTA RICA.

After more than 2 hours, Celi finally returned from “getting us some water”.  I had pictured her talking to some handsome Cubans, losing track of time.  And indeed she had been distracted; not by one but by a few hundred handsome Cubans participating in a triathlon along the Malecon, near our AirBnB.  And then she was lost.  For two hours she circled our casa no more than 1-3 blocks from it; so near and yet so far.  No address, no phone, no map, and distractions giving way to distress — that does it.  An ice-cream parlor, the only landmark we had from the night before, finally saved the day.

United again, we could start the day.  This AirBnB unlike all the others, is not offering breakfast.  But several cafes and a market are nearby where almost everything can be found that we need.  We are experiencing culture shock.  Vedado, with its wide streets, posh restaurants, faded mansions, plentiful supplies, worldly yuppies, and American rock music, feels like New York. Everyone around here is trying to be cosmopolitan and stylish; many succeed.

After a brief stop at a garden cafe — where we were completely put off by the lack of service and the little brass bells we were supposed to use to get somebody’s attention —  we settled for a cafe right next to our high-rise.  It was furnished in white, red and black, decorated with large canvases displaying melancholic-depressed figures, playing hits from the 70’s.  Breakfast was delicious.  For the first time we were served crispy croissants with our ham rather than greasy fluff-rolls.  The fruit juices were divine, as they have been all throughout Cuba.  And the coffee, for us foreigners mixed with milk and a bit of sugar, did what it was supposed to.  We perked up.  Life was good again.

We are within walking distance from the Hotel Nacional, a landmark of historic proportions.  In two days we will join a tour there.  Today, we just grabbed a taxi.  That’s one of those unpleasant moments when we have to fend for a fair price.  Not an easy task in front of a hotel where a night costs $200 and up.  We parted ways in the afternoon.  Celi returned to the Artists Commune where she had started her Cuban art project.  I boarded the double-decker Havana Tourist Bus for a round trip through Havana.  We had strolled through Havana Vieja when we started out a month ago, but I had not seen much of the rest of Havana.

After more than one hour out and about through various neighborhoods, the bus started to circle back.  A highlight was the stop at the Plaza de la Revolucion.  It is no less ugly and no less vast, spanning a whopping 11 acres, than the one in Santiago de Cuba.  In Santiago it was Antonio Maceo who towered over the plaza, here it is Jose Marti, the national hero per se.  Remember, you will never see Fidel.  Metal bars form giant outlines of the infamous faces of both Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara on two of the many government buildings lining the plaza.  Marti’s 59-foot white granite figure, seated as if to resemble Rodin’s thinker, sits atop a 90 foot base in front of a 300 feet tower that is constructed in the shape of a five pointed star. It houses a museum in his honor.  I did not bother to leave the bus.  The scene was more than I could bare from afar.  The same emptiness radiates from this plaza as from all the other post-revolutionary ones I have seen. 

But I left the bus at Necropolis de Colon, for yet another cemetery.  Colon is the largest cemetery of Havana, if not Cuba.  I had seen elaborate funerary architecture in Cienfuegos and Camaguey.  But I had seen nothing yet.  Colon tops them all going overboard in securing a spot in the afterlife, or at least leaving an extravagant mark in this life, should the afterlife fail them.  Here, Jesus preaches down from the top of an Egyptian pyramid, Florence’s cathedral is evoked in a miniature chapel, the Mausoleum of Halikarnassus is replicated on an artificial hill, Michelangelo’s Pieta graces not one but several tombs, a chess champion (José Raúl Capablanca) is guarded by a chess queen, and some Hermes-style Greek dudes are paired, conjuring up anything from an illusion of twins to gay lovers who don’t want to part in death.  The whole place is testimony for the compulsion to “outdo the Joneses”; a bizarre mix of reverence and mockery.

On the map I only had to cover the span between thumb and pointing finger to get home.  On the ground, that was a 2 hour walk.  But the sun was getting low and I was in no hurry.  As I strolled along rather aimlessly, I was approached by a young black lady obviously in distress.  Did I speak English?  Yes.  Could I tell her how to get to 17 and M? Streets in Vedado are roughly following a grid that is numbered one way and equipped with letters the other way.  I was not yet sure where I was but I had my map and I had discovered little pyramid-shaped markers at various corners aiding people without maps.  Calle 17 in Vedado had been mentioned as a worthwhile street in one of my guidebooks. I was happy to walk there with that young lady. 

She was a tourist from Costa Rica and her story was rather distressing.  Yet another unsuspecting, and I have to say gullible, tourist had been taken to the cleaners.  She and her boyfriend had stayed at a casa particular.  Those are privately rented rooms that predate AirBnB by decades and are a great alternative to hotels.  Her hosts eagerly prepared meals for them, three times a day.  Never once did they mention that they would charge for this service.  With AirBnB we encountered standard prices of $5 for huge and plentiful breakfasts and $10 for delicious home-cooked meals.  They accepted the offers and ate.  After three days they were presented with a bill detailing just about every ingredient of every meal they had totaling $300!  Charging them $150 would have been a lot.  But they had not expected any charge and were stiffed with a bill that by far exceeded their budget.  They paid and left in disgust.  But here she was, the girl from Costa Rica on a Saturday afternoon trying to locate a Western Union office open for business.  Did she even know how that worked?  Western Union is no bank.  I did not get that far into the conversation with her as she was in marching mode and I was in strolling mode.  She had far to go and was not about to waste a single further dollar in anything as frivolous as a taxi.  I hope she got what she needed.  But come on, folks!  A bit of common sense here and there goes a long way.  Cuba is expensive, but not more expensive than the U.S.  You don’t pay five-star prices in a casa particular.

Calle 17 was a good walking choice.  It was lined with magnificent crumbling palaces and villas once occupied by business barons and mafia mobsters.  After the revolution they were either abandoned or forcefully taken over by the government.  Some of them had been restored, some taken over by public institutions, and from others the laundry was dangling and the dogs were barking just like in Old Havana, as they had been subdivided into dozens of small, dark apartments. 

At our casa I united with Celibeth who had spent a wonderful afternoon with her artist companions.  We headed out for a dinner at a nearby terrace.  A colonial home had been converted into a classy dinner place with tasteful music and delicious food.  Prices were much more reasonable here than in many of the provinces.  Is that because supply here is easier or competition stiffer?  It seems counter-intuitive to pay more in the provinces than in the capital.  But that is the picture.

After dinner, we headed out for a visit at the FAC (Fabrica de Arte Cubano).  But I will leave that story for another day.

Good night.

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  1. What a fascinating cemetery. I love the picture of you with John Lennon. It passes on a smile.