In the last two days we visited in Havana all sites that most of the tourists usually do. We took you for a few walks in Centro Habana and La Habana Vieja. We saw El Capitolio, the Malecón, and Paseo de Prado. We walked through the most famous touristic Calles. We admired pampered squares in Old Havana. While on the way we managed to have a glimpse of a real Cuban life, where buildings have colorful souls and old cars – eternal lives.
But there are parts of Havana that not all of tours go to. Those places are no longer about colorful buildings and old cars. They are about things you can feel….
For the day 3 sightseeing in Havana we are taking you to the kingdoms of life and death. But before we enter the world of life, please welcome in the kingdom of the dead.
Necrópolis de Cristóbal Colón
In ancient Greece people placed a coin in the mouth of a dead person before the burial. It was a payment for Charon, the mythological ferryman who carried souls across the river to the world of the dead. To enter Necrópolis de Cristóbal Colón you need 5 CUC, but to enter the world of Cuban spirituality it’s no enough. Let’s make a deal, for today no matter where we are from, what skin color we have and what religion we believe in, we STOP BEING TOURISTS. We stop being arrogant, we stop being racists, we stop being religiously intolerant, and we stop mocking those you do believe. Today we are all Cubans.
Necrópolis de Cristóbal Colón is the heart of the kingdom of the dead. Richly carved marble statues, mausoleums, family vaults, and chapels. Cuban life doesn’t get boring even after death. You enter the cemetery through the northern gate. The most famous tombs are located at the main avenue – Avenida Cristóbal Colón – or close to it: the tomb of General Máximo Gómez, the monument to the firefighters, the tomb of Ibrahim Ferrer (mostly known from Buena Vista Social Club), etc.
But if you are a real Cuban, you are not coming to Necrópolis for all of that; unless you are in the Capilla Central due to a funeral, you are coming to the cemetery for La Milagrosa – the miraculous one. La Milagrosa is a tomb of Señora Amelia Goyri, who died in 1901 while giving birth. She was buried with her dead baby daughter in her legs, due to the custom. Her husband, José Vicente, was heartbroken and visited the grave several times a day. He knocked with one of four iron rings to the burial, using the one closer to Amelia’s heart, in order to wake her up so she could hear what he wants to tell her. José always left backwards so he could see the grave of his beloved wife as long as possible. In 1914 the grave was opened, Amelia’s body was uncorrupted and the baby buried in her legs, was found in her arms, as you can see it on the sculpture. It was official now, Amelia’s grave became the miraculous one.
More than a century passed and the grave of Amelia is still full of fresh flowers and sounds of prayers. We look at Cubans opening their hearts to La Milagrosa and instead of only making pictures, like the majority of visiting tourists do, we decide to go around the grave with our one year old daughter. I forget to leave backwards and immediately some Cuban woman comes to me explaining how to price Amelia correctly. We walk around the grave again, Zosia knocks with the ring that is closest to Amelia’s heart, and we leave backwards. The Cuban woman, who gave us tips before, is waiting till we finish. She nods her head and smiles: “Now you will have the blessing for the baby and for your whole family.” I smile, because I somehow feel it too.
Callejon de Hamel
It is Sunday, so after paying our tribute to the dead, the only place to celebrate life to its fullest is Callejon de Hamel. Reviews on TripAdvisor say: “Interesting,” “You should go to see the art,” “different view of Cuban Art” bla, bla, bla. We are not tourists anymore, therefore Callejon de Hamel we’ll visit not for its alternative art and decoration but to touch its African Spirit. Locals call the area: African Neighborhood. Every Sunday from 11 am to 3 pm it is THE place to be, as this is the time when Spirits enter. Some call it concerts and dances, but the truth is, that the performance is more like a religious trance to the sounds of chekeré, drums, and claves. It is said, that those dances to the rhythm of rumba raise the spirit of the Santeria Gods, Orishas. And indeed we notice a Santeria priest in the audience.
Santeria combines Yoruba mythology with Christianity and Indigenous American traditions. The history of this system of believes goes back to colonial times, when Yoruba people from southwestern Nigeria were brought to the New World as slaves. Deprived of everything: dignity, respect, family, slaves were determined to preserve what could not be stolen by cruel white masters: SPIRITUALITY. Dance, sacred drumming, animal sacrifice, communicating with deities and ancestors, merged with Roman Catholic believes and customs, creating Santeria.
The energy you could feel on people’s faces. And believe me, it was not played. We were at the border of magic and trance. Sometimes you couldn’t tell, if to be excited or scared. I couldn’t get my eyes of them. I spent two years of my studies researching the topic of slavery and African- American society. All I was reading about in the libraries was happening in front of my eyes. I couldn’t believe it. Black energy is incredible. No wonder plantation owners forbid slaves to dance and to perform religious rituals. This energy could scare, if you have few hundreds slaves and you are the only white cruel owner. To this energy you have to show respect.
Whites are coming to Hamel to look. But Blacks do not pay attention to them. Both performers and Black viewers are in a different world. The world that is happening in front of the White audience, but the world you cannot enter. White people (tourists) are excluded from this trance; they may be physical there but in reality so far away. The black circle is closed and it couldn’t be more beautiful.
With Zosia I was let in front. She was looking at the dancers and the happening magic with astonishment. She is like a sponge, soaking everything. I must say I’m proud of her. Some of old Afro-Cubans seeing me with a White baby smiled and gave their thumbs up. Thumbs up for a new generation that will not treat Blacks inferior or like a tourist attraction.
In the evening we fall asleep to the sounds of drums and Cuban music.
Day 4: In the Footsteps of Ernest Hemingway
More about Cuba:
How to Prepare Your Trip to Cuba
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