Another week in Havana - via TorontoAuthor: RichardNika (More Trip Reviews by RichardNika)
Date of Trip: October 2011
There are two main routes for the collectivo old-car taxis. One extends west into Miramar; the other peels off to the southwest around the Hotel Nacional and goes up La Rampa - 23d street. I could see from the map that that skirted the edge of the famed Necropolis Cristobal Colon - the Columbus Cemetery. And it was there, in that famed resting place for the deceased, that the number one destination of my Cuban agenda lay.
Jeannette Ryder - yes, with two n’s - was an American, the widow of a doctor, who lived for decades in Havana and passed away in 1931. She was the founder of Cuba’s first animal rights and care organization, which has reportedly been rejuvenated in recent decades. Being a dog person who has never gotten over the loss of my and my daughter’s dogs, I seek then out wherever I go, and photograph them, whether in front of my own house in Miami Beach or while traveling in places near and far. I can’t say that I have read all of my Albert Payson Terhune dog books as often as I have seen The Wizard of Oz, but it is close.
I don’t remember if I first heard of Rinti before or after my first trip to Cuba in ‘06, but no matter. Rinti was Jeannette Ryder’s own dog, and when she passed on in 1931, Rinti found his way to her grave in Colon and refused to leave. Perhaps he had been named after Rin Tin Tin - no matter. Cemetery workers took him away, but he kept returning. They tried to care for him with food and water, but he refused all sustenance. He soon passed on at the concrete-encased feet of his late mistress. It is not clear if he was actually entombed there, but dog lovers today can be assured that his loyal spirit ascended to the Rainbow Bridge to join that of his philanthropic mistress. In 1944, touched by the story, a Havana sculptor, Fernando Boada, created a sculpture of Rinti. His likeness now lies at the feet of Ms. Ryder. He looks forward , lying on his tummy, his front paws paralleling his head, his rear paws and tail to the left, his body curved. Under him are chiseled the words Fiel Haste Despues Muerta. Rinti.
When I returned from Cuba in ‘06, and wrote my novel “Alicia,” mostly set there, my leading male character visited Necropolis Colon with his lady love, saw the sculpture, recalled his own lost Golden Retriever, and, as we say in colloquial English, “lost it.” I was determined that I would someday pay my respects to Rinti in person.
La Rampa, where I’d never been before, seemed to have some of everything - shops, little malls, low rise apartments, restaurants, movie theaters. It didn’t look like Habana Vieja or anything around it - it had the air of an area where locals go to do their own business. The collectivo driver pulled over to let us out, indicating that the cemetery was a block to the left. Its entrance included an elaborate arch, with angels on top, easily visible from La Rampa. Our one block walk took us past a building that seemed to be a large open indoor space where people went to watch sporting events and have activities of one sort or another - there were references to baseball. Outside was a small café. We crossed another street and were at Colon’s entrance. It appeared that we could simply walk in, but a middle aged woman came out from beside the arch and asked for 5 CUCs each. While I had read or heard nothing about an entrance fee, particularly one that high, I wasn’t disposed to argue. By then, we had realized we had neither the time nor the available cash for a real out-of-Havana trip, but we did have enough to see us through our departure on Tuesday.
We had been to another famous Latin American cemetery, Recoleta, in the heart of Buenos Aires, where Eva Person and her family and thousands of others are interred. Recoleta is very large but also very compact, virtually al vaults, and they are close together, with relatively narrow thoroughfares between the blocks. Colon is also very large, but is far more spread out, more in the American style, but for the most part with far more impressive and artistic monuments. Many are huge, tall and impressively ornate. One featured a large base, an ornate column that changed shape as it soared upwards, and an angel on top. It was as tall as a three story house. Some tombs had photos incorporated into them and one featured a box, also built into it, marked “Donations.” The avenues are wide, are numbered and lettered and there is a lot of open space. Maps are sold at the entrance, but I had one, photocopied from a guidebook, and I also had a pocket size Havana guidebook borrowed from the library in my pocket. The entry avenue leads directly to a round chapel; and there appeared to be a funeral or memorial service going on inside. On our way to it, a cemetery worker approached us, obviously angling for a tip. He directed us first to the tomb of Amelia Goyri, who had died in childbirth in 1901. The baby had not survived, and she had been buried with it at her side. The story is that when the tomb was opened, for whatever reason, the baby was found in her arms. Her grave is marked by an angel statue and a huge cross, and I counted at least seven floral arrangements that had been left there. There were no devotees present, but women are known to frequent the tomb, often to pray for fertility. He also showed us the grave of the musician, Ibrahim Ferrer. I remembered him well He and some other elderly Cuban musicians had been “rediscovered” by an American folk music producer, Ry Cooder, and brought to New York for a concert. The end result was the extraordinary musical documentary, The Buena Vista Social Club. I had seen its world premier at the Miami Film Festival, and thought I was perhaps the only non-Hispanic in the packed theater. Subsequently, Ferrer applied to revisit the U.S. Bush had taken office, and his administration denied the visa application. I had thought it to be gratuitous politically-inspired cruelty. And then Ferrer passed away.
Perhaps the most impressive single monument, which was not at all like the others, was the monument to Cuban firefighters. It includes a row of flat vaults and, above them, an ornate wall featuring 24 plaques with names. It resonated strongly - months earlier, we had visited “Ground Zero” in New York (I still hate that name - I’d always associated it with nuclear bombs), not for the first time, and taken a tour with a volunteer from that infamous day and seen the new monument to the 344 firefighters who had perished there. Yes, 344, not 343 - a passing lawyer joined their ranks, died with them, and was posthumously honored as one of them.
I had directions, and the way to Rinti was to make a right at the chapel and proceed to a certain intersection. When we got there, there was a monument where I’d expected Mrs. Ryder and Rinto to be. There was also a group of cemetery workers there. I had a copy of a photo of their resting place and showed it to them, and was directed to the site. It was just behind the monument. You can see the photo, as I have asked that this be the one of my submitted photos to be included above all others.
I didn’t “lose it” as my fictional character had, but I was overcome with emotions - admiration for Mrs. Ryder, a feeling of love for her loyal unto death dog, and the never-departed feeling of loss for our family dogs. I sat on the edge of Rinti’s portion of the monument, next to his hind legs and tail, petted him and told him what a good dog he was. Someone had left a small red flower next to Rinti. I took pictures, sat back down again, took more pictures. A handsome young couple passed by, and I took their photo as well. I had waited a long time to be at this monument. The cemetery workers glanced over at me, doubtlessly thinking that I was loco but I didn’t care. I wished I had had something to leave there - perhaps a flower for Mrs. Ryder and a doggy treat for her loyal pet. I was glad someone else had left a tiny red blossom. But I did leave a little bit of my heart.
We left the way we’d come, knowing that this was our final outing. There were more impressive monuments - one huge winged angel towering over a group of people. Another, a standing Jesus looking as if he was about to deposit something into the outstretched hand of a seated angel. Our plan was to continue walking along La Rampa in the same direction in which we’d come. Then we’d cross the Almendares River on foot, not via the tunnel, but crossing a bridge. I knew that down below the bridge was a park and also, on the other side an urban forest, The Bosque. But we’d only have time to see them from overhead.
La Rampa goes round a corner of the cemetery - we passed blocks of low rise apartments, and it seemed that there was no end to Colon, visible a block off to our left. At one point, we came to a small area, a kind of little outdoor mall. A woman had a small stall and was selling small fried pork sandwiches on buns for 5 pesos each - the equivalent of 20 US cents. I bought four. The bits of pork were well fried, warm and delicious. Then I saw the dog. A limping stray, I thought, and probably starving. He was fuzzy brown in color. I gave him one of my sandwiches. He ate the pork but not the bun. That was when my wife pointed out my mistake. The dog was not a stray. He had a tag, and was limping because he only had three legs. Our next to last Rottweiler had also been three-legged for her final year because of a cancer-necessitated amputation. If the dog had been a starving stray, he would surely have eaten the bun as well. No matter. I had done the right thing.
We were finally out of sight of Colon Cemetery. The map indicated a moderate walk to the bridge, but it took so long that at one point we asked someone how far it was. We passed mostly low rise apartments and a service station or two. A childrens’ park “Parque Infantil - Jalisco Park.” We finally walked out onto it. It was properly fenced and busy with traffic. It rose high above the Almendares, and the view to the north and to its mouth was clear. The trees and foliage on either side reflected perfectly in its calm waters, as did the buildings. We kept pausing to look down, then out, then down again. On the far side, way below us, was a park along the river bank. There were trees and flowers, and round picnic tables that looked almost like toadstools. We could have descended to it, but it would have taken time and required a hot climb back up to street level. In the park, an employee had just lowered a huge Cuban flag to the bottom of a flagpole. The flag had collapsed on itself, but appeared to be at least there or four times as wide as the man collecting it.
When we finished crossing the bridge, we were just south of Miramar, and at least two kilometers from our hotel. The street that crossed the bridge led west and carried almost all the traffic. Off to the right, a less trafficked street led northwest. Between them was a small park. I wouldn’t consider walking the rest of the way - I was overheated and exhausted. The less trafficked street seemed to point to Miramar, but our attempts to get a cab on it were futile, as they were all going on the other street to the west. We finally moved there, and got a cab for three CUCs. It was our final cab ride of the trip.
I spent much of the remaining day and evening in the pool. There was minimal packing, as we had traveled light. I had washed out three days’ worth of clothing a day earlier, so there was no more washing to be done. I took everything that indicated we had been in Cuba, right down to receipts in my wallet and the coins and bills I wanted to save, and packed them into my two prepaid Canadian postal parcels. We photographed the notes I had taken, and they also went into the parcels. The pool was busy, with young people playing both water basketball and water volleyball. I looked up at the multistoried Occidental, thinking that somehow I didn’t really belong where I was, that this was more of an incarnation of the tourist section of Miami Beach - where we live - than the real Cuba.
While still light, we explored the side streets to the south and west of the hotel. I photographed houses, people, dogs and cats. It seemed a pleasant neighborhood. Not all the houses in this part of Miramar were as well kept as most of those in our Miami Beach neighborhood, but many if not most were. I noticed that the percentage of old 50s American cars had dramatically decreased. Most of the parked cars were fairly new compacts.
It was early to bed, as our Sunwings bus to Veradero airport was due to pick us up at 5:00 AM, and we made sure of a wakeup call; as usual in such cases, we awoke long before our deadline. I double and triple checked everywhere, mindful of the time I’d once left a short tangled in the bedding in Italy. Our ride arrived - not a bus, but a van. It was still dark outside.
TUESDAY SEPT 27
For the last time, we went through the tunnel and along the length of the Malecon.
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