Vicente drives through the Malecón, a highway along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Waves are furiously crashing against the seawall.
We tighten our light jackets as the weather in Havana is surprisingly mild.
Our first stop is Cementerio Colón, the main cemetary of Havana that is full of funerary sculptures and stories. We did not know we could get a map with our US$1 admission.
We walked around casually and somewhat aimlessly. One of the security guards approached us after seeing me flinch when I saw two dead chickens lying in one of the small alleys.
"Santeria," he says, referring to the Afro-Cuban religion brought by the hundreds of thousands of slaves in the mid-sixteenth century. It's part of Cuba's cultural heritage, co-existing alongside Christianity and the Regla Conga, a faith brought by the congos, the slaves from Bantu-speaking regions of the Congo Basin.
The chickens are sacrificed for the souls of the dead to rest.
He pointed out certain tombstones, ones with stories and immediate tourist appeal. A tombstone with a double-three domino tile on top: the person died of a heart attack while playing dominoes, moments after realizing that the the double-three in his hand was the winning tile. We also passed by the tomb of Amelia Goyri known as La Milagrosa who died during childbirth. Now tourists and Havana residents alike pray for their own safe childbirth by walking around the grave and knocking three times on the tomb, the same way his inconsolable widower knocked to wake her up. Near the tomb are several votive offerings from believers and miracle receivers from all over the world.
Each gravesite is bought by a family. Bones are eventually exhumed and transfered to a separate smaller container at the head of the tomb to make room for the next family member who dies. For the less fortunate, the other side of the cemetary has an area where stone containers with skeletal remains are unceremoniously stacked. Some are marked with a chalked X indicating that family's inability to make payments on the gravesite within a three-month window. Those families who are unable to pay the costs of a gravesite are relegated to this area where remains are out in plain view. We thanked Ivan ("like a strong Russian!") for the stories that made the cemetary more engaging than it originally appeared.
For lunch we ask Vicente to drive us to a paladar, licensed and taxed restaurants, where we can get our first taste of Cuban food in Cuba. He took us to Aries, where we were let in by a waiter who asked us if we had reservations. We were directed to a separate room because we didn't and were surprised when the door was closed behind us with Vicente standing outside. We would later learn that most Cubans are not allowed in the paladares that serve tourists. Even if they were, presumably the US$10 to $25 main course prices would not sit well. We ordered our first arroz con pollo. It came with a side of shredded cabbage and tomato, a salad that will be a fixture of our meals in Cuba.