Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Photo Essay: The Cemetery Where Fidel Didn't Want To Be Buried

Our tour guides were taken aback a bit when we told them we wanted to visit a cemetery while we were in Havana.

But it turned out to be not such an unusual request. After all, ours wasn't the only tour bus parked at The Colón Cemetery in Vedado.

It's a stop of historic, cultural, and architectural significance, having been founded in 1876 (though the statues weren't placed atop the Main Gate until 1901).

This necropolis is named after Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón), whose arrival in 1492 marked the beginning of centuries of Spanish rule of the archipelago.

Here, the monuments, statuary, and headstones are elaborately carved...

...most of them whitewashed by the sun.

Some of the mausolea have seen better days, but—despite their dilapidation—they were surrounded by scaffolding during our visit, and they appeared to be active construction sites.

This is where the most prominent people of Cuba have been interred...

...from popular singers and musicians (like Rubén González and Ibrahim Ferrer of The Buena Vista Social Club)...

...to sugar magnates like Eutimio Falla Bonet, as well as military heroes, baseball stars, and politicians.

Former Cuban President José Miguel Gómez is buried here.

Former Cuban President Alfredo Zayas y Alfonso is surrounded by stained glass here.

So why wouldn't Fidel Castro have wanted to be interred alongside all of these prominent Cuban figures?

Did he not want to spend eternity with the historical statesmen of Cuba, like former President Carlos Manuel De Cespedes Y Quesada?

Did Fidel not appreciate Art Deco?

Did he not revere the firefighters who were betrayed and died in the Great Fire of 1890?

Was he afraid of bats?

Did he not want eternal tears to be shed for him, in the form of a teardrop-shaped chain?

Perhaps he was deterred by the idea of being forever surrounded by all those mass graves...

...or by the million people who've been buried here in total, not all of whom were quite so prominent, relegated to the perimeter of the 150-acre cemetery.

In fact, the cementerio is so crowded, and space is at such a premium, that many of the tombs are reused to bury multiple members of the same family over the years.

Bodies are not embalmed and are buried in, more or less, a pine box. By the time three years have passed, the flesh has rotted away, leaving behind a pile of bones that gets relocated to an ossuary.

They take up far less room than had the body been chemically preserved and stored in an airtight casket.

Some of the tombs have been abandoned, the families of those buried living in exile outside of Cuba.

Some families sell their tombs to other families for the money.

Some of those tombs that are in limbo, so to speak, have been vandalized—their windows broken, with no money to fix them and no current owner to take responsibility for them.

Maybe Fidel was afraid of his gravesite being vandalized.

Maybe he couldn't bear the thought of hearing that infernal knocking at La Milagrosa, the rat-a-tat-tat of thousands of visitors who perform a ritual in hopes of a miracle of fertility.

Fidel Castro died on November 25, 2016 and was almost immediately cremated. His ashes made a four-day, 540-mile procession across the island before being permanently interred at the Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago de Cuba.

It's less than 60 miles from Fidel's birthplace in Birán, but it's considered "the birthplace of the Cuban revolution."

And so that's why Fidel didn't want to be buried with the other Cuban dignitaries, in a cemetery that's characterized by an establishment that he fought so hard against.

I'm guessing that cemetery tourism will become a lot more popular now in Cuba, now that people can find Fidel in one of them.

Related Posts:
Glimpses of Havana in the Final Days of Fide
Crossing the Border (Cruzando la Frontera)

Photo Essay: Santa's Village Has Come Back to Town

Honestly, I didn't think I'd ever see Santa's Village in Skyforest, CA unless it was abandoned.

And even then, the one time I was brave enough to breach the gate and slink past the "No Trespassing" signs, I got spooked by the lumbering business that was operating on the property—and I left before getting to fully explore it.

I'm glad I got to see, at least, the Bumblebee Monorail and Alice in Wonderland Through the Looking Glass. I got to see The Good Witch Bakery when it was still pink.

That version of Santa's Village is gone forever now. But there's a brand new (and expanded) version—and I got to explore it on opening weekend.

I arrived about an hour before the crowds started lining up, so I pretty much had the place to myself...

...just like I did the first time I'd visited.

Part of me didn't want to like it because it was trying to be contemporary. From all of the promotions leading up to the opening (which wasn't exactly a reopening), it seemed like they were trying to take the Santa out of Santa's Village.

And while that may be true—and it may be necessary, in order to run a theme park all year round—they didn't take the whimsy out of Santa's Village.

A surprisingly high number of original buildings—18 in all—were actually retained from the original park, restored, and reopened.

So, whereas it may not necessarily feel like the North Pole, it does feel distinctly Alpine—which is exactly what people go to these mountain resort towns (like Lake Arrowhead next door and Idyllwild a few miles east) for.

Of course, Santa's Village has to have a train—but this one is trackless transit, meaning it's more of a rubber-wheeled trolley that looks like a train.

That actually turns out to be a good thing, because it can be driven up and down the pathways and the roads—rather than being limited to wherever the track has been built.

Riding it is a good way to see (more or less) the entirety of the park.

Unless it's out on a trip, you can find the train parked right in front of the Chapel of the Little Shepherd...

...one of the original rescued structures that dates all the way back to the park's opening in 1955.

Eventually, you'll be able to get married in there.

Although the new Santa's Village is scheduled to be open every day throughout the year (except, oddly, Christmas Day), it seemed appropriate to first visit it while it was decorated for the holidays...

...with a few remaining bits of real snow and ice still on the ground from whenever the area last got hit with a snowstorm.

It's funny to explore a place like this for which I have no personal nostalgia, and that I've only seen in photos and postcards.

I never got to visit Santa's Village while it was still open, before it closed in 1998.

I never got to ride the bee monorail, though I witnessed it in a state of arrested decay.

But I was excited to see that the monorail track was still there and appeared to have been restored. Though it hadn't been part of the park's opening in 1955, it has been around since the 1960s.

I stopped to ask an employee what the plans for it were, which he said was to reopen it as a monorail—but one that riders would pedal themselves along.

I knew they wouldn't be bringing back the bees, so somehow I thought they were gone forever. I gasped when I spotted one in the wild, through some trees.

And it wasn't the only one.

In all, I saw maybe a half-dozen black-and-yellow monorail cars, cast about the park—along the hiking and bike trails, by some construction equipment, near a storage area.

It's a good time to visit, because most of what you see at the new Santa's Village is actually some version of what used to be at the old Santa's Village. Though the park has rebranded itself as "Skypark at Santa's Village," promising all kinds of adventure activities like ziplining, bungee, and archery, most of that stuff isn't coming until next year.

I don't think anybody really thought that Santa's Village would ever reopen—or that we'd ever get to experience anything even somewhat similar to what once was there, in that forest in the sky.

Now that I've seen it for myself, I wanna meet Santa, the man with the bag, and see if reindeer really know how to fly.

I'm buying in to every Christmas fantasy there is... if only in my dreams.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Santa's Village Theme Park, Abandoned
Photo Essay: Water Park, Thrice Abandoned (Circa 2009)