2017 Grateful 38

I’ve heard the stories. A sister dying in Ireland a minute after her brother died in Australia (they say he picked her up on his way by). An otherwise healthy mother dying the day after her daughter (think Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher). Apparently there is such a thing as broken heart syndrome. Back in 1990  Japanese researchers called it Takotsubo syndrome.  It’s also known as the widowhood effect. It’s got something to do with the heart being assaulted by a sudden, massive release of stress hormones. It’s like a heart attack, except that the arteries are fine.

In Cienfuegos, in Cementerio de la Reina (Cemetery of the Queen) sits the grave of a 24-year-old-woman who supposedly died of a broken heart back in 1907. La Bella Durmiente. The sleeping beauty.

The cemetery, named after Queen Isabella of Spain, opened its ground in 1837. It’s on the other side of town – far from the yacht club and the villas. And sitting as it does in what looks like the middle of a nowhere trying to be a somewhere, adds to  its otherness.  It’s not nearly as impressive in terms of notable notables or statuary as the Colón in Havana, but it’s got more by way of atmosphere and personality. Colón is like a rich debutante, outwardly confident and inwardly uncertain, whereas La Reina is more like a middle-aged beauty comfortable in her own skin. And she’s definitely a she; statues of men are few and far between. [The last time this struck me about a cemetery was in Milan.]

A local woman, perhaps a cemetery employee, asked where we were from. When we said Ireland, she took us to an Irish grave. I wondered what she’d have done had we said Hungary. But Irish? In Cuba? From the 1800s? How did that happen?

Back in the 1820s, the sugar industry was booming. Slavery was big. The plantation owners wanted to boost their numbers  and have more white guys on hand to keep the slaves in check. So, get this: the Council for White Population went to Maryland, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania and rounded up a few hundred Irish, along with French and Canary Islanders, and tempted them to come start the ‘white colony’ of Cienfuegos.

Marina was the daughter of Limerick man, John O’Bourke, who was one of the Irish to take the Council up on its offer. He married locally and in true Irish form, had ten children. He called his plantation Nueva Hibernia and was known around the place as Juan. On his death, the plantation was sold, although Juan Jnr still had a share in it and was himself administrator of another plantation worked by 500 slaves.

Marina, one of the daughters (I think of Juan Jnr), was an abolitionist. She owned one domestic slave, Matilde, whom she would later help buy her freedom. Once free, and funded by Marina, Matilde herself became a wealthy property owner, lending money, in turn, to Cabildo Real Congo, a black mutual-aid society. Like her former mistress, she, too had a social conscience and worked tirelessly towards racial equality in the new independent Cuban.

Of course, we missed  Barrio O’Bourke, where the family settled and were I to go back, it’d be on my list of places to see. Needless to say, I found out all of this back at my desk in Googleland and see from the comments on Mapping the Irish in Cuba, that a certain Don Morfa of Yaguaramas is thought to have been a Murphy from home. Imagine. The things you learn.

With the remains of soldiers from the Spanish Wars of Independence buried above ground level in the walls, the world seemed well represented. It’s a beautiful spot. Definitely worth the effort. [Check this blog for some great photos.]

I’ve had a bad week. I’m still buggy. I feel like the Irish Sea is sloshing around in my head. I only ventured out when I absolutely had to and even then I was an embarrassment of tissues and phlegm. I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but this week, I’m grateful for the Internet and the wealth of information I can pull up in seconds. It really does open new worlds at the push of a button. And while my brain wasn’t able to concentrate on much by way of work, it benefited enormously from the between-headache educational dalliances with Google. In another life, I met Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, and I met the inimitable Louis Pouzin, inventor of the datagram, and were I to meet them again, I might be a tad more effusive with my thanks.




Evidence of wealth

It’s hard to get my head around the idea that life can exist with out classes. Yes, I know there are the favoured and the not-so-favoured in any system, but not to have a working class, a middle class, an upper class – I find that strange. And strange only because I’m used to it.

I didn’t see much obvious wealth in Havana. Yes, the vestige was there but there wasn’t a marked contrast that I could see. It was more about restored and yet-to-be restored. But in the south-coast city of Cienfuegos, about 250km (160 miles) south of Havana, I found it.

Cuban singer Benny Moré wrote a song about his home town, dubbed the Pearl of the South. He reckoned it was the most beautiful city in the country – I haven’t seen enough to comment, but man, does it have some amazing buildings. The city is certainly one worth wandering.

The town square is dominated by the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion). It was closed when we were there (a rarity by all accounts) so I missed the Chinese writing that was discovered on the church columns that is thought to date from the 1870s. There has to be a story worth telling there. The Neo-Classical building dates back to the early 1800s and is the city’s pride and joy. The government building isn’t too shabby either. Both sit on Parque Marti, named after the Cuban hero José Martí, who at the age of 16 had already founded his own newspaper La Patria Libre (The Free Fatherland). If there was ever a young revolutionary in the making, it had to be him. He said of books: Books console us, calm us, prepare us, enrich us and redeem us. Someone whose body of work is worth exploring. Note to self duly made.

It has its own yacht club complete with tennis courts, terrace bar, and all the swish and swank you’d expect from yachters everywhere. And in the neighbourhood, there are some great looking villas that I’d not say no to.

Were I to go back, I’d be sure to see the inside of the Tomás Terry theatre. The gold-leaf mosaics out front are apparently just a hint of the grandeur inside. Terry wasn’t an actor or even a playwright – he was an industrialist… from Venezuela … a sugar plantation owner who would later become mayor of the city. He wanted his legacy to Cuba to be a top-notch theatre (this is one of three built in the county in the nineteenth century – the other two are Theater Sauto in Matanzas, and La Caridad in Santa Clara). Anyway, in 1863, he set aside money in his will (some 60 000 pesos) and asked the governor that all but 10k be used to build his theatre, the 10k going towards a school for poor kids that would be supported by the proceeds from the theatre. The man was ahead of his time. It seats 950 (originally everyone stood on four floors, from what I understand) and has the ubiquitous Carrara marble, frescoes, and carved wood. Terry died a year after having the inspiration but his widow and heirs followed through.

It was the Palacio  de Valle though, that really captured my imagination. Imagine having the money to bring a bunch of specialist tradesmen together and to borrow from various schools like Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, Italianate, and Mudejar (apparently popular in Spain the twelfth century). You’d get what could best be described as a fairy tale. This is what Don Acisclo del Valle did, back around 1913. He had the money and he had the imagination. And this is what he got.

Had time been on our side, the rooftop bar is the perfect place to view the harbour and get ready for a seafood dinner in the Bodega below. It was all other-worldly. We were definitely on the rich side of town. And that’s not to say that there weren’t ordinary buildings in between the grandeur, but even these had a holiday feel to them rather than a permanence.

For the permanence we’d have to cross town, where I imagined the real people living. Taxis again abounded with the classic cars showing a wear and tear that befit their years. The local transport of choice was more of the horse and cart variety. Tourists were thin on the ground. And most were having coffee on the square. Some I even recognised. Those who venture beyond the bus tours and the guided itineraries seem few. Or perhaps it was off-season.

The city is worth far more than the time we had to give it. We missed the El Nicho falls, supposedly one of the most beautiful sights in the country. And the Botanical Gardens. Somewhere there’s a series of murals Murales that depict US-Cuban relations – that’s something I’d liked to have seen. Worth a stopover, if you’re in the country.