The Gatekeeper of Colon

My husband and I have a thing about cemeteries – when we travel, it’s a given we’ll end up in a graveyard. We never discuss the inevitable, that’s not how we travel. It doesn’t matter where we are, at some point a cemetery beckons, we oblige.

Cristobal Colon in Havana seemed no different. Undaunted by the closed gate, buoyed by voices in the gatehouse – my husband negotiated our entrance. Unencumbered by expectation, void of tour book overviews – we entered just the way we liked it –  blank slates on a mission of discovery.

I’m not certain if the enormity of Colon ever truly registered. Past the gates,  lost in silent pondering, each of us intent on picking solitary paths through the labyrinth. Five or ten minutes passed, minutes filled with wonder at the stark beauty of monuments to the dead. We needed that time to get our bearings – gradually each of us walked out of ourselves, ready to share the experience as a group. Six of us gathered, as if instructed by unseen forces – my husband, children and a friend, inexplicably grounded, ready to take on Colon.

I know we were alone. Colon had closed for the evening – six of us roaming 140 acres, meandering past lives of a million souls. One of the largest cemeteries in the world, yet unlike any I’d visited. A stark contrast to Pere Lachaise in Paris where markers for Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Proust, Sartre, Chopin and Jim Morrison lay sprinkled between everyday lives. Inhabitants of Colon were equal – elaborate mausoleums no different from modest grave stones. There was a tenderness present, a continuation of Cuba’s impact on my perspective.

I’m pretty sure the dog approached us before the gatekeeper. In hindsight, it’s entirely possible both were wise enough to give us time to settle in, knowing exactly when to reveal themselves. We named the dog “Salchipapa” (after a Latin American street food that’s essentially french fries with cut up wieners). Salchipapa wasn’t cute – an obvious stray, but with the good sense to know manners went a lot farther than attitude. My son tossed her pieces of his sandwich (for the life of me I can’t recall why he had a sandwich in the middle of a graveyard), instead of inhaling her good fortune – Salchipapa buried them. Without exception, every morsel politely tucked away – as if the shame of her situation was too much to bear.

The gatekeeper’s methodical approach alarmed me at first. Certain he’d had enough after hours annoyance, steeling myself for insistence we make our way to the exit. Not ready to leave, I shot my husband a wordless plea to “negotiate” a little more time. Gatekeeper didn’t speak a word of English, our collective Spanish amounted to a couple of the kids taking a year in high school and phrases from a Lonely Planet guide book. Turns out we didn’t need a common language – this wasn’t gatekeeper’s first dance.

Gatekeeper had appointed himself our tour guide. We didn’t feel coerced or hustled. Beneath his gruff exterior, gatekeeper was a proud man. His eyes smiled as he led us on a erratic journey through Cuba’s past. The world Domino champion, a woman you say? Famous baseball player, a revolutionary hero – you’re doing great gatekeeper, we understand. She and her baby died in childbirth? The baby was buried at her feet, yet the body was found in her arms when exhumed years later – holy crap gatekeeper, that’s incredible.This woman’s dog lay at her grave, refusing to budge until it too perished and now rests alongside her?  Remarkable.

Gatekeeper stops at a grave. Not certain if he’s had enough of the relentless heat, or decided it’s long past dinner, I’m watching for clues when I swear I caught that split second inspiration took hold. Gatekeeper started to sing. Salchipapa the only living witness as seven people sang and danced on the dusty avenue next to the grave of Jose Fernandez Diaz, the man responsible for Cuba’s best known song, Guantanamera. Gatekeeper was too busy grinning while tapping out  beats to mind  us singing the same line over and over again.

Silent, mutual understanding passed between us, it was time to let gatekeeper go home for dinner. Salchipapa followed us to the gate – oblivious to our silly grins or soft humming of Guantanamera, simply making sure it was safe to exhume dinner. Regardless of  amount, money couldn’t express how Gatekeeper enriched our lives. Pleased with our attempt, unaware of the gift bestowed upon us, we parted ways.

Every so often, the lucky traveler finds a “Gatekeeper of Colon”. These are the moments I travel for. Cuba is remarkable place – our time with the Gatekeeper of Colon solidified its place in my heart. Last year I wrote this short post on Cuba….