So I saw the pope in Cuba! After I decided to study abroad in the fall of this year I realized I would be missing the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia and I was super bummed out but also slightly relieved that I wouldn’t have to spend a day in the crowd that I was sure would suck all of the air out of the city. However I learned that he would be coming to Cuba while I was here and it seemed like kismet and I again readied myself to go. I’m not a fan of huge crowds but it did seem like a little adventure to trek out in the dark of early morning to see this enormous cultural and political icon speak and give mass. It was a little bit how I imagine it must be to line up for stores after thanksgiving to catch the early morning Black Friday sales, (could I have made an analogy any more American than that? I don’t think so), but later and less crowded. We left the house around five am to begin our little trek out to the Plaza de la Revolución. The sky was still dark but the heat hadn’t broken yet so it was sweltering hot regardless. A few of the main roads were closed in anticipation and I expected to encounter our path full of other people headed the same way but our walk was essentially empty, and quieter than any nigh walk in Havana, though I’m rarely up before 8, so perhaps every morning is that wet and soft and silent.
A friend of mine went to see the Pope in Brazil a few years ago and he said that it was crowded, that the hotels were overbooked and there was no where to sleep and after all of that travel suffering he didn’t get to see the Pope at all, his view entirely congested by half the world coming round to see the same view. So I kept on waiting for the massive crowds, the suffocating body mass, but it never came. Even just five hours before the Pope was set to speak the plaza wasn’t too full. It was easy to find a spot near the outer gate of the standing area, where we hoped we would have a better view of him in his papamovil and we settled in to wait. A few church groups full of young teens piled in as the hours ticked by and by six am the sound system was playing pleasant and loud religious music full of organs and cymbals and Gravity. Under the temporary floodlights of the plaza it felt like one of the early scenes of an action movie, where the music is swelling and booming but the scene is still slow and low and waiting for something exciting to come along and throw everyone into motion.
Eventually the sun rose and more people arrived, I met a woman from Venezuela and heard some tourists speaking English, some with a North American accent, and one with an Australian accent.
The Pope himself arrived to a manageable and surprisingly comfortable crowd, the only true discomfort was the unrelenting heat and humidity but that was just nature borne and not the result of crowded and squished bodies.
Children and elderly people moved through the crowd with ease and the closest thing to chaos came when the pope circled the square in his open little golf cart, waving. It was completely surreal to see him from around 20 feet away, smiling and nodding at all of us as people sang and took photos.
Then he took his place at the front of the crowd and spoke briefly about the new relationship between the United States and Cuba before beginning mass. By 10:30 I was exhausted and hot and becoming less engaged in the spectacle before me and more aware of how much my back hurt from standing for so many hours. I stayed for the our father and figured that the pope would not mind at all if I slipped away and went home to bed. I left the crowd easily, moving in a haze, I looked back after a few blocks to see the sheer mass of people that had accumulated patiently to watch. The street was full but not frenetic and not nearly as full as I expected. Havana is a small city and even with foreign tourists the whole experience was incredibly intimate and wholly different from what I had expected.
A few hours later, after a nap, breakfast, and then another nap I left the house to walk to La Ramp to connect to wifi.
While I was waiting to cross a transtur bus with a police escort roared down the road in front of me, driving so fast it swung from side to side. I looked in the window to see that it was full of cardinals, each of them looking down to read books held in their laps, unperturbed by the speed and sway of their transport.