Discovering Hemingway’s Cuba
I fell in love with Cuba, or at least with the idea of Hemingway’s Cuba, in my mid-teens. I read an article about the writer and was delighted with the romance of a bygone era, the salsa and the adventure preserved in time. Perhaps the idea of vintage cars made history more tangible. I decided that one day I would go and find out for myself. Twenty years passed before he traveled to La Isle Grande in 2008, nearly 50 years after Hemingway’s death.
I was less naive in the romance of Hemingway’s life but still infatuated enough to want to know more about the man and the country. Havana was as beautiful as expected. I had picked up a bit of everyday Spanish, enough to help me get by in full-service grocery stores and even ask for directions.
I was staying in the old town and amused myself by visiting the usual tourist spots of cigar and rum factories, and exploring streets of dilapidated architecture, making sense of the many influences from the Moors to the mobsters. As splendidly as the National Hotel, many of the buildings seemed to be returning to nature. Covered perhaps in part by the urban gardening established in the special period, when the dissolution of the Soviet Union severely hit the Cuban economy in 1991.
To make up for the shortage of supplies, Cubans grew their own food on whatever land was available: vacant lots, rooftops, parking lots. Times were still tough, or at least the availability of everyday products like soap was limited. I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the Cuban people, the laughter, the dancing and the eternal phrase ‘mojito by day, salsa by night’. But I wanted to know more about Hemingway. ‘Janet, Janet’ was the answer to my shaky Spanish. A brisk wave of the hand to the clock and many finger points left me in no doubt that I should be in the hotel lobby by 9 am the next morning. There he would meet Janet.
Hemingway lived in Cuba between the 1930s and 1950s, where he wrote seven books, including For Whom the Bell Tolls and Islands in the Creek, but his most famous work was The Old Man and the Sea. The Old Man of the title is Santiago, an elderly fisherman struggling with a giant marlin in the Gulf Stream. The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1952 and contributed to Hemingway receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Some have suggested that it imbued him with a sense of mortality.
Janet arrived in a yellow cab. Like other Cuban women on official duties, she was dressed in an impossibly short skirt but with a welcoming smile and after introductions (thankfully in brilliant English) we were soon heading nine miles out of town, towards the hills and Hemingway’s house. , Finca Vigía, or Lookout. Farm.
Leaving Havana behind, we soon find ourselves in a lush green field looking out to sea. Born a few years after Hemingway’s death, Janet seemed concerned because she had never met the man, but she had researched and met many of her friends. She explained that the Cuban government had spent a million dollars to restore Finca Vigía to its original state, including the land, the garage and the author’s fishing boat, the Pilar. It is the most visited museum in Cuba, we visited it out of season, but still she warned us that we would have to be quick before the crowds arrived. Access to the buildings is limited, but we were free to wander the grounds and walk around the house, looking through the open windows in complete solitude.
Despite the warning, we didn’t rush in and Janet’s stories about being larger than life, playing baseball with the local kids, and supporting the local community made me feel like I was visiting her friend rather than an author. famous, famous for his womanizer and drinker. I gasped when I saw a giant frog in a jar for Janet to explain how Hemingway had nurtured it until she regained her health only for one of her cats to kill her. The frog remains chosen for posterity, in memory of the surprising kindness of Hemingway or perhaps the cruelty of life and the hard years of illness and injury that the writer suffered while living in Cuba.
Sure enough, as our taxi pulled away, we saw the first of the coaches arrive. We went to Cojimar, a small port six miles east of Havana where Hemingway had kept the Pilar. The town was also the inspiration for the town in The Old Man and the Sea. We were able to see a lone fisherman in the bay that would have been packed in days gone by.
During lunch I took the opportunity to hear more about living in Cuba during the special period. I felt more awkward asking than Janet did when talking about the time when she was just a teenager. The government gave each family a pig or a chicken to eat depending on the size of the family, she said, but they had never cared for animals before. Janet’s brother was given a pig that he brought to his wife in their apartment in Havana. What would you do with a pig in a downtown flat? Wash it. The wife couldn’t stand the smell. ‘We called it the fish pig she washed so often, it was as if she had gills!’
The Old Man and the Sea is a novel about one man’s willpower and spirit of resistance. Santiago is considered “salao”, an extreme form of bad luck. The fisherman has eighty-four days without catching a fish, but then, on the eighth-fifth, he hooks a huge marlin. The novel is like a mirror that reflects human resilience, the humor that sustains it, and the strength and ideas that we cling to in the most difficult moments. Perhaps strength as a larger-than-life character who courted global publicity while openly celebrating life in Cuba. A keen fisherman, Hemingway was well known in Cojímar.
After his suicide in 1961, local fishermen donated the metal from their boats (propellers and cleats) to make a sculpture in memory of the respected man. La Terraza, the bar apparently frequented by Hemingway after a fishing trip, is still there, but we had opted for a quieter break. Of course, a tour to discover Hemingway’s Cuba, unofficial or not, would not be complete without a trip to the bars of Havana. He was well known for his daiquiris at La Floridita and mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio.
The trainers had caught up with us, so after a quick cocktail we kept going. Waves of men parted as Janet walked through the streets, ‘I love Hemingway; I spend my time talking about it, researching it. If Hemingway were still alive, my husband says he would think I was having an affair with him.’
Our last stop was the Hotel Ambos Mundos, curiously since it was Hemingway’s first house in Cuba. He stayed there on and off between 1932 and 1939 when he moved into the estate. The hotel has designated room 511 as a museum; admission is $2 CUC – the amount Hemingway used to pay per night. It was closed. With a quick introduction to a friend, Janet soon gained access. The room was small, oddly shaped, with a single bed but it was on the fifth floor and had great views over the harbor and the smiles and excitement of Old Havana. It was easy to see why Hemingway had fallen in love with Cuba.
I’m glad I met Janet, hers was a personal run down memory lane. Although the memories of the books and stories of others, the fact that the tales have been passed down almost gave them more credence. Wherever we went there was true affection for Hemingway, even pride in having chosen the beautiful island to make his home. It was as if he still lived there, that if he turned a corner quickly he would be playing baseball with a gang of kids on the street.
I had traveled to discover a world described by a writer and instead found a writer described by people. Not Hemingway’s Cuba, but Hemingway’s Cuba. “Let him think I’m more of a man than I am and I will be.” Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.
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