Discovering Hemingway’s Cuba
I fell in love with Cuba, or at least Hemingway’s idea of Cuba, in my mid-teens. I read an article about the writer and I loved the romance of a bygone era, the sauce and the adventure preserved in time. Perhaps the idea of vintage cars made the historical more tangible. I decided that one day I would go find out for myself. Twenty years passed before he traveled to La Isle Grande in 2008, almost 50 years after Hemingway’s death.
I was less naive in the romance of Hemingway’s life, but still in love enough to want to know more about the man and the country. Havana was as beautiful as I expected. I had learned a little Spanish for day to day, enough to help me survive in single service food stores and even ask for directions.
I was staying in the old town and kept busy visiting the usual tourist spots of the cigar and rum factories, and exploring streets of dilapidated architecture, making sense of the many influences, from the Moorish to the mobsters. As splendid as the Hotel Nacional stands, many of the buildings seemed to be returning to nature. Perhaps partly overwhelmed by urban gardening established in the special period, the special period, when the dissolution of the Soviet Union severely affected the Cuban economy in 1991.
To compensate for the shortage of supplies, the Cubans grew their own food on whatever land was available: vacant plots, roofs, 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 Cubans, 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 awkward Spanish. A forceful wave of the hand to the clock and many finger gestures left me in no doubt that I should be in the hotel lobby at 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 Stream, but his most famous work was The Old Man and the Sea. The elder in the title is Santiago, an elderly fisherman fighting a giant marlin in the depths of the Gulf Stream. The novel received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1952 and contributed to Hemingway being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. The prize was something Hemingway had previously aspired to, but was humble to accept; some have suggested because it imbued their sense of mortality.
Janet arrived in a yellow cab. Like other Cuban women in official roles, she wore an incredibly short skirt but with a welcoming smile and after introductions (thankfully bright in English), we were soon heading nine miles out of town, into the hills, and toward the house. from Hemingway, 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 that she had never met the man, but had researched and met many of his friends. He explained that the Cuban government had spent a million dollars to restore Finca Vigia to its original state, including the author’s land, garage and fishing boat, El Pilar. It is the most visited museum in Cuba, we were visiting out of season, but he still warned that we would have to be quick before the crowd arrived. Access to the buildings is limited, but we had the freedom to roam the grounds and walk around the house, looking through the open windows in complete solitude.
Despite the warning we didn’t rush and Janet’s stories about the larger-than-life character, playing baseball with local kids and supporting the local community made me feel like she was visiting her friend rather than an author. famous, famous for his womanizer and his drink. I gasped when I saw a giant frog in a jar for Janet to explain how Hemingway had nurtured it until it regained its health only to be killed by one of his cats. The frog remains pickled for posterity, in memory of Hemingway’s surprising goodness or perhaps the cruelty of life and the harsh years of illness and injury the writer suffered while living in Cuba.
Sure enough, when our taxi sped 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 city was also the inspiration for the town of El viejo y el mar. We were able to see a lone fisherman in the bay that would have been crowded in days gone by.
During lunch, I took the opportunity to hear more about life in Cuba during the special period. I felt more uncomfortable asking than Janet talking about the time when she was just a teenager. The government gave each family a pig or chicken as food based on the size of the family, he said, but they had never cared for animals before. Janet’s brother was given a pig that he took to his wife in their apartment in Havana. What would you do with a pig in an apartment in the center of the city? Wash it off. The wife couldn’t bear the smell. “ We called it the fish pig, I washed it so often, it was like it should have gills! ”
The Old Man and the Sea is a novel about a man’s willpower and spirit of resistance. Santiago is considered “salao”, an extreme form of misery. The fisherman has eighty-four days without catching a fish, but then, on the eighth-fifth, a huge marlin is hooked. The novel is like a mirror that reflects human resilience, the humor that supports it, and the strength and ideas we cling to when times are most difficult. Perhaps strength as a larger than life character who wooed world publicity while openly celebrating life in Cuba. Being a great fisherman himself, Hemingway was well known in Cojimar.
After his suicide in 1961, local fishermen donated metal from their boats, propellers and cleats, to make a sculpture in memory of the highly respected man. La Terraza, the bar apparently frequented by Hemingway after a fishing trip, is still there, but we’d 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 daquiris at La Floridita and his mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio.
The coaches had caught up with us, so after a quick cocktail we kept moving. Waves of men parted as Janet walked the streets: I love Hemingway; I spend my time talking about him, researching him. If Hemingway were still alive, my husband says he would think I was having an affair with him. ‘
Our last stop was the Ambos Mundos Hotel, curiously since it was Hemingway’s first home in Cuba. There he remained intermittently between 1932 and 1939 when he moved to the farm. The hotel has designated room 511 as a museum; admission costs $ 2 CUC, the amount Hemingway used to pay per night. It was closed. With a quick introduction from a friend, Janet soon had 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 journey through memories. Although the memories of the books and the stories of others, the fact that the stories had been passed on almost gave them more credibility. 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 quickly turned a corner 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 I found a writer described by people. Not Hemingway’s Cuba, but Hemingway’s Cuba. “Let him think that I am more of a man than I am and will be.” Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.
Do you love literature and travel? Visit abookabroad.com for more features.