Discovering Hemingway’s Cuba

I fell in love with Cuba, or at least the idea of Hemingway’s Cuba, in my mid teens. I read an article about the writer and delighted in the romance of a bygone age, salsa and adventure preserved in time. Maybe the idea of vintage cars made the historic more tangible. I determined that one day I would go and discover it for myself. It was twenty years before I would travel to La Isle Grande in 2008, nearly 50 years after Hemingway’s death.

I was less naïve in the romance of Hemingway’s life but still enamoured enough to want to find out more about the man and the country. Havana was as beautiful as I’d hoped. I had learnt a little Spanish for day to day – enough to help me survive service-only food stores and even ask directions.

I was staying in the old town and made myself busy by visiting the usual tourist haunts of cigar and rum factories, and exploring streets of crumbling architecture – making sense of the many influences from Moorish to Mafioso. As splendidly as the Hotel Nacional stands many of the buildings looked very much like they were returning to nature. Overgrown maybe in part to urban gardening established in the período especial, the special period, when the dissolution of the Soviet Union severely hit the Cuban economy in 1991.

To compensate for the shortages in supplies Cubans grew their own food on whatever piece of land was available – empty plots, roof tops, car parks. Times were still tough or at least availability of everyday goods like soap was limited. I was overwhelmed by the friendliness and generosity of the Cubans, the laugher, the dancing and the eternal phrase ‘mojito by day, salsa by night’. But I wanted to know more about Hemingway. ‘Janet, Janet’ was the response to my stumbling Spanish. An energetic hand wave at the clock and much finger pointing left me in no doubt I should be in the hotel lobby at 9am the next morning. There I would meet Janet.

Hemingway lived in Cuba between the 1930s and 50s where he wrote seven books, including For Whom The Bell Tolls and Islands in the Stream but it was The Old Man and the Sea that was his most famous work. The Old Man of the title is Santiago, an aging fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1952 and contributed to Hemingway being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. The prize was something that Hemingway had previously aspired to but was humble to accept; some have suggested because it imbued his sense of mortality.

Janet arrived in a yellow cab. Like other Cuban women in official roles she wore an impossibly short skirt but with a welcoming smile and after (thankfully brilliant English) introductions we were soon heading nine miles out of the city, into the hills and to Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigía, or Lookout Farm.

Leaving Havana behind us we were soon in lush green countryside looking down at the sea. Born a few years after Hemingway’s death Janet seemed troubled she had never met the man but she had researched and met many of his friends. She explained that the Cuban government had spent a million dollars to restore Finca Vigia to its original condition, including the grounds, garage and the author’s fishing boat, the Pilar. It’s the most visited museum in Cuba, we were visiting off-season but she still warned that we would need 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 in through the open windows in complete solitude.

Despite the warning we didn’t rush and Janet’s stories of the larger than life character, playing baseball with local kids and supporting the local community made me feel I was visiting her friend rather than a celebrity author, famous for his womanising and drinking. I gasped when I saw a giant frog in a jar for Janet to explain how Hemingway had nurtured it back to health only for it to be killed by one of his cats. The frog remains pickled for posterity, in remembrance of Hemingway’s surprising kindness or maybe the cruelness of life and the hard years of illness and injury the writer suffered while living in Cuba.

Sure enough as our cab sped away we saw the first of the coaches to arrive. We went to Cojimar, a little port six miles east of Havana where Hemingway had kept the Pilar. The town was also the inspiration for the village in The Old Man and the Sea. We could see a lone fisherman out in the bay that would have been teeming in days gone by.

Over lunch I took the opportunity to hear more about living in Cuba during the special period. I felt more awkward asking, than Janet did speaking about the time when she had been just a teenager. The government gave each family a pig or a chicken for food according to the household’s size, she said, but they had never looked after animals before. Janet’s brother was given a pig that he took back to his wife in their Havana apartment – what would you do with a pig in a city centre flat? Wash it. The wife couldn’t bear the smell. ‘We called it the fish pig she 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 endurance. Santiago is considered “salao”, an extreme form of unluckiness. The fisherman has eighty-four days of not catching a fish but then on the eight-fifth snags a huge marlin. The novella is like a mirror reflecting human resilience, the humour that supports it and the strength and ideas we cling onto to when times are hardest. Maybe strength like a larger-than-life character who courted worldwide publicity whilst openly celebrating life in Cuba. A keen fisherman himself, Hemingway was well known in Cojimar.

After his suicide in 1961 local fishermen donated metal from their boats – propellers and cleats – for a sculpture to be made in memory of the much-respected man. La Terraza, the bar Hemingway apparently frequented 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 otherwise, would not be complete without a trip to the bars in Havana. He was well known for his daquiris in La Floridita and mojitos in 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 strode through the streets, ‘I love Hemingway; I spend my time talking about him, researching him. If Hemingway was still alive my husband says he would think I’m having an affair with him’.

Our final stop was the Ambos Mundos Hotel, strangely as it was Hemingway’s first home in Cuba. He stayed there on and off between 1932 and 1939 when he moved to the farm. The hotel has designated Room 511 a museum; the entrance 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 excellent views over the harbour and the smiles and excitement of Havana old town. It was easy to see why Hemingway had fallen in love with Cuba.

I’m glad to have met Janet, her’s was a personal tour of memories. Although memories from books and others’ stories the fact the tales had been passed on almost gave them more credence. Everywhere we went there was real affection for Hemingway, even pride that he’d chosen the beautiful island to make it his home. It was as if he still lived there, that if I quickly turned a corner he would be playing baseball with a gang of kids on the street.

I had travelled to discover a world described by a writer and instead found a writer described by the people. Not Hemingway’s Cuba, but Cuba’s Hemingway. “Let him think that I am more man than I am and I will be so.” Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.

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