Hemingway's Cuba

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Mar 01, 2007

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Flag of Cuba  ,
Monday, February 26, 2007

"You do not tell them about the strange and lovely birds that are on the farm the year round, nor about all the migratory birds that come through, nor that quail come in the early mornings to drink at the swimming pool, nor about the different types of lizards that live and hunt in the thatched arbor at the end of the pool, nor the eighteen different kinds of mangoes that grow on the long slope up to the house.... You work as well there in those cool early mornings as you ever have worked anywhere in the world."
  -- Hemingway, The Great Blue River (1949)

Monday we negotiate a cab for two hours and drive southeast to Finca la Vigia, Hemingway's villa where he lived for 20 years before checking into the Mayo Clinic and blowing his head off.

In my 20s I did the whole Hemingway cycle including several biographies. In my recollections, his bouts of depression all seem to be tied to the US. He left Cuba a year after the revolution. At his last swordfish derby, he presented Castro with a trophy. It was a photo-op neither could resist, I imagine. The cheerleader of the left-leaning Republicans in the Spanish Civil War with the new leftist head of Cuba. The resulting photograph is on the wall of Hemingway's old haunt, the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Habana Vieja.

Whether Hemingway ditched Cuba for mental or political reasons, I don't know. His gift of the villa to "the Cuban people" saved Castro the necessity of confiscating it along with all other US-held property after relations with its closest neighbour went to hell. I can't help wondering if the final months of his life might not have been better in his adopted country, even with the guns and depression and the stuffed heads of his trophies watching him in every room like his own private haunting.

Novelist Robert Stone visited this house at the height of Cuba's stalled death spiral, the Special Period of the early 90s. With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Cuba suddenly found itself destitute, its people using toothpaste for laundry detergent, desperate for any sign of meat. The state of the villa at the time was too perfect an analogy for the acerbic Stone.

"It was a ghastly sight, moldering indecently in full view like an open grave. In the living room, ancient bottles of rye from long-defunct distilleries had gone cloudy white. Newspapers and old magazines were piled in hideous yellowing stacks." A former household servant "spoke of her late employer with a certain suppressed humor and without affection."

Today, the empty bottles and yellowing magazines are gone. In a rare joint US-Cuba project, thousands of Papa's documents are being digitized in the US. The Cubans are just finishing a beautiful restoration of the villa, putting it back to its 50s glory, when starlets swam naked in the pool and Hemingway emerged from his four hours of morning writing to drink with his guests.

Jonathan serves as an ambassador here as everywhere. He's actually carried into Hemingway's study by one of the woman who guard the interior (and take a few discrete photos inside for a coin or two). Out in the yard, a crew of carpenters is working on the decking of Hemingway's yacht, Pilar. Papa gushed on about this boat in "The Great Blue River." He'd be grateful for the workmanship on display here. Lucy is fascinated by everything -- the bunks visible through portholes, the fighting chair, the flying bridge, the prop. As I had just read his description, I can talk all about the boat. I've never had her so captivated, so alert to my (long) descriptions. This from a kid who needs "Go and pee" repeated to her ten times.

I think Hemingway, with his game trophies, endless books and life of privilege, is a source of slight bewilderment to the Cubans. Both the workers whom I chat with (in a prohibido area) and our taxi driver Yolanda laugh when I say I think he was un poco loco. Yes, more than a little crazy, is the response. I think they're bemused, too, by the endless procession of foreigners who make this pilgrimage to a dead English-speaking author's retreat in a Spanish-speaking country.


Yolanda stops at a gate along the highway so I can barter for bananas. Ten Cuban pesos (about 40 cents Canadian) garners me a whole stalk of fingerling bananas so perfectly ripened that the flesh has a peach glow under the yellow peel. We all happily munch away, watching the countryside become more urban.

Yolanda drops us off at the improbably named Restaurante La Divina Pastora, situated on a baked piece of waterfront between the two big fortresses on the east side of Havana`s harbour. The Morro castle is assaulted constantly by tour buses, the much larger Cabana fortress is a ghost town, as if its fortifications have proven too much for the tourists to penetrate. After a cool and overpriced lunch, we venture into the hot day. Walking up the hill to the fortresses the sun gets into your pores, the humidity turns perspiration sticky.

The Cabana was built by Spain at great expense, but the British still managed to tunnel inside. The vast space behind its massive flanks and bastions contains canons in the dozens and a 6000-troop capacity. Now those barracks lie vacant. The few operational bars and eateries tucked away in various corners simply underline the enormity of the scale. After the revolution Castro and Guevara (who had his command post here) housed counterrevolutionaries and dissidents here before executing them along its walls -- they don't mention this more recent history on any of the bilingual signage.

From the walls of the fortress, old Havana glistens across the narrow channel that links the harbour with the Straits of Florida. Beyond it, the more derelict parts of the city poke a crumbling or scaffolded tower into the skyline. It's a view that has altered little for a century and more. I picture schooners not freighters plying this channel. I imagine a post-war shine on about the same scene (minus the tour buses) sixty years ago when Hemingway wrote:

"Coming out of the harbor I will be on the flying bridge steering and watching the traffic and the line that is fishing the feather astern. As you go out, seeing friends along the water front -- lottery-ticket sellers you have known for years, policemen you have given fish to and who have done favors in their turn, bum-boatmen who lose their earnings standing shoulder to shoulder with you in the betting pit at the jai-alai fronton, and friends passing in motorcars along the harbor and ocean boulevard who wave and you wave to but cannot recognize at that distance, although they can see the Pilar and you on her flying bridge quite clearly -- your feather jig is fishing all the time.
"Behind the boulevards are the parks and buildings of old Havana and on the other side you are passing the steep slopes and walls of the fortress of Cabanas, the stone weathered pink and yellow, where most of your friends have been political prisoners at one time or another; and then you pass the rocky headland of the Morro...."


We get a lift back to the Hotel Nacional in a beat-up 51 Buick. For every gleaming gem from this era, there are a lot more of these smoggy machines with unattached back seats. Lucy and I infiltrate the pool again while Rosemary rests for the final chapter of her longest day with me -- a night of music at the Gran Teatro.

The concert for Ibrahim Ferrer, who would have been 80 today, features dance, Santeria drumming, film clips and a 20-piece orchestra including the living members of the Buena Vista Social Club. The 2000-seat theatre is packed, and the democratic nature of the seating, where Cubans who paid pennies rub elbows with tourists who paid $25, means the singing isn't just up on stage, but all around us. Afterwards, Rosemary treats me to a cocktail on the top of the Parque Central hotel. We toast to the success of the trip and to more in the future.
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mbgower on

Re: Fidel and Papa
Thanks for the correction. Yep, got it backwards. I was working from a hasty scribble I'd made in the margin from one of my bad translations. I'll have to fire my fact checker :)

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