In The Steps Of Ernest Hemingway

Josephine Jones

© Copyright 2018 by Josephine Jones

Statue3 of Hemingway in Havana..

I wanted to go to Cuba because it has an interesting history, from the overthrow of Spanish rule and slavery to a communist state which allowed Catholicism and now permits private enterprise and encourages tourism.

Next I tried to get books written by Ernest Hemingway from the Library. The only one I could find was Islands in the Sea, set around islands off Cuba.
Then I looked on the net and found several of his books for £8 inclusive, from the Book People. I had already read The Sun Also Rises, a novel about Italy in the Second World War. I also enjoyed For whom the Bell Tolls, about the Spanish Civil War. Both had been made into films which I had seen.

So a trip to his house and the bars where he drank was a must for things to do in Cuba. And now I was thrilled to be actually in Cuba after I had read so much about it. The day before Hazel and I had booked a Hemingway trip with Giaviota, a company that had a desk in our hotel. So at 9.15 a.m. we were standing in the crowded hotel foyer waiting for what we thought would be a coach.9.30a.m; no sign of our coach. The Receptionist on the Giaviota desk rang up on our behalf. “They are on their way.” Eventually the tour guide, a pretty, olive skinned girl, wearing the green t shirt of the company came up to us. We were looking for a coach but to our surprise she led us outside and a few yards down the road was a newish shiny, black saloon car. It had been raining off and on that morning so we were wearing our rain jackets. May is the start of the rainy season.Maria our guide carried a brolly, for use against rain or sun.

We drove past large hotels situated in Miramar along the Malecon that runs along the coast. Then following the coastline, with ocean views, into the old Havana. We were dropped off in Plaza de Armas where the attentive driver, Rafael, in white shirt and black trousers helped us out of the car. There was a line of well kept classic American cars of many colours, pale blue, pink, yellow. Many were open with immaculate, pale leather seats Their owners were touting for passengers, as were horse and carriage owners and rickshaw owners. The square is lined by baroque Spanish buildings and to the right a large 16th century fort. We walked through the centre of the square which is a park full of tropical vegetation. We were approached by women in bright, colourful long dresses and turbans. They would not have looked out of place in Nigeria. I thought they were jineteras, hustlers. But I was wrong. Apparently they are employed by the Government, and for a price you can photograph them or be photographed with them. From what we could see old men tourists liked the latter.

As we followed Maria we noticed that every corner of the streets, with tall buildings, was filled with the melodies of musicians. They were also selling CDs or hoping for a small donation. We continued along an ordinary work a day street to the unimposing entrance of the Hotel Ambos Mundos. We went up for a view from the fifth floor with a lift operator in a creaky, old lift with the old-fashioned cage like doors. We walked around the open area, which was used as a restaurant, weather permitting. It seemed that all Old Havana was visible, a mixture of buildings from the modern white smooth walled university, and 19th century sedate, to near derelict blocks of flats where washing was hanging out. The bright colours were reminiscent of bunting.

Then we went into the room where Hemingway stayed before he bought his house. Another guide talked to us. Most was self evident. His typewriter was on a table in a glass case. It was similar to smaller version of a portable I bought in South Africa in the sixties. Apparently he typed standing up because after sustaining injuries in two aeroplane crashes in Africa he was unable to sit for long periods. His bed was in the corner. Behind the partition for his bed was a shower and wardrobe. Our viewing was privileged because waiting for us three to leave was a a large party of Americans waiting to fill up his room.

Next we poked our heads into a tiny, crowded bar, La Bodeguita del Medio, little shop in the middle, referring to its origins as a food shop and a bar was added later. The bar was of dark wood, and the shelves behind ,full of bottles of drink. The walls were crammed full of memorabilia, old framed photos of Hemingway, and other famous people . There was no room for anymore visitors signatures on the walls. Some were famous, most were unknown. Hanging on the wall was a framed, paper signed by Hemingway. ‘Mojito in La Bodeguita and daiquiri in La Floridita.

Next to a flying visit to the Floridita where Hemingway invented the cocktail daiquiri consisting of rum lemon juice and a few drops of maraschino. I preferred the mojito which he also drank, a long drink made with fresh mint leaves in a glass with rum, ice, lime juice and sparkling water. If my husband had been with me he would have said that I would write better having been to Hemingway haunts. He said that when we went to famous Parisian cafes frequented by famous writers. We only poked our heads in these bars. It was later when I tasted these drinks, obtainable in any bar throughout Cuba.

Back to our waiting car to go off to Finca La Vigia, Hemingway’s house in San Francisco de Paula . We travelled the 15 kilometres through poor districts interspersed with open grassed areas and large acacia trees with yellow or orange blossoms, these also lined the wide roads. The most spectacular trees were the tall wide spreading flamboya trees with their bright red flowers. San Miguel was a large shopping area with a market consisting of a mass of people in from the surrounding countryside. There were queues of people waiting for what could only be described as cattle trucks. In fact cattle would have had more space. A vehicle with open slits in the middle where people were sitting and standing . There were also proper buses but they were also packed to more than official capacity.

Leaving small old wooden one storey houses, we entered a drive through a well wooded area of big solid trees which led to the large white house built on raised ground. I imagine in Hemingway’s day it would have been in the heart of the countryside.

The grounds were full of tropical trees and plants, deep purple , and dark red bougainvillea. It was the mango season so large green mangos hung from large trees. There was a fresh smell from the damp earth and the scent of blossoms filled the air.We climbed up steps to the house. The curator opened up the door and we were allowed to look inside but not enter. As it had been raining, and had now stopped we were lucky because on wet days they do not open the doors and windows,in case the rain damages the inside. You can never walk inside the house. Apparently the museum is afraid that people will steal all the artefacts around. Hemingway had 9,000 books spread throughout the house. On the walls of the sitting room were the heads of animals he had shot. A buffalo and several different antelope. I read The Green Hills of Africa. Such a lovely title, which did not live up to my expectations. It was a list of the biggest animals, he had shot. Elephants, rhino and various types of antelopes. To top it all he was in competition with a friend as to who could shoot the biggest animal in each catogory. It was quite sickening. I enjoyed reading The Snows of Kilimanjaro after seeing the film with Gregory Peck, my favourite film star, and Ava gardener. It was about a man dying of blood poisoning. While waiting for the rescue aeroplane he was regretting all the books he had not written. Apparently he was based on Scott Fitzgerald whom Hemingway thought had wasted his talent by living an extravagant life and not writing more.

The house looked really comfortable not too big. His fourth wife Mary Welch had a tower added to the building so that he could write in peace. Although he never did write there. Our guide said the telescope was there so that he could watch Ava Gardener when she bathed naked in his swimming pool. Perhaps she was joking.

Hemingway was fond of cats and was reputed to have 50 over his time in his house. In his garden were small tombstones for four dogs, Black, Negro, Linda and Neron. There was no mention of where the cats were buried.

After I bought a sugar cane drink from a vendor outside the house we went on the short journey to Cojimar. This was where Hemingway moored his boat Pilar and set out on his big game fishing trips. The boat, which we had just seen is now preserved in his house which we had just visited. Cojimar was the setting for his prize winning novel. The Old Man and the Sea which I did not enjoy. It is about a man who dies trying to tire out the fish.

While there we went to the restaurant, La Terrazzo , a government restaurant. There were also private restaurants but a tourist cannot tell the difference. At the wooden bar we were treated to a blue cocktail in a baby sham glass. It was real touristy full of Japanese. Through the open window you could see the turquoise water and the green vegetation of the other side of the bay. The best view would have been from a table permanently set for four with the same china and cutlery that had been used by Hemingway and guests. Did they expect ghosts? What a waste of such a vista.
It was an enjoyable experience, even without a view, as we did not sit near a window. Hazel and I sat with Maria and Rafael. While we were enjoying a paella she told us that she had one daughter who was two years old and did not think she would have another child for economic reasons. Apparently most couples are not having more than two children.

For the last leg of our wonderful trip we walked with Maria the short distance along the coast road to look at the 17th Century fort right on the sea front. Opposite is a small square named Hemingway and in the middle is a bust of the head of the author. His fisherman friends donated anchors, hooks and tools to pay for the casting.

Safely back at our hotel we were unsure how much to tip. We obviously tipped too much because when Hazel handed over her money, Maria said that your friend had already tipped. Hazel assured her it was correct. We agreed that the trip was worth every cuc. and more.

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