Hemingway’s escapades, chasing macho kicks around the globe, mean that he has a quiver full of stories that tie him to many of the world’s must see places. Out of all his writing though, The Old Man and the Sea, would have to stand as his most iconic. Not only did it win the Nobel Prize for Literature but even while he was still alive, he and the story were being used as a tourist drawcard of the opulent Cuban capital. ‘Step right up and drink a daiquiri, or twenty, with the man himself.’ His favoured watering hole, the Floridita, now has a statue that you can sidle up to but the place is an absolute tourist trap and I’ve never really understood such a masculine figure’s interest in such a sickly sweet drink.
Hemingway had, and still, elicits hero-like status in Cuba, on par with Fidel and Che. As you walk the markets of Havana there are just as many copies of Hemingway’s books and photos of the Big Pappa as there are of Fidel and Che, puffing proudly on their cigars, post-revolutionary success. Much like the luck of the old angler in Pappa’s story though, Havana’s sheen has largely worn off. This creates an odd paradox. Every street and building is a photo op of decomposed cool. Pre-1950s, U.S. made mobiles snake their way through vibrant terrace blocks. Buildings so rich with character they appear to bare the wrinkles of the old sea dog himself. It’s bitter sweet. Sweet, as they harken back to a bygone era of prosperity, continuing to house families rich in pride and passion. Bitter, as their decay reflects a deeper degradation. An insidious dictatorship and corruption, gnawing away at the country.
Having spent a few weeks in the U.S. prior to arrival, I genuinely wrestled with where I would rather live. In Cuba, all your basic needs are catered for, but your freedoms, another story. Cuban accommodation consists of either overpriced hotels or Casa Particulares, a home-stay style system. Here the owner pays a fee of 300 Cooks a month in exchange for the privilege of housing tourists. Think of it as Communist AirBnB. Our host was a vivacious woman named Mercy who delivered every sentence in Spanish and English, giggled profusely and regularly gave me an encouraging pat on the arse every time I left the house. She was joyous but unable to visit her son in the U.S. Another lovely gentleman we spent the morning with showed us his food ration card that every citizen gets, then informed us that locals are not allowed to order fish or beef in the restaurants. This wouldn’t leave enough to service the tourists.
Make sure you get out of Havana. Entertainment in the city regularly resembles what might be served up on a 1950s cruise liner. Even Buena Vista Social Club played in a cheesy setting, coupled with a concluding geriatric shuffle but the quintessential sound makes it worth a hit. The countryside is lush and the beaches’ sand is white enough to fry your eyes. We didn’t find any waves but the water was warm and a hundred shades of blue. Reading The Old Man and the Sea with its titular setting in the backdrop is the way to do it. Cuba ain’t an easy travel but just as the book will share, the value is in the struggle. Dig this: “He always thought of the sea as 'la mar' which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as 'el mar' which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”
Cuba is definitely a woman.