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Published: August 16th 2012
With Fidel Castro’s health in steady decline and restrictions being eased between the U.S. and Cuba over the past year, I thought this may be my last opportunity to see Cuba as I wanted to see it, ie. 1950’s Chevrolets, Plymouths and Chryslers, some rusted through, others meticulously maintained and shining proudly under the Cuban sun, rolling through the streets with palm trees and the faded paint of colonial buildings creating the backdrop. I also wanted to hear the Cuban music in the streets, see the propaganda billboards, such as ‘Patria o Muerte’ (Patriotism or Death) replete with Fidel’s visage, the stores for the distribution of rations and to feelthe life of Cuba. I also hoped to spend some time on a Cuban beach, drink Mojitos in Ernest Hemingway’s favourite haunts, smoke a Cuban cigar and witness some salsa. Before my head hit my pillow on my third night in Cuba, all of this, and more, had been achieved.
The first item on my agenda was visiting Hemingway’s house, which he left to the people of Cuba after spending much of his life living on this Caribbean island. I thoroughly enjoyed the hours I spent at the property,
gazing through the open doors and windows at his countless books (in 25 languages!), which are neatly stored on shelves in every room except the dining room, which was purely a place for conversation. I also observed his music collection, the empty bottles of alcohol, his military uniforms, along with the numerous animal skins and heads adorning the walls, which were trophies from from his hunting expeditions in Africa. The most interesting thing I learnt was that he wrote standing on his feet! Next to his bed was a bookshelf, with his typewriter placed atop of it and, at its base, the almost worn through animal skin rug that he would stand upon whilst he wrote. Hemingway had a well-earned reputation for his drinking, but he was a man of discipline when it came to his writing and he would never drink when he wrote, dedicating himself to his chosen art. I also saw his boat ‘Pilar’ which was used as the model for the one the old fisherman, Santiago, went out to sea in when fishing for the elusive Marlin in his famous work, ‘The Old Man and the Sea’. Hemingway actually used and captained this boat during WWII
to search for German vessels in the Caribbean, in an effort to assist the U.S. during the war. He actually did detect a couple too! I also enjoyed wandering the grounds and even pulling upon the rope to ring the bell at the main door of the house which he insisted his guests ring upon their arrival.
Having been a voyeur at his house, I then felt that it was only appropriate to drink at a couple of his favourite watering holes. First stop was ‘El Floridita’, where the classic Daiquiri was invented and where he still has the house record for consumption in a single night. There is even a life-size sculpture of Hemingway leaning on the bar in El Floridita. I happily played the tourist and struck a pose for a photo by his side. Accompanying me in Cuba are two girls I have met during my travels, Caroline, a Brit whom I met in Colombia, and Zomi, an Aussie who risked her life on Death Road with me in Bolivia. Therefore, I did not have to drink alone, as they were happy to accompany me on my Hemingway drinking soiree and after having a couple of
Daiquiris and smoking our first Cuban cigar, I informed them that it was time to move on to the Mojito bar, La Bodeguita del Medio. This proved to be an inspired choice, as the drinks were half the price and the band playing in the cramped little bar were brilliant. In this establishment, people sign their names on the walls, bar, cupboards, pipes, bannisters, in fact anything that can be written on, and even the likes of Robert De Niro have left their mark on this tiny bar which is simply bursting with character. I could have stayed there for much longer than time permitted and know that upon my return to Havana, I will be firmly ensconcing myself in there again for an afternoon of drinking, music, conversation and good times.
From Havana we headed to Trinidad, which is my favourite location in Cuba in terms of ‘Old Town’ charm, complete with the cobbled streets being lined with colourful pastel painted homes, upon some of which the paint is sun bleached and fading, others with facades where the paint is peeling off slowly in the tropical heat, revealing colours from days gone by, whilst some exhibit a relatively
fresh, bright coat of paint upon their walls. The people in Trinidad barely get above ambling pace as they move through the streets, usually stopping to chat to one of their neighbours, who all seem to have their living room adjoining the street. The communal way of life in Cuba is something that has inspired me and I hope to employ it into my own life wherever I end up settling. Everyone in Cuba, and I mean everyone, is friendly and loves nothing more than conversation. Therefore, most people spend their lives in the streets, to the extent where I have observed many people who have moved their interior chairs out onto the street, where they sit and talk to their neighbours or a passer-by. Those who don’t leave their house, either sit on their front step, stand in the door way or lean against the open window frame, always ready to engage in conversation. It is absolutely wonderful and sorely missing from too many societies that I have known.
The two other appealing aspects of Trinidad that made an impression upon me were the music in the streets and the proliferation of artists in the community.
Every other home seems to be an art gallery and the stroll to the next one in the street is pleasantly interrupted by a quartet playing and singing classic Cuban tunes that get people smiling, singing and dancing, from young children through to grey-haired folks with a memory that would take them back to the days prior to the revolution. As night descends, everyone heads to ‘Casa de la Musica’, which is an open air venue in the old town where Cuban bands play salsa tunes that get everyone dancing salsa on the cobbled stones in the sultry night, drinking mojitos for refreshment and smiling at how much they are enjoying life in that moment. For those who want to kick on (Caroline, Zomi and I falling into that category), the next stop is an enormous underground cave that has been converted into a nightclub! Hot, steamy, unique and FUN!
The final destination that we had planned to spend time in during our Cuban jaunt was Viñales, a village in the west of Cuba, famous for its striking limestone landscapes and tobacco (this is the home of Cuba’s cigar industry). During a five hour horse ride through the valleys,
we stopped off at an organic tobacco farm and had the whole cigar process explained to us, from seed to smoke. After all of their toil, 90% of what they produce goes to the government for manufacture and export, using chemicals to make the cigar last an extra 10 years. The 10% that remains with the farmers is where the best cigars are to be found, devoid of chemicals and full of flavour. When Colombus first alighted upon the shores of Cuba, he found the indigenous people smoking the tobacco, which he then introduced to Spain and the original cigars were known as ‘Sevillas’. However, demand for higher quality cigars lead to the cigar industry taking off in Cuba to the extent that on the eve of President Kennedy announcing the trade embargo upon Cuba, he collected 1,200 Cuban cigars for himself so that he wouldn’t run out of supply after he implemented the embargo. After having tried one at the farm, I can see why! They taste wonderful, are devoid of nicotine and the honey they use to seal the casing adds to the sweetness of the flavour.
One day we felt like seeing a classical Caribbean beach,
so we took a boat to Cayo Levisa, a tiny strip of mangroves and white sand, complete with all of the alluring hues of blue that the Caribbean Sea conjures in the mind. Spending hours relaxing on these soft sands, floating around in these calm turquoise waters, listening to a great Cuban duo over lunch, you can understand how utterly relaxed and happy we all were by day’s end. This relaxing way of life in and around Viñales has allowed me to do some reading and writing and find a state of relaxed contentment that I haven’t had for some time. My batteries are well and truly recharged and ready for an assault on the bars in Havana and then wherever we decide to travel to after leaving the enchanting shores of Cuba.
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