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Appreciating Cuba's Clichés: In the Steps of Old Man Hemingway

Where: Cuba
February 23, 2011 at 10:31 AM | by | Comments (0)

With President Obama working to lessen Cuba Travel restrictions, the island risks getting caught up in a hurricane of clichés. Thinking travelers aren’t generally fooled by the shiny veneer of places plugged in a Lonely Planet, but don’t discard Cuba’s clichés. They’re what make this intriguing country so exotic, so vibrant and so darned colorful. A Jaunted special secret correspondent discovers the best of each, all this week.

If you haven’t read The Old Man and the Sea I highly recommend you do. It's a bearable 100 or so pages of splashing waves, circling sharks and melodrama giving an easy-grip handle on the strength and defiance of the Cuban character—at least, in the clichéd sense. It won Hemingway the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, after which he famously remarked that “no son of a bitch that ever won the Nobel Prize ever wrote anything worth reading afterwards.”

Aside from that book, I can’t quite see the Hemingway obsession. But plenty of people do, and there’s a flurry of Hemingway-related activities for you to do in Cuba if you’re so inclined.

Avoid El Floridita bar, where Hemingway knocked back a stiff rum cocktail at 10am each morning. It’s always jam-packed (with florid-looking tourists) and guarded by a vicious doorman. Go instead to the Ambos Mundos hotel, where Hemingway started writing For Whom The Bell Tolls. It’s surprisingly cheap, uncrowded, you can visit his old room 511 for a few shillings, and even better you can sit for hours on the bar’s leather sofas listening to the dulcet tones of a resident pianist and writing up your travel notes.

If you’re really keen on Hemingway, make the six-mile trip out from Havana to Cojímar, a ragged-round-the-edges fishing village where Hemingway kept his boat El Pilar and where, supposedly, he modeled the Old Man on his friend the late captain Gregorio Fuentes. It was here that, during the worst years of economic hardship following the fall of the USSR, thousands of desperate Cubans made a break for it Lemming-style on rickety rafts in a vain attempt to reach Florida and a better life. Needless to say, it’s Hemingway’s Cojímar that the Cuban government prefers.

I never made it to the Hemingway Museum in his old house Finca La Vigía, ten miles southeast of central Havana in the quiet suburb of San Francisco de Paula, but they tell me that even if it is open, you can only peer through the windows.

At risk of offending Hemingway aficionados, a far better Cuba-related read is Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, a hilarious rampage through pre-Communist Havana by a vacuum cleaner salesman masquerading as a British secret agent. Fans can take a short pilgrimage to Hotel Sevilla in downtown Havana, in whose restroom our salesman was first recruited as a spy. It serves the best breakfast-with-a-view in a smartly table-clothed rooftop restaurant, and downstairs there’s a free gallery of grainy black-and-white photos displaying the Havana mafia in all their guns and glory.

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