Cuba and the Importance of Being Ernest

We’re in Havana on the trail of Ernest Hemingway.  First stop is his drinking haunt, the Floridita, where he invented a new, stronger Daiquiri recipe. His lifesize effigy lounges against the bar, frozen in bronze.

Now our taxi rattles over potholes as we leave behind the jewel-bright facades of the old city. We rumble through suburbs where buildings are falling apart. Frontages blackened by mildew resemble a war zone.  In a kind of necrotizing process, the buildings seem to be eating themselves. Beneath their resplendent pink and green bodywork, 1950s Cadillacs are customised with Russian engines and other bits tied on.

Hemingway’s farmhouse, Finca Vigia, sits on a hillside east of Havana. The white clapboard house, where he lived and wrote until 1960, has been restored and furnished with original pieces. Viewing is from outside, through the windows, each framing a room where time hovers with anticipation. It’s as if Hemingway has just stepped outside and might return at any moment. Empty bourbon and gin bottles line up on a table beside his armchair; in the room where he paced around creating his novels, his typewriter rests on a shelf, chest-high. We learn that he typed standing up.

A sharp wind whips through Cojimar, where Hemingway caught marlin, lunched at the Terrasse Hotel with local fishermen and drew inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea.  We buy our driver a drink. He’ll only accept water but he’s thirsty for information about Britain and Europe. He probes me about how our economic system works.In return he offers stories about that other Ernest, the Argentinian doctor turned freedom fighter, adopted by the Cuban people as their hero:  Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.“We Cubans believe he was a god, a legend,” he says.

On the drive back to the city, horse-drawn carts clog the carriageway. He dodges meandering pedestrians and takes us to see Che’s house, a nondescript bungalow plonked next to a white marble statue of Christ that dominates the view over Havana harbour.

Che came from a wealthy background but he lived socialist values and battled against inequality and Imperialism. In 1967, aged just 39, he was assassinated in a CIA-backed plot while leading a guerrilla mission in Bolivia. His iconic image whizzed around the world and became the most recognised face of the late twentieth century. Thirty years later, Che’s remains were repatriated to Cuba and are now interred in a mausoleum in Santa Clara.Hemingway, too, met a violent death. Cubans express relief that his suicide in 1961 took place in America and left Finca Vigia unsullied.

From history, politics and literature, our driver edges the conversation back to economics. When it comes to explaining the bank bailout and the impact of quantitative easing, frankly, I’m struggling. His thanks are generous verging on effusive.

“Now I understand. No one has ever explained this to me before.”Our driver’s name was Francisco. But, perhaps, he was the most earnest of them all.​

(First published in Itchy Feet magazine - April 2014)

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