Our expedition has had few glitches so far. As I’ve mentioned previously, some of my friends who know Cuba think I am absolutely crazy to be coordinating these adventures. There are often surprises and changes along the way. Last night, a friend who is a physician in Havana emailed me and said he wouldn’t get together with our group. He is in the eastern part of Cuba near Santiago, helping with the clean-up from Hurricane Sandy, which devastated Cuba’s second largest city. The western part of Cuba wasn’t directly affected, but travel companies are scrambling to adjust to revised plans. Some of the longer tours are reconsidering taking visitors to far eastern Cuba. We’ve adjusted our program and re-scheduled some activities, but our plans have always focused on the western part of the island.
We have seen a lot of interesting sights during the last couple of days. Earnest Hemingway first came to Cuba in 1932 and eventually lived here for about 20 years. In the Moon Handbook: Cuba, Christopher Baker writes, “Walking Havana’s streets you can still feel Hemingway’s presence. It is easy to imagine the sun-bronzed writer driving in his brand-new Chrysler New Yorker convertible, white mane and beard haloed in tropical light, hoary chest showing beneath khaki shirt, en route for his daily double daiquiri with his friends.”
On Monday we saw Hemingway’s Room #511 at the Hotel Ambos Bundos. It has been permanently made into a mini-museum. We saw many artifacts from the times he lived here intermittently between 1932 and 1939. His old typewriter, letters, photographs, clothing, and other items are displayed. After that we took a drive to see his simple but elegant countryside hilltop estate, about 12 miles east of Havana: Finca Vigia. In 1939 Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, found Finca Vigia and thought it would be a good place to relocate to. Hemingway rented it for $100 a month, and when his first royalty check from For Whom the Bell Tolls arrived in 1940, he was able to buy the entire estate for USD$18,500. Even though he traveled abroad often during the next 20 years, he continued to call Finca Vigia home until 1960. Everybody in our group loved this trip to the Cuban countryside. After visiting Hemingway’s home, we drove to the small fishing village of Cojimar. This is where Hemingway kept his boat Pilar. We had lunch at Las Terrazas restaurant, overlooking the small harbor and beach.
Christopher Baker wrote, “With the Cold War and The United States’ break with Cuba, Hemingway had to choose. Not being able to return to Cuba contributed to Hemingway’s depression, says his son Patrick: ‘He really loved Cuba, and I think it was a great shock to him at his age to have to choose between his country, which was the United States, and his home, which was Cuba.’ ‘’
Today, we saw a variety of sights and met some wonderful Cubans as our people-to-people program continued. One of the highlights was visiting ISA—the Instituto Superior de Arte. After the revolution, Fidel and Che played golf at the exclusive Havana Country Club, before converting the grounds to house Cuba’s leading art academy. We were able to chat with many young students, who proudly showed us their creative efforts.
After lunch we visited a couple of communitarian projects. At Muraleando, we met with community leaders who greeted us and showed us around their community. They were obviously proud of the work they did to convert several blocks into an open-air at exhibit. We enjoyed listening to a Cuban band made up of local residents. It always amazes me to hear the consistently high-quality of Cuban musicians, whether in a small community, on the street, or at the Tropicana nightclub.
We ended our day by visiting the Callejon de Hamel, an alley with many murals and sculptures. The walls of apartment buildings five stories tall have been painted with colorful scenes of Cuba. Continuing with our people-to people program, we were treated to a demonstration of African dance by some local residents.
Tonight some of our group had dinner with a friend I’ve known for six years, and his wife. He told us about being a 12-year old kid during the revolution. He was sent hundreds of miles away to teach reading and writing to the very young and, older people in a remote part of Cuba. Just eighteen months after the revolution, Cuba was considered to be 99% literate. Today he is a retired engineer; under a new Cuban policy, he and his wife have received visas to visit his son, daughter-in-law, and children in the U.S. next year.
It’s been a wonderful week in Cuba so far. Tomorrow we will be on the road, heading west through the Cuban Countryside, visiting many sights including Vinales national Park. We are all looking forward to it very much.