Hemingway’s Havana


“Papa.” I called out to the complete stranger standing in front of Havana’s Hotel Ambos Mundos on the Calle Obispo.

The big man chuckled heartily as only a big man can; the sound originated deep in his barrel chest and rolled forth with the gravity of an ancient cannon being dragged across a stone-flagged courtyard. He was rotund with a big white beard and a theatrically enormous cigar; his embrace was spine-crushing.

I dragged him across to the hotel’s entrance for a photograph. Like many establishments throughout Cuba, the Ambos Mundos trades on its association with Ernest Hemingway and the generously-proportioned impersonator was, in turn, profitably trading off the hotel’s association. It was a symbiotic relationship of the type that drives tourism all around the world; in this case, it added a little extra frisson for the tourists.

Hemingway is big in Cuba. Throughout the 1930s, when Hemingway was rolling towards literary immortality following the enthusiastic reception of The Sun Also Rises, he was a regular visitor to Cuba. Invariably, he would stay at the Ambos Mundos, close to all the bars, restaurants and nightclubs he tore through like a tornado.

Room 511, on the front corner of the building, with a balcony looking up the Calle Obispo to the Plaza de Armas and the waterfront beyond, was his favoured room and it has been turned into a shrine to Hemingway. It is recreated for the period when Papa called it home, down to its plain single bed, typewriter and various personal effects. The entrance fee to the museum is two convertible pesos, equivalent to about $US2 which was the amount Hemingway paid per night for his room.

The hotel publicity claims he wrote Death In The Afternoon and The Green Hills of Africa in that room. Subsequent books would be written at Finca Vigia or Lookout Farm, a property he later purchased outside Havana and which has since become Hemingway Central for his fans, part museum, part national shrine.

Reminders of Hemingway are everywhere in Havana. At the other end of the Calle Obispo is the Floridita, a bar and restaurant that lays claim to inventing the Daiquiri; Hemingway, ever the shill for his own legend, preferred a double-shot of the cocktail. In between, in just about every street and narrow laneway, there’s some reminder of Papa, no matter how obscure.

Later in life, Hemingway would drink to mitigate the pain from two plane crashes he had endured in Africa. When he was young and virile, he drank because he enjoyed it and it complemented his burgeoning reputation. It was what men did and Hemingway fashioned himself as a man in a world that was becoming increasingly marginalised.

Cuba’s adoration for Hemingway straddles the cultural chasm between the man and the legend. Hemingway the man loved adventure, world travel, his many cats, his numerous dogs, drinking, and women, not necessarily in that order. Hemingway nurtured the myth in his own lifetime and it has flourished in the decades since, in the silent early hours of a gentle summer morning, he took his favourite twelve-gauge Boss shotgun onto the porch of his cottage in Ketchum, Idaho, and consigned himself to legend.

No-one in Cuba talks about the old Hemingway, his creative waters muddied by old injuries, half blind and rattled by electroconvulsive therapy. To Cubans, he is a folk hero, a man shaped by the magnetic attraction of heroic bravado and superhuman appetites.

He represents the Latin ideal of machismo and it fits well with the Cuban love of life – to live heartily, love with no regret and damn the consequences. Hemingway would have approved.

Words and photos © David Latta

The Human Face Of Havana


Cubans have an innate ability to survive the difficulties of life. They do this by harnessing their vibrant sense of humour to an endearingly lateral approach to making money from tourism.

Have an old car held together with spit, paint and fencing wire? Turn it into a taxi. Know some good bars and restaurants? Become an unofficial tourist guide. Have an interesting face? Pose for photos. The upside is that the enterprising Cubans can expect their stipends in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) which are issued only to foreign visitors and are worth 20 times more than the Cuban Pesos (CUP) the locals use. Officially, locals aren’t allowed to handle tourist pesos but there’s a thriving trade nonetheless.

The CUC was introduced to give the government greater control over foreign currency. British pounds, Canadian dollars, Euros and Japanese Yen are all extremely welcome. US dollars can be exchanged but the Government rubs it in by levying a 10 per cent fee on top of the normal currency exchange transactions. The Americans don’t seem to mind too much; they pay 10 per cent more for the currency to buy cigars that cost 70 per cent less than they do back home if they can get them. They seem to think it’s a win-win situation.

Locals ready for their Kodak moments congregate around the Plaza de Armas at the waterfront end of the Calle Obispo. The site of the Plaza was where Havana was created in the 1600s and it grew outwards from there, becoming the first city square and an important part in its social life. One of the most important buildings surrounding the square is the baroque Palace of the Captain Generals, built in the late 18th century, which has performed many duties over the years and is now a museum.

The park in the middle of the square is lush and shady, providing welcome shelter on hot days. Around the edges are stalls selling antiquarian and second-hand books, many of which deal with Fidel Castro. Some of the sellers also offer vintage gambling chips from the 1950s when American gangsters such as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano ran Havana casinos.

There are always locals eager to pose for photographs if the price is right. Some dress up in elaborate costumes such as Carmen Miranda (overlooking the minor detail that the fruit salad-draped movie star was born in Portugal and raised in Brazil), others are content just to be themselves.

What they do with the money they make is anyone’s guess. When I visited a local supermarket, I found aisle upon aisle empty except for one section that had hundreds of tins of Nestlé Quik. As fresh milk, like most other foodstuffs with the occasional exception of rice and beans, is in exceedingly short supply, and what is available is prohibitively expensive, it’s little wonder it hadn’t flown off the shelves.

Words and photos © David Latta

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