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Picking up the tres guitar

As I mentioned yesterday, Cam is a pretty damn fine musician. In fact, he’s just recently cut his first CD, “The Grace and the Grit” (which you can hear samples from by going here). Anyway, we walked along the waterfront back to La Terraza, the very cool little restaurant that was one of Hemingway’s favorites and where he often went in the afternoon to buy a round of beers for the fishermen in exchange for them telling him stories about their adventures out on the ocean.

It was from one of these tales (or perhaps a combination of several) that Hemingway got the idea for The Old Man and the Sea, the book generally recognized for bringing the Nobel Prize in Literature to Hemingway in 1954. Hem was at Finca La Vigía when he learned that he’d won the Nobel, which he’d long coveted.

“This prize belongs to Cuba, since my works were created and conceived in Cuba, with the inhabitants of Cojimar, of which I am a citizen,” Hemingway said when he placed the medal at the foot of the Madonna del Cobre near Santiago de Cuba.

We walked in to La Terraza and in the bar was a son band playing to a group of Scandinavian tourists. We sat in the back by an open window that faced the harbor so we could catch the fresh breeze. As we were ordering a round of Cristals, the son band came into the back room and started playing. I could see that Cam was particularly fascinated by the lead singer who was playing an instrument he’d never seen before. He asked me if I knew what it was. I told him it was a tres guitar, so named became it uses three pairs of strings instead of the usual six. When the band stopped playing, we called the leader over and asked if we could look at his tres. He was happy to show it off. He handed it to Cam who tried to pick a few chords. The guitarist took the guitar back and showed him how to play it. Cam studied him intently. For the rest of the story, you really need to just watch the video as I captured the scene live. I figure that some day when Cam is the next Eric Clapton, this video will be famous.

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The old man of Cojimar

From the fort at Cojímar we walked over to a little plaza across the street where there is a bust of Hemingway which is a copy of the one at the El Floridita in Havana where, back in the 1930s, Hem supposedly helped the bartender, Constante Ribalaigua, perfect the daiquiri (I’m talking about the real thing, made with white rum, lemon juice, sugar, and a few drops of maraschino juice, not those godawful frozen things you get nowadays).

The fishermen of Cojimar in front of the bust of Hemingway. In the middle, with hands in his pockets, is Pilar's captain, Gregorio Fuentes.

Anyway, the story is that after Hemingway died, his fisherman friends decided they’d like to have this bust of the author made as a tribute. But times were tough and money was short. So they went around Cojímar and collected anchors, hooks, tools, propellers—anything that could be melted town and used for the bust. And here it is, with a lovely verdigris patina, facing the harbor.

Sitting on the steps in front of the Hemingway bust was another old man of the sea cradling a guitar on his lap. Now, Cam is quite the musician (more about that tomorrow) and can’t help but have a look at any instrument he comes across, so obviously he was curious to see what sort of a guitar the old man had. He sat down next to the old guy and they chatted a bit. Then Cam asked him to play something for us. The old guy didn’t need much encouragement. He immediately broke into a solo rendition of the Cuban classic “Chan Chan.”

Well, it wasn’t the best version I’ve ever heard. But you’ve got to give the old guy credit for giving it a try. You can see the whole thing on the video above. I think the most humorous thing is when the dog in the background starts barking. At first I thought he was just barking at us but it becomes clear, as you’ll see, that he was either accompanying the old man’s singing or, more likely, protesting. Anyway, it’s quite funny.

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The fort at Cojimar

The 17th century fort at Cojimar. Photo by Nick Fletcher.

In order to get through Finca La Vigía quickly, we decided to forego hiring an English-speaking guide and, instead, I led the tour. I was sure I knew as much as the guides since I’d been coming here for five years and, anyway, our experience with the guides was that while they were enthusiastic when talking about Hemingway and his family, they weren’t always accurate. For instance, for years our English-speaking guide (there was only one and we’d gotten her for three years straight) insisted that Hemingway did not commit suicide. Right. The wrong end of his Bass shotgun just happened to get stuck in his mouth one morning and of course the only thing to do about it was to try and free it by using your toes to pull both triggers. Who knew there were shotgun shells in the gun?

Anyway, I told the boys, who were somewhat new to Ernest Hemingway, the most interesting stories about his time here in Cuba—how he chalked his weight up on the bathroom walls every morning; how he’d shot this massive male kudu in Africa and Mussolini heard about it and wanted the trophy, sending Hem a blank check, and Hem had sent the check back with a note on it saying “If you want a kudu, Mussolini, go shoot one yourself”; how Ava Gardner and Hem used to swim naked in the pool together.

Afterwards, we piled back into the old beat-up Impala and headed down to Cojímar to have lunch at La Terraza. Greg hadn’t come to the Finca with us. Instead, he’d spent the morning at the Museo de la Revolucíon. His plan was to take a taxi to Cojímar and meet us for lunch around two. When we got to La Terraza he hadn’t arrived yet so we decided to walk around the town a bit. It was a very hot and humid day and what I was really thinking was that I wanted to go into the coolness of the La Terraza bar and have a cold Cristal but Hardy was set on showing the boys the sights of Cojímar, such as they are, so I went along with the program.

We walked down to the dilapidated pier where Hemingway’s boat, Pilar, was often docked. There was a group of young boys and men fishing. We stopped and asked them if they were having any luck. They said not much. A small snapper, no bigger than six or seven inches, was lying in the sun on the concrete of the pier. I didn’t know if the fish was for eating or for bait. One of the boys leaned far out over the pier trying to look underneath it while another man held his feet. Perhaps, I thought, they were trying to catch crabs. In any case, the bay was obviously pretty much fished out.

There is a 17th century stone fort at Cojímar that was built in 1645 as the easternmost defense point of Havana. These days it’s some sort of military garrison. There are signs as you approach the fort that tell you to not approach it, but Hardy decided they weren’t talking about him so he and Cam walked down the short road to the fort and started to climb the stairs. At the foot of the stairs was another sign saying in Spanish that this was a restricted zone and anyone going past this point was subject to arrest. Fletch translated the sign, yelling to Hardy and Cam as they continued going up the stairs.

“You really want to go to prison in Cuba just because you want to have a look at an old fort?” Fletch said.

Hardy stopped climbing. “I don’t think there’s anyone up there,” he said.

“But what if there is?” Fletch said.

Hardy thought about this for a moment and then hastily retreated, Cam right behind him. An old woman, sitting across the street beneath an umbrella, started laughing. We didn’t know if she was laughing because we were cowards for turning around or because we were fools for even approaching the fort. It seemed to me it was about the same anyway you looked at it. Best to leave the fort alone. Which is, fortunately, what we did since not two minutes later, a Cuban military Jeep pulled up to the fort and several soldiers hopped out and quickly ran up the stairs that Hardy had been climbing. I wonder what they would have done if they’d found him up there. Fortunately, we’ll never know.

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So visiting Finca La Vigía, as I talked about yesterday, was kind of depressing. I just hated to see the old boy looking so down and out. But then again, it kind of suits the whole Hemingway persona. It made me think about the slim, masculine Papa that first arrived at the Finca in 1939 and the bloated, tired-looking old man who left there for the last time a year before his suicide in 1961. I guess what it comes down to is that the Finca, while not looking its best these days, does reflect the worn-out author who obsessively marked his daily weight on his bathroom wall.

This made me think that maybe I’d put together a short video documenting Hemingway and his time at the Finca. Usually I’d use Cuban music to put something like this together, but instead I was inclined to use a somewhat elegiac song by the British group Elbow called “The River.” This is from their relatively new CD, Build a Rocket Boy.

Watch this short video and tell me if you don’t think it rather perfectly matches the mood of a declining Ernest Hemingway living in Cuba.

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The Hemingway blues

The living room at Finca La Vigia where Hemingway lived for 20 years. Photo by David Lansing.

Finca La Vigía, the villa in the hills above Havana bought by Ernest Hemingway in 1939, is not looking good. Five years ago, when we first visited, you could still visit the guest bungalow, next to the main house, where his sons used to stay during their summer vacations. Now, it is closed up and the old garage has been converted into ramshackle administrative space. The roof is in bad repair and the whole building lists as if it were slouching down the hill. Not good. The main house also looks worse than it did two years ago, despite the fact that we were told back then that Cuba was embarking on some major renovation projects that would return the villa to the way it looked when Hem and his fourth wife, Mary, hosted the likes of Ava Gardner, Gary Cooper, and Errol Flynn. Instead we arrived to find rooms that were closed (damaged from sun, wind, and rain they are awaiting “restoration,” we were told) and construction projects that looked halted.

Papa and a young reporter in the living room at Finca La Vigia.

There is also a lot more panhandling going on by the women that guard the rooms and the house. First you pay a few bucks to get in, then $5 for a “photography permit,” and another $5 if you want to video, but that’s just the start of it. If you walk up to the front door and try to take a photo of the living room, you will be told that you can’t reach the camera into the house, but the guard will be happy to take a photo for you—for $5. And it’s the same in every room you look at. They’ll take photos for you in his bedroom and in the little room at the top of the tower building where they’ve set up a desk with an old Remington typewriter on it (despite the fact that Hemingway never wrote in the tower, which was used basically as a storage unit for his guns and fishing equipment).

The swimming pool, where Ava Gardner used to swim nude, is in very bad shape, despite the fact that we were told five years ago that it was going to be renovated, the decks replaced, the old arbor repaired. Soon, the overgrown tropical vegetation will reclaim it.

It’s hard to determine who’s at fault here. Obviously Castro’s government doesn’t have the money to pour into a museum dedicated to an American writer, despite the fact that it’s a good draw for tourism. It seemed a couple of years ago that things were going to loosen up a little more between Cuban demands and American offers of aid to rescue the museum, but now, for whatever reason, that seems unlikely. The Cubans we spoke with blame it on American restrictions; America blames it on the Castro brothers who have tried to use offers of cultural aid to demand other financial supports. Who knows what the truth is. But the fact of the matter is that Finca La Vigía is not looking good these days and it’s unlikely that anything good is going to happen to it anytime soon. Such a pity.

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