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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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Running down an old Impala

The old Impala we rented to take us to the Hemingway Museum. Not exactly the car of our dreams. Photos by David Lansing.

Usually getting a great classic car to drive us up to San Francisco de Paula, the little town on the outskirts of Havana where Ernest Hemingway lived for over 20 years, is as easy as walking down to the Capitolio building on Prado and trying to decide between, say, a ’57 Chevy convertible and a ’55 Cadi. But yesterday there were no cars around. I don’t know what the deal was. And a long stretch of the Prado, near the Cinema Payret, which is usually filled with great old cars, was cleared out with cops keeping people away. So something was going on but it was impossible to figure out what.

We walked through the shade of the Parque Central and past the Hotel Inglaterra, which is a beautiful old hotel with a Spanish-style sidewalk café in front, looking for an old taxi but there were none to be had. We were just milling about, at a bit of a loss, when a street hustler approached us. He said he could get us a taxi. We asked him what kind of a car it was and he pulled out an old business card that had a photo of an early ‘50s pale blue Cadillac convertible, exactly the sort of car we were looking for. The car was just a few minutes walk away, he assured us. So we followed the guy back through the Parque Central, up Prado, and to the steps of the Capitolio—exactly where we’d started half an hour ago.

The Impala's dashboard.

Of course, there was no pale blue Cadillac. But there was a two-tone red and white ’56 Impala convertible. It wasn’t much of a car. The inside was terribly beat-up and the seats were covered with what looked like horse blankets. Still, we’d been walking around for over half an hour and this seemed to be our best bet. We did some negotiating with the street hustler (you’ve got to pay him separately so as to reward him for finding you a car) and climbed in. It wasn’t until a couple of us had gotten in that we realized that while we’d been negotiating with the street hustler, the driver of the car had been negotiating with a couple of Canadian women. They thought the car was theirs and they weren’t real thrilled when we started to get in. One of the women said something to Fletch and Hardy but by then the rest of us were already in the car and it was a done deal. I felt kind of bad about stealing the girls’ taxi, but what can you do?

The deal was that the driver had to be back in Havana for another job by three. We wanted him to take us up to Hemingway’s old place, Finca La Vigía, and then down to the fishing village of Cojímar where we would have lunch at La Terraza. Cojímar is where Hem kept his fishing boat, Pilar, and La Terraza is the seaside café where he used to drink with the fisherman who told him the stories that inspired The Old Man and the Sea. It would be tight to see the Hemingway Museum and have lunch at La Terraza and still get back to Havana by three, but it seemed possible. As it turned out, it was not possible and the driver would abandon us in Cojímar where it would be a bit of a scramble trying to find taxis to get us back, but I’m getting ahead of myself. First I want to tell you about visiting the old Hemingway home in San Francisco de Paula.

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Sunday at Cafe Taberna

The salsa band at Cafe Taberna. Photo by Greg Geiser.

Everything was a bit out of sorts on Sunday. Neither Cam nor Nick were feeling real great. Maybe from a lack of sleep or too much booze or a combination of both. Who knows. Fletch and Hardy didn’t drag themselves downstairs for breakfast until a few minutes before the restaurant closed. Both looked disheveled and a little saggy around the eyes. I’d gone to bed early Saturday night but because there had been a mix-up in the room reservation and Greg and I only had one bed in the room, I ended up sleeping on some cushions beneath the windowsill. It wasn’t particularly uncomfortable but it wasn’t great either. I woke around five and never went back to sleep; Greg got up shortly thereafter and went for a run in pre-dawn Havana.

So it was decided, when everyone finally did gather, that we’d all kind of do our own thing in the morning and then meet back at the Saratoga in the afternoon and walk down to the Plaza Vieja in the old town for lunch at Taberna de La Muralla, a Cuban brew pub with probably the best beer in Cuba and usually a pretty good house band playing on the veranda facing the outdoor tables. But just before we got to Plaza Vieja we passed another favorite restaurant, the Café Taberna and Cam and Nick stuck their heads inside and noticed that there was a great salsa band playing and so we decided to go here instead.

I was happy we chose Café Taberna. While the beer was certainly better at the other place, the food was better here. And I liked the atmosphere. The tables were covered in white linen and the waiters wore tuxedo vests and bow-ties. It was, I imagined, more like the Havana of the ‘50s. We got a nice table right in front of the band and ordered a round of Cristals. It was a proper salsa band with two horn players and six other musicians including a young kid banging away on the tumbadora, the tall wooden and leather drum that drives a good salsa band.

The band was situated beneath the stairs that led to the second floor of the restaurant. On the landing, directly above the band, were two young dancers practicing their salsa moves. They were both very good, particularly the guy. He was a bartender at the restaurant and the woman had just come over to practice with him for awhile to the live music.

The band took a break and we ordered lunch. You would think that after eating seafood three times a day for over a week that we’d want something different, yet even here we ended up ordering shrimp and a mixed seafood plate and grilled snapper with red beans and rice. The salsa band started back up. The restaurant’s hurricane shutters were up and people who were walking by would hear the music and stop, leaning against the open window from the outside and listen to a song or two before moving on. It was all quite pleasant and the perfect way to spend a sleepy Sunday afternoon.

After lunch we talked about maybe taking a horse and buggy along the malecon or walking down to the rum museum, but the sun was hot and everyone felt a little lethargic and in the end we walked back to the Saratogo. Some of the boys went back to their rooms to nap and others went to the business center to catch up on e-mail. I put on my bathing suit and went to the roof of the hotel where the pool was, ordered a mojito and quickly fell asleep in a lounge chair facing the Capitolio. When I awoke, the afternoon was late. Just to get the cobwebs out of my head, I went for a swim. The water was cool and refreshing and I swam up and back several times and then just sat in the shallow end of the pool drinking a mojito and observing the other guests around the pool. It was a perfectly lazy way to spend one of our last days in Havana but it was fine anyway.

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Returning to Havana

A view of Havana at sunset from the roof of the Saratoga Hotel. Photo by David Lansing.

I don’t know which is worse: Getting up at four in the morning to catch the five hour bus ride down to Jucaro or getting on the bus in Jucaro after a four hour boat ride knowing you won’t get back into Havana until seven or eight at night. Probably the later, particularly on this trip where we shared the bus on Saturday with a group of rowdy Russians who passed the time by getting exceptionally drunk.

Actually, as it turns out, they weren’t Russians. They were Finns. Which is about as close to being Russian as you’re going to get. Except I think the Finns drink more. Actually, they weren’t such a bad bunch. We met them again Saturday night at a club in Havana where they were (once again) getting completely shit-faced. They certainly were better fisherman than we were if you’re to believe their stories. Two of them got the triple crown—catching a bonefish, tarpon, and permit on the same day. That’s pretty astonishing. Particularly since none of the six of us even caught a permit.

One of the guys we talked to told us, in slurred English, that one of the guys who got the triple crown was the captain of Finland’s national fly-casting team. That’s amazing. Who knew Finland had a national fly-casting team? And for what reason? Are they trying to get fly-casting into the Olympics? Does the U.S. have a national fly-casting team? God I hope not.

Even more amazing is that the second Finn to get the triple crown of fishing is, according to his mate, “the most famous movie actor in Finland.” Again, I’m shocked. I didn’t know Finland had a movie industry. I have seen Swedish movies, of course. And even some from Denmark and Iceland. But I can’t honestly say I’ve ever seen (or heard) of a Finnish movie. What would it be called—“How to Drink a Bottle of Vodka in Under Ten Minutes”?

Even saying someone is the most famous movie star in Finland is kind of contradictory, isn’t it? I mean, it’s like saying someone is the most famous lacrosse player in the United States. There may be a lacrosse athlete in the U.S. who is better known than any other (although, help me out here—who the hell would that be?) but he still wouldn’t be famous. Because nobody would know who he was. And that’s kind of the way I felt about the “famous movie actor” from Finland. I think they even told us his name, but I’d never heard of him so five minutes later, I didn’t know who he was. You see what I’m saying?

Anyway, Saturday night we got to our hotel, the Saratoga, about 7:30 and everyone took a quick shower and then we headed for a nearby bar where we immediately ordered a round of Kristals and shots of rum at the bar and proceeded to get a bit tight. Hanging out for five hours on the bus with the Finns had made us all quite thirsty.

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