By LUCIANO PERDOMO
We explored Old Havana and walked along El Malecon, Havana’s version of Bayshore for several hours. The streets were full of artisan shops, botanicas (pharmacies), and bars and restaurants. The sight that stuck out to me the most was that of ignorant Yankees (Americans) wearing Che shirts and olive-green hats with a red star at the center of it. Communists and the far left say it stands for independence and revolution.
However, the reality is that it stands for the blood shed by the more than 30,000 people who were executed via firing squad by the bearded demagogues, Che and Fidel. The hats and shirts are the antithesis of democracy and what it means to be American.
After several hours of walking through Old Havana, we decided to venture out to Ernest Hemingway’s house at the very edge of Havana. Looking for a driver that would get us there for 15 CUC ($15) was almost impossible, but after relentless effort, a metallic purple 1956 Buick pulled up to us. The driver was a bald and well-fed gentleman, a rarity to find in communist Cuba.
We did some quick negotiating, agreed on a price of 15 CUC, and got in the car to begin our journey to Hemingway’s home. The driver’s name was Noel, a life-time truck and taxi driver, who made a better living than most Cubans transporting tourists like myself and my girlfriend around.
Before I knew it, Noel and I began talking about Cuban politics. Yes, we spoke about politics in a way that is considered taboo and could have potentially gotten Noel and myself killed or in prison. He mentioned that there are still thousands of political prisoners in Cuba; the people cannot prosper; and that although there are more private businesses, the government is becoming more stringent on them. Tobacco farmers for example, who work tirelessly year-round are only allowed to keep 10% of their harvest to sell privately. The other 90% goes to the government to sell as branded cigars.
After about a 20-minute ride, we arrived at Hemingway’s home. It was a marvel of a property, sitting high atop a vast valley of palm trees and endless rolling hills, looking over Havana. It costs us 5 CUC each to enter the property. We walked up a winding path to the entrance of Mr. Hemingway’s white house. It had a rather Spanish architecture to it with its arches and large outdoor sitting areas and was surrounded by a vast green forest of lush vegetation.
A peak into his house, gave a candid impression of his life. Each room was uniquely decorated, which gave the impression he had multiple women in his life. He was also an avid hunter, who seemed to idolize the animals he killed with their random placings in his bathrooms and on the walls of his study. Hemingway’s trophies were seen more as mummified souvenirs from his travels to Africa. It was a testament to how worldly he was.
In addition to a rather unique interior, the pool where Hemingway swam nude was empty, but still ever-so full of life, with an indescribable energy. Not far from it, his boat, Pillar, the boat he fished from and drew inspiration for many of his works was sitting on stilts and surrounded by a platform that allowed visitors to get a 360 degree view of the vessel.
We took several moments to bask in the beauty of Hemingway’s home. Since he a literary, his study was adorned by books. It was the epicenter of his literary masterpieces, which had shelves that emulated a downtown metropolis, towering just a hair away from the ceiling. The towering shelves represent the height of his atmospheric reaching thoughts and ideas. After all the “The greatness of a man is not measured from his feet to his head, but from his head to the sky” according to Napoleon Bonaparte, leader of the French Revolution.
Taking a moment to realize where I was, I began to recollect the stories my grandmother told me about throwing rocks at Hemingway’s house, in search of an encounter with the man they call “Papa.” Tears ran down her eyes as she told stories of the Cuba she knew before the oppressive force of communism. Havana was “The Pearl of the Caribbean” she said days before we left. A place where the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Lucky Luciano would be seen at the Cabarets and the vibrant dancing streets of Havana at night.
The ride home, much like the ride there was like a stormy ocean of emotions. It was much like El Malecon at high tide, when the waves crash onto the street with their violent, picturesque beauty. Noel and I continued speaking about Cuban politics and what life was like for me being born in the U.S. I told him that in the U.S we’re free to vote, openly express our opinions about government, and earn a wage based on our skills and what the market values those skills at.
He responded by saying, “You live in the greatest country in the world!” That phrase became a familiar one for my girlfriend and myself as many of the Cubans we interacted with would say the same thing. The caveat was that they would also say, “…but Cuba is the second greatest country in the world.”
I could tell it was insincere, because they knew their reality was much grimmer than they were conveying. One man hugged and kissed me when I told him I was a U.S-born Cuban visiting Cuba. Our short stroll through Old Havana and through Hemingway’s property was memorable to say the least. What made it a noteworthy event was our interactions with the people and with a significant piece of history and romanticism. Cuba is a paradoxical paradise. A place with unique and majestic beauty ridden by the oppression of a corrupt line of dictators.
Luciano Perdomo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org