Hemingway in Cuba: a farewell to armrests

We decided to go see Cuba before the Americans came in and lined it with Starbucks.

I expected to find fading mansions and palm trees and sweet senoritas swishing down the avenidas in short skirts with a sassy sway. I expected to find grinning young men in white T-shirts chewing matchsticks as they repaired their classic cars while strains of son and salsa drifted through the blue Havana dusk from wrought-iron balconies with billowing curtains. Cuba wasn’t like that. There were no Starbucks, and in my hotel there wasn’t any other kind of coffee either, or much food. There was only pork and rice and black beans, and the pork soon ran out. Cuba was hungry and tired and poor and the old people worried about what the young people would do next, and everyone looked at tourists with wariness and greed.

In The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway wrote about a Cuban fisherman who drifts into the gulfstream, catches a marlin that he straps to the side of his skiff and has to stay awake all night beating at sharks with his oar to keep them from his fish. By the time he reaches land he has only a skeleton strapped to his boat. While in I felt like the old man: my wallet was the fish.

I hired a car and drove to San Francisco de Paula to see Hemingway’s house, the Finca Vigia, still preserved just as he left it. The hotel gave us a map with ‘Havana’ on the top but I think it was a map distributed by the central government in the 1960s to confuse enemy troops in the event of American invasion. It could have been a map of Kiev or Zagreb or the human lymphatic system. All the street names were wrong, which didn’t really matter since no streets in the outskirts of Havana have signs.

We drove over culverts and crumbling bridges and made U-turns in cane fields. We drove through abandoned ghettoes and a scrapyard where three old men and a 10-year-old boy were cutting up a train. It was hot and the air conditioning didn’t work. My partner started to feel unwell.

‘It’s the heat,’ I said.

‘It’s the pork,’ she moaned.

It should take 40 minutes to drive to the Finca Vigia but two hours later we were parked on the dirt shoulder of a grey-tar highway while I turned the map around and upside-down and checked if maybe the real version wasn’t printed on the back. My girlfriend was starting to make alarming noises.

‘Can I help?’ said a voice.

There was a mountain-shaped man blocking out the light. I told him we were looking for the Hemingway house, and he said we were miles away and opened the door and slid onto the back seat. ‘I’ll show you,’ he said. This was great. Our first friendly Cuban, and he spoke good English. He told us that he had a wife and two children, and that he’d studied in Germany on a wrestling scholarship.

‘I didn’t know there was wrestling in Germany,’ I said.

‘I can break a man in half,’ he said.

We drove for 20 minutes, taking left turns and dirt roads and rejoining the highway. Finally he told me to stop, then said he’d need money for the bus. That sounded reasonable.

‘How much is the bus?’ I asked him. In Cuba the average monthly salary is about two hundred rands.

‘One hundred dollars,’ he replied.

I laughed, but he wasn’t joking. He wouldn’t leave the car without the money. He took up the whole of my rear-view mirror. He could place his elbows on the armrests of both doors at the same time. He could break a man in half.

‘We’re not Americans,’ I said. ‘We don’t get paid in dollars.’

He grunted.

‘Just give him the money,’ said my girlfriend, holding her belly.

‘No,’ I said. ‘He should know this. We’re not Yankees. We’re from Africa.’

He frowned. ‘Africa?’

‘South Africa,’ I said. ‘Yes, we’re richer than you, and I’m sorry about that, everyone’s richer than you, but we’re not rich. We’re your friends.’

‘South Africa,’ he said, and sighed sadly. He had heard about us.

He waved to me to drive on, and when we reached Hemingway’s house he unwedged himself from the back seat.

I offered him $10, but he just shook his head sadly.

‘Friends,’ he said, in a resigned tone of voice.

Getaway, 6 April 2015