Havana - Hemingway’s Haunt… in Pictures & Prose
Photography by: Brian & Conrad Trybus
Prose by: Sean Paige
“Cuba,” she asked?
“Why not,” I said, given the freedom to fly on a whim with an adventurous spouse whom loves the excitement of new-to-us destinations.
And who could resist an invitation like that, given the mystique, imagery and strong opinions and emotions the once-forbidden island evokes?
There’s the lure of rum, rumba, expertly-rolled tobacco and (of course) The Cars – those iconic chromed land yachts of a bygone era, kept polished and purring along thanks to the boundless resourcefulness imposed by chronic scarcity. Then there’s Hemingway, the marketing magnet who still draws throngs to Key West, and the chance to explore “Papa’s” old haunts and drinking dens in yet another exotic locale.
Cuba’s also renowned as the cradle of great athletes – legendary boxers and baseball players who play not for the money, according to the party line, but for the sheer joy of it, and the pride that comes from representing a “worker’s paradise.” What’s not to love about that Cuba, for anyone of a nostalgic or literary or just curious bent?
Of course I also knew a bit about the other side of the story: of the Castro brothers and communism and boat lifts; of the Bay of Pigs, “missile crisis,” Elian Gonzalez episode and other Cold War intrigues. And more recently, of course, there’s Gitmo.
But all this -- along with the island’s former status as a Forbidden Zone for “imperialist yanquis” like me -- only added to the sense of intrigue as I crammed threadbare tiki shirt and dog-eared Hemingway novel into the carry-on. So off we flew on a moment’s notice, to this formerly “closed” society that famously repelled one U.S. invasion but today welcomes another one -- this time of tourists like me, armed with a camera and a lot of half-baked preconceptions about the land of contrasts called Cuba.
The photos we took will we hope speak for themselves. But here’s a quick and impressionistic “travel log” I kept, for those wanting to learn more.
My wife and I relish spontaneity, so we prefer wandering and rambling rather than “touring.” We like brushing elbows with “the locals” and leaving adventures to chance. But during a layover in Houston we downloaded a Havana travel guide just in case, and booked an AirBnB room in the “Centro,” or central part of Havana, which is walking distance to Old Town and the Bugsy Seagle-era casinos close to shore. The availability of travel guides and AirBnBs in Cuba shows that Americans aren’t the first wave of tourists to hit these shores.
We booked an AirBnB rather than a hotel not just because they’re more affordable. We also heard that the money goes directly to the host, not the government, which owns and operates 100 percent of hotels. We’d rather have our dollars going into the pockets of mom and pop inn owners than the Cuban military and police state, since free enterprise (and more economic and political freedom generally) appears to be where things are headed in post-Castro Cuba. And all the better if we can nudge that along by supporting the island’s emerging class of upstart entrepreneurs.
The trip from Houston to Havana is jarringly brief, given the cultural and political divide you’re crossing. With precious little time for inflight cocktails, we landed in Havana nearly cold sober. I wondered if Hemingway would judge us harshly as a result. The dated military jets we taxied past reminded me of the old Davis-Monthan boneyard near Tucson, where row after row of retired U.S. warplanes are mothballed, waiting for some future national emergency. That was the first sense I had of the time traveling we’d just done.
There are no jetports at the Jose Marti International terminal where we parked: you deplane much like air travelers did at the time of the revolution, by descending a mobile staircase and hoofing it across the tarmac and into the terminal. Customs was a breeze, contrary to expectations. No stone-faced security goons screening for potential spies and infiltrators. No game of twenty questions about the nature of our visit to Cuba. No obvious efforts to plant eavesdropping devices in our luggage, or to tail us out of the terminal.
There was a welcoming party waiting curbside, however: a row of pristine, highly polished 1940’s & 1950’s Chevrolets, providing the instant photo op and nostalgia fix so many Americans seem to come for. As a lover of classic car iron, I found a mini version of heaven right here in Havana – which may be the closest thing to heaven allowed in this officially-godless society.
The novelty of classic cars wore off a bit as our stay progressed, when we saw that much of the rest of “vintage” Havana, including the gorgeous pre-revolution buildings, hadn’t aged nearly as well in the ensuing years. Many apparently abandoned structures, upon closer inspection, were occupied, if only partially. The occasional AC window unit, or wash on the line, betrayed signs of life and habitation that couldn’t be found by looking at the outward façade.
Confiscated properties were redistributed according to state dictates, but incomes were too scant under Castronomics (and perhaps property rights were too tenuous?) to justify an investment in upkeep and modernization, much less restoration.
As an avid reader of Hemingway, I was excited to visit some of his old haunts; in particular the bars and restaurants he frequented (or purportedly frequented) during his time here. It was like looking for an elephant in your garden. Every time we asked “Where’s that Hemingway bar?” we were pointed to a different spot. Hot, tired and thirsty, we’d usually bite and check each one out. And sure enough, each one had some Hemingway photo or artifact on display, or special, Hemingway-themed dishes or drinks on the menu.
We finally found the one I was thinking of: “La Floridita,” where the daiquiri was invented. We pounded down the icy refreshments while people watching, as tourists and locals alike took pictures with a life-sized bronze of “El Papa” seated at the end of the bar. Soon the drinks and salsa music were having their desired effect. This was one of the experiences we came for.
Overt and crass capitalism may be “new” to Cuba but they’ve already got the marketing part down, in terms of capitalizing on the Hemingway name, mystique and legend. Which of these places did he actually haunt? It’s hard to say for sure. As in Key West, which also has mastered the art of marketing Hemingway, you can take your pick. The debate about whether he hung out at Sloppy Joe’s or Captain Tony’s will go on forever, and I won’t settle it here.
Hemingway was a larger than life figure, who surrounded himself with beauty and excitement. Havana’s attraction to a personality like that can easily be seen even today. Vivid colors, vibrant bars, fresh seafood, centuries old architecture, the Caribbean Sea down any street: what’s not to like?
Having scratched that Hemingway itch, there was still more of the city to see. We were anxious to get to know the people and get a glimpse of their thinking; to see the history and architecture; taste the mojitos and cervezas; maybe even smoke a cigar. But most of all we wanted to shoot pictures. I carried my vintage 35mm Pentax ME-Super. I can’t imagine a better way to capture the essence of a city which appears stuck in time.
My son Conrad had visited Havana a couple weeks earlier, to shoot with his Pentax K-1000 vintage 35mm rig. And surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly), we ended up with very similar shots. Certain scenes or images just said: “This is Havana.” The buildings, architecture and cars, the beautiful and vibrant people, provided plenty of photo fodder as mentioned. But the fading or rusting remnants of the Soviet era – red flags, triumphant murals, old tanks and other dated military hardware, commemorating Batista’s overthrow or various “victories” over “imperialists” – naturally also caught our attention.
The contrasts – of color, culture, ideology, humanity -- can’t be missed. And perhaps the camera lens is the perfect tool for capturing the strong crosscurrents and tides that have long shaped and re-shaped Cuba’s history.
The crumbling vestiges of pre-revolutionary Havana – and the stark contrasts in color and architecture between “old” and “new” Cuba – are a dream come true for shutterbugs. It was a feast for the eyes and the camera lens. Each street we meandered down, each corner we turned, offered a potentially endless array of stark, gorgeous, amazing new images to capture.
Yet it also didn’t escape us, on a human level, that this isn’t a museum or a movie set, but the real Cuba, where real people are still living among the ruins. It’s important to be cognizant and respectful of that, I think, lest you cross the line into exploitation while pursuing the perfect image.
There were inconveniences in traveling in Cuba that many American travelers might find vexing. The Wi-Fi, for instance was lame to non-existent, making communications with home challenging. In this “data”-deprived world, our “mobile devices” reverted to mere “phones” again. But on the flipside, without the constant data drain our batteries lasted forever. And I actually found the inaccessibility refreshing.
The coffee shops were wonderful. Each had a nice European quaintness and excellent coffee; as well as pastries, cold drinks, beer, wine and even – yes! -- rum. And the restaurants were simply phenomenal! Once you step beyond the typical fair, Havana transforms into a foodie’s paradise. Some folks go for the “authentic” paella dishes “because that’s what the locals eat.” But a variety of delicious beef & pasta dishes were available and surprisingly good; the seafood, as expected, was heavenly.
Each restaurant had a little something extra to offer in ambiance: roof top views, shaded patios or courtyards, live jazz…and of course tons of “people watching.”
But looking back on our journey, it’s the people themselves who stand out as the highlight. They were wonderful – warm, intelligent, engaging and happy-go-lucky. They’re also resourceful and resilient, given the economic and political conditions they’ve long endured. When engaged in conversation, despite the initial reticence or caution that a less-than-open society can breed, an undercurrent of hope and an optimism for something better shined through.
We departed Cuba with more than just photographs, memories and a Hemingway-scale hangover -- but with that same contagious optimism about the future of the “new Cuba” that’s only just emerging.