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In Santiago de Paula

R. L. TILLEY WALKS IN HEMINGWAY’S SHOES, IN CUBA.
  
In Santiago de Paula we walk up to Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s old home, now a museum. A leafy driveway leads to the place, which is surrounded by gardens. It is pretty much as he left it in 1960, when he left for Spain and then the USA. He lived here for twenty years. Juan, our Cuban host, tells us that the Hemingway family have struck a deal with the Cuban government to preserve the house and its effects as a perpetual museum to the writer. It is in the process of restoration as we visit and half of it is closed. Juan hails a man in overalls and asks him when the restoration will be completed. The man shrugs his shoulders. This is Cuba. Juan points to the porch.

‘He had a canon there,’ he tells us. ‘He would fire it when his friends would visit.’

We look in a window and see the bowed desk where Hemingway would write, and we see bookshelves, walls lined with books, and his Royal typewriter.

We go up the four-story tower where Mary Welsh Hemingway had intended he should write. He didn’t like it, however; he used it to store his fishing gear and to go up to look out across the sea, to determine the chances of a day’s fishing for marlin from the Pilar, his yacht, with his old friend the skipper of the Pilar, Gregorio Fuentes. The latter died, Juan tells us, in 2002, at the great age of a hundred and four.

Today there are Cuban women at the top of the tower. They want to change dollars for convertible pesos.

Connected to the main house are guest rooms and, walking past the swimming pool, where – Juan tells us – Ava Gardner once swam naked, the Pilar is preserved. One walks around a platform surrounding the boat. I see Hemingway’s chair for fishing. I see the cabin. I hear the sound of laughter and conversation between Hemingway and Gregorio Fuentes echoing ghostly from the deck as the Pilar cuts though the turquoise sea. Gone now. An instant. I am moved.

In the gardens of the house are the graves of Hemingway’s dogs. As we walk away from the house, we ask Juan how he knows Ava Gardner swam naked in the pool.

‘Hemingway didn’t tell it,’ Juan says. ‘ There were staff in the place. The help. They told it.’

Juan tells us how Hemingway would drink in the bars of Havana and bring the drunks and whores he met there back to the house, to the discomfort of his wives. He lived there first with Martha Gellhorn and later, Mary Welsh.

‘He had great energy,’ Juan tells us. ‘Ahhh . . . when he was a child, his mother would dress him in girl’s clothing, something he resented all his life. Maybe that is why he needed to project a macho image. This is just my opinion.’

We travel on to Cojimar, where we eat lunch at the La Terraza restaurant: another Hemingway haunt. Cojimar is where Gregorio Fuentes lived and worked and, until 2002, regaled tourists with anecdotes of the Hemingway years.

A sea breeze blows through an open window and we eat fish and drink beer.

I go outside and stand in bright sunlight and roll a cigarette. Three Cubans, one with a bicycle, stand in the wind conversing. They soon notice me. One comes over. He wants to sell me cigars. I decline.

We walk by the sea, passing the Spanish fortress – now occupied by the military – and we look at and photograph the bust of Hemingway, made of bronze from propellers donated by local fishermen. We stroll along the shore. Turkey buzzards circle over the sea, which glitters in strong sunlight, and Cuban children hold their hands out for pesos.

— R. L. Tilley
 
 

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