Hunting for Hemingway in Havana

Three bearsLR

FEBRUARY 16, 2015 -Yes, I like alliteration and seldom get to use it, so I took advantage with today’s headline.

Most of today (Feb. 16) was about standing in lines: Lines to check in at Pearson airport, lines to go through the security check, then lines at Jose Marti Airport, followed by lines to get on a bus, then lines to check in for Cuba Cruise on the Louis Cristal, then a line for another security check. It must have been a slow day at the Havana ship terminal security check because the guy in the cubicle I chose was napping.

Even though we were exhausted from the rigours of travelling from a -25 C climate to a 25 C one, after filling up on tasty cruise ship buffet food, we decided to burn what little daylight was left by exploring a bit of Havana. It is a totally awesome city.

The earlier bus ride from the airport featured views of a lot of what we remembered from our last Cuban sojourn four years ago: banana trees, people on rickety bicycles, a mix of old American vehicles, Ladas and newer compact cars and squat, concrete buildings that feature the stark, humourless architecture resulting from Cuban’s ties with the former Soviet Union.

The buildings in the historic district downtown near San Francisco Square are a whole different matter. According to havanaarchitecture.info, the city is one of the most beautiful and architecturally diverse in the world.

There are many beautiful colonial and baroque buildings in Havana's historic district
There are many beautiful colonial and baroque buildings in Havana’s historic district

The older colonial and baroque buildings are beautiful, ornate and romantic, like the souls of so many Cuban people we’ve met. The square was full of bears, which seemed a little curious; as far as I know, bears are not indigenous to Cuba.

But we learned the 128 fibreglass bears are part of a United Nations international art exhibit, United Buddy Bears, intended to foster global peace and tolerance, Each life-size bear is painted by an artist from a different country. It took a while to find the Canada bear, as I assumed it would be red and white and likely sporting a maple leaf or beaver or hockey stick.

The bears are in alphabetical order and the Canada bear was where he should be, sandwiched between bears from Cameroon and the Centroafricana Republic. He was painted with blue, grey, white and brownish squares that created a weird optical illusion. I’m stumped as to how he represents Canada. Ireland’s for example, was wearing a jaunty green jacket and festooned with shamrocks and Cuba’s was smoking a cigar.

As our time for exploring was limited, we decided to hunt for Ernest Hemingway. Yes, Papa is long gone but the hotel he used to live in and his favourite bar are still around. We strolled down cobbled pedestrian streets, drinking in the atmosphere, listening to a marching band playing the Eurthymics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), sneaking glimpses into little cafes, restaurants and hotels and we remembered why we love Cuba so much. The culture, the people and the atmosphere are like no other.

Along Calle Obipos we came to the first of our two intended destinations: the triangular pink Hotel Ambos Mundos that Hemingway called home. It has an elegant restaurant, bar and lobby with high ceilings and its walls are plastered with Hemingway photos, including him with the trophy he won in a fishing tournament and another posing with his pal Fidel Castro. Sadly, we were there too late to see the room in the hotel that is now a miniature Hemingway museum, as it had closed at 5.

The next order of business on our Hemingway hunt was to seek out the Floridita, the bar where the writer did a lot of his drinking. A lot of drinking. After one mistaken stop at the Florida Hotel, the kindly concierge explained how to get to our intended destination. We found it, where old American taxis were parked outside as well as a trio of coco taxis, which look like bright yellow coconut shells perched on three wheels. We’ve toured in them before and they are a blast.

Hemingway's favourite bar, the Floridita
Hemingway’s favourite bar, the Floridita

Evidently we weren’t the only people who heard that the Floridita was Hemingway’s haunt. The place was packed and pretty much everyone there was drinking daiquiris, Hemingway’s poison of choice. We pulled up stools beside a life-sized statue of ol’ Ernest and ordered a couple. We also were served a plate of homemade potato chips that were delicious. A three-piece band was playing and typical of Cuba, the musicians were excellent.

Tourist after tourist came up to pose with bronze Hemingway and of course, we did the same. We struck up a conversation with two guys at the bar – one was a Cuban who owns an apartment he rents to tourists, and the other was Marc, an American who has lived in Roatan for 22 years (readers of this blog will recall we were just in Roatan less than a month ago).

Marc is a character and regaled us with tales of his life in Roatan, including his three ill-fated marriages to Honduran women. With three divorces under his belt, he’s single again. “Some people live and learn,” he said. “I just live.”

old carrLR

The walk back to the Louis Cristal/Cuba Cruise ship was equally magical – a clear night sky, balmy temperatures, the streets alive with people and music, whether it was shop keepers shaking maracas or tambourines, the sounds wafting from cafes with live bands and a Cuban man out for a walk, singing in a clear, melodic voice.

It left us wanting more and we agreed we’ll return to Havana in the future when we have more time to explore this gem of a city.

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