Rachel Busse, alumna of the St. Thomas English Department and current graduate student, traveled to Havana, Cuba, this January on a Graduate Research Grant. Rachel was researching Ernest Hemingway, who spent nearly 30 years in Cuba.
I am a planner. I am an itinerary-making, checklist-having, research-doing goody-goody. In the eighth grade, I went on a class trip to Washington, D.C. and filled an entire binder with background research as though we didn’t already have an extensive schedule. Before I went to my first coffee shop (2007, Caribou, Rosemount, MN) I studied the menu online to ensure I’d be able to order a campfire cooler with grace and gravitas. I still get disappointed when a restaurant doesn’t put their menu online and I relish Yelp posts that include photographic clues to the layout of a place. This is a form of sleuthing, and if I had another life to live I’d likely join the ranks of Philip Marlowe or Nancy Drew.
This is not to say I am always organized (for I am often far from it) but rather that I like to be prepared. Information is power, and I rarely find good reason to concede control or clout. So I hoard facts and plans like knickknacks that might come in handy one day—my mind can best be likened to my grandmother’s cluttered basement.
This is all well and good until it isn’t. That is, until planning becomes unreasonable, irresponsible, or even impossible. This worked, I mean to say, until I traveled to Cuba. I went to visit Ernest Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigía, which is just outside of Havana. He lived there for nearly a third of his life, and I wanted to find out why. I was able to make this trip thanks to a generous grant from the University of St. Thomas English department, but it was a quick turnaround. I submitted a proposal at the end of November, found out I’d been awarded the grant in early December, and a month later I was in Havana for a week, accompanied by my friend Margaret. This was the first trip I’d taken where I had next to no concept for what to expect. I knew about as much as to expect cigars, classic cars, and maybe a beach—but the idea of hitting a country’s highlights and retiring to a resort at night is way too voyeuristic for my tastes. I wanted to do this responsibly, and for that, I needed details, or so I thought.
For starters, American travel to Cuba was only recently made accessible; President Obama was the first sitting president to visit Cuba in over 90 years when he and his family went last year, and there wasn’t even a US embassy in Cuba until 2015. Restrictions on travel to Cuba were loosened under the Obama administration, but before that, American travel in Cuba had been banned since 1963. This restriction was older than my parents.
The internet wasn’t much help. There was plenty of advice out there from intrepid Americans who had visited illegally by traveling through Mexico or Canada, but like I said, I’m not much of a rule-breaker. Because the restrictions on legal travel were loosened so recently, there was a fair amount of conflicting information even from official sources. We were essentially watching these changes be implemented in real time, which meant that questions about how to get a visa, what kind we needed, and whether we were required to prove the nature of our travel were all hard to answer. As it turns out, you self-certify; this is frustratingly vague, but it means you pick one of the 12 approved reasons for travel, you create an itinerary (which not a single person asked us for), and you buy a tourist visa in the airport before your flight. That’s it. And if you’re me, you also spend hours checking and double checking that it’s really that easy.
And that’s just getting there. When it comes to how you’ll spend your time once you’re past customs, all the research has to come before you leave the US. While websites like TripAdvisor do have a fair amount of information, there’s no guarantee of their accuracy, as most places in Cuba do not keep an active web presence. Within Cuba, internet access is extremely limited and pricey as all get out; once you’re there, navigating Havana can feel a bit like learning to swim while you’re already in the pool. Sink or swim, sink or swim.
When we hopped off the plane, our first concern was finding our homestay, or casa particular. Our casa, owned by a woman named Mónica with her mother Aida, was in a neighborhood called Vedado, just west of Habana Viejo, or Old Havana. This meant our actual first priority was exchanging money in order to pay for a cab—another snag of the recently relaxed regulations is that American cards don’t work in ATMs (or anywhere, for that matter). You have to come holding all that money you might need in cash and exchange it there. This is stressful. Plus, we were tired—we’d gotten to our hotel in Miami after a long drive back from Key West at 1:30 am and left for the airport at 6:00 am. We spent a while after landing wandering wide-eyed through this airport until we got up the courage to ask for a taxi. We requested the driver take us to one of the few places we could remember that was near our neighborhood: Plaza de la Revolución.
As it turns out, Plaza de la Revolución is an odd place to be dropped off coming from the airport. We imagined something highly-walkable, but what we got was essentially a big parking lot in between two government buildings (adorned with Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos), a huge monument to José Martí, and four lanes of traffic. Suffice to say, we looked naive bringing our luggage there.
Havana was not the sort of place I fell in love with fast. The city is loud and sputtering with rumbling old engines all peppered with honking horns. The hot, wet air is laced thick with exhaust and the alternating smells of trash and traffic. Our first venture out of the casa was both confusing and unsettling, which is funny considering we went for ice cream from the famous Coppelia. This visit involved being ushered by a security guard into a dingy upper-room specifically for convertible-peso carrying turistas, where we were served icy ice cream by a man with a coke nail.
But if there is one trait I have that’s stronger than my propensity to panic, it’s stubbornness. I hate admitting defeat, so even if it means white-knuckling, I hold on. This persistence—to which Margaret is also a subscriber—payed off. After Coppelia, we ended up wandering the idyllic University of Havana campus and enjoying a long lunch of dados a la piña and cervezas nacionales. After climbing a steep spiral staircase, we sat out on the restaurant’s bright blue balcony and looked out at the busy street. On this block, and so many others we walked that week, some buildings crumbled while others received fresh, pastel paint jobs. Savvy stray dogs ran loose, narrowly avoiding the steady stream of cars. We watched for tourists, placing bets on where each group was from. My fondness for this place was earned and learned, a slow and sustained burn I didn’t anticipate. That afternoon was one of starting sparks.
I went to Cuba primarily to see Hemingway’s home, which I took to mean not only his house, but the city too. I’d heard it claimed that Havana is “frozen in time,” and though I wasn’t naïve enough to really expect that, there is something alluring about the idea of a paused history. So much of what we do as readers and researchers is to try to understand the past, especially when it surrounds our favorite writers. There were parts of Havana that did feel out of a time capsule where it was easy to imagine Hemingway wandering on a steamy Havana afternoon, like the National Museum of Fine Arts or in in one of the many European-style squares. And of course Hemingway’s ghost lingers still in his favorite bars—La Bodeguita del Medio and La Foridita—where his favorite drinks—the mojito and the daiquiri, respectively—are still served as they would have been in the 1950s.
But these are places that exist specifically to preserve that time period, and to suggest Havana has remained unchanged erases the long and hugely significant history of Revolution in Cuba, which happened just around the time Hemingway left the city for the last time. The glamour of 1940s and 50s Havana still exists, but is rarely left untouched by evidence of revolution. One of the few grocery stores we found (with a queueing system left over from the days of rationing) had tiles at the entryway announcing it was once a Woolworths. An evening walk through Havana’s Chinatown (which has noticeably few Chinese people, as most left around the time of the revolution) featured a peek into the now-decrepit but once-elegant five-story Fin de Siglo department store. The Habana Libre hotel is perhaps one of the best examples of the faded glitz of the past—this huge hotel was opened as a modern, chic Hilton in 1958 and was the largest and tallest hotel in Latin America at the time. After the revolution in ’59, the Cuban government took control of the hotel, and the entire top floor was converted into Fidel Castro’s headquarters. The physical history of revolution in Cuba is also visible on the walls of the Museum of the Revolution. Housed in what was once the presidential palace, this lavish building is now scarred with bullet holes from the ousting of Batista. The place is full of propaganda, and it’s fascinating to see how the Cuban government tells its own story.
Hemingway’s connection with Castro is often wondered about, but was by most accounts relatively unsubstantial—the famous picture of the two together, taken at a fishing tournament held in Hemingway’s honor, depicts what was likely their most extensive interaction. Hemingway was against the Batista regime, and is believed to have been sympathetic to Castro’s calls for change. But Hemingway died before his allegiances were ever really clarified.
Regardless of his opinions on Castro or any of the other revolutionaries, Hemingway loved Cuba—he spent more time there than anywhere else in his short but well-traveled life. He considered Cuba his home, and even kept a bust of José Martí, the “apostle of Cuban independence” in his writing studio at Finca Vigía. For the record, I looked for one of my own, but instead found only a myriad of Che t-shirts, which I declined to buy.
The aforementioned writing studio is one of the few places at Hemingway’s home where you can see all the way to the city, as the home is about 15 km outside of Central Havana. It takes about 20 minutes to drive out by car; we took the bus back which took a while longer but allowed us to see the route more slowly. Both there and back, we snaked our way out through a more industrial cityscape than we’d previously seen and into busy suburbs. But Finca Vigía, which means lookout farm, is set up in the hills and away from the sounds and smog of the city. It is easy to imagine this as a place for a writer to come after spending time ambling around the comparatively chaotic Havana.
You can’t actually go into the house, but all the doors and windows are open to peer through, and in a way, that feels right. The house is stately but not excessively large, and seems like the sort of place you’d want to keep the windows open, at least through the cooler winter months. Every room had a window, even the closet where Hemingway’s war correspondent uniform was hanging. The ceilings are high and open, leaving plenty of room for the tall bookshelves that line almost every room, including the bathroom. This monstrous collection has simply been sitting there since Hemingway left in 1960, and aside from some digital cataloging done by researchers from Boston, they are untouched. There are also magazine, newspapers, literary journals like The Dial, and an impressive collection of records. All this media seems like a natural accumulation for someone so steeped in the arts, and it feels, for lack of a better word, homey. Down to the daily weight records Hemingway kept on the bathroom wall, this feels like a very personal place designed for those who lived there. This is not to say it isn’t stylish, but rather that there is a lived-in elegance to the place. The more public rooms—the dining room and the living room, for example—are a bit heavier on the taxidermy-reliant design that shows up throughout the house. But the furnishings are generally less flashy that you might expect, given that Hemingway was a celebrity with many famous friends. This understated beauty is not at all unlike the prose Hemingway is so famous for.
We spent several hours wandering the grounds, seeing every nook and cranny of the house we could while being sure not to miss the large pool (where Ava Gardner reportedly swam nude), Hemingway’s famous Pilar (his beloved fishing boat) and the cemetery for his dogs (Black, Negrita, Neron, and Linda). This pastoral setting is such a stark contrast to the heart of Havana, where there is little nature to be found unless you’re walking along the Malecón, the wall that separates Havana from the sea—it’s a local favorite, and a good place to drink rum with friends at night.
But Hemingway loved the city, too. He lived in the Hotel Ambos Mundos, in Habana Vieja, for about a year before moving to Finca Vigía. The hotel features one of the best views of the city from its rooftop and is in walking distance from both of his favorite bars. Though we enjoyed Hemingway’s haunts, we found our own favorites, too—our most frequented destination was the Museo Del Chocolate, which sells simultaneously rich and refreshing chocolate milk for the low low price of one dollar. I think we went four times. It made up for Coppelia.
Little things began to flower up and bloom for us. We got to go to the ballet, which is Cuba’s most renowned arts organization. It was The Nutcracker—or Cascanueces, if you prefer—and we sat next to the proud father of a little girl performing in the children’s choir (I cried). We spent a pleasantly humid evening on the terrace of our casa, leafing through outdated guidebooks we found on the bookshelf and sipping pineapple soda. But more broadly, we surprised ourselves with adaptability, and I am proud of our ability to walk the city with a confidence we didn’t bring with us. For the record, Havana is the type of place you walk almost everywhere to avoid paying for cabs—we walked 15 miles on our last day there. And when it did come time to pay for taxis, we got pretty good at negotiating fares in Spanish, which is something I’m not even comfortable doing in English.
Hemingway famously said that “courage is grace under pressure.” For a long time, I liked how that sounded but didn’t feel I’d really had an opportunity to test it out—I’ve almost always got a safety net, and it’s usually pretty sturdy. Cuba is a safe place, so we were never really too worried, but there were always more questions than there were answers. We had to learn to do things a lo Cubano, to handle the unexpected with grace and patience. And at the end of the day, there was something kind of magical about going in with very few expectations and letting the city click for us. This can come in finally feeling like you don’t need to bury your face in a map, successfully chatting with some local people in the museum, or even over the best glass of chocolate milk you’ve ever had. This click lets you sink in and feel your surroundings with confidence and courage, if only for a moment or two. I’d never advocate skipping your due diligence—basic research is important and responsible—but going in to fulfill all the expectations you came with seems irresponsible in its own right. No one likes a box-checker. At the end of the day, we saw Havana through pseudo-journalistic eyes, hungry to learn and keeping our cool along the way—a bit, we hope, like Hemingway.