For those not in ‘the know’, my husband and I spent six glorious weeks on holiday in Cuba, visiting family, finally enjoying a long-overdue bit of rest and relaxation (first time in five years!) and catching up with friends. This was our third journey to the island together. But, it was by far the most amazing experience of the three and perhaps of any other trip I’ve taken. The following represents a few reflections I wrote about a week or so before we left.
Summing it up in a single word is impossible; describing it all seems just as unlikely.
From its length to its particulars, the journey has not altered too significantly from previous visits. As it draws to a close, I’m longing to extend it. Not so much to escape our real lives in Finland longer, but because I am enjoying this trip so, so thoroughly.
A few days ago, we visited Cojímar, the fishing village which served to inspire The Old Man and the Sea, and then visited Hemingway’s villa Finca Vigía in what was once the countryside surrounding Havana. Having recently reread that incredibly epic fishing tale and The Sun Also Rises a few weeks previously, I felt as if I was walking amongst ghosts, both of the fisherman Santiago and Hemingway himself.
Cojímar is quiet, tranquil and carved by the sea, situated not far to the east of Havana. On the day of our visit, the seas were angry in the wake of a cold front the night before. Ocean spray coated us as we walked along the streets nearest the water, with water crashing into the rocky, coral-laden coastline. A tour bus made its way carefully and slowly through incredibly narrow and pothole-filled streets whisking other tourists away with it, while the locals ambled through the village in groups of varying ages. We strolled through the village with no real destination in mind, waving to and chatting with inhabitants, buying various products from the local produce vendors, having a laugh with just about everyone we met and enjoying the calmness and normality of it all. I can see why Hemingway was inspired — Cojímar and most of Cuba inspire me.
The next day, we visited Hemingway’s Cuban estate, Finca Vigía, which has been kept in the same state in which he left it more than 50 years ago. We (my husband, our three cousins with whom we spent the day and I) flagged down an almendrón, one of the old 1940 and 1950-era American cars which have carted Cubans to and fro for decades now and which everyone associates with contemporary Cuba. Our driver, Ernesto, ended up being another element of surprise and delight, one of many from this trip.
As we made our way to Hemingway’s home, one of the overwhelming realities hit us head-on. Much of the area surrounding his estate sprang up long after he left the island for the last time. Now nestled within a poorer barrio, houses are clustered close together and most appear barely finished, or rarely tended or repaired. Extreme poverty prevails in this part of Havana, and crumbling structures represent the norm. Most of the houses we passed, which were clearly inhabited, would probably blow away in even the weakest of storms. Amongst this, Hemingway’s house and the surrounding estate appear as if an oasis or mirage and seem horribly incongruous with just about everything around it. The contrast was stark and somewhat artificial and arbitrary.
The Finca Vigía grounds must have provided solace and serenity — the place is incredible and unbelievably beautiful. Much like Cojímar, it is peaceful and tranquil. Compared to the chaos and noise of Havana and the area in the estate’s immediate vicinity, it seems somewhat unreal. Anyone would be able to write there. With a stunning view of Old Havana in the distance, particularly spectacular from his writing altar nestled in a panoramic tower skimming the treetops, I imagine he must have been completely and happily at ease. Honestly, I’d love nothing better than spending a week or two there myself, let alone a few years or a lifetime. Indeed, many of the photos of him at Finca Vigía show a completely content man.
As we were leaving, a hummingbird fluttered about and landed in its nest just above the steps leading up to his front door. What a perfect parting image to have in mind as we left. At least that’s what I thought at the time.
However, we ended up driving out of the estate the wrong way and again passed a few of the poorest houses along our route and surrounding his estate. The difference between Finca Vigía and the area around it is starker after spending a bit of time there — think of the most opulent luxury and then compare that to something akin to the worst sort of lesser-developed slums. It felt like traveling from a palace to a favela in an instant. Anyway, as we left the gates of his estate and passed along these poorer homes, one woman, who now as then seemed ageless, was walking out onto her front stoop looking as beaten and downtrodden as anyone I’ve ever seen. My husband and I made eye contact with her and waved as we drove by. The transformation of her face took our breath away as she waved back at us. I’ve never seen a face as electrified and brightened so quickly and easily with a smile that dazzled as brilliantly as the clearest of diamonds. I don’t know that I ever will again. But, it touched me beyond words. It still does.
Later, as we left Ernesto, our trusty driver for the day, who also immensely enjoyed Hemingway’s house, we were again touched by the generosity and kindness of individuals who struggle daily to just get by. Despite knowing that we are the ‘wealthy’ foreigners, he demanded that we phone him to drive us to the airport when we leave Cuba to return to Finland. It wasn’t so much that he wanted the 30 or so CUCs (roughly US$30) he’d make from the fare, a sum of money that most Cubans struggle to make each month. In fact, he said he’d refuse payment of any kind from us. He just wanted to drive us for our last ride before returning to the frozen North.
It’s experiences like these that provide a different flavour to our journey this time. It’s not so much that we haven’t met lovely people before. We do every time we visit Cuba. It’s just that this trip has been somewhat less filtered. Whilst we have done touristy things, we have done them more like Cubans would and experienced them with those who live within that embargoed land every day. We’ve spent less time isolated from the every day Cuba, I guess. And, it is a far, far richer place than I’d ever imagined possible for a place that is desperately poor.
I’m fortunate to have an incredibly kind and witty family with whom we can share these experiences. Not at all surprising I’m sure to anyone who has met and knows my husband. But, kindness and wittiness surround us in the most unlikely places, from the folks we pass and talk to randomly on the streets to the mad almendrón drivers who’ve carted us around.
We can only hope that we return that kindness as effortlessly as it has been given.