There are lots of pretty islands in the Caribbean, so folks have been understandably puzzled by our going somewhere that requires as much planning as does traveling to Cuba, but ever since seeing his home in Key West last year and his grave in Idaho the year before, I’ve badly wanted to see where Hemingway spent most of his final 20 years. And so, on a Saturday morning at 8, we climbed into the back of an ’89 Peugeot and headed east 10 miles from Havana.
Our first stop was the fishing village of Cojímar, where our day began with a cooking class set up by our guide at the Ajiaco cafe; we were joined by a mother-son pair from California who were running a marathon the next day, and a young couple from Jersey City provided East coast-West coast balance to our group. We had Cuban sandwiches with pork fresh off the grill before walking a few blocks down the street to a man’s backyard, where he had an organic garden that featured beer cans and water bottles for its borders and steps; we were told that the vegetables served by the restaurant where we were to have our cooking class got much of its food from this very garden (which was guarded by a cat).
We walked back to the restaurant and into the kitchen to start cooking the vegetables, chicken, and lobster we’d sit down and eat shortly thereafter.
We also had another mojito making class, because practice is important to acquiring any new skill. This mojito, however, was even better than the ones we’d learned to make the night before, as we only muddled the mint leaves’ stems, and instead of sugar providing the sweetness, we used local honey! They were so good I needed 4 or so to make sure I understood how good they were.
After lunch and drinks, we met our cab driver again and headed to Finca Vigía. I walked up to the nearest doorway and tried to walk inside, but a strap blocked my access. There was a lady inside whom I hoped was a tour guide, but she didn’t seem to speak English and acted as a gatekeeper instead. The guy beside me said I could give her a couple CUCs, and she’d take some photos inside the home with my phone, so I played along, but I was not happy about being barricaded (I smiled for her picture regardless), given how much I enjoyed being able to walk throughout the house in Key West. At least there were other doorways and lots of windows, so seeing the entire house without entering was possible, but not fulfilling.
We walked up the spiral staircase to his writing room and could see Havana in the distance, about 15 miles away. His fishing boat, the Pilar, was dry docked a short distance away. I got cigars for my paralegals, a guayabera, and gifts for the children in the gift shop before we hopped back in our cab and headed to the Santa Maria playa.
We’d only walked a few steps down the beach when someone grabbed my hands. Seconds later, someone grabbed my bride’s, and yesterday’s salsa lessons received intermediate refresher training. Our partners had peeled off from a group of locals guzzling clear Havana Club rum; the empty bottles were piled a few feet away in the sand. Our new friends were more skilled and more enthusiastic than we were, but they tolerated our novicity and seemed delighted that we’d come all the from the U.S. to dance with them on the beach. After several minutes, they rejoined their companions as we continued along the shore.
We’d just stopped and sat a few minutes, ordered drinks, and looked out across the water when I noticed the sky turning grey, and our cab driver was quite a ways away from us. “We should probably start heading back,” I thought aloud as we looked for the man who’d brought our drinks to give him some CUCs. Two minutes later, it started pouring.
We found some locals under a canopy next to a trailer-turned-beer-stand. We sheltered there at their enthusiastic urging, sharing their rum and telling them all about our impressions of Cuba so far, hearing how their little fishing village differed from Havana, and practicing the Spanish I learned > 20 years ago with happy, soaked men, women, and children who barely spoke English.
After a half hour or so, the rain subsided, and we followed the sidewalk toward where we hoped our cab had dropped us off. I needed a restroom, but all we could see were private residences and older hotels I figured were Communist. I was past the point of discomfort, so desperation required that I try to walk inside one of the hotels, but a guard stopped me.
“Can I please use the restroom?”
“Ummm…what if it’s an emergency?”
He laughed. “Where are you from?”
His demeanor changed; he directed me toward some stairs that led to an outdoor pool with some restrooms nearby. Crisis averted.
We continued down the sidewalk hunting our taxi when we heard a horn toot behind us–our cabbie was looking for us! We jumped into the back of the Peugeot and headed back to Havana to bathe at the B&B. We walked out to the common area, saw our new friends from breakfast and followed them to find dinner. Tom Gibson, a classic cars photographer based in South Carolina, and Greg, a regular vacationer from Toronto, were happy to lead us. Tom treated us to dinner at an old restaurant with a Polynesian motif.
My new guayabara and I were into it.
After dinner, my bride and I finished a Cohiba on the rooftop deck of our B&B before going to bed fairly early, since the next morning–Sunday–we would meet our cab driver again for a 2+hr drive to the west, so that we could see Cuba’s version of a national park and tour a small tobacco farm, as our “support the Cuban people” travels continued…