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Cuba told in pictures and prose (Part 3)

This is the third and final instalment on my Cuba series, covering a trip I took with my friend, Darcy. If you haven’t read from the beginning, feel free to hop over to Part 1 and Part 2 first.

I’ve already touched on many of Havana’s landmarks, so this post will focus on Cuba’s people, Ernest Hemingway, and conclude with some interesting Cuban facts.

What does it mean to be Cuban and what’s with those names?

Cuban culture and history are more eclectic than I realized. The majority of Cubans come from Spanish and African descent, also influenced by the slave trade. The white population is still the majority, followed by a large percentage who are mulatto (a blend of races), then blacks, and then a small Asian group.

Here we are with Mayrene, a beautiful woman who graced us with her friendship.

Yanetsis, Yanquiel, Hanoi … just some of the other exotic names of Cubans we met.

How were these names derived?

In pre-revolutionary Cuba, parents chose more traditional, Spanish-language names like Javier, Manuel, or Maria. Post revolution, the preference for unusual names came from a couple of sources.

  1. A departure from the country’s Spanish Roman Catholic heritage meant parents moved away from biblical names.
  2. Naming their children was one of the few creative freedoms Cubans had, a way to exert their power in a country where the state controlled everything else.

Interesting fact: In the 1970s, imaginations really went wild. That’s when the letter Y, rarely used in Spanish names, became a hit with parents. (It may have also been influenced by the Soviet Union and their names like Yevgeni and Yuri.). Even so-called normal names were hijacked. Janet became Yanet, and indeed, we met a woman named Yanet at our hotel!

Preparing for a milestone anniversary

In 2019, Havana will celebrate the 500th anniversary of its founding by Spanish settlers on November 16, 1519. In preparation for the big day, the city has been restoring more than 600 buildings, streets, and complexes in its historical district.

Small details such as this mailbox make the streets unique.

Cobbled, car-free Calle Mercaderes (Merchant’s Street) has been extensively restored.

This 300 square meter mural on Mercaderes Street depicts 67 outstanding figures from Cuban history and the arts.

Calle Mercaderes is also characterized by its restored shops, including one of its most famous — Habana 1791, a perfume shop where attendants help you design your own scent. Housed in a beautifully refurbished neoclassical building, Habana 1791 offers its perfumes in bottles handcrafted by Cuban artisans.

 

Ernest Hemingway in Havana

Hemingway first visited Cuba in 1928 while on a layover traveling to Spain. He arrived with his family from Key West, which was his home at the time. They stopped in Havana for three days awaiting their ship to sail and stayed at the Hotel Ambos Mundos.

Hemingway next visited Cuba again four years later.

Located close to Plaza de Armas in Old Havana, Hotel Ambos Mundos was built in 1924. A room on the top (5th) floor became Hemingway’s first home in Cuba when he returned in 1932.

The hotel lobby features walls framed with photographs dedicated to Hemingway.

We took an old-style elevator up five floors to Hemingway’s room.

Darcy checks out the directory of rooms on the fifth floor.

 Room 511 is now a museum with a nominal entry fee.

 

From 1932 to mid-1939, Hemingway rented the single room for $1.50 per night.

 

Hemingway started writing his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls here in March 1939.

The room is triangular with windows that look out onto the rooftops of Old Havana and the sea. I imagined Hemingway enjoyed the street sounds below and the smell of the ocean while typing away at his desk.
Something about being near his typewriter made me weepy.

 

More pictures and memorabilia can be found in the hallways on the fifth floor. Here is a leg from one of Hemingway’s writing desks.

 

Hemingway finally checked out of Hotel Ambos Mundos in 1939 after he purchased a more permanent residence at Finca Vigia. He lived at the 9-acre estate with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn for a time until their divorce. In 1945, he married his last wife, Mary Welsh and Finca Vigia became their winter residence for the next fifteen years.

 

Located ten miles east of Havana in the working-class hamlet of San Francisco de Paula, Finca Vigia means “Lookout Farm.” Hemingway purchased the home in 1940 for $12,500.
Cubans have always respected Hemingway’s choice to live in the modest town, amongst the people he fished with.
The library housed Hemingway’s desk, curved like a boomerang. He wrote in longhand here or standing up at his typewriter.

He wrote most of For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea while living here.

The house shows off Hemingway’s trophies from his hunting and fishing expeditions.

On the wall behind the door, Hemingway obsessively scribbled down his daily weight from 1955 to 1960 when his health was failing from diabetes, cirrhosis, and high blood pressure.

Over 9000 books filled every room of the house except the dining room.

Hemingway was an avid swimmer.

Despite his machismo, Hemingway had a soft spot for cats. Tombstones of four of his more than 25 cats are found across the pool.

Hemingway purchased the fishing boat Pilar in April 1934. “Pilar” was a nickname for Hemingway’s second wife Pauline and also the name of the female leader in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Trellis-shaped patio at the front of the house.

The two-storey guest house is closed for renovations. Past guests included Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, and Ava Gardner.
 
My feelings on Hemingway: 

Both Darcy and I are writers, and our fascination to see everything Hemingway is because most writers are curious about other writers. How did he live? What made him great? What can we learn from him?

Sure, we can glean a lot from Hemingway through his work; we can even delve into his personal life, but there is something unexplainable about standing in a room where he used to sleep, brushing up against his desk, or staring out a window he once looked through.

It’s visceral.

There are several photos taken of me where I appeared teary-eyed while in his room at Ambos Mundos. I have not included them here and initially couldn’t understand the sadness.

Now I know.

It’s that sense of reverence for someone who has given so much despite suffering a great deal toward the end of his life. It’s that Hemingway’s incredible literary skills did not make him any less vulnerable and imperfect as a man. He had four wives and countless affairs. He drank heavily. He hunted. None of these traits is attractive to me, and yet, nothing would’ve stopped me from wanting to know him.

Like I said, it’s visceral.

Five facts you may not know about Cuba

It is mandatory for government vehicles to pick up hitchhikers. I mentioned this in my second post.

It started after the “Special Period” (the collapse of the Soviet Union), a time of economic hardship from 1989 until the late 1990s. A general breakdown in transportation meant once-reliable buses began to arrive several hours late, and then not at all. As a result, the Cuban government had to deal with deteriorating public transit. Nationalized hitchhiking was one solution and it continues today.

Only 5% of Cubans have access to the uncensored, open Internet. It’s an expensive chunk of their earnings, costing $2/hour when the average monthly income is only $25. In many areas in Havana, we saw people huddled around “hot spots” to check their Internet.

Cuba is one of two countries where Coca-Cola cannot be bought or sold. The other is North Korea.

Blowing your nose in public is considered extremely rude. I learned this firsthand from our guide in Havana. I had a slight cold and was blowing my nose in his car when he told me. I was mortified! I had to excuse myself and find a private place to do it thereafter even though he gave me a pass.

Ernest Hemingway worked as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star (then known as the Toronto Daily Star) from 1920 – 1924. He would later incorporate some of his pieces into his fiction.

Cubans make for easy friends 

We loved our time in Cuba because of the people, and it’s a big reason for why we would return. There are many others not pictured here but thank you to everyone who made our stay so special!

Humberto took care of us on the beach.

 

Guzman filled up our brandy at Xanadu Mansion.

 

Big hugs to Luisito and Mayara for their smiles and kindness.

 

Until next time, Cuba. We miss you already.

~eden

 

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