We ditched the car in Havana Vieja, and continued our exploration of this sprawling city on foot. This is, of course, the other way to see the city and its many nooks and crannies, many of which are not reachable by a bulky maquina. Havana’s charms transformed the moment we set foot on the city’s cracked concrete pavements. Starting at Plaza de San Fransisco and the San Fransisco Basilica, opposite Havana’s tourist-laden cruise terminal, we ventured deep into Havana Vieja and its colonial alleyways. The streets of Havana Vieja, connecting one plaza and one catedral to another. Were it not for the reminders of building debris and leaky water pipes around every corner, Havana could well have been a Spanish town.
In truth, Havana could not be more distant from your typical Spanish city. One of the bigger distinguishing factors is the city’s dismal poverty. Even prior to the revolution, Cuba was never considered a wealthy nation. Batista’s early 20th century policies, sequestering profits from the people in favour of large American companies, resulted in a third of the country’s population living in poverty. Cuba saw greater economic prosperity with the Revolution as income taxes were abolished and the government, with the backing of the powerful USSR (at the expense of trade with the USA during the Cold War), endeavoured to provide universal healthcare and education for Cubans. Nonetheless, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the persisting economic embargo from the neighbouring USA, Cuba lost the vast majority of its trade and investment, leading to a collapse of the country’s GDP. It was evident that the effects of Cuba’s languishing economy persists until today despite the recent influx of tourists. Not one street away from Havana’s main attractions, stray dogs wandered the streets, mounds of excrement a further reminder of the unfettered animals. Locals loitered around street corners, tirelessly offering “Cohiba” cigar packets produced from their pockets. Others peeked out of colonial window blinds, curious to see tourists wandering down their well-trodden alleys. Some were preparing food with little concern for hygiene, hacking through a pig carcass on a simple wooden table in the summer heat. Such was the way of life, even in the heart of metropolitan Havana.
Of course, not all inhabitants of Havana languished in poverty. Many expatriates call Havana and Cuba home, the most famous of whom being Ernest Hemingway. Seeking refuge from a painful separation with his second wife, and following his participation in the Spanish civil war, Hemingway moved to Havana in 1939. For the next 20 years, he made Finca Vigía, a farmhouse in the suburbs of Havana, his home. He spent his Havana days continuing his reports on the war as well as working on his best known work, The Old Man and the Sea. The estate sits on the crest of a small hill at the end of a winding dirt driveway, a modern and well-maintained structure amid the decrepit buildings of rural Havana. This was, without a doubt, the obvious result of intervention by the Cuban government to parlay investment in the upkeep of Hemingway’s residence into greater returns in the form of tourism.
As we approached the single-storey house, we were ushered away from the main porch. While the interior of the house was cordoned off, the rooms were sufficiently airy for a closer look. We could see almost every detail (whether or not they are indeed artefacts from Hemingway’s day is another question). The big living room had shelves adorned with old movie posters and bottles of rum, as well as floral furniture and wooden chairs. Hemingway’s study was decorated with bookshelves and lifelike wild animal heads on wooden placards. His simple and unassuming bedroom had stacks of magazines meticulously arranged to appear as though Hemingway had scarcely left his abode. The terraces of the house look out onto lush jungle, and amid the trees, a former tennis court today holds Hemingway’s beloved boat, the Pilar, in which he would go fishing off the coast of Cojimar. The plaques and souvenirs commemorating Hemingway’s life and times in Cuba were ubiquitous, not only in Finca Vigia, but also throughout Havana. His room at the Hotel Florida, where he began For Whom the Bell Tolls, remains vacant for viewing. His favourite spot in the famous El Floridita (“the birthplace of the Mojito”) is still occupied by a life-size bronze statue. Hemingway has become something of a curiosity: a pillar of 20th century American literature, yet a much-celebrated export of Cuba’s burgeoning tourism.