The second-nicest Pina Colada I have ever drank was in Ernest Hemingway’s front garden, with a local Cuban man named Fernando. Standing under the shade of Hemingway’s tall palm trees, beside a small makeshift wooden bar, Fernando and I didn’t speak much as we drank. Instead, we gulped down the fresh cocktails while watching the barman and his team make more. A crowd of thirsty tourists were filming and photographing the men as they waited for their drinks.
It took five men to make one cocktail. One man stood at an old mill, turning a handle in a clockwise movement as if winding up a music box, setting the machine’s brown cogs and wheels in motion. Another man stood behind the mill, feeding long bamboo-like stalks of raw sugar cane into it. The mill crushed and ground the sugar stalks until a syrupy liquid burst from them. A third man stood in front of the machine holding a bucket, collecting the fresh sugar liquid that was being extracted. The fourth man stood at the bar slicing and blending an endless pile of dark green pineapples. Finally, the barman himself was mixing local dark rum with the sugar syrup, coconut milk, and pineapple juice, before topping each cocktail off with a pinch of powdered cinnamon.
Twenty minutes earlier, as we approached Hemingway’s gate, Fernando did little to encourage my bubbling enthusiasm for the house. “Is it possible to see everything? The entire house?”
“Shee shinyor, is good for the looking, the photo. But you like Pina Colada shinyor?” He asked this rhetorically, and with a grin.
At this, Fernando rubbed his hands together and smiled, giving me the impression that perhaps Hemingway’s house and its grounds might not be the main attraction in this quiet Cuban suburb. And soon after, as I stood in the garden gulping down my freshly juiced pineapple cocktail, the idea of seeing the home where Hemingway wrote many of his famous works no longer permeated my mind. I could only think of one thing: “This is the nicest Pina Colada I have ever tasted.” But it wasn’t. But it was – up to that point. The nicest Pina Colada I have ever tasted was to be enjoyed two days later, in a roadside bar about an hour from Havana. That bar went the extra mile and served the Pina Coladas in freshly hollowed out pineapples. However, as I stood in Hemingway’s garden enjoying the last of my drink, watching the five-man team hard at work, I turned to Fernando and made a “mmm” sound and rubbed my belly.
“Shee shee shinyor, ees very good no?”
“The best Fernando. Honestly, the best.”
Fernando was from Havana and had lived there all his life. He was a tour guide. Every day, in an old blue convertible Chevrolet with white leather seats, he gave private tours of Havana and to Ernest Hemmingway’s former home, which is in San Francisco de Paula – nine miles from the city centre. Built in America in the 1950s, this particular style of vintage car has now become synonymous with Cuba; Images of such cars adorn many a postcard or promotional photograph of the country.
Fernando owned the car, but he did not drive it himself. Instead, he sat sideways in the front, either facing his driver or with his back to him, pointing out the sights as we drove past. He was extremely friendly, always smiling, and spoke with a terrible lisp. Whenever he spoke, or pointed towards a large monument by the roadside to explain its history, I often had no choice but to nod my head and smile sympathetically, oblivious to whatever it was he was trying to tell me. Behind his grinning white teeth, Fernando’s tongue would slosh through saliva in the effort to speak.
“Shee shee shinyor, ees bootiful no?”
We – my girlfriend and I – had found Fernando standing with other tour guides downtown by the Paseo del Prado, their brightly colored vintage cars parked nearby in a row. As I glanced towards the group of men, with their laminated brochures and price lists tucked tightly into their armpits, Fernando caught my eye and broke away from their huddled conversation with a lunge.
“Shinyor, shinyor! Shee, shee. You want the tour? The car?”
By now the others had noticed and we were surrounded by tour guides brandishing their price lists and pointing towards their cars, insisting that we come over and take a closer look. In moments of mild panic like that, in a foreign land, surrounded by vendors pushing their goods on you, I usually look for the biggest gap in the crowd and push my way through. But we wanted to rent a car and a guide for the day (you can’t rent just the car itself, they’re too old and precious) so I looked for Fernando, the first person I had noticed, and with his arm around me the three of us walked towards his car. The remaining tour guides quickly hushed, tucked their signs away again, and then eased effortlessly back into conversation, as if we were never there.
Fernando suggested a tour of Havana, followed by Hemingway’s house, and then a trip to the famous Havana Club rum factory for a few drinks to finish. I was keen, but also asked if it would be ok to go into the shop now, the one beside us, and buy beer to bring on the drive. Fernando almost celebrated the idea, so I went into the shop and came out with a plastic bag full of cold bottles of local beer. After climbing awkwardly into the back seat of the car, with Fernando patting my back, holding the door open, and the beer bottles tinkling off one another in the bag, we were ready to go.
Before beginning the tour though, Fernando wanted to make a quick visit to his home, “if ish ok shinyor?” He needed to quickly do something for his two sons, whose names he had tattooed on his right forearm. We agreed, and drove off. He lived only a few streets away, and as we pulled up outside the building, after driving through the old streets of Havana, I began to feel as if we had now gone back in time.
The building Fernando lived in looked ancient. Every building on his street did. His was tall, and painted long ago, but the paint was now heavily faded with large flakes of pale blue stripping away like bark on a tree. The walls had large cracks running up them, and the windows were bare but for two wooden shutters hanging on. It had an open arched entrance, and from the street outside I could see into the building where – in a narrow courtyard – an old man sat sleeping in a chair, and bedsheets hung on sunken washing lines.
Every single building along the street resembled it, although painted a different colour. They were beautiful. Coupled with the bright 1950s cars that were parked along the street and chugging through the traffic, these buildings created a surreal environment, like much of Havana can.
As Fernando jumped out of the car and ran into the building, disappearing behind the grey sheets, I looked down the dull rainbow coloured street as the sun beamed down and hot gusts of air from passing cars blew my hair. Fernando soon returned, carrying a straw hat, which he put on my head before climbing into the front seat.
“Now you are Cuban! Shank you for this shinyor. Sho now, we do the tour o Habana, do the looking, do the the sights, the photo, and then the house of Hemingway si, ish good?” “Si, gracias!”
But as we pulled away from the building where Fernando lived, I looked back and wanted to be going inside his house, and not Hemingway’s house.
In briefly seeing Fernando’s house, and the street he lived on, it seemed as if we had witnessed a blink of Havana life, and felt a quick pulse of the daily reality that existed within this fantasy setting. Yes, it was only an old man asleep on a chair surrounded by bedsheets, but that old man was alive, while Hemingway wasn’t. However, Hemingway – and the facts of his life – would always be alive, to some extent, thanks to the internet and Trivial Pursuit. So essentially, the facts I knew about the American writer: his suicide, the names of his works, his reputation as a manly brute, his acting debut in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris – all of this trivial information was irrelevant. Hemingway was now immortal on Wikipedia, but that sleeping old man we had left behind wouldn’t be. The idea of visiting Hemingway’s house was starting to become a bit of an Ayers Rock for me. I have never been to Ayers Rock in Australia. I have never even been to Australia, but if I find myself standing in front of Ayers Rock – that big rock surrounded by nothing else, I might be hard pushed to feel any different for having seen it in person, in comparison to having seen a well taken photograph of it on Google images. It is a big rock in an empty field. After visiting the rock, and taking the photo, I am only assuming that there is little else to take in. Maybe its the Irish in me, but I’d much rather be in a bar, with people. In Cuba, we took many photos of monuments and landmarks, and visited a good few historically significant sites, but I always preferred drinking with the people in the bars.
Given that he had grown up in Havana, and never left Cuba, Fernando had a wealth of knowledge about the country, but his poor English meant that he struggled to explain the passing monuments and recount the historical events behind them. His basic conversational English was ok though, what little of it we could make out through his poor lisp. So, as Fernando pointed to the sights from the front seat of the car, with picturesque Havana and all of its antideluvian scenery passing us by, I stopped pretending to care about what little information he could impart on us with his poor lispy English. Instead, I interrupted him as he tried to conjure up whatever English word he was looking for, and asked him if he had grown up in Havana, because although it was beautiful, I was sure that I could find a picture of the old brick fort we were passing on Google, and read all about it on Wikipedia. I asked Fernando about his house that we had visited, and how long he had lived there. I asked him his opinions of America, and of Americans. He didn’t have any. We spoke about his family, his two sons, his parents, and we told him about ours. We spoke about his car and about common interests, such as music.
Suddenly, upon learning that I too liked The Beatles, Fernando insisted that we visit “The park of Shhhon Lennon,” which had been named after the singer, and had a statue of him sitting on a park bench. I was confused as to why there would be a monument to John Lennon in Cuba of all places, let alone a park named after him, but Fernando explained to us that The Beatles were extremely popular in Cuba, much like everywhere else in the world, even to this day. He had all their albums, but they weren’t easy to get. Apparently it became difficult to obtain albums by western musicians after the communist revolution, but – Fernando explained with a gracious nod – The Beatles had made it to Cuba. By 1962 the United States had now implemented in full its embargo on all imports and exports to and from Cuba; but it seemed that The Beatles – and their music – were one of the few vestiges of Western culture that managed to trickle through, as if early Beatlemania was so powerful that not even the U.S army or the communist Cuban forces could stop it. And so, like many Cubans, Fernando was a big Beatles fan.
Sitting on the park bench, between John Lennon and Fernando, having drank half of the beers I had bought, we sang through the choruses of our favourite songs. Well, Fernando and I did. Lennon didn’t – the miserable bastard holding true to his reputation. Back in the car, Havana passed us by as we spoke and drank more beer, and soon we were on the coast heading for Hemingway’s house. The alcohol and early afternoon heat was hitting me simultaneosly, and by now I was drunk, and waving at pedestrians and school children who smiled and waved back. Fernando laughed in the front seat, and my girlfriend cringed beside me as I leaned out the side of the car holding a beer and shouting “Hola!” at people.
The road began to steepen, and we left the coast, heading uphill past green banana trees, bushes, and half-built houses on either side of the road. The road gradually grew steeper and steeper, but the old car eased uphill as if it was built yesterday, and with the scenery surrounding us, that didn’t seem too improbable. Twenty minutes later, we were right up in the hills, with a view of the bay of Havana beneath us. But soon the view disappeared as the car turned left and we pulled into Hemingway’s driveway.
After the car was parked, Fernando pointed in the opposite direction of the house and towards a group of people, made up mostly of tourists. They were standing in the shade and using long straws to drink from brown clay cups. Perched on the rim of each cup was a fresh slice of pineapple. Fernando explained that he would be waiting for us there while we went and looked at the house.
We took a tour of the house, which is laid out to look untouched since Hemingway fled during Castro’s revolution including the appearance of bedsheets, loose kitchen utensils, stuffed African animal busts hanging on the walls, and even Hemingway’s fishing boat that stood on stilts at the side of the house. Everything remained untouched. It was cool, and interesting, but more of an Instagram moment than an exhilarating experience; We only did it so we could say we did it. Yes, it was fascinating in parts. He had a nice desk. His kitchen was lovely and spacious. Hemingway had even marked his height on a wall, which visitors could measure themselves up against. To my surprise, we were the same height, but I was far more interested in finishing the tour so that I could go and try the famous Pina Colada’s that Fernando was teasing me with on the journey to the house. At this point, all I wanted to do was drink with Fernando, a proper Cuban. Hemingway himself would have consented. After all I was in Cuba, which to me – as a kid, was always depicted as a highly militarized area – a war zone even. In other words, not viable as a holiday destination. I owe that prejudice to The Simpsons, James Bond, and many other American television shows and films for their caricatured portrayals of the communist country. But still, I was in a communist country, and for the first time. I had made it to the forbidden land of Cuba, but, it wasn’t like I had expected it to be. Fidel Castro wasn’t being paraded through the streets, waving at civilians from an open tank. Those “sons of beetches” Will Smith and Martin Lawrence weren’t shooting up a cocaine dealer’s mansion with the help of the U.S Marines. Halle Berry wasn’t getting out of the sea wearing a knife while Piers Brosnan perved on her from a distance with his binoculars. Nobody was wearing a beret.