On the third day we drove off to La Viga, a handsome ranch-house complete with gate lodge, grounds and gift shop, 15km outside Havana, where Ernest Hemingway spent the last third of his life. Although he didn't die there - he went back to Idaho to shoot himself in 1961 - the place has been preserved exactly as he left it, by special order of his buddy, Fidel C. Because of the danger that souvenir hunters might nick Papa's favourite ashtray, visitors are not allowed in, but must lean in through the open windows and doors; since it was coming on to rain as we got there, all means of ingress were firmly shut and we had to squint through the glass like nosey neighbours.
What was it like? Books and dead animals, as far as the eye could see. You expected them both of course, since Hemingway worked so hard at the image of the bookish frontiersman, the literary Tarzan, the gun- and rod-toting grammarian from whom no rhino, marlin or dangling participle was safe. But it was a surprise to see alongside the predictable books in his 4,000-strong library (Letters of Thomas Wolfe, Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, Villoldo's Latin American Resentment, Katherine Graham's Beloved Infidel), a stack of copies of True, a believe-it-or-don't "news magazine", and a volume of gruff maritime reminiscence for armchair fantasists called Give Me a Ship to Sail. What constantly tugged your heart was the plangency of details - the knick-knacks and figurines, the Schweppes tonic bottles, their contents long evaporated in the tropic heat, the corkscrew (inevitably, a bull's horn), the pencil sharpener, the tiny hairbrush. How odd that one left this shrine to masculinity bowled over, less by the macho impedimenta of bison and bullets and bourbon, than by the sight of the "eyeglass tissues" left, pending his return, on his bedside table.
The other not-quite-Cuban local hero called Ernest is, of course, Che Guevera (Ernesto at the font in his native Argentina), whose handsome fizzog is everywhere, on plates and T-shirts, on murals, advertisement hoardings, postcards, old stamps and banknotes. In ancient houses in Trinidad de Cuba (the most perfectly preserved, and still operational, relic of 18th-century colonial life), you can find his image sharing the wall with the Virgin Mary. He died in October 1967, shot by government troops in Bolivia, so you can imagine the pandemonium of remembrance that will grip the collective Cuban soul on the 30th anniversary. Since Castro is supposed to be against the "cult of personality" (the very idea), he is happy to leave his ex-lieutenant to embody the spirit of the 1959 revolution. By all accounts Che wasn't cut out for government: though head of the Cuban Bank for a period, he knew nothing about economics; a doctor by training, he preferred stirring things up to debating politics. His role under Castro was, it seems, to go round the island being a flashing- eyed morale-booster. Watching television footage of his glory days in the early Sixties, one notes with relief his slight weight problem, his inability to grow a convincing beard, his fake all-weather perma-smile, but also the charisma that outweighed all such shortcomings.
I wouldn't want to suggest that Havana is full of pickpockets, but the logistics of where to put your valuables and your hands is hard to master. During the Carnivale, I was told to leave my wallet, passport and cash in my hotel room, hidden in the usual obvious places. So I went out with just a 20-peso note in one trouser pocket and cunningly slipped my watch for safety into the other. As the crowds crushed round me, I felt myself being plucked. Sleeve, wrist, side of shirt, belt of trouser, pluck, pluck, pluck - I've never been so comprehensively plucked in my life, Missus. Voices asked for smokes, for dollars, for a dance; faces blurred before you, asking "Allemand?", "Inglesi?", "You wan' Cohibas?" Then a woman seized my arm and said, "You must come." As I looked into her face, I felt little hands in my trouser pockets, and swatted them away. I checked - the watch was still there, but of the 20 pesos only an urchin imprint remained.
Did I learn my lesson? On the last day, luggage checked out, hotel room vacated, I was heading for the shops, when three black boys appeared, shouting "Amigo! Amigo!" and clutching my hand like children, and stroking my arm in a parody of cordial transatlantic relations. "One dollar, mistah," they cried. I was no mug, I reminded myself, I've been through this before. I clamped one hand over the wallet in my right pocket, the other hand over the passport in my left pocket. "Amigo!" they shouted, in "don't- you-trust-us?" tones, and matily stroked my arm again. I lost my temper and yelled "Scram!" and they ran off. I checked wallet, passport, plane ticket, yes, yes, yes, everything was in order. But my wrist was bare. One Cobra & Bellamy watch was being rushed through the Havana backstreets by three 10-year-old artful dodgers.
Here's some advice. When you go to Cuba, take an extra arm.Reuse content