|Jose Fuster's home/workshop in Jaimanitis Havana|
|Hemingway with brave companion|
|Me schmoozing up to Pablo Neruda in Valparaiso, Chile|
Well we are home, and found Cuba as fascinating, wonderful, unexpected and impenetrable as ever we could have imagined.
Havana was exciting, with frenetic street life and ancient cars cruising the main drag day and night. People are loud and pushy and touts are insistent targeting fat cat tourists like us, which makes life difficult at times. But the warmth and vitality and physical beauty of locals is intoxicating. As is the total absence of advertising in this socialist country - there are no hoardings and it can be very hard to even find the shops behind the colonial facades. It made me realise how much we Westerners are assaulted by ever more intrusive advertising.
We loved staying in casas particular, which are like Hispanic B & B's. It was great to experience how the locals live, to eat their food and suffer their shortages (of things like soap and toilet paper - we spent the entire month washing our hair, bodies and clothes, most successfully I must say, with Pert). But don't ever believe anyone who tells you you won't need Spanish in Cuba.
I suspect that is only the case if you restrict yourself to staying in large hotels and hang out exclusively at tourist haunts. Otherwise Spanish is a must. Some days I spoke Spanish all day long, ending up mentally exhausted by 5pm. But it has done wonders for my espagnol and helped greatly in learning more about the fascinating lives of the locals. An example was when we took a trip by taxi to Jaimanitis. The taxi driver, a vigorous prankster of an elderly man, told us all about how when he was 17 he spent 9 months fighting side by side in the mountains with Che Guevara. It was fascinating to hear his first hand description of someone who evokes universal adulation and has attained almost God-like status in Cuba.
An absolute highlight of our trip was the week we spent in rural Vinales. We loved tramping through the country-side and up the mountains with our funny and informative guide, Miguel. Miguel was born and raised in the small town of Vinales, where he knows everybody. One day he said simply, gesturing to the gorgeous tropical fields we were crossing, 'This is where I spend my days. It is tranquil. I am in paradise. Why would I want to be anywhere else?' I realised in that moment what a rarity it is to spend time with someone who might have little materially, but is so content with their lot. Not so Ernest Hemingway, who had all that money could buy, but was far from content.
I am toying with the idea of writing an article entitled: 'Avoiding Ernest Hemingway in Cuba' which would focus on the impossibility of that endeavour. The local joke is that there are few bars in which Hemingway didn't fall down and all of them claim him. Nevertheless we dutifully visited the Hemingway sites, where his love of all things Cuban was palpable. I wondered if Hemingway and Castro ever met and eventually found the photo that proved they did. I would love to have been a fly on the wall at that particular meeting - a Spanish speaking one of course.