Seeing the world through the lens of a great artist is a rare experience, but today there is an immersive way to combine art and travel if you are willing to explore a little.
Visit Cuba and gain the sensation of the Cuba that Nobel prize winning author Ernest Hemingway experienced as a backdrop to some of his more important works.
In Havana, a rich array of earthy colors is detonated as the bright Caribbean sun interacts with the city’s majestic but fading structures. The city is one of the last remaining urban environments unspoiled by the aesthetic pollution of modern city advertising. There you can time travel back to Hemingway’s era. Cuba’s relative isolation from the West and in recent decades its reliance on preserved American cars dating from the 1950s means the city looks much like it did in 1959 just before Hemingway left the island nation.
Havana’s oily night is mystical from almost every block you visit. The lack of light pollution from excessive urban lighting creates a brilliant night sky – no different from the nights when Hemingway made the rounds to his favorite Havana drinking holes.
In fact, in Hemingway’s short novel, The Old Man and the Sea, he claimed fraternity with the night sky. He says, through the main character, Santiago, “I am as clear as the stars that are my brothers. Still I must sleep. They sleep and the moon and the sun sleep and even the ocean sleeps sometimes on certain days when there is no current and a flat calm.”
Except for the permanent statute of Hemingway at the bar, the Floridita is almost exactly the same as it was when Hemingway made it famous. Go early to beat the crowds.
Hemingway’s home, the Finca Vijia, sits on a bucolic country side hilltop overlooking Havana 15 miles away. The Cuban government turned it into a museum in the 1960s and today visitors can see the home and grounds exactly as Hemingway left it – down to the bottles of rum on the table next to his favorite chair. Here is an interview the Cuba Journal conducted with Hemingway’s late chef, Fico.
The fishing village of Cojimar, not far from the Finca Vigia, is a place to see where Hemingway kept his fishing boat and drank rum after returning from the sea. The fishing village itself remains virtually unchanged in the last 50 years and this is the best vantage point to explore one important aspect of Hemingway greatest novel, The Old Man and the Sea. La Tarraza, the novelest’s favorite bar in Cojimar, is still in business.
For Hemingway, the sea occupied his time and his imagination and Cojimar was his main assess point. He was an avid fisherman and explorer of Cuba’s vast coastline. On an artistic level, the sea represented both beauty and treachery. And in Hemingway’s world, the capriciousness of the sea parallels the randomness of life and requires man to demonstrate his worthiness through noble action. Adherence to this stoic belief underpins one of Hemingway’s most iconic statements from the Old Man and the Sea, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
On a symbolic level, the character Santiago navigates his small fishing boat on the sea of Hemingway’s subconscious, making the sea the bearer of artistic creation. From the village of Cojimar, visitors can sit in Hemingway favorite bar and look out over the same vista that inspired his most important visions are about the nature of humanity.
Cuban artist Yoan Capote comes close to capturing the mystical and imaginative quality of the sea described in Hemingway’s novel. Capote’s Isla and Panagre series of seascapes were created by attaching thousands of fish hooks to a board. The artists says, “These paintings are the interior sea of every human being, the psychological seascape that every person in Cuba has.”
So before you go to Cuba, study The Old Man and the Sea and participate in Hemingway’s Cuba before it fades away behind an ocean of tourists.
Hemingway images courtesy of the JFK Library