Hemingway in Cuba: Retracing Literary Footsteps with COPLACuba

March 22, 2016
Matt James with Hemmingway bust

Matthew James in Cojimar, where the Nobel Prize winning novel "The Old Man and the Sea" takes inspiration and local fisherman gathered their scrap metal to make the brass bust of Hemingway // Photo courtesy Matthew James

By Matthew James, SSU Geology Professor

In December 2015 I took a swell trip. While my students back on campus crammed for final exams in my lecture and laboratory courses, and sweated out documenting their lengthy geology field trip reports, I got schooled, in the good sense. I went to Cuba, an island in the humid tropics where perspiration flows like cheap rum. I joined 22 other scholar-tourists from 15 campuses around the country who converged in Miami, Florida, and then made the short flight to Havana, Cuba for the week-long education and research delegation.

Our group of professors represented a spectrum of academic disciplines from member campuses of COPLAC, the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, of which Sonoma State University is the only member in California. Participants were selected based on their interest in developing new ties and scholarly interests with Cuban faculty, or study abroad programs for U.S. undergraduates in Cuba. We had a historic opportunity to begin a dialogue between U.S. and Cuban faculty members on contemporary issues in Cuban society.

The organizers appropriately christened the trip COPLACuba, which caused more than one wag in the group to wink and comment good-naturedly, "I see what you did there." Mirroring the egalitarian nature of the social hierarchy in a socialist country, our COPLACuba participants all hailed from small colleges and universities, creating a much-appreciated internal sense of equality. No arrogant personalities or overbearing research reputations from R1 universities dominated our trip. We explored Cuba together, both intellectually and geographically, as equals. And the result was as transformative as it was enjoyable.

Magical Realism

For some of us, the Cuba trip turned out to be nearly indistinguishable from the experience of magical realism in a Gabriel García Márquez novel. My fellow travelers will understand when I wonder, Was "Super Padre" an apparition, or a very real Catholic priest? Was it he who graciously served our food at every meal, poured wine at dinner, and in the evening smoked cigars with us and enjoyed sipping Cuban rum, while reassuring us, "We are all sinners"? All rational indications point to him being quite real, a firmly grounded priest originally from Spain named Father José Miguel González.

He warmly welcomed us as our host at Casa Sacerdotal, an oasis, literally and figuratively, in the midst of the bustling Vedado neighborhood of Havana. We listened, daily, to four hours of PowerPoint lectures by Cuban scholars, a bit of payback my students might say. We learned about the 1959 revolution, the negative effects of the 57-year U.S.-imposed trade embargo, and the daily hardships experienced by the Cuban people during the "Special Period" of economic austerity after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We imbibed the history and experienced modern day Cuba, in a deep and firsthand way that regular visitors rarely do. It was a bit like a graduate seminar, with field trips.

Our trip coincided with the one-year anniversary of the historic December 17, 2014 declaration by President Barack Obama of the easing of relations with Cuba, which happens to fall on the Catholic holy day of Saint Lazarus. Hope abounds that Cuba will rise from the dead with new economic, political, and social reforms. During our trip, President Obama announced plans for an historic visit in 2016 before he leaves office. Perhaps he will lift the embargo and real change will begin.

Finding Hemmingway

During the COPLACuba trip I also pursued a life-long goal of tracking down Ernest Hemingway's Cuban haunts. Hemingway became an emergent property of COPLACuba, but congruent with the overall goal. My literary pursuit included wandering the narrow streets of Old Havana one afternoon with our group on a guided tour, where a woman unexpectedly kissed me on the cheek. She was a cigar-smoking, brightly costumed street performer, quite possibly a practitioner of the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion, leaving a big, smeared, red lipstick mark that I wore as a mysterious badge of pride for the rest the day. Surely this meant I was on Hemingway's trail in Old Havana, but I think Papa was easily a few steps ahead of me, just out of sight around the corner.

In previous travels I had walked in Hemingway's footsteps in Paris and Key West, and visited his grave in Ketchum, Idaho. In Havana, I consciously wanted to avoid the tourist donkey trail leading from location to location, so I snuck up on several of the famous locales, sometimes only visiting them randomly and fortuitously. Of the five Hemingway places I visited on this quest, members of our group were also right there with me. One colleague who was there at all five places, and lead us to one of them, was trip co-organizer and political scientist Steve Elliott-Gower from Georgia College, who said in our 1952 Dodge Coronet taxi, "Isn't it fun, and somehow appropriate, how Hemingway has become this vehicle of adventure for us!"

Two bars in Old Havana command legendary status in Hemingway lore, as the milling, mid-day crowds confirmed. La Bodeguita del Medio might be a hole in the wall on a narrow, pedestrian-only street, but Hemingway made their mojitos famous. At La Floridita, a more up-scale tavern, Hemingway enjoyed sipping daiquiris, including his double-strength specialty, the Papa Doble. We visited both bars just in passing during our multi-hour walking tour of the old city, not pausing long enough to investigate the veracity of the possibly apocryphal connections to the writer. But it left us with a better understanding of Hemingway's oft-quoted statement, "My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita." We passed dozens of small, quaint, and deserted bars in Old Havana just waiting to be made famous by the next Hemingway.

Papa's Home

Two taxi excursions on separate days steered us to locales with arguably more profound literary gravitas. The first was to Hemingway's home, now a museum, called La Finca Vigia, or the lookout farm. Built in 1886, it is located about 15 miles outside Havana. Our two 1950s taxis transported us to the house, and back in time, really.

We were able to engage on the grounds of the house a wonderfully informative English-speaking guide, Tatiana, who gave us a deluxe tour. She was incredibly knowledgeable about dates and facts and people in Hemingway's life. She related an anecdote about a group of Hemingway scholars who were allowed inside the house on a tour. Afterwards a small memento was missing, clearly pocketed by one of the scholars. This is one of the reasons visitors today can only look into the house through the cordoned off doorways and open windows. We circled the house, stopping at each door and window to listen to Tatiana, with all the original contents far out of arm's reach.

Hemingway's home is the subject of a vignette in the 1968 film "Memorias del Subdesarollo," or "Memories of Underdevelopment," directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. The film questions Hemingway's affinity and connection to Cuba, beyond being a base for writing, deep-sea fishing, and entertaining his friends. The film's protagonist, Sergio, takes a female friend, Elena, on a sightseeing tour of Hemingway's house. Sergio observes the numerous mounted African hunting trophies on the walls (all still there) with horns and antlers of all shapes and sizes. Sergio comments about Hemingway, "He said he killed so as not to kill himself. In the end he could not resist the temptation."

Papa's Room

Afterward we returned to Havana in our taxis to visit the Museum of the Revolution, which is crammed with historical artifacts including clothing displays from fallen heroes of the revolution, penetrated by bullet holes and bearing human bloodstains. To lighten the mood, Steve Elliott-Gower guided us on foot to the 1924 Hotel Ambos Mundos nearby in Old Havana.

The hotel maintains room 511 as a sort of shrine to Hemingway. The lobby has two walls of framed photographs honoring the author, like Stations of the Cross. Up in room 511 sits a manual typewriter, spectacles and papers on a small wooden table, the tabletop covered by a Plexiglas enclosure, reminiscent of a Catholic reliquary containing objects from the life of the venerated writer, Saint Ernesto.

For our part as literary pilgrims we ascended higher still in the original caged elevator to worship the mojitos and the rum Collins and the daiquiris in the open-air rooftop lounge and restaurant with sweeping vistas of the Straits of Florida. Here, we put Hemingway's famous phrase to the test, like reading chapter and verse. If ever there were an altar to Hemingway it would be a bar where one could genuflect, perhaps unintentionally, when you drop your change.


Our final Hemingway-inspired excursion was east of Havana, again via 1950s taxi, to the fishing town of Cojímar and the bar-restaurant La Terraza, or The Terrace. With broad windows that open widely to bring in the sea breeze, La Terraza was a wonderful piece of Hemingway history, and we were practically the only ones there. We felt a need--no, more of an obligation--to again test the famous phrase. The broader literary significance of Cojímar is that it inspired Hemingway's 1952 novel "The Old Man and the Sea." Written in 1951 in Bimini, Bahamas, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, and the Nobel Prize in 1954.

The amazing thing about Cuba is that all of those years are still well represented by U.S.-made automobiles roaming the streets and highways. We sense the tenor of Hemingway's time by seeing many, many thousands of U.S.-made automobiles from the 1940s and 1950s. Often sporting their original paint jobs and belching dark exhaust, Detroit's finest give Cuba the false illusion of being frozen in time. With ideal timing, one can look in both directions down a broad avenue in Havana and see nothing but classic cars. In Cuba, not only can you read about history, you can ride in it as well.

A short walk from La Terraza along Cojímar's malecón, or the waterfront street, is a monument to Hemingway, reminiscent of the Pythia, or the Oracle at Delphi. Six Greek ionic columns surround a bronze bust of the author that was cast after his death out of respect, made of scrap pieces of bronze gathered by the fishermen of Cojímar. The bust bears more than a little resemblance to Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, perhaps unintentionally, and ironically, mirroring the communist revolutionary theme of Cuba.

Good and True

Whether one is an aficionado of Ernest Hemingway, or not, either of his writing, or of his life, following in his footsteps was an enjoyable literary theme for several of our COPLACuba participants. This especially held true for those who went to all five places. Another who did, political science professor Sheri Breen from the University of Minnesota at Morris commented, "For me, visiting the Hemingway home and fishing village made the trip to Cuba even more interesting, and it wasn't just a diversion."

By having boots-on-the-ground experience with the pivotal geographic locations in Hemingway's life and writing in Cuba, we can better understand and appreciate his literary accomplishments. Professor Breen concluded, "I hadn't read Hemingway in a while, and being surrounded by his objects and writing desk and boat, plus all of the photos of him in the places where we were walking and sitting, started me thinking about him again as a writer and considering his love of Cuba in a much more intimate way. I enjoyed Cuba and Cubans so much on this trip, and the Hemingway sites did nothing but strengthen that reaction." As Hemingway himself might have written, We went to Cuba and it was good and true.


I warmly thank my 22 compañeras/compañeros on the COPLACuba trip: Elena Adell Tejedor (Asheville), Gladys Torres Baumgarten (Ramapo), Sheri Breen (Minnesota, Morris), John Bawden (Montevallo), John Broome (Mary Washington), Lisa DiGiovanni (Keene), Lothar Dohse (Asheville), Steven Elliott-Gower (Georgia College), Karen Gaul (Evergreen), Brendan Goff (New College), Allison Hepler (Farmington), Sarah Hernandez (New College), Melanie Medeiros (Geneseo), Krystyn Moon (Mary Washington), Jo Beth Mullens (Keene), Stephanie Opperman (Georgia College), Nancy Prentiss (Farmington), Greta Trautmann (Asheville), Robert Tudor (Shephard), Michael Visser (Sonoma), Jennifer Ward (Asheville), and Barbara Welker (Geneseo).

This article originally appeared on COPLAC's Higher Ed blog at http://coplacblog.org/liberal-learning/hemingway-in-cuba-retracing-literary-footsteps-with-coplacuba/

Recommended reading

Hemingway in Cuba, by Hilary Hemingway and Carlene Brennen (Hilary is Ernest's niece, the daughter of his brother Leicester), 2003, Rugged Land, New York, xiii + 146 pp.

Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961, by Paul Hendrickson, 2011, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, viii + 532 pp.

Hemingway Adventure, by Michael Palin, 1999, Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, New York, 256 pp. (Palin, of Monty Python fame, has chapters on all the pivotal geographic places in Hemingway's life, and the Cuba chapter is pages 196-229; Palin also hosted a 4-part television series on Hemingway, parts of which are searchable on YouTube).