Sunday, February 28, 2010

Hemingway was here...

Some people really get around, you know? Italy, Paris, Africa, Caribbean Islands, Key West, Cuba... I'm not listing some of our travels (although we have been to all of those places!) but rather some of the locations that Ernest Hemingway traveled to and lived in.

Cuba was his home for 21 years and his last residence before moving to Idaho and committing suicide in 1961. It was here that he won the Nobel Prize in Literature and where he wrote his last novel A Movable Feast.

It's hard to walk very far in Havana without stumbling upon a bar or hotel where "Papa" hung out and we made our way to most all of them.  Our first cocktail upon arrival in the city was at the now very touristy La Floridita where they have an honorary bar stool and bronze cast of him. La Floridita is famous for their daiquiris and also the invention of the Hemingway Daiquiri.  There are many stories about the creation of this cocktail, one is that his fourth wife Mary Welsh urged head bartender Contstanino Ribailagua to create a drink without sugar as Ernest was diabetic. Knowing that his customer really liked to drink (he reportedly drank 16 one evening!) he came up with the Papa Doble or Hemingway Daiquiri, which replaces the sugar with maraschino liquor and includes a double shot of rum and grapefruit juice.



But Hemingway did not survive on daiquiris alone, there were mojitos. Lots and lots of mojitos served to him at La Bodeguita del Medio. And although we hadn't been to Havana before this was not our first time drinking at La Bodeguita.



Ernest's first year in Cuba was spent living at the Hotel Ambos Mundos in room 511. This is the view he looked out at as he wrote The Green Hills of Africa and Death in the Afternoon on the typewriter in the glass case. There is a very nice man who will give you a bit of history of the room and Hemingway's time spent in Cuba for a $2CUC donation.


In 1940 Hemingway moved to the southern outskirts of Havana into a beautiful house, Finca Vigia, in San Francisco de Paula. When he left for Idaho he left the house and all it's possessions to the Cuban people. The government sealed the house, brought his boat the Pilar to the site and reopened it as a museum.
We all thought the Hemingway house was a highlight of our trip, there is an amazing collection of nick nacks, wild animal mounts, trophys, records and approximately 9,000 books! Books everywhere!

You actually aren't allowed inside the house because there are so many things that it would be too easy for tourists to steal items. Instead the doors and windows are open and you can walk all the way around the house and see into each room, well almost each room. The kitchen and Ernest's bedroom are not viewable. Want to see some "secret" photos of them? Well lucky you!

 
  
One of the museum workers offered to take these pictures for me, just like so many Cubans it was an easy way for her to get a few CUCs as a "tip" from me. 
Next to the house is a tower and at the top is an amazing office with an even more amazing view of Havana. The museum has also filled one of the tower rooms with a collection of fishing trophies and memorabilia.

 
The large swimming pool, now empty, was once the site of many famous gatherings of writers and actors such as Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn, Jean-Paul Sartre and Ava Gardner (who repeatedly swam naked in it). Nearby the pool are the grave markers of  4 of Ernest's dogs, interesting to me as I had only known about his cats before (rumored to be around 57 of them).
And then of course there is the Pilar, the 38 foot boat that Hemingway not only competitively fished on but also patrolled the Cuban coast for U-Boats and allegedly ran the Crook Factory, a pickup spy network during WWII. 
 

"Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another."

Ernest Hemingway got around and so do we! Mix up a Papa Doble and view more pictures of Hemingway's Havana and the Finca Vigia here

Based on the recipe from La Floridita for 1 serving

2 jiggers Havana Club rum
(1 jigger = 1 1/2 ounces)
Juice of 2 limes
Juice of 1/2 grapefruit
6 drops of maraschino (cherry brandy)

Fill a blender one-quarter full of ice, preferably shaved or cracked. Add the rum, lime juice, grapefruit juice and maraschino.
Blend on high until the mixture turns cloudy and light-colored.

cheers!


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ticket to the Forbidden Island

I've had a lot of questions about how we arranged our trip to Cuba so here's the scoop.

The United States first placed an embargo on Cuba in 1960. Since then there has been an economic, financial and/or commercial embargo in place in full or partially. Each President and each year brings changes either tightening or loosening the restrictions, recently the Obama administration has agreed to allow Cuban Americans with relatives in Cuba to travel to the country to visit family.

Since we don't have any relatives in Cuba we had to figure out another way in. And although Cuba wants tourists and has no problems with Americans entering the country they aren't able to accept US credit cards which throws a big wrench into trying to make hotel and air reservations.

This also meant that we had to take as much cash as we would will need for our entire vacation, no debit cards or ATMs are available to Americans. Additionally US dollars are being taken out of circulation there so the charge to exchange them is very expensive. We chose to bring both Canadian and Mexican currencies with us to exchange which seemed to work out well but did involve some pre-planning.

Most people assume that flying through Canada is the best way to go since Canadians can legally travel there but what many people don't know is that Canada shares flight manifests with the US. The best ways of entry are Mexico or the Caribbean Islands. We chose a non stop flight from Seattle to Cancun on Alaska Airlines. Earning mileage for travel to the Forbidden Island? Priceless! There are only 2 flights a day to Havana and since there is a 3 hour layover required to fly the same day, we chose an inexpensive hotel and spent the night. We flew on Christmas day, met Forest at the hotel and that evening was spent in warm Cancun, drinking margaritas decorated with gum drops and eating tacos and ceviche.


We took the advice from a friend who had gone a couple of years ago and had a really good experience using a US based travel agent who specializes in helping Americans into the country. Don't ask me how all this works, I'm sure we don't want to know! I really can't say enough about our agent Madison and all she did to help us out. She arranged our flights from Cancun to Havana and gave us options of sending a check or using a credit card that she would run through another agent in the Caribbean. She told us which counter to go to and the name of the person to ask for to pick up our tickets in the Cancun airport. I won't lie, this was the first time I felt uneasy and unsure, what if we got ripped off? Doesn't this all sound so clandestine?


But everything was just as she had said and our tickets and tourist visas were all there. The only glitch we encountered while checking in for our flight was that Forest had to pay a departure tax since she had been there for more than 24 hours which we still aren't really clear about. 
On to lodging... our friend's sister had recently stayed in Havana at a private casa particular and had contacted her family. Although they didn't have any availability they recommended and contacted Luis and Luisa for us. We paid cash upon arrival for our room. Our travel mates Forest and Tim booked their casa online, also paying in cash upon arrival. We arranged for a driver to meet us at the airport and drive us into town using that site too.

Booking a hotel for our last couple of days proved to be a bit more complicated as no one could take a US credit card. We booked our stay at the Hotel Sevilla thru this site but had to use our French friend's credit card. Madison could have also booked our room but since it was the high season her connections just didn't have anything available in our price range. 
Our return flight was uneventful up until the point when the Mexican customs agent stamped our passports. I had asked if we could go unstamped but he said no. Having two entry stamps to Mexico may have alerted US customs agents so we all spent the evening in Cancun devising stories, looking into alternative locations that we possibly could have gone too and in general worrying about our trip home the next day.

Our worries were completely unnecessary though, the passport control in Seattle barely glanced at our passport as he welcomed us home and customs agents waved us and our suitcases packed with rum through lickety split.

Hope this information helps! I'm happy to answer any other questions you might have.