Cuba Hemingway Cigars and Motorcycles

May 7, 2008
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Managing Editor| Articles|RSS

Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

Still a beloved figure in Cuba  Hemingway left the island country never to return in 1960. Our correspondent visited the American writer s Cuban home during a recent motorcycle trip.
Still a beloved figure in Cuba, Hemingway left the island country never to return in 1960. Our correspondent visited the American writer’s Cuban home during a recent motorcycle trip.

MotorcycleUSA’s Adventure-Touring expert and monthly contributor, Dr. Gregory Frazier, was kind enough to include this excerpt from a soon to be published adventure motorcycling book. The preview coincides with his May contribution titled Dr. Frazier Motorcycles Cuba. No word on the book publication date, so until then enjoy Dr. G’s snippet about…

Cuba – Hemingway, Cigars, and Old Motorcycles

Toilet saleswoman. A woman hawking Cuban cigars followed me into a public toilet in Havana. She was a tough saleslady, bent on extracting US dollars from me. I badly needed to relieve myself but could not convince her leave. I was probably the only Norte Americano she had met who did not smoke, who had an allergy to smoke, especially cigar smoke. The hard part was telling her in Spanish, which I speak little. I tried, using words like “No cigar” and fluttering my hands to shoo her away, then pointing at my crotch and saying “Necessario!” Her eyes lit up, she smiled, and said “Si, gusto Presidente Clinton and Monika.” Relief finally came when a stall door opened and the occupant exited. I slipped past him, away from the female who I was not sure was at that point offering to sell me sex or a Cuban cigar.

Ernest Hemingway lived in Cuba for nearly 20 years and wanted “to stay here for ever.” After Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, Hemingway was, and possibly is, the best known personality on this island the size of the state of Louisiana. Ernesto was forced to leave Cuba in 1960, when the United States broke relations with Cuba. He expected to return. Sadly, he did not. The house he owned, Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm), was opened to the public in 1994, and for an entrance fee and additional fee for each camera, I viewed how it was when he left. Worn shoes and boots were on the floor of the closet, where hung numerous shirts, pants and jackets. Toothbrushes and razors were hanging in their holders in the bathroom. The most telling items left behind were a pair of glasses, his typewriter and 8,000 to 9,000 books. Seeing these items said to me he planned to return, and quickly. It has been suggested his inability to return contributed to his depression. This ultimately resulted in sticking the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth and splattering his award winning gray matter over the walls and ceiling of the entry hallway of his second house a year later in Ketchum, Idaho.

I am guilty of being a Hemingway cultist. I did not appreciate the man or his work when he was required reading in high school or college. It was years later, when I was in a small bar in the town of Big Horn, Wyoming, that I took an interest in him. Until that time I did not know Hemingway spent considerable time in the Big Horn Mountains. He stayed at a guest ranch near Big Horn, hunted and drank with the locals, and crashed his car one night, ending up in our hospital in Billings, Montana. In the Big Horn Bar I was told it was where he once sat and scribbled a major portion of a re-write of one of his books. He had received it at the post office, next door. My interest was piqued, learning that such a gifted writer would choose this part of the world to relax or work on some of his best books. He seldom wrote about the Big Horn Mountain area, so prior to that time I knew little of our local resident Nobel Prize for literature and Pulitzer Prize winner. Bar-fly residents told me he was viewed as “one of them”, albeit a visitor.

A peek inside Hemingway s house and at part of his collection of 9 000 books.
A peek inside Hemingway’s house and at part of his collection of 9,000 books.

Traveling around Cuba, the most popular picture I saw was of Che. The second most popular was that of Fidel. Number three was Papa, as Hemingway was fondly nicknamed. Throughout the Havana area were tourist points for aficionados to taste a little Hemingway. A room in a local hotel, touting “Ernesto slept here!” Or the Restaurante Floridita, said to be a haunt of the author, charging $6 for a daiquiri and $7 for a chicken sandwich. And finally there was Gregorio Fuentes, pilot of Hemingway’s boat the Pilar. In early 2002 Fuentes passed away, aged 104. Friends of Fuentes say he never read any of Hemingway’s works, claiming “What for, I’ve lived them with him.” Fuentes and Hemingway bonded for over 30 years, and speculators said Fuentes was the model for Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea. One tourist book mentioned that Fuentes’ son was charging $50 for a 15-minute consultation with the old man.

I came to Cuba to do research on the Indians (people, not motorcycles) of the island. However, given my passion for motorcycles, it was hard not to spend time looking at the old motorcycles being used daily, for everything from taxis to farm machines. The Russian Urals and Jupiters, pre-1959 (when the U.S. embargo went into effect) were the workhorses in this living museum for old machinery, while the old flathead and panhead Harley-Davidsons were what made dreams for men, both young and old. Had Hemingway lived to return to Cuba, he may have noted the feelings Cubans had for motorcycles and penned The Young Man and the Motorcycle. Had he done so, I would have taken an interest in him and his works, far sooner than I did.

Riding a motorcycle in Cuba was a meditation ride, contrary to our USA daily commutes or weekend rides. The road system, while better than India or Central America, presented any speed demon with an obstacle course of potholes, rail crossings and “sleeping policemen” (speed bumps) that easily waffled a front wheel rim or bottomed out a suspension if hit at velocity over 50 mph.

I roamed freely throughout Cuba, but was stopped several times by traffic police and asked to show ownership papers for the motorcycle. I saw only two motorcyclists wearing motorcycle helmets, one of those being a football helmet instead of an actual motorcycle helmet. The motorcycle police all wore helmets. I asked a local motorcyclist why they did not wear helmets, to which he replied, “We can not afford them.” Why? With an average monthly salary of around $20, there is not much left after beans and rice to purchase a motorcycle, let alone a helmet.

The most popular sign in Cuba was one with a picture of Che Guevara.
The most popular sign in Cuba was one with a picture of Che Guevara.

An economist, looking at Cuba today would shake their head in amazement. Cuba was a bastion of communism, yet capitalism has grown like a weed. For instance, there exists a secondary market for sleeping rooms outside of the government owned hotels, that being the casas particulares. These are best likened to a small German gasthaus, or private house whose owner rents out a spare room. The average nightly price was $25, although I paid less when away from the big cities. One owner told me he paid $250 each month to the government for his license, and the government set the rate for his room rental. Where capitalism entered the economics of this system was when the owner sold the guest a meal, beer or soda. I asked for a beer one night. The owner sent his daughter to the market, where she paid $.85 for the bottle, for which he charged me $1. A large dinner cost $5. None of these transactions were reported to the government. None were allowed under the owner’s government license, only room rental. This owner, filled with entrepreneur spirit, gave me a handful of business cards, to “give to my friends” when I departed.

What I did not understand about the USA – Cuba relations and politics is why the USA believes the 40-year-old embargo works. Maybe it did 20 years ago, making life hard on the Cuban people in hopes of them rising up and overthrowing their government. Part of the USA policy was to squeeze our trading partners and political friends around the world into not doing business with Cuba. That pressure has been ignored. The police ride Moto Guzzi motorcycles from Italy. Yamaha, Suzuki and Honda motorcycles from Japan had a presence in Cuba, as did Heineken beer and German electrical components. In an average Havana street bar I saw Carlsberg, Bavaria and Corona beer on the menu, and JB scotch and Jack Daniels whiskey on the shelf. The politicos in Washington, DC, know far more than I do about why the USA insists on squeezing Cuba, but my thumbnail economic and political analysis was our policies have made Cuban life harder, but the resolution of the people stronger.

The Cubans were much friendlier than I thought they would be. I would liken them to Brazilians. They like to laugh, make jokes, were quick to dance, tap their feet to a good musical beat, and did not take themselves too seriously. Through my motorcycle world I was lucky enough to meet a Cuban BSA owner who invited me to his home for dinner. He said I would meet Barbarito Torres, who I did not know, but unknowingly did. Torres was the member of the Buena Vista Social Club who played the strange, 12-string small guitar (laud) in the movie Buena Vista Social Club and on their CD. Before leaving for Cuba I was instructed to watch their video and listen to the CD. It was an interesting dinner, while Torres told me stories in Spanish, which were interpreted by his manager Sonia M. Perez Cassola. He recounted his bus tour around the United States, and laughingly, we shared our dislike of snow and cold in towns like Telluride and Aspen, Colorado. In Cuba it never snows.

Soviet-sourced Urals and Jupiters made up the bulk of Cuban two-wheelers encountered by our correspondent.
Soviet-sourced Urals and Jupiters made up the bulk of Cuban two-wheelers encountered by our correspondent.

I was invited to their show the next night at a local hotel, Hostale Valencia. Torres and his band made a musical highlight of my Cuban adventure, with a crowd of 50 stuffed into a room suited for 40. It was far better than the CD or movie. My right foot still moves up and down when reflecting on that evening.

Motorcyclists welcomed me to Cuba. The Latin American Motorcycle Association (LAMA) adopted me. I walked out of the airport in Havana, expecting to be met by one member. Instead, there were a dozen bikers, including the local Chapter President. LAMA members, wives and girlfriends, wearing the LAMA colors, riding the pre-1959 motorcycles, overwhelmed me. I was shaken, not expecting anything like a reception. They whisked me into town, secured a hostal, and set up a schedule for riding and photography that included a club party, Sunday ride and a borrowed motorcycle. It was humbling to be treated so well by a group of total strangers. I was quickly learning about Cubans, their hospitality and motorcycling in this land 90 miles south of Miami. Mario Nieves, International President of LAMA had told me the Cuban bikers were “good people.” He was right, but I would say “Great People.”

The Indians I was looking for never appeared. That was a tough assignment. It seems when the Spanish invaded the island, their solution to the “Indian Problem,” was much like that of the British when dealing with the Aborigines of Australia on Tasmania or the Americans: wipe them out if they do not conform to the foreign way to thinking.

The Indians of Cuba put up a fight. Their resistance leader was Hatuey, a rebel like Fidel Castro, who was skilled in guerrilla warfare. Like Castro, Hatuey was captured. Unlike Castro, who ended up in prison for a couple of years, Hatuey was burned at the stake (February 2, 1512).

I traveled to the small town of Yara in Granma, where Hatuey was barbequed. My tour book said there was no reason to stop at Yara unless I needed to cash money. That might be true, but then again, why would a Jewish person want to visit Auschwitz or Dachau?

History says that as the flames were sizzling the skin off Hatuey, the Spaniard Father Jaun de Tesin offered baptizism, with the promise that if baptized the rebel Chieftain would go to heaven. The Chief asked the Father if Spaniards went to heaven when they died. When the priest confirmed heaven would have Spaniards, Hatuey declined baptizim, saying he did not want to be with such “cruel and wicked people as Christians.” Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, Plenty Coups and Hatuey probably all ended in the place where wise men go after leaving this time and planet. I suspect in the Happy Cosmos they met and sucked down a cool drink, the one named after Hatuey in Cuba, a malt without alcohol.

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