“No, I think it was the other Ernest Hemingway.”

I wish I’d heard the rest of this conversation between two Americans who passed me in the street in Havana.

It would explain a lot if there was more than one, as the ubiquitous Ernest seems to be irrevocably linked to so many places – Paris, Spain, Venice, Key West, Havana … how much easier to achieve if there was more than one of him.

I seem to have spent a lot of time stalking Hemingway around the world. This was Paris in 2007 –

Venice in 2013 –

… although I didn’t actually make it to Harry’s Bar.

Then, finally, Havana in 2020 – and a pilgrimage to Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigia.

Good old Ernest …

… always one of the in-crowd.

When he left Cuba in 1961, after more than two decades there, the government appropriated his house and turned it into a museum. He left everything behind – it looks as though he’s just popped out to El Floridita for a daiquiri – so you have a very good sense of what it was like in his day. You can’t go inside, but all the windows are open, so you can wander around the outside and peer in to see just what a Nobel-winning author’s house looks like.

I wasn’t surprised by the books, the hunting trophies –

or the drinks’ trolley –

But I was surprised by all the chintz –

He really doesn’t strike me as a chintzy-type; I would have had him down as more of a leather Chesterfield man.

According to our guide, Hemingway had 57 cats and 9 dogs. That blows my theory out of the water that it’s single women of a certain age who obsessively collect cats … but perhaps it was just the influence of all that chintz. I don’t know what happened to the cats, but there is a small dog cemetery in the grounds of Finca Vigia –

For a distinguished author, he’s remarkably unimaginative in his choice of names.

Finca Vigia is in a beautiful spot, just outside Havana on a hill with cooling breezes and a wonderful view.

Hemingway had a boat, a swimming pool, a tennis court and a lookout tower with a huge telescope plus a day bed for siestas. The pool house is full of photos of him entertaining celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and Ava Gardner – and yet he still had time to write ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ and ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ while he lived here … a remarkable work ethic.

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One of the strangest things I’ve ever seen …

I went to Mexico to learn about the Mayan civilisation, and I thought that the Mayans had mysteriously disappeared when their civilisation died out around 900 AD. But that isn’t true; the cities were abandoned and the civilisation collapsed, but the people lived on and are still thriving today in parts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

The Chiapas region in Southern Mexico is the most ethnic region of the country, and one of these ethnic groups is the Tzotzil, who are Mayans with their own language and religion. The religion is part Catholic, part Mayan, and involves Shamans, candles, mirrors and moonshine.

The Tzotzil wear traditional clothing made of sheepskin, black skirts for women and white tabards for men, which are hugely expensive and must be very hot in the Mexican climate –

We visited the church of San Juan in Chamula, and our guide warned us beforehand not to take photos, and not even to have a camera visible, as the locals have been known to smash cameras if they see them. So I took a quick pic of the outside before hiding my camera away –

It looks very conventional, doesn’t it? Well, appearances can be deceiving …

The inside of the church has no seating and the floor is entirely covered in pine branches. There are candles everywhere – on the floor and on all the side tables in front of the pictures of the saints – as well as hundreds of mirrors.

Here are a few pictures I found online, taken by people who were either willing to risk getting their camera smashed or very confident of their ability to take a sneaky snap without getting caught –

We watched as families arrived, swept a portion of the floor clear of pine branches and stuck thirty or forty candles directly onto the floor and lit them. The candles were placed in lines in front of the Shaman, who sat with the family clustered around him or her on the floor. There were family groups everywhere, with some children on their phones but most participating in the rituals.

The locals have no truck with modern medicine, and come to church to be healed by the Shamans.

First the Shaman prays with the whole family and then cleanses the sick family member, using either a chicken or eggs (yes, the eternal question …) and I saw both forms of the ceremony. For the egg cure, the Shaman holds up a plastic bag full of eggs and then rubs it all over the body of the sick person. The eggs remain whole and they are simply used to draw the sickness out and then absorb it.

The chicken cure is much more dramatic and we stood and watched it unfolding, until one of the church wardens came and told us we had to keep walking and couldn’t stand still to watch. So we scuttled off and did a quick circuit of the church and then dawdled back past the chicken to watch the rest of the cure.

There was a whole family together, parents and children, and the Shaman sat cross-legged on the floor between the sick man and a woman who was holding a very resigned-looking chicken. The Shaman prayed aloud for about ten minutes, and then the woman handed him the chicken. The Shaman turned to the sick man, holding the chicken in both hands and began rubbing the chicken’s head all over him; I hoped that a nasty dose of salmonella wouldn’t worsen whatever it was that he was already suffering from.

We stood and stared, just waiting for what was coming next. The Shaman held the chicken out in front of him and pulled on its neck, stretching it to an improbable length, and then twisted it. He handed it back to the woman and then continued to pray and chant while the chicken twitched on the floor in a very distracting way for several minutes.

Finally they got out the moonshine. The local spirit is called pox, pronounced ‘posh’, and they drink it mixed with lemonade or coke. The idea is to chug it down and then burp or vomit onto the person being cleansed to help get rid of the evil spirits. The family produced bottles and jars of the stuff and passed it round to everyone in the family, who started necking it down – even quite small children, which I found alarming.

I tried some afterwards –

and can confirm that it is absolutely vile – no chance of pox’n’coke catching on as a new aperitif, in my opinion … not unless it’s found to cure Covid-19.

And that was my strange event – an incredible fusion of ancient and modern, of religion and paganism – and all going on with tourists wandering around, gawping and wishing they could take photos for their blogs.

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Cuba: land of rum and Pringles

I’ve never been anywhere as different as Cuba before. The first hint of difference came at the airport in Mexico as I queued to check in for my flight and looked around at all the other passengers and the luggage they were checking in –

Each family had about fifteen large bags, some so heavy that two people had to work together to drag them across the floor. Had these people never heard of travelling light? It wasn’t until I got there and saw all the shortages for myself that I realised these people are bringing things in for family and friends that just aren’t available in Cuba. The customs rules allow everyone to bring in an extra 1,000 pesos (equivalent to $1,000 US) of goods in addition to their 25 kg baggage allowance – plus books, sheet music, prosthetic limbs and 10 kg of medicines per person – in addition to that 1,000 pesos … this is a country that needs stuff.

Shops are another eye opener. There are thousands of shops for tourists selling souvenirs, but very few shops selling anything useful … or anything edible. If you want to eat, you need to go to a restaurant, run for tourists.

Our guide took us to a ration shop –

and explained that every Cuban family has an allowance of basic food that they can buy every month at a special cheap price at the ration shop.

A woman coming out of the shop showed us her family’s ration book, where the family members are all named and the products available are listed – rice, beans, oil, salt, coffee, sugar, jam, matches (presumably to light their cigars) … not exactly a varied and exciting diet –

If you don’t use your monthly ration you lose it, and anything else that you want has to be bought at the more expensive, and very scarce, local food shops.

We went into one shop to buy water, and nearly all the shelves were bare – and no photography allowed.

Other shops had one or two things for sale, and I tried to take a few discreet photos –

The butcher’s …

The baker’s …

There were no candlestick makers.

Where shops had full shelves, they were usually full of just one thing –

A bit tough if you don’t like pineapple juice.

And there were queues outside the better-stocked shops –

Ironically, when I took this photo in early March, I had never seen a queue outside a supermarket in England …

And the large duty free shop at Havana airport has several very long, well-stocked aisles, but the only two things on these laden shelves are rum and Pringles … why Pringles? And they aren’t even that cheap. And all the other aisles in the duty free are empty.

But lack of ‘stuff’ is also what gives Cuba its uniqueness; if you can’t replace things, you hang onto them.

I went for a ride in a 1950 Chevrolet –

And the driver explained that if anything minor goes wrong, he fixes it himself, but he has a very good mechanic to deal with trickier problems.

He pays $750 dollars a month to rent the car, and then charges $40-50 for a city tour. There are a lot of these cars around and competition is fierce, so I hope he manages to earn enough to support his family.

Old cars aren’t reserved for tourist taxis – they’re everywhere –

And it’s not just old cars that are still in daily use.

There are some wonderful old bikes –

Horses pulling carts are a common sight in every town –

Or horses without carts –

This tamale seller is using his bicycle as a mobile stall –

and if you want to till your fields, you need to get yourself a couple of bullocks … and make them each a muzzle to stop them snacking on the crops as they work –

For the tourists, Cuba is a wonderfully quaint and picturesque holiday destination. But for the locals it must be a frustrating daily grind … a permanent state of Make Do and Mend, on a diet of rice and beans.

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