A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean
By Gary Buslik
What follows is an excerpt from the book published in 2008 by Traveler’s Tales. “If you look at a map, you will see that the island chain known as the Caribbean, or, to confuse you, the West Indies, lies between Florida and South America and resembles a string of gems or possibly drool.”
And so begins author Gary Buslik’s tale of tropical adventure. Each chapter of this often hilarious and sometimes poignant travelogue recounts another island-hopping, culture-clashing crisis that pits the homesick author against falling coconuts, hospitals that remove wrong organs, insects as big and dangerous as stealth bombers, ticket agents that put him on hold for hours, mysteriously calculated currency exchanges, over-proofed rum, livestock, singing Rastafarians, garbage-bin sex, peanut-crazed children, Idi Amin, flesh-eating monkeys, dentists, cricket, steel drum bands, and the French.
Fortunately, even when making fun of his West Indian hosts, the curmudgeonly author’s essential good nature and devotion to his wife twinkle through, and in the end, his stubborn geocentricity gives way to a heartfelt appreciation of his island hosts.
In this excerpt he visits the haunts of Ernest Hemingway in Cuba:
Papa’s Ghost: Ruminating Over What’s Left of America’s Greatest Literary Lion in Cuba
I had heard rumors of Hemingway’s ghost appearing from time to time around Paris, Key West, and even Oak Park, Illinois. For a long time, I had the notion of being the first writer to record the great man’s specter in Cuba—a kingly phantom on the ramparts of El Morro castle. As the drawbridge of diplomacy creaked down and I was at last granted permission to travel to the workers’ paradise, I made a pilgrimage to the island haunts of my literary idol.
Perhaps there, walking the same cobblestones, gazing at the same sunsets, falling through the same holes in the sidewalk as the master, I would find, to quote Hamlet’s father, a “spirit, doomed for a certain term to walk the night.”
Hooked on Cuba
Hemingway fell in love with Cuba when he first went there during a 1932 fishing trip with his buddy Joe Russell, owner of Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, Florida. From Russell’s cabin cruiser Hemingway caught nineteen marlin and three sailfish and was, well, hooked.
Two years later he bought his own boat, Pilar, and over the next several years popped over to the big island when the spirit moved him, which—given the deteriorating state of his marriage to second wife, Pauline—was more and more frequently. When not on the water he stayed at the five-story Hotel Ambos Mundos, near Havana harbor.
In 1939 Hemingway’s girlfriend, writer Martha Gellhorn, visiting Cuba for the first time, persuaded Hemingway to abandon his bachelor quarters at the hotel and rent a home. She found, and he rented, Finca Vigía—Lookout Farm—fifteen miles from central Havana. In 1940 he divorced Pauline, married Martha, and bought the farm, so to speak.
For the next two decades, he lived in the house overlooking the countryside. When he wasn’t entertaining celebrities, getting wasted, writing masterpieces and duds, he and his first mate and blood amigo, Gregorio Fuentes, would set sail on his beloved Pilar from the nearby fishing village of Cojimar to hunt marlin and, sometimes, submarines. In the mid-’40s, outfitting Pilar with armaments, they prowled the Caribbean for German U-boats—which, thankfully for literature—they never encountered.
In 1960 he left Finca Vigía and Cuba for the last time, without packing much. Some offer that as proof that he intended to return when things settled down there, but an Idaho shotgun had other plans.
Like a Matador’s Heartbeat
In Old Havana, swaggering distance from my hotel, El Floridita restaurant pulses like a matador’s heartbeat, its huge neon sign visible, I suspect, from Pamplona. It is clean, though not well-lighted, place, noisy, crowded and upscale.
Despite this being a country where pesos are less valuable than toilet paper, where the one is no doubt used for the other, at Floridita you’ll find white-linen tablecloths, candlelight, a menu to rival the trendiest bistros in South Beach, and, as in every other venue in which Hemingway lived, ate, drank, or relieved himself, plenty of photographs of Papa and his entourage: Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman.
Hemingway, whose attitude toward trendy was the same as a hammerhead’s attitude toward chum, would not have approved. But then, of course, there are the Floridita’s daiquiris: Hem proclaimed them the best in the world. And he was a man who knew his cocktails.
Squeeze past the beautiful señors and señoritas and belly up to the runway-length mahogany bar where, on its far left, you can catch a glimpse of the great man’s favorite stool, enshrined behind a velvet rope. My reaction was, like his favorite cocktail, mixed.
On the one hand, my breath came up short as I gazed at the very leather on which the maestro hatched some of his most famous fiction and infamous grudges. On the other, I felt like telling him to do the world a favor and quit pickling his brain.
Nevertheless, I ordered a daiquiri—reputedly of the same formula as in my hero’s time—and braced myself for ghostly nirvana. The drink wasn’t bad, but apparitions evidently did not get clearance to land.
So I ordered another and another still, staring at the master’s chair until, amoeba-like, the ivory-colored leather seat doubled and doubled again. If this was where Papa’s spirit hung out, the old man’s protoplasm must have been fishing, because the only specters that materialized were my own retinal floaters, drifting across my blurry corneas. All right, it was only my first night and it was a big town.
Banshees had to be lurking somewhere, and in the meantime, I got to take home three nifty El Floridita cocktail stirrers. Perhaps Papa’s poltergeist turned in early these days. He was, after all, a hundred and two.
The next morning, I ate a hearty breakfast of something-or-other with ham (in Cuba you cannot eat without involving pig parts; not a pork lover, I fortified myself by remembering that Hemingway not only would have eaten the oinker, but he would also have shot it—not necessarily in that order).
Then I wound my way through the narrow, cobblestone, canyon-holed streets of Old Havana, past peeing dogs, cigar-smoking señoras, and enterprising urchins wanting money for “milk.” Once-grand buildings had weathered to the color and consistency of matzo, their arabesque facades dripping with corbels and laundry, their amputated fountains are hidden in dreary courtyards pulsing with state-sponsored TV—slouched and faded beauties whose insides were rotting, the way nightly rum eventually rots your guts.
La Bodeguita del Medio
On tapeworm-thin Empedrado Street, I found La Bodeguita del Medio and would have walked right past the narrow storefront had it not been for the clot of fellow pilgrims posing beneath the hand-painted sign for photos of themselves in front of this other famous Hemingway watering hole.
I decided that here, unlike the Floridita fern bar, is where a ghost of true grit would hang out. Here you read the daily specials, which apparently had not changed in years, on a wall, not a damn menu. In this sardine-packed bar, every centimeter of wood is carved with someone’s initials or death threat. There is so much beer on the floor, locals come just to preserve their shoe leather.
This was, and still is, Hemingway’s kind of bar, where each trip to the men’s room brings an exponential increase in the risk of emphysema, and the toilet is broken in any case, so you make do with what you have. Yes, del Medio is where I would find my elusive wraith.
“Mojito?” the bartender asked, and before I could answer, he was crushing a mint branch into a glass. Maybe my Banana Republic journalist’s vest with pen in every pocket was a giveaway. Never mind, the mojito—rum, lime, sparkling water, lots of sugar, dash of bitters, and aforementioned fresh mint—felt as refreshing as a summer cloudburst.
Hemingway is said to have claimed, “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.” Judging by the working-class crowd, pestling me against a photograph of Papa and sailfish, this is where I was most likely to find the phantom of the ever-raucous Ernesto.
Unfortunately, though, unlike the earth for Robert Jordan and Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls, other-worldly dimensions did not move for me. Nary a quiver.
All right, it was the middle of the day. Metaphysically or not, Hemingway had to write sometime. And I knew exactly where. Off I weaved, several sidewalk-canyons-of-death up the street, to the bustling Ambos Mundos, Papa’s home-away-from-Pauline, at the wide, sunny corner of Mercaderes and Obispo.
Hemingway’s Room 511
In the premier corner of this renovated five-story Spanish-colonial beauty, a lovely young docent motioned me into Room 511. The small room was like any hotel overnighter, except that it had once been occupied by the greatest American literary talent of the twentieth century.
There were a couple of things you don’t normally find in a Motel 6: an Underwood typewriter under glass, a guest book, obligatory wall photos of Papa and Fidel.
No ghost, though. On his taut-sheeted bed, no crater betrayed an invisible man, as it had in the movie starring Claude Raines. At the open window, I gazed over rooftops of the sunlit, shadowed city and squinted at El Morro’s tower, trying to imagine Papa’s ghost, head in hands, pacing its catwalk. But the only scary vision was a tubby tourist smoking an oversized cigar.
It occurred to me that, as Hemingway had first come to Cuba to escape the tumult of notoriety, perhaps now his incorporeal self had decided to ditch the noise and hubbub of Havana. If so, surely it was to retire in seclusion at his tranquil Finca Vigía. Who’s to say phantoms don’t appreciate their peace and quiet like the rest of us? Maybe for Hemingway’s ghost, it was a weekend-weekday thing.
The next morning dawned gray, dismal and gloomy, just the right chill, drizzle and fog to invoke the supernatural. I took a taxi, a 1955 Buick, to Hemingway’s hilltop home, fifteen miles from downtown Havana. After paying an admission fee at the gated entrance, my driver chugged up a quarter-mile, tree-lined driveway to let me off at front stairs as wide and white as the writer himself.
At the top of the stairs, a vacuous-eyed young docent welcomed us to Museo Hemingway. She had made her spiel a thousand times, and it showed: Can’t go inside. No flash photographs. Exactly as the writer left the house in 1960. Wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and other famous stories here. Entertained many Hollywood stars and starlets. Recorded his daily weight next to the scale on the bathroom wall. Pilar on exhibit around back. When he left he donated the house and boat to the Revolution.
“Donated the house to the People’s Revolution,” she repeated with a straight face.
The claim that the house was exactly the way the Hemingways had left it the day he “donated it to the Revolution” didn’t ring entirely true. The whole deal looked pretty staged to me. The house is a one-story, off-white, stucco villa, not very big—about two thousand square feet, if you don’t count the imposing tower, La Torre Bianca, that Papa’s fourth wife, Mary, built for him to write in and that, apparently, he couldn’t write in (maybe the view was a distraction).
On his bed lay his fishing cap; shotgun shells stood at attention on his desk; bullfight paintings lined his walls; half-filled Campari bottles decorated nearly every room, as did the heads of the African beasts to whom Papa had just-a-little-too-generously given “the gift of death.”
(The disembodied trophies had actually been brought in when they turned the house into a museum. I’m guessing a lot of Papa’s books—reputedly nine thousand—were, too. No one man could read all those, not even in the days before cable TV. You can either entertain Hollywood starlets or you can read, but you cannot, ahem, do both.)
In turn, I stared at Hemingway’s desk chair, his bed, his sofa, his toilet seat, trying my best to conjure a vaporous, grizzled hulk. But as in downtown Havana, no apparition made itself known.
I followed a slippery, moss-covered, inclined path past the empty swimming pool, past the graves of Hemingway’s favorite dogs, to a covered, fenced-off pen, where Pilar was waiting stoically for her sailor—or his deathly shadow—to return.
A little irritated now at my hero’s absence, I bribed the guard to let me climb over the barrier and into Hemingway’s fighting chair. I knew Papa wouldn’t take kindly to this sacrilege, but I was in a sacrilegious mood.
Perhaps he’d reveal himself to box my ears. When the only vision-from-beyond was the guard tucking my dollar into his guayabera, I strode back to the house, stuck my camera through the bathroom window, and took a flash picture of the wall on which Hemingway had recorded his soaring weight.
On my way back to town, I began to wonder if one of the infamous Hemingway grudges included the whole damn city of Havana.
Maybe if Fidel had given the Campari to the peasants, if he had distributed those nine thousand books to libraries across the land, if he had converted Finca Vigía into a neighborhood clinic, it would not have been so bad.
But the truth is, although the writer had welcomed the flushing of Batista’s filth off the island, Hemingway, son of Oak Park Republicans, was about as keen on communism as a bull is keen on picadors.
That his property, which he “donated to the Revolution” in the same sense that a bull donates his ear, would now be laid out like the stucco equivalent of Lenin’s corpse; that his beloved boat would be plattered like a stuffed pig for public consumption, must have been galling.
That the virile young writer-sportsman so full of optimism in Paris in the ’20s had ended up having his ballooning weight visible to any gawker for the price of admission, must have been, to wandering but proud soul, insufferable.
As funked-out as Hemingway had been after reading the reviews of Across the River and Into the Trees, I wasn’t expecting much, spook-wise, when, the next day, I visited Cojimar, the home of Papa’s friend and Pilar’s first mate, Gregorio Fuentes—amazingly, still alive at 104. Keen on my new insight, I now had reason to suspect that my hero’s ghost no more haunted the fishing village than it had bedeviled Havana. Still, I had come this far…
The Boatman and the Macho Writer
Gregorio Fuentes came to Cuba at the age of eight when he was orphaned on a ship on which his father, a Spaniard, had been a cook. He first met Hemingway in the early 1930s while escorting Pilar through Cojimar harbor in his own boat.
The macho writer and the rugged boatman hit it off right away. Hemingway saw something of himself, perhaps, in the Canary Islander’s penchant for riding out hurricanes at sea, in his love of cigars, rum, and señoritas. Gregorio told his new friend, “Don’t worry, whenever you’re in Cuba, I’ll take care of you.” And for the next two decades, he did, accompanying the writer on hundreds of fishing trips as helper and confidant. On land they hung out together in local tavernas, exchanging tales of adventure.
Cubans believed—and still do—that in The Old Man and the Sea Hemingway pretty much just transcribed one of Gregorio’s stories. The writer, always eager to find a slight, must have bristled at this impugning of his creative power. In truth, although Hemingway was dissipated by the mid-’50s, this last great work, which helped him win the Nobel Prize in 1953, could have been written by no genius, pickled or otherwise, but himself. Still, the rumors must have stung.
After Hemingway’s suicide in 1961, Fuentes and Cojimar faded into obscurity. Then, in the ’90s, when Americans started returning in dribs and drabs, Papa’s favorite Cojimar bar, the seaside La Terraza, spruced itself up, hung plenty of photos of you-know-who, and gave Gregorio his own table (and free meals and rum) from which to regale customers with stories of Hemingway Past.
By then Fuentes was firmly established, by tradition and economic necessity, if not fact, as the certified model for the fictional fisherman, Santiago. To anyone who would listen, it was now Gregorio himself who had gone too far out to sea, Fuentes who had caught the magnificent marlin, Fuentes who had futilely thrashed at the marauding shark. For an extra dollar or two, you could take your picture with the true and authentic old man of the sea.
Even after Gregorio became wheelchair-bound with cancer, cranky and reticent—perhaps it was painful to speak—one family member or another would wheel him into his living room to greet, nod at, shake hands, and take pictures with busloads of tourists.
Payment was not required but appreciated. One certainly could be excused for having the feeling that his family, with no argument from the state, was propping the old guy up. It’s a wonder they didn’t strap a tin cup to the chair.
Shake Hands for a Buck
To a man like Hemingway, after a lifetime of lip service to dignity, there surely would have been something unseemly about his old friend, far beyond a serviceable existence, being wheeled out to meet motor coaches and shake hands for a buck.
As I trudged up a hill to find his house, I wondered how Gregorio could have strayed so far from macho grace. Call me old fashioned, but I believe that after a certain point—say, oh, 101—if you know with reasonable certainty that you’re never going to open a topless table-dancing club in Vegas, it is entirely within your rights and possibly your duty to excuse yourself from the next HavanaTur bus, retire to the bedroom, get comfortable, and will your heart to stop.
In searching for his home, I was struck by how the village—a string of white-stucco cottages hanging like tarnished pearls down the coastal road—had not changed from the old photographs on La Terraza’s walls. It was as though someone had turned off a giant switch in 1960 and had yet to flick it back on—a village and city and nation suspended in time, an ancient insect fossilized in amber.
Up a side street I found the small, one-story bungalow with teal trim and a clay-tile roof that matched the bartender’s description. When I knocked, I half-hoped no one would answer. A moment later, though, a mustachioed man of about forty came to the door.
“I’m a writer,” I said, realizing how stupid it sounded.
The door opened wide. “Yes, yes, come in. There have been no visitors for a while. I am his grandson. Wait here. I will bring him.”
The living room was clean and uncluttered. On one wall hung a paint-by-numbers-grade painting of Gregorio and Papa. On the floor stood a swordfish sword carved with fishing scenes. The carpeting was sculpted and olive, like my grandmother, ‘s in the mid-1960s. All that was missing was a swag lamp.
“Here he is,” said my host, as he wheeled in his shrunken grandfather.
It’s tempting to say that, like Hemingway’s Santiago, “Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated,” but it would be a lie.
Gregorio was shriveled and rumpled and dazed and miserable-looking—folds of jaundiced, mottled skin hanging on a bent and brittle frame. His ears, which had not shrunken with the rest of him, drooped like beagle ears. His eyes, nearly shut with skin flaps, were not in the same solar system as cheerful.
The back of his hands were black with moles. His head hung at an unnatural angle, much too heavy, not worth the effort. Tumors clung to him like mushrooms to a tree stump, sucking out the last of its nutrients. On the left side of his neck a four-inch bandage partially fell away, revealing a huge bleeding knob.
I wondered what more Gregorio wanted from this earth. Papa would not have thought much of the freak show either.
A Writer from Illinois
“I told him you’re a writer,” the younger man said.
“From…Illinois,” I stuttered, not knowing what else to say.
The ancient mariner awoke from his far-off dream. The light caught the slits of his eyes. “Como?” he muttered, perking up a little.
“A writer from Illinois,” his grandson repeated in Spanish, letting the old man read his lips.
Gregorio raised his head, held it straight, dignity trying to inject itself into his dissolving spine. He held out his hand, and I took it, not prepared for its strength.
Even after his grandson took our picture, the old man would not let go of my hand. His eyes open wide now, the folds of skin willed aside, he gazed into my soul and said, in a deep, strong voice: “Ernesto?”
I glanced at the grandson, who seemed as perplexed as I was.
I turned back to the old man. After another long beat, I whispered, “Sí. Ernesto.”
“You came back,” Gregorio said in faltering English. “You came back,” he muttered, releasing my hand and falling once more into his waking dream. But as the younger man wheeled him back into the shadows, Gregorio’s smile remained.
When the grandson returned, he seemed a little unsettled. “That was strange, no?” he asked with an embarrassed laugh. “He thought you were someone else.” He looked me over. “That has never happened before.” Again, a nervous laugh. “You don’t resemble Señor Hemingway at all.”
No, I do not. I am short and thin. I do not fish. I boxed in high school but did not like it much. I get seasick. I never shot a living thing and hope I never will. Alcohol upsets my stomach, and the only military combat I ever engaged in was on my computer.
I’ve been married only once, to an unfathomable woman who rules my roost, and I never won a single literary prize. My hair is still brown, I’ve never grown a beard, and none of my prose has ever excited the imagination of my poker group, let alone the Nobel Prize committee.
No, it’s not easy to mistake me for you-know-who.
But for some strange reason, that withered, tumored, weary-beyond-endurance old man, who even at the impossible age of 104 was still waiting for God-knows-what to call it a day, thought he saw something in a certain visitor, possibly his last on earth, that Cojimar afternoon, something that brightened him for a moment—a phantom, a ghost, a memory—before he lapsed again into his dream.
A clear case of mistaken identity.
The next morning the old man did not wake up. But he waited a few more days to die. Perhaps he spent that time, impenetrable to visitors, savoring the memory of the reunion for which he had waited so long.
Gary Buslik doesn’t have the faintest idea of how to make an honest living. When he wrote for travel magazines, he discovered that by tossing around insincere promises he could get hotels and restaurants to give him free room and meals and so managed to forge a useless profession into a rewarding lifestyle.
These days he writes novels, short stories, and essays and, in case the government should ask any questions, teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago—which isn’t quite an honest living, but you work with what you have.
He windsurfs and plays softball. He does not play golf. You can visit him at arottenperson.com but please do not ask him to play golf.
You can reach him at by email. If you ask him nicely, he’ll send you a picture of himself with Gregorio Fuentes—possibly the last ever taken of Hemingway’s “old man.”