Hemingway’s Cuba: The Old Man and the Sea

by Brian Francis Donohue

As the sun rises over the defunct fishing processing plant on the hill overlooking the bay, the backyard roosters settle into a late morning silence. Everyone in Cojimar, Cuba seems headed for the water. Old men pedal slowly along on Chinese-made Flying Pigeon bicycles, fishing poles balanced on the handlebars. Barefoot kids in tattered shorts jog toward the docks where their friends are already honing their splashless back flips. Families toting scraps of Styrofoam and inner tube floats head out to a rocky beach to pass the day wading in the iridescent shallows.

I am heading in the same direction, until, at a point along the bayshore road, where the harbor begins to widen out into the shimmering Caribbean, I come to a stop. A lichen-greened bust of Ernest Hemingway is gazing out from between a row of paint-chipped pillars.

It”s perfect. Two-toned and cherubic, with a full beard and half smile, Hemingway appears nearly exactly as he did in my first image of him – the way I”ll always picture him- staring out from the black and white photo on the back cover of my high school copy of: The Old Man and the Sea.

In loving memory of the people of Cojimar to the immortal author of Old Man and the Sea, the plaque below the statue reads: Sculpted with the contributions of the Fishermen cooperative of Cojimar.

But I didn”t come here to look at statues. I didn”t take a Soviet jet from Quito, Ecuador and violate the U.S. travel ban to look at statues. I came to meet the “Old Man.”

It is my first morning in Cuba. My plan is to stay as long as my $1,500 cash will last. I skip the sights of Havana and come here, to this sleepy town a short bus ride outside the capital, where the “Old man” lived. There are places you read about that shatter your mental image of them once you get there. They never measure up. Yet Cojimar fits what I”ve imagined perfectly.

I head to the bar, La Terraza – a fisherman-turned-tourist hangout, referred to often in The Old Man and the Sea as The Terrace. A sturdy wooden bar stretches toward a dining room lined with open windows. The breeze eases in off the water, a guitar player serenading a table of European tourists with the kitschy Cuba folk songs Ricky Ricardo used to sing. Photos of Hemingway line the walls – Hemingway with Castro, Hemingway with his monster marlin and Hemingway overseeing the filming of the film adaptation of his 1954 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Old Man and the Sea.

And in a black and white photo on the dining room”s far wall, strolling across a dock, tall, rail thin with a white straw hat and a handful of mackerel held by the tails, is the man I”m looking for: Gregorio Fuentes.

I had heard from several people that Fuentes, the former captain of Hemingway”s yacht, “El Pilar”, was still living, if not fishing, in Cojimar at the age of 101. Despite Hemingway”s own vehement assertions that the Santiago character, is based on no one in particular, I had heard and read, that Fuentes had indeed been at least a partial prototype for Santiago. It was enough for me.

I ask a guayabera-shirted old man sitting on a wall outside the bar if Fuentes is still around. “Just up the road,”” he tells me. “101 years old. And his mind is still clear.””

I imagine my imminent encounter with the old man of Hemingway”s description. I envision Santiago incarnate – a wiry, wrinkled, bright-eyed old man hunkered down in a wooden shack and newspaper bed with tales and stories of his adventures with Hemingway, his years as a solitary fisherman. He would express his salty essence to me in simple yet profound statements. He would call the fish his brothers and make me see them as such. I”d write it all down in my notebook and take it home with me. I”d re-read the book. I would come away with a bit of longing for insight into how to fish, live and lose, gracefully, gently, patiently, dignified, like Santiago. That was the plan.

A local tout named Llera offers me a ride to Fuentes” house. I hop on the back of his Flying Pigeon, and we”re off to see Fuentes. We pull up in front of a neat and trim, white block style house, a gray 1950”s Chevy parked out front. Llera knocks on the door as I check to make sure my pen works and my camera is loaded.

Here I stand, on the front porch of literary legend, the Babe Ruth of fishermen, the single most influential fictional character of my life.

The door opens a crack and onto the porch steps a man in his mid 40”s, a blue and white guayabera unbuttoned to his belly. I let my tout ask if we can see the old man.

“Fifteen dollars,”” he replies.

I hadn”t planned on paying an admission fee to meet my humble old fisherman. This was a pilgrimage, not a trip to Six Flags.

I haggle. I”m a journalist, I tell him. A fan, a fellow fisherman, an admirer. I wrack my brain for the Spanish word for “idol”. Finally, he lets me in for ten dollars.

It has happened with the Havana bars where Hemingway drank, once-lovable dives like La Bodeguita del Medio, reduced by arrogant drunks from around the globe to the more temperate but somehow even sadder equivalent of Boston”s Cheers. It has happened with his house in Key West, where doltish fanatics hold annual “Papa look-alike” contests, cheapening and trampling whatever loutish legacy they espouse to uphold.

But my noble Santiago, I thought he”d be above this. Santiago is different. A living tourist attraction was not the way I imagined he”d spent his retirement.

I”ve had a muddled and sometimes rocky relationship with many of the other characters I was forcibly introduced to in high school English – figures like Gatsby, Holden Caufield, Romeo and Juliet. Whether I spent the last decade dismissing them as adolescent flings unworthy of my attention or still hadn”t gotten over the initial force-feeding, we have been estranged ever since.

In some ways, what remains in my mind is the same random patchwork of recollections that lingers from relationships I”ve had with other, real life characters, bust the “Old Man”, – well, I never forgot the “old man”. From the first time I had read the book in 9th grade, I remembered nearly everything about Santiago -his deep wrinkled skin, his cramping right hand, his charismatic balance of pride and humility.

A lapsed Catholic addicted to baseball box scores, a guy who sees the deep value in a hot cup of coffee; who chats to tired birds that land on his boat – even the old man”s quirks are rock solid in my book. And as I get older, I appreciate his character on other levels, the way he grasps life”s simplicities even as he grapples with its complexities. He regarded the great fish as his brother and called it such, then explained why he had to kill it. Few things are more simultaneously simple and complex than fishing. Santiago knew it. And it is why, as life grows more complicated and simplicity more elusive, I”m drawn to the sport more and more.

And, perhaps, why I needed to meet “The Old Man.”

I remember the moment, sitting at a cafe, in Quito when I first thought it possible. I had been planning a trip Cuba anyway, an attempt to see for myself whether Castro was the monster portrayed to me the Cuban exiles in my New Jersey neighborhood, or the hero he was said to be by my teachers and fellow students in Ecuador. I had been re-reading a copy of the novel I found in a used book store and mulling about doing some fishing in Cuba. And when I opened a guidebook, containing a mention of Fuentes, meeting the “Old Man” became my top priority.

The modern world”s dearth of untravelled paths notwithstanding, travel can still yield its personal miracles. It is just two weeks later, on my first day in Cuba, when I find myself seated on a vinyl couch in Gregorio Fuentes” living room. I am soured by the entrance fee. Feeble and silent, Fuentes sits in a rocking chair in a darkened front room of the tidy house, his chair facing the door, as if he had been waiting for me, for anyone. A black baseball cap covers his fragile head, the words, “El Capitan”” stitched in yellow across the front. Looming above his head on the wall over his left shoulder, is a framed painting of himself and Hemingway in younger days, hoisting a giant marlin over the bow of “El Pilar.”

“Everything was old except his eyes,”” Hemingway had described Santiago. But now, Fuentes” eyes are old, too, dropping down to his lap between sentences, still the color of the sea like Hemingway wrote, but of a different sea, like a Coney Island February gray.

I ask him how he is. “Not so good,”” he says. “First because of my years. And second because of the blockade we have from your country.”’ Fuentes goes on to lament the situation in which pilfered medicine can be purchased on the black market or in dollar shops with ease, but state-run pharmacies where Cubans can pay in pesos, often lack basic supplies. He appears to be blaming me, an American.

“You can”t get medicine unless you have dollars,”” he says, pointing a wiry freckled finger in the air. The man at the bar hadn”t lied. He is still sharp. Sharp enough that I figure I had better brush politics aside and try talking about fishing. He hasn”t fished in a long time, comes the curt answer, delivered in the pure Spanish of his native Canary Islands. He doesn”t know how long.

After writing The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway insisted that the character of Santiago had been based on no one person in particular. Whether Fuentes has simply assumed the title through his association with Hemingway or just grown into the role with age, most of the people in Cohimar now refer to Fuentes as “the Old Man from the book.””

Fuentes himself hedges when I ask him about his role in the book”s genesis. “It”s not based on one fact or many facts,”” Fuentes tells me. “It is a piece of fiction.” But there is a story behind it, and Fuentes maintains that he, indeed, lies at the center.

The seed of Hemingway”s story, Fuentes asserts, is the local legend born when Fuentes himself – at age 20 – fought an epic solo battle with “a giant fish from a very small boat.””

“When he came here, he heard this legend of the guy who caught a giant fish from very small boat,”” Fuentes says. “So it”s based on that story.”” Fuentes” granddaughter enters stone-faced through the front door with a pair of cigars and tucks them lovingly into the old man”s shirt pocket.

“You smoke two a day?””

“No, no,”” he replies. “I smoke a lot more than that.””

I ask him about the book, about fishing, about Hemingway, and about his life. I try to steer him back to politics, World War II, when he and Hemingway would load the “El Pilar” with bazookas and grenades and hunt down German Q-boats in the Florida Straits. But Fuentes doesn”t say much.

He points to the chair next to me. “Hemingway was here the last time he was in Cuba.”” I look at the chair and imagine the author in my place. “I”ve never met a greater man.”” Fuentes asserts.

I later heard Fuentes utter the same line on an A&E Biography show about Hemingway. Even then, it sounds rehearsed, canned – even if it is true. I want to leave.

As I get up, Fuentes” grandson asks me to sign a visitors book. I open the blue vinyl covered volume to find it full of messages scribbled by foreign tourists. By the dates, I figure he must see about a half dozen to a dozen visitors a week. With such a parade passing through every week, it”s no wonder he is unanimated and silent. I realize I”m just another customer. I could see little of the humble and spiritual Santiago in the man sitting before me, or at least he wouldn”t let me see it. A man who had charged me ten dollars to get in, a man who seemed more robbed of his spirit by his status as a cash-earning tourist attraction than by any great fish he”d fought and lost.

It would happen over and over in Cuba, moments of utter romanticism overcome by the realization that at the core of experience here, is just a mad scramble for dollars – the beautiful girl whispering in your ear only wants you to buy her a Sony Discman; the new buddy who showed you the town is making an under the counter commission from every restaurant he takes you to. Now, the “Old Man” is selling tickets.

I couldn”t blame Fuentes. This topsy turvy economic system was his reality, not mine. It was he who couldn”t buy toothpaste or aspirin with the currency his government shells out. Fuentes has every right, and every reason, to make his dollars, sell his past. Even if Santiago never would.

Hopping back on the Flying Pigeon, I console myself with the fact that I have indeed met someone who must have been at least part of the character of Santiago. Even if Fuentes wasn”t the basis for the novel, he had been one of Hemingway”s closest confidants, his link to the sea, his entry into the world where men like Santiago fished and lived simple lives and told the type of wonderful tales that inspired him. Fuentes, too, had fought Santiago”s epic battles – with giant fish, and now, with age. The 101 year old man now fit the title, if not the role, of the very, very “Old Man”. All of it, I thought, should be thrill enough.

But I had still not met Santiago.

Llera offers to show me the town. He leads me to a hilltop park next to a run down miniature golf course, where Cubans tapped threadbare golf balls with bent and rusty putters. At la Terrazza, a tourist bar, a beer had cost me two dollars. Here in the park, where Cubans gathered around a truck drawn tank of peso beer, Llera pays with my dollar and the guy running the beer tank credits us seven beers each. My first day in Cuba and we”re going to make an afternoon of it.

Llera, a 27-year old self-described artisan, regales me with stories about his extramarital affairs and asks me to send him books on Mesopotamia that he can”t find or afford from the mindless Cuban bookshops full of dusty old paperbacks and Communist tracts by Che and Fidel. And he tells me, too, about other old fishermen of Cojimar.

“There are other fishermen who you could meet and wouldn”t have to pay,”” he says.

Llera tells me about an old man who lives up the hill who once caught the world”s largest white shark. A few others have joined us, attracted by ability to run an endless tab with my $20 bill, and the fishing talk grows louder as my head starts to spin from the 100 degree heat and non stop beer, and I can only pick up phrases – tiburon, hurucan, maji maji – as they dish out tale after tale in their impossible to understand rapid fire but lulling Cuban tongue.

I go home drunk and wake up wondering if I”d missed what I went there for: briny characters beyond Gregorio Fuentes, stories beyond the fictional battle of Santiago and the giant marlin. I begin wanting to hear more. And I start wondering if my old man isn”t still around here somewhere.

Five weeks later, tanned and swaggeringly at ease enough that Cubans are beginning to mistake me for a native, I take the camel – a sweltering double humped tractor trailer used to supplement Cuba”s shortage of working buses -back to Cojimar. I track down Llera tell him I want to meet some other viejos, pescadores. “Like the one who caught the shark,”” I say.

A half summer in Cuba – a place where no one knows whether the next boat will bring Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, or U.N. peacekeeping troops – had numbed my sense of the surreal, the ironic, the downright fictional quality of life on the island.

Then, Llera leads me up a hill, into the front yard of a small hut, and Cuba, down to my last day, does it again. I walk into the yard and walk into the book. The house – it is precisely as Hemingway described Santiago”s: “The shack was made of the tough budshields of the royal palm which are called guano and in it there was a bed, a table, one chair, and a place on the dirt floor to cook with charcoal. On the brown walls of the sturdy fibered guano there was a picture of the Virgin of Cobre.””

If Hemingway had lingered more over details, he probably would have described the medicinal herb garden out back, the roosters pecking at my feet as they wandered in and out of the makeshift kitchen.

The bespectacled head of an old man pops from a small window, like a worm from a hole. “Come around, come around the front,”” he waves us in enthusiastically. We wind our way through a two-room wooden shack to find the 86-year-old man cooking the way Santiago did: crouched over a wood scrap fire smoldering on the dirt floor of the adjoining smoke filled cinderblock shack. His breakfast, – a metal canister of milk – steams atop a metal cage propped over the flame.

He wears a tattered Fidel-style green army cap and a dirty white short-sleeved cotton shirt, worn sneakers with no laces, their tongues hanging out like a dead shark on a dock. Smoke from the charcoal fire fills the shack, the sunlight angling in behind him into the thick stagnant haze, forming a deep blinding white heavenly backdrop.

And yes, everything about him is old except his eyes. Widened childlike by his thick bifocals, brown irises graying only slightly at the edges, his eyes dart sharp and quick, like they could still follow a fish working under the surface if they had to.

Jose Hernandez, or “Cheo” as the villagers call him, is the star of Cojimar”s second most famous fish tale. In 1945, Cheo and two other men caught an unprecedented 21 foot shark – a fish he still insists it was the first and last of its species ever caught. Cheo insists it has no common name, only the scientific megalojon carkaredon karcario, which Llera scribbles in my notepad.

I tell him that it doesn”t seem possible that he has caught the lone member of the species. “Look,” Cheo blurts, smirking. “I was born right here on this patio.””

Cheo”s insistence, the light and smoke over his head like an angled halo, the novel, like perfection of the scene, force me to believe him.

With fishing stories, anyway, it is better not to try to separate fact from fiction, lest you gut them both. So I shut up and let him talk.

“It was the only one caught in the world,”” he says, his two hands resting flat on his lap and only his head moving back and forth. “No one caught one before and no one has caught one since.””

It was vintage Cuban absurdity. Blocked from news of the outside world and spoon fed a steady diet of propaganda, many Cubans I met seemed to have filled the informational void with wild and colorful tales, rumors, innuendo, urban legends and conspiracy theories. I had heard theories about bandits controlling New York City, and AIDS plagues in Europe, unsubstantiated stories of Castro”s Swiss bank accounts. Despite their high level of education, many otherwise educated Cubans lacked a basic understanding of even world geography. Now, totalitarianism and government-enforced ignorance was fueling a wonderful embellishment of already great fish tales. Maybe Cheo”s fish was the only one of its type ever caught in the world. His world, anyway.
Cheo talks for nearly an hour about the shark, telling me the depth at which he caught it, describing in detail the “palangue”” or buoyed rig used for deep sea fishing. The shark was too big to be weighed, so workers cut out its liver, weighed the organ in at 1005 pounds, and estimated the weight of the shark at 7,000 pounds. Cheo digs through a small box of his belongings – yellowed photos, flaking scraps of paper, finally pulling out a framed photo of himself as a young man, his hair thick, black and slick, smiling proudly while he holds the spinal column of el tiburon grande.

“These sharks,”” he says. “When I caught it, the guy in the factory told me these sharks frequent Brooklyn. They pass by there, but I don”t know this place. Is it near the Gulf of Mexico?””

I tell him I live very close to Brooklyn but I have not seen any sharks there.

“What is the Sea like there?”” he asks me.

I tell him everything I know about the Brooklyn Sea. I tell him how the Gulf Stream passes by there and in the summer the waters there are very warm and maybe this is why the great sharks go there.

He pokes the fire under his milk canister and listens. I wish I could take him to Brooklyn and show him. He would see then, how truly beautiful this place is.

“When you go back to Brooklyn you will have to investigate this shark,”” he says.

“I will,”” I reply, actually wondering if indeed there was some giant East Coast shark that I had never heard of. “Claro.””

Cheo takes me on a tour of his garden, where stunning yellow leafed shrubs and bright red flamboyant trees shade rows of medicinal plants. He talks constantly, often ending unintelligible sentences with a clear youthful burst of laughter.

“I lived to fish,”” Cheo says. “But now I do this. I sell these plants to the people here. All medicinal, very healthy.””

The similarities between Santiago and Cheo – the house, the mystic-like character and rich stories, irrelevantly true or false, even the location of the shack up the hill from the docks -convinced me I had discovered, still alive, the same precious literary humus from which Hemingway”s tale had grown.

In Fuentes, I had found Hemingway”s possible historical inspiration, the physical being who had caught the fish that inspired the story, or at least led Hemingway to the sea, to Cojimar, to fishing. In Cheo, I had found Santiago”s humble pride. I had found his holistic world view in a package, a man who fished and lived and embodied the physical image I had always had in my head of Santiago.

There was one problem: neither of these fishermen still fished.

Of course. You can never trust fiction, especially when it”s good. In a book, in fiction, it”s easy. The author can boil down things and leave out parts of characters and choose the quotes that draw stark lines around them. The better the author, the more you”re tricked into thinking real life can be like that. There will never be characters as perfect as Santiago. There will always be Castro”s that come along and compromise our character.

On my way out of town, I meet another old man.

74-year-old Oswaldo Carnero is just walking in off his boat from a successful day of fishing. He sits in the dirt with his back up against a small mango tree, facing the bay where young boys are fishing with cane poles and casting small nets for sardines. If Carnero had any teeth he wouldn”t look a day over 60. I tell him he looks young for his age.

“Fishing,”” he says smiling, “keeps me young.””

Hair graying under his black baseball cap, dressed in bright colored Bermudas shorts and sandals, Carnero ignores the small swarm of fleas circling and nestling under his wretched bent toenails. I look at the rows of freckled wrinkles along his neck, carved out by a half century of fishing under the brutal Cuban sun, and remember Hemingway”s description of Santiago – “Thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck.””

I tell him that most people his age would have retired by now.

“I am retired,”” he says, “But I still fish every day.””

So I asked him for some fish stories.

But Hernandez, like Fuentes, and like most Cubans have more pressing matters on his mind. He talks incessantly about his two years fighting with Castro”s army in the 1958 revolution, and about “la lucha,”” or The Struggle, a term Cubans use to describe their daily toil with the food and fuel shortages, long lines, and rationing since the Castro regime lost the economic support of the Soviet Union the early 90”s. Hernandez clears the ground in front of him and begins to draw in the dirt with a stick diagrams of troop movements a map of Cuba. Later, when the monologue shifts to the present, he uses the same stick to draw circles and squares illustrating the topsy turvy economy that has taxi drivers and hotel doormen earning more than doctors and professors.

“The Revolution,”” he tells me, looking out over the bay, ”” is over.””

He never smiles. His eyes are angry but calm and full of energy. I could see this guy fighting a marlin for a few days.

As I follow Hernandez out the marina gate I think about the three Old Men, melding them together in my brain, adding, subtracting the way Hemingway must have done on paper with the fishermen he met in this town. Maybe you can trust fiction, after all.

Hernandez rambles on, waving a small greasy boat motor part in the air, giving me directions to the main road where I can catch the camel back to Havana. He points toward the streets where housing projects have diluted the town”s fishing village identity. Three fish processing plants have been reduced to one, he says. There are not as many boats as there used to be. It”s not the same, he says, as when Hemingway was here.

“It was a village of fishermen,”” he says, pointing up to the hillside. ” But many have left and the rest have died.””

Not all of them, I think to myself. Not Santiago. He”s still right here in Cojimar.

Brian Francis Donohue is a reporter with The Newark Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.

Gregorio Fuentes died in Cojimar in January 2002 at the age of 104.

Originally Published in 2002

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