The Ambos Mundos Hotel is where Hemingway used to stay. It looks exactly the way you'd expect a hotel where Hemingway stayed to look. It's small, old-fashioned, on a corner in the middle of old Havana, and pink.
There are big windows around the lobby that are open from the top down, not the bottom up, so passers-by prop their forearms on the frames and lean their heads in to hear the music.
Somebody's always playing the grand piano in the bar for tips, usually with another instrument as accompaniment. The fat man on the piano and the skinny woman violinist are the best. The clarinetist is just awful.
People don't really sit in the lobby. They lie sprawled on the couches and in the big chairs, barely moving. Maybe the music does it to them.
A young man hovers around a coffee table that's covered four or five inches deep in artwork that I never saw anybody buying, except for the little, hand-painted clay statues of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Ernest Hemingway, $3 each. Frankly, the figures looked to me like morel mushrooms with faces, but I found it fascinating that Hemingway ranks up there with Fidel and Che as a Cuban icon.
As you enter the Ambos Mundos, there is a little stand, the sort restaurants use to post their menus, but in this case what is posted is Hemingway's picture and an invitation to see his old room, number 517, admission $2.
The elevator is one of those old wrought-iron cage things, with a door that stretches across the entrance like a child gate. An elevator operator takes you up to the fifth floor. A sign directs you to Hemingway's room. At the end of a hall, the one with the plaque. The maids let you in.
Room 517 is plain, even dreary, and cramped, but it's a corner room. It looks out over the tiled rooftops of old Havana and one of its main squares, the Plaza de Armas, which is filled with life and color. That must have been what Hemingway liked.
Re-entering the dark hallway, you meet the maids again, young, smiling, pretty, wishing you a good morning or afternoon, giggling a little.
The Sunday Morning gang stayed at the Ambos Mundos Hotel. After all, Hemingway's 100th birthday inspired our trip to Cuba. Most of us ended up in the cluster of rooms on either side of Hemingway's.
I was in 507, three doors away, equally drab and without the view but with one redeeming feature. Returning to my room at the end of my first day in Havana, I found a surprise on my bed. No, not a chocolate. A heart. It was actually a rolled-up towel, arranged in a heart shape, but the way it was done was very clever, so if I'd wanted to I could have used it as a tray. It wasn't just an outline. It had a bottom. It looked like a heart sitting on a towel Next to it there was a note addressed to me by name, carefully written out with various colored pencils and decorated with flowers. It wished me sweet dreams and a good night in a mixture of Spanish and English and was signed, "Isis and Dilayla, your maids."
I stood and looked at the heart for a couple of minutes, delighted. I carefully slipped my hand underneath it and transferred it to the desk, so I could save it and continue to admire it, but the next day it was gone.
Instead, I found a swan on my bed, again made out of a rolled-up towel. A bit of accordion-pleated paper had been tucked in just above its beak, so it looked as if the swan had a crest on its head. Again there was a personal note written out with colored pencils, this time signed, "Dilayla and Isis, your maids." Every day I found something different.
I asked my colleagues up and down the hall what was appearing on their beds. They too were getting hearts and swans and notes.
|Click here to see a note, with translation, from Isis and Dilayla.|
Pretty soon, several of us were taking pictures.
I'm sorry now that I never got pictures of Isis and Dilayla themselves, only the wonderful things they left in my room. The "kissing swans" producer saved all her notes. Two days before we left, I had the chance to introduce myself to Isis and Dilayla and to thank them. I also wanted to know which was which. Isis turned out to be the Spanish-looking one, with long hair, a little round and a bit shy. Dilayla, pronounced as in Samson and... was black, with mischievous eyes and not shy at all.
I can only speak a few words of Spanish. They speak only a few words of English. We didn't seem to know the same words, but it didn't matter. I think I made it clear how much I liked what they had done. They smiled from ear to ear, said something I couldn't understand, and giggled as they stood outside Hemingway's room.
By Martha Teichner
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