Rice, Oranges and Whale Bones

Rice, Oranges and Whale Bones

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Old bones lie, it would seem, washed ashore by the sea. A graveyard, carcasses picked clean and now bleached by the sun. Smooth and sharp they criss-cross into infinity. A whale struggles and breaks free jumping into the air from the little water  which remains, crystal clear, dangerously blue. Perhaps the fish found themselves stuck here that time when the river overflowed. Many died, so channels were diverted. Trees now grow, people run and children play on a giant man, where water once gushed and cooled the city’s banks. Yes, this is how these creatures came to be here, I am sure.

The sea is close, sometimes I think they can smell it. But the plains between the graveyard and the water are dry. There is no return for these poor creatures now. Passed the port and out of the city, we travel along the sea front.

Behind us is the earth, where the farmers toil and the trees grow ripe with fruit.

All I see now is water, on both sides. The lake to the right and the sea to the left. Little boats and reeds. A girl wears a traditional costume. Further on we go. Here there are fields, but they are not dry, not these ones. These ones are are flooded. Must we walk on water? Little white triangles appear on the horizon. It feels like I have traveled to the end of Valencia, to the end of the world. Passed the Cathedral and the ancient fish, the fields and even over the sea itself.

We have found it, and what humble beginnings for such a source of fame. When the men cooked in the open air of their orchards near lake Albufera, could they of known? That it would be you, la Paella, you, who would end up conquering the world?


Valle de Vinales and the Colours of Prehistory

Valle de Vinales and the Colours of Prehistory

It is early and the mist is still low in the valley.The plow is pulled laboriously by two white oxen. With each jerk, a new scratch appears, until finally the earth bleeds red. The dark green leaves of the palms rise out and can be seen distinctly from up high, but their white stalks are lost amidst the swirling cotton waves of air which creep along the ground.The farmer takes off his straw hat to mop his brow and looks up towards the sky.

The sun rises higher and the strangely shaped hills glow with an orange hue. They are covered in trees which have sprouted out the hard rock at different angles, sometimes overlapping, sometimes dangling. Stunted banzais, baobabs with thick trunks and skinny heads, white palm trees germinating from sheer rock faces.Roots and branches are entwined. They are what they are because the world needed them that way.

Now we travel down, down passed the thatched cottages and blue huts, down into a place where the sun doesn’t shine and the moon doesn’t wander, passed the green vines that cascade down the wide cave entrance. It is here that a little boat glides silently along in the darkness. Thousands of droplets fall, some land noiselessly but others hit water. Water versus water. Echoes, echoes, echoes. Artificial lights dance around the cave. I see the silhouettes of people.

A prehistoric mural is the newest thing somehow. Here are the people again, but this time all their features are clear. A domesticated bull is stroked and ridden and then rolls around like a dog in the grass. There are some cowboys and horses, the children gallop up the hill towards the giant animals. The rocks have been shaved and emblazoned with paint and colors.The men here are red, like the earth. Flowers bloom. Man and nature’s palettes are combined and neither is going for anything close to subtle or understated.

Finally, our journey ends in a sea of green. Big furry leaves and a large triangle thatched building. A slab of shiest is painted with the faces of five men and a star. These are Cubans but now they belong to America. A guitar adorns the side of the barn wall. The thick smell of hay wafts into our nostrils as we pass into the shadows. The doors bang slightly, shut. Whereas outside the leaves were luscious, here they are dry, leathery and pungent. This is the prize.

We huddle round. So it seems that there be gold in them hills after all.

I would highly recommend a day trip to the Valle de Vinales,  the heart of tobacco country, which is around 2hr30 minutes drive from Havana, which can be booked at the tourist office at Hotel Sevilla.

  • Visit an alcohol distillery and get a taste of typical Cuban spirits and buy cut price branded cigars.
  • The Indian Cave trip included a cocktail made from freshly mangled sugar cane and pineapple, after which we entered the cave and enjoyed a scenic boat trip.
  • Lunch was served to the sound of music in front of the Prehistoric mural
  • Next a quick stop off at Pinar del Rio, with its little church and small plaza.
  • Visit a real working tobacco plantation. Learn all about cigars and their manufacturing process in an outdoor setting with a great view. This plantation was really authentic, a proper working farm and run by locals.
  • Scenic view of the valley from look out point.

This was a very full day, so make sure that you do not go on a day when you are feeling tiered.

Enjoy the long journey back to Havana. Don’t miss the political propaganda and the palm tree forests!

The hands of time turned back and there I was standing in Havana

The hands of time turned back and there I was standing in Havana

Touch down, the Earth is red, the palm trees Jurassic. The police women wear tiny skirts and lacy fishnet floral tights. The terminal smells of stale cigar smoke. The money exchange queue is long and moves slowly, Cuban pesos can not be bought outside the country. Cuba is an island, on its own time, in its own parallel era. The cars outside are incredible, white with tail wings, ruby red, electric blue. Trucks are full with workers returning back home to Havana.

Cuba is alive, Cuba is free, Cuba is restricted, Cuba is controversial, Cuba is  poor, Cuba is rich, Cuba is colored, Cuba is history.

The mist sprays up and catches the lovers, musicians, children, tourists and elders who walk slowly along the Malecon. Pelicans land and flutter away. The lighthouse across the sea is majestic, the new town and big hotels blocks of shapes in the distance. Colored clothing hangs across windows. The buildings of El Prado are elegant, majestic, grand. They are also faded, chipped, crumbling and decaying. Rich and brightly colored cars flash past. This is Vintage Chic.

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We go to the market by the sea and the railway. We buy many things and then we walk back, back towards the heart. Back streets and side streets, main boulevards and squares. A grid. Houses are open, Che is there and sometimes Jesus. Flowers are for sale, only a few, tomatoes are for sale but also only a few. The people smile, and speak and greet. Where are we from? Happy New Year! Do we like Cuba? They are interested in our answers and then they move on peacefully. No hassle, we are their guests and we are welcome. They are our hosts and we are grateful for their generosity.

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People work, many are old. The dogs stagger and must be avoided. The houses loom above our heads, a man offers to show us inside his home, it is dark and very dusty. Closer to the Cathedral we go, the squares get wider, the Cuban flag gets prouder. Leather books are piled high on market stalls, badges and Revolutionary memorabilia change hands. Illiteracy is almost eradicated in Cuba. Flowers bloom and hang over metal gates. It is December. The sun is hot, the court yard where we eat paella and are serenaded by a man with an angel’s voice, is cool.

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The Cathedral plaza is lively. Creole women and men with fat cigars walk around. Fortunes are told and with a flash of black and white, drinks and lunch are served. Round the corner, the street is dancing, the red, blue and white flag is swaying, people salsa, a hand grabs my hand and I salsa. La Bodeguita del Medio, mojitos, cohibas, musicians. So many people, such a small space. Mint leaves are torn, limes are squeezed. It all spills out, spills out outside. Squiggles and signatures, faces press against the wooden bars. Now slowly back to Hotel Seville, where the horses pull and strain but the carts seldom move.

          Time has stood still.  This can’t be, but it was, it was all just an afternoon in Havana.