Havana and Vinales, Cuba

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My first twentyfour hours in Cuba were pretty telling of how this country works. My flight landed at 1.20 am and having found it difficult to find any places to stay online I hadn't booked anywhere. I also had no cash and had not expected to find all the ATMs in the capital 'offline' until 7am. I assumed I'd just hunker down in the airport and snooze a bit before finding somewhere in the morning. However I was soon swept up by the kindest lady who rang around and within minutes had found me a place to stay in Havana. In the mean time I'd managed to scrape together the last of my emergency dollar bills which I'd hidden inside various bras deep in my backpack  (not ideal having to locate them in the middle of the airport). I had just enough cash to pay for a taxi to my lodgings where I was soon safely tucked up and sound asleep. Although there are some hotels in Cuba in general you stay in a 'casa particulaire' . These are essentially classified  as B&Bs although you'd be hard pushed to find a house in Cuba which doesn't take in guests.

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The following day I began to explore the streets of Havana armed with my paints. Never have I felt so inspired by a city. The eclectic mix of buildings are covered in layers of peeling paint. Sun bleached pinks, deep turquoise and bright orange mingle together on aged colonial facades. Many of the buildings are just this: facades. Behind them lie empty shells of bygone buildings, a corner of which might be inhabited in a make shift shelter. In the mornings every doorway is brightened by a grinning child, or a topless man leaning his beer belly against the door frame and smoking a cigar. The smell of cigars wafts through the streets day and night as does music. Music is everywhere, around every corner seems to be another band or else a crowd of people tapping their feet crammed against the window of cafe to hear whoever was playing inside better. Occasionally you'll turn into a street and find yourself tripping over dozens of young people perched on the pavement leaning over their phones and you'll know you've discovered a wifi spot. Internet in Cuba is a rare luxury. There are only several wifi spots around the towns, the access cards are extortionate and presumably much more so for tourists. Old cars, some polished to perfection others crumbling with rust chug down the streets blaring music out of mega speakers installed by loving owners.

I'm stuck for words in trying to express quite how magical the place is, which is why it's very lucky I paint as perhaps my pictures can convey a little more feeling than my overuse of superlatives. Painting in Havana was a pleasure, I  found my self constantly inundated with cups of coffee, offers of cold drinks and post painting invitations into people's houses. In fact I've had so many invitations I've had to start turning them down or else every time I try to settle somewhere I find my self being dragged by the arm into another home to be shown faded photographs of aged relatives and plied with drinks. It's impossible to believe how friendly everyone is. At a restaurant one evening I had no jumper and although the sea breeze wasn't bothering me much a waiter noticed my goose pimples and came and ostentatiously wrapped me in a an enormous orange table cloth!

So this is how Cuba works, not by Internet, timetables or planning but by kindness and conviviality.

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The food is not great. Their specialist dish is one of shredded beef in a bolognaise-like sauce, the name of which literally translates as 'old rope'. I'd imagined due to Cuba's shortcomings in the kitchen I might be able to restrain my greed and my waistline for the two weeks prior to my return home. But then I discovered that within my budget I can eat lobster for lunch and dinner every day.

My ride to Vinales

My ride to Vinales

After a few days in Havana I tried to take the bus to Vinales. On arriving at the bus station I was informed that the bus wasn't going for another three hours but was swept instead into a 'collectivo' or shared taxi. The three hour drive whizzed by, stopping once to eat the sweetest, juiciest mangoes on the side of the road at sunrise. Arriving in Vinales with nowhere to stay was not a problem. It seems I'm somewhat of a novelty as a young woman travelling alone and everyone bends over backwards to look after me. My taxi driver installed me in a Casa with two lovely women and that was that. They took it upon themselves to teach me basic Spanish and now I'm finding life a lot easier.

Vinales is the Tabacco capital of Cuba. Set in glorious scenery not unlike a Cezanne painting, acres and acres of Tabacco grows between karst like hills. Horses, pony and traps and even carts pulled by oxen are common forms of transport. If Havana was like stepping back in time 60 years then Vinales felt like 100. I was shown around a Tabacco farm, where the leaves are all still dried in old wooden barns with creaking beams and roofsthatched with leaves. The guy showing us round could roll a cigar in under a minute and was an excellent salesman. I bought hundreds. He explained that the government takes 90% of the profits from the farmers, and we thought British taxes were high!

I spent two happy days roaming around Vinales painting in the hills, usually totally alone save for the distant strumming of a guitar from somewhere  across the valley. Heaven on Earth. Although daunting I was glad to get stuck back into landscape painting. Before leaving home I was a steadfast rural landscape painter and had no plans to embark on other subject matter. This has become less and less true as the months and countries have rolled by, finding myself more at home with colourful streetscenes or portraiture. My landscapes in Vietnam were not great but I  think my inexhaustible enthusiasm for all things Cuba comes across more in my attempts in Vinales.

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Next I was off to Trinidad, and after conveying this to my Casa hostesses I was bundled into a collectivo and packed off to stay with their friends. The journey was a little less simple this time given that halfway I was dumped in a roadside parking lot as my car was headed elsewhere. Here I was passed from bus to car to bus until someone decided they had space for the sola chica. Not sure you could describe it as space, eight of us crammed into this ancient car/bus for a bumpy 4.5 hour ride with no air con. Luckily for me I managed to sleep the whole way only waking up occasionally to unsnuggle from the drivers shoulder.

Arriving in Trinidad to the welcoming embrace of Alicia and Miguel I realised I was going to need more than just a few days here and have booked myself in for the next week...

 (The internet here is SO slow I'm going to try to add photos but you may just have to use your imagination!)