Last night they were out of bread but today it’s back, so I order a Cuban sandwich. This time it’s made like a club sandwich with regular white bread. The first time I actually succeeded in getting one (I come to Café Neruda often), it was on a baguette. In Cuba, it seems, things are subject to change from day to day—a constant flux in availability dependent upon seasons, weather, politics, the black market, and indubitably many factors unknown to me. Many of these changes—no bread at a restaurant? no mangoes in wintertime? no 20 different options for peanut butter?— have been all but eradicated in the “first world.”
After I eat, I order a shot of rum and a daiquiri. The rum, which costs 1 CUC, is so smooth I swish it around in my mouth before swallowing. I begin to use it as a chaser for the daiquiri, which is also good but a bit too sweet for my taste.
I am seated just outside the café on a sidewalk that parallels the Malecón. Cars and shared taxis zip across the wide, three-lane street in front of me. In Cuba, most taxis are shared between people going to similar places in order to save money on the fare, and along the main roads people hop in and out like they’re using a bus.
Glancing out towards the water I notice two western girls crossing the street. Immediately there is something ineffably American about them— the clothes? the walk?—I cannot place it. They approach the café, eye the menu, and sit down next to me.
Aside from my sloppy Spanish, I have not spoken much in Cuba, and even less in Mexico. So after a few moments of vainly trying to place their accents, I ask them where they’re from.
Oh sweet Intrigue! For the first time (and last time) all trip, it hits me.
1) “How did you get here?”
2) “Do you have a visa?”
3) “Have any trouble at the airport?”
All of the questions I’ve been asked, as well as the problems I feared before arriving, come to mind. I want them answered. I understand this intrigue. It’s irresistible.
It turns out they came illegally, just like me. But via Mexico City, not Cancun. One of the girls is a tall, athletic, understatedly pretty, administrator for a University in Colorado. And the other, a stunning elementary school teacher from California, with hair like ribbons of smoke, long and entangled and filled with chestnut hues evocative of late Fall in the Northeast—(hot cocoa, smoke drifts and crackling firewood, pine needles on a yellow bed of leaves, cozy comforter hibernations behind window-worshipped snowlawns, childhood)—Oh how her hair unravels deep down her back like a brown-brushed waterfall! And her name means Goodness.
We begin chatting and Goodness tells me, laughing, but noticeably unnerved, that she lied to her mom about her trip to Cuba after her mom responded to the first mention of it with—
You are not going to Cuba!
and so she said she was off hiking some trail in god-knows-where and would be offline for the week.
Funny, I tell her, I also lied to my mom. Or rather, I took my dad’s advice, which was not to tell her until I got back. Despite the fact I reside in a city where murders, robberies and rapes occur on a near-daily basis, my mom undoubtedly would have thought Cuba was especially dangerous and bombarded me with maternal warnings for my safety until I was so burdened with guilt that I may have had to reconsider.
The girls also did have trouble at the airport. They were pulled aside and questioned for about an hour, asked repeatedly why they were visiting and what they were doing and how and why they spoke Spanish. But they were eventually let in and here they were, two friends from California and Colorado who had met each other traveling somewhere in Nepal, enjoying their first Cuban mojito at Café Neruda and watching the Malecón.
They are nice. Very nice. And since we are all Americans illegally in Cuba, and also experienced travelers, we have a common bond. So we speak cordially for a bit and make plans to meet back at Café Neruda in a few hours to have dinner before heading to La Casa de Musica to see music and dance.
When I return to my apartment, Michael and a young brunette are drinking rum and speaking Swiss-German at the dining room table. Michael, a bit tipsy and bright eyed, gives me a jovial invitation to join them. As the Swiss always do with ease and magnanimity, they transition to English, and we chat and drink together.
The girl, a 21 year old from Geneva, has spent the past 6 months traveling Latin America. She is half way done with her trip and has already been to Buenos Aires, hiked the Inca trail, become conversationally fluent in Spanish, and done ayahuasca in Columbia with a Shaman—
“I grew 3 years in maturity with one session. I worked out problems that haunted me for years,” she tells me.
We polish off a fifth of rum before I go back to café Neruda to meet the American girls. The girls had mentioned they wanted to smoke a cigar, so I bring along the extra one I bought at Leo’s ration shop earlier in the day. I don’t, however, have a cigar cutter. So I ask the waiter.
“Oh, la qualidad es malo,” he says when he sees my cigar. “Bad. Bad quality.”
I laugh and so do the girls. They don’t care much about the quality and neither do I. We are smoking a Cuban and drinking Cuba Libres in Cuba. We were strangers two hours ago, now we are friends. What more could we want? At least what more could I want?
We consume a forgettable dinner then walk back to the apartment to gather Michael and the young Swiss girl, both of whom agreed earlier to come along to La Casa de Musica. They are still at the table speaking with Isgrat and his mother when we arrive, and we all sit down and speak Spanish.
“Tienes hambre?” Isgrat’s mother asks me.
“No gracias. Ya comí.”
“Whoa! Past tense Nate. Very good, I thought you didn’t speak Spanish.”
“The more I drink the more it comes out.”
“Any more rum?”
“Casa de la Musica?”
Outside La Casa de Musica, which is only one street over and about four blocks up from my apartment, on a wide street with two construction trenches dug out on either side that need be deftly hopped over in order to cross —dust and gravel crunching under sneakers—a line of about 50 people, mostly Cubans but the occasional out-of-islander mixed in, shift their weight casually as they wait.
The doors haven’t opened yet and we’re already buzzed asking strangers questions and thinking maybe we should get a bottle to sip while we wait in line:
“Who’s playing tonight?”
“Pupi y los que Son Son.”
A famous Cuban salsa band, apparently.
“Donde podemos comprar una botella?”
Many places, apparently.
And just when we decide yes, we should send out a team for a bottle, the doors open and the line moves fast and soon we’re inside a big dark theater with a long bar and black round tables and chairs set up on a higher level that looks down at a wide, circular dance floor that leads to the stage where the instruments stand illuminate under the spotlights—the violent curved hips of congas, three tall black stands holding shiny silver microphones, a quiet drum set hidden in the back with high hats shining gold, brass horns waiting proudly and patiently in front, a long keyboard smiling stage right…
As we walk in a big screen to the right of the stage plays reggaeton music videos.
Continuing with the theme of the night, the Swiss crew and I go 3rds on a bottle of Habana Club. I’m a few bucks short but Michael could care less and we get some coke and limes and sit down at an empty table and start pouring glasses. It’s not crowded now, not yet, and no one is dancing, not yet, but people are filing in and the energy barometer is steadily climbing.
Then Pupi comes on and the music flows into the room like a river opening into a lake. It’s fast, melodic, hip-swaying music. Couples quickly find each other’s fingers, and the sharply-dressed slick whites and fedora wearing Don Juans de Habana extend their open palms to pretty Latinas who rise to twist and twirl like leaves swept up in a strong wind. This continues, and we continue drinking at our table, and the American girls go off to the dance floor, and the music grows and thumps and bounces and now the place is jammed, not just with Cubans but all sorts of people, some fighting lifetime’s of chronic inhibition merely to tap their feet and bob their heads, others fearless and talentless taking to the stage to laugh and shout as they make up their own steps. And then the Swiss girl, in a moment of aloneness, says she’s never kissed an American, and though she’s attractive and I’ve never kissed a Swiss girl, I blow it off because I want deeply to kiss Goodness and her Athena-blessed hair—hair like vines, like infinitely intertwined silk-sewn branches, like sweet shrouded secrets—but she insists, the Swiss girl, and so I kiss her passionlessly and stop.
Stop. But nobody can stop. This is not a place you come to stop. If the music continues, we continue, and when it stops, then maybe we can stop. And even then, only maybe. So I go off and discover my beautiful outlaw American amongst the crowd talking with some Spanish or German or Austrian guys—who knows in this memory?—and they’re cool and friendly, but I don’t want them, I want her. So I steal her away to fake salsa, and twirl her so that I can watch her hair rise with the wind blown from her own hips.
“A girl loves to be spun,” she laughs.
And then (too soon perhaps? but how much time is there really?) I say something foolish for sure and pull her to my lips and we kiss.
The night does not stop—how could it?—and when Pupi and his band take their leave a DJ resumes with reggaeton and pop and salsa and all sorts of fusion from the Americas.
And at some point the whole group of us find ourselves in front of the bar with new friends.
And then the song comes on:
I never thought I would dance Gangnam Style. Especially not at 2:30 in the morning in La Casa de Musica in Habana after a salsa show with a group that consisted of an American elementary school teacher and her friend from Colorado, a middle-aged Swiss banker and his 21 year old world-traipsing countrymen, two guys from Denmark who, well, were from Denmark—and three or four Cubans who’d been dancing since the night began.
When I lived in Seoul teaching English, about 40 minutes away from the actual neighborhood of Gangnam (it’s a neighborhood), and came to abhor almost all Korean pop music, most of which makes American pop seem inspired and genuine, I never imagined I’d be in Cuba one day being led by a night-black Cuban kid, tall, lanky and chiseled with a smile like the Milky Way, dancing wildly as if riding a horse (which I also don’t know how to do) to a silly song by an unlikely Korean pop star with an acronym for a name. Despite my powers of prophecy, I just didn’t see this in my future. But no matter what you think about Castro and Communism, or even Korean pop music, you should know—Cuban rum is good, real good. And now that this moment has sunk into the pool of my past and I’ve been awarded the time to think about it, the only language that I feel appropriately appropriates my feelings about the whole beautiful ridiculousness that was that night, is American:
IT WAS FUCKING AWESOME!
And so what happened with the girl?
I walked her home and kissed her and made plans to see her in the morning. And in the morning I woke up hungover with a throat that felt like lit cigars had been rolled through my dreams and down my larynx, and I slow-walked to her hostel.
There is one hostel in Havana. And she wasn’t there.
Over the past 3 years I have periodically embarked on a journey that has taken me to four distinct locations around the world. They include:
- Dorf Tyrol, Italy. The Castle of Ezra Pound
- Phuket, Thailand. Tiger Muay Thai Training Camp.
- Paris, France.
- New Orleans, Louisiana
In each country I have studied the skills expected of an Italian Renaissance Man (poetry, combat, visual art, and music so far), but in a modern, more global sense. In other words, rather than learn how to fight with a lance and ride a horse I went to Thailand to learn Thai Kickboxing, also known as Muay Thai–”the art of eight limbs.”
Ultimately, the goal is not to become a “Renaissance Man” in such a short period of time, but rather, to investigate the intrinsic values that lie at the heart of the Renaissance philosophy and see how they can apply to, and hopefully improve, my own life. I am also concerned with the benefits of becoming well-rounded, and of with the knowledge that can be gained by casting myself in uncomfortable, difficult, and sometimes painful (ie: Muay Thai) situations.
This project began three years ago and I only have two months left. The first month will take place in The Dominican Republic and other Caribbean islands where salsa is part of everyday life for many.