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The International Writers Magazine
:Cuba Vacation

Salsa dancing in Cuba
Marie-Louise Olson

Salsa. Cigars. Rum. Castro. When you think of Cuba, are these not the first thoughts that pop into your mind? Don’t worry, you are not on the wrong track. Cuba is truly wallowing in cigars and music. Rum is in every drink – mojitos with their juicy mint leaves, and of course, let us not forget: the famous Cuba libre. Most importantly, President Fidel Castro might be old, but he is still very much alive – and extremely powerful.

I went to Cuba as a cultural tourist. Actually, to be honest with you, I just went there to dance salsa, smoke cigars and party like a wild animal in heat. I can tell you, without too many details – or I might get myself into trouble – that I did exactly that. But I also got a little more, than what I had bargained for. I saw the culture – with its ups and downs – as well. Cuba, to me, was perfect in its every imperfection.

My first morning in Cuba, I awoke in a Victorian style place called the Hotel Sevilla, that really sent me back to the Al Capone times of the 1930s. That whole day, I walked the streets of Old Havana –the most interesting and famous area of the capital city. There were many sights to be relished, such as an old fortress looking over the waterfront. Most interestingly, however, were the buildings that smothered the skyline of Havana. Beautiful as they were, they were crumbling to pieces.

It seemed as though these buildings had not been restored since their birth. It was truly a saddening experience to see the sheer negligence of such wonderful structures and architecture. Not only this, but the buildings were also decorated with depressed-looking people in every doorway. Do you know what most of them were doing? Nothing. They were just warming their buttocks on the steps of the building, watching passers-by and smoking massive cigars. Well, since the Cubans can boast of one of the best health care systems in the world, alongside free education, I suppose hanging out with a cigar tucked permanently into the side of your mouth doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

Suddenly, I heard music – incredible sounds flowing down the streets. I quickened my step to find where it was coming from, and I stumbled across an entire salsa band jammed into a room the size of a closet. They had all the instruments you can imagine – from drums to trumpets to trombones and even the maracas. Here I was, standing on the street (the room was seriously too small for me even to step inside to get a closer look), listening to the most miraculous music coming out of the poorest of dwellings. This was the Cuba I had expected to see. I must have stayed on that street for another 30 minutes, dancing with the random strangers who passed by. When it comes to salsa, it does not matter, whom you are dancing with. It is a pure form of passion for the dance. Close your eyes, and the music will take you away.

Cuba is truly an interesting country. It has the passion and the free-spirited culture. The people are extremely approachable and friendly. Communism is also still very much at large. It is shocking to see how little one can buy there. The shops are completely empty, with random cans of beans sitting on the same shelf as a packet of expired batteries or something obscure like a lady shaver. It is very exciting, but make sure you bring lots of spare batteries for your camera, if you are planning a trip. I made that mistake and am paying dearly for all the lost memories I wish I still had.

The days in Cuba passed too quickly, and I tried my utmost to explore every corner of their culture. During my walks through the streets of Havana, I spoke to many locals, who also found it exciting to hear the views of someone from the outside world. One man told me that Cuba is like a beautiful prison. The island has such breathtaking landscapes and nature. The beaches are pure white with crystal blue waters. It truly looks the image of perfection. But how frightening is it not that the people cannot leave the country.

There are only three ways they can legally cross over the border to international waters: Getting married to a foreigner, finding a job overseas, and finally gaining an official invitation from someone to come to their country. This invitation must, however, be personally approved by the big man himself – Fidel Castro.

He is so powerful, that the people on the streets are too frightened to utter his name. They call him the "La Barba" (the bearded man) or simply, "F". Some will not even go that far, and others will boldly say his full name, whilst looking nervously over their shoulder. Castro, it is whispered, is everywhere and hears everything. I could not quite figure out, if they liked and respected him or if they, in actual fact, feared and loathed him. No one was courageous enough to tell me. But I got the feeling, that they all have a deep sense of admiration for their leader who, as one of the very few in the world, stood up to the super power nation – the U.S.A. – and is still standing. This is only supported on the main roads of Cuba, which are plastered with overwhelming billboards screaming anti-American political slogans to the readers: "No tenemos miedo"– we are not scared.

The billboards could sometimes be a bit ghastly to look at – with pictures of war and the like – so I decided to simply enjoy the pleasures of Cuba and pursue the real reason, to why I had come so far to the enchanting Caribbean island: To dance some salsa! There are not really any places to get information about anything in Cuba, so I had to ask random people on the streets for the whereabouts of the salsa clubs. I finally found one – Casa de la Musica (the House of Music). They have an afternoon session and an evening session. Apparently, the evening session is mainly for the tourists who are lured into paying rocket-high prices for the door entry and drinks. So, I elegantly skipped along to the afternoon session. "Wow", is all I can say. Dancing is my greatest passion, and I was simply blown away. The people can move like you would not believe! It is as though every single bone and muscle in their bodies is constructed solely to feel the musical waves penetrating their souls. It was a magical experience, and even better than watching was, of course, dancing. Within minutes, I was dripping and slipping in my own sweat, jiggling away to the music of the night (or, should I say – afternoon). I danced for eight hours straight that day.

Now, that I am back in Dhaka, my thirst to dance salsa has luckily been quenched upon discovering that there is a salsa night every Friday at a place called the Privilege Club in Gulshan. It is not Cuba, but it will do. Salsa is something that must be tried at least once in a lifetime.

The next day, I had a new quest to embark on. Although my whole body was sore and aching, and all I could think of was a massage, I had a new goal. I was going to find a Cuban man, that I had met a year before in Australia. He was a singer – Luis Frank – and I met him during one of his concerts as the new lead singer for the famous salsa band, the Buena Vista Social Club. But there was an obstacle: I did not have his phone number, nor did I have his address. How was I ever going to find him? The only way was to ask ever person I met, if they knew him. I got a lot of blank stares, I can tell you that. Some laughed at me, and others had actually heard of him, but knew not where to find him. My quest was on the way to become doomed, when suddenly a random waiter almost dropped his tray of mojitos in my lap, when I mentioned the name Luis Frank. "Yes"! He exclaimed, "Luis is my neighbour!" Is life not the weirdest thing? If I had had high blood pressure problems, I would have been dead by now. His neighbour!

One hour later, after an interesting ride through Havana on a Cuban version of a rickshaw, I was standing on the doorsteps to his house. The door opened, and a woman stared at me suspiciously. Uh oh, I thought. I was probably standing in front of his wife, and I suppose quite honestly, that it might have been a mistake to drop by unannounced. She jumped on me, and all I remember, was being shoved into the house and finding myself, standing in the middle of the living room surrounded by pictures of Luis. Communicating in my embarrassing Spanish, I learned the good news – she was his mother. The bad news was, that he was touring in Germany. What bad luck. At least I tried, right?

Some days later, I was coming back to my hotel in Havana, after spending five sun-hugging days at a beach area, about a two-hour drive away, called Varadero. In the reception, I noticed a shadow of a man, lurking behind the pillars. How peculiar, I thought. He looked so familiar, and suddenly I realised: It was him! Luis Frank was standing there in my hotel lobby, just waiting for me. Is it not an amazing feeling to see a person in real flesh after being completely positive that you would probably never see them again? He whisked me away to stay at his house, and for the remainder of my stay in Cuba; I was no more a tourist on a stray trail, but a friend of a local. I saw Cuba – the real Cuba – and all I can say, is that I cannot wait to go back.
© Marie-Louise Olson 2005

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