We met in front of the Hotel Inglaterra at 10. One of the most famous hotels in Havana, the decadent and ornate facade make it a desperate testament to a lifestyle long past. It boasts a casino Batista used to visit, rooms once occupied by politicians, movie stars, and gangsters, and a lobby host to the grandest New Year’s Eve party in 1959, as Cuba fell to Castro following “el triunfo de la revolución.” Cubans never just say “the revolution;” they always use the phrase “the triumph of the revolution.” Triumph, indeed.
“¿Adonde vamos?” I asked as I bounced down the steps to meet him with a kiss and a smile, curious to know our destination.
“Sólo un lugar,” he replied with an air of mystery, gently slipping my hand into his, rough and strong, his life in Cuba. He laced his fingers through mine, and with this simple yet assuring gesture we began our journey.
We wound our way through the maze of streets in Old Havana. He’d pause on occasion to point out some landmark, some meaningful point of reference unblemished by the ever-present advertising I’m so accustomed to at home, and I’d memorize it to hold in the album of my mind. I had to use my imagination to envision the buildings in their forgotten splendor, but even without paint and in dire need of repair, they seemed to stand in defiance to the inevitable disintegration. When we’d stop, he’d slip his arm around my waist, pull me closer, and turn my face to look directly at what he saw. He was so proud of his city, so full of love for the beauty it displayed and respect it commanded. At each turn onto a new street, it seemed he knew everyone – a friend, a cousin, some more friends. “Pichi, ¿que te pasa?” “Pichi, ¿que honda?” La Habana Vieja was his world, and I was honored for the glimpse.
I loved the tour, and that I was privy to this world that still remains forbidden to most Americans, but the cobblestone hundreds of years old played mercilessly on my gorgeous new strappy sandals. I begged him to walk more slowly. “Mis zapatos, amor,” I said, pointing to my feet. He stopped and looked at the Via Spigas with delight, his eyes betraying the rarity of such a frivolous item. And to think, this was just one pair of, oh, 30 that I owned. He paused to allow me to adjust my buckle, and I felt selfish.
Onward again, generously at a slower pace, we made one final turn onto yet another brick street. I could hear Cuban Salsa penetrating the air with its distinct pulse, soothing and inviting, despite its furious tempo punctuated by loud horns and intense drums. We arrived at an iron gate with a complicated design extending up 14 feet, pausing to greet some more friends and family gathered in the street. People who couldn’t afford the cover charge danced outside the club. Always a party in Cuba – no excuses. One side of the door was open where two beautiful women sat collecting money. When they saw Pichi, each stood to greet him with a kiss. He introduced me, and they welcomed me with a squeeze of my hand and a kiss on my cheek, then stood aside to let us pass. Pichi’s friendly face was his currency.
Inside was swollen with live music. We made our way down a winding white stucco corridor and entered an open-air courtyard brimming with exotic plants, trees, smells, and people. Especially the people. Cubans exude the spirit of life. They laugh and love and live with passion and purpose. And nowhere is this truth more evident than on the dance floor. There, the crowded dance floor and the rhythm of the bongos and congas invited my hips to sway, my knees to bend – left, right, left right.
My mind raced to the moment I had met him – in La Casa de la Musica, on the outskirts of the new city. I had decided to go in to hear some live music one Saturday afternoon, and found myself mesmerized by entire families – children and adults alike – embracing their culture through dance. I felt awkward, like an intruder, so I lingered on the fringes of their world, politely observing.
“Con permiso,” he interrupted me with respect. “Quieres bailar?”
He was strikingly handsome, his dark skin accentuating his white teeth, his white linen shirt accentuating his dark skin, his hair hanging in his face in locked braids. He lowered his chin while he held my eyes with his, and I noticed a dimple in his cheek as he pressed his lips together in anticipation of my response. That one gesture endeared him to me at that moment, and for the weeks that would follow.
With a smile and a touch on his strong arm, I explained that I couldn’t compare to those on the dance floor. He ignored my excuse, and asked where I was from.
“Los Estados Unidos,” I explained apologetically. He didn’t acknowledge my embarrassment, nor did he accept my decline to dance. Rather, he offered to guide me through the steps in the abandoned dining
area where the chairs sat waiting for tired trevellers. I agreed, and he began the lesson. It was there that I melted into him, and began my affair – with Pichi, and with Cuba.
The band at the club in La Habana Vieja paused for a moment, and the temporary silence drew me back to the moment. Again, Pichi knew everyone – hugs, kisses, a celebration of life…just because. We ordered two rums, which I paid for with an American dollar, garnering an appreciative wink from the bartender. Like most things Cuban, their rum is different. It’s warm and thick, still smells and tastes like molasses, and it pours down your throat and travels through your body until even your fingertips have tasted it. A few more rums gave me the courage to join the men and women whose very existence is defined by this music. With happiness I glided onto the slate tiled floor among the thick green leaves of banana and almond trees.
_, 2, 3, 4, _, 6, 7, 8. _, 2, 3, 4, _, 6, 7, 8. That’s the rhythm of salsa. And once it lives in you, everything changes.
When you dance with a man who understands it, he can make you happier in that moment with a simple twirl of your body – a stretch of his arm that signals for you to back away and begin the ritual. He will slightly push into the small of your back with his three middle fingers and you move into him. _, 2, 3, 4, _, 6, 7, 8. He will turn his left hand slightly in your right palm, and you’ll turn your body in the same direction until you meet again, facing each other.
_, 2, 3, 4, _, 6, 7, 8. He will grab both of your hands and slide the side of his hands into your open palms. As you move close to him, your arms lay flat against his, resting until he pulls back just enough to slide your still connected hands over your head to your shoulder where he’ll release you, and gently brush his fingers down your bare arms. _, 2, 3, 4, _, 6, 7, 8. It becomes an erotic, pulsing form of theater requires stamina and total surrender.
It’s a relief to dance salsa with a man who can lead. He takes his role and I take mine, and there’s no confusion about who holds the door for whom.