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Published: October 21st 2015
Welcome to my journey through the Americas. Almost 2 years in the planning, let me drop you, as I find myself with not a little initial disorientation, right in the centre of my first stop - La Habana, Cuba. A large portion of my typical Havana day is spent negotiating the narrow laneways. Blocked from all but the midday sun, the delicate and crumbling building facades captivate me. I am less inspired by the electrical wires that entwine them like so many vines, a jolt of a reminder that while the buildings are refreshingly free of billboards, they also appear free of safety regs!
I am soon to learn why it is that all Cubans can dance (A source assures me that should a Cuban refute this, they are lying about a) Their ability or b) Their nationality). This is not just a cultural thing, but an essential skill in quickly side-stepping paving cracks, makeshift fruit stalls and bicycle taxis. I would dodge random explosions of cats from skip bins as they are emptied, step around the occasional drunk, and smile to see wrinkled hands clutching dominoes or cards intently.
My wanderings would take me along the seafront. While I had heard passing mention of the 'Havana sea wall', nothing quite prepared me for the drama of the (loseing) contest of man vs sea. The 8km long wall edges 6 lanes of traffic, and salty geisers spill randomly and effortlessly to douse the opposite sidewalk. Many a seafront building now appears like a sandcastle at high tide to be dissolving (albeit slower). My destination most days was an obscure but highly reccomended dance school, hidden on the first floor of a backstreet house. All else ceases to exist, as the fan and the music pulse in synchrony, and my feet attempt fluid movement over the slightly uneven tiles. My intructors soft breath cools the sweat on my neck as he helps with my 'estillo' (style). Gino demands an exacting standard, and a brief glow of pride passes between us with each new skill mastered. This is countered by an unfatiguable patience, and bursts of shared hilarity when my questioning glance is answered ´Not quite!´ He is a fairly typical Cuban 20-something, divorced already, he loves his work but works 6-7 days per week. His eyes brighten when he tells of a desire to experience different countries and cultures, but ptimism for achieving this remains guarded. After a few lessons, I am almost ready to test my salsa skills with a night out. Essential ingredients being:A 13 piece band complete with singers, sends out waves of percussive energy one cannot help but be swept up by.A crowd, sparkling with diamente and glistening in the heat, reverberates the wave with each ebb and flow of musicLimbs entwine and release in perfect synchrony, bodies merge as if one, and the cloying aroma of sweet rum and salty sweat intensify.
Days blur, and as the last wafts of acrid exhaust fumes, cigar smoke and sea salt dissipate, I ponder the enigma that is Cuba. Yes, there is free schooling and healthcare, no mortgages, and a night out at the baseball or ballet costs next to nill. Yes, economic recovery appears to be happening, though there remains an ingrained sense of fairness from those surviving the 'periodo especial' (cut a queue and you'll soon find out!). But as disposable income remains anathema to most, there is a sense that music, dance, sport (and drink) are in some ways a coping mechanism for a life that at times 'no es facil' (is not easy). Uno Mojito, por favor!
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