“Yo? Yo no bailo muy bien…” I explained when asked to evaluate my dancing abilities. “Yo tampoco” replied Yoandi, a Cuban musician who lived above me in the spare room at my Casa in Viñales, “Me neither”. I was comforted by the fact as he demonstrated the basic salsa steps. My movements were slow, stiff and conservative, but I followed, enjoying the rhythmic music that hummed around the outdoor Casa de la Cultura. After a few songs, we paused to cool ourselves off with our makeshift fans which were, in reality, just torn off cardboard squares from one of the cases of rum. “Ay! Que calor!” Yoandi exclaimed, not for the first time that night, about the heat.
After a minute or two he grabbed the hand of a female friend who was passing by and they gracefully moved over to the center of the dance floor. Mesmerized, I watched as they glided across the floor, moving so perfectly in ways that couldn’t be spontaneous, except I knew that they were. If this is what being bad at dancing meant then I was on a whole other level of awful. After a song of twists, turns, spins and dips, Jose, one of Yoandi’s friends, stepped in in perfect synchronicity to take his place. “Enserio?” I said at his return, “Tu no bailas bien?” He shrugged and sheepishly grinned at me. “Mas o menos”.
We continued to fan ourselves as a mixture of Cubans and tourists passed by our spot near the stage. Yoandi, Jose and their friend Osvaldo were continuously shaking hands, kissing cheeks and hugging familiar faces who walked by. I guess that is what comes with living in a small town. Occasionally, their vivacious voices would sing along to the music adding to the healthy buzz of life that overflowed from the bar.
“Que calor!” Yoandi shouted again as we gave dancing another try. My movement was looser, I felt more relaxed, intoxicated by the energy in the dance hall and the music blaring from the speakers. Suddenly, it started to rain.
The drops fell down, tiny specks of relief from the heat that had been so present in the air that evening. We kept dancing. The glistening drops mixing with sweat and fueling the energy of our movements. For a second, I stopped and realized: I am in Cuba, speaking Spanish, salsa dancing in the middle of the night under the rain. In this moment, I understood that even after all of the challenges and disappointments that I had faced in Havana, I really was following my dream.
Sometime around 1:00 a.m. there was a break in the pulsing Latin beats and seductive salsa rhythms as Justin Bieber’s voice broke through the speakers. Daniela, another one of Yoandi’s friends, grabbed my hand and she pulled me out into the crowd to sing and dance along to to the one and only American song that was played all night. Everyone around me, Cubans and tourists alike, were shouting out the lyrics to “Sorry”. When the song started playing, I thought I finally had the advantage after being unable to understand or sing along to most of the Spanish songs played that night. It turns out, even though few locals in town spoke English, everyone loved Justin Bieber and knew his lyrics just as well, if not better, than I did. I guess even in Cuba you can’t escape the Biebs.
For the second time that week, I stayed until the Casa de la Cultura shut off its lights and the crowd of people filed out into the street. This time, rather than passing a bottle of rum back and forth with my adoptive Cuban parents (the name Rigo and Darelys had given themselves when they welcomed me into their home) while listening to live music, I spent the whole night dancing. After leaving, Jose, Osvaldo, Yoandi and I stood in the center of the puddle filled plaza trying to decide what to do next.
The cathedral in the main plaza outside of the Casa de la Cultura
We wandered the streets until we came across a bar. We funneled in and grabbed a spot on the porch. The boys continued singing and I continued smiling. Jose, a Viñales native who had spent a year in Australia, and I started a conversation about living in a new country with a new language finding hilarious similarities in such different situations.
“I thought my English was pretty good before going to Australia, but once I got on the plane, the flight attendant offered me a meal. She spoke to me in English and I didn’t know how to respond so I just shook my head no. I was so hungry and I didn’t eat for 24 hours,” Jose explained to me about his first time on a plane and first time leaving Cuba. I started laughing. “The exact same things are happening to me!” I said, “Half the time people offer me things and I don’t know what they are asking or if there are strings attached so I just say no.”
Jose translated what we were saying to Yoandi who looked at me and burst out laughing. “Es por eso que ha dicho que no a todo lo que te pedí,” he said. That is why you said no to everything I asked you. Yes. That is why. Unfortunately, during my time in Cuba, it seemed that there were strings attached to everything. Every invitation came with the expectation that you, the foreigner, would pay. Every friendly greeting in the street led to a request for money. Every question I asked about directions led me on a ‘tour’ to a destination that I didn’t want to go to. Soon I learned that in Cuba the safest answer was always no.
In Viñales, however, the answer could be yes. An invitation there was just an invitation. Walking through the valley, if someone on a horse offered you a ride, it was just hitchhiking on a horse. An invitation to go dancing was just an invitation to go dancing. If a friend offered you food it was just because they wanted to share a snack. It took me several days of saying no in Viñales to realize that the intentions were much different than Havana. The night I decided to extend my stay was the night I started to say yes. Saying yes (after checking in with my intuition of course) and going with the flow made the last three days incredible.
The beautiful streets of Viñales
We spent the last half hour of the evening standing in the street plotting for ways that I could stay in Viñales. I could take a cab at the next day 2:30 a.m. to make it to my 8 a.m. flight, they could borrow a friend’s car and drive me straight to the airport themselves, I could just stay and not leave at all. It was 3 a.m., rain was still falling from the sky and we didn’t care. The three weeks I spent in Cuba had been some of the most challenging of my life and yet, on my second to last night, it all seemed worth it. We knew there was no way for me to stay. Resigned to my impending departure at 9:00 a.m. the next morning we made the most of what time we had left. Out in the streets, the rain kept falling and we kept talking, dancing and singing. Maybe if we stayed awake, the morning wouldn’t come.