Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Night Moves

Matt Benoit
Reporting from Havana

Havana's El Capitolio is seen amid the city at night.

Havana, Cuba is not a city most people would compare to Las Vegas, Nevada. 

Yet during my time here, I find it is not a stretch to do so. After all, not only can you wander the streets with open containers of alcohol, but people will also routinely offer you prostitutes and/or drugs.

It is a lively and potentially dangerous nightlife, one that the majority of our group decides to investigate on our first full night in Havana by piling into taxis and visiting a local nightclub.

Initially, I feel this is “not such a good idea,” by which I more specifically mean “an idea that might ultimately result in being kidnapped, blindfolded, and exchanged for black market petroleum products.”

After several drinks at the lobby bar to improve my decision-making abilities, however, it seems a much more sensible idea.

At 11 p.m., we congregate outside the hotel and agree to go somewhere. Specifically where that is, however, is still unbeknownst to me as I climb into a taxi driven by a man who seems to speak or understand very little English.

After hurriedly agreeing on a fare, we begin speeding away from the air-conditioned confines of the hotel, riding along in the noisy, seatbelt-lacking, Russian-made Lada as we snake our way onto the Malecón, Havana’s seaside roadway and promenade. Here is where many Cubans gather at night to hang out and—in many cases—to make out.

I grab a rotating lever on the door and manually roll down the window, getting a face full of humid night air. It is likely still in the 70s, and the city’s unique skyline, with the Havana Libre hotel’s blue-lit signage sitting slightly higher than anything else, stares back invitingly.

Eventually, we stop at a place called “Club Colonial,” where I emerge from the taxi and am almost immediately offered drugs.

“Cocaína?” a man eagerly asks me, as if merely asking my country of origin.

It is the first of many offers over the course of the trip. In fact, the male members of our group are offered coke frequently enough that I begin to contemplate taking my foot powder, pouring it into a plastic baggie, and selling it on the street for 50 CUCs.

Drugs or not, there appears to be confusion among our group as to whether this is where we actually wish to go. Deciding it’s not, we head for a place farther down the road, with a sign outside reading “Club Rio.”

We agree to stay until 1 a.m., when our fleet of taxis will return to carry our mojito-fueled bodies back to the Park View Hotel.

After paying a 5 CUC cover, we head inside to be immersed by darkness, club lighting, and loud Latino grooves.

Two large projection screens play music videos by artists such as “El Yonky,” and on the stage directly above the bar, a young Cuban man furiously plays what appear to be two timbale-like snare drums and a cowbell. He is no Tito Puente, but seems to be getting the job done.

The rest of the club consists of a mostly full seating area, a small dance area, and a black-painted ceiling that’s bubbled like the bottom of a rocks glass.

Ordering a mojito and standing at the bar with the rest of the group, I turn around and see the backs of five women, some more scantily-clad than others. Strangely, none of the women are dancing. They sit around, as if part of some Latino version of “The Bachelor,” perhaps waiting for some perfectly-sculpted men to ask them for a dance.

Supposedly, this place is open until 4 or 5 a.m., making me wonder just how long the women might be willing to sit there, or whether they are actually prostitutes.

Even if they aren’t, it’s likely that some of the women in the club are, giving new hope to the likelihood of checking off “solicited for sex in a foreign country” from my traveler’s bucket list.

This wish comes true moments later, when another male student and I attempt to walk towards the dance floor. Several women grab at the backs of our shirts, and while I escape their nailed clutches and continue walking, he is surrounded by las chicas, whispering sweet Spanish nothings into his ears.

I sit down next to another of our group’s male members to relay this development. 

“They got him,” I tell the student, who eventually manages to save our mutual friend from losing more than a few CUCs.  
Although most people seem to be avoiding the dance floor, we make sure it doesn’t stay action-less for long.

Taking to the dance floor to awkwardly groove, drinks in hand, our poorly-rhythmed whiteness seems to shine as a beacon of invitation to the Cuban people, and natives start joining in.

“I feel so white right now,” says another of our group members, to which I wholeheartedly agree.

Even with dancing and potential prostitutes, though, the feel of this Cuban club still seems less debaucherous than an average Friday night along Pullman’s Greek Row.

That is, until the stage comes alive with a large, black, slightly voodoo-demonic-looking female mascot with an oversized head.

She, he, it—except for the ankles and hands, it’s hard to tell the gender or species of whatever’s in this hip-shaking mama of a costume—gyrates up and down the stage in a red dress, red head cap, and large earrings, the oval-shaped eyes and large rouge lips on its face unchanging.

The Cuban man continues wailing away on the rims of his drums to the music, and all of this is backlit by a series of color-changing lights. At this point, I am thoroughly glad I didn’t accept the cocaine I was offered earlier, because it’s enough of a trip to be witnessing this with only a couple mojitos in my bloodstream.

After the woman mascot leaves the stage, she is replaced by actual, scantily-clad women, erotically moving to the continuing urbano beats. At one point, the mascot takes the small stage opposite the main one, meaning anyone on the dance floor is flanked on either side by unattractive dancers with little dignity.

The Cuban people, or at least this club’s owner, also seem to understand equality, for when the ladies are done, two perfectly-pectoraled men take the main stage wearing sunglasses, vests, and no shirts. Covered in what I imagine to be a mix of oil and perspiration, they flex and thrust to an appreciative crowd of females, our group members included.

“Would you do that for money?” I ask one of our group members.

“Sex,” he replies. “Sex. Not money.”

Suddenly, the over-sized female mascot joins in with the two men as a beat-heavy, harmonica-based song plays, and the two men—I really did see this—begin grinding on the mascot’s enormously exaggerated hips.

“I’m going to have nightmares about this,” I say to one of my fellow students, pointing at the mascot’s unchanging expression.

At this point, it’s about 12:45 a.m., and just when it seems incapable of becoming any stranger, a male-counterpart to the female mascot, looking like some crazed, ghetto-version of Gumby in gold lamé pants, takes the smaller stage next to yet another female mascot.

The two bump and grind amid constantly pulsating strobe lights, and at some point the male mascot—I swear this really happened; we have video—pulls from his loins what I can only describe as a large, flopping Cubano.

It is nearly 1 a.m. now, and being unable to take anymore, I summon one of my friends to head outside for air.

Soon after, the male Gumby appears and removes his gianormous head, revealing a sweaty Cuban man who is probably not compensated enough for what he must do on a nightly basis.

Just as quick, our taxis arrive and the rest of our group is accounted for.

Sitting inside the noisy Russian Lada as it accelerates back towards the Malecón, I again roll down the window for some cool Havana night air.

Did I really just see all that stuff? Am I even in Cuba right now?

The taxi motors along as my groupmates try to talk to the taxi driver in pigeon Spanish.

I think I need another mojito.


  1. over 2 million visitors at an increasing rate of 20% cant be wrong, cuba is the top destination, you got a different taste, you probably read about cuba before traveling, so y wasted your money going there?

  2. backpackers lol, get a life! dude