The first proper night we spent in Colombia was a Friday-unfortunate for us as again the little sleep we did get the previous night had been in airplane bucket
seats-not just any airplane bucket seats though, these were of the Spirit Air variety making them roughly the size of an unusually large high chair with a back. Turning in early was no option though, prone as we are to severe bouts of FOMO (fear of missing out).
And so, continuing in our rich tradition of poor decisions making, Nick and myself set out to canvass the old colonial city 500 years in age to see what its modern population had on offer. First priority was to search the labyrinth of narrow winding streets for a source of food; as is generally the case with Nick who may or may not have a tapeworm. Just inside the city walls we were approached by a friendly, if forcefully so, fellow who greeted us with a warm welcome and the kind offer of “anything we needed, anything man.” In the coming days we’d become accustomed to making such friends so easily in El Centro, but on the first night we were all too naïve and honest and so confided that all we really needed was food.
“Oh, I know the place man, real nice-come follow.”
We said what the hell and followed the unnervingly
cheery local to an establishment simply called “Bistro.” Housed in a 300 year old Mission style building, the space was of Spartan décor, bare brick walls, and enough candlelight to illuminate a midnight mass at Notre Dame. The joint was spewing Old World charm-perfect for an impossibly romantic date; I immediately felt nauseous-Nick the same. It was too late to run though without making a scene-the German proprietor had already locked us in conversation and begun to recite the entire daily menu even though it was written on a chalkboard mere feet from us. Moments later we found ourselves seated at a table-with a candle-attempting to act like the whole situation was in no way awkward.
Salvation appeared in the form of two women roughly our age who were standing before the bar receiving the German’s disrutation.
“Hey man, those girls are staying at our hostel.”
“They are, should we invite them over?.”
“We have no choice-want to sit here just the two us and this damn candle?.”
And so we did. Mieke from Utrecht, Holland and some other dame from Rio who’s name escapes me probably because from the moment she opened her mouth to tell us to when we finally escaped two hours later she closed it only to take a bite of her prawns-of which there were only four.
Wisteria loomed overhead dripping from the cantilevered balconies that lined our path back to Getsemani; the slightly rougher neighborhood that housed our hostel. We walked along silently; dazed from sleep deprivation and the verbal onslaught by the Brazilian monologue aficionado. Though we easily could have conceded defeat and turned in at that moment; restless spirits relented. A quick stop at Casa Vienna added Mieke to our ranks-the Brazilian talker was turning in presumably exhausted from all the poor storytelling (a bullet dodged).
The path of least resistance being our guide, we vaguely recalled a brief
mention of a small salsa bar a mere block from our lodging by a young British couple: “yeah, it’s pretty cool mate-good little live band.” Leave it to a Brit to make a monumental understatement.
We traipsed down Calle San Juan flanked by brightly colored stucco walls with faded, chipped paint to the subtly inviting entrance of Club Havana.
A line had formed, or rather a Latin line: a loose band of loiterers milling around where in the States would normally be a linear formation of revelers. 6,000 pesos gained entry into the establishment, which we handed over reluctantly. The place was straight out of a mid career Hemingway novel: 20’ white stucco walls lined with
black and white photos of what we presumed to be notable salsa musicians. White Christmas lights served as the only illumination lending a hazily romantic atmosphere to the bar-romantic in the nostalgic “I feel like I’m in pre revolution Cuba” sense. Several minutes more of rare silence passed while Nick and I took in the spectacle.
“This place is amazing.”
“Yeah, what the hell was that British guy talking about? This place is epic.”
Club Havana was packed-all locals save for the three of us who stood out like Princeton lacrosse players at a Bright Eyes concert. We shuffled toward a small gap at the bar and I made use of my height advantage (relative to the predominant Colombian stature) to summon three Club Colombia beers. The clock had just wound past 11 and the band had yet to start, but I had a good feeling about them judging by the throngs of Cartagenos who
seemed eager. Roughly half a beer passed before five confident cool cats took to the stage-a 5 by 10’ space elevated maybe 6” off the ground-just enough room for them and their noise makers. No words of introduction, no applause, the front man just glanced back at his backup and elicited an uptempo beat from the two percussionists that was quite
foreign to my ear-very Afro-beat, couldn’t place the time signature. The guitarist fell in, then accordian, trumpet section and finally the singer added his sultry voice to the cascade of sound-eyes closed. The number was intoxicating; the whole crowd immediately heeded the call and translated the beat into motion. It was damn near impossible to stand within 50’ of Club Havana while that band was going and now at least sway or tap the feet. The bar had all the energy of any great rock show I’d been to-much the same in many ways actually except these people knew how to dance. I wanted to join
them but if ever there was a place to learn salsa, this was not it. It was something akin to taking up surfing at Pipeline. As if the beautiful Colombian women weren’t intimidating enough, their sharply executed maneuvers in perfect time with dudes that all looked like Antonio Banderas’ lesser known brother finished off any novice aspirations.
Club Havana has no AC and Cartagena weather has no concept of the word cool. You swill the light beers there if only to stay hydrated and give yourself over to the tropical night’s tempo. Nobody worries about sweating too much, girls don’t fret
over eye shadow ru
nning (they’re generally not wearing makeup anyway-nor do they need to), the people of Cartagena just pour themselves into the infections salsa music and it’s beautiful. Nick got himself pulled into the commotion by some Ingles speaking Latina and tried his damndest to solve the mysterious dancing form. I grabbed the Dutch traveler and made a go of it-apparently salsa is huge in Holland and Mieke made me look quite the fool for a few minutes before I found the rhythm.
Nick and I stumbled upon a third wind and moved with the Colombian nocturnes until sometime after 3 am when the lights came up and the whole scene returned to the narrow streets. The 50 yards back to Casa Vienna were about as far as we could travel and our summit of the staircase felt like the final steps of Mt. Everest. We took to our beds tired and stoked and ready for a fitful rest for the following day.
There is no AC at Casa Vienna either and I didn’t sleep a damn wink.