There’s no party like a Cuban party


I had been wandering through La Habana as a penniless tourist for a month –bored, hungry, harassed- when I first met Pantaleon. He was a giant: shiny black, a nail through his lip, sweet and dangerous. His friends: a fat dancer, a boy and a boa constrictor that crapped herself as soon as I got her out of the sack. He told me Forget about this rumba-club shit. I’ll show you a real party. So I got rid of my belongings, I put a dollar in a safe place and followed them along empty, broken, poorly lit streets towards El Canal del Cerro. Many streetlights were broken. This is a trafficking zone, but you’re safe. I’m your bullet-proof vest, he laughed.

They took me into a big solar, a yard surrounded by old rooms of naked concrete walls. First I saw a human-sized mannequin in a corner, big hat and sunglasses, a smile like a banana full of teeth and a huge cigar. Some people were carrying a dead goat. We missed the sacrifice. He led me to the second room, where a little girl sat in the floor while she was watching Disney Channel on TV. You just stay here. So I sat and I watched, bewildered, some boys singing dumb pop songs for ten minutes, before I decided it was enough. I left the girl with a goodbye and I followed the drums.

The corridor ran along a scruffy garden. Chickens pecked the soil lazily while an old lady spat at them. But the last room was crowded: the whole of old Africa seemed to be gathered there. Sweaty, black Africa, dancing and singing for Elegua: the child-god of the Santeria pantheon. Pantaleon was playing the drums and having the time of his life. Three santeros impersonated three of the gods, and they shouted, pushed and spun around the guests into trance, who would drop in convulsions. Bottles full of rum and cigars, long and thick, circulated freely among the visitors, and the mixture of alcohol, smoke, screams and rhythm of drums made me lose the sense of time. The host, in red and black, grabbed my hand and took me to the offerings’ room: Show respect, touch his bell. I couldn’t avert my eyes from the floor, totally covered with sweets, cakes and pies. Was I hungry.

In the end there was goat for dinner. And pies. I realized I had lost my guide, and his friends were drunk, spitting at chickens too. I quietly grabbed an eclair and left. I walked down the street and five minutes later a Chevrolet stopped by my side. I got in, took my shoe off, removed my lucky dollar and asked the taxi driver: how far can you take me for this?