My Salsa Lessons From A Prostitute In Colombia

Monday, September 26, 2011

“Dude, if you wanna meet local girls you gotta be able to dance.”

I avoided the tango in Buenos Aires, but it’s going to be hard to avoid salsa in the Caribbean.

“I hate dancing.”

“You’ve just gotta move your hips.”

“I’ll need a few more of these first.”

I take another sip of watery beer. Colombian beer isn’t great but at least it’s cold. It’s still as hot as hell even though the sun went down two hours earlier. The humidity is unbearable.

Me and Mo are sitting in a small square in front of the church of Santisima Trinidad in Cartagena’s working class neighborhood Getsemani. A Major League Baseball game is projected on the church wall. A local armed with a microphone provides Spanish commentary and the sound reverberates off the surrounding homes. Caribbean music is being played somewhere.

There’s a community atmosphere in the square. Families are lining the bench seats eating food served by street vendors. Kids are playing soccer. A couple, limbs intertwined, are staring into each others’ eyes. There’s an important game of chess playing out next to us.

A street dogs lies at Mo’s feet. He tries to feed her but she’s not hungry.

“Let’s go,” he says.

Looking around I start to feel a little envious. Maybe it’s the six months of mostly solo travel, but at this moment I want to be a part of their community. I want to sit and talk about work, the weather, or what my crazy neighbor Carlos is up to.

I could stay here all night but Mo is determined to see me dance.

With new Aguilas we stroll through the narrow backstreets, Mo’s new friend following us for a few blocks. Families are sitting out the front of their homes on plastic chairs, avoiding the heat trapped inside.

The colonial Spanish architecture is beautiful, but in this area the yellow paint is fading and peeling on every building.

We arrive at the central tourist area called El Centro. The architecture is the same as Getsemani but the paint jobs are fresh. It’s clean and there’s well dressed tourists everywhere. I can’t see any drug dealers.

El Centro, also known as Old Town, is surrounded by a 20-meter-thick wall lined with rusty cannons aimed at the Caribbean Sea. It was built by the Spanish in the 16th century to protect the city from pirates. But the city will have no defence for assault I’m about to launch on the dance floor.

We walk across Plaza de Los Coches for the first nightclub we see.

“Here, wear my hat.”

I put the black pinstripe fedora on and laugh. I feel like an idiot.

“The girls will love it.”

“I need rum.”

We cross the cobblestone street, pass the bouncers and go into the converted nightclub.

We follow the music to the second floor and open the doors. It’s dark and almost empty. We order Cuba Libres and case the joint like two ex-cons.

There’s a long single room with a balcony at the far end overlooking the plaza. In the center is the dreaded dance floor, with tacky red lighting and a disco ball. It’s occupied by about 20 drunk backpackers, there are no locals and there is no salsa dancing. I relax a little.

Closer to the bar is a dark lounge area with furniture that look more like props from a bad science fiction movie. Two Colombian girls are talking to an overweight, effeminate looking Colombian male. I know what Mo’s thinking.

“Lets talk to the girls.”

We walk over and pull a up a space cube. Their male friend leaves. The girls are very beautiful; they have dark skin and long black hair. They could easily be models. They look bored but smile when we sit down. I immediately recognize they’re prostitutes.

It’s made clear early on, through Mo’s basic Spanish, that we’re not interested in their “professional services,” but they’re happy to talk since business is obviously slow. I sit next to Maria and feel a little intimidated.

Maria’s from nearby Barranquilla and she is built like a ballerina. She has a friendly face and a beautiful smile. Her English is a little better than my Spanish, which isn’t saying much, and I purposely avoid talking about occupations. What were we supposed to talk about?

Thinking about what to avoid I mention salsa and her eyes light up. Colombians love to dance, especially salsa. When I tell her I can’t dance she grabs my hand and pulls me to the dance floor.

She takes my hands and urges me to follow her steps. The music’s slow and the steps aren’t too hard. I watch her hips. They move with a fluidity and grace that is mesmerizing. I try to copy her but it’s not pretty. I feel like a garden hose out of control. Maria doesn’t mind, she’s happy to be dancing and keeps encouraging me.

The music speeds up and the dancing starts to heat up. She is twirling, writhing down to the floor and back up, and pulling me close, all without missing a beat. Her timing is impeccable.

After a few more songs I’m still doing the same basic steps but I have no idea what Maria’s doing. She’s really getting into it now, I don’t even know if it’s salsa anymore. It’s damn sexy though and I’m not going anywhere.

Mo is clapping and laughing and gets on the dance floor with his new friend — he’s a natural. We’re having fun dancing in the heat and sweat of our first Caribbean nightclub. We keep going for a few more songs and eventually, worn out, we return to the space lounge for a break. We chat with the girls for a while and this time it’s more relaxed and open. Maria tells me she came to Cartagena to pursue a modeling career. I hope she keeps trying.

The night comes to an end and we buy the girls a drink and say good night. I thank Maria for the salsa lessons and we go outside. I’m reluctant to admit to Mo that I had a good time dancing, but I’m already secretly looking forward to trying salsa again.

By Matt Dawson

[All photos by the author]


About the Author

Matt Dawson is a freelance writer and photographer from Australia. He loves exploring new destinations and learning from different cultures, and is equally at home sipping rum in the Caribbean or snowboarding in the Rocky Mountains. Matt has spent most of 2011 embarrassing himself with poor Spanish throughout South America. He is currently residing in London. Check out more of Matt’s work on his website.

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