Around The Bloc

Gotham Memoir teacher Stephanie Elizondo Griest's recently published travel memoir Around The Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana (Villard/Random House) was described by the The New York Times Book Review as “the often hilarious tale of this female Candide's voyage through Communist and formerly Communist countries.”  Here is a brief glimpse from the section of the book on Havana:  

As I scanned the crowd, my eyes fell upon a Cubana who appeared to be 40 years old and weigh approximately 225 pounds. She had swaddled her galactic ass in pink Spandex and stuffed her papaya-shaped breasts into a polka dot halter top. A bouffant of Afro-mermaid hair spilled across her shoulders. The heavily syncopated beat of the batá had caught her in a temporary trance: she was slumped in a chair, eyes shut, body still. But as the rhythm sped a notch or two, it called her feet to action. Her spiked heels began to pound the beat on the floor beneath her chair. The music worked its way through her tree-trunk thighs toward her massive belly, across her breasts, and finally to her head, which started swaying. Suddenly, the music commanded her to stand and, undulating every muscle of her full frame, she gyrated toward the dance floor. And then she began to rumba. Her energy was palpably feminine and undeniably sensual. She was like a Frida Kahlo painting of a fleshy melon bursting with ripeness. She was fertility. She was womanhood.

When I gravitated closer for a better view, she peered upon me with charcoal eyes. I smiled. Winking sassily, she took a fast step to the side, gyrated, and motioned for me to follow. I did, clumsily but obediently. She nodded encouragingly before adding a sensuous hip swivel to the move. When I tried and failed, she seized my hips with her giant hands and swiveled them for me. I beamed my gratitude and she winked once more. Then she closed her eyes and absorbed even more of the rhythms. The deaf could have followed the music's manic beat by watching the rippling of her flesh.

Just then, a hand slipped under the small of my back and whirled me around. It was Harold. He wanted to rumba. With me.

At that moment, all of the inhibitions I had just released on that wooden floor froze back inside me. I can't dance with men. They always want to lead, and I can't follow. I discovered this in junior high, when Arturo Rodriguez asked me to dance to Gloria Estefan with him. "Follow me," he hissed as he steered me across the cafeteria floor. I tried to be obedient, but my body refused. After two songs, Arturo gave up and banished me back to the estrogen circle, where my girlfriends awaited. Humiliating, yes – but at least there, I got to do my own thing.

Yet, it was becoming apparent that while Russians bonded over drink and Chinese over dinner, Cubans connected through dance. Reluctantly, I stepped into Harold's arms. My eyes dropped straight to his feet. They always do that when I have to dance with a man. It comes from fear, I think. Fear of stepping on his toes. Fear of losing the rhythm. Fear he's scanning the room for the woman he really wants to dance with. But a few turns into the music, Harold cupped my chin and lifted my gaze toward his. Pressing me deep against him, he stepped forward with such will, I had no choice but to fall back slow, quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, then turn out to the crowd and back to his arms.

That’s the point where my feet usually reassert their independence with a stumble or two. I mean, why does he get to decide when we go forward and when we go backward?

But Harold drew me closer still, so close his breath warmed my ear. His body softly began to speak, not to command but to engage. And mine, for the first time, responded.


Reprinted with permission from Around The Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana by Stephanie Elizondo Griest (ISBN: 0812967607; Available online from Barnes &