The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image


Being completely void of social skills, I always had a tremendously hard time meeting new people. Things were changing for the better when I moved to Mexico City. I relocated there to work in quiet solitude on my dissertation. Perhaps if you seek solitude, you should not move to one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the world, with a bustling night life and a liberal attitude to generally everything, but this thought only occurred to me much later. My flatmates and their friends were very nice people, and we started going for salsa classes to a nearby pub. Some tables were pushed to the side, and we took our first uncertain steps in the art of partner dancing. The regulars at the pub could not be bothered, they continued sipping their beverage perfectly undisturbed. I accelerated the velocity of learning by drinking a hooch called cucaracha before every session. I think it was a mix of coffee liqueur and tequila. It tasted horrible, but I liked it for some strange reason, and, paired with dancing, it certainly helped in socializing.

A green and white cab in Mexico City

The vehicle of choice when going for salsa in Mexico City.

As my dissertation was finished, my first trip to Latin America came to an end, and I returned to Singapore to present this piece of trembling foray into science to my advisor. He took his time to make sense of my rambling and occasionally pointless argument. During the months I was waiting for his feedback, I discovered that my beloved island home was dotted with salsa schools. Soon I attended most of them, all my evenings were taken up by taking beginner classes, and this was the best method ever to meet girls. I was in heaven.

I also discovered that there was no point in taking improver or intermediate level classes. The steps in those classes were beyond me. I could never remember the turn pattern we learned the week before, and I generally felt hopeless. The ratio of girls to boys was also less favourable. So I kept taking beginner classes, and I can assure everyone, I cannot even execute the basic step properly to this day.

Cheesy illuminated billboards luring customers for debauchery

If salsa is not the first thing that pops into your mind when thinking about Bangkok, you do not know the city well enough.

A few months after leaving Singapore for good, I accidentally wound up in Bangkok. I went there only for two days to buy a new laptop, but I found an amazing salsa school with the best instructors in the world, and I ended up staying there for five months. Even better, there were so many people coming for the beginner classes that I was asked to be a teaching assistant. If Singapore was heaven, this was an exponential blow up of heaven. I moved technically next door to the school, and visited every evening.

Never abandon a successful strategy, so I thought. After leaving Thailand, I moved to Buenos Aires. I attempted to sneak in to a beginners class, but I was scolded by a grouchy porteño and got sent to the intermediate class, much to my dismay. I had to widen my horizons. I was accepted in the beginner bachata, reggaeton, and tango classes, but there were so many blokes and they were so much better than me that they should have been sent to the intermediate classes. Yet another corroboration of the conjecture that life is unjust.

A moose and its calf taking a casual walk in the suburbs of Anchorage

Alaska, the land of mamacitas who do not dance with just anybody.

Salsa classes and salsa clubs are entirely different matters. After a few-month break from dancing, I was beginning to forget that little salsa I knew. I had to go to Alaska for a conference, where I had my first couchsurfing experience. My host was an exceedingly hospitable Mexican American single father with two kids. I found him by searching for salsa dancers in the city. So he made plans to go out dancing together to the local Latino club. I was not expecting that and I panicked the whole day. Salsa clubs are not made for me. They are packed with people who can actually dance. Not my turf. He was very enthusiastic though, and gave me no options. I ironed my irresistible flowery salsa shirt and we headed down to the club.

There were many girls who were Hispanic and their average volume was fairly large. The DJ played merengue, I excused myself because I was really bad at it. My host did not hesitate to ask a girl, and he was not bad at all, he was a natural. Then they played bachata, I told him that I failed with bachata a million times before and I needed more structure in the music, like in the case of salsa. Then my destiny found me. Hot salsa beats began to pour from the speakers and to my greatest shock, people were dancing Cuban style salsa. Moreover, they were dancing it really well. I dance Los Angeles style and awfully badly. I kept talking in an attempt to convince him that perhaps it would be better for the both of us if we bailed out. He would not tolerate my nonsense and dragged me to two Greek American women he knew, a mother and daughter. He asked the mother and left the girl for me. The cruel, heartless girl she was, she turned me down. My faith in my irresistible flowery salsa shirt was shaken. Later she turned out to be an awesome dancer when she finally accepted a dance by an alpha male. Who, by the way, was not wearing an irresistible flowery salsa shirt. Some men just do not know how to attract the opposite sex, I should have given him some advice. Humbled by the rejection and by my complete lack of dancing skills, my new friend had an even harder time to motivate me. They were playing cumbia songs, a dance neither of us knew. Suddenly he grabbed me and two girls idling next to us, and I found myself on the floor trying to dance a style I did not know with a girl who seemed to have more interest in irresistible flowery salsa shirts.

I moved to Iceland for a month with great expectations of boiling hot Latin dancing, but the salsa school in Reykjavík shut down for the summer during my stay. The local salsa people organized Iceland’s largest rueda circle ever for one fine summer night, I was part of the record, but the lack of formal classes had an unpleasant impact on my mood.

The biggest rueda circle in Iceland ever.

Gigantic  rueda circle in Reykjavík.

Then, when I was travelling in Kazakhstan, I got wind of the first salsa festival in Central Asia, to be held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I went into all the pain of getting the Uzbek visa. I got in touch with the organizers well in advance, and I arrived in Tashkent on a lovely day. I had over two weeks until the festival, I wanted to use the time to brush up the little I knew with the local salsa community. I met them up at the first opportunity, all charming ladies, only to get sick the following day. I was bed-bound all the way until the festival, and I was still half-dead while I was attending it. It was great, nevertheless. I met a girl who learned dancing in Kabul while working there at an NGO. Naturally, a trip to the Afghan embassy followed.

Afghanistan is not the first country that comes to one’s mind when thinking about ladies in skimpy dresses shaking it lecherously. As I was walking across the bridge that connected the country with Uzbekistan, an Afghan family was crossing from the other side, ladies wrapped in burqas from head to toe. I suspected that I was up to a completely difference experience. The salsa parties were supposed to be held in one of the UN compounds in Kabul. I had the contacts of the organizer, a British bloke, but when I contacted him, it turned out that he left for the UK just two weeks prior to my arrival, so there were no more salsa parties. All the effort was for nothing.

Two balloon sellers walk by the road in Kabul

These balloon sellers in Kabul were not salseros.

Just a few weeks later I had a weekend free between two talks in Europe, so I met up an old friend in Cologne, a physicist of some sort with a surprisingly solid background in dancing. The timing was most fortunate, as there was a salsa festival in town. The event itself was lukewarm at most. Germans learn dancing with a partner they already acquired, because that is the proper and efficient German way of learning dancing. The gender ratio was strictly one to one, perhaps a little bit skewed, as we were two solitary chaps. It was abominable.

I came to conclude that unless you live in places like Germany or Afghanistan, dancing is generally a pretty good way to increase the number of your acquaintances. It is also advantageous if your hands are not ice cold when leading, which is one more reason why nobody in the right mind should live in non-tropical countries where limbs may obtain the dreadfully low ambient temperature.


  1. You know, I hosted a couchsurfer from Belarussia and I was amazed because she mastered how to dance Salsa, merengue and bachata… We danced all night long!!!

    As European she asked me in which club/academy I learned how to dance and I replied her “ahahhaa, really? This music is our part of folklore, I started danced salsa when I was 5 years old….”.

    Peter, If we manage to go to DPRK we will try to hunt some northkoreans salseras.. hehehehe

    1. Peter Peter says:

      Given North Korea’s amistad eterna for Cuba, the comrades might just suprise us!

      1. Of course, and we say to them, that you came visited Cuba and Dominican Republic is the brother country of Cuba… hahahahaha.

        So, let’s get those comrades girls 🙂