Wednesday 8 February 2012

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Ripples of laughter undulate in the windless, stifling heat, carrying the mirthful tones of the two women's voices across each dwelling. Carmen is telling Mirta that Cuca's plans to go to Spain have been thwarted. The "gallego" she found on an online dating agency, courtesy of Pepe's wife, turned out to be disabled. Cuca - Cuquita to her close friends - is a "daughter of Changó" and therefore unable to accept boyfriends or partners who have physical impediments. After a whole year of online courtship, she has to go back now to square one and update her profile on the website. In order to do that she will depend once again on Yolanda, Pepe's wife, who works in an office that deals with foreign firms and in which there's only one PC with access to internet. Half Yolanda's colleagues already have profiles on the same or on other dating sites. Although Carmen and Mirta are laughing out loud, their voices lower when they talk about Cuca lest the "man from the CDR" finds out that she wants to flee the country. However, Carmen and Mirta needn't worry. Everybody knows the story.

Welcome to the "solar habanero". Where your business is everybody's business.

The Havana slum is one of those landmarks in the Cuban capital that never makes it to the tourist brochures but without whose presence my city would be a limping ghost; bereft of one limb. The slum is an entity in and of itself, a self-proclaimed republic of concrete and cement where Darwin's law has reigned supreme since time immemorial, with Marx's edict by its side. The "solar" is a direct descendant of the Indian "bajareque", "caney", "bohío" and "barbacoa", sometimes the four of them rolled into one. It's social promiscuity to the nth degree, Einstein's law of relativity stretched to the maximum. How many people live in a Havana slum? No one knows. Not even census-takers. Above all, the "solar" is alive. It lives in its stories, its (semi) (non-) houses, its lingo and social interactions.

The "solar" is a challenge to mathematics. Homes are not rectangular, or square, but amoebic, capable of changing shape because of the movement of its cells, viz., inhabitants. There's always room for one more. Or two. Or three. And with that comes the extension, a daring excursion into architecture. Venture into the "solar" through the makeshift front gate, fashioned out of a dirty white sheet that's seen better days, or if you're really lucky a piece of cardboard. Walk past María's house, the first one of a series of cavernous dwellings, where she will be plaiting someone's hair whilst the sound of Paulito FG and his band playing some hardcore timba blares out of her radio. María is one of the unofficial DJs in the "solar". Next to her lives Ismael, an elderly man in his 90s whose wife died ten years ago when she was seventy-four and for whom he always arranges a "toque" for Oshún with violins on the anniversary of her death. Ismael looks fragile but he's still able to help Clara's children with her homework because he used to be a teacher in his youth even if the way multiplication and division are done nowadays differ greatly from his own practice. Ismael always dresses in white. Rumour has it that he's had his "santo" done. Clara, on the other hand, is rarely seen without her uniform, now that she works at the new supermarket across the park, the one the locals call "shopping". Clara is a robust, mixed-race, strong-minded woman in her early forties. She is kind and giving but if she has to put someone in her place she will do so without a second thought. That's what happened to Virginia who fell out with Clara badly some time ago over a shirt left behind, hanging on the washing line. Virginia thought the item of clothing belonged to one of her three boys, whilst Clara was completely sure that it was Enriquito's, her ten-year old son. Strongs words were exchanged and accusations made: "You know why you're so bitter? Because your husband left you and nobody wants you." "Look who's talking, the one who's always flirting with the butcher so that she can get a little bit of extra meat". "At least, it's the butcher and not a bunch of teenage boys who're always peeking through the broken slats of your front window to see you taking your clothes off. And you know they're there. That's why you do it. Bitch!" And the hands became fists and the neighbours had to pull them apart. But soon after the two of them made up, because Virginia's fridge broke down and she needed a place to store her durofrios in. The ice-cubes that calm the thirst of the children of the "solar". And of some of the adults, too. The flavours vary from vanilla to strawberry, the sugar is the quick fix the little ones need to carry on playing baseball, football or hide and seek. Virginia also sells "raspaduras", the creamy toffee that is so sweet you have to eat it bit by bit. She used to be married to a very abusive husband, who used to wake up the entire solar in the middle of the night everytime he beat Virginia up. Despite Virginia's constant black eyes, he never went to jail. Prison only caught up with him when he broke into Domingo's shop.

Domingo is the grocer. He is a direct descendant from gallegos, who arrived in Havana in the early years of the 20th century. He likes living in the solar. He has a big moustache and a round belly and there's always a smile on his face. Although he was born in Cuba, he affects a Galician accent. His house is probably the most modern-looking one. He has a little business on the side, selling the surplus of fruit and vegetables in his state-run shop out of the back door. But if you ask him, he will say that he's doing nothing wrong. In fact, he'll tell you that at least he's being honest; he makes sure everyone takes their share on the ration card before working out how much he can get out of a pound of carrots or a kilo of potatoes. Domingo is good friends with Pedro, the caretaker. Nobody gave Pedro the job title, or the position, come to think of it, but the only water pump in the solar happens to be located in his house and he's the only one who knows how to work it. Every two or three days, depending on the water level, he will tell the neighbours to turn their taps on at 6pm, or 7 pm to fill up their tanks, buckets and bowls. You could say that Pedro is more considerate than Domingo. Once, when he found out that Fefa was not coming home from work at the usual time because she had a Party meeting, he didn't turn the water mains on until she arrived. He made sure everyone knew why he was doing it. The Sunday after, Fefa took a plate of rice and peas with chicken fricassee she had just cooked to his house to thank him for his gesture. Fefa's abode is also one of the least dilapidated. Everyone knows why. She's a member of the Communist Party and you can see the evidence the minute you walk into her house. A huge picture of Fidel Castro Ruz in military fatigues greets the visitor. Korda's image of Che Guevara stares at guests from one wall, whilst Camilo Cienfuegos's ever-smiling face beams down from another one. Two rocking chairs, a couch and a set of one table and four chairs make up the furniture. Fefa has a guest staying with her these days. A German guy who's interested in finding out how Cubans really live. He pays rent to Fefa for the small room in which he sleeps but it's a token amount. In his mind, however, he's the winner. All his theories about the dictatorship of the proletariat, all the ideas he embraced back in his native (formerly West) Germany have turned out to be true. Never mind that his passport and wallet got stolen as soon as he arrived at the solar (and mysteriously re-surfaced within a couple of days) or that he can't speak much Spanish, or that the scheduled blackouts still catch him unawares. He looks on the bright side, this Teutonic idealist, he does. He's taking percussion classes with Puchito, on an old conga drum that's usually wheeled out everytime there's a bembé in the slum. He's also attempting to learn Spanish with one of Felipito's sons. Felipito came all the way from Oriente some years ago and little by little he brought his whole family, including two uncles and a great-great-auntie. People in the solar call his family, "los muchos" (the many). At the beginning Cuquita tried to ensnare the German guy, but when she was told by her neighbours that he looked more as if he was atoning for past sins supposedly committed by capitalism than a one-way ticket to El Yuma, she gave him a wide berth.

There's only one person in the solar who doesn't get on with the German guest: Francisca, Panchita to her neighbours. She's an old, black woman who had just one son. He got killed in Angola in '84. When the German guy found out about her he told her that  her son's death had not been in vain, that in the end everyone was going to be free and that there would be world peace. Maybe it was the fact that he couldn't say it in Spanish properly, maybe it was the mix of English and German, maybe it was his body language, but Panchita told him to f... Well, the whole solar shook to the ground. And no amount of "Entschuldigen Sie, bitte, Ich verstehe nicht" could calm her down. Straight away all the neighbours were reminded of the day when the television cameras rolled into the slum and Francisca's hands trembled convulsively as she held the mike that was thrust in her direction. They wanted to know how it felt like to be a martyr's mother. She couldn't utter one single word. She burst into tears and the cameras were switched off immediately. It was the last time there was a live broadcast on the subject on the telly. Until then, Panchita'd had a bad (unfounded) reputation for being thought a descendant of "congos". Rumour had it that she was into witchcraft. But after the television incident, everyone changed their attitude towards her. One person who's always got on with Panchita, however, is "China man" Wong. Wong lives across from her, in a run-down house where the lounge, the dining room, the bedroom and the kitchen are one single room. He uses the communal toilet and bathroom outside. Nobody knows how old Wong is. He looks as old as Methuselah. He had arrived from Canton, China, probably sixty or seventy years ago and ran  his own pharmacy until 1959. After having his business confiscated by the government he ended up in the solar, married to a mulatto woman and producing half a dozen children. Wong is still the person to go to, if any of the children falls ill and conventional medicine fails to cure the ailment.

On Sundays there's usually rumba in the solar. And sometimes there are fights because of the alcohol being consumed, past grievances and misunderstandings. For instance, Angelito, who is "entendi'o", accepts and is happy with his homosexuality but can't put up with people making fun of it. In the same way that his conversations are peppered with "darlings" and "dears", he pulls a knife on anyone who dares question his masculinity, campness notwithstanding. Same with Rafael and his girlfriend Rebeca, the two rockers of the solar. Their hair is long and sometimes it's hard to tell them apart, what with being blond and blue-eyed, the two of them. But the minute Papito starts taking the mickey out of him and his girlfriend, Rafael jumps him. By Sunday evening, or Monday morning, however, everyone is back to saying hello to each other and whatever happened the day before stays there.

The zinc roofs, the DIY-ed doors that barely guard people's privacy, the dirty water that often runs down the concrete corridor en route to the road, the aroma of the fresly-made coffee, brewed at three in the afternoon regularly, the barefooted children eating sweets and memorising salsa songs, the congregation of neighbours in Domingo's house every Saturday night whenever he gets a new movie on video (he used to show them for free on his VCR years ago until he found out that he could charge a small amount and now the weekly or fortnightly video experience has become another business on the side), the sound of the wooden boxes being hit with bare hands or bent metal spoons on Sunday afternoons and the smell of pork scratchings. That's the solar habanero, the Havana slum. And as I venture back out, those ripples of laughter undulating in the windless, stifling heat, carrying the mirthful tones of the two women's voices, travel with me.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music” to be published on Sunday 12th February at 10am (GMT)


  1. OMG, this is brilliant. The imagery, the characters, the story lines. It is so outstanding that after the first three paragraphs I had to leave this comment. Now let me go back to reading. What a great read!

  2. I finally finished reading. What a piquant cast of characters. What a tapestry of dramas enacting life in the particular and the universal. The words pulsate. The images seduce. Magnificent. Thank you, Cuban.

  3. Great piece of/on Havana Mario - thank you!

  4. Thank you very much for your kind words. Memories burst forth and this is the only way to harness them and make sense out of them. :-)
    By the way, all "Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana" are atemporal. It's the sum of past experience I write about, not always an exact moment in time.

    Greetings from London.

  5. As usual, Beautiful Writing!

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